Most Asian markets retreat after upbeat week

Most Asian markets turned lower Friday following a healthy run-up in the week, tracking a sell-off on Wall Street where a plunge in retail giant Macy’s fanned concerns about the key US retail sector.Optimism has been high the past four days on solid US…

Most Asian markets turned lower Friday following a healthy run-up in the week, tracking a sell-off on Wall Street where a plunge in retail giant Macy's fanned concerns about the key US retail sector.

Optimism has been high the past four days on solid US jobs data and moderate Emmanuel Macron's landslide French presidential win Sunday, pushing some markets to multi-year highs.

But traders took a step back ahead of the weekend with confidence rattled by a series of below-par Chinese data and Donald Trump's shock firing of the head of the FBI, which some fear could lead to a crisis that will knock the president's economy-boosting agenda offline.

On Thursday New York's three main indexes turned negative after Macy's announced a 39 percent fall in net profit, its latest in a series of weak readings that have have underscored the deterioration of bricks-and-mortar stores due to the rise of e-commerce.

The figures hit other big-name stores and with the retail sector a crucial driver of the world's top economy, there are fears about the outlook for top retailers.

By the break on Friday Tokyo's Nikkei index was down 0.7 percent from a 17-month high, while Sydney shed 0.7 percent and Singapore gave up 0.1 percent. Seoul, which closed Thursday at a record high, eased 0.4 percent.

But Hong Kong was up 0.1 percent after a four-day rally, while Shanghai -- which has fallen about seven percent in the past month on worries about a state crackdown on leveraged investing -- also gained 0.1 percent.

The dollar turned lower against its major peers, having enjoyed a surge Thursday on comments from a top Federal Reserve official backing three more interest rates this year.

The unit "is weighed down by the Trump/Comey sideshow which has seen the greenback move lower against" major currencies, Stephen Innes, a senior trader at forex firm OANDA, said in a commentary.

And on oil markets both main contracts pressed on with their recovery from last week's sharp losses, with investors cheering a bigger-than-expected drop in US inventories and signs an OPEC output cut was kicking in.

- Key figures around 0230 GMT -

Tokyo - Nikkei 225: DOWN 0.7 percent at 19,823.28 (break)

Hong Kong - Hang Seng: UP 0.1 percent at 25,141.10

Shanghai - Composite: UP 0.1 percent at 3,065.39

Dollar/yen: DOWN at 113.81 yen from 113.88 yen

Pound/dollar: UP at $1.2890 from $1.2889 at 2100 GMT

Euro/dollar: UP at $1.0868 from $1.0863

Oil - West Texas Intermediate: UP seven cents at $47.90 per barrel

Oil - Brent North Sea: UP four cents at $50.81

New York - Dow: DOWN 0.1 percent at 20,919.42 (close)

London - FTSE 100: FLAT at 7,386.63 (close)

S.Korea’s largest games maker goes public

South Korea’s biggest mobile games maker Netmarble went public in Seoul Friday as it seeks overseas acquisitions, with early trading valuing the firm at around $12 billion.Netmarble’s Lineage 2 is a hugely popular massively multiplayer online role-play…

South Korea's biggest mobile games maker Netmarble went public in Seoul Friday as it seeks overseas acquisitions, with early trading valuing the firm at around $12 billion.

Netmarble's Lineage 2 is a hugely popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) with a mediaeval setting.

The firm's shares opened at 165,000 won (about $146) on the Korea Stock Exchange, giving it a market capitalisation of 13.3 trillion won ($11.8 billion), overtaking games publisher NCSoft Corp, which is valued at 8.7 trillion won.

Netmarble sold 20 percent of its shares in the flotation and said earlier that it would use up to 1.68 trillion won of the proceeds for mergers and acquisitions.

"Netmarble's IPO is the new beginning and the company will make an effort to become a global game company," CEO Kwon Young-sig told reporters on Friday.

With borrowings, the firm could have a warchest of as much as five trillion won, he said, adding: "If there are any developers that could produce synergy with Netmarble, we will pursue mergers and acquisitions actively."

Netmarble plans to launch its hit game "Lineage 2 Revolution" in China in the fourth quarter of this year.

In a bid to expand its presence in the North American market, Netmarble in February completed the acquisition of Kabam's Vancouver studio in a deal estimated to be worth around $700-800 million.

California-headquartered Kabam is a world leader in free mobile MMOPRGs and the Vancouver unit makes Marvel Contest of Champions.

Pessimism rife in working-class Tehran ahead of poll

In a working-class district of Tehran teeming with porters, motorbikes and pickup trucks, residents have little enthusiasm about next week’s presidential election.Iranians have tried it all — reformists, establishment figures, rabble-rousing populists…

In a working-class district of Tehran teeming with porters, motorbikes and pickup trucks, residents have little enthusiasm about next week's presidential election.

Iranians have tried it all -- reformists, establishment figures, rabble-rousing populists, and for the past four years a moderate cleric, President Hassan Rouhani, who struck a historic deal to reintegrate Iran into the world.

But residents of Molavi, in capital's south, say their lives have seen little improvement.

Once a major commercial centre, the district's shops today are shabby and streaked with the soot of a million exhausts.

"I don't see anything special happening in the future, no matter who becomes president," said 35-year-old clothing salesman Babak Kiani.

"I may vote, but I know it doesn't change anything."

Molavi sits near the end of a major north-south artery that cuts through the middle of the capital -- far from the chic new coffee shops and flashy malls of north Tehran.

Officials fear that voters in poorer areas like this will shun the May 19 election, dealing a blow to the regime's legitimacy.

Residents say they feel ignored by the six candidates approved by the conservative-dominated Guardian Council to stand in next Friday's election.

"No one talks about us," said Mohsen, who works in wholesale at the local bazaar and only gave his first name.

In televised presidential debates, "nobody talks about a young man who is 30 but can't start a family because he has no money," he said.

Rouhani's government has put an end to hyperinflation and negotiated the lifting of many economic sanctions over Iran's nuclear programme.

But Mohsen said he had faced a tough four years.

- 'Our cheques keep bouncing' -

"We don't buy or sell anything," he said. "Our cheques keep bouncing."

He said social restrictions and heavy-handed police seem as prevalent as they were before, despite Rouhani's promises to free up society.

Mohsen criticised a recent ban on concerts and cafes in the holy city of Mashhad.

He said his car had been impounded for a month because he turned up the volume of his stereo after his football team won a big match.

Some residents still have fond memories of Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmud Ahmadinejad -- despite his controversial statements that escalated tensions between Iran and Western powers.

Many working-class Iranians fondly recall his cash hand-outs and development projects -- even if they caused massive inflation and left Tehran littered with unused buildings.

"I only want to vote for Ahmadinejad," said Nasser Zamani, a security guard.

"Things were great and there was abundance under Ahmadinejad. I worked in construction and the job market was really good... God, he was a great president."

But the powerful Guardian Council in April blocked Ahmadinejad and hundreds of other hopefuls from standing.

