Category Archives: World

Donald Trump: South Asia strategy working

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump on Tuesday said that his South Asia strategy announced in August is “working rapidly”.
In a joint media appearance at the White House with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Trump said, “Our strategic partnership with Kazakhstan has advanced my South Asia strategy, which is working and working far more rapidly than anybody would understand.”

He thanked the Kazakh president for providing crucial support to US forces in Afghanistan and denying safe havens to terrorists.

“Kazakhstan is a valued partner in our efforts to rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons,” he said.

“This cooperation has grown even stronger this month during Kazakhstan’s presidency of the United Nations Security Council,” he said.

Kazakhastan, a non-permanent member, holds the rotating presidency on the UN Security Council.

Trump thanked Nazarbayev for his full support for his South Asia strategy including his efforts in Afghanistan.

“I greatly appreciate the president’s personal assurances that Kazakhstan will continue to provide critical logistical support and access for our troops fighting ISIS and the Taliban where we have made tremendous strides,” he said.

“We also appreciate Kazakhstan’s work to train and educate Afghan civilian specialists and I am grateful for the president’s pledge of additional support to bolster Afghan security,” Trump said.

Nazarbayev is the first Central Asian leader to visit the White House. The two had earlier met in Riyadh and have spoken over phone.

“While the American troops are in Afghanistan, I think it’s the mission of the whole world to make sure that Afghanistan is stabilised and it also a mission for us as a neighbouring country to see that peace prevails in Afghanistan,” said the Kazakh president.

So far Kazakhastan has provided humanitarian technical support to Afghanistan to the tune of $75 million.

It has also spent $50 million training Afghan to some civilian professions that they cannot get trained in Afghanistan.

In August, while unveiling his new South Asia strategy, Trump had accused Pakistan of giving “safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror,” and said the time had come “for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilisation, order, and to peace”.

Trump had also sought a major role for India in bringing peace in Afghanistan and ruled out a hasty withdrawal of troops from the war-torn nation while announcing his new Afghanistan and South Asia policy in August.

The US has suspended about $2 billion in security aid to Pakistan over it failure to crack down on militants.

Pakistani 'diploma mill' of fake degrees exposed

LONDON: A so-called “diploma mill” operating out of a call centre in Pakistan sold thousands of fake degrees to British nationals, a new investigation revealed today.
Axact sold more than 3,000 qualifications in Britain between 2013 and 2014, including PhDs and doctorates, the BBC investigation found.

The company reportedly invented hundreds of universities online and used fake news stories in an attempt to dupe employers who might check the references on applicants’ CVs.

Axact, which claims to be the “world’s largest IT company” and has invented names such as Brooklyn Park University and Nixon University, is run by agents from a call centre in Karachi.

‘Degrees of Deception’, to be aired as part of BBC Radio 4’s ‘File on Four’ programme, claims that clinical staff employed by the UK’s state-funded National Health Service (NHS) and nurses were among thousands who had acquired these fake degrees.

“While we have good processes in place to shut down such sites, the problem with fake universities is that they are often based outside the UK,” said Jane Rowley, chief executive of Higher Education Degree Datacheck (HEDD), the UK’s official body for candidate verification and university authentication.

“Pakistan, Malaysia, Romania and the Middle East are among some of the countries we have come across in investigations. As more and more employers demand degree qualifications, people are tempted by these offers. We encourage proper checks by employers so that such fake degrees are exposed because if no one buys them, these organisations would cease to exist,” she said.

Pakistan had opened an investigation into Axact in May 2015 after ‘The New York Times’ found that it had created at least 370 fake websites and employed 2,000 people.

Axact’s chief executive was acquitted of money laundering in 2016 but its vice-president, Umair Hamid, was jailed in the US last year on fraud charges.

While Axact denies all wrongdoing, the Pakistani investigation ground to a halt amid claims of government corruption.

Action Fraud, the UK’s national cybercrime reporting centre, said it did not have the power to close fake Axact websites but instead had to provide evidence to domain registries and registrars, a process that takes months.

“Degree fraud cheats both genuine learners and employers, so we have taken decisive action to crack down on those seeking to profit from it,” a Department for Education spokesperson said.

