Category Archives: World

Astronaut breaks US space record, gets call from Trump

CAPE CANAVERAL: Astronaut Peggy Whitson broke the US record on Monday for most time in space and talked up Mars during a congratulatory call from President Donald Trump.

The International Space Station’s commander surpassed the record of 534 days, two hours and 48 minutes for most accumulated time in space by an American.

“This is a very special day in the glorious history of American spaceflight,” Trump said. His daughter Ivanka also offered congratulations to Whitson from the Oval Office.

Whitson said it’s “a huge honor” to break such a record. “It’s an exciting time” as NASA prepares for human expeditions to Mars in the 2030s, included in new legislation signed by Trump last month. She called the space station “a key bridge” between living on Earth and traveling into deep space, and she singled out the station’s recycling system that transforms astronauts’ urine into drinking water.

“It’s really not as bad as it sounds,” she assured the president.

“Well, that’s good, I’m glad to hear that,” he replied. “Better you than me.”

Whitson already was the world’s most experienced spacewoman and female spacewalker and, at 57, the oldest woman in space. By the time she returns to Earth in September, she’ll have logged 666 days in orbit over three flights.

The world record, 879 days, is held by Russian Gennady Padalka. Whitson broke the NASA cumulative record set last year by astronaut Jeffrey Williams; Scott Kelly holds the U.S. record for consecutive days in space , 340.

Whitson is also the first woman to command the space station twice and the only woman to have led NASA’s astronaut corps. Behind her was a banner that read: “Congrats Peggy!! New US High-Time Space Ninja.” The sign arrived Saturday on the commercial cargo ship, the S.S. John Glenn, barely in time for Monday’s celebration.

NASA astronaut Jack Fischer, who arrived at the space station last week and took part in Monday’s call, said the space station is “by far the best example of international cooperation.”

Whitson told the president that spaceflight takes a lot of time and money, so getting to Mars will require collaboration from other countries to succeed. NASA is building the hardware right now to test a new rocket that will carry astronauts farther from Earth than ever before, she said.

“Well, we want to try and do it during my first term or, at worst, during my second term, so we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, OK?” Trump replied.

“We’ll do our best,” Whitson replied.

The debut of the mega rocket is still more than a year away, at least. The date will depend on whether astronauts are on board for the test flight, which could hoist the new Orion capsule to the vicinity of the moon.

Both Whitson and Fischer raised a hand when Trump asked which one of them was ready to go to Mars.

Joining Trump in the Oval Office was astronaut Kate Rubins, who last summer became the first person in space to perform entire DNA decoding, or sequencing. She said she used a device the size of a cellphone for the job, and noted that such sequencing can detect microbes aboard spacecraft and monitor astronaut health.

“That’s fantastic,” Trump said. “I’ve been dealing with politicians so much, I’m so much more impressed with these people, you have no idea.”

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Germany sees new rise in far-right offenses, hate crimes

BERLIN: Violent crimes in Germany with far-right motives rose 14.3 per cent last year after a bigger increase in 2015, and the country also saw another increase in hate crimes, authorities said Monday.

The Interior Ministry said that 1,698 violent right-wing crimes were recorded in 2016, up from 1,485 the previous year. In 2015, the figure soared as Germany saw a large influx of migrants.

There was a 3.6 percent increase last year in the broader category of “hate crimes” — offenses of a racist or anti-Semitic nature or targeting people because of their religion, often in online posts. They increased to 10,751 from 10,373 after surging in 2015.

Violent politically motivated crimes targeting homes for asylum-seekers were close to the previous year’s level — 169, compared with 177 in 2015. Including non-violent crimes such as cases involving propaganda, the total number of offenses against asylum centers slipped to 995 from 1,031.

Violent crimes with a far-left motive dropped by a quarter in 2016 to 1,702 — a fall that was apparently due to a lack of major politically sensitive events in Germany last year.

However, politically motivated offenses by foreigners rose by two-thirds last year, largely because of the conflict between Turkey and the outlawed PKK.

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16 drown as migrant boat sinks off Greece's Lesbos

ATHENS: At least 16 people, including two children, drowned after an inflatable boat carrying refugees and migrants sank off Greece’s Lesbos island, authorities said on Monday.

They are believed to be the first confirmed deaths in Greek waters this year of migrants or refugees making the short but dangerous crossing from Turkey on overcrowded rubber dinghies.

