J.K. Rowling: creator of magic who dazzled the world

The creator of a wizarding empire which has dazzled the world, J. K. Rowling struggled through hardship to become an unrivalled children’s author with a global voice.

Rowling once told a beaming crowd of Harvard University graduates how she had initially failed “on an epic scale”.

“An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless,” she said.

Now 20 years since “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was first published, inspiring a generation of young readers — and their parents — it is hard to imagine Rowling before the seven Harry Potter books.

But her longstanding commitment to charitable causes is a testament to the author’s early days, following a French and Classics degree at Exeter University, when she survived on state benefits and struggled to find a publisher.

The Harry Potter series has since been translated into 79 languages and transformed into eight films, with numerous off-shoots including a hit London theatre production which will open in New York next year.

The wealth amassed along the way gives Rowling an estimated fortune of £650 million ($825 million, 743 million euros), according to The Sunday Times newspaper’s 2017 Rich List.

Such riches would have seemed impossible to Rowling in the early 1990s, when she worked as an English teacher in Portugal’s second city Porto.

She spent her free time writing early drafts of the Potter world, but in 1993 split from her husband and left Portugal with her four-month-old daughter.

Rowling continued crafting Harry Potter in Edinburgh sitting on a modest oak chair, part of a mismatched set of furniture which she was given for free while living in subsidised housing.

Such is the magic of the author’s own story, the chair sold in a New York auction last year for $394,000.

– ‘Imagine better’ –

Children amassed at book shops to get their hands on newly-released Harry Potter novels and, as they grew up, young readers looked to Rowling for adventures outside Hogwarts.

A trio of crime novels followed with “The Cuckoo’s Calling” initially published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, on Rowling’s wish to “work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback”.

Having been writing books since the age of six — the first foray of J. K. (Joanne Kathleen) was a story about a rabbit — Rowling at 51 shows no signs of slowing down.

She co-wrote the award-winning play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” along with director John Tiffany, which shows the boy wizard as a grown father of three.

Rowling’s screenwriting debut came last year with “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, an adaptation of her 2001 volume about magical creatures.

While the world of Harry Potter has been transformed into theme parks in the United States and Japan, with merchandise traversing the globe, Rowling remains a revered public figure in Britain.

She took centre stage in 2012 when London hosted the Olympics, reading from J. M. Barrie’s classic “Peter Pan” during the opening ceremony as part of a celebration of British children’s literature.

This month Queen Elizabeth II made her “Companion of Honour”, a rare order which has a maximum of 65 members, for her contribution to the arts.

Famed for creating her much-loved wizarding realm, Rowling has in the real world become a vocal champion of social causes and speaks up frequently for minorities.

“We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better,” the author said in 2008.

The creator of a wizarding empire which has dazzled the world, J. K. Rowling struggled through hardship to become an unrivalled children's author with a global voice.

Rowling once told a beaming crowd of Harvard University graduates how she had initially failed "on an epic scale".

"An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless," she said.

Now 20 years since "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" was first published, inspiring a generation of young readers -- and their parents -- it is hard to imagine Rowling before the seven Harry Potter books.

But her longstanding commitment to charitable causes is a testament to the author's early days, following a French and Classics degree at Exeter University, when she survived on state benefits and struggled to find a publisher.

The Harry Potter series has since been translated into 79 languages and transformed into eight films, with numerous off-shoots including a hit London theatre production which will open in New York next year.

The wealth amassed along the way gives Rowling an estimated fortune of £650 million ($825 million, 743 million euros), according to The Sunday Times newspaper's 2017 Rich List.

Such riches would have seemed impossible to Rowling in the early 1990s, when she worked as an English teacher in Portugal's second city Porto.

She spent her free time writing early drafts of the Potter world, but in 1993 split from her husband and left Portugal with her four-month-old daughter.

Rowling continued crafting Harry Potter in Edinburgh sitting on a modest oak chair, part of a mismatched set of furniture which she was given for free while living in subsidised housing.

Such is the magic of the author's own story, the chair sold in a New York auction last year for $394,000.

- 'Imagine better' -

Children amassed at book shops to get their hands on newly-released Harry Potter novels and, as they grew up, young readers looked to Rowling for adventures outside Hogwarts.

A trio of crime novels followed with "The Cuckoo's Calling" initially published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, on Rowling's wish to "work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback".

Having been writing books since the age of six -- the first foray of J. K. (Joanne Kathleen) was a story about a rabbit -- Rowling at 51 shows no signs of slowing down.

She co-wrote the award-winning play "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" along with director John Tiffany, which shows the boy wizard as a grown father of three.

Rowling's screenwriting debut came last year with "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them", an adaptation of her 2001 volume about magical creatures.

While the world of Harry Potter has been transformed into theme parks in the United States and Japan, with merchandise traversing the globe, Rowling remains a revered public figure in Britain.

She took centre stage in 2012 when London hosted the Olympics, reading from J. M. Barrie's classic "Peter Pan" during the opening ceremony as part of a celebration of British children's literature.

This month Queen Elizabeth II made her "Companion of Honour", a rare order which has a maximum of 65 members, for her contribution to the arts.

Famed for creating her much-loved wizarding realm, Rowling has in the real world become a vocal champion of social causes and speaks up frequently for minorities.

"We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better," the author said in 2008.

Hogwarts, horcruxes and hippogriffs: Harry Potter turns 20

Harry Potter turns 20 on Monday when muggle readers in gowns and glasses from Indonesia to Uruguay will celebrate the birth of a global publishing phenomenon in 1997.

“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (later renamed “Sorcerer’s Stone” for the US market) introduced the boy wizard and a magical cast of supporting characters.

Penniless single mother J.K. Rowling finally succeeded after a series of rebuffs from publishers, and the book became the first instalment of a seven-novel series that has sold 450 million copies worldwide and spawned eight blockbuster films.

The Potter universe now encompasses theme parks in the United States and Japan and a permanent exhibition at London’s Warner Bros Studios, helping to turn Rowling into a billionaire.

No other children’s book has achieved quite as much in terms of both commercial and cultural impact, turning an entire generation of boys as well as girls into enthusiastic readers who would happily join midnight queues at bookshops as each novel came out.

If some of the early reviews took issue with Rowling’s pedestrian writing and bald characterisation, everyone agreed about the narrative verve on show in “the Philosopher’s Stone”, starting with the delivery of a letter that will, like alchemy, transform the 11-year-old hero’s life forever.

“Once you start reading it, you enter a magical world, a world where you could be special, a world with clever things, with the idea that it all just might exist,” Durham University education professor Martin Richardson told AFP.

“The characters become part of the family. It starts to enter the nation’s DNA,” he said.

“I think people will be reading Potter in 20, 30, 40, 60 years time, even if it’s only for the story.”

Far beyond Britain and English-language markets, the saga wove itself into the world’s literary DNA.

The seven volumes have been translated into 79 languages ??in 200 countries, and Monday’s 20th anniversary will feature fancy-dress reading parties around the world starting in Australia and ending in Canada and the US West Coast, at libraries, bookshops and British embassies.

– Love at first sight –

Marie Lallouet, editor-in-chief of a children’s literature digest at the National Library of France, underlined the scale of the books’ appeal beyond Britain, which already had a rich stock of literature conjuring tales out of the worlds of boarding schools and magic.

“Harry Potter re-validated children’s literature in the eyes of adults, and encouraged an entire generation (of French children) to learn English so that they could read the books as soon as they came out in English,” she said.

Rowling managed to magic “something very powerful” into existence, Lallouet said, by portraying one boy’s struggle to come to terms with his tragic beginnings against the backdrop of an existential struggle of good against evil.

The first print run of “the Philosopher’s Stone” produced 1,000 copies — all now highly sought after by collectors — and earned Rowling a £1,500 contract from Bloomsbury after numerous rebuffs from other publishers.

“I just loved it at first sight. I’d worked with Roald Dahl in his glory days, so I suppose the opening chapters reminded me a little of him,” Barry Cunningham, Rowling’s original publisher at Bloomsbury, told The Daily Telegraph.

Bloomsbury affected one small change by persuading Joanne Rowling to publish under the nom de plume J.K., convinced that boys would shy away from a book written by a woman.

Still, Cunningham was not sure “the Philosopher’s Stone” would make any money, and urged Rowling to stick to a day job while writing on the side.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the Harry Potter legacy: not only has it made reading cool again, it has shown that families can all enjoy great stories together,” he said.

“We can believe that there is a real purpose to standing up to evil. And, of course, we can find our own magic.”

Harry Potter turns 20 on Monday when muggle readers in gowns and glasses from Indonesia to Uruguay will celebrate the birth of a global publishing phenomenon in 1997.

"Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" (later renamed "Sorcerer's Stone" for the US market) introduced the boy wizard and a magical cast of supporting characters.

Penniless single mother J.K. Rowling finally succeeded after a series of rebuffs from publishers, and the book became the first instalment of a seven-novel series that has sold 450 million copies worldwide and spawned eight blockbuster films.

The Potter universe now encompasses theme parks in the United States and Japan and a permanent exhibition at London's Warner Bros Studios, helping to turn Rowling into a billionaire.

No other children's book has achieved quite as much in terms of both commercial and cultural impact, turning an entire generation of boys as well as girls into enthusiastic readers who would happily join midnight queues at bookshops as each novel came out.

If some of the early reviews took issue with Rowling's pedestrian writing and bald characterisation, everyone agreed about the narrative verve on show in "the Philosopher's Stone", starting with the delivery of a letter that will, like alchemy, transform the 11-year-old hero's life forever.

"Once you start reading it, you enter a magical world, a world where you could be special, a world with clever things, with the idea that it all just might exist," Durham University education professor Martin Richardson told AFP.

"The characters become part of the family. It starts to enter the nation's DNA," he said.

"I think people will be reading Potter in 20, 30, 40, 60 years time, even if it's only for the story."

Far beyond Britain and English-language markets, the saga wove itself into the world's literary DNA.

The seven volumes have been translated into 79 languages ??in 200 countries, and Monday's 20th anniversary will feature fancy-dress reading parties around the world starting in Australia and ending in Canada and the US West Coast, at libraries, bookshops and British embassies.

- Love at first sight -

Marie Lallouet, editor-in-chief of a children's literature digest at the National Library of France, underlined the scale of the books' appeal beyond Britain, which already had a rich stock of literature conjuring tales out of the worlds of boarding schools and magic.

"Harry Potter re-validated children's literature in the eyes of adults, and encouraged an entire generation (of French children) to learn English so that they could read the books as soon as they came out in English," she said.

Rowling managed to magic "something very powerful" into existence, Lallouet said, by portraying one boy's struggle to come to terms with his tragic beginnings against the backdrop of an existential struggle of good against evil.

The first print run of "the Philosopher's Stone" produced 1,000 copies -- all now highly sought after by collectors -- and earned Rowling a £1,500 contract from Bloomsbury after numerous rebuffs from other publishers.

"I just loved it at first sight. I'd worked with Roald Dahl in his glory days, so I suppose the opening chapters reminded me a little of him," Barry Cunningham, Rowling's original publisher at Bloomsbury, told The Daily Telegraph.

Bloomsbury affected one small change by persuading Joanne Rowling to publish under the nom de plume J.K., convinced that boys would shy away from a book written by a woman.

Still, Cunningham was not sure "the Philosopher's Stone" would make any money, and urged Rowling to stick to a day job while writing on the side.

"I couldn't be prouder of the Harry Potter legacy: not only has it made reading cool again, it has shown that families can all enjoy great stories together," he said.

"We can believe that there is a real purpose to standing up to evil. And, of course, we can find our own magic."

Eid truce in Philippines war-torn city ends

An eight-hour ceasefire in a Philippine city allowing residents to celebrate the end of Ramadan came to an abrupt end Sunday afternoon as the government continued its offensive against Islamist militants occupying parts of war-torn Marawi.Assaults back…

An eight-hour ceasefire in a Philippine city allowing residents to celebrate the end of Ramadan came to an abrupt end Sunday afternoon as the government continued its offensive against Islamist militants occupying parts of war-torn Marawi.

Assaults backed by air and artillery bombardment had stopped at the start of Islamic prayers at 6am but gunfire broke out as soon as the truce ended around 2pm, AFP reporters in Marawi said.

Regional military commander Lieutenant General Carlito Galvez said the truce also allowed five Muslim religious leaders to enter ground zero and negotiate with the militants to release civilian hostages, especially children, women and the elderly.

"It's already been more than 30 days (of fighting) and we received reports that some of them have nothing to eat," Galvez said.

The negotiators later Sunday emerged from the conflict zone with five civilians, incuding a mother and her 16-month-old daughter.

The woman said she had given birth to another child just two weeks ago in the middle of the fighting but her infant boy died due to lack of food, according to police who interviewed her.

A video released by the military showed the rescued residents looking terrified, pale and haggard.

Military chief General Eduardo Ano ordered his forces to observe a "humanitarian pause" during the Eid al-Fitr holiday in Marawi, the most important Muslim city in the mainly Catholic Philippines.

The Eid al-Fitr festival ends the fasting month of Ramadan.

"We declare a lull in our current operations in the city on that day as a manifestation of our high respect to the Islamic faith," Ano said in a statement.

Hundreds of militants, flying the flag of the Islamic State group and backed by foreign fighters, seized swathes of Marawi in the southern region of Mindanao last month, sparking bloody street battles and raising regional concern.

Troops have launched a relentless air and ground offensive but have failed to dislodge gunmen from entrenched positions in pockets of the city.

- 'Saddest Eid celebration' -

Much of the lakeside city is now in ruins while most of its 200,000 residents have fled to evacuation centres or to the homes of relatives and friends in other towns.

An emotional Sunday prayer was held away from the conflict zone in Marawi, with several Muslim worshippers breaking down, including the imam, television footages showed.

"This is the saddest Eid celeberation in recent memory," Zia Alonto Adiong, a legislator for an autonomous Muslim region that covers Marawi, said in a Facebook post.

"It pains us to see families who can?t even share meals together, pray together," he said, blaming the militants for the turmoil.

At Iligan just north of Marawi, evacuees dressed in colourful flowing robes marked the end of Ramadan by holding prayers on the grounds of city hall, with armed police commandos standing guard.

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said Sunday a Philippine Navy ship was sent to Cotabato south of Marawi to bring supplies for soldiers involved in the fighting and serve as a floating hospital for the wounded.

- Civilians trapped -

Military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said around 500 civilians remained trapped in areas where the fighting is concentrated.

Nearly 300 militants and 67 troops have been killed in the fighting, according to official figures.

Military officials have said troops are having difficulty because the militants are using civilians as human shields.

In May Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law across all of Mindanao to quell what he described as a rebellion aimed at establishing an Islamic State caliphate in the area.