Zamani said he would vote for hardline Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf instead.

But many in the neighbourhood echoed the disillusionment of housewife Nadia Ghelichi, who said she had little hope things would improve.

"Poverty and unemployment have increased and young people are becoming addicted to drugs," she said.

"In the past four years there have been nothing but negative results."

Rifts grow on both sides of Yemen conflict

Rifts are growing within the ranks both of Yemen’s government and the rebel alliance, further dimming the prospects of an end to the country’s two-year-old war. On the government side, a push for self-rule in the formerly independent south is gaining t…

Rifts are growing within the ranks both of Yemen's government and the rebel alliance, further dimming the prospects of an end to the country's two-year-old war.

On the government side, a push for self-rule in the formerly independent south is gaining traction.

Local governors in south Yemen on Thursday announced they had launched an autonomous authority for the region, a rebuttal against President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi's decision to fire two key members of his government.

In the north, a power struggle is emerging in the alliance between Yemen's Shiite Huthi rebels and the forces of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Caught in the middle are millions of Yemenis who face spiralling violence, looming famine and a political crisis that analysts say is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

- Southern discontent -

On April 27, Hadi dismissed cabinet minister Hani bin Breik and Aidarous al-Zoubeidi, then the governor of the southern province of Aden where Hadi's government is based.

The move sparked mass protests in support of Zoubeidi and Breik, both historically in favour of southern autonomy.

Zoubeidi and Breik are both board members of the newly-announced Southern Transitional Council.

The two also played a key role in restoring security to Aden and adjacent provinces in 2015, after Huthi insurgents were driven out of the area by government forces supported by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.

Insiders say the recent events have deep roots.

South Yemen was an independent state until 1990, when it was unified with North Yemen and Ali Abdullah Saleh elected president.

Saleh remained in power until 2012, when he resigned after a year of mass protests and was succeeded by Hadi, his vice president.

The ex-president realigned himself at the side of the Shiite insurgents, who staged a coup against Hadi in 2014.

Hadi fled the capital Sanaa and briefly relocated to his hometown of Aden before settling in Saudi Arabia, which along with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a crucial military ally of Hadi's government.

But Hadi's dismissal of Zoubeidi and bin Breik, both reportedly close to the UAE, appears to have reignited southern separatist sentiment.

"The extent of this rift reverberates in the Arab coalition, particularly as the sidelined southern leaders are supported by the UAE," a government official told AFP, requesting anonymity.

The UAE played a key role in providing military and economic support in Hadi's campaign to retake the five southern provinces in the summer of 2015 and continues to support leaders in the south.

Abu Dhabi is also a key supporter of Breik, who is close to salafist groups in southern Yemen.

And analysts say the spread of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group in government-held parts of Yemen, where the jihadists have taken advantage of the political chaos, damages Hadi's ties to both the United Nations and the West.

- 'Unnatural alliance' -

Power struggles have also created a rift in the north, which is controlled by the Huthi-led alliance.

"This alliance, which has held up so far, is tactical but unnatural and is showing signs of cracking," said Yemen analyst Najib Ghallab.

"The Huthis don't necessarily believe in partnership... They build their own authority directly linked to Abdel Malek al-Huthi," head of the rebel group, Ghallab said.

In a structural power play, the Huthis this month announced they had promoted 29,000 policemen to positions in the interior ministry, all chosen from within their ranks.

But the transfer last year of the central bank from Sanaa to Hadi's stronghold of Aden drained the rebels of the means to pay civil servant salaries, fanning popular discontent.

Dissatisfaction among supporters of Saleh is also rising, and the ex-president this week said he was open to dialogue with rival Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia's powerful Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has hinted that Saleh could begin to distance himself from the Huthis.

"Saleh is now under Huthi control," Prince Mohammed said. "If he were to leave Sanaa, he would adopt a different position".

The World Health Organization estimates more than 8,000 people have been killed since 2015 in the war between the Saudi-supported government and the Iranian-backed Huthis.

The UN has warned that two-thirds of the population of Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world even before the war, faces a serious threat of famine this year.

Peaceful coexistence of Palestine & Israel essential for regional security – Putin to Abbas

Preview President Vladimir Putin has expressed Russia’s full support in negotiating a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after meeting his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas in Sochi.
Read Full Article at RT.com

Preview President Vladimir Putin has expressed Russia’s full support in negotiating a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after meeting his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas in Sochi.
Read Full Article at RT.com

Venezuela’s opposition seeks chaos, not election to depose Maduro – Constituent Assembly director

Preview Venezuela’s major opposition is not interested in taking part in free general elections, but instead, seeks ways to create chaos and violently oust President Nicholas Maduro from office, the head of the commission for the newly introduced Constituent Assembly told RT.
Read Full Article at RT.com

Preview Venezuela’s major opposition is not interested in taking part in free general elections, but instead, seeks ways to create chaos and violently oust President Nicholas Maduro from office, the head of the commission for the newly introduced Constituent Assembly told RT.
Read Full Article at RT.com

G7 finance chiefs meet as Trump trade doubts linger

G7 finance ministers meet Friday in Italy, seeking common ground and stability on future world trade after US President Donald Trump’s declaration that “America First” would be his mantra.The meeting, which will continue into Saturday, is the first Gro…

G7 finance ministers meet Friday in Italy, seeking common ground and stability on future world trade after US President Donald Trump's declaration that "America First" would be his mantra.

The meeting, which will continue into Saturday, is the first Group of Seven (G7) outing for Steven Mnuchin, Trump's Treasury Secretary and a former Goldman Sachs banker tasked with delivering the US economic agenda.

The doubts over trade has seen the gathering in Bari tipped as being the venue for the latest battle of Bari, a fortified port on Italy's southern Adriatic coast that has seen many power tussles over the centuries.

But in the run-up, officials from all seven members of the club of wealthy, industrialised nations have indicated that differences over Trump's plans to roll back the boundaries of free trade have been pushed to the sidelines.

Hosts Italy have sought to find areas of agreement between Trump's populist but still vague agenda, and the priorities of Washington's chief European partners (Britain, France, Germany, Italy), Canada and Japan.

"There won't be a specific session on issues of trade and protectionism but it could come up in the broader discussion on the state of the world economy," said an Italian official involved in preparing the meeting.

A senior source from another of the participating countries added: "We are not anticipating being any clearer about what the US administration is planning in terms of trade."

- Inclusive growth -

But trade is expected to feature in bilateral talks, particularly with Japan and Germany, both large net exporters suspected by Trump of benefiting unfairly from their respective dollar exchange rates.

Among the issues officially on the table are transnational tax evasion, including the policing of web-based multinationals, combating the financing of terrorism, defending financial institutions from cyber attacks and how to ensure that the benefits of growth are more evenly shared.

The latter is an issue that has been on the G7 agenda since the 2007-08 financial crisis. But it has been given added urgency by Britain's vote to leave the European Union and Trump's election triumph, shocks attributed to the negative impact of recent economic trends on key demographics.