Nine bodies were recovered in Greek territory and another seven in Turkish waters, Greek and Turkish coastguard officials said. Two survivors have been rescued.

The two women, one of whom is pregnant, told the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR that 20 to 25 people were on board when the dinghy capsized around 1900 GMT on Sunday. The women are from Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Though fewer than 10 nautical miles separate Lesbos from Turkish shores, hundreds of people have drowned trying to make the crossing since Europe’s refugee crisis began in 2015.

In that year, Lesbos was the main gateway into the European Union for nearly a million Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans. But a deal in March 2016 between the EU and Ankara has largely closed that route. Just over 4,800 people have crossed to Greece from Turkey this year, according to UNHCR data. An average of 20 arrive on Greek islands each day.

“The number of people crossing the Aegean to Greece has dropped drastically over the past year, but this tragic incident shows that the dangers and the risk of losing one’s life remains very real,” said Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR Greece representative. The number of refugees and migrants in Greece has swelled to about 62,000 in the last year, about 13,000 of whom are in camps on five eastern Aegean islands waiting for their asylum applications to be processed.

Violence has broken out in overcrowded camps on several occasions, as have protests against asylum delays. Twelve Syrian Kurds living in Lesbos’s Moria camp for months began a hunger strike on Friday, the Athens News Agency reported.

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Hollande 'will vote Macron', calls Le Pen 'risk' for France

PARIS: French President Francois Hollande today endorsed pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron in May’s presidential run-off, citing “the risk for our country’s future” if Marine Le Pen won.

In a televised statement, the Socialist leader said France risked “becoming isolated and breaking away from the European Union” if the far-right, anti-EU Le Pen were elected.

Hollande said French purchasing power would be hit, “thousands” of jobs would be lost and prices would soar if Le Pen won and then implemented her pledge to take France out of the eurozone and hike tariffs on imports.

A far-right victory would also “deeply divide France” at a time when it needed to show “solidarity and cohesion” in the face of terrorism, he said.

“Faced with such a risk it is impossible to remain silent or indifferent,” he said, adding: “For my part, I will vote for Emmanuel Macron.”

Macron was Hollande’s economy minister from 2014 to 2016 when he quit to form his own centrist movement En Marche (On The Move).

Yesterday, Macron topped the first round of voting for president, winning 23.75 percent of the vote to Le Pen’s 21.53 percent.

Nine other candidates were eliminated.

Macron and Le Pen will face off in a second round of voting on May 7.

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Qatar Airways sees 'manageable' decline in US flights

DUBAI: The CEO of one of the Middle East’s largest carriers said Monday passenger numbers to the United States have dipped slightly over fears by some Muslim passengers that their visas may be rejected upon arrival, but expressed confidence in President Donald Trump as a “very good businessman.”

Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker said uncertainty about travel to the United States is “affecting the business, but to a very small extent.”

“We didn’t have massive decline like other carriers so we still have robust loads to the United States and we will continue our commitment to our passengers in the United States,” al-Baker said.

Emirates, the Middle East’s largest airline, slashed its flights to the United States by 20 per cent last week.

Dubai, where Emirates is based, and Doha, Qatar Airways’ main hub, were among the 10 cities in Muslim-majority countries affected by a ban on laptops and other personal electronics in carry-on luggage aboard US-bound flights.

“Qatar Airways does not plan and will not reduce frequencies to in the United States,” he said. “I am sure that these uncertainties that passengers have soon could be resolved by statements from the United States’ government.”

Al-Baker also expressed hope that Trump would resist pressure from American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines to block aggressive expansion into the US market by Gulf-based carriers.

“I have repeatedly mentioned that President Trump is a very wise individual and a very good businessman, and I don’t think that he will buy into bullying by the three American carriers,” he said.

Speaking to reporters at the Arabian Travel Market convention in Dubai, al-Baker said Qatar Airways is planning to launch a new route to Las Vegas possibly as early as next year. The airline currently flies to more than a dozen US cities.

He said Qatar Airways has plans to expand to 26 new global destinations, adding: “The United States is not the entire world.”

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Afghan defence minister, army chief of staff resign over deadly attack

KABUL: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani accepted on Monday the resignation of the defence minister and army chief of staff after more than 140 government soldiers were killed in a Taliban attack on an army base last week, the president’s office said.

