From The Alpha and the Omega - Chapter Eight
by Jim A. Cornwell, Copyright © 1995, all rights reserved
"KING OF THE EAST 2019 MARCH-APRIL"

    This file is attached to http://www.mazzaroth.com/ChapterEight/BeastThatCameOutOfTheSea.htm from “Beast That Came Out Of The Sea” - Chapter Eight by Jim A. Cornwell, Copyright © 1995, all rights reserved.
    This link will take you back to King Of The East 2019 January-February or continue to King Of The East 2019 May-June

KING OF THE EAST 2019 MARCH-APRIL




2019 MARCH-APRIL

3/1/2019 Election rival says Afghan President Ghani hindering peace deal by Hamid Shalizi
FILE PHOTO: Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani attends a two-day conference on Afghanistan at the
United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, November 27, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo
    KABUL (Reuters) – An influential former adviser to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, now a leading electoral rival, has accused his old boss of hampering peace with the Taliban by blocking efforts to include a broad range of voices in the process.
    With Afghan politics in deep confusion as talks between the United States and Taliban representatives proceed, Mohammad Haneef Atmar, a former national security adviser once seen as the second-most powerful man in Afghanistan, accused Ghani of exploiting the uncertainty to gain re-election.
    “The president is making things very difficult by taking measures that are extremely unfavourable to the process,” Atmar, who resigned from the government last year, told Reuters in an interview.
    The comments reflect the extent to which the peace process has become tied into upcoming presidential elections at which Atmar, a veteran of decades of Afghanistan’s treacherous and often bloody politics, will be a leading contender.
    Like other candidates, Atmar has called for Ghani to step down in May, when his five-year term ends, to clear the way for a caretaker government that would allow a broader-based approach to the peace process.
    “We are certainly supportive of a caretaker government when on 21th of May the mandate of this government comes to an end.    Given his record we are much better off without him.”
    Harun Chakhansuri, Ghani’s spokesman, said the president has clear plans for bringing peace to Afghanistan and had repeatedly called on the Taliban to talk with the Afghan side.
    “The only person that has a proper plan, road map and initiative for peace is President Ghani, and the consensus on peace is the result of this road map,” Chakhansuri told Reuters.
    Chakhansuri added that the president would stay until elections were held and said Atmar’s call for Ghani to step down was “baseless.”
    Ghani has so far been sidelined from any direct role in the process by the Taliban’s refusal to talk to what it considers a U.S.-appointed “puppet” government.
UNCERTAINTY OVER PEACE TALKS
    He was reportedly furious when a group of leading politicians outside the government, including both Atmar and former President Hamid Karzai, met Taliban officials in Moscow.
    Atmar said the politicians were keen to convince the Taliban to talk to Ghani’s peace representatives but had been blocked by the president, who has pushed the United Nations not to relax travel restrictions on Taliban representatives.
    “First he criticized everyone who participated and second, he is writing letter to U.N. to bar the Taliban from travel,” Atmar said.     An ethnic Pashtun former intelligence officer in the communist government who lost a leg fighting the anti-Soviet Mujahideen in the 1980s, Atmar, who speaks fluent English, is well liked by Western officials.
    He was a central figure behind a 2014 bilateral security agreement with the United States and a 2016 reconciliation accord that allowed former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to return to Kabul and rejoin the political mainstream.
    If he won the election, he said, his priorities would be national unity, peace, justice and cooperation domestically and beyond.
    Atmar’s rift with Ghani adds to the uncertainty among many Afghans about the future and questioning whether the peace talks between the United States and the Taliban will bear fruit.
    The election is also shaping up as a major challenge for the government, with rising speculation that the poll may be delayed or not held at all if a peace deal is reached with the Taliban.
    Atmar, who resigned over “serious differences” with Ghani, said he was not confident the election would be free of the fraud that marred both the 2014 presidential election and last October’s parliamentary election.
    “We are absolutely concerned about interference of the government in the election and he is seriously abusing his incumbency power,” Atmar said.
    “If he does change the way he is behaving, he will be seen as the main obstacle not only to peace but holding a free and fair election.”
(Editing by Nick Macfie)

3/1/2019 China looks to parliament for reassurances as economy slows by Ryan Woo and Kevin Yao
FILE PHOTO: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attends the sixth plenary session of the National People's Congress (NPC)
at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China March 18, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo
    BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s leaders will pledge in parliament next week to keep the country on safe footing as the economy faces its biggest test in years, amid pressure to roll out more measures to bolster growth and revive weak business and consumer confidence.
    The government is expected to set a less ambitious target for the economy this year at the annual meeting of parliament, acknowledging that a mix of domestic and global factors will continue to weigh on China’s outlook.
    But Premier Li Keqiang’s 2019 work report at the opening of the National People’s Congress (NPC) on Tuesday is expected to offer plenty of assurances that Beijing will do more to help struggling small businesses, boost demand and safeguard jobs.
    Sweeping tax cuts may also be on the cards. Some economists estimate they could be worth nearly $300 billion.
    China’s economy grew at its weakest pace last year since 1990, pressured by a trade war with the United States and Beijing’s crackdown on financial risks, which pushed up companies’ borrowing costs and stifled investment.
    Sources have told Reuters that Beijing will likely set a growth target of 6.0-6.5 percent this year, down from around 6.5 percent in 2018. Gross domestic product (GDP) expanded 6.6 percent, cooling from the previous year.
    Investors will closely watch the economic targets for clues on whether authorities will adjust monetary and fiscal policies.
    Sharply lower growth in the world’s second-largest economy would alarm global financial markets and complicate expansion plans for foreign brands from Toyota to Siemens looking to garner a bigger share of the country’s 400 million-strong middle-class consumers.
    Analysts say Beijing needs to keep growth above 6 percent to meet its a long-term goal of doubling GDP from 2010 to 2020.    Officials worry that a deeper slowdown may fuel more job losses and pose a threat to social stability.
    “The government will not accept quarterly growth of less than 6 percent in 2019, as they worry they may not be able to halt a downtrend,” said Lu Zhengwei, chief economist at Industrial Bank in Shanghai.
    Policymakers have vowed they will not resort to massive stimulus like in the past, not wanting to derail progress from their efforts to contain risks in the complex and opaque financial system.
    But policymakers have shifted their focus back to growth, with numerous steps to spur lending and lower firms’ financing costs.    And, any additional tax and fee cuts would be on top of 1.3 trillion yuan in reductions last year.
    Sources also said China’s budget deficit is likely to rise from last year’s 2.6 percent of GDP, reflecting lower tax revenue and higher government spending, but could be kept below 3 percent.    The target will be announced on Tuesday along with those for 2019 GDP growth target and consumer inflation.
    Local governments are also expected to be given the green-light to sell 2 trillion yuan in off-budget special bonds to fund infrastructure, up from 1.35 trillion yuan last year.
TRADE WAR CASTS BIG SHADOW
    But looming large over the assembly will be trade, with conflicting reports on whether Chinese and U.S. officials are inching closer to a deal that would de-escalate or end the countries’ tariff war.
    The dispute has cost both countries billions of dollars and is inflicting growing damage on China’s trading partners from Japan to Germany.
    “The trade war has exposed domestic problems, such as how to adapt to international rules, how to deal with the relationship with the world’s biggest economy, and how to conduct ‘normal’ competition rather than vicious competition,” said Wang Jun, Beijing-based chief economist at Zhongyuan Bank.
    The largely rubber-stamp parliament is expected to pass a new foreign investment law banning forced technology transfer and illegal government “interference” in foreign business practices.
    Washington has accused Beijing of intellectual property theft and forced IP transfers, threatening further tariffs.    China has repeatedly rejected such accusations.
    China is also expected to outline plans to expedite the rollout of 5G mobile networks across the country, key to enabling new technologies such as driverless cars and allowing smart devices to talk with one another and spurring Chinese manufacturing onto a higher-value path. Huawei is China’s chief supplier of 5G chips.
(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Kevin Yao; Editing by Kim Coghill)

3/1/2019 Singapore plans to buy four F-35 jets with option for eight more by Aradhana Aravindan and John Geddie
FILE PHOTO: A Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft is seen at the ILA Air Show in Berlin, Germany, April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt/File Photo
    SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Singapore plans to buy an initial four F-35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin Corp, with an option to purchase eight more, as it looks to replace its ageing F-16 fleet, the city-state’s defense minister said on Friday.
    Ng Eng Hen said in parliament that the ministry of defense will issue a letter of request (LOR) to the United States for the purchase, which must be approved by the U.S. Congress.
    With Southeast Asia’s largest defense budget, the wealthy city-state is a key prize for global arms companies as it looks to invest in new technology and upgrade its equipment.
    “Our LOR will request an initial acquisition of four F-35s, with the option of a subsequent eight if we decide to proceed,” Ng said.    “Singapore has the endorsement of both the U.S. Administration and the Department of Defense for our proposed purchase of F-35s, but the Congress must still approve it.”
    Ng added it was an “opportune time” for Singapore to put in the request because the price of F-35s – which ranges from $90 million to $115 million – has been steadily falling amid high demand from the United States and ten other countries, including Britain, Italy, Australia, Japan and South Korea.
    A Lockheed executive told Reuters a year earlier that talks with Singapore had centered on the F-35B version short take-off and landing variant that is “a nice fit for a smaller land-constrained environment.”
    Lockheed did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
    Singapore’s fleet of around 60 F-16 jets, which first entered service in 1998, will be retired soon after 2030.
(Reporting by Aradhana Aravindan and John Geddie, additional reporting by Jamie Freed; Editing by Himani Sarkar)

3/1/2019 No deal blow for Moon’s vision of ‘peace-driven’ Korean economy by Hyonhee Shin
South Korean President Moon Jae-in talks on the phone with U.S. President Donald Trump at the Presidential
Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, February 28, 2019. The Presidential Blue House/Yonhap via REUTERS
    HANOI (Reuters) – As word spread that a summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was ending early in failure, some South Korean officials at a Hanoi media center watching a live feed of proceedings turned pale and made hurried calls.
    “The president might have to rewrite his speech,” said one official said in a hushed voice, referring to an address Moon Jae-in was due to deliver on Friday marking a national holiday.
    The failure of Trump and Kim to reach an agreement at their high-stakes summit in the Vietnamese capital is a blow for the South Korean government, which had pinned hopes on an easing of U.S. sanctions on North Korea leading to the reopening of inter-Korean projects including a factory park, tourism zone and railway network.
    Those projects, stymied by sanctions on North Korea, are key to a Moon economic initiative that he sees as a driver for South Korea’s moribund economy, which is suffering its worst unemployment in a decade.
    “For the Moon administration, the summit was make-or-break,” said Lee Chung-min, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia Programme.
    “Moon wants to distract South Korean citizens from the sluggish economy and growing unemployment by taking credit for inter-Korean peace and boosting his party’s chances in next year’s parliamentary election.”
    Moon has been an ardent champion of efforts to end confrontation on the Korean peninsula and nudge North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons in exchange for an end to sanctions and security guarantees.
    He has pressed hard for sanctions relief, saying South Korea is the “main stakeholder” in Korean peninsula issues.
    Moon held three summits with Kim last year, mediating between Pyongyang and Washington – at the request of the United States, Moon’s office said – when their exchanges soured.
    In his speech on Friday, Moon had been set to unveil a grand vision of a “new Korean peninsula regime” for the next 100 years, an inter-Korean economic community, born from the ending of sanctions in return for denuclearization.
    That speech needed last-minute changes, given the outcome in Hanoi, but only small ones according to another South Korea one official who insisted the basis of Moon’s vision was unchanged.
    “The new Korean peninsula regime is a new community of economic cooperation that will be formed after the era of ideology and factionalism is put behind us,” a somber-looking Moon said at a ceremony in Seoul.
    A song called “Our Wish is Unification,” popular in both of the Koreas, played in the background as Moon spoke.
    He urged the ushering in of a “peace-driven economy” and vowed to work with the United States to get the inter-Korean economic projects back up on track.
‘ACTIVE ROLE’
    Moon’s office said it regretted that no deal was struck at the summit but added that the talks had made “more meaningful progress than ever.”
    After leaving Hanoi, Trump spoke to Moon and again encouraged him to play an “active role as mediator,” Moon’s spokesman said.
    But as the dust settles on the summit, there are questions as to whether the enthusiasm of Moon and his top aides, including national security adviser Chung Eui-yong, got the better of them.
    Some analysts say they might have over-sold to Trump the willingness of Kim to abandon the weapons that North Korea sees as the guarantee of its survival.
    Days before the Hanoi summit, Moon offered to “ease the burden” on the United States, saying South Korea could provide concessions to the North through inter-Korean economic initiatives.
    “It may not be the wisest thing to openly show how desperate you are, especially when you know their gap is still wide,” a diplomatic source in Seoul said, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
    The set-back in Hanoi could exacerbate divisions within Moon’s administration between some officials who want South Korea to push ahead with the projects with the North, and others who favor sticking to the U.S. line of “maximum pressure” on the North.
    Cho Tae-yong, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator, said a hasty deal in Hanoi might in the longer run have been counter-productive for the goal of denuclearization and for South Korea.
    “The breakdown might mean a genuine initial step toward that goal which could bring both sides closer to the shared definition of denuclearization and also save South Korea’s security,” Cho told Reuters.
(This story was refiled to add missing word in first paragraph)
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON; Editing by Robert Birsel)

3/1/2019 U.S., S.Korea to replace spring exercises with smaller drills: officials
FILE PHOTO: Sailors from U.S. Navy position a power module during a biennial exercise conducted by
military and civilian personnel from the United States and the Republic of Korea, as a part of the large Foal Eagle
2017 exercise off the coast of Pohang, South Korea, April 9, 2017. Courtesy Joshua Fulton/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and South Korea are expected to announce that they will not carry out large-scale spring joint military exercises, replacing them with smaller-scale drills, U.S. officials said on Friday.
    U.S. officials have long said the spring exercises, known as Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, would be reduced in scope.
However, one of the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said a formal announcement was expected in the coming days.
    The official said the decision had been made for some time and was not an outcome of the latest summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
    The Foal Eagle field exercise, which usually involves thousands of combined ground, air, naval and special operations troops, takes place every spring. Key Resolve is a computer-simulated exercise.
    The news was first reported by NBC News.
    The United States and South Korea have suspended a number of military exercises since the first summit last year between Kim and Trump to encourage talks with North Korea.
    The leaders met this week in Hanoi for their second summit but the talks collapsed on Thursday without any agreement or immediate plan for a third meeting between them or their delegations.
    Speaking with reporters after the summit, Trump said military exercises were “very, very expensive.”
    “I was telling the generals, I said: Look, you know, exercising is fun and it’s nice and they play the war games.    And I’m not saying it’s not necessary, because at some levels it is, but at other levels it’s not,” Trump said.
    The Pentagon has said that another exercises that was suspended last year, known as Freedom Guardian, would have cost around $14 million.
    The U.S. military has a budget of more than $700 billion.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish)

3/2/2019 Iran condemns Britain for listing ally Hezbollah as ‘terrorist’ group
FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Hezbollah supporters chant slogans during last day of Ashura,
in Beirut, Lebanon September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran criticized Britain for its decision to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, saying on Saturday it ignored both the will of a large portion of the Lebanese people and the Tehran-backed group’s role in fighting Islamic State.
    Britain said on Monday it planned to ban all wings of Hezbollah, which is deemed a terrorist organization by Washington, due to its destabilizing influence in the Middle East, having previously proscribed its external security unit and its military wing.
    “This British measure signifies deliberately ignoring a large part of the Lebanese people and the legitimacy and the legal position of Hezbollah in Lebanon’s administrative and political structure,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.
    Long the most powerful group in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s influence has expanded at home and in the region.    It controls three of 30 ministries in the government led by Western-backed Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, the largest number ever.
    “In addition to … helping preserve Lebanon’s territorial integrity over recent decades, Hezbollah has been one of the pillars of the fight against terrorism and terrorist groups such as Islamic State in the region,” Qasemi added.
    Iran and Hezbollah, founded in 1982 by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, are major players in the war in Syria and the fight against militant groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, which include Islamic State.
(Reporting by Dubai Newsroom; Editing by Alexander Smith)

3/2/2019 Pakistan and India step back from the brink, tensions simmer by Abu Arqam Naqash and Fayaz Bukhari
A man watches a statement of Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman on his mobile phone, released on Twitter
by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, in Karachi, Pakistan March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro
    MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan/SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) – A flare up between arch-foes India and Pakistan appeared to be easing on Saturday after Islamabad handed back a captured Indian pilot, but tensions continued to simmer amid efforts by global powers to prevent a war between the nuclear-armed neighbors.
    Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who became the face and symbol of the biggest clash between India and Pakistan in many years, walked across the border just before 9 p.m. (1600 GMT) on Friday in a high-profile handover shown on live television.
    Shelling across the Line of Control (LoC) that acts as a de facto border in the disputed Kashmir region, a frequent feature in recent weeks, continued on Saturday.
    Pakistan’s military said on Saturday its air force and navy “continue to be alert and vigilant,” while two of its soldiers were killed after exchanging fire with Indian troops along the Line of Control.    India’s military said on Saturday that Pakistan was firing mortar shells across the LoC.
    Pakistan touted Abhinandan’s return as “as a goodwill gesture aimed at de-escalating rising tensions with India” after weeks of unease that threatened to spiral into war after both countries used jets for bombing missions this week.
    Global powers, including China and the United States, have urged restraint to prevent another conflict between the neighbors who have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947.
    Tensions escalated rapidly following a suicide car bombing on Feb. 14 that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
    India accused Pakistan of harboring the Jaish-e Mohammad group behind the attack, which Islamabad denied, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised a strong response.
    Indian warplanes carried out air strikes on Tuesday inside Pakistan on what New Delhi called militant camps.
    Islamabad denied any such camps existed, as did local villagers in the area, but Pakistan retaliated on Wednesday with its own aerial mission, that led to both sides claiming to have shot down jets.
    The stand off came at a critical time for Modi, who faces a general election that must be held by May and who had been expected to benefit from nationalist pride unleashed by the standoff.
    Pakistani leaders say the ball is now in India’s court to de-escalate the tensions, though the Pakistani army chief told top military leaders of the United States, Britain and Australia on Friday that his country would “surely respond to any aggression in self-defense.”
COLLIDE HEAD-ON
    The Indian pilot’s ordeal since being shot down on Wednesday had made him the focal point of the crisis and he returned to his homeland to a hero’s welcome, with crowds thronging the Wagah border crossing and waving Indian flags.
    Before his release, Pakistani television stations broadcast video of Abhinandan in which he thanked the Pakistani army for saving him from an angry crowd who chased him after seeing him parachute to safety.
    “The Pakistani army is a very professional service,” he said.    “I have spent time with the Pakistan army.    I am very impressed.”
    On Friday, four Indian troops and one civilian were killed in a clash with militants in the Indian-administered Kashmir, where a further three people were killed and one wounded from Pakistani shelling.
    Pakistan’s military said two civilians were killed and two wounded since Friday afternoon on Pakistan’s side of Kashmir from a barrage of Indian shelling.
    In a sign of the unease, residents say they are afraid another conflagration is likely.
    “The way situation is developing along the LoC makes me feel that both sides may collide head-on anytime now,” said Chaudhry Jahangir, a Pakistani resident of the Samahni sector in Kashmir.
(Additional reporting by Saad Sayeed; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Kim Coghill and Muralikumar Anantharaman)

3/3/2019 Malaysia’s ruling coalition loses seat in state by-election
FILE PHOTO - New Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a news conference
in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/File Photo
    KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia’s ruling coalition lost a state constituency in a by-election on Saturday, in a sign of waning popularity of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s alliance.
    Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan coalition, or Alliance of Hope, lost a seat in the Semenyih constituency in Selangor state by 1,914 votes.    It had won the seat in May 2018 but a by-election had to be called following the death of the lawmaker in January.
    The constituency was won by Barisan Nasional – Malaysia’s grand old party that was ousted in a national election last year after over 60 years in power.
    The loss is a blow for Mahathir’s coalition, which has been facing criticism of failing to deliver promised reforms quickly and protecting Islam and rights of the majority ethnic Malays.
    In the national election last year, Mahathir’s coalition won overwhelming support from ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, but it secured the votes of only 30 percent of Malay voters, according to estimates by independent polling firm Merdeka Center.
    Polls published since have showed the coalition has been losing support among the Malays, some of whom fear that affirmative-action policies favoring them in business, education and housing could be taken away.
    Meanwhile, former prime minister Najib Razak – who used to lead the Barisan Nasional alliance – has been getting more popular on social media.
    Najib has been trying to shed the image of a wealthy, elite politician and elicit public sympathy ahead of corruption trials due this year.    He has denied any wrongdoing and has pled not guilty.
(Reporting by A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by Kim Coghill)

3/3/2019 Record Australian heat brings fire to a scorched land by Alison Bevege
A supplied image obtained on March 2, 2019, shows smoke rising from the bushfire burning in
Victoria's east, Australia. AAP Image/Supplied by Steven Clarke/via REUTERS
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – Firefighters battled 25 blazes across the Australian state of Victoria on Sunday as a record-breaking heatwave delivered the hottest start to March on record for the southern third of the country.
    The continent is prone to deadly blazes thanks to its combination of remote terrain, high summer temperatures and flammable eucalyptus bush.
    A severe four-day heatwave has brought fire weather across the southern parts of Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania over the weekend.
    The south-eastern state of Victoria was the worst hit, with more than 2,000 firefighters, water-bombing aircraft and volunteers battling blazes on Sunday.
    A cool change was forecast for late on Sunday but an associated wind change would bring danger for firefighters.
    “It’s a dangerous time, putting it bluntly,” Victoria’s Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said in a televised emergency briefing on Sunday.
    “Not just for communities but for firefighters.”
    In 2009, the worst bushfires on record destroyed thousands of homes in Victoria, killing 173 people and injuring 414 on a day the media dubbed “Black Saturday.”
    The largest fire in Bunyip State Park was sparked by multiple lightning strikes on Friday.
    Rural townships were evacuated with no reported injuries or deaths, but three homes and several properties had been destroyed by noon on Sunday.
    Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said the heatwave, defined as three consecutive days and nights of above-average temperatures, had broken more than a century of records.
    “It’s broken heat records for March in four states along the southern coastline,” meteorologist Dean Narramore told Reuters by telephone on Sunday.
    Temperatures in Tasmania, Australia’s southernmost state, reached 39.1 degrees Celsius (102°F) on Saturday, the hottest in 131 years of records, Narramore said.
    Australia’s hottest summer on record is causing several industries to wilt, including the $4.4 billion wine industry with grape yields set to drop to the lowest in years.
    Drought has also damaged the winter wheat crop and is expected to drag the wool clip to a record low.
    The Pacific nation had its third warmest year on record in 2018, a year marked by severe drought in parts of the country and a prolonged bushfire season.
    Australia continued the trend into 2019 with its hottest January on record.
(Reporting by Alison Bevege; Editing by Kim Coghill)

3/4/2019 Iran’s Khamenei doubted Europe could help Tehran against U.S. sanctions
FILE PHOTO: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech during a meeting with Iranians
from the East Azerbaijan province, in Tehran, Iran February 18, 2019. Khamenei.ir/Handout via REUTERS
    LONDON (Reuters) – Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei advised the government last July not to rely on European efforts to protect Tehran against U.S. sanctions, months after Washington withdrew from a nuclear deal with Iran and reimposed penalties.
    The release of Khamenei’s speech nine months after his meeting with the cabinet, showed while President Hassan Rouhani was trying to save the nuclear deal with European powers, who remained committed despite the U.S. exit, Khamenei was not optimistic about the efforts.
    The Europeans would naturally say they are protecting Iranian interests with their package “but (the Iranian government) should not make this a main issue,” Khamenei was quoted as saying by his official website on Monday.
    Khamenei’s comments were published a week after Rouhani rejected the resignation of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a U.S.-educated veteran diplomat who championed the nuclear deal.
    The scepticism from Khamenei casts doubt on efficiency of Zarif’s past and present efforts to keep the agreement alive.
    Iran and six major world powers reached a nuclear deal in 2015 after more than a decade of negotiations.    Under the deal, sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union and United Nations were lifted in return for Iran agreeing long-term curbs on a nuclear program that the West suspected was aimed at creating a nuclear bomb.
    Khamenei said that the 2015 deal did not resolve “any of economic problems” of Iran, and predicted that the mechanism proposed by Europeans to shield business with Iran against the U.S. sanctions would not also be a solution to economic hardship.
    “(The Europeans) are bad.    They are really bad.    I have a lot to say about the Europeans; not because of their current policies, but their mischievous nature in the last few centuries.”
    “Do not tie the Iranian economy to something that is out of our control,” he added.
    Iranian politics has long experienced internal factional struggles, especially on its relations with the West.    While Rouhani and his moderate camp support the nuclear deal and seek rapprochement with the United States and Europe, the hardliners, echoing Khamenei’s stance, defy any compromise to foreign pressures, calling it against Islamic revolutionary values.
    Khamenei warned last month the government not to be deceived by European countries, and their “smiles.”
    France, Germany and Britain opened a new channel for non-dollar trade with Iran in January, although diplomats say it is unlikely to allow for the big transactions that Tehran says it needs to keep a nuclear deal afloat.
    Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi praised on Monday the proposed European mechanism, known as Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) as a “late but important step.”
    Qasemi, however, warned, that Iran will not accept any conditions from the Europeans.
    “The European countries know we do not accept conditions and we do not seek permission for our foreign policy.”
    France has called on Iran to stop all activities linked to ballistic missiles or face sanctions.
    Iran has threatened to pull out of the 2015 deal itself unless the European powers enable it to receive economic benefits.    The Europeans have promised to help companies do business with Iran as long as it abides by the deal.
    Washington says that although Iran has met the terms, the accord was too generous, failing to rein in Iran’s ballistic missile program or curb its regional meddling.
    New U.S. sanctions have largely succeeded in persuading European companies to abandon business with Iran.
(This story has been refiled to fix spelling in 10th paragraph)
(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Toby Chopra)

3/4/2019 China says defense spending rise to be ‘reasonable and appropriate’
Military delegates leave the Great Hall of the People after a meeting ahead of National People's Congress (NPC),
China's annual session of parliament, in Beijing, China March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
    BEIJING (Reuters) – China will keep up a “reasonable and appropriate” increase in defense spending to satisfy its national security and military reforms, a government spokesman said on Monday, ahead of the release of its defense budget.
    China’s spending on armed forces is closely watched in Asia and Washington for pointers to its broader strategic intentions amid an impressive modernization program that has developed stealth fighters, aircraft carriers and anti-satellite missiles.
    In 2018, China unveiled its largest defense spending increase in three years, setting an 8.1 percent growth target for the year.
    He was speaking ahead of parliament’s release of the national budget on Tuesday, the legislature’s spokesman Zhang Yesui, a former ambassador to Washington, said China had always walked the path of peaceful development.
    “Maintaining reasonable and appropriate growth in national defense spending is needed for protecting national security and for military reforms with Chinese characteristics,” Zhang said.
    China’s “limited” defense spending is only for its own security needs and to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and will not threaten other countries, he added.
    “Whether a country poses a military threat to other countries depends on its foreign and defense policies, rather than how much its defense spending increases/i>.”
    Zhang did not elaborate on how much defense spending would rise, as has often been the custom in recent years the day before the legislature opens.
    U.S. President Donald Trump has backed plans to request $750 billion from Congress for defense spending in 2019.    That compares with the 1.11 trillion yuan ($165.55 billion) China set for its military budget in 2018.
Zhang said China only spent about 1.3 percent of GDP on its military last year, compared with more than 2 percent for “certain major developed countries
.”
.     China gives no breakdown of its defense budget, prompting complaints from neighbors and other military powers that Beijing’s lack of transparency has fueled regional tension.    China says it is fully transparent and no threat.
    Diplomats and many foreign experts say China’s defense numbers probably underestimate true military spending for the People’s Liberation Army, the world’s largest armed forces, which also run the space program.
    The 2019 figure should be unveiled at Tuesday’s opening of the annual session of China’s largely rubber-stamp parliament, although, in 2017, it was not initially announced, prompting renewed concerns about transparency.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

3/4/2019 India says French-made Rafale jets to be inducted in September 2019
FILE PHOTO: A Dassault Rafale fighter takes part in flying display during the 52nd Paris Air Show at
Le Bourget Airport near Paris, France June 25, 2017. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol/File Photo
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India will induct French-made Rafale combat jet in September, the chief of the Indian air force B.S. Dhanoa said on Monday.
    India has ordered 36 planes from Dassault Aviation as part of a modernization program of the air force which is phasing out its Soviet-era planes.
(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani)

3/4/2019 Eyes on the sea: companies compete for Australian maritime surveillance contract by Jamie Freed
FILE PHOTO: The Zephyr, a High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite (HAPS) UAS/UAV that runs on solar power, is
launched in Arizona, United States, in November 2018. Airbus Defence and Space/Handout via REUTERS
    AVALON, Australia (Reuters) – Major global defense contractors want to sell Australia on cutting-edge technology such as high-altitude, solar-electric powered drones and optionally manned aircraft to keep an eye on the oceans.
    Airbus SE, Italy’s Leonardo SpA, Northrop Grumman Corp and Lockheed Martin Corp are among the companies that have expressed interest in providing Australia’s Department of Home Affairs with such equipment, showcased at the Australian International Airshow last week.
    The four companies said they have responded to a request for information issued late last year; the next step, after the government responds, would be to submit proposals.
    The final contracts could be worth several hundred millions dollars depending on the scope, according to two industry sources who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
    The country is looking to replace 10 Bombardier Inc Dash 8 maritime patrol turboprops that began service more than a decade ago.
    Australia has the world’s third-largest economic exclusion zone behind France and the United States, and the world’s largest maritime search and rescue region, covering about 10 percent of the Earth’s surface.
    Australia faces smuggling of people, drugs and weapons; illegal fishing; and search and rescue at sea, making it an ideal market for sophisticated aerial surveillance technology.
    “What works for large merchant ships or naval formations may not work for a tiny wooden vessel moving at slow speed with no electronic signature,” said James Goldrick, a retired rear admiral in the Royal Australian Navy and former border protection commander.
    The government aims to have all of the new equipment operating by 2024, the department said when it announced the request for information in late October.
    A Home Affairs spokesman said on Friday that the government got 67 responses from industry by the end of November, and that no decision had been made on next steps.
    Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, who oversees the Australian Border Force, said in October the contract would be a “very significant investment” without providing further details.
    An election is due to be held by May and the opposition Labor Party is favored in polls, but Goldrick said he expected any incoming government would issue requests for proposals.
RANGE OF OPTIONS
    The Home Affairs contract would build on Australia’s military capabilities, including seven Boeing Co P-8A Poseidon submarine-hunting jets. Five more P-8As have been ordered.
    Last year, Australia ordered six Northrop Grumman Triton maritime surveillance drones, which will cost A$6.9 billion ($4.90 billion) in total, according to a person familiar with the transaction.
    Northrop Grumman is marketing its medium altitude, long-endurance, optionally manned Firebird aircraft as a way to compliment the larger and costlier Triton for the border security contract.
    “(Firebird) could be tasked to go to very specific things if you want to keep an eye on a certain target of interest for a long period of time while Triton goes off and goes after the broader surveillance,” Doug Shaffer, the manager of the Triton program, told Reuters.
    Airbus and Leonardo are both marketing solutions based on the large amount of maritime surveillance equipment each company already has operating in their home markets of France and Italy.
    At the air show last week, Airbus’ showed off its Zephyr, a solar-electric pseudo-satellite drone designed to linger at an altitude of around 70,000 feet (21 kilometers) for months at a time to track ships or even provide a temporary boost to communications.
    Airbus has built its first Zephyr global operations site in a remote part of Australia’s northwest that has ideal launch weather.    The first launch is expected within the next month, Airbus executives told reporters at a briefing.
    “Zephyr can provide persistent surveillance and can cover wide areas because it flies very high.    That is definitely one element of future solutions on maritime,” said Airbus Defense and Space Head of Marketing Ioannis Papachristofilou.
    He added his company would propose a network of many technologies – vessel traffic systems, sensors, helicopters, fixed-wing planes and satellites connected to a local operations center – for a country like Australia.
    Leonardo already supplies Australia with maritime surveillance radar and mission systems, and is looking to provide a wide range of products such as helicopters, turboprops and drones fitted with its own sensors, said Michael Lenton, the head of Leonardo Australia.
(Reporting by Jamie Freed; Editing by Gerry Doyle)

3/4/2019 U.S. tries to safeguard Afghan peace push from India-Pakistan crisis by Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Michelle Nichols
FILE PHOTO: India's Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers patrol along the fenced border with Pakistan
in Ranbir Singh Pura sector near Jammu February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is trying to prevent simmering tensions between India and Pakistan from impacting a third country: Afghanistan, where a fragile peace push is underway to try to end more than 17 years of war with Taliban insurgents.
    U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has been publicly focused on lowering tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals since a Feb. 14 suicide car bomb in an Indian-controlled area of Kashmir triggered the first Indian air strikes inside of Pakistan since a 1971 war.
    Senior U.S. officials told Reuters that as the United States spoke with senior Pakistani officials, emphasizing the need to lower the risk of conflict with India, Islamabad privately offered warnings on Afghanistan.
    Pakistani officials said their ability to support Afghan peace talks could be in jeopardy in the event of a full-blown crisis, U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
    “They’ll stop being a facilitator, they will stop the pressure they are applying” on the Taliban, one U.S. official said, recounting Pakistani warnings conveyed to Washington.
    Pakistan has publicly denied any role in the suicide bombing. But the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militant group claimed responsibility for it, and India has long accused Islamabad of supporting them.
    The United States has likewise accused Pakistan of ties to Taliban militants who are fighting in neighboring Afghanistan against American and U.S.-backed Afghan government forces.
    Reuters has previously reported, however, that U.S. officials have recently seen a positive shift in Pakistan’s behavior.
    Pakistan, long at odds with the United States over the war in Afghanistan, has played a behind-the-scenes role in supporting U.S. peace talks with the Afghan Taliban, including by facilitating travel to negotiations.
    Current and former U.S. officials caution that Islamabad could again choose to act as a spoiler.
    “I don’t believe that Pakistan has the capability to straight out make peace happen in Afghanistan, but they definitely have the capability to make peace not (happen),” said Laurel Miller, a former senior State Department official.
MOVEMENT OF TROOPS
    In the past several days, India and Pakistan have appeared to dial down hostilities that brought the arch enemies to the brink of another war. But it’s unclear whether the calm will hold.
    A Pakistani official in Washington, speaking on the condition of anonymity, cautioned that unless the tensions were reduced, there was a “very strong likelihood” that Pakistani troops would be moved from the border with Afghanistan to reinforce positions near India.
    Pakistan’s U.N. Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi told Reuters that Islamabad’s focus could completely shift to its eastern border with India.
    “If the crisis with India continues, Pakistan will be obliged to keep our entire focus on our Eastern border.    That may affect our efforts on our Western front,” Lodhi said.
    The Pakistani official in Washington said Pakistan had not been focused on Afghanistan since tensions with India increased last month, and it would have implications for peace talks.
    Some current and former U.S. officials say Islamabad may be over-stating the risks of fallout on Afghan peace talks, which resumed over the weekend in Doha. Speaking on condition of anonymity, they noted that Islamabad has its own self-interests in mind as it seeks to influence the peace process in neighboring Afghanistan.
    But other U.S. officials acknowledge a major crisis involving India would be all-consuming for Islamabad, and say it’s another reason why lowering tensions is so important.
    In Afghanistan, which fears its country is being used as a proxy for tension between India and Pakistan, the foreign ministry summoned Pakistan’s envoy to Kabul after he made similar warnings.
    Veteran diplomats say that if the United States pushes Pakistan too hard on combating militants, Islamabad could diminish its support for the peace process.
    Dan Feldman, a former U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said many of the Pakistani officials who dealt with India were also responsible for Afghanistan, and that tensions could impact peace talks.
    He said a lack of U.S. focus on South Asia was problematic.
    “We need much more focus and strategic thinking from the Trump Administration on this region, and an effective way of implementing that strategy,” Feldman said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali in Washington, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; additional reporting by Eric Knecht in Doha; editing by Bill Berkrot)

3/4/2019 Huawei allegedly plans to announce lawsuit against the U.S. by OAN Newsroom
    Chinese telecommunications company Huawei is allegedly preparing to sue the United States.    According to reports, the company will announce a lawsuit during a press conference Thursday.
    This action is most likely in response to the U.S. decision to ban federal agencies from using the company’s products after it was accused of stealing trade secrets from T-Mobile, which both China and Huawai denied by claiming there is no evidence any laws were broken.
    “China always encourages and asks Chinese companies to strictly abide by local laws and regulations in their overseas operations,” said Zhang Yesui, spokesman for the 13th National People’s Congress.    “It has never asked and will not ask Chinese companies to do anything against foreign laws and regulations.”
FILE – This Dec. 18, 2018, file photo, shows company signage on display near the Huawei office building at its
research and development center in Dongguan, in south China’s Guangdong province. (AP Photo/Andy Wong, File)
    Officials still see the company as a threat to national security, following reports the company may be using its devices to spy on U.S. consumers.
    “We believe that competition, whether if it’s in 5G or some other technology, ought to be open, free, transparent and we worry that Huawei is not that,” stated U.S. Secretery of State Mike Pompeo.
    The report comes days after Huawei announced it will take legal action against the Canadian government and its border agency after it detained a senior employee for a three-hour long interrogation.

3/4/2019 Key North Korean nuclear reactor has been shut down for months: IAEA
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano addresses a news conference during a board
of governors meeting at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
    VIENNA (Reuters) – The nuclear reactor that is believed to have supplied much of the plutonium for North Korea’s nuclear weapons appears to have been shut down for the past three months, the U.N. atomic watchdog said on Monday, without suggesting why.
    The 5-megawatt reactor is part of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex, the possible dismantling of which was a central issue in talks between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam last week.
    The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency has not had access to North Korea since Pyongyang expelled its inspectors in 2009, and it now monitors the country’s nuclear activities mainly through satellite imagery.
    Some independent analysts, who are also using satellite imagery, believe the aging reactor is having technical problems.
    “The agency has not observed any indications of the operation of the 5MW(e) reactor since early December 2018,” IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said in a closed-door speech to his agency’s Board of Governors, which is meeting this week.
    At the radiochemical laboratory that separates plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel, there were no indications of such reprocessing activities, Amano added.
    But a facility widely believed to be used for uranium enrichment, a process that can also produce weapons-grade material for nuclear bombs, appeared to be running, he said.    And building work continued on an experimental light-water reactor.
    “At the light water reactor, the agency saw indications of ongoing construction work.    We also continued to observe indications of the ongoing use of the reported centrifuge enrichment facility,” Amano said.
    The IAEA has repeatedly said it is ready to play a verification role in North Korea once a political agreement is reached on the country’s nuclear activities.
    The United States says it wants a full “denuclearization” of North Korea, but the Trump-Kim summit’s abrupt ending without agreement left the future of their talks uncertain.
    The reclusive state carried out six nuclear tests between 2006 and 2017, and last year blew up tunnels at its main nuclear test site, which Pyongyang said was proof of its commitment to ending nuclear testing.
    North Korea did not, however, allow experts to witness the dismantlement of the site and verify what actually happened.    Only a small group of international media handpicked by North Korea witnessed the demolition at the Punggye-ri site.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

3/4/2019 Pakistan vows again to act against militants on its soil as global pressure grows by Drazen Jorgic
FILE PHOTO: A Pakistani soldier ties his national flag upside down on a watchtower as seen across the fenced
border between India and Pakistan in Ranbir Singh Pura sector near Jammu March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
    ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan plans to take action against militant groups operating on its soil, a minister said on Monday, amid global pressure to act after a suicide bomber killed 40 Indian paramilitary police in Kashmir last month.
    But Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry denied Indian accusations that Pakistan was involved in the Feb. 14 attack, which led to a sharp rise in hostilities, saying it “had nothing to do with us.”
    Nuclear-armed Pakistan and India both carried out aerial bombing missions last week and on Wednesday fought a brief dogfight in the skies over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, but they stepped back from the brink after Islamabad on Friday handed back a captured Indian pilot as a peace gesture.
    Britain and the United States welcomed the pilot’s return but urged Islamabad to take action against militant groups carrying out attacks on Indian soil.    Islamabad denies assisting the groups or using them as proxies in its rivalry with India.
    Previous vows by the Pakistan government to crack down on anti-India militant groups have largely come to nothing, with militant leaders living freely in Pakistan.
    Pakistan’s powerful military dictates the South Asian nation’s security plans and foreign policy, including relations with India.
    Chaudhry said the decision to act was taken at a meeting of the National Security Committee before the suicide bombing, claimed by Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), in Kashmir.
    “A full-fledged strategy is now in place,” Chaudhry told Reuters.    “We have different strategies for different groups, but the main aim is that we have to enforce the writ of the state.    We have to demilitarize if there are groups (on our soil).”
    Pakistan’s English-language Dawn newspaper said a source briefed journalists that a crackdown against militant groups was imminent.
    “The action would soon be visible as things progress,” Dawn cited the source as saying.    It did not identify the source or say whether it was from the military or government.
    In September 2017, Reuters reported that Pakistan’s military had decided to deradicalize armed militant groups and try to get them involved in politics.
    That strategy was criticized by civil society groups and the previous civilian government after the emergence of a new party linked to Hafiz Saeed, the alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people.    Saeed denied a role in the attack but the new party was later banned.
DRYING UP MILITANTS’ FUNDS
    Chaudhry said Pakistan would use an “economic, political and administrative strategy” that would adhere to Pakistan’s National Action Plan (NAP) formulated in 2014, which vowed to stamp out militant groups.
    Analysts say security services carrying out NAP did not target anti-India outfits.
    Chaudhry added that Pakistan would also fulfill demands set out by a global watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which put Pakistan on a terrorism watch list in 2018 on the urging of the United States and European nations.
    “We have to implement FATF conditionalities, and likewise, we have taken strict measures on money laundering to dry the source of funding for these groups,” Chaudhry said.
    Chaudhry said the government was looking to close “loopholes” that allowed banned groups to operate.
    “With banned groups it will be made sure that they will be banned in practical terms also,” he said.    “The problem is that they change names and start operating from other names.    This needs to be taken care of.”
    India accused Pakistan of playing a role in the Feb. 14 JeM attack in the Kashmiri city of Pulwama.
    “We have looked at the incident and it is our considered opinion that Pulwama has nothing to do with us,” Chaudhry said.
    The United States, Britain and France proposed last week that the U.N. Security Council blacklist the head of JeM, Masood Azhar.    A vote is due to be held in mid-March with a focus on Pakistan’s staunch ally China, which has blocked previous attempts by world powers to sanction the JeM chief.
    Pakistan’s foreign minister last week told CNN that Azhar was in Pakistan and “really unwell.”
    India on Tuesday bombed what New Delhi called a JeM militant training camp in a forest area in northern Pakistan, killing “many terrorists.”    Islamabad denied such a camp existed and invited journalists to visit the site.
    Villagers in the area said there was no active militant camp but pointed to a nearby madrasa and said it was run by JeM.    The military prevented Reuters reports from visiting the madrasa.
(Additional reporting by Asif Shahzad:; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Nick Macfie)

3/5/2019 Iran foreign minister not informed about Assad trip to Tehran: spokesman
FILE PHOTO: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is pictured after meeting with Lebanese President
Michel Aoun near Beirut, Lebanon November 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo
    GENEVA (Reuters) – Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was not informed about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s trip to Tehran last week and that was a reason why he submitted his resignation, the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) reported on Tuesday.
    The news agency cited foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi as the source of the information in its report.
    President Hassan Rouhani rejected Zarif’s resignation last Wednesday, bolstering a moderate ally who has long been targeted by hardliners in factional struggles over the 2015 nuclear deal with the West.
    “The ministry of foreign affairs did not have information at any level (about the trip) and this lack of information was maintained until the end of the trip,” Qassemi said, according to ISNA.
    “One of the reasons for the resignation of Dr. Zarif was this type of lack of coordination with the ministry of foreign affairs.    And as it has been announced before, the resignation of the honorable minister was not a private and individual issue and the goal and intent of that was a positive effort to return the ministry of foreign affairs and the diplomatic system of the country to its main place.”
    Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, the branch of the elite Revolutionary Guards responsible for operations outside Iran’s borders, was present at a meeting last week between Assad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the highest authority in the Islamic Republic.
    Soleimani said last week that Zarif was the main person in charge of foreign policy and he was supported by Khamenei.
(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Nick Macfie)

3/5/2019 Propaganda 2.0: Chinese Communist Party’s message gets tech upgrade by Cate Cadell
Officials sing the national anthem during the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the
Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, March 5, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee
    BEIJING (Reuters) – In a bright red office in south Beijing, some of China’s most studious Communist Party members are gathered around their smartphones.
    The focus of their attention is a range of mobile apps and websites which allow them to study the speeches of Chinese President Xi Jinping, including one developed by their own employer, Beijing-based conglomerate Tidal Star Group.
    Tidal Star is among a rising number of Chinese firms working for, or taking inspiration from, the country’s ruling Communist Party to develop high-tech propaganda tools aimed at spreading the party’s message among a tech-savvy younger generation.
    The party’s mass propaganda toolkit has been upgraded from strident posters and Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book” to include artificially intelligent news readers, viral social media campaigns and “compulsory” quiz apps.
    “Of course we study the spirit of Xi Jinping’s speeches in the traditional way, but now that we have the app, party members can basically learn the excellent ideas of the national leaders every day,” said Cheng Hong, who heads Tidal Star’s party committee.
    Staff who don’t perform well on app quizzes will be “encouraged to improve their enthusiasm” while high scores are rewarded with praise and awards, Cheng added.
    Much of the new tech has been rolled out and upgraded ahead of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s top political meeting, which kicked-off on Tuesday.
    The annual parliamentary meeting typically sees a ramping-up of propaganda in Chinese state media.
    “It’s a massive revolution and at the same time a huge challenge for the propaganda department, to keep relevant and have a stake, when everything propaganda-wise is now in cyberspace,” said Graeme Smith, a Fellow at the Department of Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University.
RED MILLENNIALS
    Last month, an app called “Xuexi Qiangguo” which tracks how much time users spend learning Communist Party teachings and how they are progressing with their study, became the most downloaded app on Apple’s China app store.
    The app, developed by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, has since chalked up around 75 million downloads, according to estimates by Beijing-based consultancy Qimai.
    It is just one of dozens of Chinese Communist Party apps available on Android app stores and Apple’s China App Store, including “Party Member eHome,” “Wisely Build the Party,” “Party Member’s Little Backpack.”
    “Since 2016, one central publicity purpose for the Party is to make ‘red millennials’,” said a Beijing-based manager at a major U.S.-listed Chinese news feed app.
    His company had collaborated with the Chinese Communist Party to promote stories written by state media outlets higher up in search results.
    “Official news is always the top priority.    There is no news until official news,” said the person, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to media.
    On Sunday, state news agency Xinhua and U.S.-listed search firm Sogou Inc, also released the first official performance of a female AI news anchor called “Xin Xiaomeng,” whose first job was to present a story about delegates attending China’s largely rubber-stamp parliament meeting.
    China will get even better at telling its story to the world due to its “innovative application of communication means and technology,” said Guo Weimin, a spokesman for parliament’s largely ceremonial advisory body.    “I believe that our voice will spread farther and farther.”
    The Communist Party Propaganda Department did not respond to a request for comment.
‘ALL HOURS OF THE DAY’
    The shift in the Party’s propaganda outreach stretches to other areas such as media and popular culture.
    State media outlet Xinhua on Sunday released a patriotic English language rap song by Chinese musician Su Han.
    The fast-paced song lauds China’s recent moon-landing, powerful supercomputers and ability to clone monkeys, alongside sometimes clumsy English references to kidney stones and cartoon character Popeye.
    Xinhua also released videos of foreigners praising China’s political system, calling NPC press conferences “a journalist’s dream” and laying out the benefits of a Chinese-style democracy, using footage of Chinese basketball star Yao Ming.
    Party members said the new propaganda push means political study now consumes more of their time than ever before.
    Universities, provincial party units and companies have recently issued public notices urging staff and officials to download Xuexi Qiangguo.
    Three sources from different Party units say online study scores now factor into their performance reviews.
    One staff member at a university in southern China told Reuters they are required to complete at least 160 hours of official study online per year.
    “It’s not too boring, but the Party used to be a part of my work,” said a 35-year old researcher surnamed Liu at a Beijing university, who declined to give her full name due to the sensitivity of the topic.
    “Now it is part of my life at all hours of the day.”
(Reporting by Cate Cadell, Additional peporting by Joyce Zhou and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Brenda Goh and Lincoln Feast.)

3/5/2019 Pakistan makes it easier to go after assets of U.N.-sanctioned militants by Drazen Jorgic and Asif Shahzad
FILE PHOTO: A car with a Pakistani flag waits for Pakistani Minister Imran Khan outside the Great Hall
of the People during his visit in Beijing, China, November 3, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee
    ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan has made it easier to seize and freeze the assets of people and groups facing U.N. sanctions, the foreign ministry said, part of intensified efforts to dismantle Islamist militant groups.
    Pakistan is under increasing pressure from global powers to act against militant groups carrying out attacks in India, including Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in a suicide bombing last month in the disputed Kashmir region.
    The bomb attack led to the most serious conflict in years between the nuclear-armed neighbors with cross-border air strikes and a brief dogfight over the skies of Kashmir.
    Tension cooled when Pakistan returned a downed Indian pilot on Friday.
    Pakistan has long used some Islamist groups to pursue its aims in the region, but it has denied Indian accusations it actively supports militants fighting Indian forces in India’s part of the disputed Muslim-majority region of Kashmir.
    From time to time – usually as a result of outside pressure – Pakistan has cracked down on anti-India militants but most factions manage to survive and resume activities.
    Pakistan’s foreign ministry late on Monday said a new order, updating existing laws that deal with those on U.N. sanctions lists, had been issued “to streamline the procedure for implementation of Security Council sanctions against designated individuals and entities.”
    Ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal said the order was passed by the cabinet of Prime Minister Imran Khan.
    Many Pakistani groups and individuals are sanctioned by the United Nations, including the JeM, and Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militant group that carried out the 2008 attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai, in which 166 people were killed.
    Saeed, who holds public gatherings in Pakistan, has been at the heart of criticism that Pakistan does not enforce its anti-militancy laws.
    On Monday, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said Pakistan had developed a “full-fledged strategy” to deal with militants and the government was looking to close “loopholes” that allowed banned groups to operate.
    “With banned groups it will be made sure that they will be banned in practical terms also,” he said.
    A senior counter-terrorism official told Reuters the government was looking to set up a coordination “cell” to oversee action against militants.
    “This cell will coordinate with finance ministry, counter-terrorism departments, state bank, and financial monitoring units to see what actions have been taken against the militant groups, their assets and their sources of income,” he said.
    The ministry had no immediate comment.
    Over the weekend, both the United States and Britain urged Pakistan to deal with militant groups.    Britain urged Khan to “address the causes of this conflict” with its neighbor.
    Pakistan and India have gone to war three times, twice over the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir, which they both rule in part. India controls most of the region, including the populous Kashmir Valley.
    Pakistan says Kashmir was unfairly made part of India when British India was partitioned at the end of colonial rule, and the people of Kashmir should be allowed to decide if they want to join Pakistan or remain part of India.
    India rules that out.
(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Robert Birsel)

3/5/2019 South Korea sees signs North Korea restoring part of launch site it promised to dismantle by David Brunnstrom and Lisa Lambert
FILE PHOTO: Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) are driven past the stand with North Korean
leader Kim Jong Un and other high-ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary
of the country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – South Korean intelligence agencies have detected signs that North Korea is restoring part of a missile launch site it began to dismantle after pledging to do so in a first summit with U.S. President Donald Trump last year, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported on Tuesday.
    Yonhap quoted lawmakers briefed by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) as saying that the work was taking place at the Tongchang-ri launch site and involved replacing a roof and a door at the facility.
    The Yonhap report did not say when the work was detected, but news of it comes days after a second summit on denuclearization between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un broke down last week in Hanoi over differences on how far North Korea was willing to limit its nuclear program and the degree of U.S. willingness to ease sanctions.
    Trump told a news conference after an unprecedented first summit with Kim on June 12 in Singapore that the North Korean leader had promised that a major missile engine testing site would be destroyed very soon.
    Trump did not identify the site, but a U.S. official subsequently told Reuters it was the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground, which is located at Tongchang-ri.
    Asked to comment, the White House referred to the U.S. State Department, which did not immediately respond.    A U.S. government source said the NIS was considered reliable on such issues, but added that the work described did not seem particularly alarming, and certainly not on a scale of resuming missile tests that have been suspended since 2017.
    Kim Jong Un also pledged at a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in September to close Sohae and allow international experts to observe the dismantling of the missile engine-testing site and a launch pad.
    Signs that North Korea had begun acting on its pledge to Trump were detected in July, when a Washington think tank said satellite images indicated work had begun at Sohae to dismantle a building used to assemble space-launch vehicles and a nearby rocket engine test stand used to develop liquid-fuel engines for ballistic missiles and space-launch vehicles.
    However, subsequent images indicated North Korea had halted work to dismantle the missile engine test site in the first part of August.
    The breakdown of the summit in Hanoi last week has raised questions about the future of U.S.-North Korea dialogue.
    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday he was hopeful he would send a delegation to North Korea in the coming weeks but that he had had “no commitment yet.”
    While North Korea’s official media said last week Kim and Trump had decided at the summit to continue talks, its Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui told reporters Kim “might lose his willingness to pursue a deal” and questioned the need to continue.
    U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Palladino told a news briefing that the United States remains “in regular contact” with North Korea, but he declined to say whether they had been in contact since the summit.
    Palladino said U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun, who led pre-summit negotiation efforts, planned to meet his South Korea and Japanese counterparts on Wednesday.
    Yonhap also quoted lawmakers briefed by intelligence officials as saying that the five-megawatt reactor at North Korea’s main nuclear site at Yongbyon, which produces weapons-grade plutonium used to build bombs, had not been operational since late last year, concurring with a report from the U.N. atomic watchdog.
    Yonhap quoted the sources as saying there had been no sign of reprocessing of plutonium from the reactor and that tunnels at North Korea’s main nuclear test site in Punggye-ri had remained shut down and unattended since their widely publicized destruction in May, which Pyongyang said was proof of its commitment to ending nuclear testing.
    The fate of the Yongbyon nuclear complex and its possible dismantling was a central issue in the Hanoi summit.
(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and David Brunnstrom; additional reporting by Mark Hosenball; editing by David Gregorio and James Dalgleish)

3/5/2019 U.S. declines to elaborate on Pompeo labeling Taliban terrorists
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the media at the Department of Foreign Affairs
in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. State Department spokesman on Tuesday declined to elaborate on a comment by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday in which he called the Afghan Taliban terrorists.
    “The secretary’s words speak for themselves and I am not going to go beyond that,” spokesman Robert Palladino told a briefing.    He said U.S. and Taliban representatives currently are meeting in Doha.
    Speaking to a group of students in Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday, Pompeo said: “I have a team on the ground right now trying to negotiate with the Taliban terrorists in Afghanistan.”
    The United States has not declared the Taliban a terrorist organization.
    Palladino said the peace talks in Doha are making progress but more work needed to be done to reach an agreement.
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Writing by Eric Beech; Editing by Lisa Lambert and Paul Simao)

3/6/2019 Iran’s Rouhani accuses U.S. of trying to change clerical establishment
FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, Russia, 14 February 2019. Sergei Chirikov/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused the United States on Wednesday of plotting to use economic pressure to overthrow the Islamic republic’s clerical establishment, and ruled out the possibility of talks with Washington.
    “Iran is in economic and psychological war with America and its allies.    Their aim is to change the regime but their wish will not come true,” Rouhani said in a speech in the northern province of Gilan.
    U.S.-Iranian tensions resurged after President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of world powers’ 2015 agreement with Iran that curbed its disputed nuclear activity.    Trump said the deal was flawed as it did not curb Iran’s ballistic missile programme or support for proxies in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq.
    Washington reimposed sanctions on Iran that were lifted in 2016 under the deal.    The renewed U.S. clampdown caused a crash of Iran’s currency, rampant inflation and a flight of foreign investors desperately needed by Tehran to modernise its economy.
    The other signatories to the deal – Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China – oppose the reinstatement of U.S. financial and oil sanctions and have sought to salvage the 2015 deal by finding non-dollar ways to conduct business with Tehran.
    Iranian authorities have said that Trump administration has secretly voiced a willingness to enter into talks with Iran.
    “There is no possibility of entering negotiations with America,” Rouhani said in a speech in the city of Lahijan, broadcast live on state television.    “America wants to take Iran back to 40 years ago … to the era before the (1979 Islamic) Revolution…They want regime change.”
    Analysts say Iran’s clerical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei guardedly backed the 2015 deal as he knew that Iranians, many of whom have periodically taken to the streets to protest at economic hardships, could not tolerate more pressure.
    Iranian leaders have warned that Tehran could drop out of the nuclear deal if the other signatories fail to secure the economic benefits to Tehran accruing from the pact.
    “Our nation and the leadership are united against our enemies … We will continue our path of independence and freedom,” said Rouhani, the architect of the nuclear agreement.
    But if the deal collapses, Iran’s balance of power could tilt in favour of the pragmatist Rouhani’s hardline rivals who oppose improving ties with the West and are close to Khamenei.
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

3/6/2019 At least 16 killed in bomb, gun attack in eastern Afghanistan by Abdul Qadir Sediqi
An Afghan police officer stands guard near the site of an attack in Jalalabad, Afghanistan March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Parwiz
    KABUL (Reuters) – Suicide bombers and gunmen attacked a construction company office in the Afghan city of Jalalabad on Wednesday killing 16 employees of the Afghan company, a provincial official said.
    The attack began when two suicide bombers set off their explosives outside the company office and gunmen then opened fire, said Attaullah Khogyani, a spokesman for the governor of Nangarhar province.
    As well as the 16 dead at the company, including several of its guards, five attackers were killed – the two bombers and three gunmen, he said.
    There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
    Jalalabad is the capital of Nangarhar province, which is on the border with Pakistan.
    It has become the main stronghold in Afghanistan of Islamic State, which has grown into one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous militant groups since it appeared around the beginning of 2015.
    Sohrab Qaderi, a provincial council member in Nangarhar said four employees of the company were taken to hospital and were in critical condition.
(Additional reporting by Ahmad Sultan in Jalalabad, Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Robert Birsel)