Foreign fighters, including those from Chechnya, Indonesia and Malaysia, are among those killed in the Marawi conflict.

A senior military commander said on Saturday that Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Marawi attack and one of America's most wanted terrorists, may have slipped out of the city.

Regional military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-ar Herrera said Sunday the military was still checking the report.

"He (Hapilon) is not being heard or monitored commanding troops on the ground," Herrera said in Marawi.

Australia has sent two high-tech surveillance planes to help Filipino troops in Marawi, joining the United States in providing military assistance.

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The worst oil tanker fires around the world

At least 123 people were killed and scores injured in central Pakistan early Sunday when a fire erupted after crowds rushed to collect fuel from an overturned oil tanker.Here are the most serious such incidents around the world over the past decade. In…

At least 123 people were killed and scores injured in central Pakistan early Sunday when a fire erupted after crowds rushed to collect fuel from an overturned oil tanker.

Here are the most serious such incidents around the world over the past decade. In many of the most deadly of these, people were trying to recover spilt fuel and were caught in the subsequent fire.

- November 17, 2016, Mozambique: At least 93 killed and dozens wounded when an oil tanker carrying petrol explodes in the west of the country. Hundreds of people were trying to siphon off the fuel at the time.

- May 8, 2016, Afghanistan: At least 73 killed after two buses collided with an oil tanker, sparking a massive fire on a road in the east of the country. Most victims died in the fire.

- September 16, 2015, South Sudan: At least 203 killed and 150 injured as people try to recover fuel from an oil tanker following a road accident at Maridi, about 300 kilometres (200 miles) west of the capital Juba.

- January 11, 2015, Pakistan: At least 62 people, including women and children, killed in a fire after a coach collides with an oil tanker travelling on the wrong side of the road, on the outskirts of Karachi.

- July 12, 2012, Nigeria: At least 104 people killed and some 50 wounded as they tried to recover fuel from a petrol tanker following an accident in River State, in the south of the country. Most were killed in the subsequent fire.

- July 2, 2010, DR Congo: Petrol tanker blast at Sange, in the east of the country, kills 292. Some victims were trying to recover the fuel after a road accident; others were watching the World Cup football tournament in a nearby hall.

- October 9, 2009, Nigeria: Between 70 and 80 killed in southeast Anambra State. A petrol tanker exploded, the flames engulfing several other vehicles.

- March 26, 2007, Nigeria: At least 93 killed in northern Kaduna State as people try to recover fuel from an oil tanker following an accident.

India’s Modi in Washington for ‘no frills’ Trump meet

India’s leader Narendra Modi arrived in the US for his first meeting Monday with President Donald Trump, seeking to build on growing ties and move beyond disagreements over climate change.Relations between the world’s two largest democracies warmed und…

India's leader Narendra Modi arrived in the US for his first meeting Monday with President Donald Trump, seeking to build on growing ties and move beyond disagreements over climate change.

Relations between the world's two largest democracies warmed under Trump's predecessor Barack Obama as India sought greater foreign investment and trade ties with Western nations.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed to work closely with the Trump administration, but obstacles soon emerged on issues such as trade and visas for Indians wanting to work in the United States.

Then Trump accused India of seeking to profit from the Paris climate accord as he announced he was pulling out of the deal this month -- drawing sharp denials from New Delhi.

Officials were eager to downplay expectations of the visit, describing it as "no frills" -- in contrast to Modi's first US visit in 2014, when he basked in a rock star welcome at the Madison Square Garden arena in New York and addressed the United Nations.

"If there's one thing we want (from the visit), it's chemistry," said one senior Indian official. "If the chemistry is good then frankly everything else gets sorted."

- Red carpet treatment -

Some commentators have argued that Modi and Trump should have a natural affinity as political outsiders who have risen to power in part by castigating the traditional ruling elite on a nationalist platform.

One US official said the two leaders had a "lot in common" and noted Modi would be the first foreign dignitary to have a working dinner at the White House under the new administration.

"We are really seeking to roll out the red carpet," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Initial signs were positive, with the leaders exchanging warm words on Twitter.

"Important strategic issues to discuss with a true friend!" Trump wrote late Saturday.

"Thank you for the warm personal welcome. Greatly look forward to my meeting and discussions with you @realDonaldTrump," Modi tweeted in response.

Modi on Sunday was to meet with top American business leaders -- including the heads of Apple, Microsoft and Google -- ahead of his meeting the following day with Trump.

- 'Make in India' -

Trump's protectionist instincts, however, are at odds with India's efforts to boost exports and encourage Western manufacturers to "Make In India" -- a flagship Modi scheme.

The Indian premier castigated "rising parochial and protectionist attitudes" in a speech delivered shortly after Trump took office that was widely interpreted as a dig at the president's "America first" mantra.

A proposed overhaul of H-1B visas -- used by thousands of Indian software engineers to work in the United States -- has also caused concern in New Delhi.

Analysts said Monday's meeting at the White House would give Modi the chance to size up a US leader whose focus has so far been on ties with India's regional rival China.

"The meeting between the two leaders is very significant, obviously, because the new administration's policies towards Asia and particularly India, are not very clear," said Sujit Datta, foreign policy specialist at New Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia University.

Regional security is expected to be high on the agenda for the talks as Washington considers deploying up to 5,000 extra troops in Afghanistan to help local forces fighting the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

The new administration has also indicated it could take a tougher stance on Pakistan, which India has long accused of harbouring militant groups.

Modi, a Hindu nationalist, was effectively barred from the United States for years after deadly communal riots in the western state of Gujarat during his time as chief minister. Most of those killed were Muslims.

But after his landslide election victory, Modi built a strong rapport with Obama.

Political analyst Ashley Tellis said in an interview with Asian Age that the meeting with Trump would give Modi "an opportunity to take the measure of the man, articulate India?s interests, and describe the opportunities those interests provide for the US".

"I don?t think PM Modi can change Trump's worldview. But he can help Trump to think of India as an opportunity rather than as a problem," said Tellis, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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Turkey’s Erdogan says fine after feeling unwell in prayers

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said he was in good health after briefly feeling unwell during morning prayers in Istanbul.The Hurriyet daily said Erdogan received medical attention after “briefly feeling unwell” during morning prayers…

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said he was in good health after briefly feeling unwell during morning prayers in Istanbul.

The Hurriyet daily said Erdogan received medical attention after "briefly feeling unwell" during morning prayers at the Mimar Sinan mosque in Istanbul.

Some Turkish media reports said he had briefly fainted inside the mosque, although this was not immediately confirmed.

Erdogan said he had suffered from a blood pressure issue due to a sugar imbalance in the body.

"Thanks to God I recovered quickly. Now I am feeling good and we will continue with our programme," he said, quoted by the state-run Anadolu news agency.

Erdogan said that in the afternoon he would be attending a ceremony in Istanbul of his ruling party to mark the festival celebrating the end of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Muslims for the past month have been required to abstain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset.

Erdogan is a pious believer but has continued to follow a full political programme during the fasting month, giving speeches nearly every evening over Ramadan at fast-breaking iftar meals.

The Turkish president, a former semi-professional footballer, projects an image of a strong and vigorous leader who is in good health.

Erdogan, 63, has been in power since 2003, first as prime minister and since 2014 as Turkey's first directly elected president.

After string of defeats, Democrats rudderless in Trump era

Frozen out of power in Washington and having lost a string of congressional races this year, Democrats are struggling to craft winning strategies to convert disillusionment with President Donald Trump into victory in 2018’s midterm elections.The party …

Frozen out of power in Washington and having lost a string of congressional races this year, Democrats are struggling to craft winning strategies to convert disillusionment with President Donald Trump into victory in 2018's midterm elections.

The party fielded a hodgepodge of candidates in four special elections in recent months, including a banjo-strumming cowboy poet in Montana. Most recently Democrats nominated a young novice in Georgia, where the party, judging it had its best pick-up opportunity, threw millions of dollars into the race.

Yet each time, Republicans beat back the advances. And Democratic lawmakers, strategists and party officials have been left scratching their heads about how to turn it around and launch a viable bid to reclaim Congress next year.

"They're definitely licking their wounds," Kerwin Swint, professor and chair of the political science department at Georgia's Kennesaw State University, told AFP.

Debate has swirled among Democrats about what strategy to deploy: going all in with a nationwide anti-Trump agenda, or tailoring individual races to local economic issues in a bid to repair fraying connections between the Democratic Party and the common voter.

The Georgia race showed "the effectiveness of Trump's staying power" despite the scandals rocking the White House, Swint said.

"Democrats should not focus their campaigns about him, they should be about jobs," he added. "They need a much more focused economic pitch."

At the same time, Zac Petkanas, who directed Hillary Clinton's rapid-response operation during her 2016 presidential campaign, said Republicans should not see their four congressional victories as a sign all is well in Trumpworld.

In a normal political environment, the races in Georgia, Kansas, Montana and South Carolina -- to fill seats vacated by congressmen who joined Trump's cabinet -- would be blowouts for Republicans, given the overwhelming, ruby-red nature of the districts, Petkanas said in a telephone interview.

Instead, they were all within seven percentage points.

Trump and Republican lawmakers have gloated over the wins, "but I think in private they're actually very scared," he said.

"They are in for the races of their lives, and they know it."

- 'Unique opportunity' -

As Democrats seek to regroup, they are hobbled by a glaring omission: no clear party protagonist has emerged as a potential challenger to Trump in 2020.

Absent such a standard-bearer, some Democrats have begun urging House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the icon atop the party's hierarchy, to step aside and allow new blood into leadership.

"I don't think people in the Beltway are realizing just how toxic the Democratic Party brand is in so much of the country," congressman Tim Ryan, who unsuccessfully challenged Pelosi for the leadership position last year, told CNN in a blunt postmortem after the June 20 loss in Georgia.

The California congresswoman pushed back tensely against her party's rebels, insisting she has brought unity to the Democrats.

"My decision about how long I stay is not up to them," Pelosi, who is 77, told reporters.

Asked about the Democrats' doldrums and Pelosi's future role, Trump quipped that it would be "very sad for Republicans" if the congresswoman -- a favorite target of Republicans -- stepped down.

"I'd like to keep her right where she is, because our record is extraordinary against her," he told Fox on Friday.

The party in presidential power traditionally fares poorly during US midterm elections. In 2010, two years into Barack Obama's first term as president, Democrats got hammered, losing 63 seats and control of the 435-member House of Representatives.

Democrats now need to gain 24 seats to reclaim the House, and analysts say there are several dozen Republican-held seats in play.

In a memo this past week, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Ben Ray Lujan described at least 71 districts that are more competitive than the four contested so far this year.

"We have a unique opportunity to flip control of the House of Representatives in 2018," he wrote.

One reason Lujan is banking on victory: the Republican health care bill.

Senate Republicans on Thursday unveiled their plan, which would repeal much of Obama's signature health care reforms.

It has had a frosty reception. Democrats are counting on voters revolting against any lawmaker who supports legislation that could leave millions of Americans without health insurance.

"A lot will depend on where Trump's approval rating is next year, and health care will obviously mold that climate," Professor Swint said.

Assad leads prayers in rare appearance outside Damascus

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad led Eid al-Fitr prayers in the central city of Hama on Sunday, appearing in public outside the capital for the first time in a year.Assad’s office published images of him praying inside the brightly-lit Al-Nuri mosque a…

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad led Eid al-Fitr prayers in the central city of Hama on Sunday, appearing in public outside the capital for the first time in a year.

Assad's office published images of him praying inside the brightly-lit Al-Nuri mosque at dawn on Sunday before greeting worshippers outside.

He was flanked by Islamic Endowments Minister Mohammad Abdel-Sattar Sayyed and Syria's top Muslim cleric Ahmad Badredine Hassoun.

Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast from dawn until dusk.

Ahead of the holiday, Syria's government released more than 670 detainees -- including some children born to prisoners -- from jails around Damascus on Saturday.

Assad's last public appearance outside Damascus was during Eid al-Fitr in July 2016, which he spent in third city Homs.

Presidential trips outside the capital have become rare since Syria's conflict broke out more than six years ago.

Hama city is the capital of the governorate by the same name, where Syrian government troops are battling jihadists and their rebel allies.

Three police, family of six killed in latest Mexico violence

Three federal police officers were mowed down Saturday in Mexico’s Veracruz state, where gunman also killed a family of six, in the latest spasm of violence linked to criminal gangs.”Organized crime has sparked a serious problem of violence in Veracruz…

Three federal police officers were mowed down Saturday in Mexico's Veracruz state, where gunman also killed a family of six, in the latest spasm of violence linked to criminal gangs.

"Organized crime has sparked a serious problem of violence in Veracruz," said the state's governor Miguel Angel Yunes in a statement, calling the latest violence "an act of terrible barbarism."

Among Saturday's victims were a federal police commander and two agents, who were ambushed by gunmen in the city of Cardel.

In the nearby city of Coatzacoalcos, the dead included two adults and four children who died in a hail of bullets as they ate dinner at an outdoor restaurant.

Authorities added that two women were fatally shot in the town of Orizaba, also in Veracruz, one of Mexico's most violent states.

Much of the violence is the result of turf battles between two rival drug trafficking gangs, the Zetas and Jalisco Nueva Generacion.

Alleged IS militants kill police officer in Indonesia

Two alleged Islamic State group militants stabbed a police officer to death in western Indonesia, authorities said Sunday, in the latest assault targeting officials in the world’s most populous Muslim country.The two attackers shouted “Allahu Akbar”, o…

Two alleged Islamic State group militants stabbed a police officer to death in western Indonesia, authorities said Sunday, in the latest assault targeting officials in the world's most populous Muslim country.

The two attackers shouted "Allahu Akbar", or God is great, as they entered a security post in North Sumatra's police headquarters in Medan city where they stabbed a police officer, officials said.

Several police officers fought back against the militants, killing one and critically injuring another.

"We suspect the attackers have links with IS and Bahrun Naim, because we found a IS flag, books and CDs linked to IS in the house of one attacker," national police spokesman Setyo Wasisto told AFP.

Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian who is fighting with IS in Syria, has been accused of directing a series of mostly botched terror plots in his homeland in recent years.

Hundreds of radicals from Indonesia have flocked abroad to fight with IS, and the country has seen a surge in plots and attacks linked to the jihadists over the past year.

The attack happened just hours before Eid prayers were held, including at the North Sumatra police headquarters, as part of the Eid al-Fitr celebrations that mark the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.

Police are also investigating whether Sunday's incident was linked to the recent capture of three militants accused of plotting to attack police, Wasisto added.

In May suicide bombers killed three police officers at a bus station in Jakarta in the deadliest attack in Indonesia since January 2016, when a suicide blast and gun assault claimed by IS left four assailants and four civilians dead in the capital.