Trump's statements during and after his election campaign suggest he favours "inclusive growth" and Mnuchin, 54, has defined his essential role as delivering higher wages for American workers.

Italy's centre-left government, represented by veteran economist Pier Carlo Padoan, has framed the issue in terms of active steps to reduce inequality, and will be presenting a paper on the topic.

But that may clash with the buccaneering capitalist credo Trump espouses while simultaneously promising to restore prosperity to America's rust belt.

- Friction to come? -

The meeting is the first since outsider centrist Emmanuel Macron was elected as France's new president, although his country will be represented in Bari by outgoing Socialist finance minister Michel Sapin.

Macron is a free trader but also a strong supporter of European integration who believes the EU should use its global muscle to ensure open markets do not lead to its social model being cannibalised.

Most analysts see his election as strengthening the cohesion of the political leadership of the EU's single market, confounding expectations -- which Trump has seemed, at times, to share -- of its disintegration.

In a possible sign of friction to come, Mnuchin ruffled the hosts on Thursday evening by bluntly asking Padoan a question about the stability of Italy's banks.

That prompted the Italian minister to mount a robust defence of the sector "intended to dispel erroneous perceptions" of the situation, an Italian official told reporters. "There was a friendly exchange on the subject."

Anxiety mounts as Italy moves to get more migrants out

Behind the high fences of the repatriation centre at Ponte Galeria, just down the road from Rome’s Fiumicino airport, dozens of women sit outside, waiting for word on whether they will have to leave Italy.But as the government steps up its efforts to s…

Behind the high fences of the repatriation centre at Ponte Galeria, just down the road from Rome's Fiumicino airport, dozens of women sit outside, waiting for word on whether they will have to leave Italy.

But as the government steps up its efforts to send more migrants home, many who pinned their hopes on asylum appeals are growing increasingly worried.

This week an official decree paved the way for the creation of 11 more repatriation centres capable of housing 1,600 people pending deportation, on top of the four currently in operation.

At Ponte Galeria, in courtyards easily mistaken for cages, Khadigia Shabbi, 47, can barely hold back her tears.

"Here we are dying," the former Libyan university lecturer says.

Arrested in Palermo at the end of 2015 and convicted of inciting terrorism, Shabbi protests her innocence and has requested asylum.

She is not alone. Half of the 63 women at Ponte Galeria, which AFP was able to visit, have made similar requests.

Several are from Nigeria, having crossed Libya to reach Italy. But there are also Ukrainians and Chinese.

The country is sheltering more than 176,000 asylum-seekers, with about 45,000 migrants arriving since January 1 -- a 40 percent rise on the same period last year -- and officials are bracing for another summer of record arrivals.

- 'I'll come back' -

To cope with the influx -- and to deter others from coming -- Interior Minister Marco Minniti pushed through parliament last month a plan to increase migrant housing and provide new resources for expelling those who have come only to seek work.

The plan includes creating fast-track asylum appeal courts for the roughly 60 percent of migrants who have their initial requests denied, in order to reach a binding decision that gets them out of the country sooner.

Between January and April, Italy expelled 6,242 people who did not have the right to stay, an increase of 24 percent on the same period last year.

But the figures include more than just people rescued from the overcrowded boats coming daily from Libya who have failed in their asylum requests.

Many were sent home directly because of repatriation agreements, such as those with Tunisia, Egypt or Morocco, while others were expelled after overstaying their student or tourism visas.

But despite Italy's new efforts to deter migrant arrivals, many say they won't give up trying.

"If they expel me, I'll come back afterwards. I say this honestly -- there is nothing for me back there," said one woman at Ponte Galeria.

For Luigi Manconi, a senator in the ruling Democratic Party, such centres have never functioned as well as intended, and often detain people who should not find themselves behind bars.

Many of the Nigerians at the centre, for example, were victims of prostitution networks. "They should be being helped, not incarcerated," he said.

While they wait the women at Ponte Galeria complain mainly about the monotony of long days.

"Here, we don't do anything, no classes, no sports, no activities," said Pepita, a Filipina who said she had spent more than 20 years in Italy.

The French company that runs the centre, Gepsa, provides meals, underwear and hygiene kits, along with offers of psychological support.

For the rest, the women at Ponte Galeria can rely only on themselves.

Fatima faithful await Pope Francis in their thousands

Tens of thousands of Catholic faithful await the high-security arrival of Pope Francis in Fatima on Friday as the Portuguese holy site marks 100 years since the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared to child shepherds.Singing Ave Maria, holding hands in pray…

Tens of thousands of Catholic faithful await the high-security arrival of Pope Francis in Fatima on Friday as the Portuguese holy site marks 100 years since the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared to child shepherds.

Singing Ave Maria, holding hands in prayer, falling into each other's arms crying or strolling past shops selling t-shirts with photos of the Argentine pontiff, pilgrims from all over the world have been gathering on and near the sprawling, white Catholic shrine this week.

Among them were Regina and Leonardo Berba, a couple from Manila in the Philippines, celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary with six of their seven children.

"It's our thanksgiving. We feel that Mama Mary has always been there to guide us," said Regina, 54, standing near a giant sculpture of a rosary.

Altogether, up to a million pilgrims are expected to descend on Fatima by foot, car or plane from countries as varied as China, South Korea, Mexico and Venezuela.

- 'Miracle' boy -

The Virgin is said to have appeared six times in Fatima, north of Lisbon, between May and October 1917 to three impoverished, barely-literate children -- Jacinta, 7, Francisco, 9, and their cousin Lucia, 10.

She apparently shared three major prophesies with the trio at a time marked by the ravages of the First World War and Church persecution in a relatively new Portuguese republic.

These reportedly included a warning of a second war and the rise of communist Russia.

On Saturday -- the 100th anniversary of the first reported apparition -- Pope Francis will canonise Jacinta and Francisco, who have officially been found responsible for two miracles.

One of these apparently took place in 2013, when a five-year-old Brazilian boy called Lucas recovered at lightning speed after falling more than six metres (20 feet) down to the ground from a window, smashing his skull.

His parents had prayed to the late Jacinta and Francisco for help.

"The doctors, including non-believers, weren't able to explain this recovery," his father Joao Batista told reporters in Fatima on Thursday.

- Closed airspace -

Many pilgrims have trekked for days on foot to the central Portuguese town -- some finishing the journey to the small Chapel of the Apparitions on their knees.

Jose Manuel Pinheiro, 42, said he had walked 242 kilometres (150 miles) from northern Portugal in seven days.

"I had promised to come on foot if my wife recovered from an illness diagnosed in 2007," he said, standing next to the chapel.

"She recovered and since then I come every year."

This time round, though, will be hugely different as Pope Francis himself participates.

"With Mary, as a pilgrim of hope and peace I travel to Fatima tomorrow," the Argentine pontiff tweeted Thursday.