3/6/2019 Indian opposition attacks Modi over alleged political use of armed forces by Devjyot Ghoshal and Krishna N. Das
FILE PHOTO: India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the National Cemetery in
Seoul, South Korea, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Indian opposition parties are launching a united attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi for what they see as his politicization of the armed forces as he tries to ride a patriotic wave into a second term in office at a general election.
    It is a high-risk bet that could backfire given the jingoistic fervor that has overtaken India since a suicide bomber from the Pakistan-based Islamist militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) killed 40 paramilitary police in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Feb 14.
    Pollsters say opposition parties may be making a mistake by questioning Modi on national security instead of focusing on more basic issues, such as a shortage of jobs and farmers’ distress.    Voters concerned about those issues ousted Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in three state elections late last year.
    But amid mounting doubts about the success of an Indian air strike on an alleged JeM camp in Pakistan’s northeast on Feb. 26, the opposition sees Modi as potentially vulnerable over both the government’s claims and its behavior.
    “The opposition is coordinating this and talking to each other every day,” said Derek O’Brien, a lawmaker from the West Bengal-based All India Trinamool Congress, the third-biggest opposition party in the lower house of parliament.
    “The strategy is to first keep exposing them and bringing out the fact that they are trying to appropriate the armed forces.    And two, we show that this is being done purely for election purposes.”
    O’Brien was referring to Modi speaking at a rally with the pictures of the paramilitary police killed in the bombing in the background, as well as a BJP leader in Delhi attending a public event in army fatigues.
    The BJP denies the accusations that it’s misusing the armed forces for political benefit.
DIVERTING ATTENTION?
    The main opposition Congress party said that most opposition parties – there are more than 20 of them, some caste-based – were on one page in launching a counter-attack on the BJP line that India needs a leader like Modi to take on Pakistan.
    “What we are convinced about is that the government is diverting attention from its failures because it saw defeats in the three state elections, and the narrative is against the government,” Congress spokesman Sanjay Jha said.
    Pollsters say that they expect Modi and the BJP to get a boost from India’s aggressive response to the suicide bomb attack. He is seen as decisive and resolute by voters, they say.
    The only problem may come if the government line – that it killed a large number of Islamist militants in the attack – turns out not to be true.
    Satellite images reviewed by Reuters indicate that the madrasa and related facilities that were targeted by the Indian air force were not destroyed, and the government has declined to provide evidence to back up its claims.
    “We will expose the BJP’s failures, the number of security forces killed, the rise in militancy, and, most important, the elephant in the room that people are not talking about, is Modi’s monumental failure in terms of putting Kashmir in a serious crisis,” Congress’ Jha said.
    Modi’s policies in Kashmir, claimed by both India and Pakistan but ruled in part, have been harder-line than his Congress predecessors in government, with greater use of the security forces and fewer attempts to engage with those in the Muslim community who believe in some kind of separatist state.
    Since a crackdown was launched on militants in the region after the bomb attack, 15 militants have been killed in six separate gun battles.    Twelve Indian security personnel and two civilians have also died during the operations.
    In recent days, BJP leaders, and Modi himself, have slammed the opposition for demanding evidence about the success or otherwise of last week’s strike.    On social media and in political rallies, the BJP has accused Congress and its partners of helping Pakistan by questioning the success of the military strike.
    Political strategists and pollsters are convinced that Modi can weather any attacks from the opposition on security issues.
    “I’m confident that the opposition will not be able to turn the narrative in its favor on this issue,” said Sanjay Kumar, director at think-tank Center for the Study of Developing Societies that also conducts opinion polls.
(Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal and Krishna N. Das; Editing by Martin Howell and Nick Macfie)

3/6/2019 No head for heights: China defends Tibet travel restrictions by Michael Martina and Liangping Gao
Communist Party Secretary of Tibet Autonomous Region Wu Yingjie and Governor of Tibet Autonomous Region Qizhala
attend a news conference during the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing, China, March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
    BEIJING (Reuters) – Foreigners can’t handle Tibet’s high altitude so China needs to restrict access, the top Chinese official in charge of the remote and mountainous region said on Wednesday, defending tough government restrictions on who can go there.
    Access to Tibet, which China says it “peacefully liberated” in 1950, has become another irritant in ties with the United States after President Donald Trump signed into law a Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act in December.
    That seeks to press China to open the region by denying U.S. entry to officials deemed responsible for restricting access to Tibet.    China has denounced the law.
    Speaking on the sidelines of China’s annual meeting of parliament, Tibet’s Communist Party boss Wu Yingjie said many Americans visit Tibet, especially older ones, and some foreign tourists “meet with mishap” at high altitude.
    Tibetans have been finding foreigners who have died because of the harsh conditions, he said.
    “The ordinary people tell us, there’s a tent, the people inside have been dead for many days, with the lack of oxygen,” Wu said.    It was not clear what he was referring to and he did not elaborate.
    “After considering the special geographical and climatic conditions, we adopted a series of regulations on foreigners entering Tibet in accordance with the law.    This is not only for Americans.    Other foreigners also have to complete these procedures.”
    Tibet’s main city, Lhasa, is at about 3,650 meters (nearly 12,000 feet).    Altitude sickness can affect some people at that height.
    While some foreigners thank the government for the concern and help given them, only Americans “brood” about it, Wu said.
    “This is really odd.    If you have the opportunity go tell this to the American people.”
    Non-Chinese visitors must apply for a special permit to travel to Tibet, which is usually granted for tourists provided they travel with approved tour companies but rarely for journalists and diplomats.
    The government pledged in January to make access easier for foreign tourists.
‘HAPPY LIFE’
    Rights groups and overseas activists say ethnic Tibetans face widespread restrictions under Chinese rule and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said in June conditions were “fast deteriorating.”
    China routinely denies such accusations and says its rule of Tibet ended serfdom and brought prosperity to what was a backward region, and that it fully respects the rights of the Tibetan people.
    This year marks the 60th anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, which resulted in Tibet’s Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fleeing into exile in India.
    China views the Nobel Peace laureate as a dangerous separatist.    The Dalai Lama denies espousing violence and says he only wants genuine autonomy for Tibet.
    Many Tibetans in China still deeply venerate the Dalai Lama, despite government restrictions on displays of his picture, especially in what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region.
    Wu said the Dalai Lama was not popular in Tibet.
    “Since defecting, the Dalai Lama hasn’t done a single good thing for the people of Tibet,” he said.
    “The people of Tibet have weighed things up, and really thank the Communist Party for the happy life they have brought them.”
(Reporting by Michael Martina and Gao Liangping; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel)

3/6/2019 Trump would be ‘very disappointed’ in Kim if reports about North Korea launch site true by Jeff Mason and David Brunnstrom
U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Danny Burch, an oil engineer who was taken hostage in Yemen in September 2017,
and his family in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he would be very disappointed in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un if reports about rebuilding at a rocket launch site in North Korea were true.
    Two U.S. think tanks and South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported on Tuesday that work was underway to restore part of North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station even as Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a second summit in Hanoi last week.,
    “I would be very disappointed if that were happening,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, when asked if North Korea was breaking a promise.
    “Well we’re going to see.    It’s too early to see. … It’s a very early report.    We’re the ones that put it out.    But I would be very, very disappointed in Chairman Kim, and I don’t think I will be, but we’ll see what happens.    We’ll take a look.    It’ll ultimately get solved.”
    North Korea began work to dismantle a missile engine test stand at Sohae last year after pledging to do so in a first summit with Trump in June.
    A second summit between Trump and Kim broke down last week in Hanoi over differences on how far North Korea was willing to limit its nuclear program and the degree of U.S. willingness to ease sanctions.
    “We have a very nasty problem there. We have to solve a problem,” Trump said, while adding in apparent reference to Kim: “The relationship is good.”
    Satellite images seen by 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea project, showed that structures on the Sohae launch pad had been rebuilt sometime between Feb. 16 and March 2, Jenny Town, managing editor at the project and an analyst at the Stimson Center think tank, told Reuters.
    The Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank released a separate report, also citing satellite imagery, that concluded North Korea was “pursuing a rapid rebuilding” at the site.
    New of the rebuilding work at Sohae was first reported by Yonhap news agency, which quoted South Korea lawmakers on details of a briefing by the country’s National Intelligence Service in Seoul on Tuesday.
    A U.S. government source said the work at Sohae likely began before the summit, which was preceded by a series of lower-level preparatory talks in February.
    Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, warned on Tuesday that new sanctions could be introduced if North Korea did not scrap its nuclear weapons program.The breakdown of the Feb. 27-28 summit and Bolton’s sanctions threat have raised questions about the future of a dialogue process the Trump administration has pursued in an effort to persuade North Korea to abandon a nuclear weapons program that threatens the United States.
    Some analysts have interpreted the work at Sohae as an attempt by North Korea to put pressure on Washington to agree to a deal rather than as a definite move to resume tests there.
    The U.S. government source, who did not want to be otherwise identified, said North Korea’s plan in rebuilding at the site could have been to conspicuously stop again as a demonstration of good faith if a summit agreement was struck, while the work would represent a sign of defiance or resolve if the meeting failed.
    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday he was hopeful he would send a delegation to North Korea in the coming weeks but that he had “no commitment yet.”
    While North Korea’s official media said last week that Kim and Trump had decided at the summit to continue talks, its vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, told reporters Kim “might lose his willingness to pursue a deal” and questioned the need to continue.
    White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said earlier on Wednesday that the United States was “continuing to have ongoing conversations with North Korea,” but did not elaborate.
    U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun, who led pre-summit negotiations with North Korea, met with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts in Washington on Wednesday to discuss future steps, a State Department official said.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason and David Brunnstrom; additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, David Alexander and Tim Ahmann; editing by Richard Chang and Jonathan Oatis)

3/7/2019 South Korea agency says movement at Pyongyang ICBM research complex detected: newspaper
FILE PHOTO: Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) are driven past the stand with North Korean
leader Kim Jong Un and other high-ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary
of the country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo
    SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea’s National Intelligence Service said movements of supply transport vehicles were detected at North Korea’s missile research facilities at Sanumdong and that it practically viewed it as missile-related activity, a South Korean newspaper reported on Thursday.
    The National Intelligence Service also confirmed during a briefing to lawmakers on Tuesday that North Korea continued to enrich uranium before last month’s summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, citing a lawmaker.
    It was the first official confirmation by South Korean authorities that North Korea has been continuing to enrich uranium, JoongAng said.
    Sanumdong is known as the production site of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-15, seen as the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.
    The news comes as two U.S. think tanks and South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported on Tuesday that work was underway to restore part of North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station even as Trump met Kim held a second summit in Hanoi last week.
    Trump said on Wednesday he would be very disappointed in Kim if reports about rebuilding at a rocket launch site in North Korea were true.
(Reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Michael Perry)

3/7/2019 Huawei challenging U.S. ban on products by OAN Newsroom
    Chinese telecom company Huawei is slapping a lawsuit against the U.S. government.    The suit was filed in a Texas court on Wednesday.
    This comes in response to the U.S.’s decision to ban federal agencies from using the company’s products after it was accused of stealing trade secrets from T-Mobile.
    Huawei is claiming the ban is unlawful, adding, the U.S. has failed to provide evidence that laws were broken.
A receptionist stands at the front counter of the Huawei’s Cyber Security Lab at the Huawei factory
in Dongguan, China’s Guangdong province, Wednesday, March 6, 2019. Huawei Technologies Co. is one of the
world’s biggest supplier of telecommunications equipment. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
    “China always encourages and asks Chinese companies to strictly abide by local laws and regulations in their overseas operations,”     Zhang Yesui, spokesman for the 13th National People’s Congress.    “It has never asked and will not ask Chinese companies to do anything against foreign laws and regulations.”
    Huawei is now asking a judge to overturn a part of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which bans U.S. companies and contractors from using its products.
[I would like to see the evidence too, since the U.S. would have had to use the high ends of NSA systems to do that, and I am not assuming that they are innocent.].

3/7/2019 Exclusive: India wants to keep Iran oil purchases at 300,000 bpd in extended waiver – sources by Nidhi Verma and Timothy Gardner
FILE PHOTO: A gas flare on an oil production platform in the Soroush oil fields is seen alongside an
Iranian flag in the Persian Gulf, Iran, July 25, 2005. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/File Photo
    NEW DELHI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – India wants to keep buying Iranian oil at its current level of about 300,000 barrels per day (bpd), as it negotiates with Washington about extending a waiver of U.S. sanctions past early May, two sources in India with knowledge of the matter said.
    India has reduced its purchases of Iranian oil, but has been in talks on extending a sanctions waiver, known as a significant reduction exception, a senior India official said in January.
    New Delhi is asking to be allowed to still buy Iranian oil at current levels of around 1.25 million tonnes per month, or about 300,000 bpd, the sources said.
    The United States reimposed sanctions against Iran last November in a dispute over Tehran’s nuclear and missile ambitions, after President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers.
    Although the United States granted Iran’s biggest oil customers – China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Italy and Greece – waivers that have allowed them to continue limited imports, Washington is putting pressure on governments to eventually reduce purchases of Iranian oil to zero.    The first round of waivers expires around May 4.
    Vincent Campos, a spokesman at the U.S. State Department’s energy bureau, would not confirm that India was asking the United States to renew its waiver, but said talks are ongoing with the eight consumers of Iran’s oil that received waivers in November with the aim of eventually cutting imports to zero.
    “We continue to have bilateral discussions” with each of the countries, including India, Campos said.
    A U.S. State Department official is this week visiting South Korea, Iran’s fourth largest oil customer in Asia, to talk about sanctions, Seoul said.
    David Peyman, a deputy assistant secretary for counter threat finance and sanctions, met on Wednesday with Hong Jin-wook, an official specializing in African and Middle Eastern affairs at South Korea’s foreign ministry.
    Peyman offered “to continue to closely consult on the extension of sanctions exemption and Korean companies’ technical issues regarding trade with Iran,” a statement from Seoul’s foreign ministry said.
    The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to questions about their talks.
    Iran, a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), exported almost 3 million bpd of oil at its pre-sanctions peak, but that has dwindled to around 1.25 million bpd since the start of the year, shipping data from Refinitiv showed.
    Talks with Washington on extending the waiver slowed due to the U.S. government shutdown that extended through January, one of the Indian sources said. Talks have now resumed and India wants to get clarity before general elections scheduled in May, the source said.
    No immediate comment was available from India’s oil or external affairs ministries.
    India’s move to seek extended sanctions exemptions comes as Washington plans to end preferential trade treatment for India that allows duty-free entry for up to $5.6 billion worth of its exports to the United States.
    India is the biggest beneficiary of the Generalized System of Preferences, which dates from the 1970s, and ending its participation would be the strongest punitive action that Washington has taken against the country since Trump took office.
    Iran was India’s seventh biggest oil supplier in January, as compared with its position as third-biggest a year ago before the reimposition of sanctions.
(GRAPHIC: Iran seaborne crude oil & condensate exports – https://tmsnrt.rs/2ETwgRi)
(Reporting by Nidhi Verma in NEW DELHI and Timothy Gardner in WASHINGTON; Writing by Henning Gloystein; editing by Richard Pullin and G Crosse)

3/7/2019 Iranian Supreme leader names hardline cleric Raisi as judiciary chief: IRNA
FILE PHOTO: Iranian Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a campaign meeting
at the Mosalla mosque in Tehran, Iran, May 16, 2017. TIMA via REUTERS
    CAIRO (Reuters) – Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei named hardline ally Ebrahim Raisi as head of the judiciary on Thursday, the state news agency IRNA reported.
    “I am appointing you as the head of the judiciary…, as a person who is familiar with the judiciary after years of serving inside the system,” Khamenei said in a statement.
(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi)

3/7/2019 Afghan president supported start of U.S.-Taliban talks: U.S. general
FILE PHOTO: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a news conference in
Kabul, Afghanistan July 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Afghan President Ashraf Ghani supported the initiation of peace talks between the United States and the Taliban despite his public concerns, a top U.S. general said on Thursday.
    “It is my observation, from my close discussions with (U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad) that he is in fact consulting with President Ghani on a regular basis, keeping him well informed and that the actual initiation of these discussions was done with President Ghani’s knowledge and support,” U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command, said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish)

3/8/2019 North Korea state media says people blame U.S. for summit breakdown by David Brunnstrom and Hyonhee Shin
FILE PHOTO: Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) are driven past the stand with North Korean
leader Kim Jong Un and other high-ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary
of the country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo
    WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean state media acknowledged a fruitless summit between its leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump for the first time on Friday, saying people were blaming the United States for the lack of an agreement.
    Trump however was open to more talks with North Korea aimed at North Korea’s denuclearization, his national security adviser said, despite reports it is reactivating parts of its missile program.
    “The public at home and abroad that had hoped for success and good results from the second DPRK-U.S. summit in Hanoi are feeling regretful, blaming the U.S. for the summit that ended without an agreement,” Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, said in a commentary.
    North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
    The newspaper used fiery rhetoric against Japan, accusing it of being “desperate to interrupt” relations between Pyongyang and Washington and “applauding” the breakdown of the summit.
    After the summit collapsed, U.S. ally Japan focused on scepticism about the future of the nuclear diplomacy given how the two sides failed to bridge the gap.
    New activity has been detected at a factory that produced North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the United States, South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo and Donga Ilbo newspapers reported, citing lawmakers briefed by the National Intelligence Service.
    This week, two U.S. think-tanks and Seoul’s spy agency said North Korea was rebuilding its Sohae rocket launch site, prompting Trump to say he would be “very, very disappointed” in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un if it were true.    The think tanks said on Thursday that they believed the launch site was operational again.
    White House National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has argued for a tough approach to North Korea, said Trump was still open to further talks.
    “The president’s obviously open to talking again. We’ll see when that might be scheduled or how it might work out,” he told Fox News, adding it was too soon to make a determination on the reports of the North Korean activity.
    “We’re going to study the situation carefully.    As the president said, it would be very, very disappointing if they were taking this direction.”
    The Vietnam summit on Feb. 27-28 collapsed over differences about how far North Korea was willing to limit its nuclear program and the degree of U.S. willingness to ease economic sanctions.
    Trump, eager for a big foreign policy win on North Korea, which has eluded his predecessors for decades, has repeatedly stressed his good relationship with Kim. He went as far late last year as saying they “fell in love,” but the bonhomie has failed to bridge the wide gap between the two sides.
‘NO COMMITMENT YET’
    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday he was hopeful he would send a delegation to North Korea for more talks in the next couple of weeks, but that he had received “no commitment yet.”
    A senior State Department official told reporters on Thursday that Washington was keen to resume talks as soon as possible, but North Korea’s negotiators needed to be given more latitude than they were ahead of the summit.
    He said no one in the U.S. administration advocated the incremental approach that North Korea has been seeking and the condition for its integration into the global economy, a transformed relationship with the United States and a permanent peace regime, was complete denuclearization.
    “Fundamentally, where we really need to see the progress, and we need to see it soon, is on meaningful and verifiable steps on denuclearization.    That’s our goal and that’s how we see these negotiations picking up momentum.”
    The official, who did not want to be identified, said the U.S. side still saw North Korea’s complete denuclearization as achievable within Trump’s current term, which ends in January 2021.
    While the official said he would “not necessarily share the conclusion” that the Sohae site was operational again, any use of it would be seen as “backsliding” on commitments to Trump.
MISSILE FACTORY
    South Korean spy chief Suh Hoon told lawmakers in Seoul that cargo vehicles were spotted moving around a North Korean ICBM factory at Sanumdong recently, the JoongAng Ilbo reported.
    The paper also quoted Suh as saying North Korea had continued to run its uranium enrichment facility at the main Yongbyon nuclear complex after Trump and Kim’s first summit in Singapore last June.
    Separately, Washington’s 38 North and Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tanks reported on Thursday that the Sohae site, which Kim pledged in Singapore to dismantle, appeared to be operational again after rebuilding work that began days before the Hanoi summit.
    “The rebuilding activities at Sohae demonstrate how quickly North Korea can easily render reversible any steps taken towards scrapping its Weapons of Mass Destruction program with little hesitation,” CSIS said.
    It called the action “an affront” to Trump’s diplomatic strategy that showed North Korean pique at his refusal to lift sanctions.
    Some analysts see the work as aimed at pressing Washington to agree to a deal, rather than as a definite move to resume tests.
    A U.S. government source, who did not want to be identified, said North Korea’s plan in rebuilding the site could have been to offer a demonstration of good faith by conspicuously stopping again if a summit pact was struck, while furnishing a sign of defiance or resolve if the meeting failed.
    On Wednesday, Bolton warned of new sanctions if North Korea did not scrap its weapons program.
    Despite his sanctions talk, there have been signs across Asia that the U.S. “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against North Korea has sprung leaks.
    In a new breach, three South Korean companies were found to have brought in more than 13,000 tons of North Korean coal, worth 2.1 billion won ($2 million) since 2017, South Korea said.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason, David Brunnstrom and Steve Holland in Washington; additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, David Alexander and Tim Ahmann in Washington, Hyonhee Shin, Joyce Lee and Ju-min Park in Seoul, and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Alistair Bell and Nick Macfie)

3/8/2019 PM Khan says no militants will be allowed to attack from Pakistani soil by Asif Shahzad
FILE PHOTO: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks at the opening ceremony for the first China International
Import Expo (CIIE) in Shanghai, China November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Aly Song/Pool/File Photo
    ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Friday said no militant group would be allowed to operate from Pakistani soil to carry out attacks abroad, days after his government announced a sweeping crackdown against Islamist militant organizations.
    Pakistan faces growing international pressure to rein in Islamist groups that carry out attacks in neighboring India.
    One such attack in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Feb. 14, claimed by the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) Pakistan-based group, killed 40 Indian paramilitary police and led to clashes between the nuclear-armed rivals as India retaliated.
    Both countries carried out aerial bombing missions last week and even fought a brief dogfight over Kashmir before tensions cooled.
    But the United States, Britain, and many other nations are urging Pakistan to act against anti-India militant groups.
    Pakistan has a history of using Islamist groups to pursue foreign policy aims in the region, but it has denied Indian accusations it actively supports militants fighting Indian forces in India’s part of Muslim-majority Kashmir.
    On Monday, Pakistan announced a new crackdown against militants and by Thursday, 182 religious schools run by banned groups had been seized, and more than 120 people detained.
    “This government will not allow Pakistan’s land to be used for any kind of outside terrorism,” Khan said while addressing a rally in southern Pakistan.
    “God willing, you will see that a new era is emerging.”
    Pakistani governments have in the past made similar pledges to stop militant attacks being launched from its soil, notably in early 2002, after a raid by Pakistani-based militants on India’s parliament brought the two countries to the brink of war.
    Crackdowns have been launched with fanfare but faded out after a while, with the proscribed groups able to survive and continue their operations.
    Given the history, India has been skeptical about Pakistan’s latest steps to dismantle militant groups, with Indian officials calling the action cosmetic.
    But Khan said there was a huge desire to build a peaceful and stable Pakistan.
    “We will not allow any militant group to function in our country now,” he said.
    Pakistani officials say this crackdown is part of a long-planned drive and not a response to Indian anger.
    The South Asian neighbors have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947, two of them over Kashmir which they both claim in full but rule in part.
(Reporting by Asif Shahzad; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Nick Macfie, Robert Birsel)

3/8/2019 China warns of repeating history’s mistakes with Venezuela
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi attends a news conference during the ongoing session of the National People's
Congress (NPC), China's parliamentary body, in Beijing, China March 8, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee
    BEIJING (Reuters) – The Chinese government’s top diplomat issued a stern warning on Friday against interfering in Venezuela and imposing sanctions, saying history offered a clear lesson about not “following the same old disastrous road.”
    China has repeatedly called for outsiders not to interfere in Venezuela’s internal affairs and has stuck by embattled President Nicolas Maduro.
    Most Western countries have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state.
    The United States has pledged to “expand the net” of sanctions against Venezuela, including more on banks supporting Maduro’s government.
    State Councillor Wang Yi, responding to a question on whether China still recognized Maduro or had had contacts with the opposition, said the sovereignty and independence of Latin American countries should be respected.
    “The internal affairs of every country should be decided by their own people.    External interference and sanctions will only exacerbate the tension situation, and allow the law of the jungle to once again run amok,” Wang said at his annual news conference on the sidelines of China’s parliament meeting.
    “There’s already enough of such lessons from history, and the same old disastrous road should not be followed.”
    China continues to support the Venezuelan opposition and government to seek a political solution via peaceful dialogue, to ensure its stability and the people’s safety, Wang added.
    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted on Friday Beijing time that Maduro’s policies “bring nothing but darkness.”
    “No food.    No medicine.    Now, no power.    Next, no Maduro,” he wrote, referring to a major power outage in Venezuela on Thursday.
    China has lent more than $50 billion to Venezuela through oil-for-loan agreements over the past decade, securing energy supplies for its fast-growing economy.
    China has been stepping up its engagement in Latin America, to the concern of Washington, which has reacted particularly strongly to several nations there recently ditching diplomatic ties with self-ruled Taiwan in favor of China.
    Last month, U.S. National Security adviser John Bolton requested cooperation with El Salvador to counteract what he called the “predatory” expansion of China.    El Salvador abandoned Taiwan last year.
    Wang said that China-Latin America relations had achieved great progress and were not aimed at any “third party.”
    Ties between the two sides were the correct choice and in both of their long-term interests and should not be subject to “warrantless and interference and criticism.”
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Philip Wen; Editing by Michael Perry and Nick Macfie)

3/8/2019 In sensitive year for China, warnings against ‘erroneous thoughts’ by Ben Blanchard
FILE PHOTO: Workers decorate the party activity room next to a portrait of Chinese president Xi Jinping at
Tidal Star Group headquarters in Beijing, China, February 25, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo
    BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s ruling Communist Party is ramping up calls for political loyalty in a year of sensitive anniversaries, warning against “erroneous thoughts as officials fall over themselves to pledge allegiance to President Xi Jinping and his philosophy.
    This year is marked by some delicate milestones: 30 years since the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in and around Tiananmen Square; 60 years since the Dalai Lama fled from Tibet into exile; and finally, on Oct. 1, 70 years since the founding of Communist China.
    Born of turmoil and revolution, the Communist Party came to power in 1949 on the back of decades of civil war in which millions died, and has always been on high alert for “luan,” or “chaos,” and valued stability above all else.
    “This year is the 70th anniversary of the founding of new China,” Xi told legislators from Inner Mongolia on Tuesday, the opening day of the annual meeting of parliament.    “Maintaining sustained, healthy economic development and social stability is a mission that is extremely arduous.”
    Xi has tightened the party’s grip on almost every facet of government and life since assuming power in late 2012.
    Last year parliament amended the country’s constitution to remove term limits and allow him to stay in office for the rest of his life, should he so wish, though it is unclear if that will happen and Xi has not mentioned it in public.
    Later in the year the party will likely hold a plenum of its top leadership focused on what China calls “party building,” diplomats and sources with ties to China’s leadership say, a concept that refers to furthering party control and ensuring its instructions are followed to the letter.
    In late January the party again stressed loyalty in new rules on “strengthening party political building,” telling members they should not fake loyalty or be “low-level red,” in a lengthy document carried by state media.
    “Be on high alert to all kinds of erroneous thoughts, vague understandings, and bad phenomena in ideological areas,” it warned.    “Keep your eyes open, see things early and move on them fast.”
LOYALTY FIRST
    On March 1, Xi spoke at the Central Party School, which trains rising officials, mentioning the word “loyalty” at least seven times, according to official accounts in state media.
    Xi noted that whether an official is loyal to the party is a key gauge of whether they have ideals and convictions.    “Loyalty always comes first,” he said.
    Duncan Innes-Ker, regional director for Asia at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said China was concerned about resistance at lower levels to following party orders, the slowing economy and also about demands for political reforms as people get steadily richer.
    The desire for control is not something particular to any time period,” he said.    “It is a fundamental tenet of autocratic governments that they are constantly paranoid about being overthrown.”
    Xi looms large over this year’s session of China’s largely rubber stamp parliament, known as the National People’s Congress, which has always been stacked with people chosen for their absolute fealty to the party.
    Government ministers who spoke to reporters on the sidelines of parliament’s opening session on Tuesday peppered their comments with references to Xi – 16 times in all.
    Customs minister Ni Yuefeng said that Xi himself “pays great attention to not allowing foreign garbage into the country,” a reference to China’s ban on solid waste imports, part of the country’s war on pollution.
    “Ideology comes first this year,” said one Western diplomat who is attending the parliamentary sessions as an observer.    “It’s all about the 70th anniversary.”
ROOTING OUT DISLOYALTY
    The party has increasingly been making rooting out disloyalty and wavering from the party line a disciplinary offence to be enforced by its anti-corruption watchdog, whose role had ostensibly been to go after criminal acts such as bribery and lesser bureaucratic transgressions.
    The graft buster said last month it would “uncover political deviation” in its political inspections this year of provincial governments and ministries.
    Top graft buster Zhao Leji, in a January speech to the corruption watchdog, a full transcript of which the party released late February, used the word “loyalty” eight times.
    “Set an example with your loyalty to the party,” Zhao said.
    China has persistently denied its war on corruption is about political maneuvering or Xi taking down his enemies.    Xi told an audience in Seattle in 2015 that the anti-graft fight was no “House of Cards”-style power play, in a reference to the Netflix U.S. political drama.
    The deeper fear for the party is some sort of unrest or a domestic or even international event fomenting a crisis that could end its rule.
    Xi told officials in January they need to be on high alert for “black swan” events.
    That same month the top law-enforcement official said China’s police must focus on withstanding “color revolutions,” or popular uprisings, and treat the defense of China’s political system as central to their work.
    The party has meanwhile shown no interest in political reform, and has been doubling down on the merits of the Communist Party, including this month rolling out English-language propaganda videos on state media-run Twitter accounts to laud “Chinese democracy.”    Twitter remains blocked in China.
    The official state news agency Xinhua said in an English-language commentary on Sunday that China was determined to stick to its political model and rejected Western-style democracy.
    “The country began to learn about democracy a century ago, but soon found Western politics did not work here.    Decades of turmoil and civil war followed,” it said.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Alex Richardson)

3/8/2019 India’s top court appoints arbitration panel for disputed holy site
FILE PHOTO: A signboard is seen outside the premises of Supreme Court in
New Delhi, India, September 28, 2018. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis/File Photo
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s Supreme Court appointed an arbitration panel on Friday to mediate in a decades-long dispute over a controversial plan to build a Hindu temple on the ruins of a 16th-century mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya.
    With a general election looming in coming months, conservative Hindu allies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have ratcheted up their longstanding demand for the construction of a temple.
    In 1992, a militant Hindu mob tore down the mosque triggering riots that killed about 2,000 people in one of the worst instances of communal violence in India since the 1947 partition of the country.
    While holding control over the controversial site in Uttar Pradesh State, the Supreme Court has been weighing petitions from both communities on what should be built there.
    On Friday, the court appointed former judge F. M. Kalifulla to head an arbitration panel that includes spiritual guru Ravi Shankar and senior lawyer Sriram Panchu.
    The process of mediation should start within a week and the panel should be able to wrap up its work in eight weeks, Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi said.
    India is due to hold a general election by May.
    Earlier, a five-judge panel, headed by Gogoi, had asked both Hindu and Muslim groups involved in the case to explore the possibility of resolving their dispute through mediation.
    Hindu groups say there was a temple at the site before the mosque was built by a Muslim ruler in 1528, and the dispute has fueled ill-feeling between India’s majority Hindus and minority Muslims, who make up around 14 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion people.
    Groups affiliated to the BJP had also called for a legislation to allow a temple to be built, bypassing the Supreme Court.    But Modi has told Asian News International, a video news agency and partner of Reuters, that the judicial process should be allowed to take its course.
    The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), or the World Hindu Council, has led the campaign over the past three decades to build a temple on the site of what Hindus say is the birthplace of Lord Ram, one of their most revered deities.
    Over the past few months, the VHP has organized rallies of tens of thousands of monks, activists and other supporters, to press its case.
    The resurrection of the issue in the run-up to the election has raised the risk of communal violence.    Just ahead of the 2014 general election, about 65 people were killed during religious riots in Uttar Pradesh, and thousands more, most of them Muslims, were forced to flee their homes.
    A court in February this year sentenced seven Muslim men to life in prison for killing two Hindu men during the riot.
(Reporting by Suchitra Mohanty and Mayank Bhardwaj; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

3/9/2019 Satellite images reveal activity at second North Korean launch site by OAN Newsroom
    Increased activity around a second missile site in North Korea stokes concern over a possible launch in the near future.
    Newly released satellite images appear to show vehicles moving around a facility near Pyongyang, where the country assembles most of its ballistic missiles and rockets.
This image provided by Airbus Defence & Space and 38 North via a satellite image from CNES which was captured on March 6, 2019,
shows the Sohae Satellite Launch Facility in Tongchang-ri, North Korea. North Korea is restoring facilities at the long-range rocket
launch, which it dismantled last year as part of disarmament steps, according to foreign experts and a South Korean
lawmaker who was briefed by Seoul’s spy service. The finding follows a high-stakes nuclear summit last week between North Korean
leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump that ended without any agreement. Airbus Defence & Space and 38 North via AP)
    It remains unclear at this point, if the possible launch would be for a missile or a satellite rocket.    The news follows on the heels of bombshell reports, which said North Korea is rebuilding its main rocket launch site.
    President Trump said the U.S. is closely monitoring the situation, adding he would be very disappointed in chairman Kim Jong Un if the reports turn out to be true.

3/9/2019 China optimistic negotiators will agree on mutually beneficial deal with U.S. by OAN Newsroom
    Chinese officials are feeling optimistic about the state of trade negotiations with the U.S., after the White House decided to hold off on raising tariffs.
    Speaking at a press conference in Beijing Saturday the Chinese vice commerce minister said both sides are working toward a deal that is “equal and fair.”
FILE – In this July 6, 2018, file photo, a container ship is docked at a port in Qingdao, in eastern China’s Shandong
China’s exports to the United States fell 14.1 percent from a year earlier in the first two months of 2019 as President
Donald Trump’s punitive tariffs chilled demand, while sales to the rest of the world also slid.(Chinatopix via AP, File)
    He explained any deal reached with the U.S. must go both ways, apparently in reference to the U.S. calling for strict enforcement of the terms of any future agreement.
    While disagreement still exists over key issues like market access and intellectual property theft, President Trump is hopeful finding common ground will boost markets around the world.
    “If you look at the stock market over the last few months, it’s been great.    And certainly since my election, it’s up — getting close to 50 percent — the stock market.    So, we’re obviously very happy with that.    We will — I think as soon as these trade deals are done, if they get done — and we’re working with China; we’ll see what happens — but I think you’re going to see a very big spike.    A lot of people are waiting to see what happens with the china deal.” -President Trump
    The president’s Chief Economic Adviser Larry Kudlow hinted Friday, that a deal could be reached later this month, or possibly by April.

3/9/2019 Iran’s Rouhani urges Pakistan to act against group behind border attack
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is seen during a public speech in the northern province of
Gilan, Iran March 6, 2019. Official President website/Handout via REUTERS
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called on Saturday for “decisive” action by Pakistan against a militant group behind a deadly suicide attack in a border area, saying failure to act could jeopardize relations.
    Iran’s state news agency IRNA said Rouhani’s remarks were made during a telephone conversation with neighboring Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, who said he would soon have “good news” for Iran, according to the report.
    A suicide bomber killed 27 members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards in mid-February in a southeastern region where security forces are facing a rise in attacks by militants from the Sunni Muslim minority.
    The Sunni group Jaish al Adl (Army of Justice), which says it seeks greater rights and better living conditions for the ethnic Baluchi minority, claimed responsibility for the attack.
    “We are awaiting your decisive operations against these terrorists,” IRNA quoted Rouhani as telling Khan.
    “We should not allow decades of friendship and fraternity between the two countries to be affected by the actions of small terrorist groups, the source of whose financing and arms is known to both of us,” Rouhani said.
    Iran has blamed its regional rival Saudi Arabia and arch-enemies Israel and the United States for the attack and other cross-border raids, an accusation rejected by the countries.
    Khan said Pakistani forces had come close to the attackers’ hideout and there would soon be “good news” for Iran, IRNA reported.
    “It is in Pakistan’s own interest not to allow our territory to be used by terrorist groups, and the Pakistani army is prepared to confront the terrorists more decisively with the information provided by Iran,” IRNA quoted Khan as saying.     Revolutionary Guards commanders have vowed to retaliate for the attack, and Rouhani said on Saturday that Iranian forces were “ready to give a decisive answer to the terrorists in coordination with Islamabad,” IRNA reported.
    In September, the Revolutionary Guards fired missiles at an Iraqi-based Iranian Kurdish dissident group that killed at least 11 people in an attack in a western border area.
    In October, Iran fired missiles at Islamic State militants in Syria, whom it blamed for an attack that killed 25 people on its soil.
(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Ros Russell and Helen Popper)

3/10/2019 Australia’s ruling coalition loses 50th straight Newspoll
FILE PHOTO - Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison arrives for APEC CEO Summit 2018 at
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, 17 November 2018. Fazry Ismail/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s conservative government is heading for defeat in a looming election, a widely watched opinion poll showed on Monday, after disappointing news on the economy tarnished the credibility of Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
    Notching its 50th poll loss in a row, the Liberal-National coalition trailed the center-left Labor Party by 54 percent to 46 percent on a two-party preferred basis.
    The coalition trailed Labor by 53 percent to 47 percent in the previous Newspoll for The Australian newspaper.    The results would give Labor a clear victory if the election were fought today.    Time is short as the vote is expected some time in May.
    The coalition’s primary vote was on 36 percent, behind Labor on 39 percent.    The poll of 1,610 people was conducted from March 7 to 10 and had a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points.
    The result comes a week after government figures showed the Australian economy almost ground to a halt in the fourth quarter of last year, undermining the coalition’s claim to being the party of better economic management.
    The coalition has also been hit by a wave of high-profile retirements, with two senior ministers saying earlier this month they would not contest the election.
    Morrison needs to retain all the parliamentary seats held by his coalition government, but his chances are weakened by a wave of incumbent lawmakers in marginal seats set to retire.
    The government has its annual budget on April 2 and is expected to announce a return to surplus and likely some sort of tax cuts or spending promises to sweeten voters.
    Monday’s poll did show Morrison remained the preferred prime minister over Labor’s Bill Shorten, with a share of 43 percent to 36 percent.    Some 43 percent of voters approved of Morrison’s performance, while 45 percent disapproved.
    The findings come despite Morrison’s attempt to cast the election as a referendum on border security and asylum seekers – hot-button topics in previous votes.
(Reporting by Wayne Cole; Editing by Peter Cooney)

3/10/2019 Kazakh China rights activist detained on hate speech charges
FILE PHOTO: A gate of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre under construction
in Dabancheng, in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo
    ALMATY (Reuters) – Kazakh police have detained a Chinese-born activist who has campaigned on behalf of ethnic Kazakhs in China, fellow activists said on Sunday.
    Serikzhan Bilash, a naturalized Kazakh citizen who was born in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, is a de facto leader and public face of Atajurt, a group that has worked for the release of ethnic Kazakhs from “re-education” camps where activists say more than 1 million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims are held.
    A fiery orator fluent in Kazakh, Chinese and English, Bilash has become a prominent figure on the Kazakh political scene.
    Atajurt said security forces had broken into Bilash’s hotel room in Almaty in the early hours of Sunday, detained him and quickly flown him to Astana, the capital of the former Soviet republic.
    Bilash’s lawyer, Aiman Umarova, posted a video on Sunday saying she had just arrived in Astana and was going to visit him at the police department where he was being held.
    Astana’s police department had no immediate comment.
    The government of the Central Asian nation has avoided criticizing China’s Xinjiang policies, but negotiated the release of some two dozen people with dual Kazakh and Chinese citizenships detained in China.
(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Additional reporting by Tamara Vaal in Astana; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

3/10/2019 Rouhani seeks to shore up Iran’s influence on Baghdad trip by John Davison and Babak Dehghanpisheh
FILE PHOTO: Iran's President Hassan Rouhani exits following a news conference
on the sidelines of the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S.,
September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid - RC189E994530/File Photo
    BAGHDAD/GENEVA (Reuters) – President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Iraq this week is a strong message to the United States and its regional allies that Iran still dominates Baghdad, a key arena for rising tension between Washington and Tehran.
    The first Iranian presidential visit to Iraq since 2013 is also meant to signal to President Donald Trump’s administration that Tehran retains its influence in much of the region despite U.S. sanctions.
    “Iran and Iraq are neighbors and no country can interfere in their relations,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said after arriving in Baghdad to prepare for the visit.
    Rouhani’s three-day trip starting on Monday includes meetings with Iraq’s president and prime minister, tours of Shi’ite Muslim holy sites and a meeting with top Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iranian state media reported.
    Rouhani made clear last week the debt he believes Baghdad owes Tehran for support in the battle to defeat Islamic State.    Iranian forces and the militias they back played a crucial role defeating IS in Iraq and Syria.
    “If the support of the Islamic Republic of Iran didn’t exist then Baghdad and the Kurdistan region would have definitely fallen and Daesh (Islamic State) would dominate the region,” he said in comments published on his official website.
    Iran mostly relies on other senior officials to conduct its dealings with Iraq, with which it shares an almost 1,500 kilometer (900 miles) long border.    Most prominent of these has been Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Suleimani, who was instrumental in directing the battle against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
    But as it tries to counter the pressure from U.S. sanctions, Iran is seeking to shore up its political and economic influence along a corridor of territory it effectively controls from Tehran to the Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
    “Tehran and its allies in Baghdad and Damascus achieved victory in the war against the Islamic State but the Islamic Republic risks losing the peace,” said Ali Alfoneh, senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
    “Apart from Russian companies, UAE companies are aggressively trying to gain a foothold in Iraq and Syria, which would deprive Iranian companies of reaping the fruit of their war era effort.”
    Iran’s influence in Iraq will be difficult to dislodge, however. Through allied Iraqi politicians and paramilitary groups, it emerged as the dominant force after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
    Iran officially has no military presence in Iraq but backs its most powerful Shi’ite paramilitary groups.    An umbrella grouping of all Iraq’s Shi’ite militias is estimated at 150,000 fighters.
    Last week Washington blacklisted another Iran-backed militia that has helped create a supply route through Iraq to Damascus.    The United States has around 5,200 troops stationed in Iraq.
    Tehran also has powerful allies in Iraq’s parliament whose attempts to pass a bill forcing U.S. troops to leave the country might be aided by Trump’s belligerent anti-Iran rhetoric – especially comments roundly derided by Iraqi leaders that U.S. forces in Iraq, ostensibly there for the battle against Islamic State, can be used to “watch Iran.”
PRESSURE ON IRAN’S DOMINANCE
    Iraq remains heavily dependent on Iranian energy supplies to feed its power grid, despite U.S. attempts to wean Baghdad off Iranian gas.
    Nevertheless, Washington’s strategy has caused some friction between Iraq and Iran.    Last month Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh criticized Iraq for failing to pay a $2 billion debt for energy imports as a result of compliance with the U.S. sanctions regime.
    Meanwhile, Gulf Arab states including Iran’s arch-foe Saudi Arabia have made overtures to the Iraqi government for energy and other economic deals, although with limited success.
    Iran and its Iraqi allies also face the challenge of popular discontent over its dominance – not only in northern Sunni areas where Shi’ite militias have deepened their control, but even in southern Shi’ite heartlands.
    Protests that broke out across southern Iraq last year over lack of services took up anti-Iranian slogans, and demonstrators stormed the Iranian consulate in the city of Basra.
    “There are growing tensions in predominantly Shi’ite provinces which at one point were assumed to be pro-Iranian,” said Renad Mansour, research fellow at Chatham House.
    “Part of their frustrations are targeted towards Iran and the Islamist parties that Iran supports … for Iran, the priority in Iraq is for it to remain stable and for their interests to be ensured.”
(Additional reporting by Bozorg Sharafedin in London, Parisa Hafezi and Dubai Newsroom, Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

3/10/2019 Italy wants to sign Belt and Road deal to help exports: deputy PM
FILE PHOTO: Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi di Maio holds a news conference
in Rome, Italy, March 8, 2019. REUTERS/Remo Casilli/File Photo
    MILAN (Reuters) – Italy wants to join China’s giant “Belt and Road” infrastructure plan to boost Italian exports, not to strengthen political ties with the Asian giant, Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio said on Sunday.
    Di Maio was responding to U.S. concerns at the prospect of a key ally supporting the Chinese initiative.    A spokesman for the White House’s group of national security advisers, Garrett Marquis, on Saturday called the Chinese venture a “vanity project” that Italy should steer clear of.
    The “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), championed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, aims to link China by sea and land with southeast and central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa, through an infrastructure network on the lines of the ancient Silk Road.
    Aside from boosting trade and investment, Xi aims to advance exchanges in areas such as science, technology and culture.
    “I have heard the alarm being raised from the United States yesterday about this deal on the Silk Road that Italy wants to sign with China,” Di Maio said at an event organized by supporters of his ruling 5-Star Movement.
    “Let it be clear that, if we are looking at the Silk Road towards China for our exports, it is not to strike a political deal with China but only to help our companies,” he said.
    He added that Italy was an ally of the United States and respected its concerns, but that the Chinese market was hungry for “made in Italy” products and know-how.
    On Friday, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said that he might sign a framework deal on the venture when Xi visits Italy from March 22-24.
    A number of European Union states have signed memorandums on the BRI with China, including Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Greece, Malta, Poland and Portugal.    If Italy signs, it would be the first members of the Group of Seven industrial powers to do so.
    Washington argues that China is saddling poor nations with unsustainable debt through large-scale infrastructure projects that are not economically viable, and is using the project to further its political and strategic ambitions.
    Italy fell into recession at the end of 2018 for the third time in a decade and the government is eager to find ways to boost the economy and revive the stalled construction sector.
(Reporting by Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

3/10/2019 Iran oil ministry denies mismanagement allegations from Ahmadinejad
Oil tankers pass through the Strait of Hormuz, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
    LONDON (Reuters) – Iran’s oil ministry said on Sunday that it had been receiving revenues from selling oil despite difficulties caused by U.S. sanctions, denying allegations made by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over government mismanagement in the energy sector.
    Ahmadinejad said in an interview with Shargh daily newspaper on Sunday that the government of President Hassan Rouhani had not received $30 billion of revenues from oil sold in the last five years.
    The ministry responded in a statement published by news agency SHANA that the allegations were totally untrue.
    “The revenues of oil sales are received on time, and have been transferred into the legal bank accounts of the country,” the ministry’s statement said.
    Iran is facing new U.S. sanctions after the United States withdrew from an international nuclear deal, saying the accord was too generous and failed to rein in Iran’s ballistic missile testing or curb the country’s involvement in regional conflicts.
    Iran faced similar sanctions for its nuclear activities when Ahmadinejad was in power (2005 to 2013), but the high price of oil – on average above $100 a barrel in the last years of his presidency – allowed his government to survive the economic turmoil.
    The ministry’s statement also said it had tried to prevent problems with oil revenues being stolen as happened when the earlier sanctions were in effect.
    “Despite difficulties caused by the sanctions and economic war against Iran, the ministry of oil has used all means possible to prevent the repetition of sad experiences in the past when oil revenues were stolen,” the ministry said.
    Under the current U.S. sanctions, eight countries – including China, India, South Korea and Japan – have been given temporary exemptions, but they have to deposit Iran’s revenues in an escrow account.
(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin. Editing by Jane Merriman)

3/11/2019 Trade ties in focus as Iran’s Rouhani begins Iraq visit by Ahmed Rasheed
Iraq's President Barham Salih walks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a welcome
ceremony at Salam Palace in Baghdad, Iraq March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sharply criticised U.S. military intervention in the Middle East on Monday as he began a first official visit to Iraq, aimed at shoring up Tehran’s influence and expanding trade ties.
    The visit also sends a strong message to Washington and its regional allies that, in the face of U.S. sanctions, Iran still plays a dominant role in Iraqi politics.
    Prior to his departure, Rouhani said Shi’ite Iran was determined to strengthen brotherly ties with its neighbour, Iranian state television reported on Monday.
    Those ties “cannot be compared to Iraq’s relations with an occupying country like America, which is being hated in the region,” the semi-official Mehr news agency quoted him as saying before he left.
One cannot forget the bombs that Americans dropped over Iraq, Syria and other regional countries.”
    During the three-day visit a series of agreements will be signed in energy, transport, agriculture, industry and health, Iran’s state news agency IRNA said.
    “We are very much interested to expand our ties … particularly our transport cooperation,” Rouhani said at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport.
    He will visit a Shi’ite Muslim shrine in Baghdad’s Khadhimiya district prior to a welcome ceremony, the offices of Iraq’s president and prime minister said.
    A senior Iranian official accompanying Rouhani told Reuters that Iraq was “another channel for Iran to bypass America’s unjust sanctions … This trip will provide opportunities for Iran’s economy.”     The sharp downturn in Iran’s economy since U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last May to pull out of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers has pushed the country’s leaders to try to expand trade ties with neighbours.
    The agreement lifted sanctions that had been imposed by the United States, European Union and United Nations in return for Iran curbing aspects of its nuclear programme.
    The Trump administration said the accord was too generous and failed to rein in Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities and its involvement in regional conflicts in Syria and Yemen.
    Other signatories to the deal have been trying to salvage the pact, but U.S. sanctions have largely scared off European companies from doing business with Iran.
    The Europeans have promised to help firms do business with Iran as long as it abides by the deal.    Iran has itself threatened to pull out of the 2015 deal unless EU powers demonstrably protect its economic benefits.
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; additional reporting and writing by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai; Editing by John Stonestreet)

3/11/2019 U.S. citizen Michael White sentenced in Iranian court: agencies by Babak Dehghanpisheh
FILE PHOTO: Iranian Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a campaign meeting at the
Mosalla mosque in Tehran, Iran, May 16, 2017. Picture taken May 16, 2017. TIMA via REUTERS
    GENEVA (Reuters) – A U.S. citizen held in Iran has been sentenced for an unspecified crime, Iranian news agencies reported on Monday, in a case likely to worsen already terrible relations with the United States.
    Michael White, a 46-year old U.S. Navy veteran, was arrested last July while visiting his Iranian girlfriend, the New York Times has reported.    The arrest – the only known one of a U.S. citizen since President Donald Trump took office – was confirmed by Iran only in January.
    On Monday, the prosecutor in the northeastern city of Mashhad, Gholamali Sadeqi, said White had been sentenced, the Fars news agency reported.
    He said White had been accused of a security-related charge but did not specify if that was what he had been convicted of.    Iranian officials have never said why he was being held.
    Trump withdrew from an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and re-imposed crippling economic sanctions last year.    He warned in 2017 Tehran would face “new and serious consequences” unless all unjustly held U.S. citizens were freed.
    White’s sentencing comes days after Iran appointed a new head of the judiciary – Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric who is a protégé of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.    The appointment is seen as weakening the political influence of President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate.
    Also on Monday, an Iranian court handed a new sentence to renowned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh which her husband said was 38 years in prison and 148 lashes.    The official Islamic Republic News Agency said she had been sentenced to seven years.
(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

3/11/2019 U.S. says North Korea diplomacy ‘very much alive,’ but watching rocket site by David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick
A satellite image of North Korea's Sohae Satellite Launching Station (Tongchang-ri) which Washington-based Stimson Center's
38 North says, "Rebuilding continues at the engine test stand" is seen in this image released from Washington, DC, U.S.,
March 7, 2019. Courtesy Airbus Defence & Space and 38 North, Pleiades © CNES 2019, Distribution Airbus DS/Handout via REUTERS
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The chief U.S. envoy for North Korea said on Monday that “diplomacy is still very much alive” with Pyongyang despite a failed summit last month, but cautioned that Washington was closely watching activity at a North Korean rocket site and did not know if it might be planning a new launch.
    Stephen Biegun told a conference in Washington that although U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un parted on good terms after their Feb. 27-28 summit in Hanoi, big gaps remained between the two sides and North Korea needed to show it was fully committed to giving up its nuclear weapons.
    Biegun stressed that U.S.-led sanctions, which Pyongyang wants dropped, would remain in place until North Korea completed the process of denuclearization.
    As Biegun spoke at the Carnegie Nuclear Conference, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank issued a new report on activity at North Korea’s Sohae rocket launch site, in which satellite images from Friday showed possible preparations for a launch.
    In the course of a nearly a year of diplomatic engagement with the United States, North Korea has maintained a freeze on missile and nuclear tests and space rocket launches in place since 2017 and Trump has repeatedly stressed this as a positive outcome of the diplomacy.
    Biegun said Washington did not know what the activity spotted in North Korea meant. He said the Trump administration took it “very seriously” but cautioned against drawing any snap conclusions.
    “What Kim Jong will ultimately decide to do may very much be his decision and his decision alone,” Biegun said, adding that Trump had made clear last week he would be “very disappointed” if North Korea were to resume testing.
    An authoritative U.S. government source familiar with U.S. intelligence assessments said they did not conclude that a launch was imminent, given North Korea’s apparent desire to keep negotiations going with the United States.    However, the source said Pyongyang appeared to want to make clear it retained the capability to resume launches at any moment.
    “Diplomacy is still very much alive,” Biegun said, although he offered no specifics on when new talks might be held and did not say whether any talks had taken place since the summit, which collapsed over differences on U.S. demands for Pyongyang’s denuclearization and North Korea’s demand for sanctions relief.
ENGAGEMENT
    “It’s certainly our expectation that we will be able to continue our close engagement,” Biegun said.
    The State Department has declined say whether there has been any direct engagement between the two sides since the summit.
    Trump has said he remains open to more talks with Kim and the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Andrea Thompson told the conference she thought there would be another summit, but no date has been set.
    Asked if there would be a third meeting, she said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump had “been very clear that they remain open to the dialogue.    They haven’t got a date on the calendar but our teams continue to work toward that.”
    Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said on Sunday that the president was open to another summit but more time may be needed.
    Thompson said it was “incredibly important” that all countries continued to maintain United Nations sanctions on North Korea until it gave up its nuclear weapons.
    “We are not letting the foot off the gas.    We are going to continue with the pressure campaign.” she said.    “We are going to continue to hold those sanctions and we are going to continue to work with the team abroad to make sure those stay in place.”
    Trump on Friday stressed again his belief in his personal rapport with Kim.
    The CSIS report said commercial satellite images acquired last Wednesday and Friday showed North Korea had continued preparations on the launch pad at its Sohae launch facility and at the engine testing stand there.
    “Based on past practices, these activities could be consistent with preparations for the delivery of a rocket to the launch pad or engine to the test stand; or they could be North Korean coercive bargain tactics,” it said.
    Trump said after his first summit with Kim in Singapore last June that Kim had promised to dismantle the test stand, a pledge the North Korean leader reiterated and expanded on at a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in September.
    Pyongyang has used Sohae to launch satellites into space since 2011, and Washington says its work there has helped develop missile technology.    A satellite launch in April 2012 killed off an Obama administration deal for a freeze in North Korean nuclear and missile testing reached weeks earlier.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom, Mark Hosenball, Matt Spetalnick and Arshad Mohammed; editing by Grant McCool)

3/12/2019 Hardline Iranian cleric Raisi gets second powerful job in a week: IRNA
FILE PHOTO: Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi gestures after casting his ballot during
the presidential election in Tehran, Iran, May 19, 2017. TIMA via REUTERS
    GENEVA (Reuters) – Hardline Iranian cleric Ebrahim Raisi was elected on Tuesday as deputy chief of the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body responsible for choosing the country’s Supreme Leader, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported.
    He got the job less than a week after he was appointed head of the judiciary, making a man viewed as a protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei a key player in Iran’s politics.
    A potential contender to succeed Khamenei, Raisi is a former presidential candidate seen as having close links to the elite Revolutionary Guards.    He helped oversee the execution of political prisoners in 1988 when he was deputy prosecutor in Tehran.
    Raisi’s office could not immediately be reached for comment.
    As deputy chief of the 88-member Assembly of Experts, he is likely to play a prominent role in selecting the next supreme leader.
    Raisi’s position as the head of the judiciary, who is appointed by the supreme leader, is also a powerful position in a country that has long used its legal system to crack down on political dissent.
    Iran says its judiciary is independent, and its judgments and rulings are not influenced by political interests. (Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

3/12/2019 China lawmakers urge freeing up family planning as birth rates plunge by David Stanway
Women play with children at a park in Jinhua, Zhejiang province, China November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer
    SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Delegates to China’s parliament are urging the overhaul or even scrapping of controversial family planning rules and say radical steps are needed to “liberate fertility” and reverse a decline in births and a rapidly shrinking workforce.
    With its population ageing as a result of longer lifespans and a dwindling number of children, the world’s most populous nation decided in 2016 to allow all couples to have a second child, relaxing a tough one-child policy in place since 1978.
    But birth rates plummeted for the second consecutive year last year.    Policymakers now fret about the impact a long-term decline in births will have on the economy and its strained health and social services.
    In proposals submitted at the National People’s Congress, delegates from across the country urged leaders to improve healthcare and maternity benefits, offer tax breaks and provide more free public education.
    Some went further, saying China should forget about trying to control births and even remove all references to family planning from the constitution.
    “Continued control over fertility will inevitably defeat the purpose and make it even harder to resolve ingrained population problems,” Guangdong province delegate Li Bingji said in a proposal that described population as China’s number-one priority for the next four decades.
    The number of live births per 1,000 people fell to 10.94 in 2018, official data showed, less than a third of the 1949 level.    Liaoning in the northeast, which has seen its population decline in recent years, has a birth rate of 6.49 per thousand.
    The estimated number of children each Chinese mother will have in their lifetime is 1.6, down from 5.18 in 1970. The global average is 2.45.
    Think tanks expect China’s population to peak at 1.4 billion in 2029 and then begin an “unstoppable” decline that could reduce the workforce by as much as 200 million by 2050.
    They also forecast that over-60s will account for 25 percent of the population by 2035, up from 17.3 percent in 2017.    More than a third of China’s population could be over 60 by the middle of the century.
    According to Steven Mosher, president of the U.S.-based Population Research Institute which opposes government attempts to control population, China is entering a “low-birthrate recession.”
    “China has set up a deadly demographic trap for itself, condemning itself to low or no growth for years to come, regardless of how many babies they can, using persuasion or compulsion, get young women to bear,” he said.
COMPREHENSIVE LIBERATION
    Though proposals submitted by ordinary delegates have no legal status, they have symbolic significance and allow the discussion of matters not ordinarily aired in public.    In theory, they will also be considered by policy-making committees.
    By Tuesday, the phrase “comprehensive liberation of fertility” had appeared in five proposals submitted to parliament, suggesting a groundswell of opinion in favour of a radical overhaul of family planning rules.
    Some delegates, including Xiong Sidong of Jiangsu province, even urged the state to remove “family planning” from the constitution.
    “To drop the requirement that all couples plan their births from the constitution would be a major shift in thinking, as the planning of human production nationwide has, since the mid-1970s, been deemed as vital to China’s modernisation as the planning of material production,” said Susan Greenhalgh, research professor at Harvard University, who has studied the one-child policy.
    The original restrictions were aimed at curbing runaway population growth, and required the establishment of family planning offices in every village across the country.
    Critics said the policy was enforced through compulsory abortions and violated human rights.    It also created gender imbalances as poor rural families chose to abort or abandon baby girls.
    The government has defended the programme, saying it allowed the country to limit population growth by around 400 million and thereby tackle entrenched poverty.
    Researchers warn of a demographic timebomb, with a dwindling workforce unable to pay the healthcare bills of the elderly, but after four decades, the policy adjustments could prove too little too late.
    “Virtually no country in the world has been able to coax birth rates up for a significant period of time after childbearing rates have dropped with modernisation,” said Greenhalgh.
    “If the government were to encourage unmarried women in their 30s, or same-sex couples, to have a child, that might make a difference, but such changes seem unlikely given the social conservatism of the current regime.”
(Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Nick Macfie)

3/12/2019 China should release Taiwan activist, says U.S. religious freedom envoy by Yimou Lee
U.S. Ambassador for religious freedom, Sam Brownback speaks during "A Civil Society Dialogue on Securing Religious
Freedom in the Indo-Pacific Region" forum in Taipei, Taiwan March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    TAIPEI (Reuters) – The U.S. ambassador for religious freedom on Tuesday called for the release of a Taiwan activist jailed in China, saying the case was highly concerning to the U.S. government.
    Sam Brownback said activist Li Ming-che, a community college lecturer and an activist at a human rights non-governmental organization in Taiwan, should be reunited with his wife.
    “We call on the government of China to release him back to her and Taiwan,” Brownback said, referring to the activist’s wife, Li Ching-yu, who warned the international community to pay attention to China’s human rights record.
    Li Ching-yu said Chinese authorities had repeatedly rejected her requests to visit her husband.
    “Taiwan’s not alone.    The world is also facing China’s threats on human rights,” she said.
    Li Ming-che, who disappeared while visiting China in 2017, was found guilty of subversion that year in a trial that his wife denounced as illegitimate.
    He admitted during his trial to having criticized China’s ruling Communist Party and to having shared articles and arguments promoting Taiwan’s multi-party democracy.
    Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang reiterated China’s opposition to any official exchanges between “the Taiwan region of China” and the United States.
    Li’s case is an internal matter for China and the two sides of the Taiwan strait, he added.
    “Others have no right to meddle,” Lu said, speaking at a daily news briefing.
    Beijing claims self-ruled Taiwan as its own and has vowed to bring the island under Chinese control, by force if necessary.
    Brownback’s visit to Taipei has been viewed by some in Taiwan as a sign of support from U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration amid growing friction between Taipei and Beijing.
    On Monday, Brownback again urged China to give its people religious freedom, a reform he said could help gain trust from self-ruled Taiwan.
    Taiwan authorities are in talks on a possible stopover in U.S. territory as part of a visit by President Tsai Ing-wen to Palau, Nauru and the Marshall Islands next week, a government official said on Tuesday, a stop that would likely anger Beijing.
(Reporting By Yimou Lee; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Darren Schuettler, Robert Birsel)