Indonesia has long struggled with Islamic militancy and has suffered a series of fatal attacks in the past 15 years, including the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people.

A sustained crackdown weakened the country's most dangerous networks but the emergence of IS has proved a potent new rallying cry for radicals.

Facing ruin, India’s ancient glass artists blame the Taj

Hanuman Prasad Garg doesn’t blame rising fuel prices or pressure from cheap knock-offs for the slow demise of the glass industry where Indian artisans have forged bangles for centuries. He blames the Taj Mahal.The ancient glass quarter in Firozabad nev…

Hanuman Prasad Garg doesn't blame rising fuel prices or pressure from cheap knock-offs for the slow demise of the glass industry where Indian artisans have forged bangles for centuries. He blames the Taj Mahal.

The ancient glass quarter in Firozabad never recovered after authorities blamed smoke drifting from its furnaces for yellowing the Taj's magnificent white marble, threatening the beauty of India's number-one tourist attraction.

The artisans were banned from burning coal and forced to use costly gas to fuel their furnaces instead -- and yet two decades on the Taj is still losing its lustre.

"Because of the Taj Mahal, the entire industry is suffering," said Garg, president of a glass industry association in Firozabad, roughly 35 kilometres (22 miles) from the 360-year-old monument.

Inside the blazing-hot workshops dotting the district, the Taj is a sore point for many of the craftsmen toiling over thousand-degree furnaces to fashion the glittering bangles that sell for pennies across India.

Their industry dates back almost as far as the Mughal-era mausoleum itself.

But many factories have closed or downsized considerably as the price of natural gas has steadily climbed in recent years, throwing generations of glass artisans onto the scrap heap.

Now authorities are considering closing the historic district for good.

- A fragile industry -

Crouched over a flame in his tiny workshop, Zafar Ahmad skillfully carved a delicate bird from a searing hot blob of molten glass as he fretted about his family-run business.

"I have been making glass items since I was 10 years old. This is the only thing I know. My entire household is involved in this work," he told AFP, using a naked flame to tease the glass into form.

"But still it is so difficult to survive. I can't even afford sending my four children to decent schools. I can't imagine what will happen to them if God forbid I am out of work," he added.

Artisans earn little more than 300 rupees ($5) per day, despite the extreme conditions.

Competition from cheaper plastic and metal bangles has also made it harder for those crafting glass by hand, a costlier and more time consuming process.

A Supreme Court ruling in 1999, giving Firozabad two years to retrofit their factories with gas instead of coal, has gradually eroded their razor-thin margins, pushing many to the wall.

Garg said pollution had come down, but the phasing out of gas subsidies had seen input costs climb year on year.

"Ours is a labour-intensive industry and everyone suffers on account of this," he said.

- Polishing talent -

Despite the interventions, the Taj is still yellowing, prompting authorities to search for stricter rules on potential pollutants in the area.

Other coal-powered industries in districts closest to the mausoleum have also been shut down, while motor vehicles are not allowed within a 500 metre radius of it.

Mud packs have been applied periodically to draw the stain from the stone, but authorities have struggled to stop the discolouration.

A 2015 joint study by Indian and US researchers concluded smog from burning fossil fuels, dung and garbage in and around Agra city was tarnishing the marble.

The artisans of Firozabad feel their days are numbered, and face the very real threat of being turfed out of their homes and businesses for good.

The National Green Tribunal, India's federal environment court, is considering shifting the entire industry elsewhere, and has ordered samples be taken from the furnaces of Firozabad to test for pollutants.

To offset the disruption, the government is trying to bring artisans like Ahmad into the modern era, teaching them to sell their goods online and run stalls at state-run craft fairs in major centres.

Shahbaz Ali, chairman of the National Minorities Development and Finance Corporation, said: "No one can take away their talent. They have rich traditional knowledge, we are just polishing it."

‘Girls as dessert’: Thai sex scandal exposes grim tradition

When senior bureaucrats visited the remote Thai province where local official Boonyarit worked, the routine was often the same: welcome them with the finest food and drink and then bring out the teen girls, often referred to as “dessert”.The tradition …

When senior bureaucrats visited the remote Thai province where local official Boonyarit worked, the routine was often the same: welcome them with the finest food and drink and then bring out the teen girls, often referred to as "dessert".

The tradition -- known by the euphemistic Thai phrase "treat to food, lay down the mat" -- refers to the expectation that underlings lavish superiors and VIPs with local delicacies, top-notch accommodation and sex services.

Until recently the most sinister part of that tradition, the procurement of underage girls, was well-known but rarely discussed.

Yet a trafficking scandal involving teens, police and officials in Boonyarit's province has flung the practice onto the nation's front pages, prompting calls to root out a culture that helps fuel the kingdom's infamous flesh trade.

While Thailand is known globally for flashy red-light districts that cater to foreigners, the bulk of its sprawling sex industry is geared mostly towards locals.

"This tradition became common a long time ago," explained Boonyarit Nipavanit, a district official in Mae Hong Son, a poor and rugged province in the mountainous north.

"When groups of senior officials come for seminars or work trips, there is a custom of 'treating them', which means welcoming them with food, and then 'laying down the mat,' which means providing girls," he told AFP.

"Sometimes we received information about what type of girls they liked... sometimes officials had to prepare five to ten women for a senior to chose from."

- 'She is a present' -

Boonyarit is comfortable speaking freely about the practice now that detectives have opened 41 cases into an alleged police-run prostitution network in his province.

The probe was launched after the mother of a victim fled to Bangkok and told the media that her then 17-year-old daughter and other teens were blackmailed into sex work and forced to entertain officials and cops.

Some of the victims, she said, were branded with owl tattoos by the gangmasters as a kind of ownership stamp.

Under pressure from the press, national police arrested a Mae Hong Son police sergeant accused of trafficking girls into the sex ring and charged eight other officers with sleeping with the minors.

Five administrators from central Nonthaburi province have also been charged for allegedly hiring the teens with government funds during an official visit to Mae Hong Son.

"Since this story broke, many officials feel relieved that we don't have to do it anymore," said Boonyarit.

But the so-called tradition is far from unique to Mae Hong Son.

Trafficking experts say it is widespread in a hierarchial country where subordinates -- both in government and the private sector -- are expected to pamper bosses to hold onto jobs or move up the career ladder.

"We don't have a merit system in the bureaucracy, we have to bribe our bosses," explained Lakkana Punwichai, a Thai columnist covering social issues.

The practise of arranging sex for superiors comes from "a culture that sees girls not as human beings but as property", she added.

"She is a present. She is the same as food, as beautiful clothes -- something that has a price."

- Protecting the boss -

Many sex trafficking victims are too fearful to come forward when it is powerful figures who control or patronise the business -- especially in rural areas like Mae Hong Son, where social networks are small.

Local authorities are also under pressure to protect their own.

That was the case in Mae Hong Son, where police initially tried to bury the accusations made by the whistleblowing mother, who has requested anonymity and is now under government protection in Bangkok.

"She was asked to compromise the case by some (local) police," her lawyer told AFP.

In the wake of the Mae Hong Son scandal, Thailand's Social Development Ministry said it would "lead by example" as an agency "opposed to the 'treat to food, lay down the mat' practice".

Anti-trafficking police also vowed to accelerate a crackdown on the flesh trade.

Last week a task force arrested three local officials from northeastern Nakhon Ratchasima province accused of having sex with teen girls -- some as young as 14 -- who were trafficked into an underage prostitution ring.

But experts say it is almost always only low-level pimps or officials who are punished.

"After police rescue the girls and handlers, they never expand the case," said Ronnasit Proeksayajiva from anti-trafficking NGO Nvader.

"They never investigate more about who the customers are."

The prize-winning tech helping Ghana’s farmers to grow

Agyei Douglas is a farmer who grows vegetables near Kumasi in Ghana’s central Ashanti region. He used to struggle to access markets and capital.The information he needed was broadcast on the radio but often it wasn’t specific enough to improve his yiel…

Agyei Douglas is a farmer who grows vegetables near Kumasi in Ghana's central Ashanti region. He used to struggle to access markets and capital.

The information he needed was broadcast on the radio but often it wasn't specific enough to improve his yield of lettuce, spring onions, cabbage and chilli pepper.

Two years ago, the 43-year-old began using Farmerline, which delivers weather updates, the latest market prices and other details to his second generation mobile phone.

"It has helped us improve on our productions through the information we get from them, it has made things easier for us as compared to our previous system," he told AFP.

The Ghanaian tech company behind Farmerline is one of a number of start-ups in the West African country working to bolster food security through better access to information.

The initiative was established in 2012 and has so far helped connect some 200,000 farmers in 10 countries using the mobile technology.

- Farming industry -

According to 2014 Ghana government figures, almost half of the working population are involved in agriculture, and just over half of Ghana's land is used for farming.

World Bank figures indicate some 80 per cent of agricultural output came from smallholders on family-operated farms with average landholdings of less than two hectares (4.9 acres).

A lack of more in-depth and accurate data have been seen as a stumbling block for Ghana's farmers, preventing them from better production or accessing financial loans.

Farmerline offers a range of services for both farmers and those who want to connect to them, including non-government organisations, global food companies and local businesses.

Businesses can access data and farm auditing services as well as farmer profiling, and farm mapping.

For farmers, there are also weather forecasts, market prices and agricultural tips all offered as voice messages in local languages such as the Akan dialect Twi.

- Award winner -

A point of pride for Farmerline's chief executive and co-founder Alloysius Attah is its business model.

It puts people in direct touch with farmers, breaking the cycle of poverty and dependency on aid.

"The business of agriculture has always been about aid, a feel-good project," said Attah.

"But we are working really hard to show you can create a business around it that provides value to farmers and... you can get paid for those values you create."

Farmerline this week won the King Baudouin African Development Prize, which rewards "exceptional contributions to development work in Africa".

The two other winners were an online legal services firm from Uganda, BarefootLaw, and Kytabu, which provides school reading content for students across Kenya.

All three received 75,000 euros ($83,750) each.

The prize, announced on June 20 in Brussels, aims to highlight work in driving social change across the continent -- and with funds attached, to help them advance.

Organisers say the prize is based on the idea that "entrepreneurship and local leadership, rather than traditional aid, is the key to sustainable change".

- Tech boom -

Attah isn't alone in his quest to use technology to make agriculture more sustainable and productive in Ghana.

The country's government says it wants to modernise agriculture, including mapping cocoa farms and collecting data on them.

In the private sector, agri-tech firm Ghalani, set up in late 2016, also has data-collection as a key focus, digitising any manual records farmers may have.

It also gives farmers access to software to keep better records, and make reports that could put them in a better position to get financing.

CowTribe uses mobile technology to connect livestock farmers in northern Ghana with vets, while the start-up Hovver uses drones to help farmers map out their land.

Attah says the prize has been "life-changing" for him but also the farmers he wants to help with the and especially the farmers he wants to help with the funds.

His next project is an app that helps connect banks to farmers in need of loans, and is able to use data to predict how much can be borrowed and when it will be paid back, without having to put up collateral.

Vietnamese-French dissident blogger deported to France

A Vietnamese blogger with French citizenship has been deported to Paris, the wife of the former political prisoner said Sunday, in a rare move by authorities in the one-party state.Former math lecturer Pham Minh Hoang was put on a plane to Paris late S…

A Vietnamese blogger with French citizenship has been deported to Paris, the wife of the former political prisoner said Sunday, in a rare move by authorities in the one-party state.

Former math lecturer Pham Minh Hoang was put on a plane to Paris late Saturday, after the Vietnamese government stripped him of his citizenship last month.

"My husband left Vietnam at 11:30 last night, on a direct flight to Paris," Le Thi Kieu Oanh told AFP Sunday.

Oanh said Hoang was granted access to a lawyer before boarding the plane, but that she was not given a chance to see him.

"I feel totally defeated... when my husband left, I couldn't say any farewell words, I also feel very angry," she said.

The French Embassy in Hanoi also confirmed Hoang departed on Saturday evening.

While authoritarian Vietnam routinely jails critics of its regime, 62-year-old Hoang is the first Vietnam-based dissident to have his citizenship revoked in recent history.

Hoang found out his Vietnamese citizenship had been revoked after he was sent a letter dated May 17 and signed by the president.

He was convicted in 2011 of "attempted subversion" for publishing a series of articles that prosecutors said were aimed at overthrowing the government.

He was released from jail after 17 months and ordered to serve three years house arrest. He continued to post articles critical of the government on social media since he was released from jail.

Hoang moved to France in 1973 and lived there for 27 years before returning to Vietnam to work as a mathematics lecturer at the Polytechnic University of Ho Chi Minh City.

He told AFP this month he had to stay in Vietnam to care for his disabled brother and elderly mother in law.

China’s Xi to attend Hong Kong handover anniversary

President Xi Jinping will visit Hong Kong this week to celebrate 20 years since the former British colony’s return to China, state media confirmed Sunday, a trip that will stoke resentment among pro-democracy activists.It will be Xi’s first visit to Ho…

President Xi Jinping will visit Hong Kong this week to celebrate 20 years since the former British colony's return to China, state media confirmed Sunday, a trip that will stoke resentment among pro-democracy activists.

It will be Xi's first visit to Hong Kong since the head of the Communist Party became president in 2013.

Xi will be in the city from Thursday to Sunday to attend a ceremony marking the anniversary of the handover, which took place on July 1, 1997.

The Chinese leader will also take part in the inauguration of the fifth administration of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the semi-autonomous city's government.

Xinhua did not provide more details about the trip.

Carrie Lam, a former career civil servant, was chosen in late March as the city's new chief executive and will be sworn in on July 1.

Xi's visit comes at a time when Beijing stands accused of squeezing the city's freedoms and frustrations have led to the emergence of a new independence movement calling for Hong Kong to break from the mainland.

Protesters say they are preparing to gather during the handover celebrations and Xi's visit will be shrouded in a huge security operation.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post newspaper gave a detailed itinerary of the trip last week.

Xi, who will be accompanied by his wife Peng Liyuan, will tour the garrison of China's People's Liberation Army in central Hong Kong and an infrastructure project, the Post said.

Hong Kong was handed back to China by colonial power Britain in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" deal designed to protect its freedoms and way of life for 50 years.

But a number of incidents, including the disqualification from parliament of two pro-independence lawmakers and the alleged abduction of five Hong Kong booksellers, have raised fears that Beijing is trampling the agreement.

Greece takes home foreclosures online to avoid protests

The scene has become familiar in Greece in recent months — a middle-aged woman in a courthouse, trying to dodge an angry crowd shouting inches from her face.”Get out, crow!” is the usual cry at notaries — in most cases women — seeking to carry out c…

The scene has become familiar in Greece in recent months -- a middle-aged woman in a courthouse, trying to dodge an angry crowd shouting inches from her face.