FBI warned Jared Kushner on Murdoch ex-wife: Report

WASHINGTON: US counterintelligence officials warned President Donald Trump‘s son-in-law Jared Kushner in early 2017 that Chinese-American businesswoman Wendi Deng Murdoch might be using their friendship to benefit Chinese government interests, according to a media report.
Citing unidentified sources familiar with the matter, The Wall Street Journal said US officials were also concerned that the ex-wife of media magnate Rupert Murdoch — who owns the newspaper — was lobbying to push a major Chinese-funded construction project in Washington.

The bid concerns a planned $100 million Chinese garden at the National Arboretum, located just steps from Congress and near the White House.

The Journal said intelligence officials consider it a national security risk because it features a 70-foot (21- meter) tower that could be used for surveillance.

Kushner received the warnings as part of regular briefings he receives due to his role as a senior advisor to Trump, who took office a year ago.

A spokesman said Wendi Deng Murdoch “has no knowledge of any FBI concerns or other intelligence agency concerns relating to her or her associations,” and denied she was aware of the garden project.

A Chinese-born citizen, she married in 1999 the Australian businessman, who filed for divorce in 2013. But she still uses her married name.

Asked about the report, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said: “We really hope relevant people can put the pragmatic cooperation between US and China in all areas in perspective.”

“This serves the fundamental interests of the two peoples. We do not want relevant parties to make trouble in the pragmatic cooperation between China and the US,” Lu said.

'Positive changes' in North Korea, Xi tells Trump

BEIJING: Chinese president Xi Jinping told his US counterpart Donald Trump that there have been “positive changes” on the Korean peninsula, state media said Tuesday following a phone call between the two leaders.
Trump has pushed Xi to increase economic and political pressure on North Korea in the hopes of convincing it to stop the development of its nuclear weapons program.

Tensions have been high after the North staged a flurry of nuclear and missile tests and leader Kim Jong-Un traded threats of war and personal attacks with Trump.

But in recent weeks there has been an apparent rapprochement, with the two Koreas meeting for the first time in two years and Pyongyang agreeing to send athletes to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea.

In the phone call, Xi “pointed out that the situation on the Korean peninsula has shown some positive changes,” according to the official Xinhua news service.

“All sides concerned should make joint efforts to keep up the hard-won momentum for the easing of the situation on the Korean peninsula and create conditions to restart talks,” he was quoted as saying.

The call comes as foreign ministers from 20 nations gathered in Vancouver to hold two-day crisis talks on North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.

But the US, which at the summit will review with its allies the effectiveness of current sanctions against the hermit kingdom and explore adding more, remains sceptical that Kim is ready to negotiate away his weapons program.

China has criticised the Vancouver talks — hosted by the US and Canada and which exclude both Beijing and Moscow — and called for sanctions discussions to remain within the United Nations framework.

During Xi’s phone call with Trump, he also urged the US president, who has taken a hard line against the trade imbalance between the two countries, to come to the table on economic issues.

“The two countries should adopt constructive means to properly settle economic and trade issue of mutual concern through opening up markets to each other and making the cake of cooperation bigger,” Xinhua quoted Xi as saying.

Sharif dismisses as 'flop' corruption charges against him

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan‘s ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif today compared the corruption cases against him to a ‘flop’ movie as he appeared before an accountability court trying him for graft in the Panama Papers scandal that forced him to resign.
The cases were launched on September 8 following the Supreme Court verdict of July 28 that disqualified Sharif as prime minister and ordered the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) for institution of cases against him.

Sharif, 68, arrived in the court – his 13th appearance – in Islamabad.

He was accompanied by daughter Maryam and son-in-law Mohammad Safdar, who are co-accused in one of three cases.

During the hearing, at least two more witnesses produced by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) recorded their statements.

Sharif’s lawyer Khawaja Harris cross-examined the witnesses.

Later, the court postponed hearing till January 23 and summoned three more witnesses.

Sharif after the court hearing narrated a story about a famous big-budget film in the 1960s to dismiss corruption charges against him.

“After it was released, amid much fanfare, someone asked the producer and director how the movie was faring, to which they replied ‘Pehlay haftay zabardast, doosray haftay zabardasti (The first week was great but the second was forced),” Sharif said as he linked the ‘flop’ movie to his own corruption cases.

“You (media representatives) are here covering the case. You better know these cases and how strong they are?”, he said.

