Past isolation a clue to east German xenophobia: study

Eastern Germany is a hotspot for far-right attitudes and racist hate crimes in part because it was long a closed-off communist society with few immigrants, a new study said Thursday.The government commissioned the paper on why the region, formerly part…

Eastern Germany is a hotspot for far-right attitudes and racist hate crimes in part because it was long a closed-off communist society with few immigrants, a new study said Thursday.

The government commissioned the paper on why the region, formerly part of the Soviet bloc, has seen a disproportionate number of attacks against foreigners amid Germany's large migrant influx.

The report, "Causes of right-wing extremism and xenophobia in East Germany", was produced by the Goettingen Institute for Democracy Research after a request by Iris Gleicke, the federal commissioner for the region.

The authors point out that before the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, East Germans lived in a "literally closed society" with only few temporary migrant workers from fellow socialist states like Cuba and Vietnam.

The paper also notes a sense of collective victimhood and disappointment in many areas about the pace of economic progress in the quarter-century since German reunification.

The writers stress that xenophobia in Germany is neither a specifically eastern problem, nor does it equally apply across the east -- but conclude that it is far more prevalent in the former German Democratic Republic.

Germany has since 2015 taken in more than one million asylum seekers, about half from war-torn Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, fuelling an anti-foreigner backlash.

In eastern Germany, arson attacks on refugee shelters, or swastikas painted on their walls, recalled the years after Germany's 1990 reunification when East Germans faced economic collapse and uncertainty, and the frustration exploded in several mob attacks against asylum shelters.

- 'Victim status' -

In 2015, far-right violent hate crimes nationwide rose again, to over 1,400 offences from 990 the previous year.

More than half were reported in the eastern states, although they make up just 17 percent of the national population.

The city of Dresden saw the rapid growth of its far-right PEGIDA street movement, short for "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident", whose marches peaked at 25,000 people before ebbing off again.

Nearby small towns such as Freital earned notoriety as neo-Nazis and angry residents hurled abuse at people fleeing war and misery, and rocks at police sent to protect the refugees.

The study found that some of the region's small towns had been both deindustrialised and "depolitisised", now lacking both active local politicians and civil society to oppose far-right groups.

For Dresden, a Baroque city of over 500,000 on the Elbe river, the study pointed to a local sense of "Saxon exceptionalism", mixed with a "culture of remembrance that mythologises its victim status" over the heavy Allied bombing in World War II.

The region's political culture, it said, "cultivates a reflexive rejection of things foreign, different or external", adding that in focus group interviews, "we observed a latent xenophobia, focussed especially against Muslims".

Football World Cup will attract 1.3 mn fans – Qatar

Up to 1.3 million fans will visit Qatar during the 2022 World Cup, an official said Thursday, equivalent to half the Gulf country’s population.Nasser Al-Khater, a senior figure with the body organising Qatar’s World Cup, also said that for the first ti…

Up to 1.3 million fans will visit Qatar during the 2022 World Cup, an official said Thursday, equivalent to half the Gulf country's population.

Nasser Al-Khater, a senior figure with the body organising Qatar's World Cup, also said that for the first time in tournament history many of the fans would come from outside Europe and South America.

"We believe we are going to have a huge influx (of fans), 1.3 million during the tournament," said Khater, speaking as Qatar unveiled its first fully refurbished World Cup venue, the Khalifa International Stadium.

"We are putting a ceiling cap of 1.3 million as an estimate."

He added: "I think everybody when they think of a World Cup, they expect the majority of the fans are going to be coming from western Europe and South America.

"I think, first of all, football is changing, but I think also because of the geographical location of Qatar, I think we are going to see the majority of fans come from the region, mainly from Saudi Arabia.

"We are going to see a lot of fans coming from India, a lot of fans coming from Russia.

"I think we will see something very different in this World Cup."

About one million people visited Brazil for the last World Cup.

The World Cup in Qatar will be held between November 21 and December 18, 2022.

Qatar's current official population is 2.6 million -- this figure has been swollen by more than two-thirds since the emirate was chosen as the 2022 World Cup host.

In December 2010, Qatar had an official population of 1.6 million.

The number of people living in Qatar has mushroomed as the Gulf country recruits tens of thousands of labourers to work on many major infrastructure projects linked to the tournament.

Hat-trick for Gaviria as Dumoulin defends Giro d’Italia pink

Colombian Fernando Gaviria staked his claim for the sprinters top prize at the 100th Giro d’Italia after powering to a third win on stage 12 that frustrated the hosts again Thursday.Dutchman Tom Dumoulin, of the Sunweb team, retained the race leader’s …

Colombian Fernando Gaviria staked his claim for the sprinters top prize at the 100th Giro d'Italia after powering to a third win on stage 12 that frustrated the hosts again Thursday.

Dutchman Tom Dumoulin, of the Sunweb team, retained the race leader's pink jersey and an overall lead of 2min 23sec on 2014 champion and race favourite Nairo Quintana of Movistar.

Before the battle for the "maglia rosa" resumes on Saturday, when the race heads back into the mountains, Italy's drought continued.

Quick Step sprinter Gaviria, already victorious on stages three and five and a runner-up to Australian Caleb Ewan (Orica) on stage seven, claimed his third win with a textbook sprint helped by the formidable lead-out of Argentine teammate Maximiliano Richeze, despite him suffering a puncture in the final kilometres.

Italian Jakub Mareczko finished second to Gaviria for the second time in the race -- the first time in the history of the Giro an Italian had failed to win inside 12 stages.

"This win is for the team," said Gaviria after the 229 km ride from Forli to Reggio Emilia.

On his race debut Gaviria has a firm grip on the sprinters "ciclamen" jersey, which he intends to secure at the finish in Milan on May 28.

Although German sprint giant Andre Greipel has won only one sprint on the 100th edition so far, Gaviria said: "The best sprinter in this Giro is Andre Greipel. He's won more stages in his career than me and won more stages of the Giro."

He added: "We're motivated to finish the Giro. We have to take some points on the way because I want to win this jersey in Milan.

"I came here for experience, and to win, and I'm gaining both."

The 13th stage is a 167km ride from Reggio Emilia to Tortona, another day for the sprinters to go for glory before the race moves back into the mountains on Saturday.

Dumoulin, who took command of the race when he powered to victory in the 10th stage time trial, is looking forward to another incident-free day of racing before then.

The 14th stage is perfectly flat for the first 120 km before the peloton tackles a steep 11.8 km climb to the summit of the Oropa sanctuary at Biella.

"It was a sprinters stage and nothing special, actually," said Dumoulin, who also leads French rival Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) by 2:40 and two-time and defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain) by 2:47.

"It was tailwind in the final so it was really fast, but the rest of the day was quite relaxed, no stress, so it was good.

"Tomorrow will be another sprint day. I hope to just survive that without any troubles and we?ll look forward to the weekend.

From swashbuckling TV star to French environment minister

From scuba diving with sharks to almost crashing in a hot-air balloon over Mexico, France’s new environment minister Nicolas Hulot has shown he can face hostile situations and emerge unscathed.Hulot presented the hit nature and environment TV show “Ush…

From scuba diving with sharks to almost crashing in a hot-air balloon over Mexico, France's new environment minister Nicolas Hulot has shown he can face hostile situations and emerge unscathed.

Hulot presented the hit nature and environment TV show "Ushuaia" which ran for 15 years on French channel TF1.

When he converted to politics as a Greens leader, he became a slippery fish for a succession of presidents keen to harness his popularity and environmental credentials.

Newly-elected President Emmanuel Macron, who says he is neither of the left nor the right, succeeded where his predecessors Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande failed in persuading the popular Hulot to finally join a government.

A household name in France thanks to his TV career, 62-year-old Hulot certainly has broad appeal -- when last year he was considering a run at the presidency, a poll showed he would have scored in the double digits.

Having decided not to be a candidate, Hulot refused to support anyone, playing the independence card -- "my biggest asset".

So why now?

"In a cross-party context, he is the right man at the right time," said Matthieu Orphelin, his former right-hand man at the foundation that Hulot set up to spread his green message.

"What guides him is always asking where he can be most useful," said Pascal Durand, an MEP for the EELV Greens party.

- 'Polar bear in the Sahara' -

Hollande tried to bring him into his government in 2016 but Hulot backed out over his strong opposition to the building of a contentious new airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes in western France.

Now that Hulot is in the cabinet, the government announced Thursday it would appoint a mediator to study the feasibility of the project, which has sparked years of protests.

He will also have to put into place the climate warming targets agreed at the COP21 talks held in Paris last year.

Hulot advised Hollande on the marathon negotiations which produced one of the few successes of the Socialist's five years in office.

His appointment, replacing Segolene Royal, was greeted with enthusiasm at climate talks Thursday in Bonn.

Pierre Cannet, the head of climate policy at WWF in France, told AFP at the talks that Hulot was "a very committed individual", but it remained to be seen "how will he carry out the Paris accord and push forward the energy transition?".

Nearly 80 percent of France's energy comes from nuclear power and the move to renewable sources of energy will be one of Hulot's major aims.

Others though wondered how long the eternal free spirit will be able to tolerate the restrictions of ministerial office.

"In the government, he'll be like a polar bear in the Sahara -- completely lost," said Alexis Corbiere, spokesman for the far-left Unbowed France party, on France Info radio.

Hamas winds up trial of military leader’s alleged killers

A military court in Gaza on Thursday concluded the trial of three men accused of assassinating a Hamas military leader and will deliver its verdict at the weekend, an official said.The trial of the alleged killers of Mazen Faqha opened on Monday and th…

A military court in Gaza on Thursday concluded the trial of three men accused of assassinating a Hamas military leader and will deliver its verdict at the weekend, an official said.

The trial of the alleged killers of Mazen Faqha opened on Monday and the court held its fourth and final session on Thursday.

The chief suspect, Ashraf Abu Leila, 38, and two accomplices are charged with shooting dead Faqha, a senior Hamas official, next to his home on March 24.

"The verdict will be delivered on Sunday," Hamas-run interior ministry spokesman Iyad al-Bozum told AFP. "It will be final and under Palestinian law the accused have no right of appeal."

"The sentence will be the death penalty and execution will be carried out as quickly as possible," said a source close to the military court system.

Hamas has accused the men of colluding with Israel to set up and commit the murder.

In the wake of the killing it launched a large-scale campaign against all "collaborators" in which it said it made 45 arrests.

Hamas hanged three men on April 6, convicted by the military court of past acts of "treason and collaborating" unconnected to Faqha's slaying.

The assassination in the middle of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip shocked the Islamist movement.

Hamas immediately blamed its arch-enemy Israel, with which it has fought three wars since 2008, and implemented strict border restrictions on those seeking to leave the Palestinian enclave.

Abu Leila was arrested about two weeks after the assassination and his detention was publicly announced by Hamas's leader Ismail Haniya last Thursday.

Faqha had been in charge of forming cells for Hamas's military wing in the occupied West Bank.

He had spent years in an Israeli jail before being released as part of a 2011 prisoner exchange deal.

Mexico reporters mourn brave murdered mentor

Crime reporter Javier Valdez’s murder has silenced one media voice in Mexico’s ganglands — but he inspired a generation of journalists who are remembering his teachings as they mourn him.”He was not a teacher, he was a companion, a friend in the class…

Crime reporter Javier Valdez's murder has silenced one media voice in Mexico's ganglands -- but he inspired a generation of journalists who are remembering his teachings as they mourn him.

"He was not a teacher, he was a companion, a friend in the classroom," said Karen Bravo, 24.

Once a pupil in Valdez's university journalism workshops, she is now a reporter for the local television channel Mega Cable.

"He taught you what was going to happen to you," she recalls. "'Don't be afraid, damn it,' he would say. Don't be afraid.'"

- Street wise -

She recalled the award-winning reporter's advice to young journalists: "You have to get out into the street. You can't just repeat what officials tell you. You have to investigate."

Valdez made investigative reporting an art form in his tightly-worded columns for Riodoce, the weekly publication Riodoce in the town of Culiacan.