"Get out, crow!" is the usual cry at notaries -- in most cases women -- seeking to carry out court-mandated property auctions. "Not a single home in bankers' hands!"

A tacit ban on thousands of property foreclosures in Greece, stalling sales for years, is now under threat as cash-strapped banks and social insurance funds start to turn the screws on borrowers.

And to escape obstruction by anti-eviction groups, the auctions will be taken online with the blessing of Greece's EU-IMF creditors.

"It will be like eBay," warns Victor Tsiafoutis, a lawyer helping debtors on behalf of Greek consumer group Ekpizo.

"Everything is being done to facilitate foreclosures... it's all done for the banks," he lamented.

From September, a custom-made platform will enable some 15,000 properties including homes to go under the hammer electronically, says Georgios Rouskas, head of Greece's notary associations.

"There are court rulings covering these foreclosures... instead of doing it in court, it will be done on an electronic platform."

In recent months, notaries have played a cat-and-mouse game with anti-eviction activists, who arrive in force to prevent property auctions from taking place.

On a regular basis, members of leftist groups -- including hardline former ministers of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras -- interrupt the proceedings and escort notaries out of court offices, in full view of the police.

- 'Punching bag' -

After several run-ins, the notaries in October decided to abstain from all but the most pressing auction cases. They ended their protest on Friday.

"We had become a punching bag," says Rouskas. "Foreclosures were never easy to accept... (but) in the past year the problem has become acute."

The notaries insist that the repossessions are not targeting the poor -- in most cases, properties to go under the hammer are worth over 300,000 euros.

Formerly loose with questionable loans to not only the public, but also political parties and prominent media groups, Greek banks are now loaded with bad debt.

From 2011 onwards, if property auctions had been allowed to proceed unhindered, the number of foreclosures stemming from mortgages would have doubled, the notaries say.

Those related to business loans would have tripled, while those linked to consumer loans would have quadrupled.

- Protection waning -

In 2010, at the outset of Greece's seven-year economic crisis, a law was passed to protect family homes from debt seizure.

For years to come, private and state creditors refrained from aggressively pursuing foreclosures, even after court rulings, as the country sank deeper into recession.

Bank staff privately admit that mass foreclosures would also have been impractical in a country with a near-dead property market, as they would have found it hard to sell on the houses they seized.

But this has led to wealthy debtors playing the system to their advantage, Rouskas argues, by using the auction moratorium to avoid having their assets taken and sold.

"Greeks are prone to extremes," says Rouskas.

"We are asked to stop all auctions, be it a warehouse, a factory, a villa, a hotel or a ship... anything that can be called 'people's' property."

In the online auction platform, which was prepared with advice from EU-IMF technical experts, participation is open to all bidders, Greek or foreign.

Tsiafoutis says the move "may benefit foreign funds and investors (as) there is no liquidity (in Greece)."

Auctions will be held three times a week from 11 in the morning to five in the afternoon.

Bidders will need to register ahead of time and pay a fee depending on the value of the property.

The software is being developed by Newsphone Hellas, a company best known in Greece for late-night TV telemarketing ads.

"This is who we found... they were the best prepared," shrugs Rouskas, pointing to a low contract cost of 20,000 euros for each of Greece's nine regional notary associations "compared to initial estimates of 900,000 euros".

"The law says everybody should be free to participate in the process. There will be opposition. But I think things will work out," he says when asked about a possible backlash.

On June 15, masked anarchists smashed the front entrance of Newsphone Hellas and threw paint in the lobby.

Rouskas says notaries are not intimidated.

"Notaries have always held auctions in public. We are not scared. Most people recognise our contribution (in delaying unfair auctions)."

But others in the profession are not as sanguine.

"Why should I get beaten up because someone didn't settle their debt on time?" says another notary, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The justice ministry did not respond to calls for comment. Two top banks with homes to auction declined to answer questions for this story.

Soweto’s urban entrepreneurs take on the world

At the back of Mandisa Zwane’s typical yellow plaster-clad Soweto house is a bustling hive of activity set to a soundtrack of gospel music and crying babies that emanates from nearby.Every day the 42-year-old fashion designer packs into her small impro…

At the back of Mandisa Zwane's typical yellow plaster-clad Soweto house is a bustling hive of activity set to a soundtrack of gospel music and crying babies that emanates from nearby.

Every day the 42-year-old fashion designer packs into her small improvised workshop surrounded by sewing machines and brightly coloured spools of thread.

When she began making her distinctively bold and bright African print garments in South Africa's most famous township in 2009, she made just three every month.

"Before I was just making for friends and family -- and they weren't even paying! Then I was able to hire four people to grow," she told AFP.

Zwane is one of dozens of township entrepreneurs whose creations have sold worldwide with help from Soweto's Box Shop, a not for profit organisation helping local designers and craftspeople market their creations internationally.

She now sells her designs as far away as Atlanta and London, making up to 60 pieces every month supported by her four-strong team which includes two salespeople, a tailor and an assistant.

"I was just playing with my passion then they came in and helped me organise my business financially," she said of the Box Shop, situated just miles away from her Soweto base.

"My ambition is to take take my brand to the world -- I want to be the go-to for contemporary African design."

- 'The next IKEA' -

Zwane, who lived in Benin for seven years, travels to the west African country every two months to source the materials which she transforms into dresses, skirts and trousers.

Buyers worldwide can purchase many products of the Box Shop's 43 local brands on its website, while a larger selection is available for South African and international visitors at its physical store in Soweto.

The store is made of large metal shipping containers, giving the project its name, and hosts offices, a coffee shop and will soon be extended to include a hair salon and a radio station.

The hilly tourist hub is one of the most famous in Africa and is the site of Nelson Mandela's one-time house as well as one of Desmond Tutu's current homes.

"It's about access to market -- taking backyard fashion designers, backyard furniture makers who don't have a place to showcase their products," said Xolo Ncanywa, a consultant on the project. "We want them to be the next IKEA."

The entrepreneurs on the scheme receive mentoring, practical assistance and investment advice from Box Shop's team of 11 experts. Such hands-on "start to finish" support for small-scale entrepreneurs is a first for South Africa.

Designers and manufacturers like Zwane pitch their ideas to the Box Shop, which is backed by US-based not-for-profit TechnoServe, to win support for their products.

"Selling out of their car boots, they were always doomed to be small... This changes all that," said Shungu Kanyemba, co-founder of the Box Shop.

The Box Shop gives the successful entrepreneurs feedback on their plans and advises on sourcing materials and finance, handling personnel issues and managing their operations.

It also takes a risk on the entrepreneurs it chooses: the Box Shop advances money for the raw materials for products to be sold on the website so the entrepreneurs are not out of pocket.

The Soweto store now carries an eclectic range of products that includes bespoke speakers, shoes, furniture, clothes, cosmetics and freshly-brewed coffee.

- Entrepreneurial gold-rush -

Despite receiving support from banking giant CitiGroup's philanthropic foundation, the project is not charity. It recoups its operating costs when the entrepreneurs make their profits when their objects sell on the website.

The store in Soweto opened in 2016 and has since signed-up 80 different small-scale entrepreneurs. It now makes around 100,000 rand ($7,800, 7,000 euros) in sales per month.

The Box Shop team are already picking a site for another store, this time in Durban, as well as planning 15 'pop-up' locations to coincide with major events.

Despite the government spending six billion rand developing the townships in 2016 and vowing to make small-scale entrepreneurship part of its economic strategy, South Africa's townships are struggling to become hubs of commercial activity.

A citizen of Egypt or Burkina Faso is six times more likely to start a business than a South African, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor group.

But with about half its urban population living in townships -- 38 percent of working-age citizens -- South Africa is hoping that the nascent entrepreneurial gold-rush taking hold in Soweto will benefit the country's poorest citizens.

Velaphi Mpolweni, 49, began making home furnishings from the back of his modest Johannesburg home in 2013.

"Before the Box Shop I had been struggling -- people weren't seeing my products," he said at the bustling, sawdust-strewn Furntech community workshop on the edge of Soweto.

Mpolweni is now making 670,000 rand a year in sales, employs four men and has just inked a major deal to supply a chandelier to a client in the USA.

Oscar Hilary, 33, who lives in Soweto, has been employed by Mpolweni as a joiner for a year and credits his boss' international exposure for keeping him in a job.

"It helps a lot," he said. "It keeps us going."

India’s Modi heads to Washington for ‘no frills’ Trump meet

India’s leader heads to the US this weekend for his first meeting with President Donald Trump, seeking to build on growing ties between the world’s two largest democracies and move beyond disagreements over climate change.Relations between New Delhi an…

India's leader heads to the US this weekend for his first meeting with President Donald Trump, seeking to build on growing ties between the world's two largest democracies and move beyond disagreements over climate change.

Relations between New Delhi and Washington warmed under Trump's predecessor Barack Obama as India sought greater foreign investment and trade ties with Western nations.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed to work closely with the Trump administration, but obstacles soon emerged on issues such as trade and visas for Indians wanting to work in the United States.

Then Trump accused India of seeking to profit from the Paris climate accord as he announced he was pulling out of the deal this month -- drawing sharp denials from New Delhi.

Officials were eager to downplay expectations of the visit that begins on Sunday, describing it as "no frills" -- in contrast to Modi's first US visit in 2014, when he basked in a rock star welcome at the Madison Square Garden arena in New York and addressed the United Nations.

"If there's one thing we want (from the visit), it's chemistry," said one senior Indian official. "If the chemistry is good then frankly everything else gets sorted."

Some commentators have argued that Modi and Trump should have a natural affinity as political outsiders who have risen to power in part by castigating the traditional ruling elite on a nationalist platform.

One US official said the two leaders had a "lot in common" and noted Modi would be the first foreign dignitary to have a working dinner at the White House under the new administration.

"We are really seeking to roll out the red carpet," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

- 'Make in India' -

Trump's protectionist instincts, however, are at odds with India's efforts to boost exports and encourage Western manufacturers to "Make In India" -- a flagship Modi scheme.

The Indian premier castigated "rising parochial and protectionist attitudes" in a speech delivered shortly after Trump took office that was widely interpreted as a dig at the president's "America first" mantra.

A proposed overhaul of H-1B visas -- used by thousands of Indian software engineers to work in the United States -- has also caused concern in New Delhi.

Analysts said Monday's meeting at the White House would give Modi the chance to size up a US leader whose focus has so far been on ties with India's regional rival China.

"The meeting between the two leaders is very significant, obviously, because the new administration's policies towards Asia and particularly India, are not very clear," said Sujit Datta, foreign policy specialist at New Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia University.

"India's relationship with the US is a very important one in terms of economic relations, trade, industry and wider strategic relevance regarding Afghanistan, Pakistan," he told AFP.

Regional security is expected to be high on the agenda for the talks as Washington considers deploying up to 5,000 extra troops in Afghanistan to help local forces fighting the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

The new administration has also indicated it could take a tougher stance on Pakistan, which India has long accused of harbouring militant groups.

Modi, a Hindu nationalist, was effectively barred from the United States for years after deadly communal riots in the western state of Gujarat during his time as chief minister. Most of those killed were Muslims.

But after his landslide election victory, Modi built a strong rapport with Obama who became the first sitting US president to pay a second visit to India when he attended the 2015 Republic Day celebrations.

Political analyst Ashley Tellis said in an interview with Asian Age that the meeting with Trump would give Modi "an opportunity to take the measure of the man, articulate India?s interests, and describe the opportunities those interests provide for the US".

"I don?t think PM Modi can change Trump?s worldview. But he can help Trump to think of India as an opportunity rather than as a problem," said Tellis, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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Cyprus leaders under pressure to strike peace deal in Swiss resort

Rival Cypriot leaders at a make-or-break summit in Switzerland this week will come under pressure to seal an elusive peace deal for their divided island or face the consequences.”We are looking for a final settlement? We expect both parties to come wit…

Rival Cypriot leaders at a make-or-break summit in Switzerland this week will come under pressure to seal an elusive peace deal for their divided island or face the consequences.

"We are looking for a final settlement? We expect both parties to come with determination, will and leadership for a final settlement," a UN spokesperson told AFP.

"We are expecting all parties to come to the table and settle this once and for all, including Greece, Turkey and Britain," the three so-called guarantor powers of the former British colony.

President Nicos Anastasiades, the Greek Cypriot leader, and his Turkish Cypriot counterpart Mustafa Akinci are to resume the UN-led reunification talks on Wednesday in the Alpine ski resort of Crans-Montana.

The conference is expected to run for at least 10 days, according to officials. Apart from the guarantor powers, a representative of the European Union will attend as an observer.

It has yet to be confirmed if UN chief Antonio Guterres will take part.

UN-backed Cyprus peace talks held in Geneva in January failed to make any headway.

The eastern Mediterranean island has been divided since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded its northern third in response to an Athens-inspired coup seeking union with Greece.

Turkey maintains around 35,000 troops in northern Cyprus.

The Cyprus talks moved to Switzerland after negotiations on the island hit a dead end more than two years into the UN-brokered process.

Top of the agenda is a new security arrangement for a post-settlement federal Cyprus. This would involve the guarantor powers, which retain the right of military intervention.

Unlocking security would allow Anastasiades, who heads the island's internationally recognised government, and Akinci to make concessions on other core issues.

- Turkish proposal on security -

But major differences remain over a new security blueprint.

The Greek Cypriot side seeks an agreement in Switzerland on the Turkish military presence, while the Turkish Cypriots want the conference to focus on broader issues of power-sharing, property rights and territory.

Anastasiades's government, backed by Athens, is pressing to abolish the intervention rights and for Turkish troops to withdraw from the island on a specific timeline.

On the other side, the Turkish Cypriots and Ankara will argue to retain some form of intervention rights and a reduced number of troops remaining in the north.

A diplomatic source told AFP that Turkey is ready to bring a proposal to the table.

"The Turkish side is willing to reduce troop numbers by 80 percent and put this on the table. It is not realistic for the Greek Cypriots to say 'no troops' and 'no guarantees'," said the source.

Analysts also view the security issue as the key battleground.

"What we can hope for is progress on the security chapter which will determine the outcome of the meeting in Switzerland," said Hubert Faustmann, a political science professor at the University of Nicosia.

"In the best possible case, Turkey offers a security deal that has a sunset clause for the presence of the Turkish troops, anything less than that and Anastasiades is unlikely to agree and the conference will fail," he added.

The United Nations, which has 950 peacekeepers serving in Cyprus, could have some oversight role to implement new security arrangements.