He leaves Rome at 2pm local time (1200 GMT) and lands more than two hours later at the Monte Real military base, north of Lisbon.

After a welcome by Portugal's President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, he will travel to Fatima by helicopter.

There, he will arrive on the giant esplanade that faces the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima in a "Popemobile" brought specially from Rome -- welcomed by some 400,000 faithful.

Countless others will follow proceedings on giant screens and television sets.

The day's events -- and Saturday's canonisation -- take place under high security.

Some 6,000 members of security and emergency services have been mobilised.

Cars will be banned from the immediate vicinity of the sanctuary, the airspace above will be closed and measures for jamming electronic signals implemented to prevent any flights of drones.

Border controls, meanwhile, have been reinstated in the EU country through the weekend.

burs-mbx/cw/tm

Batistuta offered Adelaide football coaching job – report

Argentine goalscoring great Gabriel Batistuta has been offered the chance to coach Australian A-League club Adelaide United, a report said Friday. The 48-year-old, his nation’s all-time leading goalscorer before Lionel Messi overtook him last year, is …

Argentine goalscoring great Gabriel Batistuta has been offered the chance to coach Australian A-League club Adelaide United, a report said Friday.

The 48-year-old, his nation's all-time leading goalscorer before Lionel Messi overtook him last year, is wanted as a replacement for departing Spaniard Guillermo Amor.

Adelaide chief executive Grant Mayer said capturing Batistuta was a priority given former Barcelona star Amor had decided to leave.

"We?re chasing a suitable replacement after Guillermo Amor has all the respect and goes out on his own terms," Mayer told the Adelaide Advertiser newspaper.

"With Batistuta an offer has been made, but there is also a Plan A, B and C.?

The report said Batistuta was intent on bringing a team of two Argentine assistant coaches with him and the club was finalising the intricacies of the package deal.

Batistuta, regarded as one of the best strikers of his generation, scored 56 goals in 78 games for Argentina, and netted more than 200 for Fiorentina in Italy's Serie A.

The flamboyant Argentine, who lived in Australia from 2007-11, has no top-level coaching experience.

‘Risk’: Inside the inner sanctum of Wikileaks’ Assange

The enigmatic champion of a global movement for transparency and democracy. A Russian stooge. A West-hating attention-seeker. A cold fish with questionable attitudes and alleged diabolical sexual mores.

Julian Assange has been labeled all of these — and many things besides — since starting out as a media-savvy Robin Hood figure, wrestling facts from the powerful and serving them up unexpurgated for the masses.

Now, a fugitive from justice dogged by accusations of sexual assault and living a hermetic existence in London’s Ecuadoran embassy for the last five years, he cuts a more embattled, slippery figure.

“Risk,” a new documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras, starts out as an unsettlingly ambivalent portrait of the award-winning iconoclast but ends up revealing a darker side to Assange.

Filmed over six tumultuous years and taking in the 2016 US presidential election, it takes viewers closer than any previous film crew into Assange’s inner sanctum.

“This is not the film I thought I was making. I thought I could ignore the contradictions, I thought they were not part of the story. I was wrong. They are becoming the story,” Poitras says in a voiceover.

US cable network Showtime announced in April it had partnered with Neon to roll out the film at 36 US locations during May, before a television premiere later in summer.

WikiLeaks, founded by Assange in 2006, specializes in large-scale breaches of classified data that have made headlines around the world, as well as challenging the ethics of security services.

The 45-year-old computer programmer has claimed political asylum at the Ecuadoran embassy in London since 2012, having taken refuge to avoid being sent to Sweden.

– Misogyny –

There is an international arrest warrant out to get him to face allegations of unlawful coercion, sexual molestation and rape dating back to 2010.

Poitras’s profile of Assange, who denies any wrongdoing, is a follow-up to her Academy Award-winning “Citizenfour” (2014), about fugitive leaker Edward Snowden and the NSA spying scandal.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of “Risk” is its success in shedding light on the ugly misogyny that runs through so much of the tech world, showing Assange describing the sexual assault allegations against him as the product of a feminist conspiracy.

He even suggests that if the alleged victims said sorry to him, he would “apologize for anything I did or didn’t do to hurt their feelings.”

“Risk” also gets up-close with security expert and close Assange ally Jacob Appelbaum, revealing that he is also facing accusations of sexual misconduct, which he too denies.

Assange doesn’t accept that he and Poitras fell out, but appears through messages she reads out on camera to become colder with her, bruised by the fact that she didn’t use WikiLeaks to publish Snowden’s NSA material.

“That kind of created I think, as you see in the film, a tension between myself and Julian,” the 53-year-old said during a Q&A following the North American premiere at the Art of the Real festival in New York last week.

At its height, WikiLeaks could claim to have provided valuable insights into the war on terror, helped bring about the Arab Spring and shone a light on civilian deaths in Iraq.

– Potent force –

Regardless of Assange’s plummeting stock in the bourse of public opinion, the organization he founded remains undeniably relevant — a potent force in geopolitics.

“Risk” underlines its continued influence in the confusion surrounding Assange’s intervention in the US presidential election, and his suspected ties with Russia and with members of the Trump campaign.

In July WikiLeaks published 20,000 hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee, some innocuous but others hugely damaging to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

By October, WikiLeaks was publishing thousands of emails from Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, prompting effusive praise from then-candidate Donald Trump.

Assange denies that Russia or any other state was behind the leak.

Despite its focus on the murky world of espionage, “Risk” does have its lighter side, including a hilarious cameo by Lady Gaga paying a visit to Assange.

But had Poitras filmed for a few more months, her documentary could have had a romantic coda.

In a bizarre twist in the Assange saga, ex-Baywatch star Pamela Anderson has recently emerged as a rumored love interest of the secretive Australian, and in a poem posted on her website she complains about the “narrow lens Laura has picked.”

The 49-year-old actress has reportedly visited the fugitive several times in recent months.

The enigmatic champion of a global movement for transparency and democracy. A Russian stooge. A West-hating attention-seeker. A cold fish with questionable attitudes and alleged diabolical sexual mores.

Julian Assange has been labeled all of these -- and many things besides -- since starting out as a media-savvy Robin Hood figure, wrestling facts from the powerful and serving them up unexpurgated for the masses.

Now, a fugitive from justice dogged by accusations of sexual assault and living a hermetic existence in London's Ecuadoran embassy for the last five years, he cuts a more embattled, slippery figure.

"Risk," a new documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras, starts out as an unsettlingly ambivalent portrait of the award-winning iconoclast but ends up revealing a darker side to Assange.

Filmed over six tumultuous years and taking in the 2016 US presidential election, it takes viewers closer than any previous film crew into Assange's inner sanctum.

"This is not the film I thought I was making. I thought I could ignore the contradictions, I thought they were not part of the story. I was wrong. They are becoming the story," Poitras says in a voiceover.

US cable network Showtime announced in April it had partnered with Neon to roll out the film at 36 US locations during May, before a television premiere later in summer.