Riodoce's director Ismael Bojorquez said Valdez's reports and columns combined journalistic rigor with the skill of a novelist -- and a knowledge of the risks.

"Of course he was afraid. I am afraid too," Bojorquez said. "What we do, we do in fear, but we will continue."

- Panama hat -

It is not known who gunned down Valdez, 50, in broad daylight Monday near the Riodoce offices, leaving him lying in the street beside his trademark Panama hat.

But he was the fifth journalist killed this year after reporting on Mexico's powerful drug gangs. He wrote about the notorious Sinaloa cartel in his home state.

As well as his Riodoce column "Mala Yerba" ("Weed"), Valdez filled the days writing books such as "Grenade in the Mouth" and "Miss Narco."

He had been a contributor to AFP for more than a decade.

Valdez was always eager to publish but "very careful and thorough in finishing a piece," said Riodoce news editor Andres Villareal.

- Soul of the newsroom -

Ema Leyva, 26, says Valdez changed the course of her life.

She was planning to study tourism, but instead signed up to one of his classes.

"Being with him gave you confidence," she said. "It made you feel at peace."

Valdez's killing bereaved the half-dozen reporters at Riodoce, who continue working without bodyguards.

"He was our soul, our joy," said one of them, Miriam Ramirez.

"He was always telling us jokes. He laughed about everything, including himself," she said.

"I don't know how we are going to manage without his smile in the newsroom."

- Cover story -

Each morning at seven o'clock, Valdez would sit at a table in the Bistromiro cafe in Culiacan for a coffee and a tuna sandwich.

He brought the waitresses Valentine's and Mother's Day presents and always chatted to them about their families, staff said.

After his death this week, mourners left flowers on the table, as well as a newspaper with Valdez's face on the cover.

Media rights groups say killings of journalists are going unpunished in Mexico due to corrupt officials' links with drug gangs.

Valdes himself "was very critical of the federal government and its war on drugs," Villareal said, "in which everyone gets caught in the crossfire."

Brexit talks won’t start before mid-June: Barnier

The European Union’s Brexit negotiations will not begin before mid-June following British elections that may make the political climate more favourable to a deal, an EU document showed Thursday.The document was released before European affairs minister…

The European Union's Brexit negotiations will not begin before mid-June following British elections that may make the political climate more favourable to a deal, an EU document showed Thursday.

The document was released before European affairs ministers were on Monday due to give Michel Barnier a mandate to negotiate Britain's exit from the bloc on behalf of the remaining 27 member states.

"Mr Barnier specified that the negotiations per se would start as soon as the negotiating mandate was adopted by the Council," according to the minutes of a European Commission meeting held in early May.

"But since a general election had been called for 8 June in the United Kingdom, they would not in fact be launched before mid-June," he was reported to have said during the meeting of the EU executive.

"He hoped that after the British legislative elections the UK's internal political climate would be more conducive to reaching agreement," according to the document.

Barnier conceded that settling Britain's outstanding financial commitments to the EU would be "one of the most difficult" in the negotiations.

"Should there be no agreement on this point, he believed that the risk of failing to reach an agreement on an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom would become real," according to the minutes.

None of the remaining 27 states would want to contribute more to the multi-annual budget or receive less in project funding under the framework.

"It was therefore necessary, during the first phase of negotiations, to agree with the United Kingdom on a clear method for calculating its obligations," it said.

Brussels estimates Britain may have to pay 60 billion euros to meet financial commitments from its four-decade membership.

Barnier, a former European commissioner and French government minister, earlier said there was no set sum but that it would be calculated using a "methodology".

Brussels has also set a top priority in determining the fate of EU nationals in Britain and British nationals in the bloc as well as in finding a solution for the UK's border with Ireland.

It wants an agreement on the three main points before a second phase of negotiations focused on the framework of future EU-British relations, particularly a post-Brexit trade deal and transitional arrangements.

Barnier outlined a provisional timetable: an agreement on the first phase between October and December 2017, then a launch of the second phase between December 2017 and spring 2018, then finalisation of a Brexit deal towards October 2018.

The aim would be to have the ratification process for the deal completed by March 2019.

Syrian sides agree to new UN process on constitution

In the first concrete results from talks this week on ending Syria’s conflict, the United Nations said Thursday the warring sides had agreed to set up expert committees to discuss “constitutional issues.”Representatives of Syria’s government and opposi…

In the first concrete results from talks this week on ending Syria's conflict, the United Nations said Thursday the warring sides had agreed to set up expert committees to discuss "constitutional issues."

Representatives of Syria's government and opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) are in Switzerland for the sixth round of UN-backed peace negotiations, but there has been no sign of progress.

On Thursday, UN mediator Staffan de Mistura's office declared a first tangible step: a series of separate meetings with the government and HNC delegations to discuss "legal and constitutional issues of relevance to the intra-Syrian talks."

The announcement appeared to be watered-down version of a previous UN proposal towards a new constitution.

A new constitution for Syria is one of four separate topics or "baskets" on the agenda at the talks, alongside governance, elections and combating "terrorism."

By Thursday, however, government delegation head Bashar al-Jaafari said his team had "not discussed any baskets yet."

Speaking to journalists shortly after the UN's announcement, Jaafari seemed to play down how much the expert meetings would push the constitutional process forward.

"The work of these experts will have nothing to do with the constitution... They will not take decisions," Jaafari said.

The Syrian diplomat described the UN's earlier plan as "too ambitious."

That team would have been responsible for finding "specific options for constitutional drafting," according to a copy of the document seen by AFP.

The talks, which opened on Tuesday, were at risk of being overshadowed by months of parallel negotiations in the Kazakh capital, Astana.

Observers said de Mistura would be scrambling to match the Astana track's momentum.

The HNC held its own meetings with de Mistura on Thursday, focused on "political transition and the constitutional framework," spokesman Yehya al-Aridi told AFP.

The opposition has continued to demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down as part of a political transition process, which the government sees as a non-starter.

Cyberattacks prompt massive security spending surge

The fight against cyberattacks has sparked exponential growth in global protection spending, with the cyber security market estimated at $120 billion this year, more than 30 times its size just over a decade ago.But even that massive figure looks set t…

The fight against cyberattacks has sparked exponential growth in global protection spending, with the cyber security market estimated at $120 billion this year, more than 30 times its size just over a decade ago.

But even that massive figure looks set to be dwarfed within a few years, experts said, after ransomware attacks crippled computers worldwide in the past week.

The "global cyber security market was worth $3.5 billion" in 2004, according to a study by Cyber security research firm CyberSecurity Ventures, but in 2017, "we expect it to be worth more than $120 billion".

In the five years ending in 2021, the firm said it expected worldwide spending on cybersecurity products and services "to eclipse $1 trillion".

"It has clearly been a rapidly increasing market for many years, particularly in the last two or three years," said Gerome Billois, a cyber security expert with consulting firm Wavestone.

Much of the growth will be spurred by massive cyber attacks like the so-called "Wannacry" ransomware that struck targets in dozens of countries, ranging from British hospitals to Russian banks.

In what experts called an unprecedented mass cyberattack using ransomware, more than 200,000 computers around the world were hacked beginning Friday using a security flaw in Microsoft's Windows XP operating system, an older version that was no longer given mainstream tech support by the US giant.

The virus spread quickly because the culprits used a digital code believed to have been developed by the US National Security Agency -- and subsequently leaked as part of a document dump, according to the Moscow-based computer security firm Kaspersky Lab.

The attack blocks computers and puts up images on victims' screens demanding payment of $300 (275 euros) in the virtual currency Bitcoin, saying: "Ooops, your files have been encrypted!"

The massive attack has been a boon for cyber security firms, driving up stock prices of some while others, like six-year-old American start-up Crowdstrike, were able to raise $100 million in one day.

- Ransomware: 'key trend' -

High-profiles attacks like WannaCry "drive the market," Ilex International president Laurent Gautier told AFP.

Ransomware attacks represent about 22 percent of all global incidents NTT Security, an information security and risk management firm, handles for clients, said Kai Grunwitz, the firm's senior vice president for central Europe.

That number jumps to 56 percent for financial firms.

"So these types of attacks are certainly one of the key trends" driving up spending on computer security systems and tools, Grunwitz said, but "buying more software or hardware products will not fix the problem -- awareness, procedures and a strategy aligned with the specific risk profile are key."

"Nevertheless, the global security market has grown in terms of revenue, and we see a very strong potential for additional growth in products but even more in consulting and managed security services over the next few years."

A still nascent industry just 12 to 13 years ago, the market gradually expanded because of the "digitisation of companies and countries" and the increasing online attacks which publicised the rising digital threat, Billois said.

"The growing wave of ransomware in 2014 created an enormous source of business for security research firms" because "companies were made aware of their vulnerabilities," said security expert Jerome Saiz.

Companies were slow to realise they needed to protect themselves since "the return on investment is impossible to determine," Saiz said, "and we cannot know which attacks we survived and how much they cost".

For large companies, putting in place an IT security strategy can cost tens of millions of dollars, he added.

Some like French telecoms firm Orange choose to bring the security in-house. The telecoms giant bought cyber security firm Lexsi last year.

To better respond to the threat from the other side, smaller security firms have banded together to create alliances, like the group of French companies who formed Hexatrust in 2014.

Either way, software security companies like US anti-virus firm Symantec are reaping the benefits. The company "doubled" its share price in one year, said chief security strategist Laurent Heslault.

But the threat from ransomware is hardly the only danger on the horizon.

The hacking of interconnected appliances and other internet-connected things, the theft of personal and financial data, and hackers engaging in online political campaigns will all drive the market in the coming years.

The biggest troubles however will not come from an attack but a "skills shortage": "a million cyber security jobs worldwide actually remain unfilled," Heslault said.

‘Direct’ Cockerill happy with Toulon ‘mercenaries’

By anyone’s reckoning, Richard Cockerill has enjoyed a whirlwind six months: sacked by Leicester, hired by a Toulon side he once dubbed “mercenaries” and named as Edinburgh coach for next season.The 46-year-old forer England hooker was brought into Tou…

By anyone's reckoning, Richard Cockerill has enjoyed a whirlwind six months: sacked by Leicester, hired by a Toulon side he once dubbed "mercenaries" and named as Edinburgh coach for next season.

The 46-year-old forer England hooker was brought into Toulon by Mike Ford, just four days after being forced out of Leicester.

When Ford himself was ousted by Toulon's president Mourad Boudjellal in April, Cockerill took the reins of the Top 14 club, ensuring a top-six finish to set up a play-off quarter-final against Castres on Friday.

"It's been a little bit difficult, a good test of character. I've been here for four months and have one month to go," the straight-talking Cockerill, who spent two seasons as a player with Clermont in 2002-4, told AFP in an interview.

"So far, it's been three wins from three. Pau at the weekend and hopefully it'll be four from four and a home semi-final."

Cockerill played down his "fireman's" role, saying Ford had not had such an "easy run-in" and explaining that players often used feelings of guilt to react positively after a coach's sacking.

But there can be no denying that the ex-hooker commands respect with what he calls his "direct and simple" coaching style. "I like to have authority in the team," he said.

- No shrinking violets -

That the Toulon squad is an expensively assembled one of world rugby superstars means it's no place for a shrinking violet.

"We have very good players, it makes it easy for the coach," Cockerill told AFP.

"If you talk commonsense and use their knowledge as well... then it's pretty straightforward."

Cockerill added: "There's a lot of experience. It's different when you coach a team like Leicester and you know the players very well.

"When you come to Toulon and in the first meeting there were (Bryan) Habana, (Ma'a) Nonu, (Matt) Giteau, (Mamuka) Gorgodze, (Romain) Taofifenua, (Leigh) Halfpenny -- guys you've never coached before, you have to make sure you know what you're doing!"

Cockerill said his approach was simply to engender a winning team.

"The first objective is to win and then you try to win with style. You have to do the simple things well," he said, putting previous bouts of "French-bashing" down to simple gamesmanship.