3/12/2019 Indonesians get first chance to ride subway in traffic-clogged capital by Agustinus Beo Da Costa
A Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train arrives at a station during its full trial run
in Jakarta, Indonesia, March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan
    JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, held on Tuesday the first public trial run of its $3 billion mass rapid transit (MRT) system aimed at improving transport conditions in a city suffering some of the worst traffic jams in the world.
    The MRT, which is officially due to open on March 26, was developed with Japanese expertise and funding, and is a centre-piece of an infrastructure boom under President Joko Widodo, who is seeking re-election in April.
    Dozens of excited residents, many of them students, rode in the shiny, air-conditioned carriages, tested the ticketing machines, and wandered through the stations.
    “I’m impressed that it’s like any foreign country, like Singapore!” said Mika, a 23-year-old student, who registered weeks ago for the trial run.
    But some passengers complained that facilities in some stations and feeder lines had not been finished.
    “Some of the supporting infrastructure … for pedestrians and passengers is very incomplete,” said Irfan, 40, who had brought his son along for the subway ride.
    Construction workers in hard hats were racing to finish up walkways and other facilities in some stations.
    The first phase is a 16-km stretch that runs partially underground from south to central Jakarta along one of the city’s main thoroughfares.    The train takes about 30 minutes, compared with more than an hour by car in regular traffic.
    Construction of the second line – an 8-km stretch that ends in north Jakarta – is underway and it should be operational by 2025.
    Ticket prices have been set at an initial 10,000 rupiah (70 cents) and the trains can carry more than 28,000 passengers a day.
    Delayed for more than 20 years, the project was finally launched in 2013, with the first line originally scheduled to open in 2018.
    As well as it awful traffic jams, Jakarta regularly suffers from floods and earthquakes and the MRT was built to withstand such disasters, said Silvia Halim, construction director of PT MRT, the Indonesian-Japanese consortium that is developing the network.
    “We have used the reference of standards from Japan,” Halim said.    “The structure of the tunnel and the viaduct can hold up against a magnitude of 8 or equivalent.”
    Flood barriers have been installed to protect the underground stations from inundation, she said.
(Additional reporting by Jessica Damiana; Writing by Ed Davies and Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by XX)

3/12/2019 Taiwan president to visit Pacific allies amid China pressure By Yimou Lee
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during "A Civil Society Dialogue on Securing Religious Freedom
in the Indo-Pacific Region
" forum in Taipei, Taiwan March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan’s president will visit three diplomatic allies in the Pacific next week and could stop-over in U.S. territory, potentially angering China as it seeks to snatch away the self-ruled island’s few remaining friends.
    Last year, China persuaded the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso and El Salvador to forge relations with Beijing, leaving a dwindling number of governments that have formal diplomatic ties with Taipei.
    President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to the tiny Pacific Ocean countries of Palau, Nauru and the Marshall Islands also comes amid heightened tension between Taipei and Beijing, which claims self-ruled Taiwan as its sacred territory and considers it merely a province with no right to state-to-state ties.
    Chinese President Xi Jinping kicked off the new year with a major speech in Beijing threatening to use force to bring Taiwan under its control, though said China would strive to achieve this peacefully.
    The aim of Tsai’s eight-day visit, starting on March 21, was to “deepen ties and friendly relations” with Taiwan’s Pacific allies, Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Hsu Szu-chien told a news briefing in Taipei on Thursday.
    Taiwan is still in talks regarding a possible stopover in U.S. territory, he added.
    A person with knowledge of the matter told Reuters the stopover would most likely be in Guam or Hawaii, with the chance of at least one visit to U.S. territory “very high.”
    Democratic Taiwan now has formal ties with just 17 countries, almost all small, less developed nations in Central America and the Pacific, like Belize and Nauru.
    Taipei has accused Beijing of offering generous aid and loan packages to lure its allies away, accusations Beijing denies.
    The Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, simply answered “Ha ha!” last week when asked by reporters how many of Taiwan’s allies China would take this year.
    The United States, like other major powers, maintains a “one China” policy that prevents formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan but it is the island’s largest weapons supplier and most powerful international backer.
    That relationship has been boosted under U.S. President Donald Trump, whose administration is eyeing more weapons sales and encouraging official exchanges.
    The U.S. ambassador for religious freedom, Sam Brownback, is currently in Taipei, to Beijing’s anger.
    China’s hostility to Taiwan has grown since Tsai’s election as Beijing fears she wishes to push for the island’s formal independence.
    Tsai says she wants to maintain the status quo but will defend Taiwan’s democracy.
    On Monday evening, Tsai called a national security meeting during which she urged the administration to counter Xi’s “one country, two systems” proposal that Beijing uses to push for “reunification” with Taiwan.
    Tsai called on government officials to come up with measures to “counter” China’s renewed efforts to “interfere” and to “absorb” Taiwan’s capital and talents.
    “The Beijing authorities continue to utilize our open and free system of democracy to interfere with Taiwan’s political, economic and social developments, which has become the biggest risk in Taiwan,” Tsai said in a statement.
    The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula, that granted the financial hub a high degree of autonomy.
(Reporting By Yimou Lee and Ihwa Cheng; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel)

3/12/2019 ‘All-or-nothing’ U.S. approach toward North Korea won’t work: Moon adviser by Hyonhee Shin
Moon Chung-in, Special Advisor for Unification, Foreign and Security Affairs to South KoreaÕs President Moon Jae-in,
speaks during the Wall Street Journal CEO Conference in Tokyo, Japan May 15, 2018. REUTERS/Toru Hanai
    SEOUL (Reuters) – The United States should seek the gradual denuclearisation of North Korea because an “all-or-nothing” strategy will not help break an impasse in talks, a special adviser to South Korea’s president said on Tuesday.
    U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held their second summit last month on U.S. demands that North Korea dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees and the lifting of sanctions.
    But the talks in Vietnam broke down without agreement, although the two leaders parted on good terms.
    Moon Chung-in, a special national security adviser to South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, said both sides were to blame for the breakdown, but the United States appeared to have suddenly toughened its stand and called for North Korea’s complete denuclearisation despite earlier suggestions it might agree to a phased approach.
    “The United States made excessive demands on North Korea to reach a big deal, whereas Chairman Kim was overconfident that he could persuade Trump to get what he wants for closing down the Yongbyon main nuclear complex,” Moon Chung-in said.
    Moon pointed to a speech by U.S. nuclear envoy Stephen Biegun at Stanford University, in which he vowed to pursue parallel commitments and a “roadmap of negotiations and declarations.”
    But in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, the U.S. side back-pedalled and called for a comprehensive deal, Moon said.     “After Biegun’s Stanford speech, I had a strong impression that they’re being realistic, but at the summit, they actually took an all-or-nothing position,” Moon said.
    He said the North would have got a deal if it had addressed U.S. concerns by making a commitment to abandon its uranium enrichment program at other facilities, not just at its main facility of Yongbyon.
    Biegun told a conference in Washington on Monday that “diplomacy was still very much alive” although the United States was closely watching activity at a North Korean rocket site and did not know if it might be planning a new launch.
    A U.S. think-tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, last week reported activity at North Korea’s Sohae rocket launch site, with satellite images showing possible preparations for a launch.
    Moon said it would be a “mistake” if North Korea pressed ahead with a launch, after promising Trump it would halt such activity.
    Biegun also rejected the incremental approach sought by North Korea, saying easing sanctions for partial steps would amount to subsidizing North Korea’s weapons program.
    The collapse of the Hanoi summit was a blow to President Moon, who has promoted engagement with old rival North Korea and held three summits last year with its leader, Kim.
    The South Korean president had hoped that a deal would bring an easing of U.S. sanctions and that would clear the way for a resumption of inter-Korean economic projects, including a factory park and tourism zone.
    The adviser Moon said South Korea could play a role as a facilitator between the United State and North Korea, more than a role of mediator.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Robert Birsel)

3/12/2019 Kazakhstan puts campaigner against Chinese camps under house arrest
Kazakh rights activist Serikzhan Bilash walks outside a courthouse in Almaty, Kazakhstan, February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Mariya Gordeyeva
    ALMATY (Reuters) – A Kazakh court has placed an activist who campaigned on behalf of ethnic Kazakhs in China under house arrest on the charge of calling for a “jihad” against the Chinese, state prosecutors said.
    Serikzhan Bilash, a naturalized Kazakh citizen born in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, leads Atajurt, a group that has worked for the release of ethnic Kazakhs from “re-education” camps where activists say more than a million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims are held.
    Police detained Bilash in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city, last weekend and brought him before a court in Astana, the Central Asian nation’s capital.
    In a statement issued late on Monday, the Astana prosecutor’s office said Bilash is suspected of making the jihad comment at a public event last month. He has yet to make a plea.
    Prosecutors said the court placed Bilash under house arrest for two months while they prepare for trial.
(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Nick Macfie)

3/12/2019 China official says West using Christianity to ‘subvert’ power by Ben Blanchard
Red flags flutter in front of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Chinaz
September 30, 2018. Picture taken September 30, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee
    BEIJING (Reuters) – Western forces are trying to use Christianity to influence China’s society and even “subvert” the government, a senior official said, warning that Chinese Christians needed to follow a Chinese model of the religion.
    China’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but since President Xi Jinping took office six years ago, the government has tightened restrictions on religions seen as a challenge to the authority of the ruling Communist Party.
    The government has cracked down on underground churches, both Protestant and Catholic, even as it seeks to improve relations with the Vatican.
    In a speech on Monday, Xu Xiaohong head of the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China, said there were many problems with Christianity in the country, including “infiltration” from abroad and “private meeting places.”
    “It must be recognized that our movement’s surname is ‘China’ and not ‘Western’,” Xu said, according to remarks reported on Tuesday by the United Front Work Department, which is in charge of co-opting non-communists, ethnic minorities and religious groups.
    “Anti-China forces in the West are trying to continue to influence China’s social stability and even subvert our country’s political power through Christianity, and it is doomed to fail,” he said, speaking to parliament’s largely ceremonial advisory body.
    “For individual black sheep who, under the banner of Christianity, participate in subverting national security, we firmly support the country to bring them to justice.”
    Only by eliminating the “stigma of foreign religion” in China’s Christianity can its believers benefit society, he added.
    “Only by continually drawing on the fine traditions of Chinese culture, can China’s Christianity be rooted in the fertile soil of Chinese culture and become a religion recognized by the Chinese themselves,” Xu added.
    “Only by continuously carrying forward and practicing the core values of socialism can our Christianity truly be suited to socialist society.”     China has been following a policy it calls the “Sinicisation” of religion, trying to root out foreign influences and enforce obedience to the Communist Party.
    Restrictions on religion have attracted particular concern in the United States.    Last week, during a visit to Hong Kong, the U.S. ambassador for religious freedom called on Beijing to end religious persecution.
    What China calls a de-radicalisation program in its restive far western region of Xinjiang has also caused widespread opprobrium in Western capitals and amongst rights groups, who say authorities have been placing Muslims there in internment camps.
    The government says they are vocational training centers where the Uighur people who call Xinjiang home and other Muslim peoples are sent to learn about the law and the Mandarin language, and has defended the practice.
    Yang Jie, an imam from Xinjiang, told the same advisory body on Monday that some adherents had poor “religious and civic awareness,” which made them vulnerable to “the temptation and incitement of religious extremist forces.”
    They mistakenly believed that their religion came before their citizenship, and that certain illegal acts were a “firm expression of faith,” Yang said.
    “This wrong view and behavior has seriously affected social stability, ethnic unity and religious harmony, and has vilified the social image of the Muslim community and must be resolutely stopped.”
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel)

3/12/2019 South Korea warns North Korea not to use nuclear threats by OAN Newsroom
    South Korean officials are warning North Korean leader Kim Jong-un about using nuclear weapons as leverage in deals with the U.S.
    In a panel discussion Tuesday, South Korean presidential adviser Moon Chung-in said nuclear threats would be “catastrophic” for global diplomacy.
    This comes after American websites released satellite photos revealing restored structures at a North Korean long-range launch facility, which were dismantled last year at the start of denuclearization talks.
Moon Chung-in, a special adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, speaks during a forum hosted by
the Kwanhun Club in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, March 12, 2019. Moon says a possible North Korean rocket launch would
cause a “catastrophic” consequence for diplomacy on the North’s nuclear program. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
    “I think North Korea should avoid making a near-sighted decision that may come back as a bigger threat,” said Chung-in.    “I think both sides show some mutual restraint.”
    South Korean officials suspect the move is a bluff, but said they hope North Korea makes the decision to keep the diplomacy alive.

3/13/2019 Iran threatens defense overhaul to counter “suspicious nuclear projects
FILE PHOTO: Admiral Ali Shamkhani, Iran's Supreme National Security Council Director, speaks to the media
after his arrival at Damascus airport, September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri
    LONDON (Reuters) – A senior Iranian security official on Wednesday accused regional powers of spending money on “suspicious nuclear projects,” and warned that such threats would force Tehran to revise its defense strategy.
    Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, did not name the countries – but a proposed transfer of U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia has raised concerns in Tehran.
    The United States, Israel and other allies say Iran’s own nuclear program is a threat to global security.    Iran insists its atomic work is entirely peaceful, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a religious decree against the development of nuclear weapons.
    “Some countries in the region are spending their petro-dollars on suspicious nuclear projects that can endanger the security of the region and the world,” Shamkhani was quoted as saying by Fars news agency.
    “New threats like this will force us to revise our strategy based on the nature and geography of new threats, and predict the requirements of our country and armed forces,” he added.
    Shamkhani said Tehran was watching the “unusual activities” of countries in the region that he accused of supporting militant groups.
    The rivalry between the Sunni Muslim kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Muslim Iran has deepened in recent years and spilled into the wars in Syria and Yemen, where they have backed opposing sides.
    Animosity between Washington and Tehran – bitter foes since Iran’s 1979 revolution – has intensified since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from an international nuclear deal with Tehran last May and reimposed sanctions lifted under the accord, aiming to cut Tehran’s oil exports to zero.
    Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused the United States last month of hypocrisy for trying to wreck Iran’s nuclear program while seeking to sell nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.
    Iran said on Wednesday that it would respond firmly to any Israeli naval action against its oil shipments, a week after Israel’s prime minister said its vessels could act against Iranian oil “smuggling.”
(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

3/13/2019 China offers help to Venezuela to restore power
People throng the streets to protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's
government in Caracas, Venezuela, March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso
    BEIJING (Reuters) – China offered on Wednesday to help Venezuela restore its power grid, after President Nicolas Maduro accused U.S. counterpart Donald Trump of cyber “sabotage” that plunged the South American country into its worst blackout on record.
    Maduro, who retains control of the military and other state institutions as well as the backing of Russia and China, has blamed Washington for his nation’s economic turmoil and denounced opposition leader Juan Guaido as a puppet of the United States.
    With the power blackout in its sixth day, hospitals struggled to keep equipment running, food rotted in the tropical heat and exports from the country’s main oil terminal were shut down.
    Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang said China had noted reports that the power grid had gone down due to a hacking attack.
    “China is deeply concerned about this,” Lu said.
    “China hopes that the Venezuelan side can discover the reason for this issue as soon as possible and resume normal power supply and social order.    China is willing to provide help and technical support to restore Venezuela’s power grid.”
    He gave no details.
    Power returned to many parts of the country on Tuesday, including some areas that had not had electricity since last Thursday, according to witnesses and social media.
    But power was still out in parts of the capital of Caracas and the western region near the border with Colombia.
    Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said power had been restored in the “vast majority” of the country.
    The blackout was likely caused by a technical problem with transmission lines linking the Guri hydroelectric plant in southeastern Venezuela to the national power grid, experts have told Reuters.     Maduro has blamed Washington for organising what he said was a sophisticated cyber attack on Venezuela’s hydroelectric power operations.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; editing by Christian Schmollinger)

3/13/2019 Rohingya militants condemn violence in refugee camps amid reports of killings
Rohingya refugees gather at a market inside a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, March 7, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
    YANGON (Reuters) – Myanmar’s Rohingya militants urged their followers on Wednesday to refrain from crime in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, following reports of killings and abductions attributed to the group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
    ARSA, which emerged with attacks on border posts in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2016, is focused on winning rights for Rohingya, the mostly stateless Muslim minority long persecuted in Myanmar.
    The government calls them terrorists and says sweeping military action in the western state of Rakhine, which triggered an exodus of refugees into Bangladesh, was justified.
    In recent weeks, Bangladesh-based media has blamed the group for organized violence in the refugee camps, including a series of killings.    The group acknowledged the violence but denied that the leadership sanctioned it.
    “Those people are not only going against the Bangladesh government but are also making ARSA responsible for their own crimes,” the group said in a video statement posted on Twitter.
    “And because of their activities the whole community is being defamed all over the world,” the group said.
    ARSA expressed gratitude towards the Bangladesh government and urged refugees to “refrain from any wrongdoing” against authorities there, where close to a million Rohingya are living.
    More than 700,000 Rohingya refugees crossed into Bangladesh from western Myanmar, U.N. agencies say, after the insurgents attacked Myanmar security forces in August 2017, triggering an extensive military response.
    Since then, the insurgents have been blamed for sporadic attacks in Rakhine State, including an ambush on a border guard post in January that wounded six.
    “Our activities for our legitimate rights are ongoing against the Burmese terrorist government and its genocidal military,” the group’s statement said, adding that attacks would continue until basic rights were restored.
    The Myanmar military has rejected almost all accusations of rights abuses.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)

3/13/2019 Iran warns of firm response if Israel acts against its oil shipments
FILE PHOTO: Iran's national flags are seen on a square in Tehran February 10, 2012, a day
before the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubaz/File Photo
    LONDON (Reuters) – Iran will respond firmly to any Israeli naval action against its oil shipments, Iran’s defense minister said on Wednesday, in comments that came a week after Israel’s prime minister said its navy could act against Iranian oil “smuggling” to enforce U.S. sanctions.
    U.S. President Donald Trump last year quit a nuclear deal with Iran and reimposed some sanctions, aiming to cut Tehran’s oil exports to zero.    Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told naval officers last week that Iran was still resorting to clandestine measures to ship fuel.
    Iran’s Minister of Defense Amir Hatami was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA that Tehran had the military capabilities to confront any Israeli intervention, and said the international community would also not accept such action.
    Hatami said such confrontation would be considered as “piracy” and warned that “if it happens, we will firmly respond.”
    “The Iranian armed forces have certainly the capabilities to protect the country’s shipping lines in the best way against any possible threat,” Hatami said.
    According to maritime experts, Iran has used a variety of measures to evade sanctions, including changing the names of ships or flag registries, switching off location transponders on ships and conducting ship-to-ship transfers offshore and away from large trade hubs.
    Iran’s navy has extended its reach in recent years, dispatching vessels to the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden.    They intervened on Friday to repel pirates who attacked an Iranian oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden.
    An Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander also said on Wednesday that enemies will regret any confrontation with the Islamic Republic.
    “We never welcome any war, but we are ready to respond to any invasion.    We hope the aggressors do not need to understand this point by trying it and paying a high price,” Major General Gholamali Rashid was quoted as saying by Tasnim news agency.
    The Israeli navy, whose largest vessels are missile corvettes and a small submarine fleet, is mostly active in the Mediterranean and Red seas.
    Iran has one of the world’s biggest tanker fleets in the world.
    In November, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook called Iranian vessels a “floating liability,” saying the U.S. sanctions would bar them from international insurance markets, making them a risk for ports and canals which allow them access.
    Iranian officials have threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil shipping route in the Gulf, if the United States attempts to stop the Islamic Republic’s oil exports.
(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Michael Perry and Simon Cameron-Moore)

3/13/2019 U.S., Taliban talks end for now with no Afghan peace deal by Eric Knecht
Undated Handout picture of U.S., Taliban and Qatar officials during a meeting
for peace talks in Doha, Qatar. Qatari Foreign Ministry/Handout via REUTERS
    DOHA (Reuters) – U.S. and Taliban negotiators wrapped up their longest round of peace talks on Tuesday with progress made but no agreement on when foreign troops might withdraw, officials from both sides said.
    The 16 days of talks, in which the United States also sought assurances that the Taliban would not allow militant groups to use Afghanistan to stage attacks, are expected to resume in late March.
    The negotiations in Doha, Qatar included the Taliban’s political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and a U.S. team led by special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.
    Khalilzad, an Afghan-born veteran U.S. diplomat, said the sides made progress on discussions about counter-terrorism assurances and a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
    “The conditions for peace have improved.    It’s clear all sides want to end the war.    Despite ups and downs, we kept things on track and made real strides,” Khalilzad said on Twitter.
    The Taliban have held multiple rounds of peace talks with the American team led by Khalilzad but have so far refused to talk to the Afghan government.
    “When the agreement in draft about a withdrawal timeline and effective counter-terrorism measures is finalised, the Taliban and other Afghans, including the government, will begin intra-Afghan negotiations on a political settlement and comprehensive ceasefire,” Khalilzad said.
SOME PROGRESS
    Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the sides made progress on the issues of withdrawing foreign forces and preventing future attacks on other countries from Afghanistan.
    But, in a statement, he stressed that no agreement was reached on a ceasefire or talks with the Afghan government.
    A spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tweeted that he hoped to see a long-term ceasefire agreement and the start of direct talks between the government and Taliban soon.
    The talks were held in a closed-off banquet hall at the five-star Ritz-Carlton seaside hotel on the southern end of Doha.
    Qatar has hosted the Taliban’s political office since 2013 and has looked to position itself as an important regional player for conflict resolution.
    “We appreciate how difficult it is to end 18 years of war.    Qatar looks forward to resumption of the talks in the coming weeks,” said Qatar’s lead mediator Mutlaq Bin Majid Al-Qahtani.
    No date has been set for the next round.
    Khalilzad said he would return to Washington to brief U.S. and international officials.
    Talks ended on a day in which Taliban insurgents stepped up pressure on the battlefield, killing 20 Afghan soldiers and capturing another 20 in western Afghanistan.    In another province, officials said an air strike killed both Taliban fighters and civilians.
    About 14,000 U.S. troops are based in Afghanistan as part of a U.S.-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some U.S. forces carry out counter-terrorism operations.
    The United States has been pushing the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire and to talk with Afghanistan’s government, which the militant group considers a U.S. puppet regime.
    “The U.S. officials were pressing the Taliban to declare a ceasefire, but our leaders were clear that a ceasefire can only be announced after the foreign force withdrawal announcement (is) made,” said a senior Taliban commander privy to the talks.
    Another Taliban source said on condition of anonymity there was frustration on some issues during the peace talks and that a senior member of the Islamist group told U.S. officials at one point that the Taliban are “not their servants” and need no U.S. approval for any future decisions.
    Washington intervened in Afghanistan in 2001 to help overthrow a Taliban government that had sheltered Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda group, responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in the United States.
    A U.S.-led international force has fought since then against a Taliban insurgency.    The foreign presence peaked in 2010 at more than 130,000 troops including 100,000 Americans, but was sharply cut back after 2014.
    Nearly 3,500 foreign troops including 2,300 Americans have died in Afghanistan.    The United Nations has tallied the deaths of more than 30,000 Afghan civilians since 2009, most killed by insurgent attacks.    Tens of thousands of members of the Afghan security forces and an unknown number of insurgents have also been killed.
(Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar and Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul,; Writing by Rupam Jain and Rod Nickel in Kabul, Editing by Mark Heinrich and Ed Osmond)

3/13/2019 After 60 years in exile, Dalai Lama’s still remembered in his homeland by Philip Wen
Armed police man a checkpoint at the entrance to the village of Taktser, known in Chinese
as Hongya, preventing non-locals from entering, Qinghai province, China March 9, 2019. The Dalai Lama was born
in Taktser in 1935. Picture taken March 9, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
    TAKTSER, China (Reuters) – It may have been six decades since the Dalai Lama fled into exile, but in the isolated mountain hamlet where he was born, he remains very much on the minds of devotees and Chinese authorities alike.
    On the northeastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, Taktser, in Qinghai province, where the Dalai Lama was born in 1935 to parents who farmed buckwheat and barley, is a magnet to worshippers and foreign tourists – and security personnel.
    During a recent Reuters visit to Taktser, known in Chinese as Hongya, police armed with automatic weapons blocked the winding road leading into the village of some 60 houses.
    Police and more than a dozen plain-clothed officials who declined to identify themselves refused Reuters entry, saying the village was private and not open to the public.
    The Qinghai government and China’s State Council Information Office, which doubles as the Communist Party’s spokesman’s office, did not respond to requests for comment.
    Beijing views the Nobel Peace Prize laureate as a dangerous separatist and has denounced the 83-year-old spiritual leader as a “wolf in monk’s robes.”    The Dalai Lama denies espousing violence and says he only wants genuine autonomy for Tibet.
    Many of China’s more than 6 million Tibetans still venerate the Dalai Lama, despite government prohibitions on displays of his picture or any public display of devotion.
    This Sunday marks 60 years since the Dalai Lama, disguised as a soldier, fled the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, after rumors that Chinese troops were planning his abduction or assassination fomented an abortive popular uprising.
    The Dalai Lama crossed into India two weeks later, and has not set foot in Tibet since.
    Despite the passage of time, during sensitive political anniversaries China’s security apparatus routinely restricts access to the village where the Dalai Lama’s old family is located, behind a pair of wooden doors and high concrete walls.
‘IN YOUR HEART’
    One 29-year-old Tibetan man in the largely ethnic Tibetan town of Rebkong, set in a precipitous valley in Qinghai with a large monastery adorned in rich colors, enthusiastically recounted to Reuters his pilgrimage to Taktser years ago.
    He said Tibetans were well aware of the upcoming 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s exile, even if public commemorations of any sort were banned.
    “You can only bury it in your heart, we just don’t speak about it,” he said, declining to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.
    “We have no ability to go against politics, we can only just go with society.”
    Born Lhamo Thondup, the Dalai Lama was just two years old when identified by a search party as the new incarnation of Tibet’s most important spiritual leader, and was whisked from the family home to live in Lhasa.
    The anniversary of his escape over the mountains into exile in India is one of several politically sensitive dates in China this year, including the 30th anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in June, that the ruling Communist Party wants to ensure passes without controversy.
    Speaking on the sidelines of China’s annual meeting of parliament this month, Tibet’s Communist Party chief Wu Yingjie said the Tibetan people felt greater affection toward the government than the Dalai Lama, who “hasn’t done a single good thing for the people of Tibet.”
    As the Dalai Lama ages, many Tibetans fear that Beijing will simply appoint its own replacement.
    The Dalai Lama has suggested that his incarnation might be found outside Chinese-controlled territory, or that the centuries-old Dalai Lama institution could die with him.
(Reporting by Philip Wen; Editing by Tony Munroe, Robert Birsel)

3/13/2019 Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric tells Rouhani ties must respect sovereignty
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani waves to the people at the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, Iraq
March 13, 2019. Official Iranian President website/Handout via REUTERS
    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric told Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday that Iraqi sovereignty must be respected and weapons kept in state hands, a veiled reference to increasingly influential Iran-backed militias.
    It was the first meeting between an Iranian president and the 88-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who rarely weighs in on politics but exerts wide influence over Iraqi public opinion.
    Sistani welcomed “any steps to strengthen Iraq’s relations with its neighbours … based on respect for the sovereignty of the countries and no interference in domestic affairs,” a statement from his office said.
    “The most important challenges facing Iraq are fighting corruption, improving services and keeping weapons in the hands of the state and its security services,” it added.
    The meeting came on the third day of a visit by Rouhani to Iraq which aimed to project Iran’s political and economic dominance in Baghdad and expand commercial ties to help offset renewed U.S. sanctions meant to isolate and weaken Tehran.
    Iran and Iraq, both majority Shi’ite Muslim countries, signed several preliminary trade accords on Monday, Iraqi officials said, including deals on oil, health, and a railway linking the southern Iraqi oil city of Basra and an Iranian border town.
    Sistani’s comments will chime with the concerns of many Iraqis that powerful Shi’ite militias, which are increasing their military and political influence after the defeat of Sunni Muslim extremist group Islamic State (IS), remain subservient to their Iranian patrons.
    Sistani issued a decree in 2014 calling up Iraqis to volunteer to fight against Islamic State.    Many answered the call, joining mostly Shi’ite paramilitary groups.
Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran has come to dominate Iraqi politics through allies in the government and parliament and has built up considerable influence over parts of the security forces.
    Dozens of mainly Iran-backed paramilitary groups which played a key role in defeating IS in 2017 were brought formally into the security forces last year.    Critics say they have also begun to control parts of the economy.    The groups deny this.
    Iran is striving to shore up control of a corridor of territory from Tehran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon where it holds sway through allies including those militias.
    Most Iran-backed Iraqi militias say they are no longer funded or equipped by Iran and serve only to defend Iraq and its Shi’ite holy sites.
(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

3/14/2019 China hits back at ‘prejudiced’ U.S. with own rights criticism by Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang answers questions about a major bus accident in
North Korea, during a news conference in Beijing, China April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee
    BEIJING (Reuters) – Citing poor media freedoms, racism and “ideological prejudice,” China hit back on Thursday in unusually strong terms after the U.S. State Department slammed China’s rights record, including equating abuses on its Muslim minorities with the 1930s.
    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo highlighted abuses in Iran, South Sudan, Nicaragua and China in the department’s annual “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” but told reporters that China was “in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations.”
    Michael Kozak, the head of the State Department’s human rights and democracy bureau, said mistreatment of China’s Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region was like hadn’t been seen “since the 1930s,” apparently referring to the policies of persecution of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union.
    Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the U.S. report was as usual filled with “ideological prejudice” and groundless accusations, and that China had lodged a complaint with Washington about it.
    China fully safeguards human rights and China has made many achievements in this regard, he added.
    “We also advise that the United States take a hard look at its own domestic human rights record, and first take care of its own affairs.”
    China has roundly rejected concern about its policies in Xinjiang, where rights groups say the government is operating internment camps holding a million or more Muslims.    China says they are vocational training centers aimed at de-radicalisation.
    Adding to Beijing’s strong push-back, the Chinese government on Thursday issued its annual rebuttal to criticism from Washington about China’s human rights record.
        China’s State Council, or Cabinet, said the United States was a self-styled “human rights defender,” that has a human rights record which is “flawed and lackluster.”
    “The double standards of human rights it pursues are obvious,” it said.
    The report pointed to the high rate of gun deaths, racial discrimination, and also lack of media freedom, despite China being ranked 176 last year on the world press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders, ahead of only Syria, Turkmenistan, Eritrea and North Korea.
    “Press freedom has come under unprecedented attack,” it said, pointing to cases of reporters in the United States being arrested and prevented from doing their jobs.
    “The U.S. government continues to publicly and fiercely accuse the media and journalists of creating ‘fake news’ and creating an atmosphere of intimidation and hostility,” the report said.
    “Reporters’ legal right to report has been violated,” it added, pointing to cases of the White House stripping some reporters of press credentials.
    There is no routine access to China’s presidential office and no presidential spokesman.    President Xi Jinping only very rarely takes questions from any reporters, let alone foreign media.
    China’s report cited reports by foreign news organizations, including Reuters, the BBC, Newsweek and the Washington Post, for evidence of rights abuses in the United States.
    Human rights have long been a source of tension between the world’s two largest economies, especially since 1989, when the United States imposed sanctions on China after a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
    China routinely rejects criticism of its rights record and has pointed to its success at lifting millions out of poverty, and that nobody has the right to criticize its model of government.
    But the ruling Communist Party brooks no political dissent and President Xi Jinping’s administration has overseen a sweeping crackdown on rights lawyers and activists.
(Reporting by Michael Martina; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel and Clarence Fernandez)

3/14/2019 UNSC: North Korea uses civilian facilities to build, test nuclear, ballistic devices by OAN Newsroom
    According to a new report, North Korea is continuing to secretly advance its nuclear program.    On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council’s panel on North Korea said Pyongyang is building and testing nuclear and ballistic missile devices at civilian facilities.
    Experts have said activities at those facilities are supported by massive smuggling of oil in defiance of international sanctions.
    Previously, reports claimed Pyongyang’s military is restoring its nuclear testing grounds.
This satellite image captured on Feb. 22, 2019 and provided by DigitalGlobe, shows Sanumdong research center
on the outskirts of Pyongyang, North Korea. South Korea’s military said it is carefully monitoring North Korean nuclear
and missile facilities after the country’s spy agency told lawmakers that new activity was detected at a research center where
the North is believed to build long-range missiles targeting the U.S. mainland. (DigitalGlobe, a Maxar company, via AP)
    Meanwhile, White House officials reiterated their commitment to denuclearizing North Korea.
    “The president’s 100-percent committed to denuclearization of the peninsula, he’s going to make sure that whatever we do furthers that process,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.    “We’ll see what happens with North Korea the same way we’re going to see what happens in the negotiations with China — they are ongoing.”
    UN experts also said North Korea’s ongoing efforts to export weapons, import coal, and import oil make international sanctions inefficient.
    The United Nations urged tougher surveillance of Pyongyang’s activities and enforcement of sanctions.

3/14/2019 Senior Afghan official publicly criticizes U.S. negotiator on visit to Washington by Jonathan Landay
FILE PHOTO - Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations,
listens to speakers during a panel discussion on Afghanistan at the Conservative Political Action
conference (CPAC) in Washington, February 12, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A senior Afghan official on Thursday accused the U.S. peace negotiator of “delegitimizing” the Afghan government in an unusually public attack reflecting Kabul’s mounting alarm over its exclusion from U.S. talks with Taliban insurgents.
    National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib’s comments to reporters in Washington were the most strident public complaints to date by an Afghan official over the Kabul’s government’s absence and the role of U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-born veteran diplomat.
    “Knowing Ambassador Khalilzad’s history, his own personal history, he has ambitions in Afghanistan.    He was wanting to run for president twice,” Mohib said hours before meeting senior U.S. officials.    “The perception in Afghanistan and people in government think that perhaps, perhaps all this talk is to create a caretaker government of which he will then become the viceroy.”
    Viceroy is a politically loaded term in South Asia as it was the title of the colonial administrator of British-ruled India.
    U.S. Under-Secretary for Political Affairs, David Hale, who was meeting Mohib at the State Department, would “communicate the United States government’s displeasure” with his remarks, a spokesman said.
    “To the comments themselves, we don’t believe they warrant a public response,” spokesman Robert Palladino told reporters.
    A second round of U.S.-Taliban talks lasting 16 days ended on Monday in Doha, Qatar.    The sides reported progress, but no final deal on a withdrawal of U.S.-led international forces and arrangements that the Taliban ensures militants would not use Afghanistan to stage attacks as al Qaeda did for Sept. 11, 2001.
    “We think either Zal, Ambassador Khalilzad, doesn’t know how to negotiate (or) there may be other reasons behind what he’s doing,” Mohib said.
    “The reason he is delegitimizing the Afghan government and weakening it, and at the same time elevating the Taliban can only have one approach.    It’s definitely not for peace,” he said.
    Khalilzad was not immediately available for comment.
    A State Department official, who requested anonymity, said Mohib’s remarks were inaccurate and did not reflect the high level of U.S.-Afghan coordination in the peace process.
    U.S. negotiators also are pressing the Taliban to accept a ceasefire and talks on Afghanistan’s political future with representatives of Afghan society, including President Ashraf Ghani’s government.
    The Taliban rejects direct negotiations with the Kabul government, accusing it of being a U.S. puppet.
    The lead Taliban negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, on Thursday assured Afghans that they had no reason to fear a settlement.
    Afghan officials worry that Khalilzad’s priority is securing at Kabul’s expense an end to the nearly 18-year U.S. military involvement to fulfill a pledge President Donald Trump made to end America’s longest war.
(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)

3/14/2019 India, Pakistan push ahead with route for Sikh pilgrims, despite tension
S.C.L. Das, Joint Secretary in India's Ministry of Home Affairs, addresses a news conference after a meeting with
Pakistani officials at Attari, near the northern city of Amritsar, India, March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Manish Sharma
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India and Pakistan agreed on Thursday to go forward with a new border crossing and route for Sikh pilgrims to visit a holy temple in Pakistan, a rare glimmer of cooperation after tension flared over the neighbors’ decades-old Kashmir dispute.
    The meeting was the first between the nuclear-armed foes since a dogfight between their warplanes over the Himalayan region last month led to the downing of an Indian aircraft and the capture of its pilot, since returned home.
    “Both sides held detailed and constructive discussions,” the two countries said in a joint statement, after their officials met on Thursday at the Wagah checkpoint on their border to work out details of the crossing and the route.
    The talks were cordial and another meeting of technical experts is planned for next week, they said, adding that both sides had agreed to work toward soon making the route operational.
    The Sikh minority community in India’s northern state of Punjab and elsewhere has long sought easier access to the temple in Kartarpur, a village just over the border in Muslim-majority Pakistan.
    Many Sikhs see Pakistan as the place where their religion began: its founder, Guru Nanak, was born in 1469 in a small village near the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore.
    But to get there, travelers must first secure hard-to-get visas, travel to Lahore or some other major Pakistani city and then drive to the village, which is just 4 km (2-1/2 miles) distant from the Indian border.
    This week’s talks follow an agreement the neighbors struck last year to open a new route, the Kartarpur corridor, giving the pilgrims direct and visa-free access to the holy site that will be fenced off.
    The arch rivals have said they shot down each other’s fighter jets late last month, after tension escalated following a claim of responsibility by a Pakistan-based militant group for the deadliest attack in Kashmir’s 30-year-long insurgency that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary troops.
(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

3/15/2019 New Zealand mosque shootings kill at least 49, seriously wound 20 by Praveen Menon and Charlotte Greenfield
An injured person is loaded into an ambulance following a shooting at the Al Noor mosque
in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 15, 2019. REUTERS/SNPA/Martin Hunter
    WELLINGTON (Reuters) – At least one gunman killed 49 people and wounded more than 20 during Friday prayers at two New Zealand mosques in the country’s worst ever mass shooting, which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern condemned as terrorism.
    A gunman broadcast live footage on Facebook of the attack on one mosque in the city of Christchurch, mirroring the carnage played out in video games, after publishing a “manifesto” in which he denounced immigrants, calling them “invaders.”
    New Zealand was placed on its highest security threat level, Ardern said, adding that four people taken into custody held extremist views but had not been on any police watchlists.
    “It is clear that this can now only be described as a terrorist attack,” Ardern said, call this “one of New Zealand’s darkest days.”
    Police said later three people were in custody and one man in his late 20s had been charged with murder.    He will appear in court on Saturday.
    The visiting Bangladesh cricket team was arriving for prayers at one of the mosques when the shooting started but all members were safe, a team coach told Reuters.
    Police Commissioner Mike Bush said 49 people had been killed in total.
    The video footage widely circulated on social media, apparently taken by a gunman and posted online live as the attack unfolded, showed him driving to one mosque, entering it and shooting randomly at people inside.
    Worshippers, possibly dead or wounded, lay huddled on the floor, the video showed.    Reuters was unable to confirm the authenticity of the footage.
    One man who said he was at the Al Noor mosque told media the gunman was white, blond and wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest.    The man burst into the mosque as worshippers were kneeling for prayers.
    “He had a big gun … he came and started shooting everyone in the mosque, everywhere,” said the man, Ahmad Al-Mahmoud.    He said he and others escaped by breaking through a glass door.
    Forty-one people were killed at the Al Noor mosque, seven at a mosque in the Linwood neighborhood and one died in hospital, police said.    Hospitals said children were among the victims.
    Shortly before the attack began, an anonymous post on the discussion site 8chan, known for a wide range of content including hate speech, said the writer was going to “carry out an attack against the invaders” and included links to a Facebook live stream, in which the shooting appeared, and a manifesto.
    The manifesto cited “white genocide,” a term typically used by racist groups to refer to immigration and the growth of minority populations, as his motivation.
    The Facebook link directed users to the page of a user called brenton.tarrant.9.
    A Twitter account with the handle @brentontarrant posted on Wednesday images of a rifle and other military gear decorated with names and messages connected to white nationalism.    What looked like the same weapons appeared in the livestream of the mosque attack on Friday.
DARKEST DAY
    It was not immediately clear if the attacks at the two mosques were carried out by the same man.
    Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said one of the men in custody was Australian.
    All mosques in New Zealand had been asked to shut their doors and armed guards posted at them, police said, adding they were not actively looking for any other “identified suspects.”
    Political and Islamic leaders across Asia and the Middle East condemned the killings.
    “I blame these increasing terror attacks on the current Islamophobia post-9/11,” Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, posted on social media.    “1.3 billion Muslims have collectively been blamed for any act of terror.”
    Al-Azhar University, Egypt’s 1000-year-old seat of Sunni Islamic learning, said the attacks had “violated the sanctity of the houses of God.”
    “We warn the attack is a dangerous indicator of the dire consequences of escalating hate speech, xenophobia, and the spread of Islamophobia.”
    Six Indonesians had been inside one of the mosques, with three managing to escape and three unaccounted for, its foreign minister said.
    Afghanistan’s ambassador said on Twitter three Afghans had been wounded.    Two Malaysians were wounded, their foreign ministry said.
    Muslims account for just over 1 percent of New Zealand’s population, a 2013 census showed.
‘FIRING WENT ON AND ON’
    The online footage, which appeared to have been captured on a camera strapped to a gunman’s head, showed him driving as music played in his vehicle.    After parking, he took two guns and walked a short distance to the mosque where he opened fire.
    Over the course of five minutes, he repeatedly shot worshippers, leaving more than a dozen bodies in one room alone.    He returned to the car during that period to change guns, and went back to the mosque to shoot anyone showing signs of life.
    One man, with blood still on his shirt, said in a television interview that he hid from a gunman under a bench and prayed that he would run out of bullets.
    “I was just praying to God and hoping our God, please, let this guy stop” Mahmood Nazeer told TVNZ.
    “The firing went on and on.    One person with us had a bullet in her arm.    When the firing stopped, I looked over the fence, there was one guy, changing his gun.”     The video shows the gunman then driving off at high speed and firing from his car.    Another video, taken by someone else, showed police apprehending a gunman on a pavement by a road.
    Police said improvised explosive devices were found.    The gunman’s video had shown red petrol canisters in the back of his car, along with weapons.
    The Bangladesh cricket team is in Christchurch to play New Zealand in a third cricket test starting on Saturday.
    “They were on the bus, which was just pulling up to the mosque when the shooting begun,” Mario Villavarayen, a team coach, told Reuters in a message.    “They are shaken but good.”
    The third cricket test was canceled, New Zealand Cricket said later.
    Violent crime is rare in New Zealand and police do not usually carry guns.
    Before Friday, New Zealand’s worst mass shooting was in 1990 when a gun-mad loner killed 13 men, women and children in a 24-hour rampage in the tiny seaside village of Aramoana.    He was killed by police.
(Additional reporting by Tom Westbrook, John Mair and Swati Pandey in Sydney; Writing by Micheal Perry; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

3/15/2019 North Korea may suspend nuclear talks with ‘gangster-like’ U.S.: diplomat by Joyce Lee and Josh Smith
FILE PHOTO: Hyon Song Wol, head of the North Korean Samjiyon art troupe takes a photo of
Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son-Hui (C) ahead of the welcoming ceremony of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un
(not pictured) at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam March 1, 2019. Luong Thai Linh/Pool via REUTERS
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea is considering suspending talks with the United States and may rethink a ban on missile and nuclear tests unless Washington makes concessions, news reports from the North’s capital on Friday quoted a senior diplomat as saying.
    Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui blamed top U.S. officials for the breakdown of last month’s summit in Hanoi between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Russia’s Tass news agency and the Associated Press said.
    “We have no intention to yield to the U.S. demands (at the Hanoi summit) in any form, nor are we willing to engage in negotiations of this kind,” TASS quoted Choe as telling reporters in the North Korean capital.
    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton “created the atmosphere of hostility and mistrust and, therefore, obstructed the constructive effort for negotiations between the supreme leaders of North Korea and the United States,” Tass quoted Choe as saying.
    Kim is set to make an official announcement soon on his position on the denuclearisation talks with the United States and the North’s further actions, it added, citing Choe.
    Choe said Washington threw away a golden opportunity at the summit and warned that Kim might rethink a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests, the Associated Press news agency said.
    “I want to make it clear that the gangster-like stand of the U.S. will eventually put the situation in danger,” AP quoted her as saying.    But she added: “Personal relations between the two supreme leaders are still good and the chemistry is mysteriously wonderful.”
    South Korea, which has an ambitious agenda of engagement with North Korea that is dependent on Pyongyang and Washington resolving at least some of their differences, said it was too early to tell what Choe’s comments might mean.
    “We cannot judge the current situation based solely on Vice Minister Choe Son Hui’s statements.    We are watching the situation closely.    In any situation, our government will endeavor for the restart of North Korea-U.S. negotiations,” South Korea’s presidential Blue House said in a statement.
    Choe’s comments echoed the North’s usual rhetoric at tense points in its dealings with Washington.    North Korea expert Joshua Pollack said North Korea may be delivering an ultimatum.
    “They’re putting down a marker, saying which way things are headed if nothing changes,” Pollack, of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, said.
NO OVERNIGHT SOLUTION
    The second Trump-Kim summit broke down over differences about U.S. demands for Pyongyang to denuclearise and North Korea’s demand for dramatic relief from international sanctions imposed for its nuclear and missile tests, which it pursued for years in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
    Choe had said after the Hanoi talks that Kim might lose his commitment to pursue a deal with the United States after seeing it reject a request to lift some sanctions in return for the North destroying its main known nuclear complex.
    In Washington this week, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, said the United States expected to be able to continue its close engagement, though he offered no specifics on when new talks might be held.
    “Diplomacy is still very much alive,” Biegun said on Monday, but stopped short of saying if there had been any talks since the summit.
    Bolton, who has argued for a tough approach to North Korea, said last week that Trump was open to more talks but also warned of tougher sanctions if the North did not denuclearise.
    In Beijing, Premier Li Keqiang urged patience and further dialogue between North Korea and the United States.
    “The peninsula problem can be said to be complicated and long-standing, and it cannot be solved overnight,” Li told an annual news conference on Friday, although his remarks were not made in response to the TASS report.
    Earlier on Friday, a spokeswoman for South Korea’s Ministry of Unification told a press briefing that the weekly inter-Korean meeting scheduled at a liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea, had been canceled after the North Koreans said they would not be sending senior officials.
    The spokeswoman said the ministry had not confirmed why the North Korean officials decided not to attend.
    The South Korean won fell to its weakest intraday level in four months soon after the report, whereas the stock market’s KOSPI was muted in its reaction.
    South Korean and Japanese defense-related shares surged following the reports.
(Reporting by Joyce Lee and Josh Smith, additional reporting by Choonsik Yoo, Ju-min Park and Joori Roh; Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie)

3/15/2019 Protesters arrested in Hong Kong over proposed China extradition law by James Pomfret and Anne Marie Roantree
Protesters from Demosisto and Lingnan University surround by security after storming Hong Kong government headquarters
over proposal to extradite fugitives to mainland China, in Hong Kong, China March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Stanley Leung
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police on Friday arrested five women who staged a protest inside the government’s headquarters over a proposal to allow fugitives to be extradited to mainland China, stoking human rights concerns.
    In February, Hong Kong’s Security Bureau submitted a paper to the city’s legislature, proposing amendments to extradition laws that would include granting the city’s leader executive power to send fugitives to jurisdictions not covered by existing arrangements, including mainland China and Taiwan.
    The proposal has been strongly opposed by some lawmakers, legal and rights groups who fear such it could be exploited by Beijing’s Communist Party leaders and lead to an erosion of Hong Kong’s judicial independence.
    In video footage posted online, the five, who were demanding the extradition amendments be scrapped, rushed into the lobby of government headquarters where they staged a sit-down protest.
    “Oppose legalized kidnapping,” the women, including several members of the pro-democracy party Demosisto, shouted.    They were later hauled out by police into vehicles.
    The Hong Kong government said in a statement a total of nine protesters were “removed” for blocking the lobby of its headquarters, and that a female security guard had been injured in a skirmish.    A police spokesman gave no immediate comment.
    Since Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997 with the guarantee that it would enjoy a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not allowed in mainland China, there has been no formal mechanism for the surrender of fugitives to mainland China.
    The Hong Kong Bar Association said in a statement that this was not an oversight, but a result of “grave concerns” about China’s legal and judicial system.
    It said authorities were “jumping the gun” in seeking to force through such ad hoc rendition arrangements with China without a full consultation.
    Some business groups, including the American Chamber of Commerce, expressed “serious reservations” about the proposal in a submission to Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security John Lee, and said they would “undermine perceptions of Hong Kong as a safe and secure haven for international business operations.”
    The proposal also seeks to remove legislative oversight on individual extradition requests that may arise by giving the city leader executive authority to make such decisions.
    In the February paper, the Security Bureau said “human rights and procedural safeguards” would remain unchanged. Requests in relation “to offences of a political character” shall be refused, the bureau said.
    But some critics have expressed concern over how a political offense might be defined.
    Demosisto, in a statement, described the proposed extradition reform as “an attempt to prepare to entrap oppositional voices for China.”
    A former Chinese deputy minister for public security, Chen Zhimin, told reporters in Beijing this week that more than 300 “fugitives” wanted by mainland authorities were hiding in Hong Kong. He did not give details.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)

3/15/2019 Italy’s drive to join China’s Belt and Road hits pot holes by Crispian Balmer
FILE PHOTO: Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a news conference at the end of the
Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo
    ROME (Reuters) – The ancient Silk Road was a network of trading routes that stretched from China to Italy, transporting goods, skills and ideas half way around the world.
    Jump forward two millennia and Italy now wants to play a pivotal role in the new Silk Road being created by Chinese President Xi Jinping.    But joining the latest incarnation is proving controversial and risky for Rome’s modern-day masters.
    Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte plans to sign a preliminary accord when Xi visits Rome next week, hooking Italy up to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a colossal, multi-billion-dollar project designed to improve Beijing’s trade reach.
    Italy’s drive to be the first Group of Seven industrialized nation to join the ambitious venture has angered Washington and alarmed Brussels, raising fears of a sellout of sensitive technologies and the handover of critical infrastructure.
    With ports that offer easy gateways into Europe’s richest markets, Italy is a promising and prestigious prize for China.
    In return for its endorsement, Italy’s government hopes for a boost in exports and investment that will lift its anemic economy out of its third recession in a decade.
    But diplomatic analysts and political foes say Rome has not weighed the geopolitical risks, failed to consult with its Western partners and underestimated growing concern about China’s burgeoning global aspirations.
    “I am afraid that up until now we have handled this in too amateurish a fashion, without any real coordination,” Lucio Caracciolo, director of the influential Limes geopolitical review, told Reuters.
    “My fear is that in the end we will lose on both counts, getting nothing substantial from China while the United States retaliates against us for having got too close to Beijing.”
ITALIAN INERTIA
    Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, who leads the populist 5-Star Movement, has spearheaded the pro-Beijing policy, setting up a China Task Force within the industry ministry that has the stated aimed of making Italy a “privileged partner” in BRI.
    He has visited China twice in eight months and effectively sidelined the foreign ministry on one of the most sensitive diplomatic issues of the day.
    Di Maio’s task force is led by junior industry minister Michele Geraci, who lived in China for 10 years before entering government in 2018.    Neither he, Di Maio nor Conte had any experience of international diplomacy before last year.
    Geraci speaks Chinese and fervently backs closer ties with Beijing, saying Italy has fallen behind its partners.
    “When I returned to Italy I found a certain inertia when it came to China,” Geraci, a former economics professor, told Reuters last month.    “We need to play catch-up.”
    According to Eurostat, Germany exported 93.8 billion euros ($106 billion) of goods to China in 2018, with Britain next on the list exporting 23.4 billion euros, France third with 20.8 billion euros and Italy fourth on 13.17 billion euros.
    “There is huge potential there that other countries are already taking advantage of,” said Geraci.
    But just as Italy adopts its new position, the rest of Europe seems to be having second thoughts.
    Earlier this week, the European Commission branded Beijing a “systemic rival” and called on European Union leaders to back its ideas to curb Chinese state-owned enterprises.
    The European Union has grown increasingly frustrated by what it sees as the slowness of China to open its economy and by a surge of Chinese takeovers in critical EU sectors, accusing it of distorting local markets.
    Rome says such concerns should not stop it forging closer ties and points to the fact that 13 EU countries have already signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with China, including Hungary, Poland, Greece and Portugal.
    However, the biggest EU exporters to China have not signed MOUs and those that have do not have much to show for it, said Lucrezia Poggetti, a research associate with the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.
    “They have been frustrated that vaguely phrased Chinese promises for economic opportunities have largely failed to materialize,” Poggetti told Reuters.
    “Signing up to the BRI without taking into account geopolitical considerations and without making concrete demands, hoping that one day you will get something in return economically, is very naive,” she said.
AMERICAN ANGER
    The Belt and Road project lies at the heart of China’s foreign policy strategy and was incorporated into the ruling Communist Party constitution in 2017, reflecting Xi’s desire for his country to take a global leadership role.
    The United States, locked in a trade war with Beijing, worries that Xi’s initiative is designed to bolster China’s political and military influence, and could be used to spread technologies capable of spying on Western interests.
    “No need for Italian government to lend legitimacy to China’s infrastructure vanity project,” a spokesman for the White House’s national security advisers said on Saturday in a rare public rebuke for one of Washington’s staunchest allies.
    Refusing to back down, Italy has nonetheless tried to reassure the United States, releasing a draft of the MOU to show it offers up no firm commitments and makes no reference to the sort of technology transfers feared by Washington.
    Likewise eager to show that its pro-China policy is bearing fruit, the government has leaked reports that 50 agreements might be signed during Xi’s March 21-23 visit, including deals with oil company Eni, gas infrastructure firm Snam and shipbuilder Fincantieri.
    Italy also hopes to unveil projects to develop trade through its ports of Genoa, Trieste and Palermo.    Although China’s COSCO Shipping has bought control of the largest port in Greece, Italy says it offers better entry points into Europe.
    “There is still much work to be done on the China deals, including what money is involved,” said a business source involved in the negotiations, who declined to be named.
    A welter of lucrative contracts would represent a badly needed victory for Di Maio, who is not only battling to soothe U.S. tempers, but is also struggling to sell the deal to his coalition partner, the far-right League.
    Even though Geraci is a member of the League, the group appeared blindsided when news of an imminent deal emerged last week, with party chief Matteo Salvini warning against the “colonialization” of Italy by China.
    “We are reviewing it,” Salvini, who serves as joint deputy prime minister with Di Maio, said on Thursday.
    “Before allowing someone to invest in the ports of Trieste or Genoa, I would think about it not once but a hundred times.”
(Additional reporting by Stefano Bernabei; editing by David Clarke)

3/15/2019 Backstory: The frenzy to cover China’s stage-managed parliament session by Ben Blanchard and Tony Munroe
Members of the media line up outside the Great Hall of the People before dawn, ahead of the closing session
of the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing, China March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
    BEIJING (Reuters) – For many journalists, China’s once in a year parliamentary meeting starts with a sharp-elbowed sprint up the stairs.
    The 11-day event, which ended on Friday, kicked off with the annual scramble for positions ahead of Premier Li Keqiang’s opening speech.    Reporters, photographers and camera crews formed queues overnight on one side of Tiananmen Square outside the Great Hall of the People before doors opened at around 7:30 a.m., unleashing a free-for-all for the best spots.
    About 50 photographers and TV cameramen, many laden with heavy equipment, raced up the stairs at the Great Hall to battle for roughly 10 prime spots to view President Xi Jinping and the rest of his leadership team as they trooped in, and to watch the speeches.
    For text correspondents, the sprint was to be among the first at a baize-covered table on the second floor where key documents, including the budget, are handed out at around 8 a.m.
    Tom Daly, a Reuters correspondent whose task was to be among the first to get the reports and hand them to colleagues ready to phone in headlines, made sure he wasn’t carrying anything that might slow his way through the metal detectors, having handed his phone to a colleague further back in the queue.
    “You have nothing in your pockets, you don’t have your belt,” said Daly, who like many of the hundreds of reporters in the first wave was wearing athletic shoes and was casually dressed, in contrast to the business-attired delegates arriving at the same time.
    Reports in hand, the journalists sprawled out on the carpeting and phoned in key details to their editors.    Using a laptop was inadvisable because there is no wifi in the Great Hall of the People and wireless data coverage is spotty.
    Reuters’ Beijing bureau, several blocks east of the Great Hall, published nearly 100 headlines, or “alerts,” phoned in by colleagues in the first 34 minutes after the reports were made available this year.
    They included the year’s GDP target for the world’s second-biggest economy, as well as the defense budget, the budget deficit target and government bond issuance quotas.
LABOR-INTENSIVE, FEW SURPRISES
    The annual session of China’s National People’s Congress is labor-intensive to cover, generates few surprises and is thick with ponderous speeches and scripted answers, but with access to officials so scarce in China, it is the closest Beijing gets to a media feeding frenzy.
    About 3,000 members of the news media were accredited – roughly one per delegate – including 48 from Reuters.
    On Friday, Premier Li Keqiang gave his annual press conference at the end of parliament and it was unusually long at 155 minutes, compared with about 120 minutes in previous years.    A collective murmur was audible among the journalists present when after two hours the host called for yet another question.
    The biggest news from Li’s press conference was, arguably, the timing of planned corporate tax cuts.
    Despite occasional pledges from officials to make parliament and its largely ceremonial advisory body that meets in parallel more open to foreign media and their questions, there is little spontaneity.
    Chinese reporters from state media, always under the tight control of the ruling Communist Party, generally stick to safe and uncontroversial questions. During lulls during parliament, local journalists often try to interview foreign members of the media.
    With so much stage management, moments of candor become newsworthy on their own.
    At a news conference last week with the delegation from Tibet, regional Communist Party boss Wu Yingjie surprised many journalists in attendance when he fielded several questions from foreign news outlets, including Reuters, on sensitive topics such as exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
    Last year, a Chinese reporter was caught on live television theatrically rolling her eyes at a long-winded question asked at the parliament session by another Chinese journalist about China’s state asset management.
    The clip went viral before being scrubbed by China’s internet censors.
(Additional reporting by Ryan Woo, Kevin Yao, Thomas Suen; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

3/15/2019 Activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan feel heat as China fears ‘separatist’ collusion by James Pomfret and Yimou Lee
Military honour guards attend a flag-lowering ceremony at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall
in Taipei, Taiwan January 22, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    HONG KONG/TAIPEI (Reuters) – As Beijing grows wary of pro-independence groups seeking to forge closer ties in Hong Kong and Taiwan, activists say they are coming under increased surveillance and harassment from pro-China media outlets and unofficial “operatives.”
    Visits to Taiwan in January by several Hong Kong activists including Tony Chung generated heavy coverage by two pro-China newspapers, including detailed reports of their movements and meetings.
    The coverage prompted Taiwan to investigate the activities of the Hong Kong-based Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao newspapers on “national security” grounds.
    The government found that the papers committed “unlawful” acts, including invasive surveillance, and spread “fake news.”    Officials said journalists from those papers would be banned from traveling to Taiwan for up to three years if the media outlets did not provide a “reasonable explanation” for their activities there.
    A Reuters examination of both papers’ articles show that at least 25 people linked to anti-China and independence causes have been the subject of intense coverage, including covert photography and the reporting of personal details, in Taiwan during the past three years.
    Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
    Such papers, which typically take a pro-Beijing stance, would be expected to pay close attention to activists pursuing causes that upset the Chinese government.
    But activists say their coverage stretches into the realm of harassment, including surveillance on overseas trips, and publishing details of their private lives, including homes, work and daily movements.
    “It’s obvious that there’s intervention from outside forces with an aim to intimidate people,” Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council Deputy Minister Chiu Chui-cheng told Reuters, referring to the coverage from the pro-China papers.
    The coverage raised concerns about the activities of “Chinese and Hong Kong intelligence operatives” on the island, Chiu added, including people working for pro-China media outlets.
    Activists have also been physically attacked during trips to Taiwan.
    In July 2018, two Taiwanese were convicted of assaulting Hong Kong activists meeting with independence advocates in Taiwan.    Three Hong Kong men were later named in Taiwanese media coverage as helping facilitate the attack.
    “I was followed until I almost left the airport,” Andy Chan, one of the Hong Kong activists, said of his time in Taiwan.    “There are operatives for China everywhere.”
BEIJING WORRIED
    China considers Hong Kong and Taiwan to be inalienable parts of its territory, and has branded pro-independence activists on both sides of the Taiwan Strait as “separatists.”
    In an annual report to the U.S. Congress, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission noted in November that since president Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016, Beijing has feared “collusion between ‘separatist forces’ in Taiwan and Hong Kong.”
    “Beijing is trying everything in its power to prevent this,” said a security source in the Taiwan government, who declined to be named given the sensitivity of the issue.
    The source and a second Taiwanese security official involved in national security say China has been quietly ramping up the number of intelligence operatives in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
    Wu Jieh-min, a Taiwan scholar who has researched civil movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan, says he was barred from entering Hong Kong for an academic conference in late 2016.
    Beijing is “very worried about the exchange of ideas.    If the ideas of civil society are not hindered, their power will be greatly enhanced,” said Wu, a research fellow with the government-backed Academia Sinica.
    Wu noted that mass, protracted protests in Taiwan and Hong Kong in 2014 that railed against Chinese interference were a catalyst for deepening activist ties on both sides.
    China’s Taiwan Affairs Office and main representative body in Hong Kong, the Liaison Office, did not respond to requests for comment.
    The Wen Wei Po has also paid close attention to foreigners in contact with Hong Kong activists.
    In December, Wen Wei Pao reporters and photographers covered the daily activities of Kevin Carrico, an Australia-based political scientist, during a visit to Hong Kong in which he met with independence advocates, and featured him on the front page.
    “I was a little creeped out by the fact that the article discussed my presentation.    There were only 15 people there,” he said of a private meeting in the basement of a Hong Kong building.
    He said there had been “a real escalation of Beijing’s political operations in Hong Kong.”
HOTEL ATTACK
    Activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan describe an increase in unknown individuals shadowing their meetings and events, sometimes taking photographs or recording their conversations.
    In some cases activists have been attacked, and the assailants identified.
    Two Taiwanese, Zhang Xiuye and Jhang Jhih-min, were found guilty last July of a 2016 assault on two Hong Kong independence activists,     Andy Chan and Jason Chow, at a Taipei hotel.
    Zhang and Jhang were convicted of defamation and fined T$6,000 ($195) and T$8,000 ($260) respectively; Jhang was also found guilty of “intimidating and endangering the safety” of Chan.
    Zhang and Jhang were among at least eight people who beat Chan and Chow and called them China “traitors” at the Caesar Park Hotel, according to Taipei court documents.
    Chan told Reuters he was at the hotel to meet with Ouyang Jin, a journalist with a little-known Hong Kong publication called Pacific Magazine.
    Zhang is a senior member of the Chinese Concentric Patriotism Party, which advocates unification of China and Taiwan, according to the group’s website.
    “It was purely an accident” that they ran into Chan at the hotel, Zhang told Reuters.
($1 = 7.8484 Hong Kong dollars)
($1 = 30.7550 Taiwan dollars)
(Additional reporting by Jessie Pang in Hong Kong and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Gerry Doyle)

3/15/2019 Premier Li says China opposes Taiwan independence
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang speaks at a news conference following the closing session of the National People's Congress (NPC)
at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee
    BEIJING (Reuters) – China maintains a “one-China” policy and opposes independence for Taiwan, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said on Friday at his annual news conference.
    China claims self-ruled and proudly democratic Taiwan as its sacred territory, and has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under Beijing’s control.
(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Kevin Yao; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Darren Schuettler)

3/15/2019 17 minutes of carnage: how New Zealand gunman broadcast his killings on Facebook by Jack Stubbs
A police officer is seen after reports that several shots had been fired at a mosque, in central Christchurch, New Zealand
March 15, 2019, in this still image taken from video. TVNZ/via REUTERS TV
    LONDON (Reuters) – A gunman who killed 49 people at two New Zealand mosques live-streamed the attacks on Facebook for 17 minutes using an app designed for extreme sports enthusiasts, with copies still being shared on social media hours later.
    The live footage of Friday’s attacks, New Zealand’s worst-ever mass shooting, was first posted to Facebook and has since been shared on Twitter, Alphabet Inc’s YouTube and Facebook-owned Whatsapp and Instagram.
    Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all said they had taken steps to remove copies of the videos.    Facebook said it had deleted the gunman’s accounts “shortly after the livestream commenced” after being alerted by police.
    But Reuters found videos of the shooting on all five platforms up to 10 hours after the attacks, which began at 1345 local time in the city of Christchurch.    Twitter and Google said they were working to stop the footage being reshared.    Facebook did not immediately respond to additional questions.
    In a 15-minute window, Reuters found five copies of the footage on YouTube uploaded under the search term “New Zealand” and tagged with categories including “education” and “people & blogs.”    In another case, the video was shared by a verified Instagram user in Indonesia with more than 1.6 million followers.    The user did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
    Facebook, Twitter, Alphabet Inc and other social media companies have previously acknowledged the challenges they face policing content on their platforms.
    The shootings in New Zealand show how the services they offer can be exploited by extremist groups, said Lucinda Creighton, senior advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.    She said the attacks were shown live on Facebook for 17 minutes before being stopped.
    “Extremists will always look for ways to utilise communications tools to spread hateful ideologies and violence,” she said.    “Platforms can’t prevent that, but much more can be done by platforms to prevent such content from gaining a foothold and spreading.”
COMPUTER GAME CARNAGE
    The gunman filmed and shared the attacks using a mobile phone app called LIVE4, which allows users to broadcast directly to Facebook from personal body cameras, according to the app’s developer and a Reuters review of videos available online.
    The app is usually used to share videos of extreme sports and live music, but on Friday the footage recreated the carnage of a computer game, showing the attacker’s first-person view as he drove to one mosque, entered it and began shooting randomly at people inside.
    Alex Zhukov, founder and chief technology officer of LIVE4 developer VideoGorillas, said the LIVE4 services transmitted footage directly to Facebook and his company did not have the ability to review it first.
    “The stream is not analysed, stored or processed by LIVE4 in any way, we have no ability (even if we wanted to) to look at the live streams as they are happening or after it’s completed,” he said in written comments to Reuters.
    “The responsibility for content of the stream lies completely and solely on the person who initiated the stream.”
    He said the company condemned “the actions of these horrible persons and their disgusting use of our app for these purposes … We will do whatever is humanly possible for it to never happen again.”
    New Zealand’s Department of Internal Affairs said people posting the video online risked breaking the law.
    “The content of the video is disturbing and will be harmful for people to see,” the department said.    “We are working with social media platforms, who are actively removing this content as soon as they are made aware of an instance of it being posted.”
    But private online communities dedicated to violent content were still looking for ways to share copies of the video.
    Members of a group called “watchpeopledie” on internet discussion board Reddit, for example, discussed how to share the footage even as the website took steps to limit its spread.
    Reddit – which has over 20 investors, including Conde Nast owner Advance Publications – said it was actively monitoring the situation in New Zealand.
    “Any content containing links to the video stream are being removed in accordance with our site-wide policy,” it said.
    One Reddit user said in a post they had sent a video of the attack to more than 600 people before having their account temporarily suspended for sharing violent content.
(Additional reporting by Fanny Potkin and Tabita Diela in JAKARTA, Charlotte Greenfield in WELLINGTON, Munsif Vengattil in BANGALORE; Editing by Anna Willard)
[I do not use Facebook, Twitter, Alphabet Inc’s YouTube, Whatsapp or Instagram, since I do not like all the fake news anyway, and I do use Google for searches and stay with emails to have control of what information I get and get news aarticles from One America Network for conservative views and from the Courier-Journal for some of the leftist views.].