WikiLeaks, founded by Assange in 2006, specializes in large-scale breaches of classified data that have made headlines around the world, as well as challenging the ethics of security services.

The 45-year-old computer programmer has claimed political asylum at the Ecuadoran embassy in London since 2012, having taken refuge to avoid being sent to Sweden.

- Misogyny -

There is an international arrest warrant out to get him to face allegations of unlawful coercion, sexual molestation and rape dating back to 2010.

Poitras's profile of Assange, who denies any wrongdoing, is a follow-up to her Academy Award-winning "Citizenfour" (2014), about fugitive leaker Edward Snowden and the NSA spying scandal.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of "Risk" is its success in shedding light on the ugly misogyny that runs through so much of the tech world, showing Assange describing the sexual assault allegations against him as the product of a feminist conspiracy.

He even suggests that if the alleged victims said sorry to him, he would "apologize for anything I did or didn't do to hurt their feelings."

"Risk" also gets up-close with security expert and close Assange ally Jacob Appelbaum, revealing that he is also facing accusations of sexual misconduct, which he too denies.

Assange doesn't accept that he and Poitras fell out, but appears through messages she reads out on camera to become colder with her, bruised by the fact that she didn't use WikiLeaks to publish Snowden's NSA material.

"That kind of created I think, as you see in the film, a tension between myself and Julian," the 53-year-old said during a Q&A following the North American premiere at the Art of the Real festival in New York last week.

At its height, WikiLeaks could claim to have provided valuable insights into the war on terror, helped bring about the Arab Spring and shone a light on civilian deaths in Iraq.

- Potent force -

Regardless of Assange's plummeting stock in the bourse of public opinion, the organization he founded remains undeniably relevant -- a potent force in geopolitics.

"Risk" underlines its continued influence in the confusion surrounding Assange's intervention in the US presidential election, and his suspected ties with Russia and with members of the Trump campaign.

In July WikiLeaks published 20,000 hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee, some innocuous but others hugely damaging to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

By October, WikiLeaks was publishing thousands of emails from Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, prompting effusive praise from then-candidate Donald Trump.

Assange denies that Russia or any other state was behind the leak.

Despite its focus on the murky world of espionage, "Risk" does have its lighter side, including a hilarious cameo by Lady Gaga paying a visit to Assange.

But had Poitras filmed for a few more months, her documentary could have had a romantic coda.

In a bizarre twist in the Assange saga, ex-Baywatch star Pamela Anderson has recently emerged as a rumored love interest of the secretive Australian, and in a poem posted on her website she complains about the "narrow lens Laura has picked."

The 49-year-old actress has reportedly visited the fugitive several times in recent months.

US intel chiefs express doubts about Kaspersky security software

Top US intelligence chiefs on Thursday publicly expressed doubts about the global cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Labs because of its roots in Russia.Six leading intelligence officials told a Senate hearing on external threats to the United States of thei…

Top US intelligence chiefs on Thursday publicly expressed doubts about the global cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Labs because of its roots in Russia.

Six leading intelligence officials told a Senate hearing on external threats to the United States of their concerns over the firm's broad presence, without specifying any particular threat.

Asked if he was aware of a security threat tied to Kaspersky software, Federal Bureau of Investigation acting director Andrew McCabe replied: "We are very concerned about it and we are focused on it very closely."

Defense Intelligence Agency director Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart said his agency is avoiding the company's products.

"There is, as well as I know, no Kaspersky software on our networks," he said, adding that the agency's private sector contractors are also steering clear.

Also indicating their concerns in brief were the heads of the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the Director of National Intelligence.

"I am personally aware and involved as director of the National Security Agency in the Kaspersky Lab issue," NSA head Mike Rogers said.

Kaspersky was founded in Moscow in 1997 by Eugene Kaspersky, a computer engineer who served in the Russian military.

The company quickly expanded to a global presence, with 3,600 employees, 400 million users of its software, and revenue of some $620 million in 2015, according to its website.

Its antivirus programs regularly rank in the top five of such software for personal and business computers.

But US officials have expressed doubts over its recruitment of some staff with alleged links to Russian defense and intelligence bodies.

Some worry that it might offer Russian intelligence a secret backdoor into users's computers. US officials are particularly worried that foreign hackers could penetrate US infrastructure via suspect software and malware.

Kaspersky denied having ties to any government.

"The company has never helped, nor will help, any government in the world with its cyber espionage efforts," it said in a statement Thursday.

"Kaspersky Lab believes it is completely unacceptable that the company is being unjustly accused without any hard evidence to back up these false allegations."

Commenting on Reddit Thursday, Eugene Kaspersky also said his company had no links to the Russian government, offering to testify in the Senate.

"I respectfully disagree with their opinion, and I'm very sorry these gentlemen can't use the best software on the market because of political reasons," he said, referring to the intelligence chiefs.

- Front-door access -

The allegations against Kaspersky come amid heightened US concerns over Russian hacking after what intelligence chiefs say was a significant effort directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to interfere with last year's election.

President Donald Trump's former national security advisor Michael Flynn is under investigation for his links to Russia, which include being paid $11,250 to speak at a Kaspersky function.

But Sean Kanuck, a former CIA officer who was the first US national intelligence officer for cyber issues, said the worries about Kaspersky have mainly come from US lawmakers who don't understand that it gets paid by companies and US government agencies to have "front-door" access to their systems.

"That means that any Congressional questions about 'back doors' in Kaspersky products reflect a certain naivete, because many of Kaspersky's clients are intentionally paying for full-content monitoring on their networks."

Basquiat headlines New York art auction season

Jean-Michel Basquiat occupies star billing on the auction block in New York this season, catapulting the artist into the rostrum of 20th century greats nearly three decades after his death.Riding high on last year’s $57 million auction record set when …

Jean-Michel Basquiat occupies star billing on the auction block in New York this season, catapulting the artist into the rostrum of 20th century greats nearly three decades after his death.

Riding high on last year's $57 million auction record set when a Japanese billionaire snapped up a self-portrait, at least 14 works by the US wonderkid of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent are on sale at Christie's and Sotheby's next week.

"He was a street artist so it took a bit of time for him to be assimilated," explains Loic Gouzer, chairman of post-war and contemporary art at Christie's. "Now every museum in the world is begging to get Basquiat."

Christie's and Sotheby's -- the esteemed houses founded in 18th century London -- are chasing combined sales of at least $1.1 billion when they auction hundreds of contemporary, modern and impressionist works of art from May 15-19 in New York.

The top estimate for the week is a 1982 Basquiat, "Untitled" -- a skull-like head on a giant canvas in oil-stick, acrylic and spray paint, for which Sotheby's hopes to smash a new record at more than $60 million.

It has been held by its current owners ever since being bought in 1984 at Christie's for $19,000.

The Brooklyn-born artist died of an overdose aged 27. Artprice says the value of Basquiat works rose 506 percent from January 2000 to October 2016.