"As an Englishman, when I first arrived here, everybody said 'weren't you the coach who said we were all mercenaries?' Yes, that was me! Maybe that's a lesson for me as a coach.

"Leicester and Toulon are very different... but once you get on the pitch, all players are pretty much the same: they want to work hard, they want good coaching, they want to be organised and they want to win."

Sharapova granted Birmingham wildcard

Maria Sharapova has been granted a wildcard for next month’s WTA grasscourt event in Birmingham, a key Wimbledon warm-up, organisers said Thursday.It comes two days after the Russian former world number one was refused a wildcard for the French Open fo…

Maria Sharapova has been granted a wildcard for next month's WTA grasscourt event in Birmingham, a key Wimbledon warm-up, organisers said Thursday.

It comes two days after the Russian former world number one was refused a wildcard for the French Open following her 15-month ban for doping.

Next month will see 2004 Wimbledon champion Sharapova, 30, play the Birmingham event for the first time in seven years.

She is guaranteed a spot in qualifying for Wimbledon but still hopes to get into the main draw for the Grand Slam with a wildcard.

Wimbledon chiefs will wait until June 20, just days ahead of the qualifying event, before deciding whether to give her a wildcard.

Lawn Tennis Association chief executive Michael Downey accepted "not everyone will agree" with the decision to give Sharapova a wildcard for Birmingham.

"We have received a two-year commitment from one of the most famous athletes in the world, Maria Sharapova, to play the Aegon Classic Birmingham," he said, after the Russian said she would play there in 2017 and 2018.

"In return we are providing Maria with a main draw wildcard for this year.

"This wasn?t a decision we took lightly and we recognise not everyone will agree with it, however Maria has served her ban in full and is now back playing high-quality tennis."

He added: "There?s always a lot of debate about who we give wildcards to. Now that Maria has earned direct entry into Wimbledon qualifying, we want to give British tennis fans the chance to see her compete on grass here in Britain beforehand."

The Birmingham event at the Edgbaston Priory club runs June 17-25, with Wimbledon commencing on July 3.

Sharapova returned from her doping ban on April 26.

Shell-shocked: Rare snail loses out in love triangle

A lovelorn snail who failed to find a mate because of his unusually-shaped shell hit the headlines in Britain on Thursday after two potential partners got together and left him to share in parenting duties.The rare snail — named Jeremy — has a shell …

A lovelorn snail who failed to find a mate because of his unusually-shaped shell hit the headlines in Britain on Thursday after two potential partners got together and left him to share in parenting duties.

The rare snail -- named Jeremy -- has a shell whose spirals turn in an anti-clockwise direction, meaning that he cannot mate with the majority of the world's snail population who spiral the opposite way.

Angus Davison, a professor at the University of Nottingham in central England, took Jeremy into care and launched an international search last year to find a possible mate for the lonely hermaphrodite.

"This snail is very rare. It's literally one in a million," said Davison, who studies the genetics of these types of garden snails.

The BBC reported in November that Jeremy had finally found love after an enthusiast who heard the appeal introduced him to Lefty from Suffolk in eastern England, who has a similarly-shaped shell.

Enthusiasts also came forward with Tomeu, another left-coiling snail from the Spanish island of Majorca. While there was what one scientist described as "flirting" between the two, no lasting bond ensued.

Tomeu and Lefty decided to get together instead.

"It's like that thing where maybe you introduce your best friend to a girl you're interested in" and they couple up, Davison told BBC radio.

The duo has now produced their first offspring, of 170 baby snails who coil the opposite way to their parents and the same way as the majority of snails.

Jeremy remains with his new neighbours in the Nottingham laboratory and is helping to look after the children but Davison said he was not giving up on the search for more potential partners.

"We would love to have them," he told AFP.

Air-conditioned Qatar World Cup stadium ready

With a little under 2,022 days until the Qatar World Cup kicks-off, the tiny yet hugely ambitious Gulf state will officially unveil the tournament’s first completed venue on Friday.The Khalifa International Stadium — complete with the much-talked-abou…

With a little under 2,022 days until the Qatar World Cup kicks-off, the tiny yet hugely ambitious Gulf state will officially unveil the tournament's first completed venue on Friday.

The Khalifa International Stadium -- complete with the much-talked-about cooling technology that was central to Qatar's controversial bid for the World Cup -- will host the country's biggest domestic cup competition, The Emir Cup final.

On the pitch it will be a battle between arguably the country's biggest teams, Al Sadd, skippered by Barcelona great Xavi Hernandez, and Al Rayyan.

But off the pitch, the stadium will provide a solid example of Qatar's progress for the World Cup, a mere 2012 days before the tournament kicks-off.

"I think it is a source of immense joy and pride," Nasser Al-Khater, a senior figure at World Cup organising body, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, told AFP.

"It's a stadium dear to our hearts, Khalifa Stadium, so we're happy that it's the first stadium to be completed.

"It's real, it shows you the progress you've been working hard on is actually coming to reality.

"And you can see it and you can feel it, it's tangible. It's a thrill."

The stadium was first built in 1976 and has just gone through its second refurbishment.

It will house 40,000 fans during the World Cup, hosting matches played up to the quarter-final stage.

Significantly, it will also host the 2019 World Athletics Championships.

As part of its revamp, Khalifa includes technology that will provide air-conditioning for fans.

Approximately 500 jet nozzles will blast out cold air, keeping temperatures at around 23 degrees Celsius (73 degrees Fahrenheit), for fans.

Chilled water is piped to the stadium from a cooling centre about one kilometre from the stadium, then once it arrives,cold air is pushed into the stadium.

The man responsible for the system, Qatar University's Dr Saud Ghani, said he believed Khalifa represented a world-first.

"There isn't on earth, one open air, air-conditioned stadium," he said.

Dr Ghani said the system at Khalifa would use up to 40 per cent less energy than other cooling methods

Ironically, it may not be used to regulate temperatures for fans during the 2022 World Cup after FIFA decided to move the tournament to Qatar's winter in November and December.

- Triumphs and tragedy -

Khalifa is the scene of one of Qatar's major sporting triumphs, the 1992 Gulf Cup victory.

It was also the stadium where Saudi Arabia secured their first ever World Cup qualification, with a thrilling 4-3 win over Iran.

Khater would not give a figure for the redevelopment of Khalifa, though one estimate puts the cost at $90 million (82 million euros).

Qatar is spending up to $10 billion on stadiums and training grounds, officials have said previously.

However, Khater denied reports earlier this year that the country has slashed its budget by up to 40 per cent, claiming the original figure needed for stadiums was an estimate only.

In February, Qatar's finance minister Ali Shareef Al-Emadi said the country was spending almost $500m every week on major infrastructure projects for football?s biggest tournament.

Khalifa's rebuild has not been without tragedy though.

In January it was announced that Briton Zac Cox died in a fall at the stadium.

The revamp has occurred as Qatar has been strongly criticised for the ill-treatment of its migrant workforce -- which numbers more than two million, claims the country has largely rejected.

Danish girl jailed over school bomb plot

A teenage girl with Islamic State group sympathies who planned to attack Danish schools with home-made bombs was on Thursday jailed for six years.The would-be jihadist, aged just 15 at the time, had tried to contact IS group leaders on Twitter but was …

A teenage girl with Islamic State group sympathies who planned to attack Danish schools with home-made bombs was on Thursday jailed for six years.

The would-be jihadist, aged just 15 at the time, had tried to contact IS group leaders on Twitter but was arrested after her parents became suspicious that she was experimenting with chemicals in the basement of the family home.

Investigators found bottles of hydrogen peroxide, citric acid and acetone and a plastic tray with unknown liquid residues in a metal bowl.

A court in the town of Holbaek, 65 kilometres (40 miles) west of Copenhagen on Tuesday found the girl, who is now 17, guilty of "attempting a terrorist act".

Experts said the chemicals she had gathered were insufficient to build a powerful bomb but the court underlined her criminal intent and motivation in a ruling.

The unnamed girl, a Muslim convert, had also written notes about planning to carry out the attacks on both her former primary school and a Jewish school in Copenhagen.

EU’s Mogherini sees military HQ ‘within days’

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said Thursday remaining differences over a planned military headquarters had been resolved and it could be formally launched in a few days.Diplomatic sources said previously that British objections to any sug…

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said Thursday remaining differences over a planned military headquarters had been resolved and it could be formally launched in a few days.

Diplomatic sources said previously that British objections to any suggestion the headquarters could have an operational military role had held up agreement but Mogherini stressed the way was now clear.

"I understand it is finalised. I understand we have a couple of days to have the official text in place," Mogherini told reporters after an EU defence ministers meeting in Brussels.

She stressed there was no holdup nor need to revisit the political decision all 28 member states took in March to set up the Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) facility.

There had been some expectation that after EU foreign ministers approved a text Monday, the formal launch could be announced Thursday.

A statement of conclusions agreed by the defence ministers said member states looked "forward to the effective establishment, as a short term objective, of the Military Planning and Conduct Capability within the EU Military Staff in Brussels."

"The MPCC will assume responsibilities at the strategic level for the operational planning and conduct of the EU's non-executive military missions," it said.

The MPCC will initially coordinate three such missions training government forces in Mali, the Central African Republic and Somalia.

Mogherini has led efforts for the EU to take on a much larger defence and security role given the uncertainties raised over Washington's commitment to European security by President Donald Trump.

Europe's worst migrant crisis since World War II and a series of deadly attacks linked to the Islamic State group have also encouraged calls for the EU to do more.

Brexit-bound Britain, nuclear armed and with a UN Security Council veto, has traditionally opposed any such moves toward a possible EU European army and prioritises NATO over the bloc on defence.

Asked about Britain's future in EU security, Mogherini said all sides expected London to continue to play its full role until the Brexit divorce is completed.

Even then, Britain could be part of the EU security structure and military operations.

"Obviously, once you are not a member state you cannot take part in the decisions but you can take part" in the missions, Mogherini said.

Britain was an "important military player but no way as important compared to the other 27 member states (combined)," she added.

Trump administration launches NAFTA renegotiation process

US President Donald Trump’s administration formally notified Congress on Wednesday of its intent to renegotiate the three-nation North American Free Trade Agreement.The talks with Canada and Mexico will begin “no earlier than August 16, 2017,” US Trade…

US President Donald Trump's administration formally notified Congress on Wednesday of its intent to renegotiate the three-nation North American Free Trade Agreement.

The talks with Canada and Mexico will begin "no earlier than August 16, 2017," US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said in a statement.

During the 90-day countdown, USTR will consult with "Congress and American stakeholders to create an agreement that advances the interests of America?s workers, farmers, ranchers, and businesses," he said.

Lighthizer said reforming the trade agreement, which Trump vowed to scrap altogether during his presidential campaign, fulfills a key promise to voters.

Trump's charge that NAFTA and trade deals generally had cost American jobs gained him support among working class voters, who helped lift him to the White House.

Canadian and Mexican officials have urged Washington to renegotiate and modernize -- rather than scrap -- the trade pact, which has boosted industry and created tight manufacturing and business links throughout the region.

In the formal notification to Congress, Lighthizer said NAFTA had not kept up with changes in the economy and business over the last 25 years, including the boom in e-commerce.

"Many chapters are outdated and do not reflect modern standards," Lighthizer said.

The administration will aim to improve "effective implementation and aggressive enforcement" of NAFTA commitments, as well as introduce additional provisions to address intellectual property rights, regulation, services, labor, environment and other issues.

"The United States seeks to support higher-paying jobs in the United States and to grow the US economy by improving US opportunities under NAFTA," he said.

Toby Keith to hold rare Saudi gig during Trump visit

American country music star Toby Keith will perform in Riyadh on Saturday in a rare concert in the ultra-conservative kingdom, which coincides with US President Donald Trump’s visit.Known for patriotic songs and holding numerous concerts for US troops …

American country music star Toby Keith will perform in Riyadh on Saturday in a rare concert in the ultra-conservative kingdom, which coincides with US President Donald Trump's visit.