3/15/2019 Left out of peace talks, U.S. allies reassess Afghan support by Rupam Jain and Rod Nickel
FILE PHOTO: German troops take part in a military exercise during a visit by German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen
in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan December 23, 2013. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo
    KABUL (Reuters) – At a dinner party in Kabul’s high-security “green zone” in March, a senior European diplomat poured himself a glass of red wine and pulled up a photograph on his iPhone.
    Released by Qatar’s foreign ministry on Feb. 25, it showed seven Qatari officials alongside U.S. and Taliban negotiators as talks on ending the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan had restarted in the Gulf state the previous day.
    “If Qatari officials can be at the negotiating table, then how did the U.S. forget to invite its key allies who have fought the Afghan war since 2001?” said the diplomat, whose nation has contributed hundreds of troops to NATO’s mission in the country.
    “We continue to pour millions of dollars as an act of solidarity, but when it comes to peace talks, the U.S. decided to go solo.”
    Reuters spoke with 10 diplomats from countries spanning three continents that are among the 39 that provide military personnel to the NATO training operation, known as Resolute Support, in Afghanistan, and those that provide development aid.
(graphic: https://graphics.reuters.com/NATO-SUMMIT-AFGHANISTAN/0100908D0G1/index.html)
    Many of those countries are significant, consistent donors. Most of the diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the situation.
    The diplomats interviewed said their governments were broadly rethinking their commitments to rebuilding the country.    That process had been hastened by feeling excluded from peace talks, and also by a weariness for supporting the Afghan campaign among voters and lawmakers in their respective countries, they said.
    Asked about those comments, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said regular reviews of foreign assistance was “good practice” and Afghanistan’s development remained in the interest of the international community.
    “We see no signs that interest and investment are wavering,” said the spokesperson, adding that U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad has briefed NATO allies and other partners three times since December, and effective coordination remained a priority.
    Nick Kay, NATO’s newly appointed senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, said NATO allies “fully support” Khalilzad’s efforts to negotiate a settlement.
    But even the Afghan government has complained of being left out. President Ashraf Ghani’s national security adviser on Thursday accused Khalilzad of “delegitimizing” the Kabul government by excluding it from deliberations.
    Qatari officials did not respond to a request for comment.
    In 2017, U.S. development aid for Afghanistan totaled about $1.2 billion, well ahead of the next biggest donors Germany, European Union institutions, Britain and Japan, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data.    But the United States’ junior aid partners collectively contributed nearly two-thirds of all development assistance, highlighting their critical if less visible importance to the country’s future.
CHANGING PRIORITIES
    U.S. and Taliban negotiators wrapped up their longest round of peace talks on Tuesday with progress made but no agreement on when foreign troops might withdraw.
    Whether funding countries keep investing in Afghanistan could prove pivotal to sustaining any peace. Diplomats say that, after troops leave, it may be the only leverage they have to retain influence over future Afghan governments.
    Since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, Afghanistan has been among the top recipients of foreign government aid to promote economic and social development.    In 2016, international donors pledged $15.2 billion in aid for Afghanistan until 2020.
    With those pledges due to expire, many countries are re-evaluating their military and funding commitments.
    “Priorities have changed for every EU nation,” a European diplomat said, adding that countries besides Afghanistan needed support.
    “The donor fatigue is intense and no one is in the mood to overlook it after 2020,” another diplomat said.
    A third diplomat said their country was re-evaluating its future aid with different scenarios in mind, including whether to continue development if the Taliban joins Afghanistan’s government, and what to do if peace talks fail.
    Any drop-off in international aid would be disastrous for Afghanistan, since much of it funds basic health and education services, said Adele Khodr, country representative for Unicef.
    “It is definitely something we are concerned about.    Imagine what would happen – (Afghanistan) would be Yemen,” Khodr said.    “(By) pulling out, the international community will pay a much higher price in insecurity across the world.”
    Ninety percent of the money spent on the health sector in Afghanistan comes from the international community, said     Toby Lanzer, deputy special representative in Afghanistan for the UN.
    An official in Ghani’s office in Kabul declined to comment on potential risks to future aid.
    He said the government was making every effort to hold peace talks with the Taliban.    The militant group said on Tuesday that such talks would have to wait until after a troop withdrawal plan is set.
‘CRUCIAL TO STICK TOGETHER’
    Some diplomats caution against a quick retreat.
    “If we leave the country hastily, all these (advances) will go down the drain,” Ambassador Markus Potzel, Germany’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and one of the 10 diplomats interviewed, told Reuters in Kabul.
    Potzel was referring to gains such as Afghan girls’ attendance in school and new employment opportunities.
    Maintaining aid was also critical to holding influence in Afghanistan, he said.
    “That’s our leverage. We can attach strings,” Potzel said.    “It is crucial to stick together.”
    A spokesperson at the British Embassy in Kabul said any changes to Britain’s troop contribution would be made in consultation with coalition partners.
    As of March 2019, 39 countries contributed 17,034 foreign forces in Afghanistan for Resolute Support, of which the U.S. provided 50 percent, according to NATO.    U.S. troops are also deployed in a separate mission directed against groups such as al Qaeda and Islamic State.
    U.S. President Donald Trump’s questioning of NATO’s value to Washington, along with the absence of allies at the negotiating table, has deepened the unease within the military alliance created in 1949 by the United States, Canada, and Western European nations.
    “The concern is that we need to be appraised of the progress of the discussions and to be involved.    We have invested a lot,” said a European diplomat.    “This commitment should be reflected in influence or at least information on the peace talks.”
    The diplomat said it was understandable that access to the negotiating table was narrow right now, but “what I would find abnormal is that we would be served a deal in which we had nothing to say and then be asked to foot the bill.”
SHRINKING FOOTPRINT?
    The senior diplomats interviewed by Reuters, who are based in Kabul and Islamabad, said their governments were finding it harder to justify the continuing presence of their troops and the steady drain of aid funding to Afghanistan.
    “It is increasingly difficult to tell our people why we are still here especially when they read reports about more than half of country being under the Taliban control,” said a Western diplomat.    “Almost all NATO countries are now struggling to justify their presence in Afghanistan to voters back home.”
    The war’s long duration has also weakened commitment.
    “If we had known that the war could go on as it has been for 18 years, we would have had a rethink in 2001,” the Western diplomat said.
    The withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan has always been the Taliban’s main demand, and Trump’s interest in drawing down U.S. troops has stimulated efforts to end the war.
    “The prime concern is that we may wake up one day to a tweet by Trump about a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops before a peace agreement has been negotiated,” said a diplomat whose country supports Afghan healthcare projects.
    Neighboring Pakistan sees a similar danger, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said.
    “An immediate vacuum can also be detrimental for peace and security and an indefinite presence is also not acceptable, so this is the detail that has to be worked out,” he said.
    NATO members and partners said they also expect regional powers to share costs and step up their roles in Afghanistan to prevent civil war after foreign forces depart.
    “China has been sitting on the bleachers for a long time now,” a diplomat said.
    The Chinese embassy in Kabul did not respond to requests for comment.
    Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, said the U.S. continues to count on friends to share the burden in Afghanistan.
    “But so long as the war continues with no peace deal, that supply of states willing to assist will shrink,” said Kugelman.
(Reporting by Rupam Jain and Rod Nickel in Kabul; additional reporting by Eric Knecht in Doha, James Mackenzie in Islamabad and Jonathan Landay in Washington; Editing by Alex Richardson)

3/15/2019 Group seeking to overthrow Kim behind North Korea embassy raid in Spain: Washington Post
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un makes his way to board a train to depart for North Korea
at Dong Dang railway station in Vietnam, March 2, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A dissident organization committed to overthrowing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was behind a raid on the North Korean embassy in Spain last month, The Washington Post reported on Friday, quoting people familiar with the planning and execution of the mission.
    The newspaper, which did not further identify its sources, identified the group as Cheollima Civil Defense, which also goes by the name Free Joseon.    It said the group came to prominence in 2017 after evacuating a nephew of Kim from Macau when potential threats to his life surfaced.
    The Post’s sources said the group did not act in coordination with any governments and U.S. intelligence agencies would have been especially reluctant to be involved given the sensitive timing of the mission ahead of a second summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi from Feb. 27-28.
    According to Spanish media accounts, broadly confirmed by a Spanish Foreign Ministry source, a group of unidentified men entered North Korea’s embassy in Madrid on Feb. 22, bound and gagged staff, and drove off four hours later with computers.
    There has been no claim of responsibility.
    The dissident group identified by the Washington Post could not be reached for comment and its purported website has made no mention of any involvement in the raid.
    On Feb. 25 the website posted a statement saying the group had “received a request for help from comrades in a certain Western country” and that “it was a highly dangerous situation but (we) responded.”    The group said an important announcement would be coming that week, but no details of any operation have been released.
    The Madrid embassy is where North Korea’s chief working-level negotiator in talks with the United States, Kim Hyok Chol, was ambassador until 2017.
    Intelligence experts said computers and phones reportedly seized in the raid would be eagerly sought by foreign intelligence agencies given the information they might contain on Kim Hyok Chol and others.
    Asked about the Washington Post report, the U.S. State Department referred queries to the Spanish authorities.    The CIA declined to comment.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Josh Smith and Joyce Lee in Seoul; editing by Grant McCool)
[So was Kim Jong Un just playing games with us all along with a policy of deception and games to try to pull the wool over the US eyes, and did not get his way.    As I stated before the leader of North Korea or his party would never give his controlled people the freedoms that would allow them to overthrow him.    We will see if that is true.].

3/16/2019 Kabul summons diplomat over remarks by Pakistan’s Khan
FILE PHOTO: Cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan, chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), speaks after
voting in the general election in Islamabad, July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/File Photo
    KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan summoned a senior Pakistani diplomat on Saturday to account for remarks by Prime Minister Imran Khan speculating about a new government in Kabul following a possible peace settlement.
    The summons by the Afghan foreign affairs ministry marked the second time in just over three weeks that Kabul has demanded an explanation from Pakistan, illustrating the longstanding tensions between the two neighbors at a sensitive time.
    Khan, at a rally in Bajaur, in northwestern Pakistan on Friday, predicted “mutual peace” in Afghanistan as an outcome of recurring talks between the United States and the Taliban to end the country’s 17-year-old war.
    “A good government will come in Afghanistan,” Khan said.    “I mean a government will come in which all will be represented.    War will end and there will be peace.”
    The Afghan ministry summoned Pakistan’s counselor to clarify the remarks, spokesperson Sibghatullah Ahmadi tweeted.
    “Afghanistan expressed its grave objection on Pakistan’s government and deemed such remarks a flagrant interference in its internal affairs,” he said.
    In February, the ministry summoned Pakistani ambassador Zahid Nasrullah Khan over his remarks that Afghan peace talks could be affected if India resorted to violence against Pakistan.
    The summons to Pakistan comes a day after a top official in President Ashraf Ghani’s government voiced frustration about what Kabul regards as Afghanistan being sidelined during talks between Taliban and U.S. negotiators, drawing a rebuke from Washington.
    The latest round of peace talks ended on Tuesday, with both U.S. and Taliban officials saying progress was made.
    Tensions have been building between Kabul and Washington over U.S. efforts to forge a peace pact with the Taliban that includes a U.S. troop withdrawal, something that Kabul fears could weaken its own negotiating position.
(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Kabul and James Mackenzie in Islamabad, Editing by William Maclean)

3/16/2019 Iran’s oil minister blames U.S. for market tensions
FILE PHOTO: Iran's Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh talks to journalists at the beginning of an OPEC meeting
in Vienna, Austria, November 30, 2017. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader/File Photo
    (Reuters) – Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said on Saturday frequent U.S. comments about oil prices had created market tensions, the ministry’s news website SHANA reported.
    U.S. President Donald Trump, who has made the U.S. economy one of his top issues, has repeatedly tweeted about oil prices and the Organization of the Petroleum Producing Countries.    He has expressed concern about higher prices, including last month and ahead of OPEC’s meeting in December.
    “Americans talk a lot and I advise them to talk less.    They (have) caused tensions in the oil market for over a year now and they are responsible for it, and if this trend continues, the market will be more tense,” SHANA quoted Zanganeh as saying.
    U.S. crude futures briefly hit a 2019 high on Friday but later retreated along with benchmark Brent oil as worries about the global economy and robust U.S. production put a brake on prices.
    OPEC and its allies including Russia, an alliance known as OPEC+, agreed last year to cut production, partly in response to increased U.S. shale output.     Washington granted waivers to eight major buyers of Iranian oil after the U.S. reimposed sanctions on Iran’s oil sector in November, after withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
    “We do not know whether U.S. waivers would be extended or not, we will do our job but they (the U.S.) say something new every single day,” Zanganeh said.
    Zanganeh was speaking at a news conference ahead of the planned inauguration on Sunday of four development phases at South Pars, the world’s largest gas field, by President Hassan Rouhani.
    He said Iran had invested $11 billion to complete the phases 13 and 22-24 of the giant field, which Tehran shares with Qatar, and expected to operate 27 phases by next March, SHANA reported.
    France’s Total and China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) suspended investment in phase 11 of South Pars last year after the United States threatened to impose sanctions on companies that do business in Iran.
    But Zanganeh said talks with CNPC were continuing.
    “Negotiations are ongoing.    A senior delegation from China is due to come to Iran for talks.    They have promised to come to Iran soon,” said Zanganeh, according to the semi-official news agency ISNA.
(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Marguerita Choy)

3/17/2019 India, Pakistan threatened to unleash missiles at each other: sources by Sanjeev Miglani and Drazen Jorgic
FILE PHOTO: An Indian police officer fires a tear gas shell towards demonstrators, during a protest against
the recent killings in Kashmir, in Srinagar May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Ismail/File Photo
    NEW DELHI/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – The sparring between India and Pakistan last month threatened to spiral out of control and only interventions by U.S. officials, including National Security Advisor John Bolton, headed off a bigger conflict, five sources familiar with the events said.
    At one stage, India threatened to fire at least six missiles at Pakistan, and Islamabad said it would respond with its own missile strikes “three times over,” according to Western diplomats and government sources in New Delhi, Islamabad and Washington.
    The way in which tensions suddenly worsened and threatened to trigger a war between the nuclear-armed nations shows how the Kashmir region, which both claim and is at the core of their enmity, remains one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints.
    The exchanges did not get beyond threats, and there was no suggestion that the missiles involved were anything more than conventional weapons, but they created consternation in official circles in Washington, Beijing and London.
    Reuters has pieced together the events that led to the most serious military crisis in South Asia since 2008, as well as the concerted diplomatic efforts to get both sides to back down.
    The simmering dispute erupted into conflict late last month when Indian and Pakistani warplanes engaged in a dogfight over Kashmir on Feb 27, a day after a raid by Indian jet fighters on what it said was a militant camp in Pakistan.    Islamabad denied any militant camp exists in the area and said the Indian bombs exploded on an empty hillside.
    In their first such clash since the last war between the two nations in 1971, Pakistan downed an Indian plane and captured its pilot after he ejected in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.
    Hours later, videos of the bloodied Indian pilot, handcuffed and blindfolded, appeared on social media, identifying himself to Pakistani interrogators, deepening anger in New Delhi.
    With Prime Minister Narendra Modi facing a general election in April-May, the government was under pressure to respond.
NO GOING BACK
    That evening, Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval spoke over a secure line to the head of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Asim Munir, to tell him India was not going to back off its new campaign of “counter terrorism” even after the pilot’s capture, an Indian government source and a Western diplomat with knowledge of the conversations told Reuters in New Delhi.
    Doval told Munir that India’s fight was with the militant groups that freely operated from Pakistani soil and it was prepared to escalate, said the government source.     A Pakistani government minister and a Western diplomat in Islamabad separately confirmed a specific Indian threat to use six missiles on targets inside Pakistan.    They did not specify who delivered the threat or who received it, but the minister said Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies “were communicating with each other during the fight, and even now they are communicating with each other.”
    Pakistan said it would counter any Indian missile attacks with many more launches of its own, the minister told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
    “We said if you will fire one missile, we will fire three.    Whatever India will do, we will respond three times to that,” the Pakistani minister said.
    Doval’s office did not respond to a request for comment.    India was not aware of any missile threat issued to Pakistan, a government official said in reply to a Reuters request for comment.
    Pakistan’s military declined to comment and Munir could not be reached for comment.    Pakistan’s foreign ministry did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
TRUMP-KIM TALKS
    The crisis unfolded as U.S. President Donald Trump was trying to hammer out an agreement with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi over its nuclear program.
    U.S. security advisor Bolton was on the phone with Doval on the night of Feb 27 itself, and into the early hours of Feb 28, the second day of the Trump-Kim talks, in an attempt to defuse the situation, the Western diplomat in New Delhi and the Indian official said.
    Later, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was also in Hanoi, also called both sides to seek a way out of the crisis.
    “Secretary Pompeo led diplomatic engagement directly, and that played an essential role in de-escalating the tensions between the two sides,” State Department deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino said in a briefing in Washington on March 5.
    A State Department official declined comment when asked if they knew of the threats to use missiles.
    Pompeo spoke to Doval, the Indian and Pakistani Foreign Ministers Sushma Swaraj and Shah Mahmood Qureshi, respectively, Palladino said.
    U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Admiral Phil Davidson told reporters in Singapore last week that he had separately been in touch with the Indian navy chief, Sunil Lanba, throughout the crisis.    There was no immediate response from Lanba’s office to a question on the nature of the conversations.
    U.S. efforts were focused on securing the quick release of the Indian pilot by Pakistan and winning an assurance from India it would pull back from the threat to fire rockets, the Western diplomat in New Delhi and officials in Washington said.
    “We made a lot of effort to get the international community involved in encouraging the two sides to de-escalate the situation because we fully realized how dangerous it was,” said a senior Trump administration official.
    The Pakistani minister said China and the United Arab Emirates also intervened. China’s foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment.    The government of the UAE said Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan held talks with both Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.
    India has not given details, but has said it was in touch with major powers during the conflict.
    On the morning of Feb 28, Trump told reporters in Hanoi that he expected the crisis to end soon.
    “They have been going at it and we have been involved in trying to have them stop.    Hopefully that is going to be coming to an end.”
    Later that afternoon, Khan announced in Pakistan’s parliament that the Indian pilot would be released, and he was sent back the next day.
    “I know last night there was a threat there could a missile attack on Pakistan, which got defused,” Khan said.    “I know, our army stood prepared for retaliation of that attack.”
    The two countries have gone to war three times since both gained independence in 1947, the last time in 1971.    The two armies are trading fire along the line of control that separates them in Kashmir, but the tensions appear contained for now.
    Diplomatic experts said that the latest crisis underlined the chances of misread signals and unpredictability in the ties between the nuclear-armed rivals, and the huge dangers.    It still was not clear whether India had targeted a militant camp in Pakistan and whether there were any casualties, they said.
    “Indian and Pakistani leaders have long evinced confidence that they can understand each other’s deterrence signals and can de-escalate at will,” said Joshua White, a former White House official who is now at Johns Hopkins.
    “The fact that some of the most basic facts, intentions and attempted strategic signals of this crisis are still shrouded in mystery … should be a sobering reminder that neither country is in a position to easily control a crisis once it begins.”
(Additional reporting by Asif Shahzad in ISLAMABAD, Phil Stewart, Mark Hosenball, Jonathan Landay in WASHINGTON, Joe Brock in Singapore and William James in London; Editing by Martin Howell and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

3/17/2019 Thais flock to early voting in first election since 2014 coup by Chayut Setboonsarng
People line up for their early vote of the upcoming Thai election at a polling station
in Bangkok, Thailand, March 17, 2019. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
    BANGKOK (Reuters) – Many Thais queued on Sunday, some for hours, to vote early in parliamentary elections scheduled for March 24, the country’s first since a 2014 military coup.
    “It feels good to use our democratic right,” said 29-year-old Adulwit Sinthusiri, one of the 2.6 million Thais who registered for the one-day-only early voting.,br>     People who registered to vote on Sunday but do not do so forfeit the chance to participate, under election rules.,br>     A total of 52 million Thais aged 18 and above are eligible to vote.
    The contest broadly pits the party of junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup when he was army chief, against populist parties loyal to ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and also parties opposed to extending military dominance in government.
    Several other new and smaller parties could hold the key to a coalition government after the vote, but Prayuth’s party holds a built-in advantage because the junta is appointing the 250-seat Senate, giving it a head start in securing a majority vote of the combined parliament needed to choose a prime minister.
    The election is for the 500-seat House of Representatives.
    Adulwit said he was not impressed with the government’s performance over the past five years and believed new parties like Future Forward, an anti-junta group headed by 40-year-old auto parts billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, could make a difference.
    Many Thais want Prayuth, who became prime minister after the coup and then retired from the army, to stay on, effectively setting up an elected martial democracy.
    “Prayuth is a good man … he is straightforward and does good things for the country,” said Nawarat Phuyungwattana, 63, from the southern province of Narathiwat.
    Pro-Thaksin parties have campaigned on policies that they said would improve the economy and increase prices of rice and rubber.
    Parties affiliated with Thaksin, who is in self-imposed exile after conviction on a corruption charge, have won all elections since 2001 on populist policies like a universal healthcare scheme.
    The military overthrew pro-Thaksin governments with coups in 2006 and again in 2014, when it toppled one that had been led by Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.
(Reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng; Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Kay Johnson and Richard Borsuk)

3/17/2019 Iran’s Rouhani inaugurates four new phases of South Pars gas field
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gestures to the crowd at a public speech in Bandar Kangan,
Iran March 17, 2019. Official Iranian President website/Handout via REUTERS
    GENEVA (Reuters) – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani formally inaugurated four new phases of South Pars, the world’s largest gas field, on Sunday, according to a statement posted by the Iranian oil ministry on Twitter.
    Iran has invested $11 billion to complete the four phases and they will increase the country’s gas production capacity by up to 110 million cubic meters per day, the statement said.
    Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said on Saturday that Iran, which share South Pars with Qatar, expects to operate 27 phases by next March.
    Gas production at South Pars will exceed 750 million cubic meters per day by late 2019, Zanganeh said on Sunday, according to SHANA, the news website of the Iranian oil ministry.
    Iran produced 841 million cubic meters of gas per day on average in the current Iranian calendar year, which began in March 2018, Zanganeh said on Sunday, according to the Mehr news agency.
    Iran expects to produce 880 million cubic meters of gas per day in the next year and 950 million cubic meters of gas per day the following year, Zanganeh said.
    France’s Total and China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) suspended investment in phase 11 of South Pars last year after the United States threatened to impose sanctions on companies that do business in Iran.
    Zanganeh said on Saturday that talks are continuing with CNPC.
(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Toby Chopra)

3/18/2019 No sign of imminent North Korea missile launch: South Korea defence chief by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith
South Korean National Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo reviews an honor guard during an armed forces
full honor arrival ceremony hosted by U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis before the 50th annual ROK-U.S.
Security Consultative Meeting at the Pentagon in Washington, U.S., October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
    SEOUL (Reuters) – It is premature to say whether recent activity at some of North Korea’s rocket facilities involved preparation for a missile launch, South Korea’s defence minister told a parliamentary hearing on Monday.
    Early in March, several American think-tanks and South Korean officials reported that satellite imagery showed possible preparations for a launch from the Sohae rocket launch site at Tongchang-ri, North Korea, which has been used in the past to launch satellites but not intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.
    “It’s hasty to call it missile-related activity,” Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo told a parliamentary defence committee.
    “Tongchang-ri is a launch site but we don’t see any activity being carried out for a missile launch.”
    When asked if he could confirm whether Sohae was functionally restored, Jeong said it was inappropriate for intelligence authorities to comment on every media report one way or the other.
    He also said there were signs of continued nuclear activity in North Korea, without elaborating.
    Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told a separate parliamentary panel that it was possible that the recent developments at the missile site were to bolster North Korea’s leverage in negotiations.
    “But given North Korea’s continued work, thorough analysis is needed to find out its exact intentions,” Cho said.
    He said that there have been signs of reconstruction at Sohae since late last year and that the rebuilding has now been done to a “substantial level.”
    Analysts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California said they estimated that the rebuilding at Sohae appeared to begin in earnest shortly before U.S. President Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a summit in Hanoi late last month.
    The summit broke down over differences about U.S. demands for North Korea to denuclearize and North Korea’s demand for substantial relief from international sanctions, imposed on the country because of its nuclear and missile tests.
    On Friday, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui told foreign diplomats and journalists in Pyongyang that Kim was considering suspending talks with the United States and may rethink a freeze on missile and nuclear tests unless the United States made concessions.
    Trump said after his first summit with Kim in Singapore last June that Kim had promised to dismantle the Sohae test site, a pledge the North Korean leader reiterated and expanded on at a summit with Moon in September.
    North Korea has used Sohae to launch satellites into space since 2011, and the United States says its work there has helped develop missile technology.
    A satellite launch in April 2012 killed off an Obama administration deal for a freeze in North Korean nuclear and missile testing reached weeks earlier.
    On Wednesday, 38 North, a group that monitors North Korea, reported that there had been no new activity at Sohae since March 8.
    On Friday, the group reported that satellite imagery showed no activity at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor complex, or at dismantled facilities at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel & Simon Cameron-Moore)

3/18/2019 Exclusive: Dalai Lama contemplates Chinese gambit after his death by Krishna N. Das and Sunil Kataria
FILE PHOTO: Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, Patron of Children in Crossfire, speaks during a
press conference in Londonderry, Northern Ireland September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo
    DHARAMSHALA, India (Reuters) – The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, said on Monday it was possible that once he dies his incarnation could be found in India, where he has lived in exile for 60 years, and warned that any other successor named by China would not be respected.
    Sat in an office next to a temple ringed by green hills and snow-capped mountains, the 14th Dalai Lama spoke to Reuters a day after Tibetans in the northern Indian town of Dharamshala marked the anniversary of his escape from the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, disguised as a soldier.
    He fled to India in early 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, and has since worked to draw global support for linguistic and cultural autonomy in his remote and mountainous homeland.
    China, which took control of Tibet in 1950, brands the 83-year-old Nobel peace laureate a dangerous separatist.
    Pondering what might happen after his death, the Dalai Lama anticipated some attempt by Beijing to foist a successor on Tibetan Buddhists.
    “China considers Dalai Lama’s reincarnation as something very important.    They have more concern about the next Dalai Lama than me,” said the Dalai Lama, swathed in his traditional red robes and yellow scarf.
    “In future, in case you see two Dalai Lamas come, one from here, in free country, one chosen by Chinese, then nobody will trust, nobody will respect (the one chosen by China).    So that’s an additional problem for the Chinese! It’s possible, it can happen,” he added, laughing.
    China has said its leaders have the right to approve the Dalai Lama’s successor, as a legacy inherited from China’s emperors.
    But many Tibetans – whose tradition holds that the soul of a senior Buddhist monk is reincarnated in the body of a child on his death – suspect any Chinese role as a ploy to exert influence on the community.
    Born in 1935, the current Dalai Lama was identified as the reincarnation of his predecessor when he was two years old.
    Many of China’s more than 6 million Tibetans still venerate the Dalai Lama despite government prohibitions on displays of his picture or any public display of devotion.
UP FOR DISCUSSION
    The Dalai Lama said contact between Tibetans living in their homeland and in exile was increasing, but that no formal meetings have happened between Chinese and his officials since 2010.
    Informally, however, some retired Chinese officials and businessman with connections to Beijing do visit him from time to time, he added.
    He said the role of the Dalai Lama after his death, including whether to keep it, could be discussed during a meeting of Tibetan Buddhists in India later this year.
    He, however, added that though there was no reincarnation of Buddha, his teachings have remained.
    “If the majority of (Tibetan people) really want to keep this institution, then this institution will remain,” he said.    “Then comes the question of the reincarnation of the 15th Dalai Lama.”
    If there is one, he would still have "no political responsibility,” said the Dalai Lama, who gave up his political duties in 2001, developing a democratic system for the up to 100,000 Tibetans living in India.
SEMINAR IN CHINA?
    During the interview, the Dalai Lama spoke passionately about his love for cosmology, neurobiology, quantum physics and psychology.
    If he was ever allowed to visit his homeland, he said he’d like to speak about those subjects in a Chinese university.
    But he wasn’t expecting to go while China remained under Communist rule.
    “China – great nation, ancient nation – but it’s political system is totalitarian system, no freedom.    So therefore I prefer to remain here, in this country.”
    The Dalai Lama was born to a family of farmers in Taktser, a village on the northeastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, in China’s Qinghai province.
    During a recent Reuters visit to Taktser, police armed with automatic weapons blocked the road.    Police and more than a dozen plain-clothed officials said the village was not open to non-locals.
    “Our strength, our power is based on truth.    Chinese power based on gun,” the Dalai Lama said.    “So for short term, gun is much more decisive, but long term truth is more powerful.”
(Reporting by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

3/18/2019 Rouhani says Iran will file legal case against U.S. for sanctions
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gestures to the crowd at a public speech in Bandar Kangan, Iran
March 17, 2019. Official Iranian President website/Handout via REUTERS
    LONDON (Reuters) – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday that the government would file a legal case in Iran against U.S. officials who imposed sanctions on the country as a precursor to action in international courts.
    Rouhani said in a speech broadcast live on state television that U.S. sanctions had created difficulties including a weaker rial currency that has fed into higher inflation.
    The United States reimposed sanctions on Tehran after U.S. President Donald Trump chose last May to abandon Iran’s 2015 nuclear accord, negotiated with five other world powers.
    Rouhani said he had ordered the ministries of foreign affairs and justice “to file a legal case in Iranian courts against those in America who designed and imposed sanctions on Iran.”    “These sanctions are crime against humanity,” he added.
    If the Iranian court finds against the U.S. officials, Iran will pursue the case in international courts of justice, the president said.
    Iranian complaints about sanctions in the international courts have occasionally succeeded.    In October, judges at the International Court Of Justice (ICJ) ordered the United States to ensure sanctions do not affect humanitarian aid or civil aviation safety, a small victory for Tehran.
    “The Americans have only one goal: they want to come back to Iran and rule the nation again,” Rouhani said, reiterating Tehran’s view that U.S. sanctions are aimed at overthrowing the government and ushering in one more aligned with U.S. policies.
    Rouhani said the government had managed to “put a brake on the fall of rial” but that balance has not yet returned to the foreign currency market.
    The rial was trading at 131,500 per U.S. dollar on Monday on the unofficial market, almost three times weaker than a year ago, but off record lows around 190,000 hit in late September.
    Iranian central bank governor Abdolnaser Hemmati also accused Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other U.S. officials on Monday of waging a “psychological war” to stir panic in the currency market.
    Hemmati was quoted as saying by state media that “the central bank is in full control of the market.”
    The U.S. sanctions permit trade in humanitarian goods such as food and pharmaceuticals but measures imposed on banks, and trade restrictions, could make such items more expensive as well as more difficult to pay for.
    Trump said when he pulled out of the landmark 2015 deal that lifted international sanctions against Iran in exchange for restrictions on its atomic activities that it failed to rein in Iran’s missile program or curb its regional meddling.
(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Catherine Evans)
[Rouhani the sanctions were meant to stop you from doing crimes against humanity, so therefore your actions are hurting your own people not the U.S., and to solve your problem use the money that you are attacking other countries with to help your people instead, or you might find they will rise up and get rid of you.].

3/18/2019 Two die in clashes outside Vedanta’s Indian alumina refinery by Sudarshan Varadhan and Jatindra Dash
FILE PHOTO: A view of Vedanta Limited alumina refinery is seen in Lanjigarh in the eastern state
of Odisha, India, June 5, 2018. REUTERS/Krishna N. Das/File Photo
    NEW DELHI/BHUBANESWAR (Reuters) – A protester and a policeman died in clashes outside Vedanta Ltd’s eastern Indian alumina refinery, a police official said on Monday, less than a year after police killed 13 anti-Vedanta protesters in south India.
    The incident in the eastern state of Odisha happened 10 months after police opened fire on demonstrators protesting against Vedanta’s copper smelter in southern Tamil Nadu state, killing 13 people.
    “Two people have died – one of our Odisha industrial security force personnel and another one from the public,” Gupteswar Bhoi, a senior police officer, told Reuters.
    Maheswar Pati, a protester, told Reuters the state’s industrial security force personnel attacked the people without provocation.
    “They physically assaulted us with sticks,” Pati said.
    The state police-controlled Odisha Industrial Security Force said its staff were attacked by stone-throwing protesters.
    Pati said the demonstrators included people from three neighboring villages who had surrendered land to Vedanta and hoped to secure jobs for locals in the company.
    Vedanta says 85 percent of the 3,000 employees at its Lanjigarh plant were from the state of Odisha.
    Ajay Dixit, Chief Executive of Vedanta’s aluminum business, told Reuters that protesters disrupted production at the 1.9 million tonnes per annum refinery by blocking railway lines supplying bauxite and burning the front gate and other parts of the premises.
    “As soon as the bauxite supply resumes, we will be able to operate at a normal capacity,” Dixit said, without specifying a time frame for resumption of operations.
    The company, which plans to expand its refining capacity to 6 million tonnes per annum in India, expects to end the fiscal year 2018/19 with production of 1.5 million tonnes, compared with 1.1 million tonnes the previous year, he said.
    The protests, involving over a hundred people, were also sparked by the retrenchment of a local employee, a senior police official told Reuters on condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to speak to media.
    Dixit said the employee was not fired, and had voluntarily resigned after the company initiated an investigation over compliance-related issues.
    The dead protester was a laborer who worked for one of Vedanta’s contractors, Dixit said.
    Vedanta did not comment on what the demands of the protesters were, but said they wanted to resolve the situation through discussions.
    Dixit said the company was not intending to follow up on plans to mine bauxite in the contentious jungle-clad Niyamgiri hills of eastern Odisha, which tribes consider sacred.
    “We are not dependent on Niyamgiri, we are not following up Niyamgiri,” he said.
(Reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan in New Delhi, and Jatindra Dash in Bhubaneswar; Editing by Martin Howell and Ed Osmond)

3/18/2019 Rouhani: Iran will file legal action against U.S. over sanctions by OAN Newsroom
    Iran is taking legal action against the Trump administration. The country recently announced it has filed another lawsuit against the U.S.
    In a speech Monday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his government has filed a lawsuit against U.S. sanctions on its oil industry.    He said this move would be a precursor to possible future legal action in the International Court of Justice.
In this photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani, center, speaks
during a media briefing after a cabinet meeting, as senior Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, left, and Defense Minister
Gen. Amir Hatami listen, in Tehran, Iran, Monday, March 18, 2019. On Monday Rouhani urged Iranians to put a curse on the United States,
Israel and Saudi Arabia — blaming America and its allies for his country’s ailing economy. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
    During his speech, Rouhani accused the U.S. of imposing sanctions in an act of revenge.
    “The world should know that what the U.S. did was not against the Iranian government, against its nuclear technology…it was against the health of Iran’s people, against our environment, against our livelihood and daily lives, it was against the food and medicine of people,” stated the Iranian president.
    Iran sued the U.S. in the International Court of Justice just last year over sanctions connected with the U.S. withdrawal of the Iran Nuclear Deal.    Back in October, court judges ordered the U.S. to ensure the sanctions did not affect humanitarian aid or civil aviation safety.

3/19/2019 China says played ‘constructive role’ in reducing Pakistan, India tension
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (L) and China's Premier Li Keqiang leave after a signing ceremony
at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 3, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee/Pool
    BEIJING (Reuters) – China played a “constructive role” in reducing tension between Pakistan and India, the foreign ministry said, after the nuclear-armed rivals almost came to blows last month following an attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in disputed Kashmir.
    The sparring threatened to spiral out of control and only interventions by U.S. officials, including National Security Adviser John Bolton, headed off a bigger conflict, five sources familiar with the events have told Reuters.
    At one stage, India threatened to fire at least six missiles at Pakistan, and Islamabad said it would respond with its own missile strikes “three times over,” said Western diplomats and government sources in New Delhi, Islamabad and Washington.
    A Pakistani minister said China and the United Arab Emirates also intervened to lessen tension between the south Asian neighbors.
    In a faxed statement to Reuters late on Monday, responding to a question on China’s role in reining in the crisis, its foreign ministry said peaceful coexistence between Pakistan and India was in everyone’s interest.
    “As a friendly neighbor of both India and Pakistan, China pro-actively promoted peace talks and played a constructive role in easing the tense situation,” it said.
    “Some other countries also made positive efforts in this regard,” the ministry added.
    China is willing to work with the international community to continue to encourage the neighbors to meet each other half way and use dialogue and peaceful means to resolve differences, it said, without elaborating.
    The Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, is set to meet Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in Beijing later on Tuesday.
    The Feb. 14 attack that killed at least 40 paramilitary police was the deadliest in Kashmir’s 30-year-long insurgency, escalating tension between the neighbors, who said they shot down each other’s fighter jets late last month.
    China and Pakistan call each other “all-weather” friends, but China has also been trying to improve ties with New Delhi.
    Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping held an informal summit in China last year agreeing to reset relations, and Xi is expected to visit India sometime this year, diplomatic sources say.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

3/19/2019 China’s Xi urges teachers of political courses to tackle ‘false ideas’
FILE PHOTO: China's President Xi Jinping attends a meeting with Portugal's Parliamentary President
Eduardo Ferro Rodrigues at the Parliament in Lisbon, Portugal, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes/File Photo
    BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese educators must respond to “false ideas and thoughts” when teaching political and ideological classes, President Xi Jinping said, in a sensitive year that marks the 30th anniversary of student-led protests around Tiananmen Square.
    Beijing has campaigned against the spread of “Western values” in education, especially at universities, and the ruling Communist Party’s anti-corruption watchdog has sent inspectors to monitor teachers for “improper” remarks in class.
    Addressing a symposium for teachers of ideological and political theory in Beijing, Xi said the party must nurture generations of talent to support its leadership and China’s socialist system, state media said late on Monday.
    “It is essential to gradually open and upgrade ideological and political theory courses in primary, secondary and tertiary schools, which is an important guarantee for training future generations who are well-prepared to join the socialist cause,” media paraphrased Xi as saying.
    “Ideological and political courses should deliver the country’s mainstream ideology and directly respond to false ideas and thoughts,” Xi added.    The report did not elaborate.
    The government has previously admitted that political education for university students was outdated and unfashionable, though the education minister said last year this problem had been fixed.
    Xi alluded to that in his comments.
    “We are fully confident of and capable of running ideological and political theory courses better,” he said.
    “Thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era should be used to educate people and guide students to strengthen their confidence in the path, theory, system, and culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics and to boost patriotism,” Xi added.
    Crackdowns on what academics and students can say and should think are nothing new in China.
    Courses and speech at universities, in particular, are tightly controlled by the government, fearful of a repeat of pro-democracy protests in 1989 led by students and eventually bloodily crushed by the military.
    In 2013, a liberal Chinese economist who had been an outspoken critic of the party was expelled from the elite Peking University.
    A year later, the university, once a bastion of free speech in China, established a 24-hour system to monitor public opinion on the internet and take early measures to rein in negative speech, a party journal said at the time.
    China aims to build world-class universities and some of its top schools fare well in global rankings, but critics argue curbs on academic freedom could inhibit those ambitions.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

3/18/2019 U.S. freezes out top Afghan official in peace talks feud: sources by Jonathan Landay
FILE PHOTO: Afghanistan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi before their
meeting at the Zhongnanhai Leadership Compound in Beijing, China January 10, 2019. Andy Wong/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In fallout from a feud over U.S.-Taliban peace talks, a senior U.S. diplomat has told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that U.S. officials will no longer deal with his national security adviser, four knowledgable sources said on Monday.
    The decision to end U.S. contacts with Hamdullah Mohib will almost certainly raise tensions between the allies over Kabul’s exclusion from negotiations that have mainly focused on a U.S. troop pullout and how the Taliban would stop militant groups from using Afghanistan as a springboard for attacks.
    Mohib had launched a blistering public attack last Thursday on the chief U.S. negotiator, Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad.
    The following day, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale told Ghani by phone that Mohib would no longer be received in Washington and U.S. civilian and military officials would not do business with him, the sources said.
    “Hale called Ghani and told him that Mohib is no longer welcome in D.C.    The U.S. will not deal with him in Kabul or in D.C. any more,” said a former senior Afghan official, who like the other sources requested anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.
    Kabul fears that Washington is intent on finalizing a U.S. troop pullout to fulfill a vow by President Donald Trump, undermining its ability to reach a political pact with the Taliban that preserves gains, such as women’s education, won since the 2001 U.S. invasion ended the militants’ harsh version of Islamic rule.
    The former Afghan official said he saw the move as an effort to compel Ghani to “oust” Mohib, who became the president’s national security adviser after serving as his envoy to Washington.
    A second source, a congressional aide, agreed that pressuring Ghani to end contacts with Mohib was “one way of looking at this” because the State Department provides funding for the Afghan president’s national security council staff.
    The State Department declined to comment.    The Afghan embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
    Simmering tensions over the Afghan government’s exclusion from the U.S.-Taliban talks in Doha, Qatar, erupted with Mohib’s attack on Khalilzad, an Afghan-born U.S. diplomat, at a news conference in Washington.
    He accused Khalilzad of giving the Taliban legitimacy while “delegitimizing the Afghan government.”    He added that Khalilzad perhaps was trying to create “a caretaker government of which he would then become viceroy.”
    Viceroy was the title of the colonial administrator of British-ruled India.
    The State Department responded with a strong statement quoting Hale as telling Mohib later Thursday that his comments “only serve to hinder the bilateral relationship and the peace process.”
    The latest round of peace talks ended on March 11 after 16 days.    The sides reported progress, but no accord on a withdrawal of U.S.-led international forces and the Taliban’s counter-extremist assurances.
    U.S. negotiators also are pressing the insurgents to accept a ceasefire and talks with Afghan society representatives, including government officials.    The Taliban have refused to talk to Ghani’s government, which they deride as a U.S. puppet.
    In an interview on Monday with Reuters, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Qatar, Faizullah Kakar, said that another country should not be negotiating on the use of Afghan territory by militants.
    “It is the government that should be deciding, whoever the government is, that the territory is used or not used against another country,” he said.
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Additional reporting by Erich Knecht in Doha; Editing by Alistair Bell)

3/19/2019 Kazakhstan’s leader Nazarbayev resigns after three decades in power by Olzhas Auyezov
FILE PHOTO: Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev speaks during his annual state-of-the-nation address at the
Akorda presidential residence in Astana, Kazakhstan October 5, 2018. REUTERS/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov
    ALMATY (Reuters) – Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev unexpectedly resigned on Tuesday after three decades in power, in what appeared to be the first step in a choreographed political transition that will see him retain considerable sway.
    Known as “Papa” to many Kazakhs, the 78-year-old former steel worker and Communist party apparatchik has ruled the vast oil and gas-rich Central Asian nation since 1989, when it was still part of the Soviet Union.
    Bestowed by parliament with the official title of “The Leader of the Nation,” he was the last Soviet-era leader still in office and oversaw extensive market reforms while remaining widely popular in his country of 18 million people.
    “I have taken a decision, which was not easy for me, to resign as president,” Nazarbayev said in a nationwide TV address, flanked by his country’s blue and yellow flags, before signing a decree terminating his powers from March 20.
    “As the founder of the independent Kazakh state I see my task now in facilitating the rise of a new generation of leaders who will continue the reforms that are underway in the country.”
    But Nazarbayev, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said he would retain key security council and party leader positions and hand over the presidency to a loyal ally for the rest of his term, which ends in April 2020.
    Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, speaker of the upper house of parliament, will take over as Kazakhstan’s acting president for the remainder of his term in line with the constitution, Nazarbayev said.
    Nazarbayev has no apparent long-term successor.    His decision hit the price of Kazakh bonds, while the London-listed shares of Kazakhstan’s biggest bank, Halyk Bank, tumbled 5 percent.    The news also appeared to weigh on the Russian rouble.    Moscow is Kazakhstan’s main trade partner.
    The Kremlin said Nazarbayev and Putin had spoken by phone on Tuesday, but gave no details of their conversation.
SMOOTHER TRANSITION?
    “(Nazarbayev) will continue to some extent to oversee things, so it is not like he has cut the cord totally – he still has his fingers in the pie,” said Theodor Kirschner of Capitulum Asset Management in Berlin.
    “That a 78-year-old won’t be sticking around forever shouldn’t be such a surprise to anyone, and this move makes the transition smoother.    This doesn’t really give us a headache.”
    Nazarbayev, who helped attract tens of billions of dollars from foreign energy companies and more than tripled Kazakh oil output, said he would continue to chair the Security Council and remain leader of the Nur Otan party which dominates parliament.
    The new acting president, 65-year-old Tokayev, is a Moscow-educated career diplomat fluent in Kazakh, Russian, English and Chinese who has previously served as Kazakhstan’s foreign minister and prime minister.
    While praising Tokayev as “a man who can be trusted to lead Kazakhstan,” Nazarbayev – who has three daughters – stopped short of endorsing him as his preferred heir.
    “We expect Tokayev to be an interim figure,” said Camilla Hagelund, an analyst at consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft.    “The real question is, who will be Kazakhstan’s third president.”
    Kazakhstan is scheduled to hold both presidential and parliamentary elections next year.
    Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter, Dariga, the most politically ambitious of his children, is a senator and once led a political party of her own.    Another close relative, his nephew Samat Abish, is the No.2 official on the National Security Committee.
    The head of state security, 53-year-old Karim Masimov, is also a close Nazarbayev confidant.    He has served twice as prime minister and also worked as the president’s chief of staff.
    But regardless of who eventually leads Kazakhstan, the transition may slow reforms, including in the key energy sector, according to GlobalData analyst Will Scargill.
    “Although Nazarbayev will retain some key roles, his decision to resign will doubtless slow policy-making as political dynamics are restructured,” Scargill said.
    Uncertainty could also hurt investor appetite for Kazakhstan’s biggest state-owned companies, which the government planned to list as part of a privatization campaign.
BALANCING ACT
    Nazarbayev steered his nation, which is five times the size of France in area, to independence from Moscow in 1991.    He has since managed to maintain close ties with Russia, the West, and China, Kazakhstan’s giant eastern neighbor.
    Nazarbayev won 97.7 percent of the vote in the last presidential election in 2015. International observers have long judged elections in Kazakhstan to be neither free nor fair.
    Nazarbayev tolerated no dissent or opposition and was criticized by rights groups who accused him of locking up his critics and muzzling the media, allegations he denied.
    His government recently pushed through a number of popular policies – including raising public-sector salaries and forcing utilities to cut or freeze tariffs – stoking speculation that he was preparing for a re-election bid.
    Members of Nazarbayev’s family have stakes in some of Kazakhstan’s most lucrative assets, including Halyk Bank and firms in sectors ranging from telecoms to fuel trading.
(Additional reporting by Karin Strohecker in London; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov/Andrew Osborn; Editing by Gareth Jones)

3/19/2019 Pakistan tells China of ‘deteriorating situation’ in Indian Kashmir by Ben Blanchard
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (L) and China's Premier Li Keqiang leave after a signing ceremony at
the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 3, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee/Pool
    BEIJING (Reuters) – Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told his Chinese counterpart on Tuesday of the “rapidly deteriorating situation” and rights violations in Indian Kashmir, and called for India to look again at its policies there.
    India launched an air strike on a militant camp inside Pakistan last month following an attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in disputed Kashmir.
    The Feb. 14 attack that killed at least 40 paramilitary police was the deadliest in Kashmir’s 30-year-long insurgency, escalating tension between the neighbors, and the subsequent air strike had heightened fears that nuclear-armed India and Pakistan could slide into a fourth war.
    Speaking in Beijing standing alongside the Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, Qureshi said his country appreciated the role China played once again “in standing by Pakistan in these difficult times.”
    “I also briefed the foreign minister on the rapidly deteriorating situation on the Indian side of Kashmir, intensification of human rights violations, especially after Pulwama,” he said, referring to where the attack took place.    "This is a concern because that leads to a reaction and that reaction at times creates tensions in the region which must be avoided,” Qureshi added.
    “I think there’s a need for a new assessment on how the situation on the Indian side of Kashmir should be handled by the Indians.    There are now voices within India that are questioning the efficacy of the policy that they’ve followed for the last so many years,” he said, without elaborating.
    Wang, who is also China’s foreign minister, said China has always believed that peace and stability in South Asia is in the joint interests of countries in the region and is what the international community wishes.
    “China appreciates Pakistan’s constructive efforts to ease the situation and calls on Pakistan and India to continue to exercise restraint and resolve the differences that exist via dialogue and peaceful means.”
    The sparring after the Pulwama attack had threatened to spiral out of control and only interventions by U.S. officials, including National Security Adviser John Bolton, headed off a bigger conflict, five sources familiar with the events have told Reuters.
    At one stage, India threatened to fire at least six missiles at Pakistan, and Islamabad said it would respond with its own missile strikes “three times over,” said Western diplomats and government sources in New Delhi, Islamabad and Washington.
    A Pakistani minister said China and the United Arab Emirates also intervened to lessen tension between the south Asian neighbors.
    In a faxed statement to Reuters late on Monday, responding to a question on China’s role in reining in the crisis, its foreign ministry said peaceful coexistence between Pakistan and India was in everyone’s interest
    “As a friendly neighbour of both India and Pakistan, China pro-actively promoted peace talks and played a constructive role in easing the tense situation,” it said.
    “Some other countries also made positive efforts in this regard,” the ministry added.
    China is willing to work with the international community to continue to encourage the neighbors to meet each other half way and use dialogue and peaceful means to resolve differences, it said, without elaborating.
    China and Pakistan call each other “all-weather” friends, but China has also been trying to improve ties with New Delhi.
    Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping held an informal summit in China last year agreeing to reset relations, and Xi is expected to visit India sometime this year, diplomatic sources say.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez & Simon Cameron-Moore)

3/19/2019 U.S. says Iran missile program destabilizing Middle East
FILE PHOTO: A U.S. Department of Defense exhibit shows a "Qiam" ballistic missile manufactured in Iran,
at a military base in Washington, U.S., November 29, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago/File Photo
    GENEVA (Reuters) – A senior U.S. arms control official said on Tuesday that Iran’s missile program is destabilizing the Middle East and raising the risk of a “regional arms race” through the provision of such weapons to armed groups in Lebanon and Yemen.
    U.S. President Donald Trump said when he quit a landmark 2015 deal that lifted international sanctions against Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear activities that it failed to rein in Iran’s missile program or curb its regional meddling.
    The United States has accused Iran of defying a U.N. Security Council resolution by carrying out a ballistic missile test and two satellite launches since December.
    “Iran’s missile program is a key contributor to increased tensions and destabilization in the region, increasing the risk of a regional arms race,” Yleem Poblete, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, said in a speech to the U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament.
    “Iran must immediately cease activities related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, and halt the proliferation of missiles and missile technology to terror groups and other non-state actors,” she said, denouncing Iran’s support to the Houthi movement in Yemen and to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
    She said Iran had provided ballistic missiles to the Houthis that were fired into Saudi Arabia and unmanned aerial systems to Houthi groups that enable strikes against land-based targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
    “We are committed to aggressively countering Iran’s regional proliferation of ballistic missiles and its unlawful arms transfers,” she added.
    Poblete urged “all responsible countries” to enforce United Nations Security Council resolutions restricting the transfer of missile-related technologies to Iran.
    She further accused Iran of “pursuing pharmaceutical-based agents for offensive purposes,” but did not elaborate.
    An Iranian diplomat took the floor to reject her remarks as i>“cheap, unprofessional, false, irrelevant and pathetic” and accused the United States of “sabotaging” the Geneva forum.
    “We should all be truly worried about the U.S. representative’s misbehavior as we all warn that they may turn violent since they lack any human logic to talk and listen in a normal manner as we are used to,” he said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Tom Miles; writing by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by William Maclean)

3/20/2019 New Kazakh leader hands Nazarbayev’s daughter key post
FILE PHOTO: Newly appointed Director General of the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG) Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of
Kazakhstan is pictured in Geneva, Switzerland May 11, 2011. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo
    ASTANA (Reuters) – Kazakhstan’s new president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev handed the key post of senate speaker on Wednesday to a daughter of his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, who unexpectedly resigned a day earlier after three decades in power.
    Nazarbayev, 78, stepped down late on Tuesday in what appeared to be the first step in a choreographed political transition that will see him retain considerable sway over the Central Asian nation of 18 million people.
    His daughter Dariga’s promotion — which was ex-speaker Tokayev’s first major move after being inaugurated — raises her profile as a potential successor.    Under Kazakhstan’s constitution, the senate speaker assumes presidential powers in the event of the president’s resignation or death.
    Tokayev, a 65-year-old career diplomat fluent in Russian, English and Chinese, will serve for the rest of the presidential term ending in April 2020.    He promised on Wednesday to continue Nazarbayev’s policies.
    “(Nazarbayev’s) opinion will have special, one might say priority, importance in developing and making strategic decisions,” Tokayev said in an inauguration speech, adding that the Kazakh capital, Astana, must be renamed Nursultan.
    It remains unclear whether the Moscow-educated former prime minister will run for a full term as president next year.    Nazarbayev praised him on Tuesday as “a man who can be trusted to lead Kazakhstan.”
KEY CANDIDATES
    Nazarbayev, who has no obvious long-term successor, had run the vast oil and gas-rich country since 1989 when it was a Soviet republic, routinely winning elections with more than 90 percent of the vote.
    But country-watchers have considered his eldest daughter Dariga a succession candidate since she founded her own party in the 2000s — which later merged with Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan.
    Nazarbayeva, a 55-year-old mother of three, has in the past led Kazakhstan’s main television station and served as a deputy prime minister, while also devoting time to her passion for opera — which she has performed publicly.
    She made no mention of the upcoming elections in her brief acceptance speech on Wednesday.
    Another extended family member, Nazarbayev’s nephew Samat Abish, is also regarded as a candidate after his meteoric rise through the ranks of state security, where he has held the No.2 post since 2015.    Abish, however, keeps a low public profile.
    The head of state security, Karim Masimov, although not a family member, has also become very close to Nazarbayev, to whom he frequently referred as “my president," having served as his chief of staff and twice as prime minister.    The current PM, Askar Mamin, was Masimov’s classmate in the 1970s.
POLICY RISKS
    Some analysts believe there will be collective succession, a troika- or politburo-style arrangement, after Kazakhstan amended its constitution in 2017 to reduce presidential powers in favor of lawmakers and the cabinet.
    “What we expect to see in coming years and decades is a gradual transformation towards a system that is less reliant on one strong figurehead,” said Charles Robertson, global chief economist at Renaissance Capital.
    But there are doubts whether such a structure would survive for a long time, given the recent examples of neighboring Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan where new leaders moved quickly to eliminate other key players.
    In any case, major concerns for investors will be uncertainty and a shift from long-term structural reforms towards populist policies, which began last year when the government unexpectedly froze utilities tariffs, putting companies’ long-term investment plans at risk.
    Last month, Nazarbayev ordered the cabinet to tap the country’s rainy-day fund for $3.6 billion in order to boost public sector salaries and social aid payouts and develop housing and infrastructure.
(Reporting by Tamara Vaal; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Tom Balmforth and Catherine Evans)

3/20/2019 Exclusive: China to invite European diplomats to Xinjiang in new diplomatic push by Ben Blanchard and Robin Emmott
Red flags flutter outside the Great Hall of the People during the closing session of the Chinese People's
Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing, China March 13, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer
    BEIJING/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – China will invite Beijing-based European diplomats to visit its far western region of Xinjiang, the foreign ministry told Reuters, furthering its outreach to fend off criticism about a de-radicalization program.
    The visit would be the first by a large group of Western diplomats to the region as China faces growing opprobrium from Western capitals and rights groups for setting up facilities that U.N. experts describe as detention centers holding more than one million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims.
    Several diplomatic sources said the invitation to visit by the end of March had been issued informally, specifically to ambassadors, with one source describing it as a “sounding out” of interest, and the government had not explicitly said who they would meet or where they would go.
    It is also not clear if the Europeans would accept the invitation, or how many of their diplomats or ambassadors would go.
    Last year, more than a dozen ambassadors from Western countries, including France, Britain, Germany and the EU’s envoy in Beijing, wrote to the government to seek a meeting with Xinjiang’s top official, Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo, to discuss their concerns about the rights situation.
    Diplomats say the government never responded to that letter, aside from publicly denouncing it as a violation of diplomatic norms.
    It was not clear if a meeting with Chen would be on the agenda.
    “In order to increase the European side’s understanding of Xinjiang’s achievements at economic and social development, and promote bilateral exchanges and cooperation, China plans in the near term to invite European envoys based in China to visit Xinjiang,” the foreign ministry said in a statement to Reuters.
    The date and other details were still being worked it, the ministry added.
    “Hearing something for a hundred times is not as good as seeing it for yourself,” the ministry’s statement said.
    The European Union’s mission in Beijing declined to comment.
    Chinese President Xi Jinping travels to Europe on Thursday for a state visit to Italy, Monaco and France.
‘HAPPY LIVES’
    Beijing has been ramping up its efforts in defense of its measures in Xinjiang, which it says are aimed at stemming the threat of Islamist militancy.    It calls the camps vocational training centers.
    China “believes that through this trip, European envoys based in China will be able to personally experience the real situation of Xinjiang’s calm, order and peace and the happy lives of all its people,” the ministry said.
    Last week, the U.S. State Department said China’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang marked the worst human rights abuses “since the 1930s.”
    The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has weighed sanctions against senior Chinese officials in Xinjiang, including Chen.
    Some diplomats briefed on the situation said there was concern the European diplomats could be used for propaganda purposes, pointing to pictures taken by and stories in state media about recent visits by other foreign envoys to Xinjiang.
    “There’s no point in going if we’re just going to be portrayed as supporting the camps,” said one diplomat.
    EU foreign ministers raised the issue of the Uighurs with the government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, on Monday at a lunch in Brussels, sources told Reuters.
    While Wang was keen to focus on a list of issues of cooperation and agreement, EU ministers underlined the issue of human rights and the Uighurs, asking for explanations about why the people were being held and on reports of crackdowns on Muslims, sources said.
    One EU diplomat said Wang’s reply was “not satisfactory.”
    Wang said China was a big country with a lot of people so it could not be avoided that some individuals complain about treatment, and China was a developing country and measures were not against Uighurs but against extremists, the diplomat said.
    “He was puzzled about why we are worried about it,” the diplomat said.
    The foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wang’s Xinjiang discussions in Brussels.
    Premier Li Keqiang will visit Brussels next month for a China-EU summit.
    There have been two visits by groups including European diplomats to Xinjiang this year.    One was a small group of EU diplomats, and the other by a group of diplomats from several countries, including EU members Hungary and Greece.
    There have also been at least two other trips to Xinjiang for foreign diplomats.
    A diplomat who has been on a government-organized trip to Xinjiang, said during the entire program reporters from state media accompanied them, taking pictures and trying to interview the envoys.
    “It was impossible to avoid them,” the diplomat said.
    There is also concern that the European envoys would be taken to the same camps and sites that previous foreign visitors have been taken to on tightly controlled and carefully choreographed trips, including one Reuters went on in January, the sources said.
    “There’s no point in going just to see the same places,” said another diplomat familiar with the invitation.
    All the diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity.
    China’s diplomatic efforts have included a briefing in Beijing late last month, where two former camp inmates spoke in front of envoys to describe how they had been rescued from radical Islam, people who attended the briefing told Reuters.
    China has strongly defended the camps.
    Xinjiang governor Shohrat Zakir told reporters in Beijing last week the facilities were “boarding schools” and not concentration camps.
    Beijing says it must tackle radical Islam in Xinjiang, where hundreds have been killed in violence in recent years blamed by the government on militants and separatists.
    Reuters last year reported on conditions inside the camps and took pictures of guard towers and barbed wire surrounding some. (https://tinyurl.com/y9zzouss)
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard, Robin Emmott; Editing by Robert Birsel)
[China has already done it to its own people, so you know they will do it to them, and you should worry that they may do it to you someday.].