He also criticised his political opponents planning protests this week against his party’s rule in Punjab province. He asked them to wait for another four months when general elections are due to be held.

The three cases against him pertain to the Al-Azizia Steel Mills, several companies including Flagship Investment Ltd, and London’s Avenfield properties.

Sharif and some of his family members are facing charges relating to their overseas properties.

The political future of Sharif, who leads the country’s most powerful political family and the ruling PML-N party, has been hanging in balance since then. If convicted, Sharif can be jailed.

FBI warned Kushner on Murdoch ex-wife: Report

WASHINGTON: US counterintelligence officials warned President Donald Trump‘s son-in-law Jared Kushner in early 2017 that Chinese-American businesswoman Wendi Deng Murdoch might be using their friendship to benefit Chinese government interests, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.
Citing unidentified sources familiar with the matter, the Journal said US officials were also concerned that the ex-wife of media magnate Rupert Murdoch — who owns the newspaper — was lobbying to push a major Chinese-funded construction project in Washington.

The bid concerns a planned $100 million Chinese garden at the National Arboretum, located just steps from Congress and near the White House.

The Journal said intelligence officials consider it a national security risk because it features a 70-foot (21-meter) tower that could be used for surveillance.

Kushner received the warnings as part of regular briefings he receives due to his role as a senior advisor to Trump, who took office a year ago.

A spokesman said Wendi Deng Murdoch “has no knowledge of any FBI concerns or other intelligence agency concerns relating to her or her associations,” and denied she was aware of the garden project.

A Chinese-born citizen, she married in 1999 the Australian businessman, who filed for divorce in 2013. But she still uses her married name.

Fidel Castro's signed cigar box fetches USD 26k at auction

BOSTON: A signed wooden box, containing a set of 24 cigars from the personal collection of Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro, has been sold for $26,950 at an auction in the US.
The Trinidad Fundadores cigar box retains its “Republica de Cuba” cigar warranty seal, which has been re-adhered to the cover.

The box contain 24 cigars, and is stamped on each end, “24 Fundadores,” with a maker’s mark on the bottom, “Habanos S A, Hecho en Cuba, Totalmente a mano.”

The box is accompanied by an image of Castro signing it for noted philanthropist Eva Haller, according to the Boston- based RR Auctions.

“Castro handed to me the box of cigars. He gave them to me, because I jokingly asked him for it, when others lit a cigar,” Haller wrote in a letter dated March 2002.

“I told him, that if he signs the box, I will sell it and make lots of money. He thought that was funny,” she wrote.

Beginning in 1980, Trinidad Fundadores were exclusively produced for Fidel Castro, and until 1998 the only boxes that were allowed to leave Cuba had been gifts to foreign dignitaries.

The brand made its official launch as a Cuban export in February 1998, and this box – from Castro’s personal stash – was signed and given away only four years later.

Cigars were an integral component of Castro’s heroic revolutionary image, and as such this signed box is a truly remarkable historical artifact, according to the RR Auctions.

Across the Mideast, Palestinians brace for Trump aid cuts

SHATI REFUGEE CAMP: Mahmoud al-Qouqa can’t imagine life without the three sacks of flour, cooking oil and other staples he receives from the United Nations every three months.
Living with 25 relatives in a crowded home in this teeming Gaza Strip slum, the meager rations provided by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugee families, are the last thing keeping his family afloat in the territory hard hit by years of poverty and conflict. But that could be in danger as the US, UNRWA’s biggest donor, threatens to curtail funding.

“It will be like a disaster and no one can predict what the reaction will be,” al-Qouqa said.

Across the Middle East, millions of people who depend on UNRWA are bracing for the worst. The expected cut could also add instability to struggling host countries already coping with spillover from other regional crises.

UNRWA was established in the wake of the 1948 Mideast war surrounding Israel’s creation. An estimated 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes in the fighting.

In the absence of a solution for these refugees, the UN General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate, the original refugee camps have turned into concrete slums and more than 5 million refugees and their descendants now rely on the agency for services including education, health care and food. The largest populations are in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon.

Seen by the Palestinians and most of the international community as providing a valuable safety net, UNRWA is viewed far differently by Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accuses the agency of perpetuating the conflict by helping promote an unrealistic dream that these people have the “right of return” to long-lost properties in what is now Israel.