Known for patriotic songs and holding numerous concerts for US troops abroad, Keith will share the stage with Saudi singer Rabeh Sager, according to an advertisement circulated online.

"An Arabian lute and American guitar unite in a star-studded night," said the advertisement.

But the duo will perform for an audience made up only of men who should be above 21 and dressed in traditional Saudi thawb tunics. Access is free of charge.

The concert comes as part of attempts to open up the desert kingdom that applies a strict version of Sunni Islam, imposing tight restrictions on women, including barring them from driving and banning public cinemas.

The kingdom has created a government agency to support private firms organising entertainment events, under a wideranging "Vision 2030" plan for economic and social reform.

Keith performed at Trump's inauguration in January.

The US president has chosen Saudi Arabia for his first foreign visit since taking office. He is scheduled to hold a summit with Arab and Muslim leaders on Sunday.

Israel minister’s Jerusalem dress sparks online storm

Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev triggered a social media storm on Thursday after she attended the Cannes film festival in an evening dress featuring a Jerusalem Islamic shrine.Several tweets altered what one called the “provocative” garment which s…

Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev triggered a social media storm on Thursday after she attended the Cannes film festival in an evening dress featuring a Jerusalem Islamic shrine.

Several tweets altered what one called the "provocative" garment which shows a panorama of the walled Old City in Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem, including the Dome of the Rock, located in the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound.

The site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, is sacred to both Muslims and Jews and a regular scene of friction between them.

It is the holiest site in Judaism and the third-holiest in Islam, after Mecca and Medina.

One tweet redesigns the dress to show a nightime scene of the Old City with fireworks bursting overhead and no sign of the Dome of the Rock.

The Twitter account of "Exposing Israel's Agenda" shows her Cannes dress as emblazoned with a blue-and-white Israeli flag and spattered with blood.

It says that Regev's message is that "occupied is their capital."

Other social media users replaced the image of Jerusalem with Israel's separation wall dividing it from the West Bank.

Regev, a former military censor, serves in what is seen as Israel's most rightwing government ever and is an outspoken member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party.

She has spoken in favour of allowing Jewish prayer at the Al-Aqsa compound, currently banned for fears it could spark an Islamic backlash.

Israeli newspaper Maariv said her fashion choice was in homage to next week's Jerusalem Day, when Israel marks 50 years since its seizure of mainly Arab east Jerusalem according to the Jewish calendar.

In 1980, the Jewish state annexed east Jerusalem in an act never recognised by the international community.

Israel says the whole city is its united capital, while the Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

Some tweets came from fans of Regev's wardrobe choice.

"We say W O W. That is a statement dress! Miri Regev brought straight to the ," said one.

Others seemed more concerned about her fashion sense than her message.

"Regardless of your politics, I hope we can all agree: whatever Miri Regev paid for this dress, it was too much," said one.

Britain sees record visitor numbers on Brexit-hit pound

Britain welcomed a record number of foreign visitors last year as the Brexit-hit pound boosted their purchasing power, official data showed Thursday.

Some 37.6 million travellers flocked to the country in 2016, up four percent from the previous year, the Office for National Statistics said in a report.

Last year’s figures mark the sixth successive annual increase in visitor numbers.

Holidaymakers and other foreign visitors are also spending their money more freely in Britain, parting with £22.5 billion ($29.1 billion, 26.2 billion euros) in 2016, which was a two-percent increase from a year earlier.

The country’s shock decision to exit the European Union — in a referendum held on June 23, 2016 — sent the pound slumping dramatically against the euro and the dollar. However, it has since recovered some ground.

The weaker pound makes British goods and services cheaper and therefore more attractive for foreign visitors holding stronger currencies.

Tourists made up the largest proportion of foreign visitors, with 13.9 million travelling to Britain last year, followed by those seeing relatives (11.6 million) and business travellers (9.2 million).

The French were the most frequent visitors (4 million), followed by Americans (3.5 million) and then Germans (3.3 million), according to the statistics agency.

London was by far the top destination, attracting 19.1 million visitors, while the Scottish capital Edinburgh came in a distant second with 1.7 million.

The northern city of Manchester, famed globally for its football, came in third with 1.2 million visitors last year.

Britain welcomed a record number of foreign visitors last year as the Brexit-hit pound boosted their purchasing power, official data showed Thursday.

Some 37.6 million travellers flocked to the country in 2016, up four percent from the previous year, the Office for National Statistics said in a report.

Last year's figures mark the sixth successive annual increase in visitor numbers.

Holidaymakers and other foreign visitors are also spending their money more freely in Britain, parting with £22.5 billion ($29.1 billion, 26.2 billion euros) in 2016, which was a two-percent increase from a year earlier.

The country's shock decision to exit the European Union -- in a referendum held on June 23, 2016 -- sent the pound slumping dramatically against the euro and the dollar. However, it has since recovered some ground.

The weaker pound makes British goods and services cheaper and therefore more attractive for foreign visitors holding stronger currencies.

Tourists made up the largest proportion of foreign visitors, with 13.9 million travelling to Britain last year, followed by those seeing relatives (11.6 million) and business travellers (9.2 million).

The French were the most frequent visitors (4 million), followed by Americans (3.5 million) and then Germans (3.3 million), according to the statistics agency.

London was by far the top destination, attracting 19.1 million visitors, while the Scottish capital Edinburgh came in a distant second with 1.7 million.

The northern city of Manchester, famed globally for its football, came in third with 1.2 million visitors last year.

IS kills more than 50 people in Syria assault: monitor

The Islamic State group killed more than 50 people in an attack on two government-held villages in central Syria’s Hama province on Thursday, a monitor said.The jihadists executed some of those killed in the assault, which comes as IS loses territory e…

The Islamic State group killed more than 50 people in an attack on two government-held villages in central Syria's Hama province on Thursday, a monitor said.

The jihadists executed some of those killed in the assault, which comes as IS loses territory elsewhere in Syria and in neighbouring Iraq.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack on the villages of Aqareb and Al-Mabujeh killed at least 15 civilians and 27 pro-government fighters.

It said another 10 bodies were yet to be identified as government fighters or local residents.

IS also lost 15 fighters in the dawn attack on the two villages in the east of the province, the monitor said.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said at least three of the civilians were killed execution style with knives, a man and his two children.

It was unclear if others had also been killed the same way or died in fighting.

Syria's state news agency also reported 52 people had been killed in the IS assault, though it described the attack as against Aqareb only.

It said IS fighters had mutilated the bodies of villagers and looted their homes, and said that 15 of the dead were children.

- Fighting spreading -

The Observatory said IS had seized control of Aqareb and part of Al-Mabujeh in the attack, which began with heavy shelling on a nearby regime checkpoint.

"Despite the arrival of reinforcements, government forces have been unable to repel the attack so far," Abdel Rahman told AFP.

He said the fighting was continuing and had spread to the outskirts of nearby villages.

IS has attacked Al-Mabujeh before with devastating effect.

In March 2015, it executed at least 37 civilians in the village, whose population includes Sunni Muslims as well as those from the Ismaili sect and the Alawite community to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs.

During the same assault the group kidnapped at least 50 civilians, half of them women.

Control of central Hama province is divided between Syria's government, rebel forces and IS, which is present mostly in the east of the area.

The attack comes as IS faces pressure in the north of the country, where an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters is preparing an assault on its bastion Raqa city.

The jihadist group has also lost most of the Iraqi second city of Mosul, which it captured in 2014.

The battle for Raqa has stirred tensions with neighbouring Turkey, which is fiercely opposed to the Kurdish fighters now leading the operation to capture the city.

On Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called for the removal of US diplomat Brett McGurk, who coordinates the US-led coalition against IS, saying he was supporting the Kurdish fighters.

"It would be useful if this person was replaced," Cavusoglu said.

- UN-sponsored talks continue -

More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began with anti-government demonstrations in 2011.

The conflict has proved stubbornly resistant to international efforts to find a political solution, but a new round of UN-sponsored talks are underway this week in Geneva.

The UN-sponsored process has been somewhat overshadowed by a parallel track convened in Kazakh capital Astana by regime supporters Russia and Iran along with rebel backer Turkey.

The three nations agreed earlier this month to establish four "de-escalation zones" in Syria, and are now hammering out the details of the plan.

In the meanwhile, Syrian government and opposition delegations in Geneva agreed Thursday to informal discussions on constitutional issues.

A new constitution is one of four separate "baskets" on the agenda at the talks, along with governance, elections and combating "terrorism".

Government lead negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari said none of the topics had yet been discussed, three days into the meeting.

And he played down the plan to discuss constitutional issues.

"The work of these experts will have nothing to do with the constitution... They will not take decisions," he said.

US conducts drill aimed at destroying N. Korean weapons of mass destruction – media

Preview American soldiers stationed in South Korea have completed the ‘Warrior Strike 7’ exercise, which includes a ship-to-shore air assault from a South Korean warship, according to the US Army.
Read Full Article at RT.com

Preview American soldiers stationed in South Korea have completed the ‘Warrior Strike 7’ exercise, which includes a ship-to-shore air assault from a South Korean warship, according to the US Army.
Read Full Article at RT.com

England FA to bring in retrospective diving bans

England’s governing Football Association has voted in favour of bringing in retrospective bans for players who dive or feign injury from next season.Thursday’s annual general meeting at Wembley saw the FA create a new offence of “successful deception o…

England's governing Football Association has voted in favour of bringing in retrospective bans for players who dive or feign injury from next season.

Thursday's annual general meeting at Wembley saw the FA create a new offence of "successful deception of a match official", which is based on a regulation already used in Scottish football.

Incidents will be reviewed by a panel made up of a former player, a former referee and a former manager.

The trio will all look at footage independently and if they all agree a player has deceived a match official then a two-game ban will be imposed.

The new rule will be administered in similar fashion to the one that already covers red card offences which were missed by the match at the time of the incident but recorded by television cameras.

An FA statement said: "Although attempts to deceive the referee by feigning injury or pretending to have been fouled is a cautionable offence for unsporting behaviour, the fact that the act of simulation has succeeded in deceiving a match official and, therefore, led to a penalty and/or dismissal, justifies a more severe penalty which would act as a deterrent."

If a player admits to a charge of successfully deceiving an official, or is found to have done so, any yellow or red card given to an opposing player, as a result of the deceit, can be rescinded.

The new rule will apply across English football.

There have been several high-profile incidents involving alleged 'simulation' this season, including a dive by Robert Snodgrass to earn a penalty for Hull against Crystal Palace.

The Scottish Football Association introduced its 'rule 201' in 2011.

At the time there were concerns from FIFA that it could undermine the authority of match officials -- something the global governing body has long been worried about.

But recent moves to introduce goal-line technology suggest FIFA's stance is softening.

And with both England and Scotland having permanent seats on the International Football Association Board, which has global responsibility for the sport's rules, bans for divers could become part of the worldwide game.

Foul-mouthed Fognini lets rip at Rome Masters

Italian Fabio Fognini could be hit with sanctions after a foul-mouthed tirade at the chair umpire on his way to another early exit from the Rome Masters on Thursday.Fognini’s defeat of Britain’s out-of-form defending champion Andy Murray earlier this w…

Italian Fabio Fognini could be hit with sanctions after a foul-mouthed tirade at the chair umpire on his way to another early exit from the Rome Masters on Thursday.

Fognini's defeat of Britain's out-of-form defending champion Andy Murray earlier this week raised hopes he could finally make it past the third round for the first time in his career.

But in a 1hr 19min clash that drew whistles from his own fans on centre court, the fiery Italian, ranked 29 in the world, was brought crashing back to earth by the clinical game of 20-year-old German prodigy Alexander Zverev.

Fognini swore at chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani at the end of a match which saw the Italian smash his racquet on the ground on several occasions and kick a linesman's chair.

Lahyani, a Swede of Moroccan origin, soaked it all up. He is already popular with tennis watchers following his officiating of the combustible Wimbledon final in 2013 that saw Murray end Britain?s 77-year title drought.