3/20/2019 As Xi heads to Italy, China takes Belt and Road controversy in its stride
Chinese President Xi Jinping claps at the closing session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the
Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
    BEIJING (Reuters) – Misunderstandings over China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are “hard to avoid,” a senior Chinese diplomat said on Wednesday ahead of a trip to Europe by President Xi Jinping during which Italy is set to join the multi-billion dollar trade scheme.
    Italy has angered its EU partners by planning to sign infrastructure deals with China, pushing itself as a big backer of the initiative at the heart of Beijing’s foreign policy strategy that is Xi’s signature diplomatic and trade push.
    “I think anything new will have a development process,” Vice Foreign Minister Wang Chao told a news briefing when asked about recent controversy in Italy over the accord to be signed this month.
    “It is hard to avoid misunderstandings occurring during the process of advancing the construction of the Belt and Road.    Of course, the facts are the best proof,” Wang said.
    More than 150 countries, regions and international groups have already signed BRI cooperation pacts bringing some benefits to all, he added.
    Italy, which is expected to send a high-level delegation to the second Belt and Road summit in Beijing in late April, will be the first stop on Xi’s tour from March 21 to 26 that will also take in France and the tiny principality of Monaco.
    With ports that offer easy gateways into Europe’s richest markets, Italy is a promising and prestigious prize for China.
    Asked about China’s possible investment in a port in Italy, Wang said investment decisions by its companies would be based on market conditions.
    Xi will hold talks with Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in Rome, and visit the Sicilian capital of Palermo, Wang said.
    The two sides will sign commercial pacts on infrastructure, machinery and finance, he added.
    Italy’s drive to be the first Group of Seven industrialized nation to join the ambitious venture has upset Washington and alarmed Brussels, raising fears of a sellout of sensitive technology and the handover of critical infrastructure.
    On Tuesday, Conte said the commercial and economic deals he will seal with China have no implications for Italy’s geo-political position, in a bid to reassure the European Union and the United States.
    In France, Xi and French President Emmanuel Macron will witness the signing of cooperation agreements on energy, transportation, agriculture, finance, culture and science and technology, Wang said.
(Reporting by Tom Daly and Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Liangping Gao; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

3/20/2019 Khamenei says Iran has successfully resisted U.S. sanctions
FILE PHOTO - Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during Friday
prayers in Tehran September 14, 2007. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl/File Photo
    GENEVA (Reuters) – Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Thursday in a new year speech broadcast on state TV that the Islamic Republic successfully resisted “unprecedented, strong” U.S. sanctions.
    Iran has faced economic hardship since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from a multilateral nuclear deal last year and reimposed sanctions.
    Khamenei also said that economic hardship and the fall of the currency remain top problems and that the government should confront these issues by boosting production.
(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
[We'll Trump its time to tighten the noose on the 8 countries buying their oil.].

3/20/2019 Iran’s Zarif: will strengthen ties with nations tired of U.S. ‘bullying’
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during a news conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister
Mohamed Ali Alhakim, in Baghdad, Iraq March 10, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily
    LONDON (Reuters) – Iran will expand its ties with nations equally tired of “bullying” by the United States, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Wednesday, as Iranians mark the end of a year of economic crisis fueled by renewed U.S. sanctions.
    Ahead of the start of the new year in the Iranian calendar, Zarif called the sanctions “unprecedented, inhumane and illegal,” and said Tehran would overcome the “medieval tactics” employed by Washington.
    “We rely solely on our own people to overcome any challenges.    But we also welcome constructive engagement, including with the expanding array of nations who are equally sick and tired of the bullying of the U.S.,” Zarif said on his Twitter feed.
    The United States reimposed sanctions on Tehran after U.S. President Donald Trump chose last May to abandon Iran’s 2015 nuclear accord, negotiated with five other world powers.
    The sanctions have partly led to a weaker rial currency in Iran that has fed into higher inflation.
    The rial was trading at 135,000 per U.S. dollar on the unofficial market on Wednesday, according to foreign exchange websites, three times weaker than a year ago, but off record lows around 190,000 per dollar reached in late September.
    France, Germany and Britain, which remain committed to the nuclear deal, opened a new channel for non-dollar trade with Iran in January to shield business with Tehran against the U.S. sanctions.
(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

3/20/2019 Iran vows to control prices, boost production despite U.S. sanctions by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin and Babak Dehghanpisheh
    LONDON/GENEVA (Reuters) – Iranian leaders vowed on Thursday to control soaring prices, bring stability to the national currency and create jobs as the nation marked the end of a year of economic crisis fueled by renewed U.S. sanctions.
    Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a new year speech that the Islamic Republic successfully resisted the U.S. sanctions, and called on the government to boost national production to face enemy pressures.
    “In the face of severe, and according to them unprecedented, sanctions from America and Europe, the Iranian people showed a strong and powerful reaction both in the field of politics and economy,” Khamenei said in a pre-recorded speech broadcast on state television.
    Khamenei said: “The main problem in the country is the economic problem … that is partly rooted in mismanagement.”
    Iranian President Hassan Rouhani defended his record in a separate message broadcast immediately after Khamenei’s, saying economic problems were primarily caused by U.S. sanctions.
    “The new year is a year to boost production and create jobs for our dear young people,” Rouhani said.    “The new year is the year to control inflation, bring balance to the foreign currency market and expand friendship with neighboring countries.”
    Rouhani called on the country’s political factions to end infighting and unite against foreign enemies.
    The United States reimposed sanctions on Tehran after U.S. President Donald Trump chose last May to abandon Iran’s 2015 nuclear accord, negotiated with five other world powers.
    Trump abandoned the accord because he argued it did not address Iran’s expanding regional influence and missile program.
    The sanctions have partly led to a weaker rial currency in Iran that has fed into higher inflation.
    The rial was trading at 135,000 per U.S. dollar on the unofficial market on Wednesday, according to foreign exchange websites, three times weaker than a year ago, but off record lows of about 190,000 per dollar in late September.
    Hours earlier, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the U.S. sanctions “unprecedented, inhumane and illegal,” and said Tehran would overcome the “medieval tactics” employed by Washington.
    “We rely solely on our own people to overcome any challenges. But we also welcome constructive engagement, including with the expanding array of nations who are equally sick and tired of the bullying of the U.S.,” Zarif said on his Twitter feed.
    France, Germany and Britain, which remain committed to the nuclear deal, opened a new channel for non-dollar trade with Iran in January to shield business with Tehran against the U.S. sanctions.
(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Peter Cooney)
[Rouhani you are not looking at medieval tactics you are seeing modern tactics against you in 2019 and it is obvious you are not realizing the reality of your actions and trying to make it look like your population is in good shape, which could not be true.    I dare you to let news services come in and talk with the people on your streets without any intimidation for their comments.].

3/20/2019 U.S. remains concerned about India-Pakistan tensions: official by Jonathan Landay
FILE PHOTO: India's Border Security Force soldiers patrol along the fenced border with Pakistan in the
Ranbir Singh Pura sector near Jammu February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States remains concerned about India-Pakistan tensions as the nuclear-armed countries’ militaries remain on alert nearly three weeks after their most dangerous confrontation in decades, a senior U.S. administration official said on Wednesday.
    The official also indicated that the Trump administration does not think Pakistan has adequately cracked down on the Islamist extremists who claimed responsibility for a bomb attack on Indian security forces that triggered last month’s crisis.
    “If there is an additional terrorist attack without Pakistan having made a sustained sincere effort against these groups, it will be extremely problematic for Pakistan and it would cause a re-escalation in tensions,” the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
    The official’s comments underscored the Trump administration’s view that Pakistan’s harboring of extremist groups lies at the heart of the latest upsurge in tensions.
    The crisis erupted with a Feb. 14 suicide bombing on India’s side of the disputed Kashmir region that killed 40 paramilitary officers and was claimed by Jaish-e-Mohammed, a militant group that U.S. officials charge is harbored by Pakistan.
    Islamabad denies the allegation.
    On Feb. 26, India launched its first-ever airstrikes on an alleged extremist training camp in Pakistan.    The following day, Pakistani aircraft retaliated against targets inside India-controlled Kashmir, triggering a dogfight.
    In their first such clash since a 1971 war, Pakistan downed an Indian plane and captured its pilot after he ejected.
    The Trump administration, backed by other powers, pressed the sides to avert further violence amid fears of an all-out war that could go nuclear.
    While the sides have taken steps to de-escalate tensions, including Pakistan’s return of the Indian pilot, the U.S. official said that Washington remains concerned.
    “We do still see the militaries on alert and so we realize if there, God forbid, would be another terrorist attack, then you could quickly see escalation in the situation once again,” the official said.    “We are making clear that any additional military action by either side runs an unacceptably high risk for both countries and for the region.”
    Pakistan says it arrested dozens of extremists and seized their assets.    But the official indicated that Washington does not believe the crackdown has been sufficient.
    “I think we will need to see irreversible sustained action.    It’s early to make a full assessment,” the official said.
    Competing claims to Kashmir by India and Pakistan make the area one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints.
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; writing by Doina Chiacu; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Lisa Shumaker)
[I wondered how Islamic countries got access to nuclear weapons in the first place, but if they attack each other that way it would get rid of that problem, except for those in bunkers.].

3/21/2019 Reliance sends fuel from India, Europe to Venezuela to sidestep U.S. sanctions by Nidhi Verma and Marianna Parraga
FILE PHOTO: The logo of Reliance Industries is pictured in a stall at the Vibrant Gujarat
Global Trade Show at Gandhinagar, India, January 17, 2019. REUTERS/Amit Dave
    NEW DELHI/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – India’s Reliance Industries is selling fuels to Venezuela from India and Europe to sidestep sanctions that bar U.S.-based companies from dealing with state-run PDVSA, according to trading sources and Refinitiv Eikon data.
    Reliance had been supplying alkylate, diluent naphtha and other fuel to Venezuela through its U.S.-based subsidiary before Washington in late January imposed sanctions aimed at curbing the OPEC member’s oil exports and ousting Socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
    At least three vessels chartered by the Indian conglomerate supplied refined products to Venezuela in recent weeks, and another vessel carrying gasoil is expected to set sail to the South American nation as well, according to the sources and data.
    A Reliance spokesman wrote to Reuters in an email and said: “Reliance is and will remain in compliance with the sanctions and shall work with the concerned authorities.”
    He also said “the volume of products supplied to and crude oil imported from Venezuela have not increased.”
    Reliance, an Indian conglomerate controlled by billionaire Mukesh Ambani, has significant exposure to the financial system of the United States, where it operates subsidiaries linked to its oil and telecom businesses, among others.
    The Indian market is crucial for Venezuela’s economy because it has historically been the second-largest cash-paying customer for the OPEC country’s crude, behind the United States.
    Additional sanctions against Venezuela are possible in the future, as U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has not yet tried to prevent companies based outside the United States from buying Venezuelan oil, a strategy known as “secondary sanctions.”
    Refinitiv Eikon trade data shows that Reliance shipped alkylate, a component for motor gasoline, to Venezuela on vessels Torm Mary and Torm Anabel in recent weeks.    Those originated in India and passed through the Suez Canal.
    It also shipped a gasoline cargo using tanker Torm Troilus to Venezuela and is preparing to send 35,000 tonnes of gasoil in a vessel called Vukovar to the South American nation
    “Reliance is also supplying some products from its Rotterdam storage,” a source familiar with Reliance’s operation said.
    PDVSA did not reply to a request for comment.
    In a statement last week, Reliance said its U.S. unit has completely stopped all business with PDVSA.    Reliance also halted all supply of diluents including heavy naphtha to Venezuela and does not plan to resume such sales until sanctions are lifted, according to the release.
    Venezuela has overall imported some 160,000 barrels per day of fuel and diluents for its extra heavy oil output since the U.S. measures were imposed, according to PDVSA and Refinitiv data, below levels prior to the sanctions but still enough to supply gas stations and power plants.,br>     Reliance is among the biggest buyers of Venezuelan oil, although the company has recently said it has not increased crude purchases from Venezuela.    In 2012, Reliance signed a 15-year deal to buy between 300,000 to 400,000 bpd of heavy crude from PDVSA.
    Ship tracking data obtained by Reuters showed that Reliance’s average purchases from Venezuela were less than 300,000 bpd in 2018 and in the first two months of this year.
    Venezuela continues to supply at least some oil to India.    A very large crude carrier (VLCC) is anchored off Venezuela’s Jose port waiting to load oil bound for India, and at least six other vessels of the same size are underway to India’s Sikka and Vadinar ports, according to the Refinitiv data.
    PDVSA’s second-largest customer in India is Nayara Energy, partially owned by Russian energy firm Rosneft, one of PDVSA’s primary allies.
(Reporting by Nidhi Verma in NEW DELHI and Marianna Parraga in MEXICO CITY; Editing by Henning Gloystein and Tom Hogue)

3/21/2019 At least 6 dead in Afghan capital, following 3 explosions by OAN Newsroom
    ISIS has claimed responsibility for multiple explosions, which killed at least six people and wounded more than 20 others in Afghanistan’s capital.
    The attack happened Thursday as dozens of people gathered in Kabul to celebrate the Persian New Year.
    At least three remote controlled mines were detonated. One was placed in a mosque bathroom, while the others were set off near a hospital and an electricity meter.    A fourth mine was defused by authorities.
An injured man is taken to a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, March 21, 2019. An Afghan official
says three explosions have struck near a Shiite shrine and cemetery in western Kabul as people gathered
there to mark the holiday of Nowruz, the Persian New Year.(AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
    Several of the victims remain hospitalized.
    “We were walking along and when two rockets hit, we stopped and turned around,” described one victim.    “After that, I don’t know what happened and they brought me to the hospital.”
    One suspect was taken into custody, and authorities have secured the area.
    Afghan President Ashraf Ghani condemned the attack, saying “we lost peaceful citizens to an enemy that has no bounds.”

3/21/2019 Iran will boost defense capabilities despite U.S. pressure: Khamenei by Parisa Hafezi
FILE PHOTO: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech during a ceremony marking the death anniversary
of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in Tehran, Iran, June 4, 2017. TIMA via REUTERS
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran is determined to boost its defense capabilities despite mounting pressure from the United States and its allies to curb its ballistic missile program, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Thursday.
    “We need to take Iran to a point that enemy understand that they cannot threaten Iran … America’s sanctions will make Iran self-sufficient,” Khamenei said in a speech broadcast live on state TV.
    President Donald Trump withdrew the United States last May from a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers, saying it gave too much away to Iran, and reimposed far-reaching U.S. sanctions.
    The U.S. sanctions aim to force Iran to accept tougher restrictions on its nuclear work, drop its ballistic missile program and scale back support for militant proxies in Middle East conflicts from Yemen to Syria.
    Iran says its missile program is purely defensive and has rejected the curbs on it demanded by the United States.    Tehran says it has missiles with a range of up to 2,000 km (1,250 miles), which puts Israel and U.S. military bases in the region within reach.
    The other signatories to the nuclear deal – Germany, France, Britain, the European Union, Russia and China – have remained committed to the agreement and have been trying to salvage the pact by a mechanism to circumvent Trump’s sanctions.
    Khamenei, a hardliner who has the ultimate say on all major foreign and domestic policy in the Islamic Republic, said the European signatories of the deal had failed to maintain Iran’s economic interests.
    “They have always stabbed Iran in the back … The Western countries have proved they cannot be trusted,” he said in the speech in the holy Shi’ite city of Mashhad.
    Iranian leaders have threatened to exit the nuclear deal unless the European powers enable Tehran to receive economic benefits.
    “This mechanism set by the Europeans is like a bitter joke,” Khamenei said, referring to a channel opened by the European signatories of the deal for non-dollar trade with Iran to get around the U.S. sanction.
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Frances Kerry and Toby Chopra)

3/21/2019 U.S. announces first new North Korea sanctions since failed summit by David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick
U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin speaks at the Jordan Growth and Opportunity Conference
in London, Britain February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville/Pool
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States imposed sanctions on Thursday on two Chinese shipping companies it says helped North Korea evade U.S. and international sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, the first such steps since U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s summit collapsed last month.
    The U.S. Treasury Department also issued an updated advisory that listed 67 vessels that it said had engaged in illicit transfers of refined petroleum with North Korean tankers or were believed to have exported North Korean coal.
    The department identified the newly sanctioned firms as Dalian Haibo International Freight Co Ltd and Liaoning Danxing International Forwarding Co Ltd, both based in China.
    The move prohibits U.S. dealings with the designated companies and freezes any assets they have in the United States.
    Washington announced the measures three weeks after a second meeting between Trump and Kim broke down over conflicting demands by North Korea for relief from sanctions and from the U.S. side for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
    The United States has led international efforts to press North Korea through sanctions to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
    “The United States and our like-minded partners remain committed to achieving the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea and believe that the full implementation of North Korea-related U.N. Security Council resolutions is crucial to a successful outcome,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
    “Treasury will continue to enforce our sanctions, and we are making it explicitly clear that shipping companies employing deceptive tactics to mask illicit trade with North Korea expose themselves to great risk.”
    The latest sanctions showed there was some “leakage” in North Korea sanctions enforcement by China, but Beijing was mostly abiding by U.N. resolutions, a senior U.S. official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
    The official said that financial as well as shipping companies risked U.S. action if they were found to be in violation of sanctions.
    The official insisted, however, that Thursday’s announcement was meant to maintain sanctions enforcement on North Korea rather than intensify the pressure.
    While declining to say whether Washington was trying to send a post-summit message to Pyongyang, the official said Trump “has made clear that the door is wide open to continuing the dialogue with North Korea.”
LIMBO
    U.S.-North Korean engagement has appeared to be in limbo since the Feb. 27-28 summit in Hanoi, despite U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying on March 4 he was hopeful he could send a team to North Korea “in the next couple of weeks.”
    Washington has said it aims to re-engage with Kim, but North Korea has warned it is considering suspending talks and may rethink a freeze on missile and nuclear tests in place since 2017 unless Washington makes concessions.
    On Monday, two senior U.S. senators called for the Trump administration to correct a slowing pace of American sanctions designations on North Korea, saying there had been a marked decline in such actions during the past year of U.S. diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang.
    They pointed to a 2019 U.N. report that found that North Korea continued to defy U.N. sanctions with an increase in smuggling of petroleum products and coal and violation of bans on arms sales.
    The Treasury statement said Dalian Haibo was targeted for dealings with Paeksol Trading Corp, a company previously designated by U.S. sanctions on North Korea.
    It said Dalian Haibo shipped cargo from Dalian, China, to Paeksol in Nampo, North Korea, in early 2018 aboard North Korean-flagged vessels.
    The statement said Liaoning Danxing had “routinely used deceptive practices” to enable the work of North Korean procurement officials based in the European Union.
    The Treasury statement said evasion tactics employed by North Korea included disabling or manipulating automated identification systems, physically altering vessels, transferring cargoes between ships and falsifying cargo documentation.
    It said ports visited by vessels involved in ship-to-ship transfers included those in Taiwan, China, Russia and South Korea.
    The Treasury Department said that in 2018, North Korean ports received at least 263 tanker deliveries of refined petroleum via U.N.-prohibited ship-to-ship transfers.
    It said that if the tankers were fully laden, North Korea would have imported 3.78 million barrels – more than 7-1/2 times the 500,000 barrels a year allowed under a U.N. resolution.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom, Matt Spetalnick and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Grant McCool and Peter Cooney)

3/21/2019 Six killed in Chinese pesticide plant explosion
Rescue workers are seen near smoke following an explosion at a chemical industrial park in
Xiangshui county, Yancheng, Jiangsu province, China March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer
    BEIJING (Reuters) – An explosion at an industrial park in eastern China killed six people on Thursday and seriously injured 30, authorities and state media said.
    Rescue efforts were going on, authorities in the city of Yancheng, in Jiangsu province, said in a statement. State media said authorities were investigating the cause of the blast.
    Video footage and images on state media showed a fire and shattered windows in nearby buildings.
    Among the injured were children at a kindergarten near the industrial park, state media said.
    Public anger over safety standards has grown in China over industrial accidents ranging from mining disasters to factory fires that have marred three decades of swift economic growth.
(Reporting by Se Young Lee and Min Zhang; Editing by Robert Birsel)

3/22/2019 Death toll from China chemical plant explosion climbs to 44
A vehicle of paramilitary police is seen near smoke following an explosion at a chemical industrial park
in Xiangshui county, Yancheng, Jiangsu province, China March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

3/22/2019 U.S. warns China meddling in Hong Kong hurting business confidence by James Pomfret and Anne Marie Roantree
FILE PHOTO - A woman is reflected in a window behind Chinese and Hong Kong flags after celebrations commemorating the 20th anniversary
of Hong Kong's handover to Chinese sovereignty from British rule, in Hong Kong, China July 2, 2017. REUTERS/Tyrone SiuTyrone Siu
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – The United States warned in a report on Friday that increased meddling from China in Hong Kong had adversely impacted the city, straining international business confidence in the Asian financial hub.
    The U.S. State Department report cited incidents such as the expulsion of Financial Times editor Victor Mallet, the banning of a pro-independence political party, the jailing of young democracy activists and barring people from local elections.
    The city is now also seeking to amend laws to allow individuals to be extradited to mainland China, despite grave human rights concerns toward Beijing.
    “The tempo of mainland central government intervention in Hong Kong affairs – and actions by the Hong Kong government consistent with mainland direction – increased, accelerating negative trends seen in previous periods,” the U.S. State Department said in its 2019 report on the Hong Kong Policy Act.
    “Growing political restrictions in Hong Kong may be straining the confidence of the international business community.”
    The 1992 U.S.-Hong Kong policy act allows Washington to engage with Hong Kong as a non-sovereign entity distinct from China on matters of trade and economics.
    The areas of special treatment for Hong Kong are fairly broad and now include visas, law enforcement including extraditions, and investment.
    “Policies and practices of the mainland central government adversely impacted Hong Kong in multiple areas, and mainland pressure resulted in new constraints on Hong Kong’s political space,” the report said.
    “In some particularly concerning instances, Hong Kong authorities took actions aligned with mainland priorities at the expense of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
    The continuation of the U.S. Congress enacted policy is predicated upon China and Hong Kong maintaining a so-called “one country, two systems” arrangement.
    This mode of governance, that came into effect after Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997, grants the city a high degree of autonomy, the rule of law and freedoms not allowed under the Communist China controlled mainland.
    Some critics, including pro-independence activist Andy Chan, have called on the U.S. to review the viability of this act in future, given China’s tightening grip on the city’s freedoms.
    Hong Kong, which has long acted as a leading re-export and entrepot hub for U.S.-China trade, has largely escaped the brunt of current U.S.-China trade tensions, given its special status as a separate customs entity.
    Should the policy act be reviewed, however, the economic impact could be much larger, say observers.
    In 2018, the United States’ largest worldwide bilateral trade-in-goods surplus was with Hong Kong, at $25.9 billion, the report noted.
    The U.S. Consul General in Hong Kong Kurt Tong in February expressed concerns about Hong Kong’s autonomy, noting erosions to the “one-country, two systems” formula.
(Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Michael Perry)

3/22/2019 China birth rates fall in several regions in 2018: China Daily
FILE PHOTO: A view of the city skyline from the Shanghai Financial Center building, October 25, 2011. The world's population
will reach seven billion on October 31, 2011, according to projections by the United Nations. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
    SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China’s birth rate in several regions, including the capital Beijing, fell again in 2018, the official China Daily said on Friday, despite government efforts to encourage couples to have more children.
    Alarmed by the rapid aging of its population, China relaxed its controversial “one-child policy” in 2016, allowing all couples to have two children instead of just one.
    The change has failed to reverse what demographers say is a long-term trend of falling birth rates fueled by growing prosperity and concerns about the high cost of raising children.
    Beijing’s birth rate fell to 8.24 per 1,000 people in 2018 compared to 9.06 in the previous year, China Daily said, citing figures from local authorities.
    In the financial capital Shanghai, the birth rate dropped to 7.2 per 1,000, from 8.1 in 2017.
    Beijing’s total population fell for a second straight year in 2018, dropping 170,000 to 21.54 million people, though the decline could also be due to new policies aimed at shifting “non-capital functions” out of the city, China Daily said.
    The birth rate in Liaoning, a rustbelt province where the population has dropped in recent years due to an exodus of young people, fell to 6.39 per 1,000, from 6.49 in 2017.
    China recorded 15.23 million births last year, down 2 million from 2017 and the second consecutive annual decline, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).
    Marriage rates are also falling throughout China, with the ratio of newly-registered marriages in the total population down to 0.72 percent last year from 0.99 percent in 2013, NBS data showed.
    China’s aging problem was on the minds of delegates to the annual session of parliament this month, where some called for radical new measures to encourage new births.
    Think tanks expect China’s population to peak at 1.4 billion in 2029 and then begin an “unstoppable” decline that could reduce the workforce by as many as 200 million people by the middle of the century.
    By 2050, China’s dwindling number of workers will be under pressure to support more than 400 million people aged 60 or over, putting the country’s pension, health and social service provisions under immense strain, experts say.
(Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Darren Schuettler)

3/22/2019 U.S. sanctions Chinese companies for violating embargoes on North Korea by OAN Newsroom
    The U.S. is placing sanctions on two Chinese shipping companies after alleging they helped North Korea evade international trade sanctions.
    On Thursday the companies were banned from accessing the U.S. financial system, and any companies who do business with them can now face penalties.    This is seen as an attempt by the U.S. to punish China for allowing its companies to continue illegal trade with North Korea.
    Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said China will oppose any country pushing its jurisdiction on Chinese entities.
    “As for Chinese enterprises and individuals, if any behavior occurs in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, once verified, China will investigate and prosecute according to our domestic law,” stated the Chinese spokesman.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang. (AP/Photo)
    The foreign ministry urged the U.S. to stop the sanctions, and said China doesn’t want the move to affect cooperation between the two countries.
    This is the first time the U.S. has tightened sanctions on North Korea since failed talks in Vietnam last month.

3/22/2019 China says U.S. hyping threat to justify own rising defense spending
FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump salutes a U.S. Army soldier as he observes a
military demonstration with U.S. Army Major General Walter “Walt” Piatt, the Commanding General of the Army's
10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York, U.S., August 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
    BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s Defence Ministry on Friday accused its United States counterpart of deliberately seeking to hype up the threat from China and other nations to justify its own military expenditure, calling the move short-sighted and dangerous.
    U.S. President Donald Trump’s $750-billion defense spending request to Congress is the largest ever in dollar terms, though not after being adjusted for inflation, and is meant to counter the growing strength of the Chinese and Russian militaries.
    By comparison, China this month unveiled a hike of 7.5 percent in defense spending for the year, to 1.19 trillion yuan ($177 billion), though many experts and diplomats say the real figure is probably far higher.    China denies that.
    In a statement, China’s Defence Ministry reiterated its standard line about being committed to a peaceful path, and said the United States loved to talk up the “China threat theory.”
    “We have noted that when the U.S. Defense Department is fighting for military spending, it always likes petty niggling, trying to get even more benefit for itself by exaggerating the threat posed by other countries,” it said.
    “This is short-sighted and extremely dangerous,” it added.
    It urged the United States to cast aside Cold War thinking, and take steps to promote the healthy and stable development of two-way ties between the two militaries.
    The two countries frequently say they are committed to a sound military-to-military relationship, but their armed forces have seen some tense stand-offs in recent years, particularly in the disputed South China Sea, where the U.S. Navy conducts freedom of navigation patrols.
    China is also deeply opposed to U.S. arms sales to self-ruled and democratic Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its sacred territory, to be brought under its control by force if necessary.
    Responding to reports the Trump administration has approved the sales of more F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman on Friday said the government had already lodged “stern representations” with the United States.
    “We urge the U.S. side to fully acknowledge the extreme sensitivity of the relevant issue, and extreme harmfulness of it,” he added.
    The United States is bound by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself.
    Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen will stop over in Hawaii next week at the end of a tour of the Pacific, to China’s anger.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)
[Eventhough China could be a threat it is the Democrats in the U.S. that scares me the most if they take over the SCOTUS, POTUS and LOTUS and push their Socialism on this country again.].

3/23/2019 Italy endorses China’s Belt and Road plan in first for a G7 nation by Giselda Vagnoni
FILE PHOTO: A map illustrating China's silk road economic belt and the 21st century maritime silk road, or the so-called
"One Belt, One Road" megaproject, is displayed at the Asian Financial Forum in Hong Kong, China January 18, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/File Photo
    ROME (Reuters) – Italy endorsed China’s ambitious “Belt and Road” infrastructure plan on Saturday, becoming the first major Western power to back the initiative to help revive the struggling Italian economy.
    Saturday’s signing ceremony was the highlight of a three-day trip to Italy by Chinese President Xi Jinping, with the two nations boosting their ties at a time when the United States is locked in a trade war with China.
    The rapprochement has angered Washington and alarmed some European Union allies, who fear it could see Beijing gain access to sensitive technologies and critical transport hubs.
    Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio played down such concerns, telling reporters that although Rome remained fully committed to its Western partners, it had to put Italy first when it came to commercial ties.
    “This is a very important day for us, a day when Made-in-Italy has won, Italy has won and Italian companies have won,” said Di Maio, who signed the memorandum of understanding on behalf of the Italian government in a Renaissance villa.
    Taking advantage of Xi’s visit, Italian firms inked deals with Chinese counterparts worth an initial 2.5 billion euros ($2.8 billion).    Di Maio said these contracts had a potential, future value of 20 billion euros.
    The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) lies at the heart of China’s foreign policy strategy and was incorporated into the ruling Communist Party constitution in 2017, reflecting Xi’s desire for his country to take a global leadership role.
    The United States worries that it is designed to strengthen China’s military influence and could be used to spread technologies capable of spying on Western interests.
WARM WELCOME
    Italy’s populist government, anxious to lift the economy out of its third recession in a decade, dismissed calls from Washington to shun the BRI and gave Xi the sort of red-carpet welcome normally reserved for its closest allies.
    Some EU leaders also cautioned Italy this week against rushing into the arms of China, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying on Friday that relations with Beijing must not be based primarily on trade.
    There was not even universal backing for the BRI agreement within Italy’s ruling coalition, with Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who heads the far-right League, warning against the risk of China “colonializing” Italian markets.
    Salvini did not meet Xi and declined to attend a state dinner held in honor of the visiting leader on Friday.
    Di Maio, who leads the 5-Star Movement, says Italy is merely playing catch up, pointing to the fact that it exports significantly less to China than either Germany or France.
.     Italy registered a trade deficit with China of 17.6 billion euros last year and Di Maio said the aim was to eliminate the deficit as soon as possible..
    After talks with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Di Maio in the morning, Xi flew to the Sicilian city Palermo for a private visit on Saturday afternoon.
    He is due to head to Monte Carlo on Sunday before finishing his brief tour of Europe in France, where he is due to hold talks with Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
(Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Alexander Smith and Helen Popper)

3/23/2019 Australian PM boosted by re-election of ruling party in largest state by Colin Packham
Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House
in Canberra, Australia, March 20, 2019. AAP Image/Andrew Taylor/via REUTERS
    SYDNEY (Reuters) – Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s re-election prospects got a lift on Saturday when Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales (NSW), returned his ruling Liberal Party to power.
    The NSW election, less than two months before a federal poll, was seen as a test case of Morrison’s strategy to seek re-election on the back of his government’s economic record.
    Speaking shortly after victory was confirmed, Morrison said the victory in NSW foreshadowed a federal victory in May.
    “In two months, we’ll be back here to celebrate another Liberal/National win,” Morrison told supporters in Sydney.
    Morrison’s government is, however, well behind the main opposition Labor party in the most recent polls, trailing by 54 percent to 46 percent on a two-party preferred basis.
    While the Australian economy is the envy of many, NSW’s finances are in even better shape.    Unemployment in NSW is at a near record low, below even the national level which on Thursday was pegged at 4.9 percent.
    State coffers have also swelled, topping more than A$400 billion ($286.44 billion) last year to be worth more than the economies of Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, despite signs of a property price-led pullback.
    But echoing national discontent, Morrison’s Liberal Party saw support ebb away in NSW as some voters felt they have not enjoyed the benefits of the soaring economy.
    Despite this and the Liberal Party’s coalition partner, the Nationals on course to lose several seats that may cost the government an outright majority, the main opposition Labor party conceded NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian will retain power.
    Morrison will now hope to capitalize on the victory when his government delivers its final budget ahead of the election.
    The conservative government has promised to deliver the country’s first budget surplus in a decade and armed with a hefty war chest, Morrison is likely to also promise tax cuts.
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Alexander Smith)

3/24/2019 Iran to cement ties with Lebanon, Hezbollah despite U.S. pressure
FILE PHOTO: A flag of Iran flutters at a tourist park named "Iran Garden" which was funded by Iran, at Maroun Al Ras
village in southern Lebanon, near the border between Lebanon and Israel, October 4, 2010. REUTERS/ Ali Hashisho
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran said on Sunday it would expand its ties with Lebanon in spite of the “provocative and interventionist” call by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for Beirut to choose sides, Iranian state television reported.
    On a regional tour to drum up support for Washington’s harder line against Tehran, Pompeo said on Friday that Lebanon faced a choice – “Bravely move forward as an independent and proud nation, or allow the dark ambitions of Iran and Hezbollah to dictate your future.”
    Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi dismissed Pompeo’s remarks.
    “Because of the failure of its policies in the Middle East, America has turned to the outdated and disgraced weapon of threats and intimidation to impose its imperious policies on other countries,” Qasemi said, state television reported.
    “While respecting the independence of Lebanon and the free will of its government and nation, Iran will use all its capacities to strengthen unity inside Lebanon and also to expand its ties with Lebanon.”
    Hezbollah, whose influence has expanded at home and in the region, controls three of 30 ministries in the government led by Western-backed Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, the largest number in its history.
    The dominant Shi’ite Muslim power Iran and Hezbollah, founded in 1982 by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, are major players in the war in Syria and the fight against militant groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, which include Islamic State.
    Qasemi said that Lebanon’s Hezbollah was a legal and popular party.
    “How can Pompeo make such impudent and irrational remarks (about Hezbollah) while visiting Lebanon,” he said.
    Tensions between Tehran and Washington has increased since U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers last May, and then reimposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
    The restoration of sanctions is part of a wider effort by Trump to force Iran to further curb its nuclear program and to end its ballistic missile work as well as its support for proxy forces in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East.
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi)

3/24/2019 With an eye on Iran, U.S. clinches strategic port deal with Oman by Phil Stewart
General view of Duqm Port in Oman, August 22, 2017. REUTERS/ Nawied Jabarkhyl
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States clinched a strategic port deal with Oman on Sunday which U.S. officials say will allow the U.S. military better access the Gulf region and reduce the need to send ships through the Strait of Hormuz, a maritime choke point off Iran.
    The U.S. embassy in Oman said in a statement that the agreement governed U.S. access to facilities and ports in Duqm as well as in Salalah and “reaffirms the commitment of both countries to promoting mutual security goals.”
    The accord is viewed through an economic prism by Oman, which wants to develop Duqm while preserving its Switzerland-like neutral role in Middle Eastern politics and diplomacy.
    But it comes as the United States grows increasingly concerned about Iran’s expanding missile programs, which have improved in recent years despite sanctions and diplomatic pressure by the United States.
    A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the deal was significant by improving access to ports that connect to a network of roads to the broader region, giving the U.S. military great resiliency in a crisis.
    “We used to operate on the assumption that we could just steam into the Gulf,” one U.S. official said, adding, however, that “the quality and quantity of Iranian weapons raises concerns.”
    Tehran has in the past threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil shipping route at the mouth of the Gulf, in retaliation for any hostile U.S. action, including attempts to halt Iranian oil exports through sanctions.
    Still, the U.S. official noted that the agreement would expand U.S. military options in the region for any kind of crisis.
    Duqm is ideal port for large ships. It is even big enough to turn around an aircraft carrier, a second official said.
    “The port itself is very attractive and the geostrategic location is very attractive, again being outside the Strait of Hormuz,” the official said, adding that negotiations began under the Obama administration.
COMPETITION WITH CHINA
    For Oman, the deal will further advance its efforts to transform Duqm, once just a fishing village 550 km (345 miles) south of capital Muscat, into a key Middle East industrial and port center, as its diversifies its economy beyond oil and gas exports.
    The deal could also better position the United States in the region for what has become a global competition with China for influence.
    Chinese firms once aimed to invest up to $10.7 billion in the Duqm project, a massive injection of capital into Oman, in what was expected to be a commercial, not military, arrangement.
    “It looks to me like the Chinese relationship here isn’t as big as it appeared it was going to be a couple of years ago,” the second official said.
    “There’s a section of the Duqm industrial zone that’s been set aside for the Chinese … and as far as I can tell so far they’ve done just about nothing.”
    Still, China has in the past shown no qualms about rubbing up against U.S. military facilities.
    In 2017, the African nation of Djibouti, positioned at another geostrategic choke-point, the strait of Bab al-Mandeb, became home to China’s first overseas military base.    The U.S. military already had a base located just miles away, which has been crucial for operations against Islamic State, al Qaeda and other militant groups.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

3/25/2019 North Korean officials return to liaison office after pullout by Joyce Lee
FILE PHOTO: The inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex which is still shut down, is seen in this picture taken from the Dora
observatory near the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea reversed a decision to withdraw its staff from an inter-Korean liaison office by sending some back to work on Monday, South Korea said, in a turnaround that came after U.S. President Donald Trump opted not to impose extra sanctions on the North.
    On Friday, North Korea had said it was quitting the office, just hours after the United States imposed the first new sanctions on the North since the second U.S.-North Korea summit broke down last month.
    The liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea, was opened in September and had been one of the key developments made during the detente between North Korea and South Korea in the past year.
    The withdrawal of North Korean staff had been seen as a setback for South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s attempts to engage with Pyongyang.
    However, Trump on Friday said he has decided against imposing new large-scale sanctions on North Korea, a move that experts said could be an effort to defuse tensions or signaling that the “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign on North Korea was not going to get any stronger.
    “Some of North Korean staff members are working at the liaison office” on Monday, the South’s Unification Ministry said in a statement.
    The two sides held a consultation at the liaison office on Monday and will continue to operate the office as usual, after North Korean staff members told the South “we came to do our shift as usual today,” the ministry added.
    Some four or five North Korean officials came to work at the office on Monday, about half the usual level of staffing, and none of the more senior officials were among those who came to work, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.
    A convoy of dozens of South Korean officials had left for the liaison office earlier on Monday in a bid to maintain fragile gains in relations with Pyongyang.
    Analysts reckoned the continued presence of North Koreans at the liaison office probably reflected Pyongyang’s satisfaction over Trump’s decision to hold off on the imposition of more sanctions.
    They said the threatened withdrawal of staff appeared to have been calculated to pressure South Korea into persuading the United States to soft-pedal on sanctions.
(Reporting by Joyce Lee and Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Michael Perry & Simon Cameron-Moore)

3/25/2019 France bans Iran’s Mahan Air for flying arms, troops to Syria, elsewhere by John Irish
FILE PHOTO: An Airbus A340-300 of Iranian airline Mahan Air taxis at Duesseldorf
airport DUS, Germany January 16, 2019. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay
    PARIS (Reuters) – France has banned flights in and out of the country by Iran’s Mahan Air, accusing it of transporting military equipment and personnel to Syria and other Middle East war zones, diplomats said on Monday, after heavy U.S. pressure on Paris to act.
    The decision to revoke Mahan’s license to operate in France was made after Germany banned the airline in January.
    Paris had considered revoking its license more than two years ago under the presidency of Francois Hollande, but had backed down because it feared it could harm relations just after a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers was signed in 2015.
    The United States imposed sanctions on Mahan Air in 2011, saying it provided financial and other support to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), and Washington has been pressing its European allies to follow suit.
    “We knew of their activities from our own intelligence services and after the German move it was a question of credibility,” said a French diplomatic source.
    The French ban on the airline, which had four flights a week to Paris from Tehran, takes effect from April 1.    The airline’s website is no longer taking reservations and calls to its offices in Paris were not answered.
    Tensions between Paris and Tehran have grown in recent months as President Emmanuel Macron and his government have become increasingly frustrated with Iran’s ballistic missile tests, regional activities and a foiled attack on an Iranian exile group in France, which Paris says Iranian intelligence was behind.
    Both countries only reappointed ambassadors to each other’s capitals last month after more than six months without envoys.
    There are no plans at this stage to ban another airline – Iran Air – said one diplomat.
    Mahan Air, established in 1992 as Iran’s first private airline, has the country’s largest fleet of aircraft and has flights to a number of European countries, including France, Italy, Spain and Greece.
    European countries have been under sustained U.S. pressure to reimpose sanctions on Iran since President Donald Trump last year pulled Washington out of an international nuclear non-proliferation treaty reached with Tehran under his predecessor Barack Obama.
    Along with Iran, the other signatories to the deal – Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China – are still trying to keep it alive and set up in January a mechanism to allow trade with Tehran and circumvent U.S. sanctions.
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta, William Maclean)

3/25/2019 China says Xinjiang trips very successful, slams U.S. ‘slander’
FILE PHOTO: With Xinjiang’s fabled Tianshan mountains in the background, what is officially known as a vocational skills
education centre is seen in Turpan in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China September 5, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo
    BEIJING (Reuters) – Trips organized by China’s government to the western region of Xinjiang for diplomats and reporters have been very successful at showing people the true situation there, the foreign ministry said on Monday, denouncing U.S. criticism as “slander.”
    China has been stepping up a push to counter growing criticism in the West and among rights groups about a controversial de-radicalisation program in heavily Muslim Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia.
    Critics say China is operating internment camps for Uighurs and other Muslim peoples who live in Xinjiang, though the government calls them vocational training centers and says it has a genuine need to prevent extremist thinking and violence.
    A U.S. official told Reuters that “highly choreographed” tours to Xinjiang organized by the Chinese government were misleading and propagated false narratives about the troubled region.
    Speaking at a daily news briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said such trips were to raise the international community’s understanding about Xinjiang’s social and economic development.
    “The people who have been on the trips felt for themselves the real situation Xinjiang’s calm and order and the happy lives and jobs of all the people’s there, and all positively appraised China’s policy governing Xinjiang,” Geng said.
    The U.S. criticism “does not accord with the facts,” he added.    “It is purely rumor starting and slander.”
    China resolutely opposes the United States interfering in its internal affairs using the Xinjiang issue, Geng said.
    “At present Xinjiang is politically stable, the economy is developing and society is harmonious.”
    The foreign ministry said late last week it would invite Beijing-based European diplomats to visit soon.    Sources have told Reuters the invitation was made to European Union ambassadors based in Beijing.
    Geng said talks were ongoing about that trip. He did not elaborate.
    There have been two visits by groups including European diplomats to Xinjiang this year.    One was a small group of EU diplomats, and the other by a group of diplomats from a broader mix of countries, including missions from Greece, Hungary and North African and Southeast Asian states.
    A Reuters journalist visited on a government-organised trip in January.
    Late last year, more than a dozen ambassadors from Western countries, including France, Britain, Germany and the EU’s top envoy in Beijing, wrote to the government to seek a meeting with Xinjiang’s top official, Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo, to discuss their concerns about the rights situation.
    The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has weighed sanctions against senior Chinese officials in Xinjiang, including Chen.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Kim Coghill)

3/25/2019 India, Pakistan spar over alleged religious conversion of Hindu girls
Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj speaks during a meeting with her Russian counterpart
Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Russia September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
    NEW DELHI/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – India and Pakistan are quarrelling over reports of an alleged kidnapping and religious conversion of two Hindu girls in mostly Muslim Pakistan last week.
    The spat began on Sunday when India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj tweeted that she had asked the country’s high commissioner in Islamabad to send a report on a news article on the allegations, a rare public intervention by a top Indian official in the neighbor’s domestic affairs.
    Pakistani police said they had registered a complaint of kidnapping and robbery by the teenagers’ parents and that arrests could be made on Monday.
    Pakistan’s Information and Broadcasting Minister Fawad Chaudhry said the country was “totally behind the girls,” but asked Hindu-majority India to look after its own minority Muslims.
    “Madam Minister, I am happy that in the Indian administration we have people who care for minority rights in other countries,” Chaudhry replied to Swaraj’s tweet.
    “I sincerely hope that your conscience will allow you to stand up for minorities at home as well.    Gujarat and Jammu must weigh heavily on your soul.”
    Later in a press conference on Sunday, he referred to religious riots in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat in 2002 during which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed.    In Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, Pakistan accuses India of human rights violations, a charge New Delhi denies.
    An Indian foreign ministry source cited three more instances of forceful marriages of Hindu or Sikh women in Pakistan in the past two years and said that the government had raised “intimidation of Sikhs, Hindus, and desecration of their places of worship” with Pakistan on various occasions.
    The Indian government run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will seek a second term in a general election starting next month.    Modi has taken a tougher stand towards Pakistan in the past five years.
(Reporting by Krishna N. Das, Syed Raza Hassan and Saad Sayeed; Editing by Michael Perry)

3/25/2019 U.S. Navy, Coast Guard ships pass through strategic Taiwan Strait by Idrees Ali
The U.S. Coast Guard Legend-class maritime security cutter USCGC Bertholf (WMSL 750) pulls into Joint Base
Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawii, U.S. to support the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2012 exercise in this
June 29, 2012 handout photo. Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jon Dasbach/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States sent Navy and Coast Guard ships through the Taiwan Strait on Sunday, the U.S. military said, as part of an increase in the frequency of movement through the strategic waterway despite opposition from China.
    The voyage risks raising tensions with China further but will likely be viewed by self-ruled Taiwan as a sign of support from Washington amid growing friction between Taipei and Beijing.
    The two ships were identified as the Navy destroyer Curtis Wilbur and the Coast Guard cutter Bertholf, a U.S. military statement said.
    “The ships’ transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the statement said.
    “The U.S. will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” it added.
    Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in Beijing that China had already lodged “representations” with the United States, and that it had paid “close attention” to the U.S. ships.
    China urges the United States to “cautiously and appropriately handle the Taiwan issue to avoid harming Sino-U.S. relations and peace and stability in the Taiwan strait,” Geng said.
    In Taipei, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said the ships had passed through the Taiwan Strait from the southwest and proceeded in a northerly direction.
    Taiwan’s armed forces monitored their progress to “ensure regional stability and security of the coastal border region,” the ministry said, adding nothing out of the ordinary was observed and there was no cause for alarm.
    Taiwan is one of a growing number of flashpoints in the U.S.-China relationship, which also include a trade war, U.S. sanctions and China’s increasingly muscular military posture in the South China Sea, where the United States also conducts freedom of navigation patrols.
    Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, to China’s anger, will stop over in Hawaii this week at the end of a tour of the Pacific.
    Washington has no formal ties with Taiwan but is bound by law to help provide the democratic island with the means to defend itself and is its main source of arms.
    The Pentagon says the United States has sold Taiwan more than $15 billion in weaponry since 2010.
    Beijing has been ramping up pressure to assert its sovereignty over the island, which it considers a wayward province of “one China” and sacred Chinese territory.
    China has repeatedly sent military aircraft and ships to circle Taiwan during drills in the past few years and worked to isolate the island internationally, whittling down its few remaining diplomatic allies.
    The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency released a report earlier this year describing Taiwan as the “primary driver” for China’s military modernization, which it said had made major advances in recent years.
    U.S. President Donald Trump has said trade negotiations with China were progressing and a final agreement “will probably happen,” adding that his call for tariffs to remain on Chinese imported goods for some time did not mean talks were in trouble.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Additional reporting by Yimou Lee in TAIPEI and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Sandra Maler and Michael Perry)

3/25/2019 U.S. official: China Muslim work camp tours ‘organized and misleading’ by OAN Newsroom
    According to a U.S. official, tours of Chinese “vocational camps” are highly organized and misleading.
    The official, speaking anonymously, said Sunday that the tours are “highly choreographed and chaperoned,” and help cover the government’s ongoing human rights abuses in the region.    He went on to say the U.S. ambassador has no plans to visit a camp himself.
FILE – With Xinjiang’s fabled Tianshan mountains in the background, what is officially known as a vocational skills education
center is seen in Turpan in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China September 5, 2018. (REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo)
    The official’s comment comes one day after Amnesty International members protested Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy as part of an upcoming economic summit.
    “We are here to ask for protection of human rights in China because this nation has the highest number of human rights violations,” stated Chiara Di Maria, member of Amnesty International.
    China has pushed back against criticism against its controversial “deradicalization” program in the Muslim-populated northwestern part of the country.
    The official described the situation as “highly repressive,” saying the claims that the facilities are training centers or boarding schools are not credible.

3/25/2019 South Korean officials to press for Iran sanction waiver in U.S.
FILE PHOTO: The Iranian flag flutters in front the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),
headquarters in Vienna, Austria March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – South Korean government officials are expected to press for extending a sanctions waiver on Iran’s petroleum exports that expires in May on a visit to Washington this week.
    South Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Economic Affairs Yoon Kang-hyun and other leaders will meet with U.S. State Department officials on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss the waiver issued in November to keep buying Iranian oil in exchange for having reduced such purchases, the Seoul government said in a news release on Monday.
    The Trump administration has unilaterally reimposed sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, the lifeblood of its economy, as it seeks to curb Tehran’s nuclear and missile ambitions and its influence Syria and other countries in the Middle East Washington issued sanctions waivers for eight economies in November, including for South Korea, Iran’s fourth largest oil customer in Asia.    But the administration has said it wants the exports to go to zero as quickly as possible.
    The current U.S. goal is to reduce the number of sanctions waivers and to cut Iran’s oil exports about 20 percent, to below 1 million barrels of oil per day from May, sources said this month.
    The South Korean officials will meet with the State Department’s top energy diplomat Francis Fannon on Thursday.    On Wednesday they will meet with Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, and David Peyman, the deputy assistant secretary of state for counter threat finance and sanctions.    The State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the meetings.
    Peyman met with South Korean officials in Asia earlier this month.    He offered “to continue to closely consult on the extension of sanctions exemption and Korean companies’ technical issues regarding trade with Iran,” a statement from Seoul’s foreign ministry said at the time.
    South Korea is a large buyer of a light oil called condensates from Iran and has told a former U.S. official that there are few options for getting the same quality of condensate from other suppliers.
    South Korea’s oil imports from Iran fell 12.5 percent year-on-year in February, customs data showed this month.
    Yonhap news agency quoted a South Korean official as saying that Seoul has had discussions since November with Washington on gaining an extended exception and that ending the purchases of condensates would affect its economy.    “No extension means no imports of Iranian condensate,” an official told Yonhap.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Tom Brown)

3/25/2019 France seals multi-billion dollar deals with China, but questions Belt and Road project by Marine Pennetier and John Irish
French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping at the
Elysee Palace in Paris, France, March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
    PARIS (Reuters) – France and China signed deals worth billions of euros on Monday, including a huge Airbus plane order, during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, despite Paris pushing back against Beijing’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure initiative.
    President Emmanuel Macron wants to forge a united European front to confront Chinese advances in trade and technology.    Xi’s visit also provided a stage for protesters seeking more European action over the alleged mistreatment of minorities in China.
    “Europe must be united and have a coherent message.    That’s what we are doing on strategic investments,” Macron said in a joint address with Xi.    Neither leader took questions.
    After Macron and Xi meet on Monday, the two will hold further talks on Tuesday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the European Union executive.
    Xi arrived in France after visiting Italy, the first Western power to endorse China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative as Rome tries to revive its struggling economy.
    The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) plan, championed by Xi, aims to link China by sea and land with Southeast and Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa, through an infrastructure network on the lines of the old Silk Road.
    France says Silk Road cooperation must work in both directions.
    Macron said European firms needed better access to China, more trust in their exchanges and a tangible improvement in the business environment and fair competition.    He said the BRI had to meet international norms.
    The two sides signed 15 business deals totaling about 40 billion euros ($45 billion), including an order for 300 Airbus planes estimated at 30 billion euros alone.
    The contracts ranged from the renewable energy sector to shipping and banking.    Macron also said China has agreed to lift an embargo on French poultry.
CHALLENGE AND PARTNER
    In a column in the French daily Le Figaro published on Sunday, Xi made clear he wanted Paris to cooperate in the Belt and Road project, calling for more trade and investment in sectors ranging from nuclear energy to aeronautics and farming.
    “It’s up to us to work with France to develop a global and strategic partnership that is more robust, stable and dynamic,” Xi said alongside Macron.    “We want our development to benefit others and that’s the case with the BRI.”
    French officials describe China as both a challenge and partner, saying France must remain especially vigilant over any Chinese attempts to appropriate foreign technology for its own purposes.
    The EU is already weighing a more defensive strategy on China, spurred by Beijing’s slowness in opening up its economy, Chinese takeovers in critical sectors, and a feeling in European capitals that Beijing has not stood up for free trade.
    As part of efforts to further that approach, Macron will play host to Merkel and Juncker on Tuesday to meet with Xi to move away from a purely bilateral approach to ties.
    “Macron is not happy to see China win so many prizes in Rome, so he has invented a bizarre European format by inviting Merkel and Juncker as a counterbalance to show that he is the driving force behind European integration,” said one Paris-based Asian diplomat.
    Rights organizations also urged Macron not to skirt the subject of human rights in China, especially Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region.
    Several hundred demonstrators converged in central Paris on Monday with slogans protesting against the alleged mistreatment of China’s Muslim Uighurs and in defense of Tibet, 60 years after that region’s failed uprising against Chinese rule.
    “The European Union is based on respect for individual freedoms and fundamental rights,” Macron said.    “That’s why France brings this issue up in its dialogue with China to express concerns that are ours and those of Europe on the question of respecting fundamental rights in China.”
($1 = 0.8833 euros)
(Additional reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Mark Potter)
[The Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes that connected the East and West.    It was central to cultural interaction between the regions for many centuries.    The Silk Road primarily refers to the terrestrial routes connecting East Asia and Southeast Asia with East Africa, West Asia and Southern Europe.]