Faustmann argued that failure in Switzerland could prompt the world body to seriously review its peacekeeping mission (UNFICYP) on Cyprus.

"There will be consequences within the UNFICYP mandate, if the talks fail the UN's Good Offices will be closed."

Negotiations have focused on creating a new federation in Cyprus but disagreements over the return of property, territorial adjustments and power-sharing have yet to be fully resolved.

A group of Greek and Turkish Cypriots has been organising protests across the UN-controlled buffer zone in Nicosia urging the leaders to go the final mile.

"They more or less know what a final settlement will look like. The only thing necessary now is to have the will and courage to make the political decisions to get there," said peace activist Esra Aygin.

The talks are also complicated by a Greek Cypriot presidential election next February and the island's search for oil and gas that Ankara wants suspended until the negotiations have reached an outcome.

After a UN reunification blueprint was rejected by Greek Cypriots in a referendum in 2004, Cyprus joined the EU still a divided island, with the breakaway north recognised only by Turkey.

Any Cyprus peace accord will have to be put to a new vote.

Philippine forces declare Eid truce in war-torn city

The Philippine armed forces declared an eight-hour ceasefire Sunday in its ongoing offensive against Islamist militants occupying parts of the war-torn city of Marawi to allow residents to celebrate the end of Ramadan.Military chief General Eduardo Ano…

The Philippine armed forces declared an eight-hour ceasefire Sunday in its ongoing offensive against Islamist militants occupying parts of the war-torn city of Marawi to allow residents to celebrate the end of Ramadan.

Military chief General Eduardo Ano said his forces would implement a "humanitarian pause" during the Eid al-Fitr holiday in Marawi, which is considered the most important Muslim city in the mainly Catholic Philippines.

"We declare a lull in our current operations in the city on that day as a manifestation of our high respect to the Islamic faith," Ano said in a statement.

The Eid al-Fitr feast ends the fasting month of Ramadan when observant Muslims do not drink or eat between dawn and nightfall.

The general described the move as "a testimony to the Armed Forces of the Philippines' solid commitment to provide our brother Muslims, especially in the city of Marawi, an opportunity to observe this festive event."

Hundreds of militants flying the Islamic State group flag and backed by foreign fighters seized swathes of Marawi in the southern region of Mindanao last month, sparking an ongoing bloody, street-to-street battle.

In May Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law across all of Mindanao to quell what he said was a rebellion aimed at establishing an IS province in the area.

Government troops have launched a relentless air and ground offensive in a bid to crush the militants but have failed to dislodge gunmen from entrenched positions in pockets of the city.

Much of the lakeside city is now in ruins while most of its 200,000 residents have fled to evacuation centres or to the homes of relatives and friends.

Families separated by US-Mexico border have fleeting reunion

After more than a decade apart, the Pastrana family on Saturday finally got to embrace during a special event allowing nearly 200 families separated by the US-Mexico border to spend three minutes together.The meeting took place in the middle of the mur…

After more than a decade apart, the Pastrana family on Saturday finally got to embrace during a special event allowing nearly 200 families separated by the US-Mexico border to spend three minutes together.

The meeting took place in the middle of the murky Rio Grande -- which divides the Mexican city Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas and is crossable this time of year -- under the watchful eye of Border Patrol agents.

"It has been a very long 11 years," said Claudia Pastrana, a 42-year-old from Ciudad Juarez, after hugging her sister and niece who now live in Texas.

"It is an unforgettable moment."

More than 2,500 people of the 195 families separated by immigration or deportations attended the event, dubbed "Hugs Not Walls," which is organized by the non-profit Border Network of Human Rights group.

It is the fourth round of the event, and the second since the presidential election of Donald Trump, who has on numerous occasions targeted Mexicans with anti-immigration rhetoric.

"It is a way of protesting and raising a voice against aggressive policies of the current (US) president," said Fernando Garcia, director of the Border Network.

Border patrol authorities stood on guard "so that no one is going to cross at the time of the hugs," said Ramiro Cordero, spokesman for the El Paso sector's border patrol.

After the brief but spirited meeting, Pastrana, who attended with her son and nephew, returned to the Mexican side.

From there she waved her arms in a long farewell to her sister, until she lost sight.

Merkel rival Martin Schulz fights to stem popularity plunge

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief challenger in September elections, Martin Schulz, faces a party congress on Sunday where he will be pressed for a strategy to reverse his plunging popularity.Schulz has been campaigning for “social justice” throu…

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief challenger in September elections, Martin Schulz, faces a party congress on Sunday where he will be pressed for a strategy to reverse his plunging popularity.

Schulz has been campaigning for "social justice" through higher taxes for big earners, but surveys three months before the vote suggest that his call has so far failed to translate into support.

Backing for the SPD this week hit a 2017 low, while Merkel's party is enjoying a lead of 14 to 16 percentage points.

SPD party rank-and-file gathering in the western city of Dortmund on Sunday to approve their election campaign programme will be looking for reassurance amid the poor poll numbers.

But as Schulz himself had admitted, his party faces a "rocky road" to national elections after it was soundly beaten for the third state election in a row this year by Merkel's CDU.

For analysts, the suddenly waning support for Schulz's SPD boils down to the government's success in curbing a refugee influx that saw 890,000 migrants arrive in 2015, deeply unsettling many German voters.

Schulz initially "was presented as an alternative to Madame Merkel," said Gero Neugebauer, a political science analyst at Berlin's Free University.

"He was relatively new and had criticisms against the chancellor's immigration policy which had divided public opinion," added Neugebauer.

But migrant arrivals have tapered off, and Merkel's CDU and CSU "have won increasing trust that they have the best strategy to deal with the refugee situation," Renate Koecher from opinion research group Allensbach Institute wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

- Lull voters to sleep -

Schulz's call for a more equal society may find resonance with the working poor, but Koecher noted that with Germany's solid economic outlook and record low unemployment, "it is likely to have limited impact".

But Schulz is no stranger to bouncing back from setbacks.

After an injury dashed his dreams of becoming a professional footballer, Schulz sank into alcoholism before opening a bookstore and becoming an autodidact with six languages under his belt.

Without finishing high school, he also rose to become president of the European Parliament, an unusual achievement for Germany, a country obsessed with academic qualifications.

Party members are so far still keeping the faith, perhaps for want of an alternative.

"The SPD should not be underestimated. Angela Merkel is trying to lull the voters to sleep and keep them away from the election... but she won't succeed this time," said Leon Hahn, who heads the party's youth wing in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.

He added that Schulz "is an excellent chancellor candidate with good prospects of winning the election".

"A change at the top is neither necessary nor even seriously considered by anyone in the SPD," he added.

Albania votes with EU accession talks in mind

Albania votes in a parliamentary election on Sunday with Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama hoping to boost his grip on power and lead the Balkan country into talks on European Union accession.The 52-year-old is calling for a second term to complete swe…

Albania votes in a parliamentary election on Sunday with Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama hoping to boost his grip on power and lead the Balkan country into talks on European Union accession.

The 52-year-old is calling for a second term to complete sweeping reforms of Albania's notoriously corrupt judicial system that have been demanded by Brussels.

"One thing is certain: the cure to the cancer that took Albania hostage has already begun," the premier told a campaign rally this week.

Opinion polls showed the Socialists slightly ahead of their rivals from the centre-right Democratic Party, whose leader Lulzim Basha is an ardent admirer of US President Donald Trump.

The 43-year-old has accused Rama of links to organised crime and turning the country into a "drugstore", referring to Albania's lucrative but illicit cannabis trade. The premier rejects the accusations.

The Democrats had threatened to boycott the election until a month ago over fears the vote would be unfair, but they struck a deal giving them key ministerial posts in the run-up.

Basha pledges to create a "New Republic", with "a programme focused on the economy and the future of citizens, tax cuts, internships for young people, subsidies for farmers," he explained to AFP.

- Calmer campaigning -

Since communism collapsed in the early 1990s, Albanian elections have been marred by fraud, violence, disputed results and bitter rivalries bordering on hatred.

After a 2009 election, the Rama-led Socialist opposition cried fraud and urged supporters onto the streets for months of protests. Three people were shot dead at demonstrations in 2011.

This time "there is an agreement between the political parties... to have a calmer election campaign than we have seen previously," said analyst Ardian Civici.

He believes a possible outcome is a "grand coalition" between the two main forces in the 140-seat parliament -- pointing out that the overriding aim of both sides is to open EU accession talks.

Few campaigning banners or posters have graced the streets in the capital Tirana, where computer sciences student Ardiola Karalli, 23, said the economy would be foremost on her mind in the polling booth.

"Many young people want to leave the country, including me, because we have to find work."

- More to do -

Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe and its unemployment rate affecting nearly one in three young people has spurred the highest emigration levels in the world.

Unemployed mother Shqipe Berberi, 43, who lives in the city of Kavaje to the west of the capital, said she could not afford to feed her children properly.

"I hope that the new government leader will allow us to live better. Those who have been in power did nothing," she told AFP.

Albania, home to 2.9 million people, became a candidate for EU accession in 2014 and Rama wants to open negotiations by the end of the year, but the road remains long.

In its last report on the country in November, the European Commission said the judicial system remained "slow and inefficient" and marred by corruption.

A "grand coalition" between the two main parties would allow them to oust the Socialist Movement for Integration, the party of President-elect Ilir Meta, who for 10 years has played kingmaker in Albanian politics.

Polls will be open from 0500 GMT until 1700 GMT and will be monitored by 3,000 election observers, including more than 300 foreigners.

Thousands in Cuzco celebrate Incan festival of the sun

At the highest point of the Coricancha temple in Cuzco at dawn, an indigenous actor interpreting a ceremony of the ancient Inca raises his hands to receive the sun’s first rays.But these are changing times for the ancient Inti Raymi festival, one of th…

At the highest point of the Coricancha temple in Cuzco at dawn, an indigenous actor interpreting a ceremony of the ancient Inca raises his hands to receive the sun's first rays.

But these are changing times for the ancient Inti Raymi festival, one of the most important Incan religious ceremonies: nearby, a drone flies overhead, recording the staging.

For today's South American civilizations, June 24 marks the southern hemisphere's winter solstice. But for the country's indigenous population it commemorates the beginning of the sun's journey back to "Pachamama" -- the word for "Mother Earth" in Quechua, a language spoken by some 3.2 million Peruvians.

Approximately 80,000 people crowd in and near Cuzco, a southeastern Peruvian city, for the celebration, many clad in vividly colored costumes.

The theatrical representation at the ancient Incan ruins Saksaywaman draws some 3,500 audience members, as locals and tourists alike observe the reenactment of ancient rites and sacrifices meant to ensure a good harvest.

Actors portraying the Incan emperor and his wife go from Coricancha to Cuzco's main square, where ancient ruins of the Incan city stand along Baroque churches and palaces built by Spanish conquistadors.

"I feel happy and proud, like every Cuzco resident, to participate," said Alexander Carbajal, who is taking part for the second year and portrays a soldier of the imperial guard of the Inca in the staging.

During the ceremony Cuzco is gridlocked: the day before the main party, some 250 delegations parade through, music ringing out and dancers twirling.

The procession begins the morning of June 23 and lasts until dawn the next day.

"As people from Cuzco we feel proud," said Alice Quispe Condori, who dons a colorful poncho.

During Spanish colonization of the region the tradition was largely repressed by Catholic priests and continued only in secret from 1542 to 1824.

It was revived in 1944 and today is a source of Andean pride, particularly in Cuzco, the ancient Incan capital.

"Cuzco is a large and ancient city, and many towns of the same era are now cloaked in oblivion," said the deputy minister of tourism, Rogers Valencia, noting the disappearance of the Mesopotamian cities of Nineveh and Babylon.

"Cuzco, with its 3,500 years, lives."

Eight detained over Colombia mall blast

Colombian authorities have detained eight people on suspicion of involvement in a deadly mall bombing in Bogota last week, the defense ministry said on Saturday.Three women including a French citizen were killed and nine people injured in the weekend b…

Colombian authorities have detained eight people on suspicion of involvement in a deadly mall bombing in Bogota last week, the defense ministry said on Saturday.

Three women including a French citizen were killed and nine people injured in the weekend bombing, condemned by Colombian authorities and rebel leaders as a bid to disrupt the country's peace process.

The demobilization of the leftist FARC and peace talks with the last active rebel force, the ELN, are meant to end more than half a century of violence.

Authorities said the detainees were part of a fringe group called the Revolutionary People's Movement (MRP), which has been blamed for several low-impact attacks in the capital.

They were arrested in a joint operation in Bogota and the central town of Espinal, according to the ministry, which said the suspects were identified using security camera footage.

No group has claimed responsibility for the mall bombing, which was the second major attack this year in the Colombian capital.

In February, the ELN claimed a bombing at a bullring in Bogota, which killed a police officer and wounded more than 20 people.

At 86, Argentine ex-leader eyes reelection — and immunity

Argentine ex-president Carlos Menem announced Saturday he is running for parliament again at age 86, a move that could enable him to continue to dodge prison time over a string of criminal convictions.President from 1989 to 1999 and a senator since 200…

Argentine ex-president Carlos Menem announced Saturday he is running for parliament again at age 86, a move that could enable him to continue to dodge prison time over a string of criminal convictions.

President from 1989 to 1999 and a senator since 2005, Menem has been convicted of arms trafficking and corruption, but has so far escaped prison time thanks to his parliamentary immunity.

If elected, Menem -- who announced his candidacy in the country's October elections on Twitter -- would be 91 by the end of his four-year term.

Menem was once wildly popular, leading Argentina through a period of rapid economic growth in the 1990s and titillating Argentines with his fondness for fast cars and women half his age.

But his popularity plummeted as his key economic policies unraveled after his tenure, culminating in a devastating 2001 crisis that triggered riots in the streets.

In 2013 he was sentenced to seven years for trafficking arms to Croatia and Ecuador, a sentence that was upheld by Argentina's top criminal court this week.

He was also convicted in 2015 of corruption for masterminding the illegal overpayment of high-ranking officials' salaries.

Argentina’s Kirchner to make Senate bid

Cristina Kirchner, the leftist ex-president who dominated Argentine politics for years alongside her late husband, intends to run in upcoming parliamentary elections despite facing corruption charges, officials in her party said Saturday.The 64-year-ol…

Cristina Kirchner, the leftist ex-president who dominated Argentine politics for years alongside her late husband, intends to run in upcoming parliamentary elections despite facing corruption charges, officials in her party said Saturday.

The 64-year-old, who has remained a divisive figure since leaving power two years ago, will make a bid for a Senate seat in October's midterm elections, two top party officials told local media.

Cristina Kirchner took office in 2007, vowing to continue the work started by her husband Nestor Kirchner, who in 2003 inherited an economy in shambles after what was then the largest sovereign debt default in history.