Fognini also labelled him a "clown" and "loudmouth" on his way to crashing out before the business end of the tournament in Rome.

Zverev, the 16th seed who is the youngest player in the ATP top 50, will meet the winner of the clash between Tomas Berdych and Milos Raonic, to be played later Thursday.

With Murray out, Rafael Nadal is heavily tipped to secure an eighth Rome Masters crown.

The Spanish fourth seed, fresh from victory in a Madrid Masters triumph that saw him cruise past Serbian nemesis Novak Djokovic in the semis, will meet American Jack Sock in his third-round match later.

Nadal is enjoying his best tennis on clay for the past two seasons but played just three games of his second-round match with Nicolas Almagro on Wednesday before his fellow Spaniard retired through injury.

Djokovic is in action later against unseeded Spaniard Roberto Bautista.

In the women's tournament Venus Williams overcame determined Briton Johanna Konta to win their third-round clash 6-1, 3-6, 6-1.

In the absence of sister and defending champion Serena, she will now meet Germany's Julia Goerges or Spain's Garbine Muguruza on Friday for a place in the semis and a possible match-up with Czech second seed Karolina Pliskova.

Russia's Svetlana Kuznetsova, the seventh seed, won't be going so far after she exited following a 2-6, 7-5, 6-4 defeat to Australian qualifier Daria Gavrilova.

Gavrilova will meet the winner of the match between Dutch 15th seed Kiki Bertens and unseeded Russian Ekaterina Makarova.

Trump threatens to quit NATO: White House official

US President Donald Trump would consider leaving the North Atlantic Treaty Organization if member states do not follow through with pledges to increase their annual contributions to the Alliance, a senior White House official said.

US President Donald Trump would consider leaving the North Atlantic Treaty Organization if member states do not follow through with pledges to increase their annual contributions to the Alliance, a senior White House official said.

Israel declassifies Six-Day War archives

Israel on Thursday released thousands of previously classified official documents charting political decisions during the 1967 Six-Day War when it occupied the West Bank and east Jerusalem.Made public by the Israel State Archives ahead of the 50th anni…

Israel on Thursday released thousands of previously classified official documents charting political decisions during the 1967 Six-Day War when it occupied the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Made public by the Israel State Archives ahead of the 50th anniversary of the June 5-10 conflict, the 150,000 pages contain minutes of the wartime security cabinet and transcripts of other ministerial meetings, a government statement said.

At the end of the fighting with Egypt, Jordan and Syria the Jewish state was left in control of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, east Jerusalem, part of the Syrian Golan Heights and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula.

The Golan and east Jerusalem were subsequently annexed but the moves were never recognised by the international community.

Fifty years later the West Bank remains occupied and the Gaza Strip is under a tight Israeli blockade.

The publication gives access to unpublished information on the war, long the object of research and historical writing.

"For the first time in 50 years it will be possible to closely follow the dynamic within the government regarding the Six-Day War," chief archivist Yaakov Lazovik said in the statement.

"What were the ministers' initial positions regarding the future of the territories?"

- 'Powder keg' -

On June 15, 1967, five days after the end of the war, ministers of the security cabinet discussed various options for the newly occupied territories, with then foreign minister Abba Eban describing continued Israeli rule as a potential "powder keg".

"We are sitting here with two populations, one of them endowed with all the civil rights and the other denied all rights," he was quoted as saying in extracts published by Israeli daily Haaretz.

"The world will side with a liberation movement of that one and a half million" under occupation, he said.

The possibility of expelling them was mentioned, with Levy Eshkol, the Israeli prime minister at the time, saying that "if it were up to us, we would send all the Arabs to Brazil."

His justice minister, Yaakov Shimshon Shapira, objected.

"They are inhabitants of this land, and today you are ruling over it. There is no reason to take Arabs who were born here out of here and transfer them to Iraq," he said.

Eshkol was unconvinced.

"We didn't sneak in here. We said that the Land of Israel is ours by right," he wrote.

The documents reflect the government's thinking during the war and euphoria after the destruction of the Egyptian air force and the Israeli victories on the Jordanian and Syrian fronts.

Candy Crush maker banned from gathering staff ethnic data

Sweden’s data protection agency Thursday banned King, the gaming company that owns Candy Crush, from collecting statistics on the ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientation of employees, even when used for promoting diversity.The company defended its pr…

Sweden's data protection agency Thursday banned King, the gaming company that owns Candy Crush, from collecting statistics on the ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientation of employees, even when used for promoting diversity.

The company defended its practice, saying it did not intend to discriminate against anyone and that employees were free to decide whether or not to provide the information to their employer, the agency said.

"The information is collected on an individual level in order to see if, over time, sexual orientation or belonging to a specific ethnic group could have an impact on career opportunities," the agency said, after an investigation.

But Swedish law, which conforms to European Union regulations, bans the collection of this type of information without clearance from authorities, the agency said. In King's case, it would not be justified, it added.

The Swedish regulators also took issue with the company's claim that the information was collected on a voluntary basis, saying "employees are in a relationship of dependency with their employer".

Allardyce backs Mourinho over ‘lack of help’

Sam Allardyce backed Jose Mourinho’s complaint about the Premier League failing to move Manchester United’s match against Crystal Palace to help their preparations for the Europa League final.United finish their league campaign at home to Palace on Sun…

Sam Allardyce backed Jose Mourinho's complaint about the Premier League failing to move Manchester United's match against Crystal Palace to help their preparations for the Europa League final.

United finish their league campaign at home to Palace on Sunday, three days before they face Ajax in the Europa League final in Stockholm.

Regardless of the result at the weekend, United will finish sixth while Palace cannot be relegated.

Following United's goalless draw at Southampton on Wednesday, Mourinho said the Palace match should have been brought forward at least a day to give his side the best chance against Ajax.

"They (the Premier League) could easily have changed it last week and said, 'We will give you the best chance to try to win the Europa League,'" Allardyce said Thursday.

"It's a great shame that we are not like other countries, who will bend over in fixture terms to help their teams win European competitions."

The former England manager added: "We've all been moaning about the fact we're not getting anywhere near the Champions League or we're not getting anyone winning the Europa League.

"When you look at Jose's fixture list, this will be his 63rd game (of the season) on Sunday."

Mourinho said after Southampton that he saw no point in making a last-minute plea to league chiefs to move the game and plans to blood several youngsters against Palace.

Allardyce, asked if he too would field a weakened team were he in Mourinho's position, replied: "No doubt about that. The XI that play at Stockholm would probably not feature at all in this last game."

Germany turns to US for support over Incirlik airbase row with Turkey

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has turned to Washington for help in resolving its row with Ankara. Earlier this week, German lawmakers were denied permission to visit 260 troops serving at Turkey’s Incirlik airbase in the campaign…

Preview German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has turned to Washington for help in resolving its row with Ankara. Earlier this week, German lawmakers were denied permission to visit 260 troops serving at Turkey's Incirlik airbase in the campaign against Islamic State.
Read Full Article at RT.com

Moore, Haynes reunite to leave Cannes ‘Wonderstruck’

Tender childhood mystery “Wonderstruck” drew tears and sparked Oscar buzz at its Cannes premiere Thursday, with Julianne Moore playing both a silent movie siren and a deaf 1970s-era New Yorker.At an emotional press conference at the world’s top film fe…

Tender childhood mystery "Wonderstruck" drew tears and sparked Oscar buzz at its Cannes premiere Thursday, with Julianne Moore playing both a silent movie siren and a deaf 1970s-era New Yorker.

At an emotional press conference at the world's top film festival, director Todd Haynes, who bewitched Cannes critics with his lesbian love story "Carol" two years ago, shed a few tears of his own talking about working with Moore, Michelle Williams and their child co-stars.

"Wonderstruck" is an adaptation of Brian Selznick's young adult novel about two kids who run away to New York, one in 1927 and the other in 1977.

The title refers to a lushly illustrated book left to a young boy after his mother (Williams) dies.

The volume offers clues to the identity of the child's missing father, leading him to slip away from his home on the Great Plains and hop on a bus to the Big Apple.

But before he leaves he is struck deaf in a freak accident and must make his way through the urban jungle without being able to hear.

A separate strand of the movie is set half a century earlier in which a girl, played by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, goes searching for the actress mother (Moore) who abandoned her.

The stories eventually interwine, as Haynes recreates the bustling energy of pre-Depression New York and the urban blight and seething sensuality of the 1970s.

- High heels on a skateboard -

"This was all about imagination -- the vitality, the challenges, the complexity of kids," Haynes said.

"I think (kids) can handle a film that has this kind of complexity and dimension to it."

It marked the fourth collaboration between Haynes and Moore, whom the director called his "creative soulmate".

Moore said it was an "extraordinary opportunity" to play "two different parts in two different time periods," and learned sign language for the movie.

"For me as a hearing person this was my first experience with deaf culture," she said.

"The people who understand those cultures are the ones who've been in both rooms. I didn't get to be in both rooms but I was allowed to stand in the doorway and what that gave to me as an individual was tremendous."

Williams, who was nominated for an Oscar this year for her role as a grieving mother in "Manchester By the Sea", said being a single mother to her daughter Matilda with the late actor Heath Ledger taught her to respect child actors' talents and needs.

"For Mother's Day this year my daughter gave me a card and it said 'Mom, thanks for letting me be me' and it was a picture of somebody in high heels on a skateboard," she said.

"That's what I'm looking to do, I'm looking to respond to these children in the moment with what they are really offering me."

Haynes's "Carol" drew six Oscar nominations though it came up dry on awards night.

Industry magazine The Hollywood Reporter said "Wonderstruck" looked headed for Academy Awards nods too, while US movie website Indiewire called the movie "exquisite" and an "immaculately crafted fable about the ways in which people of all ages learn to break out of their bodies and connect with the world".

A moved Kate Muir of The Times of London tweeted she needed a "full mascara re-application" when the lights came up.

Other critics were less impressed, however, with Variety calling it "a lovingly crafted adventure of innocence that winds up being less than the sum of its parts".

And the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw declared himself "disappointmentstruck" by an "indulgent and supercilious" movie.

"Wonderstruck" is among 19 films vying for the coveted Palme d'Or top prize.

May seeks Brexit mandate with Conservative manifesto

British Prime Minister Theresa May urged voters to “strengthen my hand” in Brexit talks and vowed to cut immigration as she unveiled her Conservative Party’s manifesto Thursday ahead of a general election.May reiterated that Britain would be leaving th…

British Prime Minister Theresa May urged voters to "strengthen my hand" in Brexit talks and vowed to cut immigration as she unveiled her Conservative Party's manifesto Thursday ahead of a general election.

May reiterated that Britain would be leaving the European single market and the customs union and warned of battles ahead over the next two years as the country negotiates its departure from the European Union.

"Every vote for me and my team will strengthen my hand in the negotiations to come," May said at the launch in Halifax in northern England, calling it "a manifesto to see us through Brexit and beyond".

"If we fail, the consequences for Britain and for the economic security of ordinary working people will be dire. If we succeed, the opportunities ahead of us are great."

Pitching to voters outside her centre-right party's traditional base, May promised new rights for workers, to curb executive pay and cap energy prices.

She repeated a pledge to cut net migration to below 100,000 a year -- despite the government's failure to meet this target since 2010.

As dozens of anti-austerity campaigners and trade unionists rallied outside, she declared: "It is time to put the old tribal politics behind us and to come together in the national interest, united in our desire to make a success of Brexit."

- Challenging times -

May said "the next five years will be among the most challenging in our lifetime" -- and repeated that only she offered the "strong and stable leadership" necessary.

"We will leave the European Union and take control of our money, take control of our borders, take control of our laws," she said to applause from the audience of local activists and members of her cabinet.

May repeated her threat to walk away from the negotiations with the EU if she deemed the terms on offer too onerous, although she said she wanted to secure a deal, including on new trade ties.