“Defence Minister Abdullah Habibi and Army Chief of Staff Qadam Shah Shahim stepped down with immediate effect,” the presidential palace announced in a post on its Twitter account.

Shah Hussain Murtazawi, acting spokesperson for Ghani, told Reuters the resignations were because of Friday’s attack in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

At least 140 soldiers were killed and many wounded, an official in the city said on Saturday. Other officials said the toll was likely to be even higher.

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Japan's Abe agrees to keep close contact with US on North Korea

TOKYO: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Monday he and US President Donald Trump had agreed to maintain close contact over North Korea, while demanding Pyongyang show restraint as tensions in the region rise.

Abe told reporters after a telephone call with Trump that he appreciated the US leader’s stance of showing that all options are on the table when it comes to dealing with North Korea.

Tensions have risen sharply over North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile programmes. The United States has ordered the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group to sail to waters off the Korean peninsula, prompting Pyongyang to say it was ready to sink the carrier.

Two Japanese destroyers have joined the US carrier group in a show of solidarity

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France votes in high-stakes presidential election

PARIS: French voters flocked to the polls under heavy security Sunday in the first round of a cliffhanger presidential election seen as vital for the future of the ailing European Union.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron are the favourites to progress to a run-off on May 7 but late gains by conservative Francois Fillon and radical leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon blew the race wide open.

Le Pen, the 48-year-old leader of the anti-immigration National Front (FN), hopes to capitalise on concerns about security that were catapulted to the fore of the campaign after the killing on Thursday of a policeman on Paris’s Champs Elysees avenue. The Islamic State group claimed the attack.

Nearly 47 million people were eligible to vote in the eurozone’s second biggest economy.

Most polling stations closed at 1700 GMT but voters in Paris and other big cities had an extra hour to make their choice. The first projections based on partial results are expected at 1800 GMT.

Voting was brisk on a bright spring day, defying forecasts of a low turnout after a campaign dominated by scandals and disillusionment with the mainstream parties of the left and right that have alternated in power for the past half century.

After nine hours, turnout stood at 69.42 percent, one of the highest levels in 40 years. With an extra hour of voting planned in smaller towns this year, pollsters predicted the final figure would be about 80 percent.

Riding the wave of disaffection with globalisation that carried Donald Trump to the White House and led Britain to vote for Brexit, Le Pen vowed to abandon the euro, hold a referendum on withdrawing from the EU and adopt a French-first policy on jobs and housing.

While constitutional obstacles would make it difficult for her to uncouple France from the EU, a Le Pen victory could nonetheless be a devastating blow for the EU, already weakened by Britain’s shock vote to leave.

Macron, a 39-year-old pro-EU reformer, is seeking to become France’s youngest ever president despite never having held elected office.

Tapping into anger with established parties, the former banker and economy minister formed his own movement, “En Marche” (On the Move), that he says is “neither to the left nor to the right.”

But polls show the scandal-tainted Fillon, a former prime minister, and eurosceptic firebrand Melenchon, who wants to renegotiate EU treaties, also in with a fighting chance.

Le Pen cast her ballot in Henin-Beaumont, a former coal mining town in the party’s northern heartland.

Macron voted in the chic northern seaside resort of Le Touquet with wife Brigitte, his former high school teacher who is 25 years his senior. Fillon and Melenchon both voted in Paris.

Many voters had spent weeks agonising over their choices, with many opting for the contender they considered likeliest to beat Le Pen in a run-off.

With France still under the state of emergency imposed after the Paris attacks of November 2015 security was tight. Around 50,000 police and 7,000 soldiers were deployed to guard voters.

Thursday’s shooting on the most famous street in Paris was the latest in a bloody series of terror attacks that have cost more than 230 lives since 2015.

In the aftermath of the Champs Elysees attack, Le Pen called for France to “immediately” deport all foreigners on a terror watchlist.

Guy Belkechout, a 79-year-old pensioner who was voting in the working-class Parisian suburb of Trappes, said security was one of his main concerns.

“Candidates who want fewer security measures, who want to reduce the police’s powers, have not got my vote,” Belkechout told AFP.

But Hajar Erhamani, a 39-year-old teaching assistant from the well-heeled Paris suburb of Sevres, said she was more worried about the economy and allegations about lawmakers lining their pockets with public money.