3/26/2019 South Korea’s unification minister nominee says North Korea can’t have nukes, prosperity by Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee
Kim Yeon-chul, a nominee for South Korean Unification Minister, speaks during a confirmation hearing for the post of
Unification Minister at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
    SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea’s nominee for unification minister said on Tuesday that North Korea cannot expect to achieve a prosperous economy and keep its weapons programs, as nuclear talks have stalled since the collapse of a U.S.-North Korea summit last month.
    The summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi fell apart over conflicting demands by the North for sanctions relief and from the United States for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
    Since then, relations between the two Koreas have been left in limbo.
    South Korean President Moon Jae-in recently tapped pro-engagement scholar Kim Yeon-chul as new unification minister in charge of inter-Korean affairs.
    “I will seek a creative solution so that North Korea and the U.S. can meet again soon and find common ground,” Kim told a confirmation hearing, without elaborating.
    Kim, 55, advised Moon’s office on Korean summits before moving to head the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification.    If he passes the hearing, he is expected to expedite Moon’s initiative for a “peace-driven economy.”
    Kim said North Korea has taken some action toward denuclearization but it was “insufficient,” and the increased priority that North Korea is giving to its economic development should be used as leverage to encourage more progress on dismantling its weapons programs.
    “Basically I think they can’t have both nuclear weapons and the economy at the same time,” Kim said.
    A professor who headed a think tank affiliated with the Unification Ministry under Moon, Kim is a staunch advocate for a restart of inter-Korean economic cooperation, but progress has been hampered by international sanctions over the North’s nuclear and missile programs.
    Kim apologized past remarks he made on social media as a scholar that had prompted some opposition lawmakers to nickname him “North Korean spokesman.”
    In 2011, Kim had described a torpedo attack by North Korea that sank a South Korean navy ship in 2010 as an “accidental incident.”
    While stressing the North carried out the torpedo attack, he said the sanctions imposed by the South’s then government should be resolved in a “flexible” manner, noting that the sanctions hurt South Korean firms.
    In 2010 Kim wrote an opinion piece in which he referred to the killing of a South Korean tourist by a North Korean soldier in the North’s Mount Kumgang resort in 2008 as a “rite of passage.”
    At the hearing, an opposition politician aired a recording of demands from the son of the deceased tourist for Kim to clarify his remarks.
    The nominee said the North was responsible for the incident, and expressed condolences to the tourist’s family. (Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee; Editing by Michael Perry & Simon Cameron-Moore)

3/26/2019 Exclusive: Russia, China tells U.N. they sent home over half North Korean workers in 2018 by Michelle Nichols
The North Korea flag flutters next to concertina wire at the North Korean embassy
in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su
    UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Russia sent home nearly two-thirds of some 30,000 North Koreans working there during 2018 and China repatriated more than half, but did not specify a figure, according to unpublished reports by Moscow and Beijing to the United Nations Security Council.
    The one-page reports, seen by Reuters on Tuesday, were submitted to the council’s North Korea sanctions committee in compliance with a 2017 resolution that demanded the repatriation of all North Korean workers by the end of this year to stop them earning foreign currency for leader Kim Jong Un’s authorities.
    The United States has said it believed Pyongyang was earning more than $500 million a year from nearly 100,000 workers abroad, of which some 80,000 were in China and 30,000 in Russia.
    The U.N. Security Council has steadily toughened sanctions on North Korea since 2006 to choke off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.    U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have met twice in the past year in a bid to negotiate denuclearization.
    The December 2017 U.N. resolution required countries to report to the sanctions committee this month on all North Korean workers repatriated during 2018 “including an explanation of why less than half of such” workers were repatriated if applicable.
    Russia reported that in 2018 the number of North Koreans “with valid work permits in the Russian Federation decreased from 30,023 to 11,490 persons.”    Key North Korean ally China said it had repatriated “more than half of the total DPRK nationals earning income.”
    “China will continue earnestly implementing its international obligations, carry out the repatriation work in an orderly manner and complete the repatriation on time,” wrote China’s mission to the United Nations, adding that it did not want the report to be made public.
    In 2015, U.N. human rights investigator Marzuki Darusman said that the North Koreans abroad worked mainly in mining, logging, textile and construction.    The reports submitted by Russia and China to the sanctions committee did not specify what industries had employed the North Koreans.
    New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a 2017 report that “the treatment of North Korean workers overseas falls short of international labor standards, with no right to freedom of association or expression, control by minders who limit freedom of movement and access to information from the outside world, long working hours and no right to refuse overtime.”
    North Korea has said its laborers were working abroad legally and were not mistreated or forced to go.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Michael Perry)

3/26/2019 Xinjiang needs to ‘perfect’ stability measures, top China leader says
Wang Yang, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), speaks at the
opening session of the CPPCC at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China March 3, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee
    BEIJING (Reuters) – Xinjiang needs to “perfect” stability maintenance measures and crack down on religious extremism, the ruling Communist Party’s fourth-ranked leader said on a tour of the troubled region where China is running a controversial de-radicalisation program.
    Critics say China is operating internment camps for Uighurs and other Muslim peoples who live in Xinjiang, though the government calls them vocational training centers and says it has a genuine need to prevent extremist thinking and violence.
    During a March 20-25 visit to Xinjiang, including Kashgar and Tumxuk in the strongly Uighur southern part of the region, Wang Yang said the situation in Xinjiang was “continuing to develop well,” the official Xinjiang Daily said on Tuesday.
    Authorities “must perfect stability-maintenance measures, and maintain high pressure on the ‘three forces’,” the paper cited Wang as saying, referring to terror, extremism and separatism.
    “Correctly implement the party’s policy on ethnic minorities, resolutely oppose and crack down on ethnic separatist forces,” added Wang, who heads the high profile but largely ceremonial advisory body to China’s parliament.
    “Resolutely oppose and crack down on religious extremist thought, and at the same time ensure the normal religious needs of believers in accordance with the law.”
    The report made no mention of the de-radicalisation centers.
    China has been stepping up a push to counter growing criticism in the West and among rights groups about the program in heavily Muslim Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia.
    That has included inviting foreign diplomats and reporters to visit on well chaperoned tours, including a Reuters reporter in January.
    The government has shown happy, well-dressed people in the centers on these trips, and said they are treated respectfully and have their rights protected.    Rights groups though say there is mistreatment and even torture, charges China denies.
    The government has not said how many people are in these centers.    Adrian Zenz, a leading independent researcher on China’s ethnic policies, said this month an estimated 1.5 million Uighurs and other Muslims could be held in the centers in Xinjiang, up from his earlier figure of 1 million.
    However, European Union ambassadors in Beijing will not be visiting Xinjiang this week after receiving a government invitation, as such a trip needs “careful preparation,” a spokesperson for the bloc said on Monday.
    A U.S. official told Reuters that “highly choreographed” tours to Xinjiang organized by the Chinese government were misleading and propagated false narratives about the region.
    Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the main exiled group, the World Uyghur Congress, said the invite to EU officials to Xinjiang was a “political trick” meant to deflect pressure from the international community.
    “We hope the EU officials could use this opportunity to ask for an unobstructed deep understanding of the situation on the ground, and refuse China’s specially orchestrated political show,” he said in a statement.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Gao Liangping; Editing by Kim Coghill)

3/26/2019 U.S. sanctions firms accused of helping fund Iran’s Revolutionary Guards by Lesley Wroughton
FILE PHOTO: Protestors gather during an Organization of Iranian-American Communities rally in support of a
government change in Iran during a demonstration in Washington, U.S., March 8, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Young
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Tuesday imposed fresh sanctions on a network of companies and people in Iran, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates it said was helping to raise billions of dollars to fund the operations of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards.
    The U.S. Treasury blacklisted 25 people and organizations, including a clutch of front companies based in the three countries, that were working on behalf of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Iran’s defense ministry to raise money for their activities.
    The targeted institutions include banks and other financial institutions such as Ansar Bank, Atlas Exchange, Iranian Atlas Company, the U.S. Treasury said in a statement.
    “We are exposing an extensive sanctions evasion network that was established by the Iranian regime to evade American sanctions,” Brian Hook, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, told reporters.    “With this action today we are increasing our pressure even further on the Iranian regime.”
    Hook described Ansar as “the banker” of the Revolutionary Guards and its overseas operations run by Quds Force. He said the bank paid the salaries of IRGC-Quds Force employees and Iranian foreign fighters in Syria.
    “They created front companies to access the U.S. financial system on their own,” said Hook, adding that Tehran was feeling the pressure from U.S. sanctions and created the network to look for a way around the restrictions.
    He said the Ansar front companies had raised $800 million over the last year and a half to buy military vehicles and to fund the IRGC’s and Quds Force operations.
    Additionally, Hook said the United States was sanctioning Iran’s defense ministry “for its support for terrorism” and providing logistics support to the Revolutionary Guards.
    A U.S. official said the sanctions were not related to the U.S. State Department’s labeling of groups as so-called foreign terrorist organizations, known as FTOs.    The defense ministry was blacklisted in 2007 for its role in weapons of mass destruction proliferation, Hook added.
    “We are now expanding our authorities against Iran’s ministry of defense for its support for terrorism,” Hook told reporters at the State Department.
    The sanctions are part of a campaign by Washington to pressure Tehran to negotiate a comprehensive plan to end its nuclear and missile programs.
    President Donald Trump withdrew last year from a 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers.    Since abandoning the agreement, the United States has imposed a string of new sanctions aimed at choking off Iran’s funding, especially from oil.
    The IRGC is by far Iran’s most powerful security organization and has control over large stakes of the Iranian economy and huge influence in its political system.
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Susan Heavey; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli, James Dalgleish and Paul Simao)

3/27/2019 Thailand’s opposition parties form alliance, demands junta step aside by Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panarat Thepgumpanat
Sudarat Keyuraphan, Pheu Thai Party's prime ministerial candidate, talks during a news conference to
form a "democratic front" in Bangkok, Thailand, March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
    BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand’s opposition “democratic front” of seven parties on Wednesday claimed it had won a majority in the lower house of parliament after a messy election, saying it has the right to try to form a government after five years of military rule.
    However, the opposition alliance would still fall short of being able to elect a prime minister.
    Under parliamentary rules, written by the ruling military junta, the party or coalition picking a prime minister requires a majority in the combined upper and lower houses of parliament.
    With unofficial results of Sunday’s vote still delayed, the ruling junta showed no sign giving up on its goal to keep former army chief and coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha in the premiership.
    The post-election standoff could raise tensions just as the Southeast Asian country prepares for the elaborate coronation of its new king in May.
    Sudarat Keyuraphan, the main prime ministerial candidate of the Pheu Thai party ousted by the 2014 army coup, told reporters the seven parties in the opposition alliance would take at least 255 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives.
    “We declare that the democratic front who opposes military rule commands the majority in the House,” Sudarat said.
    She said the largest alliance in the lower house should be given the right to try to form a government.
    “Parties in the democratic front gained the most trust from the people,” Sudarat told reporters, adding that they were also in talks with other parties.
    The pro-military Palang Pracharat party has also claimed the right to form the next government based on its early lead in the popular vote.    And an official with the pro-army party also said it could still win a majority as the count was still in flux.
    “We got the most popular votes.    Almost 8 million wanted to see Prayuth as prime minister,” Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana, Palang Pracharat’s deputy spokesman, told reporters.
    When asked about the democratic front’s claim, deputy junta leader Prawit Wongsuwan said parties should not act prematurely as it will be six weeks until the election commission publishes official results.
    The partial count suggests the election could result in parliamentary deadlock even once a government is eventually formed.
    With the Senate filled with un-elected pro-junta lawmakers, the Palang Pracharat party looks like it could win enough elected seats in the lower house for Prayuth to stay on as prime minister.
    Prayuth would potentially face parliamentary deadlock if the opposition alliance controls the lower house, and he would be vulnerable to a confidence vote.
    Pheu Thai’s secretary-general, Phumtham Wechayachai, told reporters the democratic front now includes Future Forward party, Pheu Chart, Prachachart, Seri Ruam Thai, Thai People Power and New Economy.
    A fuller picture of the make-up of the lower house could emerge on Friday, when the commission releases vote tallies for each constituency, which will then be used to determine the allocation of other 150 party seats under a complex formula.
(Editing by Kay Johnson and Simon Cameron-Moore)

3/27/2019 India shoots down satellite in space; Modi hails major breakthrough by Sanjeev Miglani and Krishna N. Das
FILE PHOTO: India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during the Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit
in Gandhinagar, India, January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Amit Dave/File Photo
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India has shot down a satellite in space with an anti-satellite missile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Wednesday, hailing the test as a major breakthrough in its space program.
    Modi made the announcement in a television address to the nation.    He said India would only be the fourth country to have used such an anti-satellite weapon after the United States, Russia and China.
    Such capabilities have raised fears of the weaponization of space and setting off a race between rival powers.
    “Some time ago, our scientists, shot down a live satellite 300 kilometers away in space, in low-earth orbit,” Modi said, calling it a historic feat.
    “India has made an unprecedented achievement today,” he said, speaking in Hindi.    “India registered its name as a space power.”
    Modi faces a general election next month. He went on Twitter earlier to announce his plan for a national broadcast, saying he had an important announcement to make.
    India has had a space program for years, making earth imaging satellites and launch capabilities as a cheaper alternative to Western programs.
    Brahma Chellaney, a security expert at New Delhi’s Centre of Policy Research, said the United States, Russia and China were pursuing anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons.
    “Space is being turned into a battlefront, making counter-space capabilities critical.    In this light, India’s successful 'kill' with an ASAT weapon is significant.”
    No comment was immediately available from old rival Pakistan.    There was also no immediate reaction from China’s foreign or defense ministries.
    China destroyed a satellite in 2007, creating the largest orbital debris cloud in history, with more than 3,000 objects, according to the Secure World Foundation.
    Ajay Lele, a senior fellow at the government-funded Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, said India was spurred into the anti-satellite program by China’s test.
    Indian defense scientists have sought political approval for live tests but successive governments had baulked, fearing international condemnation, an Indian defense official said.
US AN EARLY PIONEER
    The United States performed the first anti-satellite test in 1959, when satellites themselves were rare and new.
    Bold Orion, a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile repurposed to attack satellites, was launched from a bomber and passed close enough to the Explorer 6 satellite that it would have been destroyed if the nuclear warhead had been live.
    The Soviet Union performed similar tests.    In the 1960s and early 1970s, it tested a weapon that would be launched into orbit, approach enemy satellites and destroy them with an explosive charge, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
    In 1985, the United States tested the AGM-135, launched from an F-15 fighter, destroying an American satellite called Solwind P78-1.
    There were no tests for more than 20 years, until 2007, when China entered the anti-satellite arena.
    The next year, the United States carried out Operation Burnt Frost, using a ship-launched SM-3 missile to destroy a defunct spy satellite.
    But Modi who is heading a Hindu nationalist-led government has taken a consistently strong position on national security, launching air strikes last month on a suspected militant camp in Pakistan that led to retaliatory raids by Pakistan in a dramatic ratcheting up of tensions between the nuclear-rivals.
    Lele said India had in all likelihood destroyed its own satellite in the three-minute test conducted on Wednesday.
    “India has used a missile that had no warhead, so there is only a metal strip on top of the missile or a metal part and the missile shoots that metal into space, and because of the impact a kinetic energy gets generated that creates further impact,” he said.
    Tensions between India and Pakistan remain high.    India’s big concern is China’s defense assistance to Pakistan including in its missile programs and analysts say the fear is that Islamabad turns to Beijing for help to neutralize any Indian advantage such as the latest test in space capabilities.
    “I don’t think Pakistan has acquired that level of accomplishment yet by itself, but Pakistan is no longer seen alone,” said Uday Bhaskar, director of Society for Policy Studies, another Delhi think-tank.
    “Pakistan and China have a very deep strategic kind of partnership.    So some kind of sharing of capabilities can’t be ignored.”
(Additional reporting by Gerry Doyle in SINGAPORE, Zeba Siddiqui in New Delhi, Ben Blanchard in Beijing, James Mackenzie in Islamabad.; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Robert Birsel)

3/27/2019 Tibetans in exile struggle to see beyond Dalai Lama by Krishna N. Das
FILE PHOTO: Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama delivers teachings during the first day of New Year or
"Losar" in the northern hill town of Dharamsala, India February 22, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo
    DHARAMSHALA, India (Reuters) – At a prayer meeting for the health of the Dalai Lama at his base in northern India, Tibetan refugees said they are worried that their fight for a homeland will die with the 83-year-old Buddhist monk as China’s international influence grows.
    Up to 100,000 Tibetan Buddhists live in exile in India, 60 years after their spiritual leader took refuge there after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
    Ever since, the Dalai Lama has been at the center of a struggle to keep alive the dream of a Tibet that has cultural and linguistic freedom, and freedom from what they see as suppression by the Chinese state.
    The Nobel peace laureate is regarded as one of the most influential people in the world, with a following extending well beyond Buddhism.
    Though he has set up a democratic structure for Tibetans in exile, many find it difficult to see how things will carry on after his death.
    “It’s a Sunday but we have come to pray for his good health,” said Tenzin Dawa, an 18-year-old student in the green-and-blue uniform of his Tibetan boarding school.
    As he spoke, dozens of Buddhist monks chanted nearby at a temple in the complex where the Dalai Lama lives in the hill town of Dharamshala.
    “We’re very worried about him, our future.    We are longing to see our homeland, heard so many stories from my grandma.    But China is trying to finish our culture in Tibet.”
    Rinchen, a 48-year-old Tibetan who gave only one name, said he saw similarities between the Dalai Lama and Indian independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, whose non-violent protests were instrumental in ending British colonial rule.
    “He can do everything for us, he is our Gandhi,” Rinchen, a father of three, said.
    “Violence can’t win it for us.    We can’t even make a match box.    But we need a Gandhi to win a non-violent fight.”
POWER
    China considers the Dalai Lama a dangerous separatist and prohibits displays of his picture or any public show of devotion towards him.
    At the same time, China denies suppressing the rights of the Tibetan people.    It says its rule there ended serfdom and brought prosperity to what was a backward region, and that it fully respects the rights of the people.
    The Dalai Lama, in an interview with Reuters in his office, said the power of Tibetans was “based on truth,” which would eventually win.
    Tibetan exiles see China’s growing power as the biggest hurdle to their dream of securing a “free” homeland.
    When the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet in 1959, China was a poor country fighting poverty.    Now it competes with the United States for global authority.
    Citing Gandhi’s boycott of foreign-made clothes, Tibetan cook Tsering Dorjee and his colleagues at the temple kitchen said shunning Chinese goods could become a powerful tool for them to sustain their fight even after the Dalai Lama.
    “They’re extremely powerful now, even America is scared of them,” Dorjee, 53, said outside the kitchen as visitors turned the golden-yellow praying wheels lining the temple on two sides.
    “Everybody buys their products.    People don’t realize they are empowering China at the cost of their own country.”
(Reporting by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Robert Birsel)

3/27/2019 China says Tibet human rights critics ‘bewitched’ by Dalai Lama by Ben Blanchard
People cross a road under flags marking Tibetan Serfs' Emancipation Day on March 28, in Lhasa, Tibet
Autonomous Region, China March 26, 2019. Picture taken March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer
    BEIJING (Reuters) – Those who criticize China over human rights in Tibet have been “bewitched” by the Dalai Lama, a senior Chinese official said on Wednesday, days before the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan spiritual leader’s flight into exile in India.
    China says it “peacefully liberated” Tibet in 1950 and has since exerted enormous effort to bring the remote region into the modern era, abolishing feudal practices while protecting its Buddhist people’s right to freely practise their religion and maintain their culture.
    Critics, including the United States, say China rules with an iron fist and has overseen widespread rights abuses.
    Deputy Tibet governor Norbu Dondrup said Tibetan society was “very dark and very cruel” before Communist Party rule.    He was speaking in Beijing on the release of a policy paper marking six decades since China began what it calls “democratic reforms” in Tibet.
    He said ordinary people – or “serfs” – could be bought and sold, thrown in jail, or even killed at will when the Dalai Lama was in charge in Tibet.
    “The Dalai Lama attacking our human rights totally has ulterior motives.    He tramples on human rights, and has no right, no qualifications, and is unworthy of talking about human rights,” Norbu Dondrup said.
    “As for some countries slamming our human rights, they either don’t understand or believe the Dalai clique’s rumors and bewitchments,” he said.
    The human rights situation in Tibet was extremely good, he said, listing examples such as free medical care and an abundance of food.
    Asked whether China would ever allow an independence referendum in Tibet, as has happened in Scotland and Quebec, Norbu Dondrup said Tibet has been an inseparable part of China since ancient times.
    “We have never recognized Tibet independence, and neither has any other country,” he said.    “Moreover, the peoples of Tibet in the extended family of the peoples of the motherland now have very happy lives.”
    China reviles the Dalai Lama, who crossed the border into exile in India on March 31, 1959, after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
    Seen by Beijing as a dangerous separatist, he says he seeks merely genuine autonomy for his mountainous homeland and denies espousing violence.
    The Dalai Lama told Reuters last week it was possible that, once he dies, his incarnation could be found in India and warned that any other successor named by China would not be respected.
    The officially atheist Communist Party says it must approve his and other reincarnations of Tibetan lamas.
    The Tibet issue has also become another irritant in China-U.S. ties after President Donald Trump signed into law a Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act in December
    That seeks to press China to open the region by denying U.S. entry to officials deemed responsible for restricting access to Tibet.    China has denounced the law.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Paul Tait)

3/27/2019 In U.S. pursuit of peace talks, perilous rift opens with Afghan leader by Phil Stewart, Jonathan Landay and Hamid Shalizi
FILE PHOTO: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a news conference in
Kabul, Afghanistan July 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/File Photo
    WASHINGTON/KABUL (Reuters) – Washington’s relationship with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani appears increasingly at risk of permanent damage, the consequence of a U.S. policy shift that has so far excluded his government from talks with the Taliban and of his own determination to retain power and manage peace efforts himself.
    The feud threatens to undermine the already narrow chances for a peace accord that President Donald Trump hopes would end America’s longest war.
    Current and former U.S. officials tell Reuters they believe Ghani is positioning himself to perhaps be a spoiler in still-fragile negotiations, angry that the Afghan government has been kept out of talks and worried about the implications for his presidency.
    But from Ghani’s perspective, the negotiations themselves, led by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, feel like a personal betrayal and a capitulation by the United States that could return the Taliban to power, Afghan officials say.
    “Khalilzad wants to show that he is the champion of peace and President Ghani does not want to be the villain.    The president believes he is being betrayed,” an Afghan government official said.
    The growing rift between Kabul and Washington over the peace negotiations erupted in public view on March 14 when Ghani’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, slammed Khalilzad and accused the Afghan-born veteran U.S. diplomat of perhaps trying to steal the Afghan presidency for himself.
    “(Ghani’s worried) there could be some agreement for an interim government and he’ll be on the outside looking in,” said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
    The official added that Washington should expect Ghani will act like a politician in an election year, saying: “We shouldn’t expect that Ghani is going to be Ghani the statesman, where he says: ‘The best thing would be for me to step aside’.”
    The blow-up over Mohib’s attack has had serious repercussions.    The following day, the State Department decreed that U.S. officials should have no further contact with Mohib and his presence at a meeting on Monday between Ghani and NATO diplomats prompted the U.S. delegation to walk out of the presidential palace, Afghan sources said on condition of anonymity.    The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
    The discord carries echoes of tensions under Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who became an intense critic of the United States during his 13 years in power.
    But the acrimony is still largely behind closed doors. Ghani is dependent on U.S. support, as Afghanistan’s main economic, diplomatic and security backer, and there are signs that he will move to limit the fallout on ties.
    In a nod to Washington’s outrage over Mohib’s remarks, Ghani is considering replacing Mohib with the Afghan envoy to London, a second Afghan official said.
    Ghani’s office did not immediately comment.
LATEST ROUND DISAPPOINTS GHANI
    Since his 2016 election campaign, Trump has made the case to end the Afghan conflict that began in 2001 and has tied the prospect of troop drawdowns in Afghanistan to success in peace talks.    But it is unclear if Trump will accept a deal at any cost – something that Ghani and other Afghans increasingly fear.
    “The president has indicated that he hopes for the best in these peace talks but he also will not accept a bad deal,” a senior Trump administration official said.
    The Taliban, which sees Ghani as an Afghan puppet of the United States, has refused to meet with him.
    Although the United States had historically balked at the prospect of unilateral talks with the Taliban, the Trump administration made a decision to move ahead with them, something that veteran U.S. officials sharply criticized.
    “By acceding to this Taliban demand, we have ourselves delegitimized the government we claim to support,” Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, wrote in a Washington Post column, adding that the U.S. move signaled “we were surrendering.”
    The second round of U.S.-Taliban talks lasting 16 days ended this month in Doha, Qatar, with discussions including potential U.S. troop withdrawals and Taliban assurances on counter-terrorism.
    But those talks disappointed Ghani, who had hoped Khalilzad would make some progress on negotiating a ceasefire for Afghanistan and convincing the Taliban to negotiate with Ghani’s government, several Afghan officials said.
    Instead, Khalilzad flew to Washington without such progress and without discussing the details of the talks with Ghani, which made the Afghan president paranoid, they said.
    “The two sides discussed and agreed on issues concerning them but it did not change anything for the (Afghan) people or the government,” the first Afghan official said.
    Some current and former U.S. officials are sympathetic to Ghani and believe the United States must find a way to reassure him – and fast.
    Acknowledging Kabul’s frustration, the senior Trump administration official said: “It’s urgent that we convince the Taliban to sit down with the Afghan government and other Afghans and engage in a political process.”
AFGHAN ELECTION COMPLICATION
    The Afghan election is shaping up as a major challenge for Ghani’s government, with speculation that the poll may not be held at all if a peace deal is first reached with the Taliban. Delayed twice already, it is now slated for Sept. 28.     One former U.S. official said Ghani hoped that the United States would fail to reach an agreement before the vote so the ballot can move forward.
    Ghani “thinks that if the peace process goes through and the election doesn’t take place, he loses everything,” said a former senior Afghan official.
    With so much in play politically, Ghani is seen as trying to tightly control the process – something experts fear could exclude opposition elements that would be crucial for any lasting agreement between the Taliban and Afghan society.
    A former U.S. official said Ghani’s controlling personality was one reason Washington long worried he could prove to be “more an obstacle than a help on the peace process.”
    “It’s not because his heart isn’t in the right place in wanting peace in Afghanistan.    It’s because of his disposition and his controlling nature and his desire to hold on to more control in a closed circle than is realistic,” the former official said.
(Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in WASHINGTON, Rupam Jain in KABUL and James MacKenzie in ISLAMABAD; Editing by Mary Milliken and James Dalgleish)

3/27/2019 China’s censors drop gay scenes from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ film
FILE PHOTO - Actors Ben Hardy, Rami Malek, Gwilym Lee and Joe Mazzello attend the world premiere
of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' movie in London, Britain October 23, 2018. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh
    BEIJING (Reuters) – China has scrubbed at least 10 scenes with gay references from the Oscar-winning biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” about British rock musician Freddie Mercury, incensing some domestic viewers who said authorities were overreacting.
    The film about the lead singer of British rock band Queen, idolized by gay Western fans, has earned more than 50 million yuan ($8 million) in box office revenue since opening in Chinese arthouse cinemas on Friday, according to Alibaba Pictures.
    But at least three minutes of scenes, from a close-up of Mercury’s gyrating crotch as he performs, to a kiss with a male guest and the spanking of a female guest at a party, are missing.
    “In effect it feels like the whole movie has been cut, though in reality it’s only a three-minute cut,” said one commentator on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.
    “The film itself is not trying to highlight anything, but when we deliberately make deletions, it makes these things sensitive,” said another.
    The China Film Administration did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for comment.
    The film traces the singer’s life since Queen was formed in 1970 to one of its highlight performances in London in 1985.
    Homosexuality is not illegal in China, with a thriving gay scene in some cities, but activists say the conservative attitudes of some have prompted occasional government clamp-downs.
    Since 2012, China has stepped up a crackdown on content it deems to violate so-called “socialist core value” under President Xi Jinping, whether in video games, music or television.
    But Chinese censors can be unpredictable in their attitudes to violence, pornography, and politically sensitive topics.
    For example, gay references were left intact in another movie, “Green Book,” which snatched the Best Picture Award from “Bohemian Rhapsody” at this year’s Academy Awards, when it released in China this month.
    But Shi Yedong, a Beijing-based film analyst, said it was unusual that “Bohemian Rhapsody” had even passed China’s censors in the current circumstances.
    “The censorship is getting more and more intense on film and television,” he said.
($1=6.7153 Chinese yuan renminbi)
(Reporting by Pei Li and Brenda Goh; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

3/27/2019 China Development Bank provides over $190 billion for Belt and Road projects
FILE PHOTO: The sign of an international forum on the "Belt and Road" Legal Cooperation
is pictured in Beijing, China July 2, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee
    BOAO, China (Reuters) – China Development Bank (CDB) has provided financing of over $190 billion for more than 600 projects of the “Belt and Road” infrastructure plan since 2013, CDB President Zheng Zhijie told the Boao Forum on Wednesday.
    As of 2018 end, the CDB’s outstanding international businesses in countries along the Belt and Road were $105.9 billion, accounting for 34 percent of the bank’s overall international businesses, Zheng said.
    The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) lies at the heart of China’s foreign policy strategy.    It was incorporated into the ruling Communist Party constitution in 2017, reflecting President Xi Jinping’s desire for China to take a global leadership role.
(Reporting by Kevin Yao; Editing by Richard Borsuk and Rashmi Aich)

3/27/2019 North Korea nuclear, missile activity not consistent with denuclearization: U.S. general by Idrees Ali
FILE PHOTO: Missiles are driven past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and
other high-ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of the
country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagoli/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korea’s activity on nuclear weapons and missiles is inconsistent with its pledge to denuclearize, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea said on Wednesday.
    A summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi last month broke down over differences about U.S. demands for North Korea to rid itself of nuclear weapons that threaten the United States, and North Korea’s demand for substantial relief from international sanctions imposed on it because of its nuclear and missile tests.
    “Their activity that we have observed is inconsistent with denuclearization,” U.S. Army General Robert Abrams said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing. Abrams did not provide further details.
    He had been asked if the United States had seen a change in North Korea’s production of nuclear weapons, material and missiles.
    Abrams said that while he had enough intelligence and surveillance resources to deal with the current situation, that might not be the case if relations were to worsen on the Korean peninsula.
    “If they change negatively then our stance and our posture is not adequate to provide us an unblinking eye to give us early warning and indicators,” he said.
    There has been no sign of direct contact between Washington and Pyongyang since the collapse of the summit, though Trump has stressed his good personal relationship with Kim.
    Randall Schriver, the Pentagon’s top Asia policy official, said there had be no progress on denuclearization.
    “Our door is still open for diplomacy, but to date we have not seen movement on denuclearization,” Schriver said.
    He added that he was not aware of sanctions being removed or changed since Trump tweeted last week that he had ordered the withdrawal of additional large-scale sanctions on North Korea.
    Several American think tanks and South Korean officials reported that satellite imagery showed possible preparations for a launch from the Sohae rocket launch site at Tongchang-ri, North Korea.
    There have also been reports from South Korea’s intelligence service of activity at a factory at Sanumdong near Pyongyang that produced North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.
    Since then however, South Korea’s defense minister has said it was premature to say whether recent activity at some of North Korea’s rocket facilities involved preparations for a missile launch.
    Abrams said that despite a reduction in tensions with North Korea, there had been little to no verifiable changes in its military capabilities.
    “North Korea’s conventional and asymmetric military capabilities along with their continued development of advanced conventional munitions and systems all remains unchecked,” Abrams said.
    North Korea has frozen nuclear and missile testing since 2017, and Trump has pointed to this as a positive outcome from nearly a year of high-level engagement with North Korea.
    The commander of U.S. forces in Asia, Admiral Philip Davidson, also said that China had not been helpful in imposing sanctions on North Korea in the maritime arena.
    “They are offering zero assistance … They are certainly not monitoring their own territorial seas very well,” Davidson said.
    U.N. sanctions monitors reported to the Security Council in February that there had been a “massive increase in illegal ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products and coal” by North Korea that had rendered the latest sanctions ineffective.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by James Dalgleish)

3/27/2019 President Rouhani inspects flood damage in northern Iran
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is seen during his visit after flooding in Golestan province,
Iran March 27, 2019. Official Iranian President website/Handout via REUTERS
    LONDON (Reuters) – President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday inspected damage caused by flash floods in northern Iran and promised compensation to all those affected, as the nationwide death toll from what he called an “unprecedented” natural disaster reached 26.
    Rouhani, accused by critics of mishandling the crisis, took several cabinet ministers with him to Golestan Province, whose governor was dismissed on Saturday amid public outrage over his absence from work.    He had been abroad when the disaster hit.
    At least 26 people have been confirmed dead and hundreds suffered injuries in the floods, officials said on Wednesday.
    “We will rebuild Golestan just as it was before, and we will stand by your side,” Tasnim news agency quoted Rouhani as telling a small gathering of villagers.
    In a country more accustomed to drought, Rouhani said the floods, caused by torrential rain, had affected 25 of Iran’s 31 provinces and that the scale of the disaster had overwhelmed emergency services in some areas.
    “The government will use all means and will compensate all those who have sustained damages to their houses, businesses and farms,” Rouhani was quoted as saying by the state media.
TARDY RESPONSE?
    Rouhani’s hardline rivals have accused the government of doing too little, too late.    The head of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, said on Tuesday that officials who mishandled the disaster and caused the death of civilians could face prosecution.
    The severe damage caused by the floods has focused attention on shortcomings in Iranian infrastructure.    In the city of Shiraz, where 18 people died, officials said the floods occurred because an old waterway designed to syphon off excess water had been blocked by other construction.
    The Revolutionary Guards had to blow up parts of a railway in northern Iran to facilitate the removal of water because there was no drainage channel under the raised structure.
    The state-run meteorological organization has also faced criticism, including from Rouhani, for inaccurate weather forecasts and its late warning of flooding.
    Tens of thousands of people have been displaced and thousands are being housed in emergency shelters provided by the government, state media said.
    Iran is celebrating the Nowrouz new year holidays, a time when many families travel around the country, but rock falls and mudslides have blocked many roads and police asked people to avoid unnecessary journeys.
    However, National Iranian Gas Company said its pipeline network had not been affected by the floods.
(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Gareth Jones)

3/28/2019 Iran welcomes Luxembourg court decision on U.S. seizure of Iranian assets
FILE PHOTO: People read the victims' names of the 9/11 Empty Sky memorial at sunrise across from New York's Lower Manhattan and
One World Trade Center, in Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey, September 11, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/File Photo
    LONDON (Reuters) – Iran welcomed on Thursday a Luxembourg court’s decision to refuse to reinforce a U.S. ruling that would have helped families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks claim Iranian assets held by a Luxembourg-based clearing house.
    The court ruled on Wednesday that there were no grounds in international law to uphold in Luxembourg a 2012 U.S. court decision to strip Iran of sovereign immunity.
    Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said the decision showed the world still had courts that adopt independent decisions.
    “The era of totalitarian and bullying behavior of America toward other countries is over and it can no longer raise such groundless accusations,” Qasemi was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.
    The governor of Central Bank of Iran, Abdolnasser Hemmati, called the decision “an important legal victory for Iran.”
    President’s deputy for legal affairs Laya Joneidi was quoted by IRNA as saying that the lawyers won the case by arguing that Sept. 11 attacks were not related to Iran.
    Seven years ago, a New York court found there was evidence showing that Iran provided “material support and resources to al Qaeda for acts of terrorism.”    The militant group carried out the hijacked plane attacks on New York and Washington.
    That court awarded the plaintiffs damages of over $7 billion.    Families of victims are seeking access to $1.6 billion of Iranian funds in Luxembourg, which were frozen as part of international sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program.
    However, the Luxembourg court said the plaintiffs could not continue their legal case to seize Iranian assets in the country.
    Iran has denied any links to al Qaeda or any involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks.
(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Richard Borsuk)

3/28/2019 Censorship pays: China’s state newspaper expands lucrative online scrubbing business by Lusha Zhang and Ryan Woo
A man holding a smartphone walks past the headquarters of Chinese state newspaper People's Daily
in Beijing, China October 6, 2018. Picture taken October 6, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer
    BEIJING (Reuters) – People.cn, the online unit of China’s influential People’s Daily, is boosting its numbers of human internet censors backed by artificial intelligence to help firms vet content on apps and adverts, capitalizing on its unmatched Communist Party lineage.
    Demand for online censoring services provided by Shanghai-listed People.cn has soared since last year after China tightened its already strict online censorship rules.
    As a unit of the People’s Daily – the ruling Communist Party’s mouthpiece – it is seen by clients as the go-to online censor.    Investors concur, lifting shares in People.cn by around 240 percent since the start of 2019.
    “The biggest advantage of People.cn is its precise grasp of policy trends,” said An Fushuang, an independent analyst based in Shenzhen.
    In recent years, China has shut tens of thousands of websites and social media accounts that contained what it said was illegal content as well as “vulgar” and pornographic material.
    Tibet, Taiwan, the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square, and even local government scandals, are also sensitive topics prone to censorship.
    People.cn has clinched deals with tech firms including leading news aggregator Jinri Toutiao to identify and delete material that does not meet government guidelines.
    Its other partners include Liangziyun, a Shenzhen-based tech company that operates nearly 1,000 social media accounts and has hundreds of millions of followers.
    Full-year net income is expected to have risen as much as 140 percent, People.cn said in late January, the biggest annual increase since 2011.    That would mean net profit of as high as 214.8 million yuan ($31.93 million).
    Revenue from its censoring business is forecast to have jumped 166 percent last year, the company said in a filing to the Shanghai Stock Exchange.
    Encouraged by surging revenue, People.cn is raising a bigger army of censors.    This month, it signed a strategic deal with the government of Jinan in eastern Shandong province to help the city become China’s censorship capital.
    People.cn, whose content-vetting business already has hundreds of employees, will set up an affiliate company in Jinan, the official Jinan Daily reported, drawn by the city’s proximity to Beijing and ample supply of college graduates that could join the firm as content analysts.
    People.cn declined to comment when asked by Reuters about its expansion plans and expected earnings, due out in mid-April.
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
    Types of content vetted by People.cn include images, texts, music, video, apps, games, advertisements and animations, according to the company.
    People.cn’s online content review platform can detect and remove most sensitive online material via artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms, Ye Zhenzhen, president of People.cn, wrote in an article in February.
    The bottom-line is to filter out and block harmful information and spot and correct false ideas in time, Ye said.
    Content that AI has trouble recognizing and information in “grey areas” such as metaphors and subtle references is left to human analysts.
    “The platform adjusts key words for monitoring from time to time according to directives from the Communist Party propaganda department,” said a Beijing-based manager at a major U.S.-listed Chinese tech company that had collaborated with People.cn to develop AI technology for its platform.
    The platform continues to learn new words and rules on its own, for example by memorizing state media reports, the person, who was not authorized to speak to media, told Reuters.
    "With some big-name social media accounts being shuttered recently, companies are paying more and more attention to content compliance,” said independent researcher An.
    “And with the development of 5G, the space and scale for the online content censorship market will only grow bigger and bigger.”
($1 = 6.7282 Chinese yuan renminbi)

3/28/2019 After drought and floods, Afghanistan confronts critical harvest by Rod Nickel and Abdul Matin Sahak
FILE PHOTO - An Afghan man who was internally displaced due to drought digs soil to set up a tent at a
refugee camp in Herat province, Afghanistan October 14, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/File Photo
    KABUL/MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s summer harvest will be one of the most critical in years, especially of wheat, its biggest cereal crop, as the country recovers from floods and the worst drought in decades, government and aid organization officials say.
    Ample snow and rain during winter partly replenished soil moisture and raised hopes for a better wheat crop, which is a food source for rural families who turn their harvested grain into bread.    Last year, however, drought displaced hundreds of thousands of people and also forced farmers who stayed in their homes to sell livestock and tools to survive, making recovery a multi-year challenge.
    Many farmers were unable to plant crops last year because of parched conditions. [nL4N1U03AW]
    Jabbar, 44, a farmer in Balkh province in northern Afghanistan, sold sheep, cows and one camel at discounted prices to buy food for his family of 12.    Recent floods washed away some of his land that had been planted with peas and wheat.
    “I have a big family so it’s my responsibility to feed them.    If it rains or not, it is harmful to us,” he said, referring to the double damage inflicted by drought and flood.
    “I hope I can get good results this year.”
    Floods in March complicated the recovery. Heavy rains killed at least 63 people and destroyed or damaged more than 12,000 homes, affecting 119,600 people, according to the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
    Some 243,000 people remain displaced from last year’s drought in the western provinces of Herat, Badghis and Ghor, according to OCHA.    Many have moved to urban areas where they live in tents on public and private lands, creating tensions with landowners.
    “If the harvest is OK, that will help communities come out of a terribly bleak period.    If it’s not OK, we’ll need a massive injection of food quickly,” said Toby Lanzer, the U.N.’s deputy special representative for Afghanistan.
    The winter wheat harvested in June and July will need to help feed displaced people and some 10.6 million people who are struggling to find enough food where they live, Lanzer said.
    Farming accounts for one-third of the country’s economy, although only 12 percent of its land is arable.
    The wheat crop’s outlook remains uncertain, said Agriculture Minister Nasir Ahmad Durrani, in an interview on March 20.    If the temperature warms too rapidly, melting snow could create floods that wipe out ripe crops, he said.
    It is also unclear how much wheat farmers were able to plant last autumn, said Rajendra Aryal, the representative in Afghanistan for the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
    Many farmers used wheat seed to make bread to survive, rather than save it for planting, Aryal said.
    “The people were already poor,” he said.    “It will be very difficult if the harvest fails, so I don’t even want to think that way.”
    The floods also damaged critical farm infrastructure, such as irrigation canals, reservoirs and wells.    The Afghan government is working to repair damaged infrastructure, especially in the provinces of Kandahar and Farah, Durrani said.
    Afghanistan produced 3.6 million tonnes of wheat last year, down 25 percent from the five-year average, according to the FAO.
    The country dipped into its grain reserve last year for 190,000 tonnes of wheat, leaving just 50,000 tonnes left, Durrani said.
    The expected shortfall between supply and demand this year will be made up through wheat imports from countries including Pakistan and Kazakhstan, he said.
    Abdul Majid Khan, who coordinates aid related to food security and agriculture for the U.N., said a plan is in place to assist families who return home as the drought abates.    It includes food assistance, cash for work and farm supplies, but the plan still requires approval from international donors.
    “My biggest concern is delays in funding,” he said.    “We can lose the trust of the people.”
    A significant number of families should be able to return, as long as it is safe, said Zlatan Milisic, country director for the World Food Programme.
    “There are no more resilient people on Earth,” U.N. Representative Lanzer said about Afghans.    “But goodness me, it is being tested.”
(Reporting by Rod Nickel in KABUL; additional reporting by Abdul Matin Sahak in MAZAR-I-SHARIF; editing by Christian Schmollinger)
(Reporting by Lusha Zhang ang Ryan Woo.; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

3/28/2019 As China pushes traditional medicine globally, illegal wildlife trade flourishes by Farah Master
Workers weigh herbs behind a bust portraying Chinese herbalist Li Shizhen of the Ming dynasty, at a traditional
Chinese medicine store in Beijing, China June 7, 2015. Picture taken June 7, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Chinese traditional medicine is rapidly expanding worldwide as a key pillar of the country’s Belt and Road initiative, but conservation groups say demand for treatments using animal products is driving a surge in illegal trafficking of wildlife.
    Since the start of the year, authorities in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong have seized record volumes of threatened species, including 8.3 tonnes of pangolin scales from nearly 14,000 pangolins and its largest ever haul of rhino horns, worth more than $1 million.
    The former British colony is one of the world’s primary wildlife trafficking transit points, supplying an array of products including shark fins, tiger parts and rhino horn across Asia and into mainland China.
    “One of the most alarming characteristics of wildlife trafficking is the growing use of threatened species in traditional medicines,” conservation group ADM Capital Foundation said in a recent report.
    It identified the traditional Chinese medicine industry as accounting for more than three-quarters of the trade in endangered wildlife products in Hong Kong over the past 5 years.
    China’s State Council has outlined a multi-decade plan to promote traditional medicine, including setting up hospitals, museums, medicinal zoos and botanical gardens in countries involved in its Belt and Road infrastructure rollout.
    The industry is booming.
    Worth some $60 billion a year, according to a World Health Organisation (WHO) Bulletin, and growing at around 11 percent annually, according to IBIS World, practices such as acupuncture and herbal supplementation are finding acceptance globally.
    The WHO says it will formally recognize traditional medicine in its compendium in May, meaning more mainstream recognition of practices dating back more than 2,500 years.
    While many practitioners have shunned the use of endangered species, environmental groups say traditional remedies including rare animals are still popular in Vietnam and China, where they are used for a range of ills from cancer to skin blemishes and hangovers.
    Species including pangolin, rhino, saiga, sea horses, moon bears and tigers are some of the animals critically endangered by the trade, according to wildlife organizations.
    Zhou Jinfeng, Secretary-General of China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, said the WHO should take sustainability and science as preconditions for incorporating traditional Chinese medicine into its compendium.
    “All medicinal treatment should be on the principle of ‘do no harm’ to those using, or making it and to the species it depends on; meaning in most cases no vertebrate should be used within TCM,” Zhou said, referring to traditional Chinese medicine.
    Inclusion in the compendium did not mean the WHO endorsed the scientific validity of traditional medicine, or that it recommended or condoned the use of animal parts, a WHO spokesman Tarik Jašarevic said.
    “WHO recommends the enforcement of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which protects rhinos, tigers, and other species,” he said.
TCM PLAYERS
    While Hong Kong does not typically manufacture traditional Chinese medicine products, it imports them from the mainland and a wide array, including pangolin scales, saiga horn and shark fin, are readily available in the city’s Western district.
    Hong Kong lawmaker Elizabeth Quat said preventing the use of endangered animals in traditional Chinese medicine must happen in the mainland.
    “The Chinese government should do something. Manufacturing is mostly in China.    The government needs to stop the production of it,” she said.
    In online Chinese forums, customers can buy everything from African rhino horn to live young pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters, and the powdered horn of saiga, an endangered type of antelope found in Europe and Asia.
    While the use of rhino horn is officially banned in China, pangolin and saiga products are legally used in Chinese medicine with the big traditional medicine companies all producing them.
    Companies including Kangmei Pharmaceutical and Tong Ren Tang have been given permits by local government bodies to produce medicines with pangolin scales and saiga horns, according to corporate filings.
    Gui Zhen Tang, which owns the biggest moon bear breeding center in southern China, has permits for extracting bear bile, according to its website.
    China Traditional Medicine Holdings last year acquired Beijing Huamiao, a company it says holds permits for the “processed products of some of the endangered and protected wild animals.”    It did not elaborate.
    None of the companies responded to multiple requests for comment.
    China’s State Forestry and Grassland Administration and the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine did not respond to requests to comment.
    Hong Kong’s Health department said the city’s Chinese Medicines Board “has always been concerned about the balance between the protection of endangered species and the use of traditional Chinese medicine,” and it would continue to observe international regulatory trends and monitor the issue with regard to endangered species.
    Farming of animals used in traditional medicine has been advocated by China’s Forestry administration and some breeders as a sustainable way to use endangered animals in traditional Chinese medicine.
    However, activists say the use of farmed supplies of animals such as tigers and rhinos risks enabling the laundering of wild animal parts.
    Many treatments have already substituted herbal products for animal parts, and practitioners say herbal alternatives are just as, if not more effective.
    Lixing Lao, director at the School of Chinese Medicine at the University of Hong Kong, said there was no need to use endangered species.
    “Chinese medicine is part of the world,” Lao said.    “We take care of the human health, the animals.    If we use endangered species, it damages our reputation.”
(Reporting by Farah Master; additional reporting by Forina Fu, Vincent Chow and Holly Chik; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

3/28/2019 Uncovering Iran’s sanctions-busting sale of fuel oil on the high seas by Roslan Khasawneh
FILE PHOTO: A gas flare on an oil production platform in the Soroush oil fields is seen alongside an
Iranian flag in the Persian Gulf, Iran, July 25, 2005. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/File Photo
    SINGAPORE (Reuters) – It was a quiet day in January, and many oil traders were still on holiday, when two sources in the industry called to alert me to something unusual – a supertanker that had gone off radar for two weeks appeared off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and was pumping out fuel oil to two smaller vessels.
    The sources said it appeared that the supertanker was selling Iranian oil in violation of U.S. sanctions.    If confirmed, the sale would shine a rare light on how traders and shippers were evading the sanctions.
    My first task was to identify and monitor the vessels involved. I called up satellite data offered by Refinitiv, a sister company of Thomson Reuters, that show the movements of ships around the world.
    I also reached out to three other institutions that track the passage of ships and confirmed that the supertanker, the Grace 1, had its Automatic Identification System, or transponder, switched off between Nov. 30 and Dec. 14, 2018, meaning its location could not be tracked.
    The transponder is an instrument that all large commercial ships are required to keep on, to pinpoint their location.    However, it’s difficult to police vessels that switch it off on the high seas.
    The satellite data showed the supertanker re-appearing in waters near Iran’s port of Bandar Assaluyeh.    The data also includes the ship’s draught – how deep a vessel sits in water – and it was near maximum at the time, indicating its cargo tanks were full.
    The Grace 1 then lined up next to two smaller tankers between Jan. 16 and Jan. 22 in waters offshore Fujairah in the UAE, the data showed.    When both left the area, their cargos were full.
    Following tankers via satellite images wasn’t enough, however.    I contacted the companies managing the Grace 1 and the two smaller vehicles.
    Reuters also mobilized journalists in Baghdad and Tripoli in Libya to talk directly to ship managers, port officials and shipping agents about the transactions.
NO RESPONSE
    The Grace 1, a Panamanian-flagged tanker, is managed by Singapore-based shipping services firm IShips Management Pte Ltd, according to shipping data.    IShips did not respond to several requests for comment via email or phone.
    I visited the Singapore office listed on IShips’ website but was told by the current tenant that the company had moved out two years earlier.
    The manager of Kriti Island, one of the smaller vessels, e-mailed me a document, the Certificate of Origin, showing the oil was loaded from the port of Basra in Iraq.
    The next step was go to Iraq to establish the authenticity of the document.
    An official from Iraq’s state oil marketer SOMO told Ahmed Rasheed, a Baghdad-based Reuters correspondent, the document was “faked” and “completely wrong.”    The official declined to be identified by name, citing the marketer’s communications policy.
    Two other Iraqi oil industry sources with direct knowledge of Basra port and oil industry operations also told Rasheed the document was forged.
    The two sources said the document bore the signature of a manager who was not working at Basra port on the stated dates.    The document also contained contradictory dates: It indicated a loading period of Dec. 10 and 12, 2018 but a sign-off date for the transaction of 11 months earlier, at Jan. 12, 2018.
    Basra port loading schedules reviewed by Reuters did not list the Grace 1 as being in port between Dec. 10-12.
    Major oil traders form a small group and soon talk was spreading that Reuters was investigating the Grace 1 transactions.
    Reuters received several unsolicited calls, text messages, and even a legal notice by e-mail aimed at preventing the publication of such an article.
    After many more checks and clearance by our legal advisers, the article uncovering Iranian fuel oil shipments despite U.S. sanctions was published on March 20, two months after the first chatter of such trades.    The story was among the most read on the day by Reuters clients and it was widely circulated by media customers.
    Two days later, a U.S. State Department official said Washington was investigating and that it reserved the right to take action against any person helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions on energy shipments.
(Reporting by Roslan Khasawneh; Editing by Henning Gloystein and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

3/28/2019 China says probing more people after former Interpol chief’s fall
FILE PHOTO: INTERPOL President Meng Hongwei poses during a visit to the headquarters of International Police
Organisation in Lyon, France, May 8, 2018. Picture taken May 8, 2018. Jeff Pachoud/Pool via Reuters/File Photo
    BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s Public Security Ministry said it would conduct further investigations into its own senior ranks late on Wednesday after a decision to prosecute former Interpol chief Meng Hongwei, and warned that disloyalty to the Communist Party would not be tolerated.
    China had announced earlier on Wednesday that an investigation had found Meng spent “lavish” amounts of state funds, abused his power and refused to follow party decisions, and that he had been expelled from the party and sacked as deputy public security minister.
    Last October, Interpol, the global police coordination agency based in France, said Meng had resigned as its president, days after his wife reported him missing after he traveled back to China.
    In statement late on Wednesday following an internal meeting, the public security ministry said Meng was “totally to blame” for the decision to expel him from the party and sack him.
    “When it comes to party loyalty and sincerity, it is absolutely not allowed to be duplicitous, to agree overtly but oppose in secret, or to be a two-face person, or lead a double life, or engage in political social climbing,” it said.
    “It is absolutely not allowed to make decisions without authorization, to do or say as you wish.”
    While the statement gave no details, the party’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign, championed by President Xi Jinping, has increasingly been focused on those it judges are disloyal to the party or question the decision of the top leadership.
    China has persistently denied its war on graft is about political maneuvering or Xi taking down his enemies.    Xi told an audience in Seattle in 2015 that the anti-graft fight was no “House of Cards”-style power play, in a reference to the Netflix U.S. political drama.
    The ministry said there needed to be a “thorough rooting out of Meng Hongwei’s pernicious influence," and that there would be further probes on others.
    “For those in leadership positions in the Public Security Ministry connected with Meng Hongwei’s case, no matter how high or low, no matter who is involved, no matter their position, all must be seriously handled in accordance with the law and discipline.”
    The government announced its plans to prosecute Meng after Xi returned from a state visit to France, where Emmanuel Macron raised the issue of human rights in China and certain specific cases, a French presidency official said.
    It has not been possible to reach Meng for comment since he was detained, and unclear if he has been allowed a lawyer.
    Meng’s wife, Grace Meng, told French television on Sunday that she had written to Macron ahead of Xi’s trip seeking his help protecting their “fundamental human rights.”
    Meng is certain to be found guilty when his case eventually comes to trial as the courts are controlled by the party and will not challenge its accusations.
    Meng became president of the global police cooperation agency in late 2016 as China widened its bid to secure leadership posts in international organizations.
    His appointment prompted concern at the time from rights groups that Beijing might try to leverage his position to pursue dissidents abroad.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

3/28/2019 Pro-army party prioritises Thai king’s coronation over forming government
Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn attends the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony in
central Bangkok, Thailand, May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
    BANGKOK (Reuters) – A party linked to Thailand’s ruling military junta said it will not hold talks to try to form the next government until after the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn in May, with the outcome of last Sunday’s election still hanging in the balance.
    The chaotic count and charges of vote-buying have marred Thailand’s first election since a military coup five years ago.
    Amid mounting confusion, both the pro-army Palang Prachart and an opposition alliance have claimed to have come out on top.
    Official results from Sunday’s vote won’t be released until May 9, just a few days after King Vajiralongkorn is scheduled to be crowned.
    The elaborate ceremonies will take place between May 4 and 6, following a long period of mourning for the new king’s revered father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016.
    With the unofficial results showing no clear winner, the pro-military Palang Pracharat party said it would not seek to negotiate with other parties to forge a coalition government because it wants to focus on the coronation.
    “We’re waiting.    Forming a government this time is entirely different from in the past,” said Sonthirat Sontijirawong, the party’s secretary-general, said on Friday.
    “This time, we have a time frame: the coronation ceremony, the most important ceremony for all Thais … We’re prioritising that first,” he said.
    Thai culture is deeply linked to reverence for the constitutional monarch, and King Vajiralongkorn’s coronation will be a first for most Thais after his father’s 70-year reign.
    Public preparations for the coronation, a mix of Buddhist religious ceremonies and Hindu Brahmin rituals, are due to begin on April 6 with monks gathering holy waters for the king to bathe in.
    Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army chief who led the coup and became prime minister of the military-led government, issued a message on Friday in which he said post-election coalition-building should involve “banding together to do good for the country and the people, and removing bad people or those who damage the country.”
    Unofficial election results announced on Thursday showed Prayuth’s Palang Pracharat winning the popular vote.    The results came nearly four days after they had been originally scheduled.
    A seven-party “democratic front” let by a party linked to ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has estimated its alliance won 255 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives and says it has the right to try to form a coalition government.
    The Election Commission has so far only announced results for 350 directly elected seats in the 500-member House of Representatives.
    It has said it will not announce the remaining 150 “party seats,” which are allocated according to a complex formula involving parties’ share of the popular vote, until the May 9 official results.
(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

3/29/2019 Southeast Asia should be aware of Iran’s tactics to evade oil sanctions: U.S.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani walks by his country's flag at a news conference on the sidelines of the 73rd session of the
United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid
    SINGAPORE (Reuters) – The United States is keen to see that Malaysia, Singapore and others are fully aware of illicit Iranian oil shipments and the tactics Iran uses to evade sanctions, a top U.S. sanctions official said on Friday.
    Sigal Mandelker, under-secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, told reporters in Singapore the United States had placed additional “intense pressure” on Iran this week.
    “It’s very important that these countries have important visibility into the different ways the Iranian regime uses to deceive the international community in connection with shipment of oil,” she said, referring to her talks in Singapore and Malaysia.
    She said would stress the inherent risks in dealing with Iran in meetings over coming days with government officials in Malaysia, Singapore and India.
    “This trip follows on the heels of additional intense pressure we have placed on Iran.    In just the last week, we took action against nuclear scientists and agencies and other key personnel involved with the Iranian regime’s past nuclear weapons entities,” Mandelker said.
    “We are making them radioactive to the international community.”
    Action had been taken this week against a network involved in an Iranian sanctions evasion scheme – a network that includes Iran-, UAE- and Turkey-based front companies, she said.
    Mandelker said she was due to meet Singapore’s home, finance and trade ministries on Friday.    She met officials at its central bank on Thursday.
    She said the United States was also bringing “maximum pressure” on the Venezuelan government of President Nicolas Maduro.
(Reporting by John Geddie; editing by Robert Birsel)