The manifesto also repeated promises to limit immigration, and pledged to double the charge on companies employing migrant workers, using the money to invest in skills.

The majority of voters in Halifax backed Brexit, and the picturesque town, which was built on the cloth trade and remains relatively prosperous, is one of May's target seats in the June vote.

The prime minister is confident of being re-elected with an increased majority in the House of Commons, as her Conservatives are well ahead of the main opposition Labour party in the polls.

Two new opinion surveys published on Thursday showed Labour gaining some ground after leftwing leader Jeremy Corbyn published his manifesto this week, although the party is still trailing badly.

A telephone poll by Ipsos MORI poll put the Conservatives on 49 percent -- unchanged since April -- and Labour up eight points on 34 percent.

The latest YouGov online poll meanwhile put the Conservatives down four points on last week to 45 percent, and Labour up one point on 32 percent.

- Good solid Conservatism -

Labour made a raft of spending pledges in its manifesto, also promising income tax rises, in a shift away from the centre ground where May is looking to make major gains.

But commentators noted that some of her policies risk alienating Conservative voters, not least her refusal to rule out future rises in income tax.

The manifesto also raises the prospect of increased costs for the wealthy to pay for elderly social care, and ends winter fuel subsidies for rich pensioners.

Asked about her shift away from the approach of former premier Margaret Thatcher, May insisted: "This is good solid Conservatism."

She added: "Margaret Thatcher was a Conservative, I am a Conservative, this is a Conservative manifesto."

It also promises more funding for the state-run National Health Service (NHS), and spells the end of free school lunches for young children, diverting the money to education.

However, Corbyn said: "Despite Theresa May's warm words, she leads a party that has created a rigged economy that only works for the super-rich.

"The Conservatives have not changed. While the Labour Party has promised to protect low and middle earners from any tax rises, all Theresa May has promised is a cut to corporation tax for their big business friends."

Israeli university declines to play anthem at graduation to respect Arabs

Preview Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has lashed out at a university for choosing not to play the Israeli national anthem at a graduation ceremony, out of respect for Arab students. The leader called the move “shameful.”
Read Full Article at RT.com

Preview Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has lashed out at a university for choosing not to play the Israeli national anthem at a graduation ceremony, out of respect for Arab students. The leader called the move “shameful.”
Read Full Article at RT.com

General Motors to stop sales in India by year end

US auto giant General Motors will stop selling cars in India by year end, it said Thursday, putting the brakes on efforts to penetrate one of the world’s fastest growing markets.The firm announced it will phase out its Chevrolet brand by the end of 201…

US auto giant General Motors will stop selling cars in India by year end, it said Thursday, putting the brakes on efforts to penetrate one of the world's fastest growing markets.

The firm announced it will phase out its Chevrolet brand by the end of 2017 as part of a restructuring of its international business, but will continue to manufacture cars in India for export.

GM has been in India for several years but continues to be a niche player with a negligible market share, experts say.

It has two factories -- one in Talegaon which will continue as an export hub for Mexico and the Central and South American markets -- and another in Halol in Gujarat, which it said it plans to sell.

"In India, our exports have tripled over the past year, and this will remain our focus going forward," said GM International president Stefan Jacoby in a statement.

"We determined that the increased investment required for an extensive and flexible product portfolio would not deliver a leadership position or long-term profitability in the domestic market."

About four million cars were sold in India last year, a number that is expected to hit seven million by 2022, making it one of the fastest growing markets globally, said consulting firm PwC.

"India is a very tough market and you need a lot of local flavour in the overall strategy to win here," said Abdul Majeed, partner at consultancy PwC.

"But in the long run India is a key market and will be the largest market because of sheer numbers and all auto majors are trying to see how they want to establish their presence here," he added.

In additional changes, GM announced phasing out the Chevrolet brand from South Africa as well by end of 2017 and the sale of its manufacturing business there to Isuzu Motors.

"We determined that continued or increased investment in manufacturing in South Africa would not provide GM the expected returns of other global investment opportunities," Jacoby said.

France’s Tapie must repay 404 mn euros over Adidas sale: court

French tycoon Bernard Tapie must repay the 404 million euros ($449 million) he received to settle his long-running dispute with the state over the sale of sports equipment maker Adidas, an appeals court ruled Thursday.The massive 2008 award, which had …

French tycoon Bernard Tapie must repay the 404 million euros ($449 million) he received to settle his long-running dispute with the state over the sale of sports equipment maker Adidas, an appeals court ruled Thursday.

The massive 2008 award, which had shocked the French public, was later found to be fraudulent because Tapie had links to one of the arbitrators appointed to settle the case with Credit Lyonnais bank.

Tapie, 74, had appealed against a ruling ordering him to repay the money but France's highest appeals court upheld the decision.

The ruling is yet another blow for the former owner of Olympique Marseille football club, who has been charged with organised fraud over the payout, along with five others, including Stephane Richard, head of Orange telecoms company.

Tapie, who has been declared bankrupt, has said he is "broke". The state has seized 90 million euros in assets from the businessman, who served briefly as cities minister under Socialist President Francois Mitterrand.

The sprawling Tapie affair drew in IMF chief Christine Lagarde, a former French economy minister, at one point.

Lagarde was minister when Tapie received the payout. She referred the case to arbitration and later declined to contest the award, despite it being seen as hugely prejudicial to French taxpayers.

In December, a special Paris court that tries allegations of wrongdoing by ministers found Lagarde guilty of negligence but spared her any penalty.

Taking in refugees ‘much worse’ than EU sanctions – Polish interior minister

Preview Accepting refugees under the EU relocation scheme would “certainly be much worse” than Brussels’ penalties for not doing so, Poland’s interior minister said, following an EU commission warning to Poland and Hungary to implement quotas or face action.
Read Full Article at RT.com

Preview Accepting refugees under the EU relocation scheme would “certainly be much worse” than Brussels’ penalties for not doing so, Poland’s interior minister said, following an EU commission warning to Poland and Hungary to implement quotas or face action.
Read Full Article at RT.com

Notorious tycoon Tapie ordered to pay back over €400mn to French state

Infamous French business mogul Bernard Tapie on Thursday was ordered to return a €404 million state pay-out he was awarded back in 2008 over the disputed sale of the Adidas sportswear brand.

Infamous French business mogul Bernard Tapie on Thursday was ordered to return a €404 million state pay-out he was awarded back in 2008 over the disputed sale of the Adidas sportswear brand.

Israeli settler kills Palestinian, injures journalist during hunger strike solidarity protest

Preview A Palestinian was shot and killed by an Israeli settler and a journalist was injured after a rock-throwing incident during a rally in support of the Palestinian prisoners’ ongoing hunger strike in Israeli jails.
Read Full Article at RT.com

Preview A Palestinian was shot and killed by an Israeli settler and a journalist was injured after a rock-throwing incident during a rally in support of the Palestinian prisoners’ ongoing hunger strike in Israeli jails.
Read Full Article at RT.com

WHO eyes vaccine trial for Ebola-hit DR Congo

An unlicenced Ebola vaccine could soon be tested in a remote region of the Democratic Republic of Congo hit by an outbreak of the virus, the World Health Organization said Thursday.There is no licenced vaccine for the Ebola virus, but a promising candi…

An unlicenced Ebola vaccine could soon be tested in a remote region of the Democratic Republic of Congo hit by an outbreak of the virus, the World Health Organization said Thursday.

There is no licenced vaccine for the Ebola virus, but a promising candidate vaccine could be deployed within a matter of days if the DR Congo government gives its approval, the WHO said.

"The preparations are in place. We could potentially mount a campaign within around a week given all of the conditions... are met," Peter Salama, the agency's health emergencies chief, told reporters during a conference call.

Last week DR Congo declared an outbreak of the highly contagious disease, the eighth to date in a sprawling country five times the size of France.

So far, two cases of the virus have been confirmed in a laboratory while 18 others are suspected in the remote Bas-Uele province, an equatorial forest zone near the Central African Republic.

Three of those people have died, including the first known case: A 39-year-old man who died on the way to hospital in Likati on April 22, suffering from fever, vomiting and bleeding symptoms.

A person caring for him and the motorcycle driver transporting him also died, Salama said.

This is the first outbreak of Ebola, which spreads by contact with bodily fluids, since the west Africa epidemic that ended in January last year after killing 11,300 people.

- 'Enormous challenge' -

During that epidemic, a vaccine made by Merck was successfully tested in hard-hit Guinea.

As in that test, the WHO would like to do a ring-trial in DR Congo, meaning the vaccine would be given to all people who have had contact with known cases, as well as those who have had contact with them.

Health workers would also be given the vaccine.

In addition to waiting for an official invitation from Kinshasa, there are a number of logistical challenges to rolling out a trial.

For starters, the vaccine needs to be stored at -80 degrees Celsius (-112 degrees Fahrenheit), which could be more than tricky in Likati, which is 1,300 kilometres (930 miles) from the capital.

"As you can imagine, in an area without telecommunications, without road access, without large-scale electrification, this is going to be an enormous challenge," Salama said.

But he said huge efforts were underway to overcome the challenges.

The WHO, which faced crushing criticism for taking too long to sound a global alarm and to scale up its response to the epidemic that ended last year, emphasised the quick response since DR Congo declared the latest outbreak on May 12.

Airplanes and helicopters are being used to bring in health teams, who have already managed to track down more than 400 people who have had contact with the known cases, Salama said.

An Ebola treatment centre has also been set up at the Likati hospital and teams are working on deploying a mobile laboratory to help speed up diagnoses, he said.

The WHO meanwhile remains "optimistic" that Kinshasa can rapidly bring the outbreak under control, the agency's regional chief for Africa said during the conference call.

Salama agreed, saying the risk of the outbreak spreading internationally was low.

But, he added, "we have also learned never, ever to underestimate the Ebola virus diseases, and we will be remaining vigilant."

Some NATO allies favour joining anti-IS coalition: Stoltenberg

Some NATO allies believe joining the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq could send a strong signal of support and that would not involve a combat role, alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday.US President Donald T…

Some NATO allies believe joining the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq could send a strong signal of support and that would not involve a combat role, alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday.

US President Donald Trump meets NATO leaders in Brussels next week with the issue top of the agenda as part of his efforts to get the allies to focus on the terrorist threat and take on more of the defence burden.

Stoltenberg recalled that all 28 NATO member states had joined the anti-IS coalition on an individual basis while the alliance itself had provided AWACS surveillance aircraft to help its operations.

"It is now (being) discussed whether NATO should join," he said as he went into a meeting with EU defence ministers on boosting cooperation.

"Allies who are arguing in favour... (say) that by joining the coalition, NATO could send a clear signal of political support for the coalition and (provide) a better platform for coordinating," he said.

"This is not about NATO engaging in any combat operation... there has been no request and no one wants NATO to go into combat operations in Syria and Iraq," he added.

Stoltenberg did not say if he himself supported the move, apparently reflecting the sensitivity of the issue just days ahead of Trump's arrival.

NATO's top brass meeting Wednesday in Brussels said they believed there was "some merit" in joining the anti-IS coalition.

Some NATO allies, including France and Italy, are said to have reservations that such a move could lead NATO into a ground war and undermine its public standing in Arab nations.

There are also concerns at NATO expanding its currently limited training mission in Iraq for fear it could lead to it assuming eventual command, taking over from US forces as it did in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has turned into NATO's longest military campaign and although it halted its combat mission at end-2014, it remains heavily committed to training and advising Afghan government forces to hold off a resurgent Taliban.

The top US military commander, General Joe Dunford, who attended the Brussels military meeting on Wednesday, later suggested NATO could expand its role.

"You might see NATO making a contribution to logistics, acquisitions, institutional capacity building, leadership schools, academies -- those kind of things," Dunford, who is Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said.

"I don't think we are at the point now where we can envision or discuss NATO taking over" all missions of the anti-IS coalition in Iraq, he added.