Since leaving office Kirchner has channeled popular anger against the budget cuts of her successor Mauricio Macri, launching a new party called Citizen Union, and her return to politics spells a headache for the conservative president.

Kirchner is meanwhile being investigated over three sets of corruption charges and faces trial in a fourth case of alleged financial mismanagement as president.

She denies wrongdoing and says the cases are politically motivated.

A seat in the Senate would spare her jail if convicted. Her supporters hope it could also pave the way for a fresh presidential bid in 2019.

Trump wishes Muslims ‘warm greetings’ for Eid

US President Donald Trump on Saturday sent warm greetings” to Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan, after his administration broke with the tradition of hosting a White House event to recognize the holy month.”On behalf of the American people, Melani…

US President Donald Trump on Saturday sent warm greetings" to Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan, after his administration broke with the tradition of hosting a White House event to recognize the holy month.

"On behalf of the American people, Melania and I send our warm greetings to Muslims as they celebrate Eid al-Fitr," Trump said in a statement. "During this holiday, we are reminded of the importance of mercy, compassion, and goodwill."

"With Muslims around the world, the United States renews our commitment to honor these values."

Since the Bill Clinton administration, the White House has each year hosted either an event to mark the Eid al-Fitr feast -- which ends the fasting month of Ramadan -- or a meal breaking the dawn-til-dusk fast, known as an iftar.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly rejected a request by his department's office of religion and global affairs to hold an event for the holiday.

Trump has come under fire for his history of anti-Muslim rhetoric on the campaign trail, that included calls for surveillance of US mosques and an outright ban on Muslims entering the country in the name of national security.

A week after becoming president he issued a ban on travelers from several predominantly Muslim countries, which has been frozen by the US courts after sparking global chaos and outrage.

Yet during a visit to Saudi Arabia last month, Trump softened his tone on Islam, rejecting the idea of a battle between religions in an address before dozens of leaders of Muslim countries.

Global pact on environmental rights to be presented to UN

Hollywood star turned activist Arnold Schwarzenegger joined politicians and legal experts in Paris Saturday to launch a campaign for a global pact to protect the human right to a clean, healthy environment.French President Emmanuel Macron promised to p…

Hollywood star turned activist Arnold Schwarzenegger joined politicians and legal experts in Paris Saturday to launch a campaign for a global pact to protect the human right to a clean, healthy environment.

French President Emmanuel Macron promised to present the pact which its supporters want to see become an international treaty to the United Nations in September.

"With the planetary plan, we need to move on to a new stage after the Paris accord," said Macron, referring to the landmark agreement signed in December 2015 by 196 nations to take steps to reduce greenhouse gases and combat global warming.

The end goal of the new pact is a legal treaty under which states can be brought to justice for flouting the rights of a group or individual.

"We already have two international (human rights) pacts... The idea is to create a third, for a third generation of rights -- environmental rights," said former French prime minister Laurent Fabius, who also presided over the Paris COP 21 conference on climate change.

Seeking to underline the urgency of the need to act, Fabius said it was time for "less talk, more action", borrowing the turn of phrase from ex-California governor-turned climate campaigner Schwarzenegger, who joined the gathering, as did former UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

Other participants at the meeting at the Sorbonne university included high court judges from several countries.

- 'Not right versus left' -

The initiative comes just weeks after President Donald Trump announced that he would pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement on curbing dangerous global warming.

But Schwarzenegger in his campaigning to fight climate change said it must not be a partisan political issue.

"It is absolutely imperative that we not make it a political issue," he said after meeting Macron on Friday.

"This is not the right versus the left because there is no liberal air or conservative air. We all breathe the same air. There is no liberal water or conservative water, we all drink the same water," the star of "The Terminator" movies said.

The new pact will eventually be put to the United Nations for adoption, and impose legally-binding obligations on signatory states, its drafters say.

The earlier covenants -- one for social, economic and cultural rights, the other for civil and political rights -- were adopted by the UN in 1966.

Fabius says the new text will outline rights and duties, provide for reparations to be made in case of a breach, and introduce the "polluter pays" principle, holding them legally responsible or compelling them to adopt green laws.

That would be in marked contrast to earlier declarations such as that made following the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio which was not legally binding.

Activists demand removal of pig farm from Roma Holocaust site

Anti-racism activists from across Europe on Saturday demanded the removal of a pig farm from a Holocaust memorial site where hundreds of Roma perished in a Nazis concentration camp during World War II. The leftist-led Czech government promised in 2016 …

Anti-racism activists from across Europe on Saturday demanded the removal of a pig farm from a Holocaust memorial site where hundreds of Roma perished in a Nazis concentration camp during World War II.

The leftist-led Czech government promised in 2016 to buy out the farm before elections this October, but infighting among the three coalition parties could scupper a deal.

Activists also began lobbying the European Union in May last year to halt subsidies paid to the farm in Lety, a village 75 kilometres (47 miles) south of the capital Prague.

Owner Agpi says it is open to moving the facility, so long as the Czech state offers adequate compensation.

"The Czech Republic must reject this negative symbol and transform it into a positive one underpinned by the values of dignity, equality and liberty," Benjamin Abtan, an activist heading the European Grassroots Antiracism Movement (EGAM), told AFP.

Abtan joined dozens of activist from across Europe at the Lety site Saturday to pressure the Czech government to make good on its promised buy out before October elections.

Between 1940 and 1943, Nazi Germany and its Czech collaborators imprisoned close to 1,300 Czech Roma at the concentration camp.

Some 327 Roma, including 241 children, died at the camp staffed by an ethnic Czech commander and guards, while more than 500 were sent to Nazi Germany's infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in occupied southern Poland.

The communist Czechoslovak regime built the pig farm on the site in the 1970s.

It has reaped scorn at home and abroad ever since totalitarianism was toppled in 1989, four years before Czechoslovakia split into two states.

Alongside European Jews, the continent's smaller Roma minority was a target of Nazi genocide during World War II.

The Czech Republic, an EU country of 10.5 million, has a Roma community estimated to number between 250,000 and 300,000.

Of the roughly one million Roma who lived in Europe prior to WWII, historians believe that Nazi Germany killed over half.

Putin praises Russia’s ‘unique’ spy network

President Vladimir Putin on Saturday praised Russia’s network of intelligence officers as “unique people” who are devoted to the country.”To give up their life, their nearest and dearest and leave the country for many years, and to dedicate one’s life…

President Vladimir Putin on Saturday praised Russia's network of intelligence officers as "unique people" who are devoted to the country.

"To give up their life, their nearest and dearest and leave the country for many years, and to dedicate one's life to the Fatherland, not everyone is capable of doing that," the former KGB officer said on state television.

"These are people not like the rest," who have qualities, convictions and character out of the ordinary, Putin added on the Russia-1 channel.

"These are unique people. I wish them happiness and prosperity," he added.

The Russian strongman said that his own service in the country's main security agency during the Soviet era had involved "especially, undercover intelligence".

Putin was stationed in Dresden, in what was then East Germany, for the Soviet espionage service from 1985-1990, according to his official biography.

"Even before I'd finished my school studies, I already wanted to be an intelligence officer," Putin said in the biography, adding that he had been attracted to the service by spy novels.

UN calls on Haiti government to step up

The UN Security Council on Saturday urged Haiti’s government to take on a more active role in the country’s development, as international peacekeepers prepare to pull out after a 13-year mission.”It is important to stress that we expect a stronger leve…

The UN Security Council on Saturday urged Haiti's government to take on a more active role in the country's development, as international peacekeepers prepare to pull out after a 13-year mission.

"It is important to stress that we expect a stronger level of national ownership and leadership from the government and authorities in Haiti," said Bolivian envoy Sacha Sergio Llorenty Soliz, as the Security Council wrapped up a 48-hour visit to Haiti.

After two years of political turmoil, Haiti has brought its electoral process to a close, but concerns persist in the country, the poorest in the Americas.

Economic growth remains significantly lower than in neighboring countries, as the country's poor majority struggles against inflation exceeding 15 percent annually.

However, an improved security environment prompted the Security Council to vote in April to renew for a final six-month period its UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known by its French acronym MINUSTAH.

Once the last foreign soldiers have gone, the UN will deploy a successor operation, the United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti (MINUJUSTH).

Its two-year mission involves training Haiti's national police and working to help the country bolster the rule of law.

During their visit, members of the Security Council met with President Jovenel Moise and lawmakers, as well as leaders from civil society groups and the private sector.

Those meetings helped the Security Council gain a better understanding of the challenges facing Haiti, Llorenty said.

"Peace and security are intrinsically linked to the basic needs of the population. If the basic needs such as health, education, water and sanitation services are not met, the work to install stability and development could be difficult if not impossible to achieve," said Llorenty, whose country holds the Council's presidency this month.

MINUSTAH was deployed in 2004 to help stem political violence after the departure of president Jean-Bertrand Aristide -- but it has not endeared itself to Haitians.

In 2010, Nepalese UN peacekeepers introduced cholera, leading to an outbreak that killed more than 9,000 Haitians.

The Security Council visit, which was marked by two protests, comes as the UN aid fund for Haiti's cholera victims is in chaos: only about $2.7 million of the $400 million needed for the relief funds has been raised.

The MINUSTAH operation in Haiti also ranks among those with the highest number of cases of sexual abuse.

Mourners return to Mali resort hit by jihadists

The debris of the jihadist attack is still scattered for all to see: broken tea cups, charred mobile phones and upended chairs strew the once idyllic surrounds of this Malian ecolodge following last Sunday’s violence.More than 100 mourners, diplomats a…

The debris of the jihadist attack is still scattered for all to see: broken tea cups, charred mobile phones and upended chairs strew the once idyllic surrounds of this Malian ecolodge following last Sunday's violence.

More than 100 mourners, diplomats and local officials gathered Saturday at the vast Kangaba Campement resort outside Mali's capital Bamako to remember the five victims who lost their lives, to pay their respects and express their fears for the west African nation's future.

A Malian soldier, a Chinese man, a Malian woman and a Portuguese soldier serving with the European Union military training mission died from bullet wounds, while a man from Cameroon died of a heart attack at the scene.

"Look at those beige sandals, they belonged to my friend who was killed," said a mourner named Maimouna, who was celebrating the birthday of a friend last Sunday when a group of gunmen appeared, shouting "Allahu Akbar" and firing on tourists.

- To stay or go? -

Several attackers were killed at the scene and subsequent arrests have been made, but the rarity of an attack, so close to Bamako, has shocked a nation sadly accustomed to reports of jihadist violence in its northern and central regions.

Herve Depardieu, a blond Frenchman who owns the Kangaba Campement and organised Saturday's ceremony, led proceedings, denouncing the "barbaric" murders and thanking quick-thinking European soldiers who raised the alarm when the attackers descended.

Following a minute's silence, tears began to flow from all quarters as bouquet after bouquet of flowers was thrown onto the attack site in the upper reaches of the vast resort.

Mourners joined hands and raised them aloft, and thoughts turned to the future of this troubled west African nation, where instability has grown worse in recent months as jihadist groups collaborate ever more effectively beyond their traditional strongholds.

"The problem today is to know whether to stay or to go," Depardieu wondered aloud, acknowledging that while the Al-Qaeda-linked group that carried out the attack ultimately want westerners out of Mali, "it is up to the authorities to do what they should be doing," referring to "necessary measures" to ensure security.

- 'Panic' -

Among those present were some of the 36 people briefly held hostage at the scene, returning just six days after a near brush with death to pay their respects to those who were less lucky.

Witnesses described jihadists descending from two directions simultaneously to trap those relaxing on higher ground, and the targeting white tourists.

Off-duty European soldiers fired on the attackers, one witness said, reducing the jihadists' firepower until help arrived.

"The jihadists really got scared when they saw from above that the Malian special forces had arrived, followed by a French army armoured vehicle," the witness added.

In a panic, jihadists fired on the roof of the Kangaba's restaurant terrace, and before long flames began to engulf the structure, according to a separate witness.

"It's just so sad. I came because the wife of my colleague was killed," one European mourner told AFP, amid the chaotic remains of a once cherished spot for those seeking respite from Bamako's heat and noise.

No central government representative attended the private ceremony on Saturday, though several European diplomats and local officials from the village where the Kangaba site is situated came to offer their respects.

The Group to Support Islam and Muslims, a fusion of jihadist groups with previous Al-Qaeda links, said it targeted the resort as a site of "debauchery", and described the attackers as "martyrs" after claiming the attack.

After routinely killing Malian soldiers and UN peacekeepers in the violence wracked north and centre, sections of which have little state presence at all, the group has now shown its capacity and willingness to attack civilian sites close to Bamako.

Gulf states to mark end of Ramadan from Sunday

The Eid al-Fitr feast marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is to start on Sunday in Saudi Arabia and neighbouring Gulf states, the religious authorities announced.The authorities in the kingdom said in a statement carried by the official…

The Eid al-Fitr feast marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is to start on Sunday in Saudi Arabia and neighbouring Gulf states, the religious authorities announced.

The authorities in the kingdom said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency that the new moon had been sighted, marking the end of the month of fasting.

News agencies in the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait also announced that Sunday will mark the beginning of Eid al-Fitr, and other countries in the region are expected to follow suit.

During Ramadan, observant Muslims do not drink, eat or have sexual relations between dawn and nightfall. They also try to avoid evil thoughts and deeds.

Ramadan is sacred to Muslims because tradition says the Koran was revealed to their prophet Mohammed during that month.

Putin visits annexed Crimea, triggering Kiev protest

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday visited Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula Moscow annexed in 2014, a trip quickly denounced by Kiev as a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.Putin made a stop at the legendary Artek holiday camp for young people…

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday visited Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula Moscow annexed in 2014, a trip quickly denounced by Kiev as a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty.

Putin made a stop at the legendary Artek holiday camp for young people, dating from Soviet times, on the shores of the Black Sea, the Kremlin said in a statement.

Founded in 1925 based on an idea from Lenin, the father of Russian communism, Artek went from a sanitorium for children with tuberculosis to a camp for "pioneers", the communist youth organisation for children aged 10 to 14.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Artek, like all of Crimea, was part of an independent Ukraine and the facility fell on hard times. But after the Russians took back the peninsula the youth camp was renovated.

"It wasn't that long ago that Artek went through rather difficult times. But now it is being reborn, and it is reborn as an international holiday camp," Putin said in a speech to the young people.

Putin has visited Crimea before since Russia's annexation, which was condemned by the international community, and Kiev considers it to still be part of Ukraine.

The country's foreign ministry issued a statement saying Kiev "considers this visit... to be a gross violation of the sovereignty of the State and the territorial integrity of Ukraine," according to the Russian TASS news agency.