“UNRWA is part of the problem, not part of the solution,” he told foreign journalists last week. Noting that the Palestinians are the only group served by a specific refugee agency, he said UNRWA should be abolished and its responsibilities taken over by the main UN refugee agency.

Some in Israel have even tougher criticism, accusing UNRWA of teaching hatred of Israel in its classrooms and tolerating or assisting Hamas militants in Gaza.

Blaming the Palestinians for lack of progress in Mideast peace efforts, President Donald Trump has threatened to cut American assistance to the Palestinians. UNRWA would be the first to be affected.

The US provides about $355 million a year to UNRWA, roughly one-third of its budget.

US officials in Washington said this week the administration is preparing to withhold tens of millions of dollars from the year’s first contribution, cutting a planned $125 million installment by half or perhaps entirely. The decision could come as early as Tuesday.

Matthias Schmale, UNRWA’s director in Gaza, said Washington has not informed the agency of any changes. However, “we are worried because of the statements … in the media and the fact that the money hasn’t arrived yet,” he said.

Schmale dismissed the Israeli criticisms, saying that individuals who spread incitement or aid militants are isolated cases and promptly punished. And he said Netanyahu’s criticism should be directed at the UN General Assembly, which sets UNRWA’s mandate, not the agency itself.

Any cut in US aid could ripple across the region with potentially unintended consequences.

Gaza may be the most challenging of all of UNRWA’s operating areas. Two-thirds of Gaza’s 2 million people qualify for services, and its role is amplified given the poor state of the economy, which has been hit hard by three wars with Israel and a Israeli-Egyptian blockade since the Hamas militant group seized power over a decade ago. Unemployment is 43 percent and the poverty rate is 38 percent, according to the official Palestinian statistics office.

“Nowhere else are we the biggest service provider for the population of the entire territory,” Schmale said. He said UNRWA provides food assistance to 1 million Gazans, calling it “an expression of collective shame for the international community.”

With more than 12,500 teachers, nurses and other staff, UNRWA is Gaza’s largest non-governmental employer. It is also involved in postwar reconstruction projects.

The dire situation in Gaza is evident inside al-Qouqa’s home, which is so cramped the family has made sleeping spaces with wood boards and fabric. Two male family members are unemployed. Two others are Hamas civil servants and get paid only intermittently by the cash-strapped movement.

At 72, al-Qouqa is worried about his grandchildren. “If UNRWA provides them with bread, they can remain patient. But if it was cut, what will they become? They will become thieves, criminals and a burden on society,” he said. Many believe Hamas, which administers schools and social services in Gaza, will step in to fill the void.

Jordan, a crucial ally in the US-led battle against Islamic militants, is home to the largest number of Palestinian refugees and their descendants — with nearly 2.2 million people eligible for UNRWA services. This has turned the UN agency into a major contributor to social welfare services in the country, which also hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrians displaced by war.

US aid cuts could heighten the threat of instability in Jordan, which is grappling with a worsening economy hurt by the spillover from conflict in neighboring Syria and Iraq. More than one-third of Jordan’s young people are without jobs, turning them into potential targets for recruitment by extremists.

Most of the Palestinians eligible for UNRWA services in Jordan hold Jordanian citizenship, and some argue that this has ended their refugee status. But most maintain that UNRWA services are vital to propping up an important ally.

UNRWA’s services are also vital in Lebanon, where Palestinians are prohibited from working in skilled professions and owning property.

Lebanon is the least-welcoming Arab country to Palestinian refugees, because it does not want Palestinians to settle and because it does not want the refugees to upset the country’s delicate sectarian balance. Camps in several cities are ringed by concrete barriers and Lebanese security forces use checkpoints to control who enters and leaves. A recent census found 175,000 Palestinian refugees or their descendants living in the country.

The civil war in Syria has made many Palestinians refugees twice over. Some 32,000 Palestinians who were living in Syria fled to Lebanon, according to UNRWA. In Syria, Palestinians enjoyed the right to own property and to work in all professions. They are not entitled to the same in Lebanon.

Balkees Hameed, 33, arrived in 2013 with her husband, two children and in-laws from Damascus, where their apartment was damaged by rocket fire. The family depends on UNRWA assistance to rent a one-bedroom apartment in a ramshackle building in Bourj al-Barajneh, a Beirut camp. Her husband wipes tables at a restaurant outside the camp. Hameed, like all Palestinians, was painfully aware of the rumors coming out of Washington.