"It's the golden kid, it's the one that died young, lived strong and has been creating a body of work that looks like nothing before and looks like nothing after," says Gregoire Billault, Sotheby's head of contemporary art.

An African American in a white art world, much of his work focused on ordeals endured by blacks -- a subject of renewed resonance in the wake of nationwide US protests since 2014 about the shootings of unarmed black men by police.

- $50 million Bacon -

Fittingly, Christie's top Basquiat offering is "La Hara" -- a 1981 acrylic and oil-stick of an angry-looking New York police officer estimated at $22-28 million.

"Context is the best helper to explain art and I think it's great to have it right now," says Gouzer.

Otherwise Christie's top lot is Francis Bacon's "Three Studies of George Dyer" valued at $50 million, the British artist's first portrait of his long-time muse and lover, a handsome petty thief from London's East End.

The triptych was once owned by author Roald Dahl and has been shown at the Tate Britain and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Christie's is also chasing big bucks for another artist who is even less of a household name but another increasing commercial force: $35-55 million for Cy Twombly's largely abstract "Leda and the Swan."

"Most people even today will say, 'Oh my child can paint this.' Your child cannot paint this,'" says Christie's specialist Koji Inoue.

Sotheby's set the Twombly auction record in 2015 at $70.5 million. The artist was the subject of a retrospective in Paris last year.

"We feel like he's finally getting his due," Inoue told AFP.

- Beyond craziness -

Highlights of the impressionist and modern sales are a Picasso portrait of his mistress Dora Maar, valued at $35-55 million at Christie's, and Egon Schiele's "Danae" at Sotheby's for $30-40 million, painted when he was 19 years old.

Much of the art being offered this season is fresh to market -- at Christie's more than 80 percent of the works in both categories have never been offered at auction or have been off the market for 20 years or more.

Experts say they are focusing on quality rather than quantity, not expecting to reach the giddy heights of 2015, when records tumbled and Picasso's "The Women of Algiers (Version 0)" became the most expensive art ever sold at auction for $179.4 million.

"I think that this market is very smart right now, I don't think it's the same craziness it used to be in 2015," said Billault.

He disagrees that interest is cooling in China, where new wealth has driven much of the exponential growth.

Neither have political earthquakes -- Donald Trump's election in the United States and Brexit in Britain -- fanned sluggish sales.

"Last November everyone wondered, given our election," says Jessica Fertig, senior Christie's specialist in Impressionist and Modern Art.

"We had an incredibly strong sale, so we have no reason to feel that this season is going to be any different," she said.

McGirt, Hughes tied for lead at Players Championship

Canada’s Mackenzie Hughes and William McGirt fired identical five-under par 67s to take the co-lead following the first round of The Players Championship. Alex Noren, of Sweden, Spain’s Jon Rahm, J.B. Holmes and Chez Reavie shot 68s and are one stroke …

Canada's Mackenzie Hughes and William McGirt fired identical five-under par 67s to take the co-lead following the first round of The Players Championship.

Alex Noren, of Sweden, Spain's Jon Rahm, J.B. Holmes and Chez Reavie shot 68s and are one stroke back at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

"Very pleased. One of those days where I kept out of trouble," said Hughes, of Hamilton, Ontario. "When I missed the greens I did it in the right spots and when I needed a par I was able to do it."

South Africa's Louis Oosthuizen and Francesco Molinari of Italy head a list of 11 players who shot 69 and are two strokes off the lead.

American Phil Mickelson, defending champion Jason Day of Australia, Rickie Fowler and Adam Scott of Australia are among those who shot 70 and are three strokes behind. Day, however, made three bogeys over his last four holes and had to settle for a two-under score.

World number one Dustin Johnson tops a large group at 71 that also includes German Bernhard Langer, who at 59 is the oldest player in the tournament.

Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, and this year's Masters champion Sergio Garcia all shot 73.

Garcia's round was highlighted by a hole in one on the island hole No. 17. Garcia is the second to achieve the feat in as many years following Willy Wilcox's previous ace on the par-three.

Garcia said it was nice to post an ace after getting off to a rocky beginning.

"The feeling was great," Garcia said. "I think I wasn't quite in the tournament because of everything that's been going on after the Masters win and media and people congratulating you left, right and centre.

"I felt like I was a little bit up in the clouds, and when I woke up, I was 4 over after six."

McGirt had three birdies on the front nine and eagled both of the par-fives on the back nine to offset two bogeys. Last year's Memorial Tournament winner McGirt is just the 26th player to record two eagles in one round during The Players Championship.

This is the fifth time McGirt has held the lead or a share of the lead after 18 holes, but he has yet to convert an opening round lead into a victory.

Hughes had a solid round of five birdies and no bogeys. He is also a one-time winner, capturing the 2017 RSM Classic in October.

Last year's Masters champion Danny Willett shot a 79.

David Toms (back) and Kevin Na (illness) withdrew from the tournament during Thursday's round.

N. Korea reports on South’s presidential election

North Korean state media reported the election of the South’s new left-leaning president Moon Jae-In after a two-day delay, but at unusual length.The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) put out a four-sentence report late Thursday on the victory…

North Korean state media reported the election of the South's new left-leaning president Moon Jae-In after a two-day delay, but at unusual length.

The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) put out a four-sentence report late Thursday on the victory of Moon, who calls for dialogue, along with sanctions and pressure, to curb the North's nuclear ambitions.

"Mun Jae-In... was elected to be the 19th-term 'president' with 41 percent voting rate," it said, using the McCune-Reischauer transliteration system that is standard in North Korea.

That contrasted with its one-sentence report of the election of Moon's conservative predecessor Park Geun-Hye in 2012, which did not mention her name or her support.

"A candidate from Saenuri Party was elected president in the South with a razor-thin margin," that dispatch read in full.

Moon was part of the South's last liberal government, which pursued a "Sunshine policy" of reconciliation and dialogue with the North, and is widely expected to shift away Park's hardline approach.

Park's term ended early when she was impeached for corruption and abuse of power, and KCNA said: "The election took place before the expiry of the previous regime as traitor Park Geun Hye was dismissed from office under the unanimous demand of the south Koreans for committing the unprecedented crimes in the history of politics of south Korea."

Hepatitis C nearly triples in US in 5 years

The number of hepatitis C infections have nearly tripled in the United States in the last five years, particularly among people in their 20s, researchers said Thursday.The bloodborne virus is transmitted by injection drug use, dirty needles, blood tran…

The number of hepatitis C infections have nearly tripled in the United States in the last five years, particularly among people in their 20s, researchers said Thursday.

The bloodborne virus is transmitted by injection drug use, dirty needles, blood transfusions and sex. Chronic infection can lead to cirrhosis or cancer of the liver.

Hepatitis C is the top infectious disease killer in the nation, taking nearly 20,000 lives in 2015, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Experts say the rise of the opioid epidemic, with increasing numbers of people sharing needles to inject heroin and prescription painkillers, is driving the increase in cases.