Brazilian markets tumble in political scandal

Brazilian financial markets plummeted on opening Thursday in the wake of a bombshell report that President Michel Temer approved paying hush money to a corrupt politician.The real fell 5.46 percent against the dollar to 3.315, down from 3.134 at closin…

Brazilian financial markets plummeted on opening Thursday in the wake of a bombshell report that President Michel Temer approved paying hush money to a corrupt politician.

The real fell 5.46 percent against the dollar to 3.315, down from 3.134 at closing Wednesday, CMA consultants said. This reversed a steady strengthening that reflected gradual renewal of investor confidence in Latin America's biggest economy after two years of recession.

The Sao Paulo stock market's Bovespa index crashed more than 10 percent, triggering an automatic suspension of trading for 30 minutes.

Brazilian politics was in crisis after the report in O Globo newspaper that Temer discussed making payments to keep jailed former speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, from airing secrets about a massive corruption scheme.

Temer quickly denied the report. Early Thursday he cancelled previously announced plans to meet with party leaders.

ECB to take fresh look at easy money policy in June

European Central Bank governors will take a fresh look at their easy-money policy in June, with new economic forecasts on hand, an account of their April meeting showed Thursday.June will bring new projections from ECB staff, “putting the governing cou…

European Central Bank governors will take a fresh look at their easy-money policy in June, with new economic forecasts on hand, an account of their April meeting showed Thursday.

June will bring new projections from ECB staff, "putting the governing council in a better position to take stock and reassess the sustainability of the recovery and the outlook for inflation".

The ECB buys 60 billion euros of government and corporate bonds per month and has set interest rates at historic lows.

The programme aims to pump cash through the financial system into the real economy, powering growth and driving inflation towards the central bank's target of just below 2.0 percent.

As the 19-nation eurozone has returned to growth and inflation increased -- overshooting the target in February before falling back in March and April -- calls from politicians and economists in some countries have grown for an end to the easy-money policy.

Financial markets have closely watched the carefully-weighed language of ECB statements for any hint as to when it could begin "tapering" (winding down) its bond-buying, a step policymakers say must come before any rise in interest rates.

Attention has so far focused on the council's assessment of the "balance of risks" to growth in the euro area, which ECB President Mario Draghi has in recent months maintained remain "tilted to the downside" even as the outlook has brightened.

Other members of the governing council disagree, with the accounts noting that in April "some members considered that the risks to real GDP could now be characterised as broadly balanced".

If conditions continued to improve, "due consideration would need to be given to adjusting the present formulation of the Governing Council's forward guidance," its regular statements about the future course of monetary policy.

In his press conferences, Draghi has long maintained a formula promising interest rates "at present or lower levels" if needed to react to an economic shock.

The debate on the governing council is now whether to eliminate the reference to possible lower interest rates, which observers would see as a hint that an announcement on winding down bond-buying was around the corner.

While the ECB is "more upbeat" about growth, "critically this has not translated yet into a change of assessment for the inflation outlook," analyst Howard Archer of IHS Global Insight commented.

"It could be touch and go as to whether the ECB could move to a more balanced policy stance at its June meeting," he added.

When the bank does eventually change its policy, "communication should be adjusted in a very gradual and cautious manner," governing council members agreed.

"Premature and unwarranted" removal of its support to the economy could nip the recovery in the bud, along with the bank's chances of reaching its just-below-2.0-percent inflation target, they added.

IS kills more than 50 in central Syria attack: monitor

The Islamic State group killed more than 50 people in an attack on two government-held villages in central Syria’s Hama province on Thursday, a monitor said.The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack on the villages of Aqareb…

The Islamic State group killed more than 50 people in an attack on two government-held villages in central Syria's Hama province on Thursday, a monitor said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack on the villages of Aqareb and Al-Mabujeh killed at least 15 civilians and 27 pro-government fighters.

It said another 10 bodies were yet to be identified as government fighters or local residents.

IS also lost 15 fighters in the dawn attack on the two villages in the east of the province, the monitor said.

State news agency SANA reported the attack, giving a toll of 20 civilians killed in Aqareb, without mention of Al-Mabujeh.

It said most of the civilians had been beheaded and mutilated.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said at least three of the civilians killed in the attack, a man and his two children, had been executed.

It was unclear if others had also been executed or were killed in fighting.

The Observatory said IS had seized control of Aqareb and part of Al-Mabujeh.

"Despite the arrival of reinforcements, government forces have been unable to repel the attack so far," Abdel Rahman told AFP.

IS has attacked Al-Mabujeh before with devastating effect.

In March 2015, it executed at least 37 civilians in the village, whose population includes Sunni Muslims as well as those from the Ismaili sect and the Alawite community to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs.

During the same assault the group kidnapped at least 50 civilians, half of them women.

Control of central Hama province is divided between Syria's government, rebel forces and IS, which is present mostly in the east of the area.

Swedish ski cross champ Anna Holmlund out of coma

Sweden’s ski cross champion Anna Holmlund, in a coma since suffering a horror fall in training five months month, is conscious and can communicate, according to ski officials.The 2014 Olympic bronze medallist and triple World Cup champion, 29, underwen…

Sweden's ski cross champion Anna Holmlund, in a coma since suffering a horror fall in training five months month, is conscious and can communicate, according to ski officials.

The 2014 Olympic bronze medallist and triple World Cup champion, 29, underwent emergency brain surgery after sustaining serious head injuries at Innichen in northern Italy in mid-December.

She was transferred to Stockholm in late December and had been in a coma since.

"Anna is having intensive rehabilitation at the Danderyd hospital after her severe head trauma," the Swedish Ski Federation said in a statement on Thursday.

Her health was improving to the point that "it is now possible to communicate with her and even to obtain short answers".

She could return to her hometown of Sundsvall, eastern Sweden, this summer to continue her recovery.

Ski cross, which made its Olympic debut at Vancouver in 2010, consists of lining up four skiers at the same time on a course made of large bumps and narrow turns.

France coach Deschamps lashes out at ‘pitiful’ Karim Benzema

Didier Deschamps took a swipe at Karim Benzema on Thursday as the French coach again left the Real Madrid forward out of his 26-man squad for three key matches next month.

The 29-year-old Benzema has not figured for France since October 2015 over allegations of his involvement in a sex-tape scandal featuring midfielder Mathieu Valbuena.

Benzema and former international team-mate Valbuena exchanged barbs this week and Benzema also “liked” an Instagram photo ridiculing Deschamps and striker Olivier Giroud.

Investigators suspect Benzema of acting as an intermediary between the presumed blackmailers and alleged victim Valbuena. The case is likely to go to court later this year.

Asked about Benzema’s recent actions, Deschamps said: “I would say only one word: it’s pitiful.”

“The French team was built before the Euro (last summer), it was consolidated through the competition, where we managed to reach the final,” he added of Benzema’s continued omission.

“We have continued to be competitive in qualifying. I have a group with balance and harmony.”

France take on Paraguay in a home friendly on June 2, Sweden away in a crucial World Cup qualifier on June 9 and England in Paris in a June 13 friendly.

Lyon predator Alexandre Lacazette regains his place at the expense of Atletico Madrid’s Kevin Gameiro, while Tottenham Hotspur’s Moussa Sissoko replaces Monaco’s Tiemoue Bakayoko.

Bakayoko has been playing in a mask to protect his broken nose.

Monaco prodigy Kylian Mbappe again gets the chance to impress up front, while Chelsea defender Kurt Zouma gets a call-up.

French squad:

Goalkeepers: Alphonse Areola (Paris SG), Benoit Costil (Rennes), Hugo Lloris (Tottenham/ENG)

Defenders: Lucas Digne (Barcelona/ESP), Christophe Jallet (Lyon), Presnel Kimpembe (Paris SG), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal/ENG), Benjamin Mendy (Monaco), Djibril Sidibe (Monaco), Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona/ESP), Raphael Varane (Real Madrid/ESP), Kurt Zouma (Chelsea/ENG)

Midfielders: N’Golo Kanté (Chelsea/ENG), Blaise Matuidi (Paris SG), Paul Pogba (Manchester United/ENG), Adrien Rabiot (Paris SG), Moussa Sissoko (Tottenham/ENG), Corentin Tolisso (Lyon)

Attackers: Ousmane Dembele (Dortmund/GER), Olivier Giroud (Arsenal/ENG), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid/ESP), Alexandre Lacazette (Lyon), Thomas Lemar (Monaco), Kylian Mbappe (Monaco), Dimitri Payet (Marseille), Florian Thauvin (Marseille)

Didier Deschamps took a swipe at Karim Benzema on Thursday as the French coach again left the Real Madrid forward out of his 26-man squad for three key matches next month.

The 29-year-old Benzema has not figured for France since October 2015 over allegations of his involvement in a sex-tape scandal featuring midfielder Mathieu Valbuena.

Benzema and former international team-mate Valbuena exchanged barbs this week and Benzema also "liked" an Instagram photo ridiculing Deschamps and striker Olivier Giroud.

Investigators suspect Benzema of acting as an intermediary between the presumed blackmailers and alleged victim Valbuena. The case is likely to go to court later this year.

Asked about Benzema's recent actions, Deschamps said: "I would say only one word: it's pitiful."

"The French team was built before the Euro (last summer), it was consolidated through the competition, where we managed to reach the final," he added of Benzema's continued omission.

"We have continued to be competitive in qualifying. I have a group with balance and harmony."

France take on Paraguay in a home friendly on June 2, Sweden away in a crucial World Cup qualifier on June 9 and England in Paris in a June 13 friendly.

Lyon predator Alexandre Lacazette regains his place at the expense of Atletico Madrid's Kevin Gameiro, while Tottenham Hotspur's Moussa Sissoko replaces Monaco's Tiemoue Bakayoko.

Bakayoko has been playing in a mask to protect his broken nose.

Monaco prodigy Kylian Mbappe again gets the chance to impress up front, while Chelsea defender Kurt Zouma gets a call-up.

French squad:

Goalkeepers: Alphonse Areola (Paris SG), Benoit Costil (Rennes), Hugo Lloris (Tottenham/ENG)

Defenders: Lucas Digne (Barcelona/ESP), Christophe Jallet (Lyon), Presnel Kimpembe (Paris SG), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal/ENG), Benjamin Mendy (Monaco), Djibril Sidibe (Monaco), Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona/ESP), Raphael Varane (Real Madrid/ESP), Kurt Zouma (Chelsea/ENG)

Midfielders: N'Golo Kanté (Chelsea/ENG), Blaise Matuidi (Paris SG), Paul Pogba (Manchester United/ENG), Adrien Rabiot (Paris SG), Moussa Sissoko (Tottenham/ENG), Corentin Tolisso (Lyon)

Attackers: Ousmane Dembele (Dortmund/GER), Olivier Giroud (Arsenal/ENG), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid/ESP), Alexandre Lacazette (Lyon), Thomas Lemar (Monaco), Kylian Mbappe (Monaco), Dimitri Payet (Marseille), Florian Thauvin (Marseille)

Trump’s son back in Dubai for business, speech

Three months after the US president’s son Donald Trump Jr. opened a golf course in Dubai, he was back in the Gulf emirate this week to talk business and to address university graduates.The Trump International Golf Club inaugurated in February was the f…

Three months after the US president's son Donald Trump Jr. opened a golf course in Dubai, he was back in the Gulf emirate this week to talk business and to address university graduates.

The Trump International Golf Club inaugurated in February was the first foreign launch of a venue bearing the billionaire president's name since he took office in January.

"It was great having my dear friend and business partner Donald Trump Jr. over for lunch," Hussain Sajwani, the head of Damac Properties which built the golf course, wrote on Instagram.

"Discussing new ideas and innovation always make our meetings even more interesting," he added in a post carrying a picture of the two.

President Trump himself is scheduled to be in Saudi Arabia, neighbouring the United Arab Emirates, from Saturday on his first foreign trip since taking office in January.

Apart from meeting his business partner, Trump's son on Wednesday delivered the keynote speech at the graduation ceremony of the American University in Dubai, where he told graduates of his father's fight for the presidency.