Ukraine has been fighting a pro-Russian insurgency in the east of the country since 2014 which Kiev and its Western allies say is backed by Moscow. More than 10,000 people, civilians and fighters, have been killed since the start of the conflict.

Egypt’s Sisi ratifies handover of islands to Saudi Arabia

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ratified a treaty that hands over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia in a deal that had sparked protests and a police crackdown, the cabinet said Saturday.Sisi ratified the maritime border treaty days after parl…

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ratified a treaty that hands over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia in a deal that had sparked protests and a police crackdown, the cabinet said Saturday.

Sisi ratified the maritime border treaty days after parliament approved the deal, which has been the subject of a confusing legal battle with one court annulling the treaty and another upholding it.

The treaty, first announced in April 2016, had fuelled rare protests and police have arrested dozens of activists over the past week after calls for more demonstrations.

It had also been challenged in courts, but the country's highest tribunal had suspended the contradictory rulings this week until a final decision determined which court has jurisdiction.

Parliament's vote on June 14 came after days of heated debate, with opponents even interrupting one committee session with chanting.

The accord had sparked rare protests in Egypt, with Sisi accused of having traded the islands of Tiran and Sanafir for Saudi largesse.

The government has said the islands were Saudi to begin with, but were leased to Egypt in the 1950s.

Opponents of the agreement insist that Tiran and Sanafir are Egyptian.

- Access to Israel port -

Sisi on Tuesday had again insisted on the need to return the islands to their "owners".

"Nations are governed by constitutions and laws and legitimate rights, not whims or emotions," the presidency had quoted him as saying.

Lying at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, the islands can be used to control access to the Israeli port of Eilat.

They were captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war before being returned to Egypt under the 1979 Camp David Accords.

Generations of Egyptians had grown up learning in school that the two islands belonged to their country and that soldiers had died defending them during wars with Israel.

Sisi went ahead with the deal even though it threatened to dent his popularity, and at a time that the government, grappling with austerity reforms that have fuelled inflation, is wary of protests.

Police arrested dozens of activists since parliament passed the law.

Activists had called for protests last Friday, but few materialised.

Protests without a court permit are illegal in Egypt and may lead to prison terms.

A crackdown on opposition since the former army chief Sisi ousted Islamist president in 2013 has jailed thousands of people, mostly Islamists but also secular dissidents.

The country is also facing an Islamic State group-led insurgency that has killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers, and dozens of Coptic Christians in church attacks.

Egypt’s Sisi ratifies island handover to Saudi Arabia: cabinet

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ratified a treaty that hands over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia in a deal that had sparked protests and a police crackdown, the cabinet said Saturday.Sisi ratified the maritime border treaty days after parl…

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ratified a treaty that hands over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia in a deal that had sparked protests and a police crackdown, the cabinet said Saturday.

Sisi ratified the maritime border treaty days after parliament approved the deal, which has been the subject of a confusing legal battle with one court annulling the treaty and another upholding it.

The treaty, first announced in April 2016, had fuelled rare protests and police have arrested dozens of activists over the past week after calls for more demonstrations.

It had also been challenged in courts, but the country's highest tribunal had suspended the contradictory rulings this week until a final decision determined which court has jurisdiction.

Parliament's vote on June 14 came after days of heated debate in with opponents even interrupting one committee session with chanting.

The accord had sparked rare protests in Egypt, with Sisi accused of having traded the islands of Tiran and Sanafir for Saudi largesse.

The government has said the islands were Saudi to begin with, but were leased to Egypt in the 1950s.

Opponents of the agreement insist that Tiran and Sanafir are Egyptian.

OAS head rejects Venezuela offer to return to group if he resigns

The head of the Organization of American States dug in his heels Saturday in a war of words with Venezuela, brusquely rejecting its demand that he resign in exchange for the country’s continued membership in the regional body.Luis Almagro, the OAS secr…

The head of the Organization of American States dug in his heels Saturday in a war of words with Venezuela, brusquely rejecting its demand that he resign in exchange for the country's continued membership in the regional body.

Luis Almagro, the OAS secretary-general, has been at the center of an angry tiff between the organization and the Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro, which in April initiated the two-year process of withdrawing from the group.

Venezuela has grown increasingly irritated by Almagro's pointed criticisms. He has accused the government of violating human rights, interfering in elections and detaining political prisoners.

A political and economic crisis in the oil-producing country has spawned often violent demonstrations by protesters demanding Maduro's resignation and new elections. The unrest has left 75 people dead since April 1.

While Venezuela has begun the process of withdrawal from the OAS, Almagro on Saturday flatly rejected Maduro's suggestion that he step aside in exchange for the country's return to the group.

"We will never give up until we have the freedom of Venezuela in our hands," Almagro, who is Uruguayan, said in a video.

He said he would resign only "when free and transparent national elections are held ... (and) when all political prisoners are released and exiles are given amnesty."

He set a further condition: the prosecution of "the murderers of each of the protesters, as well as of their chain of command."

Despite Almagro's efforts, the OAS General Assembly, meeting this week in the Mexican resort of Cancun, was unable to reach agreement on a plan to deal with the instability in Venezuela.

Maduro called the OAS's failure to advance a plan "a diplomatic and political victory" for Venezuela, and said his country would "never" return to the grouping.

At a press conference with foreign reporters, he said that Almagro should step down and allow OAS member countries to "rebuild and reorganize" the institution -- the only way, he said, that "I would think of returning."

Global green pact supporters launch Paris campaign

Hollywood star turned activist Arnold Schwarzenegger joined politicians and legal experts in Paris Saturday to launch a campaign for a global pact to protect the human right to a clean, healthy environment.”Less talk, more action,” urged former French …

Hollywood star turned activist Arnold Schwarzenegger joined politicians and legal experts in Paris Saturday to launch a campaign for a global pact to protect the human right to a clean, healthy environment.

"Less talk, more action," urged former French prime minister Francais Laurent Fabius, who also presided over the 2015 Paris COP 21 conference on climate change.

Seeking to underline the urgency of the need to act, Fabius borrowed the turn of phrase from ex-California governor-turned climate campaigner Schwarzenegger, who joined the gathering, as did former UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

Other participants at the meeting at the Sorbonne university included high court judges from several countries.

The legal brains behind the pact worked into the night to put the final touches to the draft which was then to be handed over to their host, French President Emmanuel Macron.

The end goal, organisers said midweek, is a legal treaty under which states can be brought to justice for flouting the rights of a group or individual.

The initiative comes just weeks after President Donald Trump announced that he would pull the United States out of the 196-nation Paris Agreement on curbing dangerous global warming.

The new pact will eventually be put to the United Nations for adoption, and impose legally-binding obligations on signatory states, its drafters say.

"We already have two international (human rights) pacts... The idea is to create a third, for a third generation of rights -- environmental rights," Fabius said ahead of chairing Saturday's meeting.

The earlier covenants -- one for social, economic and cultural rights, the other for civil and political rights -- were adopted by the UN in 1966.

Fabius says the new text should outline rights and duties, provide for reparations to be made in case of a breach, and introduce the "polluter pays" principle, holding them legally responsible or compelling them to adopt green laws.

That would be in marked contrast to earlier declarations such as that made following the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio which was not legally binding.

Death toll from multiple Pakistan attacks rises to 57

The death toll from multiple attacks in Pakistan rose to 57, officials said Saturday, a day after the bomb and gun assaults in three cities shook the country as it prepared to mark the end of Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month.Officials in Quetta said the …

The death toll from multiple attacks in Pakistan rose to 57, officials said Saturday, a day after the bomb and gun assaults in three cities shook the country as it prepared to mark the end of Ramadan, Islam's holiest month.

Officials in Quetta said the number of dead had risen by one to 14 after a blast in the southwestern city which targeted police. Ten policemen were among those killed.

The attack was claimed by both the local affiliate of the Islamic State group and by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), an offshoot of the Pakistani Taliban, according to the SITE monitoring group, though there was no immediate explanation for the dual claims.

Later Friday twin blasts in the northwestern city of Parachinar then ripped through crowds in a market before sunset. Officials confirmed Saturday that the attack had killed 39 people and injured more than 200.

Parachinar is the capital of Kurram, one of Pakistan's seven semi-autonomous tribal districts, which has a history of sectarian clashes between Sunnis and Shiites.

Officials in Kurram said dozens of people were still undergoing treatment in hospital.

"A total of 216 people were injured in the twin blasts. Some 106 are still under treatment in a local hospital," Nasrullah Khan, an administration official in Kurram told AFP.

"62 other seriously wounded people have been shifted to Peshawar," he added.

Basir Khan Wazir, the top government official in Parachinar, later told AFP that both blasts were carried out by suicide bombers.

A spokesman from a Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Alami sent a message to AFP on Saturday claiming responsibility for the Parachinar attack.

The group is believed to be linked to sectarian outfit Lashkar-e-Janghvi (LeJ), responsible for many attacks across Pakistan.

Also on Friday, gunmen riding motorcycles shot dead four policemen, spraying bullets at them while they were eating dinner at a roadside restaurant in the port megacity of Karachi.

Pakistan has seen a dramatic improvement in security in the last two years, but groups such as the umbrella Pakistani Taliban, LeJ and other extremist outfits still retain the ability to carry out attacks.

Parachinar was the location of the first major militant attack in Pakistan in 2017, a bomb in a market which killed 24 people and was claimed by the Pakistani Taliban.

In Mosul, ghostly civilians emerge from Old City hell

They all say they are back from “hell”. Quivering and emaciated, the civilians emerging from Mosul’s Old City have survived famine but often lost relatives and sometimes their sanity.They come in small groups, dropped off by the armoured vehicles of th…

They all say they are back from "hell". Quivering and emaciated, the civilians emerging from Mosul's Old City have survived famine but often lost relatives and sometimes their sanity.

They come in small groups, dropped off by the armoured vehicles of the Iraqi security forces on dusty, deserted streets where emergency field clinics are set up.

A few hundred metres away, fighting rages in the alleyways of old Mosul, where die-hard Islamic State group jihadists are mounting a desperate defence of their last redoubt in the city.

Elite Iraqi fighters backed by jets and special forces from a US-led anti-IS coalition massively outnumber and outgun the jihadists, who at this stage in the battle owe their survival to an estimated 100,000 civilians they are using as human shields.

With every home they retake, the security forces free families they often find holed up in their basements to shelter from the deluge of munitions that has been falling on the area since a push into the Old City was launched on June 18.

Adding to the constant threat of their homes collapsing over their heads from bombs, missiles or shells, IS has not hesitated to shoot down civilians to prevent them from fleeing.

Once their identity has been checked, rescued families are moved to a field clinic, where children devour the biscuits soldiers give them.

The adults, some of them with protruding bones and sunken eyes that speak of the famine they left behind, look shellshocked.

One woman wrapped in black lets out a hysterical, lonely howl of despair: "Too many innocents have been killed."

"We're back from the dead," says Amir, a 32-year-old man with a sickly grey complexion, shaking like a leaf between his sons Qusay and Hassan, aged two and four.

He shows a few crumbs in the bottom of a tin cup that he kept like it was a priceless treasure: "This is what we've been eating for weeks."

Umm Nashwan, a frail woman in her sixties, explains how she fed her family by mixing flour with water and baking the resulting dough.

She says she had only one obsession recently: "I just wanted to forget hunger".

- 'Take all my blood' -

"They live hidden in their basements and are almost starving to death," says one officer with the federal Iraqi forces. "Some of them resort to eating grass, others even eat dogs."

"Most IDPs (internally displaced persons) suffer from malnutrition and dehydration, kids above all," says Ahmed Diran, one of several volunteers at the emergency clinic.

"Adults often come in hysterical condition, crying and shouting, because nearly all of them have lost three to four family members," he says.

"It's getting worse and worse. And it may get very much worse because all civilians are now trapped with jihadists in a limited number of buildings, so more vulnerable," Diran explains.

The reception that rescued civilians get however is sometimes tainted by suspicion, with large sections of the Iraqi public arguing that whoever did not flee IS's brutal "caliphate" in three years was agreeable to it.

A suicide bomb attack by a jihadist who blended in with fleeing civilians on Friday and killed at least 12 people has only added to the tension.

An umpteenth humvee comes screeching to a halt to offload a young couple carrying a small inert body covered in blood.

The woman in a black abaya and pink veil collapses on a chair and shouts at the soldiers: "We've been waiting for you for months, what took you so long?"

The blood of her child, who was aged around six and killed by a stray bullet or a sniper a few blocks away, drips heavily down her arms.

"It's my only child, save him, I beg you. Take all my blood if you have to," she screams, banging her head against a wall.

The couple say they decided to risk being shot by IS to flee the Old City after two of their close relatives were killed by shelling.

The distressed mother recalls how happy her son was at the prospect. "He was hungry, he said: 'I want to say hello to the soldiers and get biscuits from them'."

Eight killed, five missing in Colombia coal mine blast

An explosion at an illegal coal mine in central Colombia killed at least eight people, as rescuers scrambled to find five others still missing, authorities said Saturday, updating earlier figures.The blast Friday occurred at a coal mine in the town of …

An explosion at an illegal coal mine in central Colombia killed at least eight people, as rescuers scrambled to find five others still missing, authorities said Saturday, updating earlier figures.

The blast Friday occurred at a coal mine in the town of Cucunuba in Cundinamarca state, some 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of Bogota, at about 2130 GMT.

One person was injured in the explosion, authorities said.

Earlier reports listed two dead and 11 miners missing in the disaster.

A rescue crew of 35 miners and seven engineers has been working "around-the-clock" in a frantic search for the missing, the National Mining Agency (NMA) reported.

"We are going to dig by hand throughout the night to try to rescue" the missing workers, Wilson Garcia, director of the emergency response unit in Cundinamarca, told AFP late Friday.

President Juan Manuel Santos, who was wrapping up a visit to France, used Twitter to express his "solidarity with the victims."

Officials said they do not know what caused the explosion.

The country has seen an increase in illegal mining in recent years.

A total of 28 mining emergencies were reported in Colombia in the first five months of this year, leaving 23 dead and 33 injured, according to an NMA report. Sixty percent of the accidents occurred in coal mines.

There were 114 mining emergencies last year, causing 124 deaths, the report said.

Colombian coal production hit a record 90 million tons last year, according to the Ministry of Mines and Energy.

Colombia, a major world supplier, provided more than 70 percent of US coal imports.

Spain rescues more than 200 migrants from Med

Spanish coastguards rescued more than 200 migrants on Saturday as they attempted to make the perilous sea crossing from north Africa to Europe. A spokesman for Spain’s state maritime rescue service told AFP that 224 people had been rescued from five ve…

Spanish coastguards rescued more than 200 migrants on Saturday as they attempted to make the perilous sea crossing from north Africa to Europe.