"New hepatitis C virus infections are increasing most rapidly among young people, with the highest overall number of new infections among 20- to 29-year-olds," said a statement from the CDC.

"This is primarily a result of increasing injection drug use associated with America's growing opioid epidemic."

People with hepatitis C often have no symptoms, so they are unaware of their infection.

The CDC said the number of new cases reported to the federal agency was 850 in 2010, and rose to 2,436 cases in 2015.

However, this "does not reflect the true scale of the epidemic. CDC estimates about 34,000 new hepatitis C infections actually occurred in the US in 2015," said the statement.

Three-quarters of the 3.5 million Americans living with hepatitis C were born from 1945 to 1965.

"Baby boomers are six times more likely to be infected with hepatitis C than those in other age groups and are at much greater risk of death from the virus," said the CDC.

New drugs are available that can cure the infection, but their sky-high price tag makes them out of reach for many people.

"We must reach the hardest-hit communities with a range of prevention and treatment services that can diagnose people with hepatitis C and link them to treatment," said Jonathan Mermin, director of CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention.

"This wide range of services can also prevent the misuse of prescription drugs and ultimately stop drug use -? which can also prevent others from getting hepatitis C in the first place."

Guatemala launches search for fugitive female assassin boss

Guatemalan security forces launched a search for the female leader of a hit squad for hire after she escaped the prison where she was serving a 94-year sentence.The head of the national police force, Nery Ramos, said police stations across the country …

Guatemalan security forces launched a search for the female leader of a hit squad for hire after she escaped the prison where she was serving a 94-year sentence.

The head of the national police force, Nery Ramos, said police stations across the country were on alert looking out for Marixa Lemus, 45, following her jail break from a military penitentiary north of Guatemala City.

"An alert has gone out nationally and operations are underway to locate her," he said.

Nicknamed "The Boss" ("La Patrona" in Spanish), Lemus started her lengthy sentence in March 2015 after being convicted of heading up the gang that carried out contract killings and kidnappings.

The group was notably accused of carrying out a bomb attack on December 13, 2013 against the mayor of the southeast town of Moyuta, which failed to harm its target.

Lemus had tried to escape once before, from a women's prison in the capital in May last year, but police caught her hiding in woodland near the penitentiary.

Trump urges peace between Russia and Ukraine

Donald Trump urged Russia and Ukraine to “make peace,” in a tweet accompanied by two photos of the US president posing with top diplomats from the rival countries.”Yesterday, on the same day – I had meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov …

Donald Trump urged Russia and Ukraine to "make peace," in a tweet accompanied by two photos of the US president posing with top diplomats from the rival countries.

"Yesterday, on the same day - I had meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the FM of Ukraine, Pavlo Klimkin. #LetsMakePeace!" the US president tweeted.

Russia and Ukraine have been in conflict since 2014, and Russia's annexation of Crimea has been a major point of contention between Washington and Moscow.

The tweeted photos fashion a grinning Trump as peacemaker, a day after the Republican leader gave Lavrov a rare Oval Office welcome and Ukraine's Klimkin met with Vice President Mike Pence.

A Trump-Klimkin meeting had not been on the US president's public agenda.

Trump tweeted the images after the White House had been left fuming when the Russian Embassy published photos of Trump's closed-door meeting with Lavrov, as well as the Russian ambassador in Washington, Sergei Kislyak.

The Lavrov meeting came just hours after Trump fired his FBI director James Comey, the man responsible for investigating allegations of collusion between the Republican leader's team and Russia.

The embarrassment was compounded by the presence of Kislyak, who is at the center of a series of questions about contacts between Trump's inner circle and the Russian government.

Comey's shock dismissal ignited furor among Democrats, who suggested that the FBI's investigation into Trump's campaign and Russia could now be tainted, an idea the White House has rejected.

Shortly before his call for peace Trump sent another Twitter missive: "Russia must be laughing up their sleeves watching as the US tears itself apart over a Democrat EXCUSE for losing the election."

Saracens aim for new European record against Clermont

Saracens will aim to rewrite European rugby union’s record books when the title-holders face Clermont in the Champions Cup final at Murrayfield on Saturday.The London side are bidding to become just the fourth club to win back-to-back European Cup titl…

Saracens will aim to rewrite European rugby union's record books when the title-holders face Clermont in the Champions Cup final at Murrayfield on Saturday.

The London side are bidding to become just the fourth club to win back-to-back European Cup titles, after Leicester, Leinster and Toulon.

Victory would also see Saracens set a new outright record of 18 matches unbeaten in the Champions Cup, equalling the record they share with Irish side Leinster of 17, in both cases comprising 16 wins and a draw.

Saracens, also the reigning English champions and eyeing a 'double Double', could field six members of the British and Irish Lions squad -- the largest number supplied by any one club -- for the combined side's upcoming tour of New Zealand.

That England sextet of Owen Farrell, Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Jamie George and Mako Vunipola are all set to feature against Clermont after Saracens rested most of their stars for last week's Premiership defeat by Wasps, having already booked their place in the title-deciding play-offs.

Saracens boss Mark McCall deployed just one of his Lions in the starting line-up against Wasps in Kruis, with Jamie George the only other to feature as he came off the bench.

- 'Deadly attack' -

England lock Itoje was the man-of-the-match in Saracens' Champions Cup final win over Clermont's French rivals Racing 92 last season.

This will be Clermont's third European Cup final, with the Top 14 side still looking for a first major continental title after twice losing to another French side in Toulon.

"They've been close a few times but not quite done it," Itoje told Saracens' website.

"They're a big, physical team with a strong set-piece and a deadly attack as well."

It will be up to Itoje and his fellow Saracens forwards to secure enough good quality ball so they can unleash backs of the calibre of ex-England wing Chris Ashton, who needs just one more try to take sole possession of the tournament's record of 36 tries that he shares with former France star Vincent Clerc.

Saturday's match will be Ashton's last in European competition with Saracens before he joins Toulon at the end of the season, having remained off the scoresheet in their semi-final win away to Munster.

Saracens will be without Scotland wing Sean Maitland (ankle)and prop Richard Barrington (hand) because of injury. They also have fitness doubts over tighthead prop Vincent Koch.

Losing Koch would be a blow given that, in the absence of the already sidelined Juan Figallo, he will be expected to anchor the scrum against Clermont's powerhouse front row Thomas Domingo.

But in any case, Clermont would do well to keep an eye on unheralded South African Michael Rhodes, a back-row who has also starred at lock this season while Kruis was out injured.

Meanwhile, Clermont received a boost earlier this week when scrum-half Morgan Parra and centre Remi Lamerat were passed fit by coach Franck Azema earlier this week.

Parra, 28, suffered a thigh strain and 27-year-old Lamerat a knee knock in the French club's bruising semi-final win over Irish side Leinster (27-22).

Clermont are battling against their reputation as the 'nearly men' of rugby, with their loyal 'Yellow Army' of fans desperate to celebrate in Edinburgh.