3/29/2019 South Korea: North Korea repairing nuclear missile test launch facility by OAN Newsroom
    South Korea has warned its northern counterpart has nearly completed work to rebuild a nuclear facility.    Early Friday, South Korean officials said work on Pyongyang’s Sohae missile launch site was close to completion.
    This comes after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un vowed to dismantle the site during his first summit with President Trump last year.    The president left their second summit in Vietnam early after Kim appeared unwilling to commit to complete denuclearization.
President Donald Trump (left), North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (right). (AP/Photos)
    South Korea’s intelligence agency said Pyongyang began work on the project just before their second meeting.    The agency also said the north still appears to be using its uranium enrichment program.
    “The National Intelligence Service reported that the Tongchang-ri missile launch test site was partially torn down last July, but restoration started in February ahead of the North Korea-U.S. summit,” stated Kim Min-ki, South Korea Intelligence Committee member.    “Now, restoration is almost complete and repairing is in progress.”
    President Trump is set to hold a summit with South Korea’s president in April to discuss a new course of action to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

3/29/2019 Argentine Senate mulls law for oversight of Chinese space tracking station by Cassandra Garrison
FILE PHOTO: The installations of a Chinese space station are seen in Las Lajas, Argentina,
January 22, 2019. Picture taken January 22, 2019. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian
    BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Argentine legislators are discussing a new law to boost oversight of a Chinese space tracking station that has stirred unease among local residents, fueled conspiracy theories and sparked concerns amongst critics about its true intent.
    Six lawmakers, including the Senate majority leader, submitted a bill proposing the creation of a commission “for monitoring the cooperation agreement” with the Chinese government related to China’s lunar exploration program.
    Reuters reported in January that the remote 200 hectare (494 acre) station operated with little oversight by Argentine authorities.    President Mauricio Macri’s former foreign minister, Susana Malcorra, told Reuters that Argentina had no physical oversight of the station’s operations.
    The law, dated March 25, was referred to in a list of proposed bills on the Senate’s official website, though the full text of the bill was not publicly available.
    Miguel Ángel Pichetto, the majority leader, said in a post on his official Twitter account that he had presented the bill to create a commission to control the space tracking station, run by the Chinese military, located in the central province of Neuquén in Patagonia.
    He added that the proposed team would include seven members from the Senate and seven from the Chamber of Deputies, the two houses of Argentina’s National Congress.
    The station’s stated aim is peaceful space observation and exploration and, according to Chinese media, it played a key role in China’s landing of a spacecraft on the dark side of the moon in January.
    Argentina’s space agency CONAE did not respond to requests for comment.    The agency has previously said the agreement between the two countries stated a commitment to “peaceful use” of the project.
    The Chinese embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
    China’s space program is run by the People’s Liberation Army.    The Patagonian station is managed by the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General (CLTC), which reports to the PLA’s Strategic Support Force.
    Argentina’s Congress debated the space station in 2015, during the presidency of Cristina Fernandez.    Opposition lawmakers questioned why there was no stipulation it only be for civilian use, but Congress nevertheless approved the deal.
    The station, about a 40 minutes’ drive from Las Lajas, became operational in April last year.    Thirty Chinese employees work and live on site, which employs no locals, Maria Espinosa, the mayor of the town of 7,000 people, previously told Reuters.
(Reporting by Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Phil Berlowitz)

3/29/2019 Iran urges Palestinians to resist Trump’s pro-Israel moves
A man drives an agricultural tractor in a vineyard in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran called on Friday on Palestinians to be steadfast in their resistance against U.S. President Donald Trump’s moves in support of Israel on Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
    Iran spoke on the eve of “Land Day,” an annual commemoration of the deaths of six Arab citizens of Israel killed by Israeli security forces during demonstrations over government land confiscations in northern Israel in 1976.
    “The U.S. president’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital…and the occupied Golan Heights as part of the illegitimate Zionist regime…shows clearly that Palestinian resistance and perseverance as symbolised by ‘Earth Day’ is the right path,” Iran’s foreign ministry said on its website.
    Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in 1981 in a move that the 15-member U.N. Security Council declared “null and void and without international legal effect.”
    Palestinians seek an independent state in territory taken by Israel in the 1967 war.    Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been frozen since 2014.
    Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait on Tuesday criticized the U.S. decision on the Golan and said the territory was occupied Arab land.    Non-Arab Iran echoed the comments.
    “Americans are breaking international law on a daily basis…and recently in regards to the Golan Heights,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in remarks carried by state television.    “We should resist this and, God willing, we will come out victorious.”
    Tensions between Tehran and Washington have increased since Trump pulled out of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers last year and reimposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

3/30/2019 New Silk Road critics are ‘prejudiced’, China’s top diplomat says
FILE PHOTO: China's Political Bureau member Yang Jiechi speaks during
Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany February 16, 2019. REUTERS/Andreas Gebert
    BEIJING (Reuters) – China has never forced debt upon participants of its new Silk Road project as “prejudiced” critics have suggested, the country’s top diplomat said on Saturday in a strongly worded defense of a key policy platform of President Xi Jinping.
    Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, as it is formally called, envisions rebuilding the old Silk Road to connect China with Asia, Europe and beyond with massive infrastructure spending.
    But it has proved controversial in many Western capitals, particularly Washington, which views it as merely a means to spread Chinese influence abroad and saddle countries with unsustainable debt through nontransparent projects.
    The United States has been particularly critical of Italy’s decision to sign up to the plan this month, during Xi’s visit to Rome, the first for a G7 nation.
    Speaking to the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, Yang Jiechi, who runs the party’s foreign affairs committee, said he had noted that some in the international community believed this was a geopolitical tool and would only bring debt traps for participating countries.
    “This obviously shows a lack of objectivity and fair understanding of the Belt and Road initiative.    It is a misunderstanding, misjudgment and is even prejudiced,” wrote Yang, a former foreign minister and ambassador to Washington.
    China has stressed many times that the Belt and Road is to promote joint development, he added.
    “The Belt and Road is open, inclusive and transparent.    It does not play little geopolitical games.    It does not engage in the exclusion of exclusive small circles.”
    Yang noted that many countries, companies and ordinary people participating in the Belt and Road project had “publicly refuted rumors” about it being a debt trap.
    Belt and Road projects, from their selection to their financing, go through careful risk assessments and the initiative’s principles stress sustainable development, he said.
    “For cooperative partners who have debt difficulties, China’s principle is to appropriately resolve this through friendly consultations, and has never pushed or forced debt” on anyone, Yang added.
    To date no participating country has faced a debt crisis – to the contrary many countries have been able to escape the “no development trap,” he wrote.
    China will hold its second Belt and Road summit in Beijing in late April.
    Yang said almost 40 foreign leaders would take part, but did not name them.
    Some of China’s closest allies have already confirmed they will come, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)

3/30/2019 Afghan vice president narrowly escapes death for a second time by Abdul Matin Sahak
FILE PHOTO: Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum arrives at the Hamid Karzai
International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 22, 2018.REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
    MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, escaped unhurt from an attack that killed one of his bodyguards on Saturday, dodging death for the second time since returning from exile last year.
    Attackers ambushed Dostum’s convoy on the way from Mazar-i-Sharif, a city in Balkh province, to Jawzjan province in northern Afghanistan, said Bashir Ahmad Tayenj, spokesman for Dostum’s Junbish Party. Two other bodyguards were wounded.
    Dostum was aware of a planned attack but decided to travel anyway, the spokesman added.
    The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassination attempt, which comes eight months after Dostum avoided injury in a suicide bombing at Kabul airport. In a tweet, the militant group’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said four guards were killed and six wounded in the attack.
    Last summer’s bombing, which was claimed by Islamic State, took place as Dostum returned home from more than a year in exile in Turkey over allegations of torturing and abusing a political rival.
    Dostum had left Afghanistan after heavy pressure from Western donors including the United States.
    Less than a year since his return, the general remains a significant, if polarizing, political figure.    His Junbish Party is supported mainly by his fellow ethnic Uzbeks.
    Dostum has joined the election team of Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, one of several contenders in a presidential election scheduled for Sept. 28.
(Additional reporting and writing by Rod Nickel; Editing by Helen Popper and Marie-Louise Gumuchian)

3/30/2019 Brunei defends tough new Islamic laws against growing backlash
FILE PHOTO: Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah attends the retreat session during the APEC Summit
in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea on November 18, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo
    KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Brunei has defended its right to implement Islamic laws that would allow death by stoning for adultery and homosexuality against growing global criticism.
    Brunei, a Muslim-majority former British protectorate with a population of around 400,000, will implement the Sharia laws from April 3, punishing sodomy, adultery and rape with the death penalty, including by stoning, and theft with amputation.
    The laws, elements of which were first adopted in 2014 and which have been rolled out in phases since then, will be fully implemented from next week, the prime minister’s office said in a statement on Saturday.
    “The (Sharia) Law, apart from criminalizing and deterring acts that are against the teachings of Islam, also aims to educate, respect and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals, society or nationality of any faiths and race,” the statement said.
    Some aspects of the laws will apply to non-Muslims.
    Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, 72, is the world’s second-longest reigning monarch and is prime minister of the oil-rich country.    He ranks as one of the world’s wealthiest people.
    Brunei, which neighbors two Malaysian states on Borneo island, already enforces Islamic teachings more strictly than Malaysia and Indonesia, the other majority Muslim countries in southeast Asia. The sale of alcohol is banned and evangelism by other religions is forbidden.
    The country does not hold elections, but any discontent is assuaged with generous government polices including zero taxes, subsidized housing, and free healthcare and education.
    The expected implementation of the strict Islamic laws has drawn widespread criticism.    Politicians in Europe and the United States have attacked the plans and raised concerns with Brunei.
    Stoning people to death for homosexuality or adultery is appalling and immoral,” former U.S. vice president Joe Biden said in a Twitter post on Friday.    “There is no excuse – not culture, not tradition – for this kind of hate and inhumanity.”
    Oscar-winning actor George Clooney has called for a boycott of luxury hotels owned by The Brunei Investment Company, such as the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Dorchester in London and the Plaza Athenee in Paris.
(Reporting by A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by David Holmes)

3/31/2019 Taiwan condemns Beijing after Chinese jets cross maritime line
FILE PHOTO: Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during "A Civil Society Dialogue on Securing Religious Freedom
in the Indo-Pacific Region
" forum in Taipei, Taiwan March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan on Sunday condemned what it called a “provocative” move by China after two Chinese fighter jets crossed a maritime border separating the two sides amid growing friction between Taipei and Beijing.
    Earlier on Sunday Taiwan scrambled aircraft to drive away the two Chinese planes, the self-ruled island’s defence ministry said.
    China’s move had “seriously impacted regional safety and stability,” the ministry said in a statement.
    There was no immediate reaction from Beijing, which views Taiwan as a renegade Chinese province.
    Huang Chung-yen, a spokesman for Taiwan’s Presidential Office, said Beijing “should stop behaviour of this sort, which endangers regional peace, and not be an international troublemaker.”
    President Tsai Ing-wen had urged the army “to complete all tasks on war preparation,” he added.
    China has repeatedly sent military aircraft and ships to circle Taiwan during drills in recent years and worked to isolate the island internationally, whittling down its few remaining diplomatic allies.
    The United States last week sent Navy and Coast Guard ships through the Taiwan Strait, as part of an increase in the frequency of movement through the strategic waterway despite opposition from China.
    Taiwan is one of a growing number of flashpoints in the U.S.-China relationship, which also include a trade war and China’s increasingly muscular military posture in the South China Sea.
    China has never renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control.
(Reporting by Yimou Lee in TAIPEI and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Dale Hudson and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

3/31/2019 Thousands march in Hong Kong over proposed extradition law changes by Jessie Pang and Noah Sin
Demonstrators march during a protest to demand authorities scrap a proposed extradition bill
with China, in Hong Kong, China March 31, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Thousands of people protested in Hong Kong on Sunday against a government plan to change extradition laws, fearing an erosion of personal freedom and the city’s status as an international business hub.
    The Hong Kong government proposal, announced in February, would grant the city’s leader executive power to send fugitives to jurisdictions not covered by existing arrangements, including Mainland China and Taiwan.
    Protest organizers said 12,000 people took the streets on Sunday, while police estimated the crowd at 5,200 at its peak.
    “Hong Kong people all have to bear the negative consequence of this ordinance.    This carries the risk of personal freedom being restricted,” Lam Wing-kee, a bookseller who said in 2016 he was detained by Chinese agents, told the crowd.
    The government said last week it will present the amendments to legislators on Wednesday.
    The planned changes have been strongly opposed by some lawmakers, legal and rights groups who fear that it could be exploited by Beijing’s Communist Party leaders and hurt Hong Kong’s judicial independence.
    “We are gravely concerned that anyone extradited to China will be at risk of torture and other ill-treatment and other grave human rights violations,” Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor wrote in an open letter to Carrie Lam, the city’s leader, on Sunday.
    Since Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997 with the guarantee that it would enjoy a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not allowed in mainland China, there has been no formal mechanism for the surrender of fugitives to mainland China.
    Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security, John Lee, told reporters last week the government had no plans to scrap the bill.
    “It is not an easy decision, but it is a cautious, careful, and serious decision,” he said, adding that the Hong Kong government “has the sole right to decide whether or not to process (extradition requests).”
    Hong Kong’s business community has expressed concern over the inclusion of economic and financial crimes in the bill.    The government later removed nine types of crime relevant to bankruptcies, financial trading and intellectual property.
    But there is still a risk of rendition to jurisdictions that do not share Hong Kong’s level of “protections for the legitimate rights of defendants,” the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong said.
    “We strongly believe that the proposed arrangements will reduce the appeal of Hong Kong to international companies considering Hong Kong as a base for regional operations,” the chamber said in a statement on Friday.
(Reporting by Jessie Pang and Noah Sin; Writing by James Pomfret and Noah Sin; editing by Darren Schuettler)

4/1/2019 China’s Xi says West has long-term economic, military superiority
FILE PHOTO - Chinese President Xi Jinping holds a news conference after a meeting with
French President at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France March 25, 2019. Yoan Valat/Pool via REUTERS
    BEIJING (Reuters) – Developed Western nations have long-term economic, technological and military advantages over China and the Communist Party has to realize that some people will use the West’s strong points to criticize socialism’s failings, President Xi Jinping said.
    Since assuming power in China more than six years ago, Xi has ramped up efforts to ensure total party loyalty and discipline, including a sweeping crackdown on corruption, warning the party’s very survival is at stake.
    This year, which is marked by a series of sensitive anniversaries including three decades since the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in and around Tiananmen Square, has seen a further increase in calls for party loyalty.
    On Monday, leading party theoretical journal Qiushi, which means “Seeking Truth,” published lengthy excerpts for the first time from a speech Xi gave in early 2013 shortly after becoming party boss, warning of the dangers the party faces.
    Citing Marx and Engels, Xi said socialism would inevitably vanquish capitalism, but that it would be a long historical process.    China practises what it calls socialism with Chinese characteristics.
    China must “fully appraise the objective reality of the long-term advantage Western developed countries have in the economic, scientific, and military fields, and conscientiously prepare for all aspects of long-term cooperation and struggle between the two social systems,” Xi said.
    The party also needed to “face the reality that some people compare the good qualities of Western developed nations with the insufficiencies of our country’s socialist development and offer criticism of it,” he added.
    While the party has committed “big mistakes” like the Cultural Revolution, when children turned on parents and students on teachers after Mao Zedong declared class war, the party’s history is “generally speaking glorious”, Xi said.
    Those who criticize the revolution – which brought the Communist Party to power in 1949 – are simply trying to incite the overthrow of the party, he added.
    But China needs to stick to its landmark economic reforms begun in 1978, without which the party could have fallen, Xi said.
    The party “may even have faced a serious crisis, like the death of the party and the death of the country encountered by the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries.”
    But China had proved the naysayers wrong, Xi added.
    Both history and reality tell us that only socialism can save China.    Only socialism with Chinese characteristics can develop China.    This is the conclusion of history and the choice of the people.”
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Gao Liangping; Editing by Nick Macfie)
[Those who have been taught what Marx and Engels proposed have been taught that U.S. capitalism will become socialists, and communist will become capitalist, as I had learned was being pushed when I was a younger radical, but now we have President Trump trying to stop that from happening in the U.S., wake up Democrats before it is too late.].

4/1/2019 Moon hopes North Korea responds positively to U.S.-South Korea efforts by Josh Smith
FILE PHOTO - South Korean President Moon Jae-in visits the Angkor Wat temple, in
Siem Reap province, Cambodia, March 16, 2019. REUTERS/Samrang Pring
    SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Monday he hopes North Korea responds positively when he meets U.S. President Donald Trump this month as part of efforts to restart denuclearization talks with the North.
    Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un failed to make any agreement at their summit in Hanoi in February, leaving Moon with little room to maneuver and exacerbating divisions within his government over how to break the impasse.
    Speaking to his cabinet, Moon said he would use the April 11 summit in Washington to discuss restarting U.S.-North Korea talks, advancing a peace process and creating a “virtuous cycle” of improving relations with Pyongyang.
    “I hope North Korea will respond positively to the efforts of Seoul and Washington,” he said.
    The summit in Vietnam’s capital was cut short after Trump and Kim failed to reach a deal on the extent of economic sanctions relief for North Korea in exchange for its steps to give up its nuclear program.
    There was criticism in Washington that Seoul might have over-sold Kim’s denuclearization commitment and gone too far in pushing for sanctions relief, while Moon’s advisers have said the United States cannot stick to an “all or nothing” approach when trying to strike a deal over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
    But Moon said the allies are “very much on the same page when it comes to our shared objective of achieving complete denuclearization and establishing a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula.”
    He criticized unnamed skeptics who he said had tried to “drive a wedge” between Seoul and Washington and “reverse the tide of peace.”
    “This is in no way helpful to our national interest or the future of the Korean peninsula,” Moon said.    “Such attempts can be labeled truly irresponsible, especially when we recall the state of crisis we endured before dialogue was launched.”
    The failure of the Hanoi summit created “temporary difficulties” but “it is becoming clear that neither the two Koreas nor the United States wants to go back to the past,” he said.
    North Korea for years pursued nuclear and missile programs in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.    North Korea and the United States engaged in increasingly bellicose rhetoric until relations warmed last year, leading to a first summit in Singapore in June.
    An official with South Korea’s presidential Blue House said leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) were considering whether to invite Kim to a summit in the South Korean port city of Busan in November.
    In Washington on Friday, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha met U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and told reporters she had agreed to keep pushing North Korea to make concrete concessions on its nuclear arsenal.
    “What’s most important at this stage after the Hanoi summit is to restart negotiations between North Korea and the United States,” she said.
    Moon said he would work with Trump to overcome obstacles and find new paths toward peace.
    “If we work hard, we can pull it off,” he said.    “Such positive thinking will lead us to a positive result.”
(Reporting by Josh Smith. Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Nick Macfie)

4/1/2019 China to build 6-8 reactors a year to meet 2030 goals: exec
FILE PHOTO - A booth of the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) is pictured at an expo in
Xian, Shaanxi province, China August 19, 2017. Picture taken August 19, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
    BEIJING (Reuters) – China will be able to build six to eight nuclear reactors a year once the approval process gets back to normal in the near future, the chairman of the state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation told Reuters on Monday.
    “That should be enough to meet our country’s 2030 development plans,” he said on the sidelines of an industry conference.
    China did not approve any new projects for three years until it gave the nod to two new reactor complexes in southeast China earlier this year.
(Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Stephen Coates)

4/1/2019 President Moon: U.S., South Korea on the same page when it comes to North Korea efforts by OAN Newsroom
    South Korea’s president said he hopes North Korea responds to joint efforts with the U.S. to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula ahead of a scheduled meeting with President Trump.
    While meeting with advisers on Monday, President Moon Jae-in asked North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to return to the negotiating table with the U.S.
    Moon has faced criticism from Washington that South Korea may have oversold the north’s commitment to give up it’s nukes. However, his advisers said the U.S. can’t stick to an “all or nothing approach” in the negotiations.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, center, speaks in a weekly meeting at the presidential Blue House
in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, April 1, 2019. “We surely will not return to the past and cannot return to the past,”
Moon said in a meeting with senior aides on Monday. (Bee Jae-man/Yonhap via AP)
    He assured both he and the U.S. are on the same page when it comes to peace in the region.
    “The United States and South Korea are keeping in close contact and cooperation, and are very much on the same page when it comes to our shared objective of achieving complete denuclearization and establishing permanent peace on the Korean peninsula,” stated the South Korean president.
    Moon’s statement comes as a North Korean official reportedly said the U.S. missed an opportunity at the Hanoi summit, and Kim will soon decide if he wants to pull out of negotiations with the U.S.
    Moon made his statements ahead of a reported meeting with President Trump next week.

4/1/2019 ‘Fight and talk’: Afghan war escalates alongside peace push by Rod Nickel and Hamid Shalizi
FILE PHOTO: Afghan National Army (ANA) officers take part in a training exercise at the Kabul Military Training Centre (KMTC)
in Kabul, Afghanistan October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo
    KABUL (Reuters) – Fighting in Afghanistan has escalated ahead of the usual spring season, as both sides seek to increase leverage in talks on a peace settlement – a gamble that analysts warn could also risk hardening positions.
    In March, hundreds of Afghan forces were killed or wounded in heavy clashes in southern, western and northern Afghanistan, according to unofficial reports.    Two U.S. special forces were killed near Kunduz, and attacks by both sides caused civilian casualties.    U.S. air strikes also accidentally killed Afghan soldiers, in a case of friendly fire.
    “Government forces are on the offensive this year.    We expect a lot of fighting and obviously casualties,” said a senior Afghan security source.
    Seasonal trends to fighting have become less defined over the years, as most Taliban now fight near their homes and so do not need to wait for snow to melt in the mountain passes to travel to battlefields, said Graeme Smith, a consultant for the International Crisis Group (ICG).
    Even so, the Taliban annually announces the start of a spring offensive with fanfare and a name evoking epic importance, such as last year’s Al Khandaq” campaign – named after the Battle of the Trench, fought by the Prophet Mohammad to defend the city of Medina in Islam’s early days.
    This year, Afghan forces beat the Taliban to naming their offensive, launching a spring operation dubbed “Khaled”, an Arabic word for “endless,” said the Afghan security source.
    “The objective of the operations this year will be to improve intelligence gathering and targeted strikes against the enemy,” he said.
    The “fight and talk” strategy has been used to describe the Afghan war as far back as the Obama U.S. presidency.    One diplomat said Afghanistan’s escalation follows a similar path of greater fighting in South Sudan and Colombia ahead of peace settlements for those conflicts.
    But for a country 17 years into its latest war, the escalation only adds to a sense of discouragement.
    Rising violence also comes with the risk that positions will harden, deferring a settlement, rather than creating urgency that could bring the sides together, said the ICG’s Smith.
    Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, asked about the more aggressive strategy, said it simply reflected a need to be ready for every possibility.
    “If the government and the Taliban agreed on a ceasefire, then the security defense forces will act accordingly,” he told reporters in Kabul.
    Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Kone Faulkner said in an email that there has been “no change” in U.S. policies and in its partnered fighting with Afghan forces.
TALIBAN GEARING UP
    The latest round of recurring peace talks ended in early March with both U.S. and Taliban officials citing progress. The start of the next round has not been announced, but is expected this month.
    The negotiations came amid fierce fighting in several corners of Afghanistan, from Kunduz province in the north to Helmand in the south and Badghis in the northwest.
    Some 100 members of Afghan forces were killed in two attacks in Badghis and Helmand.    Thirteen civilians, including 10 children, died in a U.S. air strike in Kunduz and more civilians died in a Helmand stadium attack by the Taliban.
    Ninety-four members of the Taliban died in a single battle near Kunduz city, according to NATO’s Resolute Support Mission, which is supported by troops from 39 countries to train, advise and assist Afghan forces.    Fighting in the province killed two U.S. soldiers a day earlier.
    The Taliban, meanwhile, met recently to discuss the timing and name of its spring campaign, said a Taliban leader, speaking on condition of anonymity.
    “Our focus would be more specifically on targeted operations,” the leader said.    “Our top priority would be minimizing civilian losses.”
    Some Taliban leaders had suggested simply continuing ongoing operations and awaiting the outcome of peace talks, he said.    But the group decided against further delay once Afghan forces launched its Khaled offensive, he said.
    Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the group would launch its spring offensive in about a month when the weather warms.
    One diplomat, whose country supplies soldiers to the Resolute Support mission, said he doubted the Taliban wanted to stop fighting, because it would be difficult to quickly regain the insurgency’s fighting capability if its forces dispersed.
    “The Taliban’s leverage is their military activities,” a second diplomat said.
    Both spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of talks.
    Increased fighting also heightens concerns about civilian casualties, after a record 3,804 civilians were killed last year, said Anthony Neal, advocacy manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Afghanistan.
    More conflict has also forced nearly 4,000 people from their homes in the last three months alone, he said.
(Reporting by Rod Nickel and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Pakistan; Editing by Alex Richardson)

4/1/2019 U.S. considering additional Iran sanctions, perhaps in May: official by Jeff Mason
FILE PHOTO: Gas flares from an oil production platform at the Soroush oil fields in the Persian Gulf,
south of the capital Tehran, July 25, 2005. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government is considering additional sanctions against Iran that would target areas of its economy that have not been hit before, a senior Trump administration official told reporters on Monday.
    The official said the administration aimed to follow through with new sanctions around the first anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and several world powers, which President Donald Trump announced last May.
    “We just want a continued chilling effect,” the official said.    “We want businesses to continue to think doing business with Iran is a terrible idea at this point.”
    Trump announced last May that the United States would pull out of a 2015 international agreement designed to deny Tehran the ability to make nuclear weapons and he ordered sanctions be imposed again on the country.
    The deal, agreed by the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia, China and Iran, sought to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb in return for the removal of sanctions that had crippled its economy.
    The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration hoped to take the additional measures in the coming weeks.
    “The more we can do around the anniversary, the better,” the official said, while adding that it takes time to put such sanctions together and that the U.S. Treasury Department was working on them.
    One of the tools the United States has employed includes sanctions on oil imports from Iran.    Washington has granted waivers to eight Iranian oil buyers, but could change that.
    The official said the United States had the ability not to give those waivers at all.    “That, I think, is where we’re headed,” the official said.
    Reducing the number of waivers would limit oil exports from Iran, the fourth-largest producer in OPEC.    The United States set an earlier target of driving Iranian oil exports to zero, and the official said that goal had not changed.
    U.S. domestic oil production would help offset such a change, the official said.
    China, India, Japan, South Korea and Turkey are likely to be given waivers after they expire in May that could cap Iran’s crude oil exports at about 1.1 million barrels per day, U.S.-based analysts at Eurasia Group said earlier this year.    That would remove Italy, Greece and Taiwan from the current waivers list.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason; additional reporting by Florence Tan in Singapore; Editing by James Dalgleish)

4/2/2019 U.N. nuclear watchdog could be in North Korea within weeks of a deal by Michelle Nichols
The flag of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) flutters in front of their
headquarters in Vienna, Austria March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
    UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United Nations atomic watchdog said on Tuesday that if a deal was reached with North Korea to give up its nuclear program then it would be ready to send in inspectors within weeks – if asked – to verify and monitor denuclearization.
    International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Yukiya Amano told the U.N. Security Council that the IAEA was the only international organization equipped to carry out the job “in an impartial, independent and objective manner.”
    “Subject to the approval of our Board of Governors, we could respond within weeks to any request to send inspectors back to the DPRK,” he told the 15-member council during a meeting on the Non-Proliferation Treaty.    The official name of North Korea is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
    U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have met twice in the past year to discuss denuclearization.    North Korea is under tough U.N. Security Council sanctions that have been steadily tightened since 2006 to choke off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
    Trump and Kim last met in Vietnam in February, but the summit was cut short after they failed to reach a deal on the extent of economic sanctions relief for North Korea in exchange for steps to give up its nuclear program.
    On the day that their talks in Hanoi collapsed, Trump handed Kim a piece of paper that included a blunt call for the transfer of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and bomb fuel to the United States, according to the document seen by Reuters. [nL1N21G01V]
    The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency has not had access to North Korea since Pyongyang expelled its inspectors in 2009, and it now monitors the country’s nuclear activities mainly through satellite imagery.
    Amano said that sending in IAEA inspectors “would help to make the implementation of any agreement sustainable.”
    “It would also contribute to the denuclearization of the DPRK in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner, as required by numerous resolutions of the Security Council,” he said.
    The IAEA already monitors the implementation of a 2015 deal between Iran and world powers to curb its nuclear program.    Trump withdrew the United States from the deal with Iran in May 2018.
    “Our inspectors have had access to all the sites and locations in Iran which they needed to visit,” Amano said.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by James Dalgleish)

4/2/2019 Thai army chief warns against protests after disputed election by Panu Wongcha-um
Thailand's Royal Army Chief General Apirat Kongsompong arrives before an interview with members of foreign media
at the Thai Army headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand, April 2, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
    BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand’s army chief on Tuesday warned against protests after a disputed election, invoking the revered monarchy and castigating people he said “distort” democracy.
    His words were the latest in a series of signals from the military and royalist establishment against opposition parties loyal to ousted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
    The inconclusive results to the March 24 election, pitting the party of the junta leader against an opposition alliance, have seen both the pro-army Palang Pracharat party and the opposition claim victory. Final results may not be clear for weeks.
    General Apirat Kongsompong said the military would remain neutral in the election, in which his predecessor as army chief, Prayuth Chan-ocha, is seeking to stay in power as an elected prime minister, five years after he seized power in a coup.
    “General Prayuth has to be on his own path and the army has to step back,” Apirat said.    “We cannot get involved in politics.”
    At the same time, Apirat made clear the military would not allow a repeat of past mass street demonstrations in which both supporters and opponents of Thaksin paralyzed Bangkok for months on end.
    “I cannot let Thais settle their differences on the streets anymore,” Apirat told reporters, adding that both the eventual winners and losers in the election must settle their differences in parliament.
    He also had harsh words for politicians he said “distort” democratic principles to make them incompatible with Thai culture that reveres the king above all else, a clear reference to Thaksin’s party and its allies.
    “This is not right,” Apirat said of such politicians.    “Thailand is a democracy with the king as the head of state.”
    Thaksin-loyal parties have won every election since 2001, even after he was ousted in a 2006 coup.     Thaksin has remained an influential political figure despite having lived in self-imposed exile since he fled Thailand in 2008 to escape a corruption trial that he said was politically motivated.
    Last week, six other parties joined with the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party in a “democratic front” alliance, which they claim will gain enough seats in parliament to try to form a government and block Prayuth from staying in power.
    “People should accept winning and losing,” Apirat said.    “Instead, they constructed a democratic side and a dictatorship side, which is not right.    We are all Thais.”
    The army chief also alluded to an election-eve statement from King Maha Vajiralongkorn, telling reporters on Tuesday “we must choose good people to govern so that bad people don’t have power.”
    King Vajiralongkorn’s unexpected statement on March 23, which broke from his late father’s practised silence on politics, mentioned “good” and “bad” people but did not specify any one party or politician.
    However, less than a week after the vote, the king issued an official command that stripped Thaksin of all royal honors and decorations he had been given.
    The king’s command came on the heels of military moves to discredit Thaksin.
    Last week the military said that Thaksin has acted “dishonorably” and stripped him from a pre-cadet school’s achievement award as well as deleting his name from the school’s hall of fame.
(Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Nick Macfie)

4/3/2019 India’s Hindu groups quietly put controversial temple plan on backburner by Mayank Bhardwaj, Neha Dasgupta and Rupam Jain
FILE PHOTO: People look at a model of a proposed Ram temple that Hindu groups want to build at a disputed religious
site in Ayodhya in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India, November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Pawan Kumar/File Photo
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Millions of Hindus will wake up at the crack of dawn this Saturday, five days before the start of India’s general election, and march to nearby temples to chant a sacred hymn and renew a pledge to build a temple on the ruins of a 16th-century mosque.
    Hardline Hindu allies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) say they will mobilize more than 10 million people on April 6 – the start of the Hindu New Year – to shore up support for the contentious plan to build a temple in the northern town of Ayodhya.
    But while the event will keep the focus on a core demand of India’s Hindu nationalists, it will not overtly be part of the BJP’s election campaign, signaling a softer approach by the ruling party, multiple sources familiar with discussions said.
    The commitment to construct a grand temple in Ayodhya to the Hindu god-king Ram has been part of the BJP’s election manifesto since the 1990s and has helped the party garner Hindu votes in state and federal elections since then.
    However, the BJP and its allies are concerned that focusing on the temple issue could be too hot to handle, especially since it is now the party in power.    It could worsen communal tensions and trigger religious riots in the country, said a senior BJP leader.
    “We cannot underestimate the power of Hindu fringe groups, and it’s best not to ignite these issues,” said a BJP leader who is overseeing the party’s election strategy.
    The BJP leader and two other senior party members, two federal ministers and four members of hardline Hindu groups, who didn’t wish to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue, said they reached a consensus to fold the temple issue into a broader religious and cultural discourse, without being too vocal about it.
    Following a meeting between senior religious leaders and BJP politicians in January, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) or the World Hindu Council, which is leading the movement for building the Ayodhya temple, put its agitation on hold in February.
    Details of the meeting have not been published previously.
    The VHP, which shares ideological ties with the BJP, would renew its demand only after the general election, its leaders said.
    “While we remain committed to the cause that is so close to the hearts of Hindus, we’re unanimous in our view that it’s not the right time to amplify the temple issue,” said Alok Kumar, international working president of the VHP.    “Politicization leads to controversies.”
HINDU-MUSLIM RIOTS
    The VHP has distributed pamphlets and issued appeals on social media to participate in a chanting ceremony aimed at renewing the pledge to build the temple on the spot where many Hindus believe Ram was born, where the mosque stood.
    Sanjay Mayukh, a BJP spokesman in New Delhi, declined comment on the April 6 event being organized by the VHP.
    “We wish them (VHP) a success and we will celebrate the Hindu New Year too,” said Mayukh.
    A militant Hindu mob tore down the mosque in 1992, sparking riots that killed about 2,000 people in one of the worst instances of sectarian violence in India since independence in 1947.
    The mosque, built by a Muslim ruler in 1528, has been one of the prime causes of conflict between India’s majority Hindus and minority Muslims, who constitute 14 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion people.
    India’s Supreme Court is now in control of the site in Uttar Pradesh state and has been weighing petitions from both communities on what should be built there.
    In March, the country’s top court appointed an arbitration panel to mediate in the dispute.    It’s verdict is yet to come.
    BJP election candidates confirmed they are avoiding the temple issue in their campaigns.
    Former government minister and BJP lawmaker Sanjeev Baliyan, who is contesting the election from a constituency in Uttar Pradesh, said he has instructed supporters to “refrain from using the Ayodhya issue in any political rally.”
    At least 65 people were killed in clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Baliyan’s constituency in 2013.
    “The danger of any religious tension spilling out of our control would change the election mood.    Best to keep religious issues away from politics for now,” he told Reuters.
    Instead, Baliyan said, his campaign would focus on the BJP’s achievements during its last five years in power and national security issues.
    Most pollsters expect the BJP to emerge to win the highest number of seats in the election after recent military exchanges between India and arch enemy Pakistan led to a wave of nationalist fervor that has helped Modi.
    But the pollsters say the BJP is unlikely to repeat its sweeping victory of 2014 because of the government’s inability to provide jobs to the millions of youngsters coming into the job market each year and depressed rural incomes.
    The BJP is also under fire from small business owners, traditional supporters of the party, who say they have suffered because of a rocky start to the Goods and Services Tax, India’s biggest tax reform, and Modi’s shock move to ban high-value banknotes in 2016.
    The big question may be whether the BJP gets enough seats in the 544-member lower house of parliament to govern without having to form a coalition with other parties.
    India begins voting on April 11 and the staggered election is scheduled to end on May 19.    Results will be declared on May 23.
    Ambuj Nigam, the leader of the Vishwa Hindu Dal, a Hindu hardline Hindu group that came into existence in 2018, said the demand for a temple would again gain momentum after the general election.
    “We have put all our controversial works on hold,” said Nigam.    “But as soon as election results are out, we will bring Hindu nationalism back to the forefront.”
(Additional reporting Zeba Siddiqui,; Editing by Martin Howell and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

4/3/2019 Outnumbered and elderly, Okinawa protesters oppose U.S. military runway by Mayuko Ono and Tim Kelly
The relocation site for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma where land reclamation work continues
is seen in the Henoko coastal district in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo
February 23, 2019. Picture taken February 23, 2019. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS
    OKINAWA (Reuters) – A month after Jinshiro Motoyama’s five-day hunger strike forced a referendum over a new U.S. military runway on Japan’s island of Okinawa, he came to bid farewell to a knot of protesters trying to block trucks heading for the building site.
    The referendum showed 70 percent of voters opposed expansion of a U.S. Marines base at Henoko on the island, but the vote was non-binding and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government decided to forge ahead with a project long promised to Washington.
    “It’s going to be a long battle,” said Motoyama, 27, adding that he was returning to Tokyo, the capital, to resume his study of foreign relations, because he needed to eventually get a job and earn a living.
    “I will continue my studies and hope to help in the future.    I hope I can encourage the next generation too,” he added, standing near a sign that urged protesters not to give up.
    With leaders like Motoyama standing down and few islanders willing to protest at the base every day, despite the referendum’s overwhelming no vote, the plan to build the runway on coral reefs seems to face few obstacles.
    The base, expected to be complete in five years, will host aircraft and troops from a residential area about 50 km (31 miles) south at the Futenma air station, which the United States and Japan agreed to close in 1996, after three U.S. servicemen raped a 12-year-old girl.
    Many Japanese want the Marine units to leave altogether, to ease the burden on the militarized island.
    Okinawa saw some of the bloodiest fighting in World War Two, and U.S. bases home to 50,000 U.S. citizens, among them 30,000 troops and civilian contractors, occupy about a fifth of the island.
    But a rapid U.S. military departure is unlikely, because Washington wants a presence on the strategic island chain fringing the East China Sea as the power of neighbouring China grows.
    As Chinese warplanes and warships make longer, more frequent forays through the waters into the Western Pacific, Japan has built radar bases, anti-ship missile batteries and deployed stealth fighters in response.
HAULED AWAY
    At Henoko, protesters sat in the road to block trucks bringing sand for the new runway, a tactic repeated hundreds of times during more than a decade of demonstrations.
    But they were outnumbered by security guards, who hauled away the protesters, many of them elderly, one by one.
    “We know young people like Motoyama worked hard to make the referendum happen,” said one of them, 73-year-old Masaru Shiroyama.    “Our biggest concern is they will lose heart and give up.”
    He vowed not to give up, calling the referendum “a starting point for this new battle in Okinawa.”
    As a U.S. tilt-rotor Osprey transport flew overhead, Motoyama looked up, recalling how the roar of military jets often woke him as a schoolboy, and made it hard to play baseball too.
    “You can’t hear the ball hit the bat, which can be dangerous, if you’re an outfielder like I was.”
(Reporting by Mayuko Ono and Tim Kelly; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

4/3/219 U.S. says will not send high-level officials to China’s Silk Road summit by David Brunnstrom
Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a news conference at the end of the Belt and Road
Forum in Beijing, China May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Lee
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will not send high-level officials to attend China’s second Belt and Road summit in Beijing this month, a U.S. State Department spokesman said on Tuesday, citing concerns about financing practices for the initiative.
    China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, said on Saturday that almost 40 foreign leaders would take part in the summit due to be held in Beijing in late April. He rejected criticisms of the plan as “prejudiced.”
    The first summit for Belt and Road, which envisions rebuilding the old Silk Road to connect China with Asia, Europe and beyond with massive infrastructure spending, was held in 2017 and attended by Matt Pottinger, the senior White House official for Asia.
    There are no such plans this year.
    “We will not send high-level officials from the United States,” U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said in answer to a question from Reuters.
    “We will continue to raise concerns about opaque financing practices, poor governance, and disregard for internationally accepted norms and standards, which undermine many of the standards and principles that we rely upon to promote sustainable, inclusive development, and to maintain stability and a rules-based order."
    “We have repeatedly called on China to address these concerns,” Palladino added.
    A person familiar with the matter said Washington was considering sending a lower-level staffer from the U.S. embassy to observe and take notes on the conference but not to participate, though a final decision has not yet been made.
    President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative has proven controversial in many Western capitals, particularly Washington, which views it as a means to spread Chinese influence abroad and saddle countries with unsustainable debt through non-transparent projects.
    On Saturday, Yang called such criticisms “prejudiced,” saying China has never forced debt upon participants and the initiative was to promote joint development.
    On Saturday, he did not name the 40 leaders he said would attend, but some of China’s closest allies have confirmed they will be there, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
    “The Belt and Road is an open, inclusive and transparent initiative. We have always welcomed like-minded countries to participate in, and jointly build, the Belt and Road,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a news briefing in Beijing on Wednesday when asked about the U.S. statement.
    The United States has been particularly critical of Italy’s decision to sign up to the plan this month, during a visit by Xi to Rome, the first for a G7 nation.
    Washington sees China as a major strategic rival and the Trump administration has engaged Beijing in a tit-for-tat tariff war.
    The world’s two biggest economies have levied tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of bilateral trade since July 2018, raising costs, disrupting supply chains and roiling global markets.
    White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow on Tuesday said the countries “expect to make more headway” in trade talks this week, while the top U.S. business lobbying group said differences over an enforcement mechanism and the removal of U.S. tariffs were still obstacles to a deal.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington and Cate Cadell in Beijing; Editing by Sandra Maler and Darren Schuettler)

4/3/2019 Hong Kong launches new extradition law despite opposition by Greg Torode and Jessie Pang
FILE PHOTO: Demonstrators march during a protest to demand authorities scrap a proposed
extradition bill with China, in Hong Kong, China March 31, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s leaders launched laws on Wednesday to change extradition rules to allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial, standing fast against growing opposition to a move many fear could further erode the city’s legal protections.
    Thousands took to Hong Kong streets to protest against the laws at the weekend, joining an unusually broad chorus of concern from international business elites to rights’ groups and even some pro-establishment figures.
    However, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam said her government would make no further amendments before introducing the laws to the city’s parliament.
    Small groups of protesters supporting the government’s bill briefly faced off against opponents outside the Legislative Council but later dispersed without incident. Opponents of the changes fear further erosion of freedoms and legal protections in the free-wheeling financial hub – rights that were guaranteed under the city’s handover from British colonial rule to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
    According to the laws presented to the council on Wednesday, the chief executive would have the right to order the extradition of wanted offenders to China, Macau and Taiwan as well as other countries not covered by Hong Kong’s existing extradition treaties.
    As a safeguard, such orders could be challenged and appealed against through the city’s courts.
    Government officials have said no one at risk of the death penalty or torture or facing a political charge could be sent from Hong Kong.    They earlier exempted nine commercial crimes from the new provisions after pressure from business groups.
    Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng said outside the council Hong Kong’s courts would play an essential role.
    “It is absolutely not the case that a single person or organization can complete the whole process,” Cheng said.
    The laws will be debated by a council committee and are expected to be passed later this year.
    The government has justified the swift introduction of the changes by saying they are needed so that a young Hong Kong man suspected of murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan can be extradited.
‘NO TRUST’
    Former Democratic Party leader Emily Lau said that, even with the promised safeguards, ordinary Hong Kongers would still find extradition to mainland China unacceptable.
    “Many Hong Kong people have no trust or confidence in the Chinese judicial system,” she told the government-funded radio station RTHK.    Fair trials were not possible on the mainland, she said.
    Hong Kong’s Bar Association said on Tuesday the government’s watering down of the changes did nothing to ease fundamental unease over differences with the Chinese system.
    Under the Basic Law, which enshrines Hong Kong’s separate system until 2047, Hong Kong is allowed to continue a British-style legal system that remains part of the common law.
    Fugitive property tycoon Joseph Lau launched legal action in a Hong Kong court on Monday challenging the retroactive nature of the bill.    Lau is seeking to avoid extradition to neighboring Macau, where he was sentenced in 2014 to more than five years on corruption and money laundering charges.
    Chen Zhimin, a former deputy minister of public security, told reporters in Beijing last month mainland authorities already had a list of more than 300 fugitives who are in Hong Kong.
    He dismissed fears that political activists would be sought under the pretext of other crimes.
(Reporting by Greg Torode and Jessie Pang; Additional reporting by Noah Sin; Editing by Michael Perry)

4/3/2019 Three importers cut Iran oil shipments to zero: U.S. envoy by Lesley Wroughton and David Brunnstrom
FILE PHOTO: Brian Hook, U.S. Special Representative for Iran, speaks about potential threats posed by the Iranian regime to the
international community, during a news conference at a military base in Washington, U.S., November 29, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Three of eight importers granted waivers by Washington to buy oil from Iran have now cut their shipments to zero, a U.S. official said on Tuesday, adding that improved global oil market conditions would help reduce Iranian crude exports further.
    The United States reimposed sanctions on Iran after President Donald Trump last May withdrew the country from a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and several world powers, accusing it of supporting terrorism and conflicts in Syria and Yemen.
    While the United States has set a goal of completely halting Iran’s oil exports, it granted temporary import waivers to China, India, Greece, Italy, Taiwan, Japan, Turkey and South Korea to ensure low oil prices and no disruption to the global oil market.
    The Trump administration is currently in consultations with the importers ahead of a May 2 deadline when the waivers expire.
    “In November, we granted eight oil waivers to avoid a spike in the price of oil.    I can confirm today three of those importers are now at zero,” Brian Hook, the special U.S. envoy for Iran, told reporters.
    Hook did not identify the three.
    “There are better market conditions for us to accelerate our path to zero,” Hook said.    “We are not looking to grant any waivers or exceptions to our sanctions regime.”
    Hook said U.S. oil sanctions against Iran had removed about 1.5 million barrels of Iranian oil exports from the market since May 2018.
    This has denied the regime access to well over $10 billion in (oil) revenue – a loss of at least $30 million a day,” he said.
    Oil prices on Tuesday hit their highest level so far in 2019, with Brent crude approaching $70 a barrel on the prospect that more sanctions against Iran and Venezuelan disruptions could deepen an OPEC-led supply cut.
    Analysts believe the administration is likely to extend the waivers to the remaining five importers to placate top buyers China and India and to decrease the chance of higher oil prices.
    China, India, Japan, South Korea and Turkey are likely to be given waivers that could cap Iran’s crude oil exports at about 1.1 million barrels per day, U.S.-based analysts at Eurasia Group said in January.    That would remove Italy, Greece and Taiwan from the waivers list.
    Hook said a decision on whether to extend the waivers would be made “in due course.”    A total of 23 importers that once took Iranian oil had cut imports to zero, he added.
    “With oil prices actually lower than they were when we announced our sanctions and global production stable, we are on the fast track to zeroing out all purchases of Iranian crude,” Hook said.
    A senior Trump administration official told reporters on Monday that the U.S. government was considering additional sanctions against Iran that would target areas of its economy that have not been hit before.
    Hook said more than 26 rounds of U.S. sanctions against Iran had restricted the country’s cash flow and constrained its ability to operate in the region.
    Earlier on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran’s government of mismanagement that has led to devastating flooding across the country.    At least 47 people have been killed in the past two weeks from flash floods.
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and David Brunnstrom; editing by Tom Brown and Rosalba O’Brien)

4/3/2019 U.S. lawmakers urge sanctions over China’s treatment of Muslim minority by Matt Spetalnick
FILE PHOTO: Workers walk by the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in
Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday faulted the Trump administration for failing so far to impose sanctions over China’s alleged human rights abuses against its Muslim minority and called for punitive measures against a senior Communist Party official and Chinese companies.
    A letter to President Donald Trump’s top advisers signed by more than 40 lawmakers said China’s actions in its western region of Xinjiang “may constitute crimes against humanity” and urged tighter U.S. export controls to ensure that U.S. companies are not assisting the Chinese government’s crackdown there, either directly or indirectly.
    It also asked the United States to strengthen financial disclosure requirements to alert American investors about the presence in U.S. capital markets of Chinese companies that are “complicit in human rights abuses.”    The letter specifically cited Hikvision and Dahua Technology, which produce audio-visual equipment that can be used for surveillance.
    China faces growing condemnation from Western capitals and rights groups for setting up facilities that U.N. experts describe as mass detention centers holding more than 1 million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims.
    Beijing has said its measures in Xinjiang, which are also reported to include widespread surveillance of the population, are aimed at stemming the threat of Islamist militancy.    The facilities or camps that have opened are vocational training centers, the government has said.
    The letter, which was sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, urged them to swiftly slap sanctions on Xinjiang’s Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo, a member of the Chinese leadership’s powerful politburo, and other Chinese officials “complicit in gross violations of human rights.”
    The Trump administration has been weighing sanctions against Chinese officials, including Chen, since late last year, and though it has ramped up criticism it has held off on imposing the measures.    China has warned that it would retaliate “in proportion” against any U.S. sanctions.
    “We are disappointed with the administration’s failure so far to impose any sanctions related to the ongoing systemic and egregious human rights abuses in Xinjiang,” the lawmakers said.    “While the strong rhetoric condemning the Chinese government’s actions (in Xinjiang) from Vice President Pence and others is certainly welcomed, words alone are not enough.”
    The group of signatories was led by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and U.S. Representative Chris Smith on the Republican side and Senator Bob Menendez and Representative James McGovern on the Democratic side.
    They called on the Trump administration to apply sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act.    The federal law allows the U.S. government to target human rights violators around the world with freezes on any U.S. assets, U.S. travel bans and prohibitions on Americans doing business with them.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Tom Brown)

4/4/2019 Philippines says Chinese vessels in disputed waters illegal by Karen Lema
FILE PHOTO - A view of Philippine occupied (Pagasa) Thitu island in disputed South China Sea April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
    MANILA (Reuters) – The presence of more than 200 Chinese fishing boats near an island occupied by Manila in the disputed South China Sea is illegal and a clear violation of Philippine sovereignty, the country’s foreign ministry said on Thursday.
    “Such actions when not repudiated by the Chinese government are deemed to have been adopted by it,” the Department of Foreign Affairs said in a rare rebuke of Beijing.
    President Rodrigo Duterte has pursued warmer ties with China since taking office in 2016 in exchange for billions of dollars of pledged loans and investment. He said this week China just wants to be friends with the Philippines.
.     “I was given arms and ammunition and until now they have not asked anything, they have not asked for any territory,” Duterte said on Tuesday.
    The presence of the trawlers near Thitu island raised questions about their intent and role “in support of coercive objectives,” the ministry said, days after the Philippines lodged a diplomatic protest with China.
    The Philippines has monitored more than 200 Chinese boats near Thitu, also known as Pagasa in the Philippines, from January to March this year, according to military data.
    “These are suspected maritime militia,” Capt. Jason Ramon, spokesman for the military’s Western Command said this week.
    “There are times when they are just there without conducting fishing.    At times, they are just stationary.”
    The Philippines, Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims of sovereignty in the busy South China Sea, a conduit for goods in excess of $3.4 trillion every year.
    “We call on concerned parties to desist from any action and activity that contravenes the ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, as these generate tension, mistrust and uncertainty, and threatens regional peace and stability,” the ministry said.
    In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang did not refer directly to Manila’s protest, but he said bilateral talks on the South China Sea held in the Philippines on Wednesday were “frank, friendly and constructive.”
    Both sides reiterated that South China Sea issues should be resolved peacefully by parties directly involved, he said.
    Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the Philippines it would come to its defense if it came under attack in the South China Sea.
(Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Darren Schuettler)

4/4/2019 Exclusive: U.N. nuclear watchdog inspects Iran ‘warehouse’ Netanyahu pointed to – sources by Francois Murphy
FILE PHOTO: The Iranian flag flutters in front the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
headquarters in Vienna, Austria March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo
    VIENNA (Reuters) – The U.N. atomic watchdog policing Iran’s nuclear deal has inspected what Israel’s prime minister called a “secret atomic warehouse” in Tehran, three diplomats familiar with the agency’s work said.
    In a speech at the United Nations in September Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who vehemently opposes the deal, called on the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit the site immediately, saying it had housed 15 kg (33 lb) of unspecified radioactive material that had since been removed.
    Netanyahu argued the warehouse showed Tehran still sought to obtain nuclear weapons, despite its 2015 pact with world powers to curb its nuclear program in return for a loosening of sanctions.
    At the time the IAEA bristled at being told what to do, saying it does not take information presented to it at face value and sends inspectors “only when needed.”
    “They’ve visited the site,” one of the three diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly and details of inspections are confidential.
    VIENNA One of the diplomats said the IAEA had been to the site more than once last month.    The others said the agency had been there, without specifying when. The IAEA declined to comment.
    VIENNA “We have nothing to hide and any access given to the IAEA so far has been in the framework of laws and regulations and nothing beyond that,” an Iranian official said.
    VIENNA The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran declined to comment.    VIENNA Iran has said the site is a carpet-cleaning facility.
    VIENNA Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment.
    VIENNA Determining what nuclear materials if any were present at the site will depend on an analysis of environmental samples taken there, and the results will not be in until June, two of the diplomats said.
    VIENNA Such environmental samples can detect telltale particles including highly enriched uranium even long after material has been removed.
    VIENNA The IAEA has the power under the landmark 2015 deal to carry out so-called complementary access inspections in Iran, which are often conducted at short notice, wherever it needs to.
    VIENNA The IAEA carried out 35 complementary access inspections in Iran in 2017, the latest year for which data is available, according to an annual report to member states that is itself confidential and which Reuters obtained.
    VIENNA Diplomats familiar with the IAEA’s work say such inspections are often carried out to clear up questions Iran has not fully answered or discrepancies in its declarations.
‘NOTHING TO HIDE’
    The IAEA has repeatedly said Iran is holding up its end of the deal, which lifted international sanctions against Tehran in exchange for restrictions on its atomic activities that increased the time it would need to make a nuclear bomb if it chose to.
    Iran says its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.
    Quarterly IAEA reports say its inspectors have had access to all the places in Iran they have needed to visit, which IAEA chief Yukiya Amano repeated in a speech on Tuesday.
    At the same time, some diplomats who follow Iran closely say it has dragged its feet in dealing with the agency and some inspections have gone down to the wire.
    “Full cooperation with the IAEA must be the norm, and Iran should not need a quarterly reminder of its importance,” the United States, which has pulled out of the deal and now opposes it, said in a statement at last month’s IAEA Board of Governors meeting, referring to another regular comment in IAEA reports.
    Pending the results of the sample analysis, several diplomats said the fact inspectors were granted access to the site showed the deal is holding for now, despite Washington re-imposing punishing sanctions that have targeted Iran’s economy.
    “The Iranians have realized that complying with the deal is in their interests,” one diplomat said.
(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Editing by William Maclean)

4/5/2019 U.S. to designate elite Iranian force as terrorist organization by Phil Stewart, Lesley Wroughton and Steve Holland
EDITORS' NOTE: Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on their ability to report, film or
take pictures in Tehran. Members of the Iranian revolutionary guard march during a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the
Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in Tehran September 22, 2011. REUTERS/Stringer (IRAN - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANNIVERSARY) - GM1E79M1GMB01
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is expected to designate Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Corps a foreign terrorist organization, three U.S. officials told Reuters, marking the first time Washington has formally labeled another country’s military a terrorist group.
    The decision, which critics warn could open U.S. military and intelligence officials to similar actions by unfriendly governments abroad, is expected to be announced by the U.S. State Department, perhaps as early as Monday, the officials said.    It has been rumored for years.
    The Pentagon declined comment and referred queries to the State Department.    The State Department and White House also declined to comment.
    The Iranian mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a strident Iran hawk, has advocated for the change in U.S. policy as part of the Trump administration’s tough posture toward Tehran.
    The announcement would come ahead of the first anniversary of President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of a 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran and to reimpose sanctions that had crippled Iran’s economy.
    The administration’s decision to make the designation was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
    The United States has already blacklisted dozens of entities and people for affiliations with the IRGC, but the organization as a whole is not.IRGC’s Quds Force, its unit in charge of operations abroad, “for its support of terrorism,” and has described it as Iran’s “primary arm for executing its policy of supporting terrorist and insurgent groups.”
    Iran has warned of a “crushing” response should the United States go ahead with the designation.
    IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari warned in 2017 that if Trump went ahead with the move “then the Revolutionary Guards will consider the American army to be like Islamic State all around the world.”
    Such threats are particularly ominous for U.S. forces in places such as Iraq, where Iran-aligned Shi’ite militia are located in close proximity to U.S. troops.
    Republican Senator Ben Sasse said the move would be an important step in America’s maximum pressure campaign against Tehran.    “A formal designation and its consequences may be new, but these IRGC butchers have been terrorists for a long time,” Sasse said in a statement.
    Former Under-Secretary of State and lead Iran negotiator, Wendy Sherman, said she worried about implications for U.S. forces.
    “One might even suggest, since it’s hard to see why this is in our interest, if the president isn’t looking for a basis for a conflict,” said Sherman, who is director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School.    “The IRGC is already fully sanctioned and this escalation absolutely endangers our troops in the region.”
IRGC’S REACH
    Set up after the 1979 Islamic Revolution to protect the Shi’ite clerical ruling system, the IRGC is Iran’s most powerful security organization.    It has control over large sectors of the Iranian economy and has a huge influence in its political system.
    The IRGC is in charge of Iran’s ballistic missiles and nuclear programs.    Tehran has warned that it has missiles with a range of up to 2,000 km (1,242 miles), putting Israel and U.S. military bases in the region within reach.
    The IRGC has an estimated 125,000-strong military with army, navy and air units and answers to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
    It is unclear what impact the U.S. designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization might have on America’s activities in countries that have ties with Tehran, including in Iraq.
    Baghdad has deep cultural and economic ties with Iran and Oman, where the United States recently clinched a strategic ports deal.
(Additional reporting by Idrees Ali, Michelle Nichols and Parisa Hafesi; Editing by Mary Milliken, Tom Brown and Daniel Wallis)

4/5/2019 EU, China stumble over trade, human rights ahead of summit by Robin Emmott and Philip Blenkinsop
FILE PHOTO: An attendant walks past EU and China flags in Beijing, China June 25, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee
    BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Tensions over trade, investments and minority rights are preventing China and the EU from agreeing a joint declaration at a summit next week, multiple sources in Brussels said on Friday, sapping a European push for greater access to Chinese markets.
    Alarmed by potential Chinese dominance of strategic European industries, EU leaders last month sought to prepare for the April 9 summit – flagged as an opportunity to cement bilateral ties – by agreeing what they said was a more assertive stance toward Beijing.
    By diplomatic convention, joint statements are issued at the conclusion of high-profile bilateral summits to formalize policy.
    Donald Tusk, the head of the European Council, has recommended rejecting the statement as it stands, according to an EU source.    China had not met EU hopes that it would open its markets, nor seriously committed to reforms of global trade rules.
    According to an early draft put forward by the European Union and seen by Reuters, Beijing would be bound into completing talks on an investment agreement and committing to remove what the EU says are unfair barriers to trade.
    The EU also wants to show the United States that the trade war route is not the only way to coax Beijing to open up.
    But Chinese officials have removed or changed many of those references, the EU diplomats said, raising the embarrassing probability of no communique at all after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk have met.
    Envoys for EU nations including Britain, Germany and France said they could not back the communique on the basis of China’s changes, an EU official said.
    Other EU references to reassure Europeans that China is committed to confronting attacks by computer hackers and improving religious freedoms for the Muslim Uighur minority are also proving very difficult, the diplomats said.
    “We wanted to be clear on how we want to work with China, not issue a meaningless document,” a senior EU diplomat said.
    Another said there would be no statement without a change in stance from Beijing.
    The Chinese foreign ministry was not immediately available for comment.    Vice Foreign Minister Wang Chao told reporters this week that both sides were working to reach a consensus.
    Negotiations with the Chinese would continue until Tuesday.
RE-EVALUATION
    The intensification of EU diplomacy since March reflects frustration over China’s reluctance to allow foreign companies to set up there without restrictions while taking full advantage of the EU’s openness, EU diplomats say.
    A surge of Chinese takeovers in critical sectors in Europe and an impression in Brussels that Beijing has not kept its promise to stand up for free trade and globalization have given the April meeting new urgency.
    The EU-China relationship, which is bound by 1 billion euros ($1.12 billion) in daily trade, has survived previous spats, notably in 2016 and 2017 when differences over the South China Sea and trade meant there were no communiques.
    However, after a collective re-evaluation of Chinese policy by EU leaders on March 21, the six-page April 9 statement was meant to coax Beijing into making good on promises to deepen trade ties.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott and Philip Blenkinsop; editing by John Stonestreet)