“We are already defeated and now they want to oppress us some more?” she asked.

While more than 5 million Syrian refugees worldwide are entitled to assistance from the UN’s general refugee relief agency, Palestinians are barred from it under the logic that UNRWA serves them. But UNRWA in Lebanon is chronically underfunded, and the wave of Palestinians arriving from Syria has strained its finances even further.

“What UNRWA provides is not even a quarter of what a Palestinian refugee needs,” said Ramy Mansour, 34, who fled to Lebanon from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus in 2013. “Take everything and return us to our homes. We don’t want any assistance or anything, just return us to our country.”

Bangladesh agrees with Myanmar to complete Rohingya return in two years

DHAKA: Bangladesh has agreed to complete the process of returning Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar within two years after repatriation begins, the south Asian nation said on Tuesday, following a meeting of the neighbours to implement a pact signed last year.
A statement by the Bangladesh foreign ministry did not say when the process would begin. But it said the return effort envisages “considering the family as a unit,” with Myanmar to provide temporary shelter for those returning before rebuilding houses for them.

The statement said Bangladesh would set up five transit camps which would send Rohingyas to two reception centres on the Myanmar side of the border.

“Myanmar has reiterated its commitment to stop outflow of Myanmar residents to Bangladesh,” it said.

The meeting in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw was the first for a joint working group set up to hammer out the details of the November repatriation agreement.

The Myanmar government has not issued its own statement after the meeting and government spokesman Zaw Htay was not immediately available for comment.

VERIFICATION PROCESS

Zaw Htay said earlier, however, that returnees would be able to apply for citizenship “after they pass the verification process”.

A Myanmar agency set up to oversee repatriation said in a statement last Thursday that two temporary “repatriation and assessment camps” and one other site to accommodate returnees had been set up.

Myint Kyaing, permanent secretary at Myanmar’s Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population, told Reuters earlier this month Myanmar would be ready to begin processing least 150 people a day through each of the two camps by Jan. 23.

The Rohingya crisis erupted after Rohingya insurgent attacks on security posts on Aug. 25 in the western state of Rakhine triggered a fierce military response that the United Nations denounced as ethnic cleansing. Some 650,000 people fled the violence.

Myanmar denies ethnic cleansing, saying its security forces had mounted legitimate counter-insurgency clearance operations.

Denmark will increase defense spending to counter Russia: PM

RIGA: The Danish government expects to win backing for a substantial increase in defense spending next month, to counter Russia‘s intensified military activity in eastern and northern Europe, the NATO-member’s prime minister said Monday.
“It will be like a disaster and no one can predict what the reaction will be,” al-Qouqa said.

Denmark last week deployed 200 troops to a UK-led NATO mission in Estonia aimed at deterring Russia from attacking the Baltic NATO members.

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014 and backs separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine in a war that has killed more than 10,000 people.

“Russia’s behavior has created an unpredictable and unstable security environment in the Baltic Sea region,” Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen said at a joint news conference with Latvian Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis on Monday in Riga.

“When I received (Vladimir) Putin in Copenhagen during my first term as prime minister back in 2010, everybody thought that it would be the beginning of a new and much better and much more friendly cooperation between Europe and Russia. And that we could decrease our military spending,” he said.

“But given the Russian aggression and what happened in Crimea, I think we simply have to be realistic about things and invest more in our security.”

In 2016, Russia moved nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles to its enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea and deployed its S-400 air missile defense system there.

In April last year, Denmark said Russia had hacked its defense computer network and gained access to employees’ emails in 2015 and 2016.

Russia has accused the West of “whipping up hysteria” over its recent military exercises.

Denmark’s center-right minority government needs to persuade parliament to back a proposed 20-percent hike of the defense budget over a five-year period. Rasmussen said he expected a “very big majority” to do so.

“We want to look at ourselves as a core NATO member. And in order to behave like such a member, we need to increase our expenditures,” he said, adding that the Danish military needed a “substantial increase”.

“Five years ago we thought that the defense line, so to speak, would not be in Europe, but would be international operations. Now we realize that we need to have the capability to do both,” he said.


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