A spokesman for Spain's state maritime rescue service told AFP that 224 people had been rescued from five vessels in the Strait of Gibraltar and the Alboran Sea, which separate Spain from Morocco.

The first rescues occurred in the early hours, the spokesman said, with dozens rescued south of Gibraltar from three boats.

Another 72 were rescued later after being spotted by a plane belonging to Europe's border agency, Frontex.

Spain's sea rescue service said Thursday that it had saved more than 400 migrants this week alone.

The relatively short sea crossing from Morocco to Spain is a popular route taken by migrants from sub-Saharan and north Africa in their quest to reach Europe.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, 3,314 people attempted this crossing between January 1 and April 30 this year. They recorded 59 deaths over the same period in this part of the Mediterranean.

Journalist with French TV dies of wounds from Mosul blast

Journalist Veronique Robert, wounded in the same landmine blast that killed two colleagues in the Iraqi city of Mosul earlier this week, has died, employers France Televisions announced Saturday.Robert had been operated on in Iraq and then flown back f…

Journalist Veronique Robert, wounded in the same landmine blast that killed two colleagues in the Iraqi city of Mosul earlier this week, has died, employers France Televisions announced Saturday.

Robert had been operated on in Iraq and then flown back for treatment in France overnight Thursday to Friday, but died of her wounds, the public broadcaster said in a statement.

French colleague Stephan Villeneuve, 48, and Iraqi Kurdish reporter Bakhtiyar Addad, 41, were also killed in Monday's blast.

All three were working for production company #5 Bis Productions on a programme for the French news show Envoye Special, aired on public television channel France 2.

A fourth journalist with them, Samuel Forey, suffered light injuries.

French Culture Minister Francoise Nyssen paid tribute to a "great war correspondent", in a post on the ministerial Twitter account.

Robert, 54, was an experienced war correspondent specialising in coverage of the Middle East, Iraq in particular, said the statement from France Televisions.

She worked for several news outlets in France and Switzerland, including Le Figaro newspaper and Paris Match magazine. Robert has two adult sons.

The journalists were accompanying Iraqi special forces during the battle for Mosul, where jihadists from the Islamic State group entrenched in the narrow streets of the Old City have set numerous booby traps.

France Televisions and #5 Bis Productions paid tribute to Robert's work and offered their condolences to her family in the statement.

Emilie Raffoul, a producer at #5 Bis Productions, told AFP: "She was someone who was very determined."

On Tuesday, the day after the landmine blast, Raffoul flew to Iraq to take care of Robert, along with colleagues from France Televisions.

The US doctors who had treated her at a military hospital said that even in a coma, Robert seemed mentally very strong, she added.

- 'Extremely rigorous' -

"She was used to combat zones, she was a professional war (correspondent) who had covered several conflicts, a specialist in the Middle East," said Raffoul, who worked with Robert for around 15 years.

"She was extremely rigorous in the preparation of her reports," she added.

Robert's producer Nicolas Jaillard wrote in a Facebook post that they had been hoping for better news.

"The word sadness is not enough to describe how we feel," he added.

Reporters without Borders (RSF), the Paris-based media rights watchdog, also saluted her.

In comments on his Twitter account RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire lamented too many foreign correspondents killed on the front line.

According to RSF's own tally, Robert's death brings to 29 the number of journalists killed in Iraq since 2014.

On Tuesday, the French president's office announced that Villeneuve would be posthumously awarded the Knight of the Legion of Honour, one of France's highest honours.

Sudan has made ‘positive’ steps on meeting sanctions terms: US envoy

Sudan has made “positive” steps towards meeting Washington’s conditions for permanently lifting 20-year-old sanctions on the African country, the US envoy to Khartoum told AFP in an interview.Then-president Barack Obama eased the sanctions in January, …

Sudan has made "positive" steps towards meeting Washington's conditions for permanently lifting 20-year-old sanctions on the African country, the US envoy to Khartoum told AFP in an interview.

Then-president Barack Obama eased the sanctions in January, but made their permanent lifting dependent on Khartoum's progress in five areas of concern during a six-month review period that ends on July 12.

These conditions -- known as the "five tracks" -- include improved access for aid groups, an end to support for rebels in neighbouring South Sudan, an end to hostilities in the conflict zones of Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan, and counterterrorism cooperation with US intelligence agencies.

"I can say without much hesitation that, with the few exceptions, the advances on the five tracks have been positive," US charge d'affaires in Khartoum, Steven Koutsis, said.

"The few exceptions being... the implementation of humanitarian access is uneven... and that we want to see that the government begins to act more on moving towards a more permanent agreement with the opposition" on ending hostilities.

Koutsis was speaking after touring Darfur, which has been gripped by conflict since 2003 when ethnic minority rose up against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum.

Koutsis travelled across vast stretches of the western region, which is as large as France, to make a first-hand assessment of security ahead of President Donald Trump's decision on the trade embargo next month.

While Khartoum has allowed more access to many parts of Darfur, there are some where restrictions remain, aid workers say.

Washington first imposed the sanctions in 1997 over Khartoum's alleged support for Islamist militant groups. Now slain Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was based in the Sudanese capital from 1992 to 1996.

- 'Extreme restraint' -

Washington has kept the sanctions in place largely in response to the scorched-earth tactics that President Omar al-Bashir's regime has used against the rebels in Darfur.

At least 300,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced in the region, the United Nations says.

Koutsis said it was highly unlikely that a permanent agreement to end hostilities would be signed before July 12, but said Khartoum had shown "extreme restraint" in responding to rebel attacks over the past year.

"The fundamental issue that we asked for in return for sanctions relief was to stop any offensive," Koutsis said in El Daien, the East Darfur state capital.

"We considered aerial bombardments as offensives, as an offensive act, not a defensive act in any way."

Previously, government forces would launch a "large offensive" against pro-rebel communities if the rebels looted a village or stole cattle, he said.

"We have not seen that this time, in the last one year," said Koutsis, whose assessment of Darfur is expected to guide Washington's decision on sanctions.

"We have seen that when the army does attack, they act with restraint... they stop when they achieve their objective, they do not continue.

"We have seen that the government has shown extreme restraint even in circumstances where they could have responded under the genus of self-defence."

- Concerns over UN drawdown -

However, an expected drawdown of the 17,000-strong United Nations and African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur threatens to unravel the fragile gains achieved so far, Koutsis said.

"The biggest concern I have is the pace that UNAMID will draw down requires that the government of Sudan step up and fill those gaps in issues of security and development assistance," he said.

"As we have seen it is not clear that the government is fully able at this point to do that."

Some think tanks have urged Washington to maintain the sanctions, accusing Khartoum of curbing freedom of speech, violating human rights and repressing Christians and other minority groups.

Koutsis said Washington was not blind to these issues and had "big differences" with Khartoum over them, although the two currently enjoyed a level of confidence that hadn't existed for 25 years.

But the purpose of the sanctions was to end Sudanese support for extremist groups and bring peace to Darfur, he said.

"None of these other issues were the point of sanctions, and none of these other issues, therefore, should be linked to the lifting of sanctions."

Koutsis said that overall the sanctions had worked.

"Yes, I can say with absolute certainty that Darfur today is more peaceful than it was a year ago," he said.

"That is not to say that the causes of Darfur have been fully addressed, not by a long shot."

Istanbul Gay Pride banned for ‘safety concerns’: official

Turkish authorities said on Saturday that an annual Gay Pride march in Istanbul’s Taksim Square would be banned due to “safety concerns”, defying the calls of organisers. Activists had called for the march for 5 pm (1400 GMT) on Sunday but the city gov…

Turkish authorities said on Saturday that an annual Gay Pride march in Istanbul's Taksim Square would be banned due to "safety concerns", defying the calls of organisers.

Activists had called for the march for 5 pm (1400 GMT) on Sunday but the city governor's office said that Taksim was not an official rallying ground.

"There will be no permission for a demonstration or a march on the said date considering the safety of tourists in the area... and public order," it said in a statement.

Authorities also urged citizens to ignore calls to participate in the parade and abide by the security forces' warning.

Last year, organisers were denied permission to march with the city on the edge over bombings blamed on Islamic State group and Kurdish militants, sparking anger from gay rights activists.

Riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters who defied the ban.

This year, the march coincides with the first day of the Islamic feast of Eid al-Fitr, and far-right groups have warned on social media against the parade.

Thousands took part in previous Istanbul pride marches, which were among the most significant LGBT events in the mainly-Muslim region.

UK Labour leader Corbyn says will ‘try to force early election’

British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has vowed to “try to force an early general election” after Prime Minster Theresa May lost her parliamentary majority, in an interview published Saturday.Corbyn’s Labour Party outperformed expectations in this mo…

British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has vowed to "try to force an early general election" after Prime Minster Theresa May lost her parliamentary majority, in an interview published Saturday.

Corbyn's Labour Party outperformed expectations in this month's election, turning what was predicted to be a procession for May into a disaster, severely weakening her authority as Britain kicks off crucial Brexit talks.

Corbyn told the left-wing newspaper the Daily Mirror that it was "ludicrous" to believe the Conservatives' minority government could survive, and that his party "will challenge this government at every step and try to force an early general election."

A poll for the paper asking the public who would make the best prime minister has put Corbyn ahead for the first time, although other surveys have revealed little appetite for another vote after two tumultuous years for British voters.

May's party is currently in negotiations with Northern Ireland's DUP to secure an informal parliamentary deal that would give it an effective majority.

MPs will vote on May's legislative agenda next week, and opposition parties have vowed to block her programme in what is traditionally seen as a test of confidence in the government.

Members of May's own party are reportedly lined up to dump their leader if it looks like her government will lose the vote.

French TV journalist dies of wounds from Mosul blast

Journalist Veronique Robert, wounded in the same landmine blast that killed two colleagues in the Iraqi city of Mosul earlier this week, has died, employers France Televisions announced Saturday.Robert had been operated on in Baghdad and then flown bac…

Journalist Veronique Robert, wounded in the same landmine blast that killed two colleagues in the Iraqi city of Mosul earlier this week, has died, employers France Televisions announced Saturday.

Robert had been operated on in Baghdad and then flown back for treatment in France overnight Thursday to Friday, but died of her wounds, the public broadcaster said in a statement.

French colleague Stephan Villeneuve and Iraqi Kurdish reporter Bakhtiyar Addad were also killed in Monday's blast.

All three were working for production company #5 Bis Productions on a programme for the French news programme Envoye Special, aired on public television channel France 2.

A fourth journalist with them, Samuel Forey, suffered light injuries.

Robert, 54, was an experienced war correspondent specialising in coverage of the Middle East, Iraq in particular, said the statement from France Televisions.

They were accompanying Iraqi special forces during the battle for the city, where jihadists from the Islamic State group entrenched in the narrow streets of the old town have set numerous booby traps.

France Televisions and #5 Bis Productions paid tribute to Robert's work and offered their condolences to her family in the statement.

Her producer Nicolas Jaillard wrote in a Facebook post that they had been hoping for better news. "The word sadness is not enough to describe how we feel," he added.

Reporters without Borders (RSF), the Paris-based media rights watchdog, also saluted her.

In comments on his Twitter account RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire lamented the fact that too many foreign correspondents were being killed on the front line.

According to RSF's own tally, her death brings to 29 the number of journalists killed in Iraq since 2014.

On Tuesday, the French president's office announced that Villeneuve would be posthumously awarded the knight of the Legion of Honour, one of France's highest honours.

Qatar says Saudi-led demands not ‘reasonable’

Qatar said Saturday that a 13-point list of demands made by Saudi Arabia and its allies impinged on its sovereignty and failed to meet US expectations they be “reasonable”.The four Arab governments delivered the demands to Qatar through Kuwait on Thurs…

Qatar said Saturday that a 13-point list of demands made by Saudi Arabia and its allies impinged on its sovereignty and failed to meet US expectations they be "reasonable".

The four Arab governments delivered the demands to Qatar through Kuwait on Thursday, more than two weeks after severing all ties with the emirate and imposing an embargo.

The document has not been published but has been widely leaked and the demands are sweeping in their scope.

They require Doha to join Riyadh and its allies in outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood, which it has long supported.

They also require it to close Iran's embassy and a base on its territory operated by its ally Turkey, as well as to shut Al-Jazeera television.

Qatar is also required to end all contacts with opposition groups in the four countries -- Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In Qatar's first response to the demands, government communications director Sheikh Saif bin Ahmed Al-Thani said on Saturday that they went far beyond the four governments' stated aim of combating terrorism.

"This blockade is not aimed at fighting terrorism but at impinging on Qatar's sovereignty and interfering in its foreign policy," Sheikh Saif said.

He recalled that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had said on Wednesday that Washington wanted a clear list of grievances that was "reasonable and actionable".

This list "does not meet those standards," he said.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have put enormous pressure on Qatar to meet their demands.

The UAE state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, warned on Friday that Qatar should "deal seriously" with the 13 points or face "divorce" from its neighbours.

The rift between the US Gulf allies has been awkward for Washington.

Tillerson has sought to mediate but the White House has been more hands-off, describing the diplomatic crisis as a "family issue" on Friday.

S. Koreans march to protest US missile defence system

Thousands of protesters marched near the US embassy in Seoul on Saturday, accusing President Donald Trump of “forcing” South Korea to deploy a controversial American missile defence system opposed by China. The protest came as South Korea’s new preside…

Thousands of protesters marched near the US embassy in Seoul on Saturday, accusing President Donald Trump of "forcing" South Korea to deploy a controversial American missile defence system opposed by China.

The protest came as South Korea's new president Moon Jae-In heads to Washington next week for his first summit with Trump amid soaring tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

Around 4,000 people participated in the demonstration, the largest since South Korea and the United States agreed to deploy the system, known as Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD).

Protesters carried placards that read: "Trump stop forcing (South Korea) to deploy THAAD" and "No THAAD, No Trump".

The crowd included residents from the southeastern county of Seongju where the system is being deployed who say it poses health and environmental hazards and argue that its presence could make them a priority target for North Korea.

THAAD was approved by Moon's ousted predecessor, conservative president Park Geun-Hye, who then steamrollered the project through a hasty environmental review during her last months in office as she became ensnared in a massive corruption scandal.

The deployment has also been opposed by Beijing, which fears it could undermine its own nuclear deterrent and has reacted with fury, imposing a series of measures seen as economic retaliation on the South.

Though parts of system are already in place, Moon this month suspended further deployment.

Officially, the delay is to allow for a new, comprehensive environmental impact assessment, but analysts say the move is a strategic delay by Moon to handle the tricky diplomatic situation he inherited.