“You can’t trust politicians these days. On the left and the right, they’re stealing from us,” she complained.

Closely watched around the world, the French campaign has been full of twists and turns.

A race that began with the low-key Fillon trumping ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy for the right-wing nomination shifted into higher gear when unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande decided not to seek re-election.

Hollande’s five years in office have been dogged by a sluggish economy and the constant terror threat.

With voters hungry for change Fillon had been seen as a shoo-in but in January he was knocked off course by allegations that he gave his British-born wife a fictitious job as his parliamentary assistant for which she was paid nearly 700,000 euros ($750,000).

The Socialist nominee Benoit Hamon also struggled, hemorrhaging support to the fiery Melenchon.

Though there are four main contenders in the election, a total of 11 candidates are taking part.

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New Zealand considering extra security on Middle East flights

DUBAI: New Zealand is considering additional security checks on flights from some countries in the Middle East, its transport minister said on Sunday.

The new rules would follow similar measures introduced last month by the United States, Britain and Australia.

New Zealand’s civil aviation authority “is assessing the evidence to determine what is appropriate,” Transport Minister Simon Bridges told Reuters in an interview in Dubai.

Additional security measures would affect passengers flying from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and Doha, Qatar, where carriers Emirates and Qatar Airways, respectively, fly direct to New Zealand.

Bridges said a decision to add new checks would be made independent of the government by the aviation authority .

He declined to say when a decision could be made. He did not say what measures were being considered.

On March 25, the United States banned electronic devices larger than a mobile phone from passenger cabins of direct flights from eight countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, including Qatar and the UAE.

Britain followed the same day with similar measures, including banning larger electronics on flights from some Middle East countries but not Qatar and the UAE where it instead requested additional security checks.

Australia’s additional checks on passengers and baggage apply to Qatar and the UAE as they are the only Middle East countries with which it has direct air links.

The additional security measures were made based on intelligence suggesting flights could be targeted for attack.

“What we have seen from them is a less than uniform way of doing things,” Bridges said of the different measures introduced by the United States, Britain and Australia, all close allies of New Zealand.

Last week, Emirates said it was cutting flights to the United States after new restrictions weakened demand.

Bridges said he is scheduled to meet with Emirates Chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum this week where he would make clear that New Zealand is open to additional services.

Emirates flies to New Zealand cities Auckland and Christchurch, mostly via Australia, although it operates a direct daily flight to Auckland. Qatar Airways only flies direct to Auckland.

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North Korea detains third US citizen

SEOUL: North Korea detained a US citizen on Friday as he attempted to leave the isolated country, bringing the total number of Americans held by the isolated country to three.

Korean-American Tony Kim had spent a month teaching an accounting course at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), the university’s chancellor, Chan-Mo Park, told Reuters on Sunday.

Kim, who also goes by his Korean name Kim Sang-duk and is in his fifties, was detained by North Korean officials at Pyongyang International Airport as he attempted to leave the country, Park said.

“The cause of his arrest is not known but some officials at PUST told me his arrest was not related to his work at PUST. He had been involved with some other activities outside PUST such as helping an orphanage,” Park said.

“I sincerely hope and pray that he will be released soon”.

An official at South Korea‘s National Intelligence Service said it was not aware of the reported arrest.

Kim is listed as an accounting professor on the website of PUST’s sister institution in neighbouring China, the Yanbian University of Science and Technology (YUST). Calls to YUST were not answered.

PUST was founded by evangelical Christians and opened in 2010, with students generally the children of the country’s elite.

Its volunteer faculty, many of whom are evangelical Christians, has a curriculum that includes subjects once considered taboo in North Korea, such as capitalism.

North Korea, which has been criticised for its human rights record, has in the past used detained Americans to extract high-profile visits from the United States, with which it has no formal diplomatic relations.

North Korea was already holding two Americans.

Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old student, was detained in January last year and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour by a North Korean court for attempting to steal a propaganda banner.

In March 2016, Kim Dong Chul, a 62-year-old Korean-American missionary, was sentenced to 10 years hard labour for subversion. There have been no public appearances of either man since.

The reclusive state is also holding Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim. He was charged with subversion and given a hard labour life sentence in 2015.

Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to 15 years hard labour for crimes against the state. He was released two years later.

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