They've won just one of their 12 Top 14 finals (in 2010), as well as suffering those two European reverses against Toulon.

But David Strettle, Clermont's former Saracens wing, told AFP: "It doesn't affect me if Clermont have won or lost eleven, twelve finals.

"I am playing just the one game, in my head it is the same. The players just have to ignore the history.

"For the fans, it's different."

Blitzbokke aim to break Fiji hold in Paris

South Africa take to the Stade Jean-Bouin pitch in Paris this weekend in the knowledge that they could break Olympic champions Fiji’s hold on the World Rugby Sevens Series title.Fiji have been crowned champions over the last two seasons, but go into th…

South Africa take to the Stade Jean-Bouin pitch in Paris this weekend in the knowledge that they could break Olympic champions Fiji's hold on the World Rugby Sevens Series title.

Fiji have been crowned champions over the last two seasons, but go into the ninth and penultimate round of the series 25 points behind the Blitzbokke.

With 22 points on offer for tournament winners, the scenario realistically means Fiji have to target wins in Paris and series-ender London, on May 20-21, and South Africa fail to make the knockout rounds.

Added spice comes from the fact that the two sides could meet in the quarter-finals in the French capital, where Samoa were winners last season.

"The anticipation of the Olympics was something different to the situation that we find ourselves in now," acknowledged Blitbokke forward Tim Agaba.

"We are very mindful of our own processes and systems and what the job at hand is. There is no sense in getting ahead of ourselves.

"We will be focusing on what we need to do, game for game and tournament after tournament. We are treating all tournaments the same, getting back to the basics every time and start from there. The results then tend to look after themselves."

Blitzboks will face Scotland, Japan and Canada in pool A, while Fiji were drawn with Australia, Samoa and Russia in pool D.

New Zealand will face the United States, Wales and Argentina in pool B, while host nation France are aligned with England, Kenya and Spain in pool C.

French hopes will lie solidly at the dancing feet of their electric Fiji-born winger Virimi Vakatawa.

Vakatawa makes his welcome return to the shortened game after appearing in the Six Nations for the nation's 15-a-side team before injury ruled him out of the Hong Kong sevens tournament.

France, however, will be without talisman Terry Bouhraoua and Pierre Gilles Lakafia, while featuring full international Julien Candelon in his swansong before retirement.

New Zealand touch down in Paris in the unusual position of having no tournament wins to their name this season.

A raft of injuries has seen All Black hopes repeatedly hit in the high-octane abbreviated game of rugby, but coach Scott Waldrom welcomes back experienced heads Joe Webber, Lewis Ormond and Sam Dickson for Paris.

The All Blacks Sevens are currently fourth in the standings.

"We are looking forward to upping our performance in the last two tournaments of the series," said Waldrom.

"While we are placed fourth overall, our aim is to improve that ranking, and as always, win the next two tournaments.

"Paris is an opportunity for the team to play with the determination and consistency we know we?re capable of. When we are on our game we have beaten the teams ahead of us in the series standings.

"This tournament is about putting together six consistent performances and playing at our peak every game as we're in a very tough pool again."

Turning to injuries, Waldrom was first to admit that it was something that affected not just his team.

"At this stage in the season a lot of teams are getting hit with injuries so it's something we have to accept and deal with," he said.

"The new players have brought some great enthusiasm to training this week and it has lifted everyone's performance so far."

Pools

Pool A: Canada, South Africa, Scotland, Japan

Pool B: United States, New Zealand, Wales, Argentina

Pool C: England, Kenya, France, Spain

Pool D: Australia, Fiji, Samoa, Russia

Standings

1. South Africa 157 points, 2. Fiji 132, 3. England 130, 4. New Zealand 110, 5. USA 101, 6. Australia 94, 7. Canada 76, 8. Argentina 72, 9. Scotland 68, 10. Wales 61

Trump admits asking Comey if he was target of investigation

Donald Trump said Thursday he asked his now-fired FBI director on three occasions whether he was the target of ongoing investigations, stoking allegations of presidential interference.

Donald Trump said Thursday he asked his now-fired FBI director on three occasions whether he was the target of ongoing investigations, stoking allegations of presidential interference.

Silva service key to Man City’s Champions dream

David Silva?s comeback from injury helped inspire Manchester City?s return to form last weekend, and his fitness is likely to prove crucial to their Champions League qualification prospects. Silva, back from a fortnight out with a knee injury, was supe…

David Silva?s comeback from injury helped inspire Manchester City?s return to form last weekend, and his fitness is likely to prove crucial to their Champions League qualification prospects.

Silva, back from a fortnight out with a knee injury, was superb as City beat an inept Crystal Palace 5-0, for only their third win in nine Premier League matches.

That victory has left Pep Guardiola?s side fourth going into Saturday?s home match against Leicester City, with a three-point lead over fifth-placed Arsenal and only the top four at the end of the season qualifying for the Champions League.

Sergio Aguero is making progress in his recovery from a groin injury, although it may be too soon for him to make a comeback. In any case, City?s front three of Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane were in fine form without him last Saturday, aided by the creativity of Silva and Kevin De Bruyne.

Seven points from their final three matches will guarantee City's place in next season?s Champions League, a target they would be more than hopeful of achieving given that the Leicester game is followed by matches against West Bromwich Albion and Watford, both out of form.

Then again, reigning English champions Leicester were struggling when City visited the King Power Stadium in December, yet Jamie Vardy was still able to score a hat-trick in a 4-2 home victory.

- Professional Caballero -

Guardiola's side do look a little more settled now, though, with Vincent Kompany's return to fitness giving the defence a much more solid look. Kompany, troubled by a series of injury problems over the last three years, has completed 90 minutes in each of City?s last five matches, suggesting that his troubles may finally be behind him.

City manager Guardiola is without first-choice goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, out for the rest of the season with a calf injury, but his absence hasn't hurt his team's prospects unduly, given the Chile international's erratic displays.

Willy Caballero's fine save from Christian Benteke in the first half against Palace showed he is a more than able deputy, and he will continue for the season?s final three games.

Caballero had a run of Premier League matches for City between January and early April when Bravo was dropped, and remained philosophical when the former Barcelona goalkeeper was then recalled.

"I tried to be focused when Claudio started to play again and I trained well," said Caballero. "I kept my professionalism.

"Unfortunately he probably can't play until next season but I trained really hard for this opportunity.?

Leicester have assured their safety in the Premier League with 22 points gained in 10 domestic games since Craig Shakespeare took charge following the surprise sacking of title-winning manager Claudio Ranieri.

But the current Foxes boss will have to complete his audition for a longer-term contract without midfielder Danny Drinkwater, who has been ruled out for the rest of the season.

Shakespeare could also face a crisis in central defence, where Robert Huth is a major doubt with a foot injury and captain Wes Morgan?s hamstring problem will rule him out again.

"Drinkwater has a thigh strain and I don't expect him to play again this season," said Shakespeare.

"We need to give him time to get over it but it?s weeks rather than months."