"When I look back at what my father did in the past election and the risk he took, to me I'm far more impressed by the fact that he tried than by the fact that he actually won," he said in a speech posted on the university's Facebook page.

Alibaba quarterly profits almost double to $1.55 bn

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba said Thursday its net profit almost doubled in the latest quarter on the back of soaring growth in online shopping.Alibaba, which has made billionaire founder Jack Ma one of China’s richest men, is a dominant player in …

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba said Thursday its net profit almost doubled in the latest quarter on the back of soaring growth in online shopping.

Alibaba, which has made billionaire founder Jack Ma one of China's richest men, is a dominant player in online commerce and its robust earnings highlight the strength of the sector even as the country's broader economy sputters.

Net profit attributable to ordinary shareholders soared 98 percent from a year ago to 10.65 billion yuan ($1.55 billion) in the quarter ended March 31, the company said in a statement.

That was on the back of a faster-than-expected 60 percent surge in revenue to 38.58 billion yuan -- a key figure for gauging China's increasingly important consumer sector.

Flushed with cash, Alibaba said it had authorised a $6 billion buyback to take place over two years.

"Our robust results demonstrate the strength of our core businesses, as well as the positive momentum of our emerging businesses, including cloud computing, where we continue to see strong growth," said Maggie Wu, Alibaba's chief financial officer.

Alibaba's Taobao platform is estimated to hold more than 90 percent of the consumer-to-consumer market. Its Tmall platform is believed to handle over half of business-to-consumer transactions.

But China's largest online shopping portal has been on the defensive since the office of the US Trade Representative put Taobao on its annual blacklist in December, saying it was not doing enough to curb sales of fake and pirated goods.

Alibaba, often compared to eBay or Amazon of the United States, has been expanding outside its core e-commerce business into sectors ranging from sports to entertainment.

In October Alibaba Pictures took a minority shareholding in Steven Spielberg's Amblin Partners, a film creation company that includes DreamWorks studios.

Revenue from digital media and entertainment soared 234 percent year-over-year in the quarter to 3.93 billion yuan.

The results came after Ant Financial Services Group, which is controlled by Alibaba and valued at roughly $60 billion last April, reportedly delayed its highly anticipated public listing.

Ant is behind Alipay, a platform that accounts for 80 percent of electronic payments in China where it is used for e-commerce at Alibaba online venues and a large number of mobile applications.

Mobile monthly active users on Alibaba's China retail marketplaces reached 507 million in March, an increase of 97 million from a year earlier.

Key points of UK Conservative Party election manifesto

British Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled her Conservative party’s manifesto on Thursday ahead of the June 8 general election, promising immigration cuts and Brexit commitments.

Here are the key points from the manifesto:

– Brexit –

It reaffirms the prime minister’s earlier commitment to leave the European single market and customs union when Britain leaves the European Union.

The manifesto commits to ending “vast annual contributions to the EU”, but says the party will agree a “fair settlement” on leaving the bloc.

It repeats May’s determination to leave without an exit deal if the terms are disagreeable, deemed a disastrous “cliff edge” scenario by critics.

The Conservatives reject Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a new vote on independence before Brexit.

– Immigration –

The manifesto renews a pledge to reduce net migration to under 100,000 a year, a promise that is popular with voters but which the party has failed to keep during seven years in government.

It pledges to double to £2,000 ($2,600, 2,340 euros) a charge on companies hiring foreign workers, and cut immigration from outside the EU.

Immigrants will be required to pay more for healthcare, with foreign workers required to pay £600 a year, or £450 for international students.

The party also aims to reduce asylum claims made in Britain, while promising to help people in “the most troubled regions”.

– Taxes –

The Conservatives reaffirm their intention to lower corporation tax to 17 percent by 2020, and promise to balance the nation’s books by the middle of the next decade.

Existing plans to increase the threshold at which people pay income tax, and the higher rate, are maintained.

The Conservatives promise not to raise sales tax, but abandon a previous pledge not to increase income tax, while stressing they remain “the party that keeps tax as low as possible”.

– Spending –

The manifesto promises more money for schools, paid for by replacing free lunches for all children during their first three years at primary school, with free breakfasts.

It promises to increase funding on the state-run National Health Service by £8 billion (9.4 billion euros) in real terms over five years.

Winter fuel subsidies will scrapped for wealthy pensioners.

New rules to pay for an increase in funding for elderly social care will require people with significant assets to pay for their care, although the party says no-one will have to sell their home during their lifetime.

– Fox hunting –

May has promised lawmakers the chance to repeal the 2004 ban on fox hunting with dogs, which was introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government.

While fox hunting is pursued by only a minority of British communities, a small number of Conservative-supporting rural areas have fought hard to scrap the ban.

British Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled her Conservative party's manifesto on Thursday ahead of the June 8 general election, promising immigration cuts and Brexit commitments.

Here are the key points from the manifesto:

- Brexit -

It reaffirms the prime minister's earlier commitment to leave the European single market and customs union when Britain leaves the European Union.

The manifesto commits to ending "vast annual contributions to the EU", but says the party will agree a "fair settlement" on leaving the bloc.

It repeats May's determination to leave without an exit deal if the terms are disagreeable, deemed a disastrous "cliff edge" scenario by critics.

The Conservatives reject Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon's call for a new vote on independence before Brexit.

- Immigration -

The manifesto renews a pledge to reduce net migration to under 100,000 a year, a promise that is popular with voters but which the party has failed to keep during seven years in government.

It pledges to double to £2,000 ($2,600, 2,340 euros) a charge on companies hiring foreign workers, and cut immigration from outside the EU.

Immigrants will be required to pay more for healthcare, with foreign workers required to pay £600 a year, or £450 for international students.

The party also aims to reduce asylum claims made in Britain, while promising to help people in "the most troubled regions".

- Taxes -

The Conservatives reaffirm their intention to lower corporation tax to 17 percent by 2020, and promise to balance the nation's books by the middle of the next decade.

Existing plans to increase the threshold at which people pay income tax, and the higher rate, are maintained.

The Conservatives promise not to raise sales tax, but abandon a previous pledge not to increase income tax, while stressing they remain "the party that keeps tax as low as possible".

- Spending -

The manifesto promises more money for schools, paid for by replacing free lunches for all children during their first three years at primary school, with free breakfasts.

It promises to increase funding on the state-run National Health Service by £8 billion (9.4 billion euros) in real terms over five years.

Winter fuel subsidies will scrapped for wealthy pensioners.

New rules to pay for an increase in funding for elderly social care will require people with significant assets to pay for their care, although the party says no-one will have to sell their home during their lifetime.

- Fox hunting -

May has promised lawmakers the chance to repeal the 2004 ban on fox hunting with dogs, which was introduced by Tony Blair's Labour government.

While fox hunting is pursued by only a minority of British communities, a small number of Conservative-supporting rural areas have fought hard to scrap the ban.

Fox News co-founder Roger Ailes dies at age 77

Roger Ailes, who built Fox News into a politically powerful cable giant that helped redefine US television news, has died, the network announced.The Fox co-founder, who was also a consultant to Republican presidents, was ousted from the network last ye…

Roger Ailes, who built Fox News into a politically powerful cable giant that helped redefine US television news, has died, the network announced.

The Fox co-founder, who was also a consultant to Republican presidents, was ousted from the network last year under the cloud of a series of sexual harassment allegations.

The network's hosts struggled to hold back tears as they read a statement from Ailes' wife Elizabeth announcing his death at the age of 77.

A longtime confident of media titan Rupert Murdoch, Ailes was a central figure in the conservative US political movement.

He resigned in July after a sexual harassment lawsuit from former Fox news host Gretchen Carlson.

His wife's statement, first published on the conservative Drudge Report, said: "I am profoundly sad and heartbroken to report that my husband, Roger Ailes, passed away this morning."

Ailes, she said, "was a loving husband to me, to his son Zachary, and a loyal friend to many. He was also a patriot, profoundly grateful to live in a country that gave him so much opportunity to work hard, to rise -- and to give back."

Under the leadership of Ailes, Fox became the most widely watched cable news channel, home to key conservative political commentators and drawing an audience distinct from rivals CNN and MSNBC.

Ailes served as a consultant to presidents from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush and according to some analysts helped revive conservative politics in the United States.

"Apart from the presidents he served, he was arguably the single most important figure in the creation of modern conservatism," David Greenberg, a Rutgers University political scientist, wrote in an essay for Politico last year.

"By fusing television's power to conjure feelings of anger and resentment to an ideology of cultural populism that demonized liberal elites, Ailes set forth the methods and the message that would help conservative politicians win and maintain power for decades."

Harvey Keitel to star in film about Fatima miracles

American actor Harvey Keitel is to star in a new film about the Portuguese peasant children who saw visions of the Virgin Mary 100 years ago in Fatima, its producers said Thursday.The announcement at the Cannes film festival comes after Pope Francis ca…

American actor Harvey Keitel is to star in a new film about the Portuguese peasant children who saw visions of the Virgin Mary 100 years ago in Fatima, its producers said Thursday.

The announcement at the Cannes film festival comes after Pope Francis canonised the two child shepherds Jacinta and Francisco on the centenary of the first reported apparition on Saturday.

"Fatima" will also feature the Brazilian actress Sonia Braga.

US producer Gary Hamilton of Arclight Films said the script "remains true to (the apparitions') miraculous message. The story of Fatima is what real-live legends are made of."

The Virgin Mary is said to have confided three secrets to the children, then aged 7 and 9, who both died later in the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic.

The first two secrets were interpreted as foretelling a world war and the dangers of Soviet communism. The third secret has long been kept a mystery.

But the sanctuary's importance grew after Pope John Paul II credited the Virgin of Fatima with saving his life after he was shot by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca in 1981 on the anniversary of the first reported apparition.

The bullet that struck the pope was later placed in the golden crown of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima.

Saturday's canonisation ceremony in the small town, now a global pilgrimage site, drew about half a million people, according to the Vatican.

Singapore Airlines reports net loss in fourth quarter

Singapore Airlines (SIA) on Thursday reported a net loss in the fourth quarter, causing full-year profit to drop by more than half as intense competition continued to buffet the carrier.SIA has been battling strong competition from Asian low-cost carri…

Singapore Airlines (SIA) on Thursday reported a net loss in the fourth quarter, causing full-year profit to drop by more than half as intense competition continued to buffet the carrier.

SIA has been battling strong competition from Asian low-cost carriers and Middle Eastern airlines, which now boast modern fleets and top-quality inflight services.

It said in a statement that a "wide-ranging review" of the company's network, fleet, products, services, organisational structure, and processes is underway to better position the airline for the future.

The carrier said it suffered a net loss of Sg$138.3 million ($99.4 million) in the fourth quarter to March as operating profit tumbled and the airline made a provision for its cargo business.

For the full-year, net profit came in at Sg$360 million, down 55.2 percent from the previous year, with annual revenue easing 2.4 percent to Sg$14.87 billion.

"Intense competition arising from excess capacity in major markets, alongside geopolitical and economic uncertainty, continue to exert pressure on yields," the company said.

A rebound in jet fuel prices from last year also eroded earnings as the average price for Singapore Jet Kerosene climbed from its low of $37.9 a barrel in January 2016 to $61.9 in March this year, the carrier said.

"The signs were already there that they might register a net loss in the fourth quarter," said aviation analyst Shukor Yusof of Endau Analytics, noting that profits in the previous quarters had been on the decline.

"The size of the loss is quite staggering for the three months and it would indicate that SIA would need to do something drastic and radical to overcome its difficulties in the coming years," he told AFP.

Noting that SIA's budget carriers, Tiger Air and Scoot, had done better than their parent airline, Shukor said this indicates "that the growth for the SIA Group is pretty much now in the low-cost segment of the business".

The carrier needs to figure out how to seek new revenue streams from its premium segment, he said.

"That's the biggest challenge facing management right now," he said.

"The bottom line is that there is intense competition and the market dynamics have changed dramatically for SIA."