4/6/2019 Rouhani says Iran ready to expand gas, power trade with Iraq
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meets with Iraq's Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in
Tehran, Iran, April 6, 2019. Official Iranian President website/Handout via REUTERS
    DUBAI (Reuters) – President Hassan Rouhani called on Saturday for Iran and neighboring Iraq to expand their gas and electricity dealings and boost bilateral trade to $20 billion, state TV reported, despite difficulties caused by U.S. sanctions against Tehran.
    “The plans to export electricity and gas and hopefully oil continue and we are ready to expand these contacts not only for the two countries but also for other countries in the region,” Rouhani said after a meeting with visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, in remarks carried by state television.
    In March, the United States granted Iraq a 90-day waiver exempting it from sanctions to buy energy from Iran, the latest extension allowing Baghdad to keep purchasing electricity from its neighbor.
    “We hope that our plans to expand trade volume to $20 billion will be realized within the news few months or years,” Rouhani said.    Iranian media reports have put the current level of trade at about $12 billion.
    Rouhani expressed hope that work on building a railway linking the two countries, would begin within the next few months.
    The railway project was part of deals reached during Rouhani’s March visit to Baghdad, meant to underline that Tehran still plays a dominant role in Iraq despite U.S. efforts to isolate Iran.
    Iran and Iraq fought a devastating 1980-88 war but the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that ousted Saddam Hussein prompted a long Sunni Islamist insurgency during which Iran’s regional sway rose at the expense of the United States.
    Iraq on Saturday closed its Sheeb border crossing with Iran to travelers and trade until further notice, Iraqi security sources said, as flooding continues to submerge villages in southwestern Iran.
    U.S President Donald Trump reimposed sanctions on Iran’s energy exports in November, citing its nuclear program and meddling in the Middle East, but has granted waivers to several buyers to meet consumer energy needs.
    Iraq relies heavily on Iranian gas to feed its power stations, importing roughly 1.5 billion standard cubic feet per day via pipelines in the south and east.
(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Mark Potter)

4/6/2019 Pakistan PM accuses India of war hysteria over downed F-16 claim by Syed Raza Hassan and Sankalp Phartiyal
FILE PHOTO: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan attends talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping (not pictured)
at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, November 2, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/Pool
    KARACHI, Pakistan/MUMBAI (Reuters) – Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan blamed India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for “whipping up war hysteria” over claims that India shot down a Pakistani F-16 during a standoff in February, saying the truth is always the best policy.
    U.S.-based Foreign Policy magazine, citing U.S. officials, said all of Pakistan’s F-16 combat jets had been accounted for, contradicting an Indian air force assessment that it had shot down one of the jets.
    “The truth always prevails and is always the best policy,” Khan said in a Tweet.    “BJP’s attempt to win elections through whipping up war hysteria and false claims of downing a Pak F 16 has backfired with US Defense officials also confirming that no F16 was missing from Pakistan’s fleet.”
    Nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan engaged in an aerial battle over the disputed region of Kashmir a day after Indian jets crossed over into Pakistan to attack a suspected camp of anti-India militants.
    An Indian jet was brought down during the fight and its pilot captured when he ejected on the Pakistani side of the border. He was later released.
    India said it too had shot down a Pakistani aircraft and the air force displayed pieces of a missile that it said had been fired by a Pakistani F-16 before it went down.
    Foreign Policy said in a report published on Thursday two U.S. defense officials with direct knowledge of the matter said U.S. personnel had done a count of Pakistan’s F-16s and found none missing.
    Details of the India-Pakistan air engagement have not been fully provided by either side.    If the U.S. report turns out to be true, it would be a further blow to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had said that India had taught Pakistan a lesson, ahead of elections next week.
    The BJP is campaigning on a platform of tough national security, especially with regard to arch foe Pakistan.    New Delhi blames Pakistan for stoking a 30-year revolt in Muslim-majority Kashmir but Islamabad denies any involvement.
    BJP spokesman Bizay Sonkar Shastri dismissed Khan’s accusations.
    “Firstly, their (Pakistan’s) habit of lying is no secret to the world.    Secondly, this is absolutely clear that the roots of terrorism lie in Pakistan and terrorism is cultivated in Pakistan,” he told Reuters.
    The success of Indian air strikes on a camp of the Jaish-e-Mohammed militant group in northwestern Pakistan has also been thrown into doubt after satellite images showed little sign of damage.
    High-resolution satellite images reviewed by Reuters last month showed that a religious school run by Jaish appeared to be still standing days after India said its warplanes had hit the Islamist group’s training camp on the site and killed a large number of militants.
    Pakistan closed its airspace amid the standoff but most commercial air traffic has since resumed and major airports have opened.
    Pakistan offered to open one air route on Friday, an Indian government official said, without specifying details and declining to be named as the matter was not public.
    An Air India official said on condition of anonymity that Pakistan has opened one of its 11 air routes, from the southern side, adding that the carrier began operations via this route on Friday.
    “Pakistan has opened one air route over India on April 4th, it is a north-west bound route,” Mujtaba Baig, spokesman for Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority, told Reuters on Saturday.
    An email sent to the Indian Directorate General of Civil Aviation was not immediately answered.    Air India did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
(Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)

4/6/2019 Singapore, Malaysia reach deal to end months-long airspace dispute
FILE PHOTO: A Firefly ATR 72-500 airplane approaches to land at Changi
International Airport in Singapore June 10, 2018. REUTERS/Tim Chong
    SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Singapore and Malaysia reached an agreement to end their months-long airspace dispute, the transport ministers of the two neighboring countries said in a joint statement on Saturday.
    Under the deal, Singapore will halt instrument landing system procedures at its Seletar Airport, while Malaysia will open up a restricted area near the countries’ border.
    “Singapore will withdraw the Instrument Landing System procedures for Seletar Airport and Malaysia will indefinitely suspend its permanent Restricted Area over Pasir Gudang,” the statement of Malaysian Transport Minister Anthony Loke and Singapore’s Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said.
    This will allow Malaysia Airlines’ subsidiary Firefly to start operations at Seletar Airport this month, the statement said.    Media reports said the airline postponed its plans to fly out of Seletar Airport last year due to the dispute.
    In December, Malaysia said it wanted to take back control of airspace managed by the city-state since 1974, as Singapore’s new instrument landing system at its small Seletar airport involved a flight path over Malaysian airspace.
    The ministers also said in the joint statement that the two countries have set up a committee to review the 1974 airspace agreement.
    Singapore was once part of Malaysia but they separated acrimoniously in 1965, clouding diplomatic and economic dealings for years.
    In another dispute, the sides previously agreed to the establishment of a working group to discuss issues around port limits after Singapore protested in December about Malaysia’s plan to extend the limits of a port, saying it encroached on its territorial waters.
(Reporting by Fathin Ungku; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)

4/6/2019 Thailand’s rising political star charged with sedition by Patpicha Tanakasempipat
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party speaks to his supporters as he arrives at a police station
to hear a sedition complaint filed by the army in Bangkok, Thailand, April 6, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
    BANGKOK (Reuters) – The leader of a new party that has challenged Thailand’s military government was charged on Saturday with sedition, the latest legal action facing the rising star after a disputed March election.
    The sedition charge, which was filed by the junta, was the second criminal case opened against Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, 40, since he formed the progressive, youth-oriented Future Forward Party last year.
    The 2015 case resurfaced after the Future Forward Party made a surprisingly strong showing in the March 24 election, coming in third with 6.2 million votes.
    It was still uncertain which party could form a government after the election, the first since a 2014 army coup.    Final results may not be clear for weeks.
    Future Forward has joined an opposition “democratic front” alliance that will try to form a government and block junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha from staying in power.
    Police told Reuters the complaint dates back to 2015, when Thanathorn, who was running his family’s auto parts empire at the time, allegedly “provided assistance” to a leader of protesters against the 2014 military coup who violated a junta ban on gatherings of more than five people.
    As he left the police station, Thanathorn said the charges were politically motivated and questioned the timing: “Why does this come a week after the election?
    “We believe in our innocence,” he told reporters, declining to comment further on the case until he submits written testimony to police, which is due by May 15.
    “This isn’t about me.    This is about everyone who fights for justice,” he told a sea of supporters outside.
    They handed him flowers and cheered loudly as he emerged from the station, chanting “Thanathorn, keep going!
    Many wore orange clothing – the party’s color – and held up signs with “#SaveThanathorn,” which is also a trending hashtag on Twitter.
    Embassy representatives from the European Union, Germany and other countries were at the scene for observation.
    Thanathorn is accused of breaking article 116 of the Thai criminal code, the equivalent of sedition; article 189, for assisting others who committed a serious crime; and article 215, for an assembly of more than 10 people.
    He could face up to nine years in prison if found guilty.    He will be tried in a military court.
    According to electoral law, a criminal conviction could spell electoral disqualification for Thanathorn, who has looked set to become a member of parliament.
    Thanathorn also faces a separate cybercrime charge over a speech he made on Facebook criticizing the junta in July.
    Prosecutors will decide on April 26 whether to put him on trial for the cybercrime charge.
(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Additional reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng; Editing by Kim Coghill)

4/6/2019 Iran’s Khamenei urges Iraq to force out U.S. troops ‘as soon as possible’
FILE PHOTO: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech on the first day of Persian New Year, also known
as Nowruz in Mashhad, northeast of Tehran, Iran March 21, 2019. Khamenei.ir/Handout via REUTERS
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s top leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged Iraq on Saturday to demand U.S. troops leave “as soon as possible,” during a visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi that showed off Tehran’s strong influence in Baghdad despite U.S. pressure.
    Iran and the United States have been competing for clout in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, an enemy of both countries.
    Many of Iraq’s leaders, from its Shi’ite majority, have close ties with Iran, the main Shi’ite power in the Middle East.    Over the past four years, both Iran and the United States helped Iraq defeat Islamic State fighters that captured a third of Iraq in 2014.
    “You must make sure that the Americans withdraw their troops from Iraq as soon as possible because expelling them has become difficult whenever they have had a long military presence in a country,” Khamenei was quoted as saying by state media.
    “The Iraqi government, parliament and current political activists in the country are undesirable for the Americans … and they are plotting to remove them from Iraqi politics,” said Khamenei.
    Iran and Iraq fought a devastating 1980-88 war but the 2003 U.S.-led invasion prompted a long Sunni Islamist insurgency during which Iran’s regional sway rose at Washington’s expense.
    The long enmity between Iran and the United States worsened further following President Donald Trump’s decision last year to pull out of an international accord curbing Tehran’s nuclear program and to reimpose economic sanctions on Iran.
    During Abdul Mahdi’s visit, President Hassan Rouhani called for Iran and Iraq to expand their gas and electricity dealings and boost bilateral trade to $20 billion.
    “The plans to export electricity and gas and hopefully oil continue and we are ready to expand these contacts not only for the two countries but also for other countries in the region,” Rouhani said in remarks carried by state TV.
    In March, the United States granted Iraq a 90-day waiver exempting it from sanctions to buy energy from Iran, the latest extension allowing Baghdad to keep purchasing electricity from its neighbor.
    “We hope that our plans to expand trade volume to $20 billion will be realized within the news few months or years,” Rouhani said.         Iranian media reports have put the current level of trade at about $12 billion.
    Rouhani also expressed hope that work on building a railway linking the two countries would begin within the next few months.    The railway project was part of deals reached during Rouhani’s March visit to Baghdad.
    Iraq relies heavily on Iranian gas to feed its power stations, importing roughly 1.5 billion standard cubic feet per day via pipelines in the south and east.
(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Peter Graff)
[Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a desperate attempt was just in Iraq yesterday and today after the vist Ayatollah Ali Khamenei thinks he can tell Iraq what to do, but there is a threat of U.S. sanctions on Iraq if they continue to use Iran's oil.].

4/7/2019 China wants to work with EU on trade, premier writes before summit
FILE PHOTO: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang speaks at a news conference following the closing session of the National People's
Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee
    BERLIN (Reuters) – China wants to work with the European Union on issues from climate change to trade, Premier Li Keqiang wrote in a German newspaper before a summit next week aimed at cementing ties.
    Diplomats in Brussels have said that tensions over trade, investments and minority rights mean China and the EU may fail to agree a joint declaration at the April 9 summit.    That could dent European efforts to gain greater access to Chinese markets.
    In a column for Monday’s edition of Handelsblatt, extracts of which were released on Sunday, the Chinese Premier denied accusations Beijing was trying to split the bloc by investing in eastern European states.
    “We emphatically support the European integration process in the hope of a united and prosperous Europe,” wrote Li.    He said Beijing’s close cooperation with eastern European states was “advantageous for a balanced development within the EU.”
    Concerned by potential Chinese dominance of strategic European industries, the EU is trying to coax Beijing to open up its markets and has tried to get it to commit to removing what Brussels sees as unfair barriers to trade.
    Li wrote that China was ready to work closely with Europe in upholding the Paris Climate Agreement, supporting sustainable development, retaining the international nuclear deal with Iran and fighting terrorism.
    He also said it wanted to exchange views on reforming the World Trade Organization.
    The EU is China’s largest trading partner. An increase in Chinese takeovers in critical sectors in Europe and an impression in Brussels that Beijing has not kept its promise to stand up for free trade has complicated talks before the summit.
(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Peter Graff)

4/7/2019 Iran says reaches understanding with Iraq to develop two oilfields
FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shake hands with Iraq's Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi during a news
conference in Tehran, Iran, April 6, 2019. Official Iranian President website/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo
    GENEVA (Reuters) – Iran and Iraq have reached an understanding about developing two oilfields on their mutual border, Iran’s oil minister was quoted saying on Sunday, a day after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called for increased trade between the two countries.
    The focus of the understanding is the development of the Naft Shahr and Khorramshahr oilfields, Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said according to a report on Iran’s oil ministry website on Sunday, without giving any details of the plan.
    Rouhani called on Saturday for Iran and Iraq to expand their gas, electricity and oil dealings and boost bilateral trade to $20 billion, state TV reported, despite difficulties caused by U.S. sanctions against Tehran.
    “We hope that our plans to expand trade volume to $20 billion will be realized within the next few months or years,” Rouhani said, after a meeting with visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, in remarks carried by state television.
    Iranian media reports have put the current level of trade at about $12 billion.
    Zanganeh had in February criticized Iraq for not agreeing to develop shared oilfields because of sanctions fears, according to comments published by the oil ministry’s news site SHANA.
    However the energy industries in the two countries have close links and Iraq relies heavily on Iranian gas to feed its power stations.
    Iraq imports roughly 1.5 billion standard cubic feet of gas per day from Iran via pipelines in the south and east of the country.    Zanganeh noted Iraq owes Iran approximately $1 billion for gas supplied in the past.
    “Given the lack of development in the petrochemicals and gas industries in Iraq, there is a bright perspective for cooperation between the two countries,” Zanganeh said, again without giving any further details.
    There was no immediate comment from the Iraqi oil ministry on Sunday about the oilfields understanding.
    After a trip to Iraq last month by Rouhani and Zanganeh, Iran had agreed to help Iraq with technical and engineering services in the oil sector.
    Iran also agreed to help with the development of mutual fields, rebuilding old refineries, and helping build a network for gas delivery, Amir Hossein Zamaninia, Iran’s deputy oil minister for trade and international affairs, said on Sunday, according to SHANA, the new site of the Iranian oil ministry.
    U.S President Donald Trump reimposed sanctions on Iran’s energy exports in November, citing its nuclear program and meddling in the Middle East, but has granted waivers to several buyers to meet consumer energy needs.
    In March the United States granted Iraq a 90-day waiver exempting it from sanctions on buying energy from Iran.
(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Editing by David Holmes)

4/8/2019 In unprecedented move, U.S. names Iran’s Revolutionary Guards terrorist group by Lesley Wroughton and Parisa Hafezi
FILE PHOTO - Members of the Iranian revolutionary guard march during a parade to commemorate the
anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in Tehran September 22, 2011. REUTERS/Stringer
    WASHINGTON/DUBAI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday branded Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, an unprecedented step that raises the specter of retaliation from Tehran in an increasingly tense Middle East.
    It is the first time the United States has formally labeled another country’s military a terrorist group.
    “The IRGC is the Iranian government’s primary means of directing and implementing its global terrorist campaign,” Trump said in a statement.
    Iran immediately condemned the decision as an illegal act prompted by Tehran’s regional influence and “success in fighting against Islamic State,” according to state television.
    Tensions between the two countries have grown since Trump pulled the United States out of a 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran last May and reimposed sanctions that had crippled Iran’s economy.    Trump said the accord did not address Iran’s ballistic missile activity or what he saw as its malign influence in the region.
    Set up after the 1979 Islamic Revolution with the mission of protecting the Shi’ite clerical ruling system, the IRGC is Iran’s most powerful security organization and has a huge influence in its political system, controlling large swathes of the economy and the armed forces.
    The IRGC’s involvement in Iran’s banking and shipping industries could complicate matters with U.S. allies, including the European Union, which is setting up a new mechanism to facilitate payments for Iranian exports.    It was not immediately clear how Monday’s move would impact Europe’s trade ties with Iran.
    Those who do business with the Guards could now receive up to 20 years in prison and be barred from entering or doing business in the United States.
    The action on Monday “makes crystal clear the risks of conducting business with, or providing support to, the IRGC,” Trump said.    “If you are doing business with the IRGC, you will be bankrolling terrorism.”
    After reports of the planned U.S. designation emerged on Friday, Iranian lawmakers warned Tehran will take reciprocal action.
    Critics have warned the U.S. action could open U.S. military and intelligence officials to similar moves by unfriendly governments.
    The United States has already blacklisted dozens of entities and people for affiliations with the IRGC, but not the organization as a whole.
‘OUTLAW REGIME’
    Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a strident critic of Iran, has pushed for the change in U.S. policy as part of the Trump administration’s tough posture toward Tehran.
    The U.S. action against the entire IRGC had been debated in the Trump administration for months as Washington sought additional ways to pressure Iran and curtail its growing influence in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
    “This designation is a direct response to an outlaw regime and should surprise no one,” Pompeo said.    The designation comes into effect next Monday.
    In 2017, IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari warned that if Trump went ahead with labeling the group as terrorist “then the Revolutionary Guards will consider the American army to be like Islamic State all around the world.”
    Such threats are particularly ominous for U.S. forces in places such as Iraq, where Iran-aligned Shi’ite militia are located in close proximity to U.S. troops.
    The State Department said on Monday that the Guards have been engaged in terrorist activity since the group’s inception, including the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 Americans, and a foiled plan to attack the Saudi ambassador to the United States on U.S. soil.    It cited what it said were IRGC terrorist plans that had been uncovered in Europe and Africa.
    Some critics of the Trump administration’s move believe it was timed ahead of the Israeli election on Tuesday.
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Trump for taking the action in a Twitter post.    Iran and Israel are increasingly at odds with each other, particularly in Syria where the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force has helped President Bashar al-Assad gain the upper hand in a civil war.
    After reports of the designation emerged late on Friday, Iranian lawmakers warned Tehran will take reciprocal action.
IRGC’S WIDE NET
    The IRGC is in charge of Iran’s ballistic missiles and nuclear programs.    Tehran has warned that it has missiles with a range of up to 2,000 km (1,242 miles), putting Israel and U.S. military bases in the region within reach.
    The IRGC’s economic footprint grew under Iranian former president and ex-Guard Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from 2005.    Soon after the United States, EU and the United Nations imposed sanctions on Iran’s oil and finance sectors in 2012, the IRGC took up the businesses of the European oil firms that were been forced to leave.
    Iran’s clerical rulers rewarded the group for sanctions-busting as well as suppressing dissent at home and helping Tehran’s allies abroad – notably Syria’s Assad.
    However, in recent years much of the IRGC’s business has been conducted through front companies, many of them not even formally owned by the Corps, but by people and firms linked to it.
    Previous administrations have considered expanding the designation to the entire group, but decided that the risk to U.S. forces overseas was too great, according to former U.S. officials.
    The Pentagon declined to discuss what the U.S. military was doing to protect its troops from any retaliation by the IRGC or Iran-aligned militia in places like Iraq. U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, assured that the U.S. military was taking all necessary steps and had alerted U.S. military commanders prior to the announcement.
    The announcement comes ahead of a May 2 deadline by the United States on whether or not to extend oil waivers to eight importers of Iranian oil.
    Reducing the number of waivers will limit oil exports from Iran, the fourth-largest producer in OPEC, but the United States is unlikely to meet an earlier target of driving Iranian oil exports to zero.
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton, additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Arshad Mohammed, Jonathan Landay, Phil Stewart in Washington: Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Doina Chiacu, Editing by Alistair Bell)

4/8/2019 Three U.S. service members, one contractor killed in Afghanistan
FILE PHOTO - Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers and police keep watch outside the Bagram Airfield
entrance gate north of Kabul, Afghanistan November 12, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Three U.S. service members and an American contractor were killed in Afghanistan by an improvised explosive device on Monday, the NATO-led Resolute Support mission said in a statement.
    Three U.S. service members were also wounded in the incident near Bagram air base close to Kabul, the statement said. Violence has been relentless in Afghanistan even though Taliban militants have held several rounds of talks with U.S. officials about a peace settlement.    The talks began late last year, raising hopes for an end to the conflict.
    Colonel David Butler, a spokesman for U.S. Forces- Afghanistan, said a car bomb had detonated near the security convoy, which lead to deaths and injuries.
    The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
    The latest deaths bring the number of U.S. service member deaths in Afghanistan to seven in 2019, and a total of 68 U.S. military deaths since January 2015, according to U.S. government and NATO reports.
    The death toll is one of the deadliest recent attacks against U.S. personnel.    In November, a roadside bomb blast killed three U.S. service members near the central Afghan city of Ghazni.
    Last month two U.S. service members were killed in Afghanistan while conducting an operation.
    The war has taken a much larger toll on Afghan security forces and civilians.
    President Ashraf Ghani, speaking at the World Economic Forum in January, said that about 45,000 Afghan security forces have been killed since he took office in September 2014, which works out to an average of 849 per month.
    The Resolute Support Mission consists of 17,000 troops, about half of them from the United States.    A smaller number of U.S. troops operate in Afghanistan under a counter-terrorism mission.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Phil Berlowitz, Susan Thomas and David Gregorio)

4/9/2019 Iran’s Khamenei calls U.S. blacklisting of Guards a ‘vicious move’ by Parisa Hafezi
FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a meeting with tribal leaders
in Kerbala, Iraq, March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-Deen/File Photo
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the United States had made “a vicious move” in designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which he controls, as a foreign terrorist organization, state TV reported on Tuesday.
    U.S. President Donald Trump designated Iran’s Guards a foreign terrorist organization on Monday — an unprecedented step that will raise tensions in the Middle East.
    “They wish to plot against our Sepah (the Guards) … it is in the frontline of confronting enemies of our (1979 Islamic) revolution and has always defended the country … America has failed to block our advancements,” Khamenei said, addressing a group of Guards.
    “In spite of all the pressure in the past 40 years, Americans have failed to do a damn thing and their vicious move will bear no fruit.”
    Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also defended the corps as protectors of Iran, saying in a televised speech that the United States “holds a grudge” against the Guards who have “sacrificed their lives to protect our people, our revolution.”
    Comprising an estimated 125,000-strong military with army, navy and air units, the Guards also command the Basij, a religious volunteer paramilitary and control Iran’s missile programs.    Its overseas Quds forces have fought Iran’s proxy wars in the region.
    The U.S. has already blacklisted dozens of entities and people for affiliations with the Guards, but not the organization as a whole.
    Trump’s move comes after relations between Tehran and Washington took a turn for the worse last May, when Trump pulled out of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, and reimposed sanctions.
    Tehran took retaliatory action by naming the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) as a terrorist organization and the U.S. government as a sponsor of terror, and Iranian officials warned the move will endanger U.S. interests in the region, where Iran is involved in proxy wars from Syria to Lebanon.
    “This mistake will unite Iranians and the Guards will grow more popular in Iran and in the region … America has used terrorists as a tool in the region while the Guards have fought against them from Iraq to Syria,” Rouhani said.
    Iranian Revolutionary Guards commanders have repeatedly said that U.S. bases in the Middle East and U.S. aircraft carriers in the Gulf are within range of Iranian missiles.
    Tehran has also threatened to disrupt oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf if the United States tries to strangle Tehran’s economy by halting its oil exports.
    Iran’s arch rival Saudi Arabia welcomed the U.S. decision on Tuesday.    “The U.S. decision translates the Kingdom’s repeated demands to the international community of the necessity of confronting terrorism supported by Iran,” Saudi state news agency SPA said, citing a foreign ministry source.
OUR PATIENCE HAS LIMITS
    In a show of support, Iranian lawmakers wore Guards’ uniforms to parliament on Tuesday, chanting “Death to America” as Iran marked the annual National Day of the Revolutionary Guards, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.
    “America’s decision to label the Guards as a terrorist group was the peak of stupidity and ignorance of the American leadership,” Fars quoted parliament Speaker Ali Larijani as saying.
    Iran has so far continued to comply with the nuclear deal, but Tehran’s clerical rulers have threatened to withdraw from it and to resume the suspended nuclear work if other signatories of the pact fail to protect Iran’s interests.
    “I am telling you (American leaders), if you pressure us, we will mass produce IR8 advanced centrifuges,” Rouhani said in the speech marking Iran’s National Nuclear Day.
    Under the nuclear deal, sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union and United Nations were lifted in return for Iran agreeing long-term curbs on a nuclear program the West suspected was geared to developing an atom bomb.
    The Trump administration says the nuclear deal did not do enough to curb Iranian meddling in regional affairs or restrict its ballistic missile program.
    “Since last year, we have acquired kind of missiles that you cannot even imagine,” Rouhani said, referring to Iran’s determination to continue expanding its missile program despite mounting U.S. pressure to curb it.
    Co-signatories Britain, France and Germany are trying to salvage the deal and set up in January a mechanism to allow trade with Tehran and circumvent U.S. sanctions.
    But Iran has criticized the EU for failing to “honor its pledges” to protect trade with Iran.    Rouhani, who could be weakened by a blow to Iran’s economy if the deal falls apart, struck a tough tone in his televised speech.
    “We have been patient and will continue to be patient … but our patience has a limit … Fulfill your commitments and respect your pledges,” Rouhani told the EU.
(Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Dubai; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

4/9/2019 Newly assertive EU to face resistant China at summit by Philip Blenkinsop and Robin Emmott
FILE PHOTO: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang speaks at a news conference following the closing session of the National People's
Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo
    BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and EU institution leaders meet in Brussels on Tuesday for an annual EU-China summit set to be overshadowed by differences over trade and investment.
    After years of offering free access to its markets, the European Union has said it is losing patience with Beijing over the slowness of its market liberalization.    It also has growing concerns over state-led Chinese companies’ dominance of some EU markets and acquisitions of strategic industries.
    That newly assertive stance has made it difficult to agree a final summit declaration, a staple of such high-level gatherings, which this year the EU sees as way of setting down in writing Chinese promises to open up to European investors.
    EU and Chinese negotiators agreed a tentative draft statement on Tuesday morning, four EU diplomats said.    But any final communique needs the sign-off of Li, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council chief Donald Tusk.
    Diplomats said a new draft included fresh commitments by Beijing to speed up talks on a decade-long effort to reach an investment pact, as well as text on industrial subsidies and opening China’s market more broadly to European companies.
    Like the United States, many EU countries want to crack down on industrial subsidies and forced technology transfers, although they prefer dialogue to the trade war Washington has triggered.
    “The old narrative is absolutely obsolete,” Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen told Reuters.
    One diplomat said an EU leaders’ summit in March had helped to forge a more unified European position that was paying off, adding there was a greater awareness of China’s policy of pushing free trade only when it suited its interests.
    China denies seeking to dominate strategic European industries and has repeatedly said it wants a “win-win” relationship of mutual benefit.
    The European Commission set out a 10-point action plan last month, seeing scope for greater cooperation in fields such as climate change, but demanding greater reciprocity, such as access for EU firms to Chinese public tenders.
    “China aims to have a feel-good summit, whereas we aim to have a meaningful summit, with a meaningful outcome,” Peter Berz, acting Asia director at the Commission’s trade section, told the European Parliament last week.
    China points to a new foreign investment law due to take effect at the start of 2020.    It includes provisions to ban forced technology transfers and ensure foreign companies have access to public tenders.
    EU officials say the law lacks detail, and question how effective it will really be in protecting foreign firms.
    Li wrote in a German newspaper on Monday that China wanted to work with the European Union on issues including trade, and denied Beijing was trying to split the bloc by investing in eastern European states.
(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop and Robin Emmott; Editing by Alison Williams and Kevin Liffey)

4/9/2019 Kazakhstan to hold June election, Tokayev favorite by Olzhas Auyezov
FILE PHOTO - Kazakhstan's interim President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, attends a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of
the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall in Moscow, Russia April 4, 2019. Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS
    ALMATY (Reuters) – Kazakhstan’s interim president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, called a snap presidential election for June 9 on Tuesday and looked to be in pole position to continue ruling the oil-rich Central Asian nation.
    The only other potential heavyweight candidate, Dariga Nazarbayeva, has no plans to run, her aide told Kazakh news website Tengrinews.kz after the vote announcement.
    Her father Nursultan Nazarbayev ran the ex-Soviet republic for almost three decades until his surprise resignation last month.    Tokayev, then speaker of parliament’s upper chamber, subsequently assumed the presidency.
    The announcement of a snap election in two months leaves other potential candidates with little time to organize and run campaigns.    The incumbent’s ratings are likely to benefit from public sector pay rises in June and other welfare initiatives.
    “In order to secure social and political accord, confidently move forward, and deal with socio-economic development tasks, it is necessary to eliminate any uncertainty,” Tokayev, 65, said in a televised address to the nation.
    Nazarbayev, 78, retains sweeping powers in the country of 18 million as the official “national leader,” chair of its security council and head of the ruling Nur Otan party. Analysts say his endorsement will be the deciding factor in the vote.
    Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga, 55, also regarded by analysts as a potential president one day, has replaced Tokayev as Senate speaker.    Tokayev has not confirmed he will be standing to continue as president, although that is widely assumed in local political circles.
    Under Kazakh law, presidential candidates can only be nominated by nationwide organizations such as political parties. Both Tokayev and Dariga Nazarbayeva are members of Nur Otan.
    The newly-elected president will have fewer powers than Nazarbayev did: a 2017 constitutional reform gives parliament and t/he cabinet more say with regards to long-term planning, personnel decisions, and legislative initiative.
    The political transition in the former Soviet republic neighboring Russia and China is closely watched by foreign investors who have pumped tens of billions of dollars into its energy and mining sectors since independence.
(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Andrew Cawthorne and Raissa Kasolowsky)

4/9/2019 Hong Kong ‘Occupy’ protest leaders found guilty for role in mass rallies
(L-R) Pro-democracy activist Tanya Chan, and Occupy Central pro-democracy movement founders
Chu Yiu-ming, Chan Kin-man and Benny Tai, chant slogans outside the court before hearing a verdict on their involvement
in the Occupy Central, also known as "Umbrella Movement", in Hong Kong, China April 9, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    HONG KONG (Reuters) – A Hong Kong court on Tuesday found three leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy “Occupy” civil disobedience movement guilty of conspiracy to commit public nuisance for their role in mass protests that brought parts of the Chinese-ruled city to a standstill.
    Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man and retired pastor Chu Yiu-ming were all found guilty following a trial that comes as the financial centre’s civil liberties come under mounting pressure.
(Reporting By James Pomfret and Jessie Pang; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

4/9/2019 Iranian lawmakers chant ‘death to America’ before Parliament opens by OAN Newsroom
    Iranian lawmakers were recently seen chanting “death to America” before convening for parliament.
    The lawmakers were dressed in paramilitary uniforms Tuesday, in solidarity with the country’s Revolutionary Guard in the wake of the U.S. labeling it a terrorist organization.
    Iranian President Hassan Rouhani slammed the move as an “illegal act” prompted by Tehran’s growing power on the world stage.    In retaliation, he declared U.S. Central Command a terrorist organization, and the U.S. as a state sponsor of terrorism.
    “Americans and those who are part of the global arrogance want to avenge their defeats and failures by labeling as ‘terrorist' a group whose actions and endeavors have always been focused on fighting terrorists,” stated Rouhani.    “No one in this world, no country on earth can claim that it has suffered more from terrorism than Iran.”
Wearing the uniform of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, lawmakers chant slogans during an open session of parliament in Tehran, Iran,
Tuesday, April 9, 2019. Chanting “Death to America,” Iranian lawmakers convened an open session of parliament Tuesday following the White House’s
decision to designate Iran’s elite paramilitary Revolutionary Guard a foreign terrorist organization. (AP Photo/Hamidreza Rahel/ICANA)
    The Trump administration’s decision was met with support from nearby Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia.
    Additionally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked President Trump for the designation.    In a tweet Monday, the prime minister praised the decision by saying “once again, the president is keeping the world safe from Iran’s aggression.”
    Years before this decision, the U.S. blacklisted dozens of individuals and entities associated with the guard.

4/9/2019 Dalai Lama, 83, hospitalized with chest infection by Sunil Kataria
FILE PHOTO: Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama delivers teachings during the first day of New Year or
"Losar" in the northern hill town of Dharamsala, India February 22, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo
    MUMBAI (Reuters) – Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama was admitted to a New Delhi hospital on Tuesday with chest infection, an aide said, adding that the 83-year-old Buddhist monk was stable.
    The Dalai Lama, who fled to India in early 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, lives in exile in the northern Indian hill town of Dharamshala.
    “Today morning his holiness felt some discomfort and he was flown to Delhi for check-up,” Tenzin Taklha, his personal secretary, told Reuters.
    “Doctors have diagnosed him with chest infection and he is being treated for that.    His condition is stable now.    He will be treated for two three days here.”
    Many of the up to 100,000 Tibetans living in India are worried that their fight for a genuinely autonomous homeland would end with the Dalai Lama.
    He told Reuters last month that it was possible that once he dies his incarnation could be found in India, and warned that any other successor named by China would not be respected.
    China, which took control of Tibet in 1950, brands the Nobel peace laureate a dangerous separatist and has said its leaders have the right to approve the Dalai Lama’s successor, as a legacy inherited from China’s emperors.
    But many Tibetans – whose tradition holds that the soul of a senior Buddhist monk is reincarnated in the body of a child on his death – suspect any Chinese role as a ploy to exert influence on the community.
(Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Alison Williams)

4/9/2019 EU hails breakthrough with China on industry subsidies by Philip Blenkinsop and Robin Emmott
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is welcomed by European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude
Juncker ahead of a EU China Summit in Brussels, Belgium, April 9, 2019. Olivier Hoslet/Pool via REUTERS
    BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Chinese Premier Li Keqiang promised the European Union on Tuesday that Beijing would no longer force foreign companies to share sensitive know-how when operating in China and was ready to discuss new global trading rules on industrial subsidies.
    Marking a significant shift, Li’s pledge at the annual EU-China leaders’ meeting follows similar offers to the United States and potentially signals an opening for which European companies have long lobbied.
    “European companies will enjoy equal treatment,” Li told a news conference following the three-hour summit in Brussels, offering to set up a disputes mechanism to handle complaints.
    Summit chair Donald Tusk talked of a breakthrough.
    In their joint statement, the two trading powers said they recognized their responsibility to lead by example for an open global economy based on multilateral rules.
    The contrast was implied with U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda, his administration’s attempts to disrupt the World Trade Organization, and the U.S. trade war with China.
    China nevertheless faced a more assertive Europe, even with dialogue the preferred approach.
    China’s acquiescence to a seven-page communique followed months of intense European diplomacy against the backdrop of U.S. trade talks with China and what French President Emmanuel Macron called “an end to naivety” about Chinese power.
    Many European governments have felt frustration at what they say is China’s failure to keep its promise to open up, and their leaders held a summit in March to discuss China for the first time in many years.
    Highlighting the differences over trade and investment with Beijing, EU negotiations with China on a final summit communique, a guide to future policy, dragged on for 10 days before Tuesday’s gathering, which also included European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
    EU officials accused Beijing of wanting merely a “feel-good” summit, while Brussels sought to show a common front and address growing concerns over Chinese state-led enterprises and their acquisition of key European assets.
    Li will now head to Croatia for another European summit on Thursday and Friday, this time with central and eastern states, 11 of whom are EU members.
INVESTMENT PACT, RIGHTS ISSUES
    The joint statement, only agreed by Li on his plane before his arrival in Brussels, said that the EU and China would cooperate on reform of the World Trade Organization and intensify discussions on rules governing industrial subsidies.
    “It is a breakthrough.    For the first time, China has agreed to engage with Europe on this key priority for WTO reform,” Tusk said.
    The two sides additionally agreed there should be no forced transfer of technologies as a price for investment.
    Western governments have long complained that their companies are pressured into handing over technological know-how to Chinese joint-venture partners, officials or regulators as a condition for doing business in China.
    That technology is often subsequently used by Chinese competitors, undercutting Western companies, says the European Union, which fears Chinese dominance in strategic industries.
    China and the EU have also set a goal of concluding an investment pact in 2020.    Launched in 2013 and with a 20th round of talks held in February, it aims to improve market access and end discrimination against foreign investors.
    In a private meeting, Tusk also raised with Li the incarceration of what the West says are hundreds of thousands of Muslims in China’s western Xinjiang region, EU diplomats said.
    U.N. experts say Chinese detention centers hold more than one million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims.    Tusk also raised human rights more generally in the main summit plenary, seeking more religious freedom for minority groups in China.
(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop and Robin Emmott; editing by Kevin Liffey, John Stonestreet and Giles Elgood)

4/9/2019 Afghan contractor listed as killed in blast is alive
An Afghan military convoy drives past the site of a car bomb attack where U.S soldiers were
killed near Bagram air base, Afghanistan April 9, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An Afghan contractor who was believed to have been killed in a car bomb near Kabul is alive, the U.S. military said on Tuesday.
    Colonel David Butler, a spokesman for U.S. Forces- Afghanistan, told Reuters the Afghan contractor was initially believed to have been killed along with three other U.S. service members in the blast near Bagram air base close to Kabul.
    It was only later that they found out the contractor was alive.
    The blast, which the Taliban claimed responsibility for, also wounded three U.S. service members.
    Violence has been relentless in Afghanistan even though Taliban militants have held several rounds of talks with U.S. officials about a peace settlement.    The talks began late last year, raising hopes for an end to the conflict.
    Monday’s attack was one of the deadliest against U.S. personnel in recent months.    In November, a roadside bomb blast killed three U.S. service members near the central Afghan city of Ghazni.
    The war has taken a much larger toll on Afghan security forces and civilians.
    President Ashraf Ghani, speaking at the World Economic Forum in January, said about 45,000 members of Afghanistan’s security forces have been killed since he took office in September 2014, which works out to an average of 849 per month.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

4/9/2019 Japan’s air force loses contact with F-35 stealth fighter
Senior leaders of Japan’s Ministry of Defense, U.S. Forces Japan, Pacific Air Forces and Lockheed Martin gather in a Japan Air Self-Defense
Force hangar for the commemorative ceremony welcoming the first operational F-35A Lightning II to JASDF's 3rd Air Wing at
Misawa Air Base, Japan, February 24, 2018. Picture taken February 24, 2018. U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Benjamin W. Stratton/Handout via REUTERS
    TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s military said on Tuesday it lost contact with one of its Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighters over the Pacific Ocean close to northern Japan.
    Japan’s first squadron of F-35s has just become operational at the Misawa air base and the government plans to buy 87 of the stealth fighters to modernize its air defenses as China’s military power grows.
    The advanced single-seat jet was flying about 135 km (84 miles) east of the air base in Aomori Prefecture at about 7:27 p.m. (1027 GMT) on Tuesday, when it disappeared from radar, the Air Self Defense Force said.
    The military has launched a search for the missing aircraft and its pilot, it said in a statement.
    A crash would be only the second time an F-35 has gone down since the plane began flying almost two decades ago.    It would also be the first crash of an A version of the fifth-generation fighter designed to penetrate enemy defenses by evading radar detection.
    A U.S. military short take off and landing (STOVL) F-35B crashed near the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina in September prompting a temporary grounding of the aircraft.    Lockheed Martin also makes a C version of the fighter designed to operate off carriers.
    Japan’s new F35s will include 18 short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) B variants that planners want to deploy on its islands along the edge of the East China Sea.
(Reporting by Tim Kelly, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Stanley White; Editing by Darren Schuettler)

4/10/2019 Crashed Japanese F-35 wreckage found in Pacific, pilot still missing by Tim Kelly
A Japan Air Self-Defense Force's F-35A stealth fighter jet, which Kyodo says is the same plane that
crashed during an exercise on April 9, 2019, is seen at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Komaki Minami factory
in Toyoyama, Aichi Prefecture, Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo June 2017. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS
    TOKYO (Reuters) – Search and rescue teams found wreckage from a crashed Japanese F-35 stealth fighter in the Pacific Ocean close to northern Japan, as efforts to find the missing pilot continued, authorities said on Wednesday.
    The aircraft, less than one-year-old, was the first F-35 to be assembled in Japan and was aloft for only 28 minutes on Tuesday before contact was lost, a defense official said.    The plane had logged a total of 280 hours in the air since its first flight, he added.
    It is only the second F-35 to crash in the two-decades it has been flying and could reignite concern about the F-35 having only one engine.
    The incident comes as Lockheed Martin, the F-35 manufacturer, competes for orders in Finland and Switzerland against the twin-engined Eurofighter Typhoon and Boeing F/A-18E/F jet.
    The advanced, single-seat jet was flying in good weather about 135 km (84 miles) east of the Misawa air base in Aomori Prefecture at about 7:27 p.m. (1027 GMT) on Tuesday when it disappeared from radar, the Air Self Defense Force said.
    “We recovered the wreckage and determined it was from the F-35,” a spokesman for the Air Self Defence Force (ASDF) said, adding that the pilot of the aircraft was still missing.
    Eight ships and seven aircraft, including a U.S. Navy P-8 Orion maritime patrol plane, are taking part in search and rescue efforts.
    The aircraft was at the front of a group of four planes out for training maneuvers when it sent an “aborting practice” signal and then disappeared from the radar, Defence Minister Takeshi Iwaya told reporters.
    “We’ll need to cooperate with the U.S. forces and I believe arrangements are being made for this,” Iwaya said, adding the priority was on determining the cause of the accident.
    Japan has a total of 13 F-35s including the one that crashed, which was the fifth delivered to the ASDF, but the first assembled by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan, a second ASDF official told Reuters.    Japan’s remaining 12 stealth jets are grounded for now, he added.
    The previous four aircraft had been used for training in the United States before being brought to Japan, the defense official said.
    A representative for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries said the company had no immediate comment.    Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd assembles the aircraft at a plant near Nagoya in central Japan.    The lost aircraft cost 14 billion yen ($125.98 million), several million dollars more than one purchased directly from the United States.
    The F-35’s pilot was a veteran flyer with 3,200 hours of flight time, but had spent only 60 hours in the F-35, the official said.
    The aircraft crashed in waters that reach a depth of around 1,500 meters, making recovery, particularly of the aircraft’s flight data recorder (FDR), difficult, the official said.
ONLY SECOND F35 TO CRASH
    The aircraft, designed to penetrate enemy defenses by evading radar detection, was delivered to the ASDF in May last year, the ASDF spokesman said.    Japan’s first squadron of F-35s has just become operational at Misawa, and the government plans to buy 87 of the stealth fighters to modernize its air defenses as neighboring China and Russia upgrade their military forces.
    Lockheed said it was standing by to support the Japanese Air Self Defense Force as needed.    The Pentagon said it was monitoring the situation.
    It was the first crash of the A variant of the fifth-generation fighter.    A U.S. Marine Corp short take off and landing (STOVL) F-35B version crashed near the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina in September, prompting a temporary grounding of the aircraft.    Lockheed also makes a C version of the fighter designed to operate off carriers.
    Japan’s new F-35s will include 18 STOVL B planes that planners want to deploy on its islands along the edge of the East China Sea.
($1 = 111.1300 yen)
(Additional reporting by Chris Gallagher, Chang-Ran Kim and Takashi Umekawa in Tokyo, and Idrees Ali and Chris Sanders in Washington; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Richard Borsuk)

4/10/2019 UK reviewing status of 17 F-35s after Japan crash
A Japan Air Self-Defense Force's F-35A stealth fighter jet, which Kyodo says is the same plane that
crashed during an exercise on April 9, 2019, is seen at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Komaki Minami factory in
Toyoyama, Aichi Prefecture, Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo June 2017. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS
    (Reuters) – The British Ministry of Defence is in close touch with U.S. officials and reviewing the status of its 17 F-35B fighter jets after the crash of a Japanese F-35 jet in the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday, a ministry spokesperson said.
    “Safety is of the utmost importance and very closely managed on the F-35 program.    We will continue to review the situation as further information becomes available,” the spokesperson said.
    Britain, which plans to buy a total of 138 F-35 fighter jets built by Lockheed Martin, declared its fleet of F-35B fighter jets ready for initial combat operations from land in January.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; editing by Thomas Seythal)

4/10/2019 Dalai Lama recovers from chest infection in hospital by Krishna N. Das
FILE PHOTO: Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama delivers teachings during the first day of New Year or
"Losar" in the northern hill town of Dharamsala, India February 22, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – The Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was admitted to hospital in the Indian capital of New Delhi with a chest infection, but is doing fine, an aide said on Wednesday, as social media users prayed for the Buddhist monk’s fast recovery.
    The 83-year-old Nobel peace laureate, who fled to India in early 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, lives in exile in the northern hill town of Dharamshala.
    “His Holiness is doing fine now,” Tseten Samdup Chhoekyapa, the Dalai Lama’s press secretary, told Reuters, without giving details.
    The Dalai Lama, who was diagnosed with a chest infection after being admitted to hospital on Tuesday, complaining of discomfort, will spend a few days in hospital, his personal secretary said.
    A hospital official declined to comment on his medical condition, citing patient confidentiality.
    Many of his supporters posted messages on social media wishing him a speedy recovery.
    “Concerned that he has been hospitalised,” tweeted Naveen Patnaik, chief minister of India’s eastern state of Odisha.
    “The world needs him.”
    About 100,000 Tibetans live in India and many worry that their fight for a genuinely autonomous homeland would end with the Dalai Lama.
    He told Reuters last month his incarnation could be found in India after he dies, and warned that any other successor named by China would not be respected.
    China, which took control of Tibet in 1950, brands him a dangerous separatist and has said its leaders have the right to approve his successor, as a legacy from China’s emperors.
    But many Tibetans, whose tradition holds that the soul of a senior Buddhist monk is reincarnated in the body of a child on his death, suspect any Chinese role as a ploy to exert influence on the community.
    In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular news briefing he was not aware of the Dalai Lama’s physical condition, but added, “The reincarnation of the Dalai Lama should follow the relevant Chinese laws, regulations and religious rituals.”
(Reporting by Krishna N. Das; Additional reporting by Sunil Kataria and Cate Cadell in Beijing; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Clarence Fernandez)

4/10/2019 North Korea’s Kim says must deliver ‘serious blow’ to those imposing sanctions: KCNA
FILE PHOTO - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gestures during a Central Committee of the Worker's Party meeting in Pyongyang,
North Korea in this photo released on April 9, 2019 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency. KCNA via REUTERS
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his country needs to deliver a “serious blow” to those imposing sanctions by ensuring its economy is more self-reliant, state media Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Thursday.
    It was the first time Kim stated North Korea’s position on the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi that collapsed in February, and signaled a continued focus on economic development, a strategic direction officially declared a priority last April.
    On North Korea’s position on the summit, Kim said “We must deal a serious blow to the hostile forces who are mistakenly determined to bring us down with sanctions by advancing the socialist construction to a high level of self-reliance that fits our circumstances and state, based on our own power, technology and resources,” according to KCNA.
    U.S.-North Korean engagement has appeared to be in limbo since the Feb. 27-28 summit in Hanoi, which collapsed over differences about how far North Korea was willing to limit its nuclear program and the degree of U.S. willingness to ease economic sanctions.
    Kim has continued to highlight his economic push in recent weeks despite the lack of sanctions relief.
    State media have published images and reports of Kim’s visits to at least four economic projects in five days over the past week, including a remodeled department store, tourist resorts, and an economic hub near the border with China.
    Despite no direct mention of the United States, by linking sanctions with “hostile forces” that impose them Kim is showing a slightly stronger stance toward Washington than was recently in state media, analysts said.
    The comments were also reported hours ahead of a summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Washington on Thursday to discuss North Korea and other alliance issues.
    “It did not directly mention the U.S., but linked sanctions with hostile forces,” said Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.    “He’s saying North Korea would take an independent course unless the U.S. offered to lift sanctions.    You maintain sanctions, you’re a hostile force; if you ease sanctions, you’re not.”
    North Korea is expected to convene a session of its rubber-stamp legislature, the Supreme People’s Assembly, on Thursday.
(Reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Leslie Adler & Kim Coghill)

4/11/2019 Daunting salvage task awaits Japanese F-35 investigators baffled by crash by Tim Kelly
A Japan Air Self-Defense Force's F-35A stealth fighter jet, which Kyodo says is the same plane that crashed
during an exercise on April 9, 2019, is seen at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Komaki Minami factory in
Toyoyama, Aichi Prefecture, Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo June 2017. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS
    TOKYO (Reuters) – Two days after one of Japan’s F-35 stealth fighters plunged into the Pacific and no closer to finding out why it happened, investigators face a daunting task to recover what remains of the highly classified jet from the ocean depths.
    Air Self Defense Force (ASDF) investigators have found small sections of the F-35’s wing floating in the sea which suggests the advanced aircraft hit the water, but not why it disappeared from radar screens without warning.
    “We have not recovered anything that would point to a cause,” an air force official told Reuters as the search continues for the missing pilot.
    The remaining wreckage of the $126 million fighter lies at a depth of around 1,500 meters (4922 ft), including the flight data recorder which would shed light on what happened off the coast of northern Japan on Wednesday evening.
    Twenty-eight minutes after taking off with three other F-35s from Misawa air base in Aomori prefecture on a night training flight, the jet vanished from military radar at about 7:27 p.m. (1027 GMT), the ASDF said.
    The normally stealthy Lockheed Martin jet is fitted with a transponder that pings its position and can be configured to light up on radar scopes during training flights, the air force official said.
    Radar operators tracking the jet received a training abort message from the lost aircraft before it disappeared about 135 km (84 miles) east of the base.    There was no communication from the pilot indicating a problem with the aircraft.
    The plane was not on a low-level practice run, suggesting the veteran pilot with 3,200 hours of flying time but only 60 hours in the F-35, should have had time to react to an emergency, the air force official said.
DEEP WATER
    The military may have to hire marine salvage firms with submersible craft able to recover wreckage from deep water.    The candidates include Japan’s two biggest marine salvage firms.
    Fukuda Salvage and Marine Works got its start a century ago recovering damaged warships during the Russo-Japanese war, while Nippon Salvage shares its corporate roots with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the company that assembled the lost F-35.
    “The time needed to complete salvage operations depends on a lot of factors and … it’s impossible to say how long it would take to recover the F-35,” a Fukuda Salvage official said, adding it would take more than a few days.
    The condition of the single-engine fighter, part of a 12 plane squadron that just became operational, will probably be the biggest factor in planning a salvage operation, an engineer at Nippon Salvage told Reuters.
    “Intact it could be pulled up by a crane, but if it’s broken up then submersibles would have to collect the fragments,” he said.    “The question is whether you want to collect all the pieces.”
    Before that can start, however, Japan’s defense force has to find the wreckage of the highly-classified piece of U.S. military equipment.
(Reporting by Tim Kelly; editing by Darren Schuettler)

4/11/2019 South Korea court strikes down abortion law in landmark ruling by Joyce Lee and Josh Smith
South Korea's Constitutional Court chief judge Yoo Nam-seok and other judges sit for the ruling on decriminalisation
of abortion at the court in Seoul, South Korea April 11, 2019. Jung Yeon-je/Pool via REUTERS
    SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea’s Constitutional Court on Thursday overturned a ban on abortion that has stood for more than 65 years, saying in a landmark ruling that current law unconstitutionally curbs women’s rights.
    In a statement, it said the ban, as well as a law making doctors liable to criminal charges for abortions done with the woman’s consent, were both unconstitutional.
    “The law criminalizing a woman who undergoes abortion of her own will goes beyond the minimum needed to achieve the legislative purpose and limits the right of self-determination of the woman,” it said in its ruling.
    Seven of the nine justices ruled the law unconstitutional, and two dissented.    It had survived a challenge in 2012 when the court split evenly, four to four, as one seat was vacant then.
    “I believe this ruling frees women from shackles,” said Kim Su-jung, a lawyer representing the plaintiff, a doctor charged with conducting 69 illegal abortions.
    The ruling reflects a trend towards decriminalizing abortion, as cases of criminal punishment have fallen in recent years.
    Just eight new cases of illegal abortion were prosecuted in 2017, down from 24 in 2016, judicial data show.    Of 14 cases decided in lower courts in 2017, 10 postponed a ruling on condition that no crime be committed for a fixed time.
    A survey by polling firm Realmeter last week showed more than 58 percent of South Korean respondents favor scrapping the ban, but a little over 30 percent wanted it retained.
    Dueling demonstrations outside the courthouse highlighted persistent divisions in opinion.
    “How could you kill a baby that’s growing inside you?    Abortion is a murder,” said Kim Yeong-ju, a 47-year-old mother of two who demonstrated in favor of the ban.
    But the ruling helps ensure pregnancy is a personal choice, said Lee Ga-hyun, who joined a protest against the law after she saw a friend risk her life using illegal medication for an abortion.
    “I welcome today’s ruling, which made it possible for women like me and my friend to live their lives freely,” added Lee, 27.
LONGTIME BAN
    The abortion ban dates from 1953, and has not changed materially since South Korea first adopted its criminal law after the 1950-1953 Korean War.
    Abortion numbers have been dropping, with 49,764 estimated for women between 15 and 44 in 2017, down from 342,433 in 2005 and 168,738 in 2010, as birth control measures spread and the population of women in that age range falls, says the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.
    A 2017 petition urging the presidential Blue House to scrap the law against abortion and allow abortion medication drew more than 230,000 signatures.
    At the time, a senior government official said existing law was problematic because it only held women accountable for abortion.
    President Moon Jae-in, a liberal, has not stated clearly if he supports the law, but has called for more discussions to build consensus.
    The law prescribes jail for up to a year or fines of up to 2 million won ($1,756) for women who undergo abortion.
    It also sets terms of up to two years in jail and seven-year license suspensions for medical professionals, including doctors, who provide abortions at the woman’s request.
    Exemptions now allow abortions within 24 weeks of pregnancy for medical reasons, such as a hereditary disease or grave danger to the mother, or following rape.
    In all those cases, the law requires the spouse’s permission.
    “If the case does not fall under an exemption, the law forces the pregnant woman to maintain the pregnancy completely and uniformly, without exception,” the court said.
    But the law will stay on the books until the end of 2020, it added, to allow time for its revision.
    In a statement, the government said it would respect the decision and take steps to comply.
($1=1,138.9000 won)
(Reporting by Joyce Lee and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Dogyun Kim, and Daewoung Kim; Editing by Michael Perry and Clarence Fernandez)

4/11/2019 Dalai Lama nears full recovery from chest infection
FILE PHOTO: Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, Patron of Children in Crossfire, gestures at an event called
'Compassion in Action' in Londonderry, Northern Ireland September 10, 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has “more or less fully recovered” from a chest infection, his press secretary told Reuters on Thursday, but added it was not clear when he would be discharged from hospital.
    The 83-year-old Nobel peace laureate, who fled to India in early 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, was admitted to hospital in the capital this week.
    “His Holiness is much better now, Tseten Samdup Chhoekyapa told Reuters.    “He is more or less fully recovered.    But, of course, the treatment and his medication will continue for a few days more.”
(Reporting by Sunil Kataria; Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

4/11/2019 South Korean president to meet Trump hoping to revive North Korea talks by David Brunnstrom
FILE PHOTO - South Korea's President Moon Jae-in attends a news conference after a signing ceremony
at the Peace Palace, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Samrang Pring
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – South Korean President Moon Jae-in will meet U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday hoping to help put denuclearization talks with North Korea back on track after a failed summit between the United States and North Korean leaders in February.
    Moon arrived in Washington late on Wednesday and is due to hold talks with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday morning before meeting the president at the White House shortly after midday.
    Ahead of his trip, aides to Moon stressed the need to revive U.S.-North Korea talks as soon as possible after a second summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un collapsed in Hanoi on Feb. 28.
    The White House has said Trump and Moon will discuss North Korea and bilateral issues, but U.S. officials have declined to provide details.
    Moon has put his political reputation on the line in encouraging negotiations between the United States and North Korea aimed at persuading Kim to give up a nuclear weapons program that now threatens the United States.
    Moon has stressed the need to offer North Korea concessions to encourage negotiations, but Washington appears to have hardened its position against a phased approach sought by Pyongyang in which gradual steps would be rewarded with relief from punishing sanctions.
    The Hanoi meeting collapsed amid conflicting demands by North Korea for sanctions relief and U.S. insistence on its complete denuclearization.
    On Thursday, North Korean state media said Kim had told a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea on Wednesday that he would push forward with efforts to make the economy more self sufficient “so as to deal a telling blow to the hostile forces who go with bloodshot eyes miscalculating that sanctions can bring (North Korea) to its knees.”
    Last month, a senior North Korean official warned that Kim might rethink a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests in place since 2017 unless Washington makes concessions such as easing economic sanctions.
VIRTUOUS CYCLE
    Officials in Seoul were shocked by the breakdown of the Hanoi summit and some South Korean officials blame the influence of Bolton, a hardliner who has long advocated a tough approach to North Korea.
    Moon had said he will use the meeting with Trump to discuss restarting U.S.-North Korea talks, advancing a peace process and creating a “virtuous cycle” of improving relations with Pyongyang. He said he hoped North Korea would respond positively.
    Moon’s visit to Washington coincides with a scheduled meeting of North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament and Pompeo said last week he hoped Kim would use the occasion to state publicly that “it would be the right thing” for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
    North Korea’s state media said on Wednesday that Kim had chaired a politburo meeting on Tuesday to discuss ways to make progress under the “prevailing tense situation.”
    Pompeo said last week he was “confident” there would be a third summit between Trump and Kim and that while he did not have a timetable, he hoped it would be soon.
    He said U.S.-North Korea diplomatic channels remained open and the two sides have “had conversations after Hanoi about how to move forward,” but he did not elaborate.
NECESSARY DETERRENT
    Kim and Moon met three times last year and Kim promised to visit South Korea in return for the South Korean leader’s visit to Pyongyang in September. Analysts say a fourth Kim-Moon meeting could help towards another meeting between Kim and Trump.
    Moon’s top nuclear envoy Lee Do-hoon said on Friday that sanctions were necessary to deter North Korea from “making bad decisions,” but could not solve all unresolved problems.
    At a Senate hearing on Wednesday, Pompeo stressed that “core” U.N. sanctions would have to remain until North Korea’s complete denuclearization, but reiterated past statements that some easing might be possible if it took significant steps.
    “I want to leave a little space there,” he said.    “From time to time, there are particular provisions that if we were making substantial progress that one might think that was the right thing to do.”
    He did not elaborate, but on Wednesday the State Department said Pompeo had met with the head of the U.N. food agency on Tuesday and discussed its initiatives to provide food aid to children, mothers, and disaster-affected communities in North Korea.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington. Additional reporting by Joyce Lee, Josh Smith, and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul: Editing by Neil Fullick)

4/11/2019 North Korea shakes up leadership amid diplomacy, economic efforts: KCNA by Joyce Lee and Josh Smith
FILE PHOTO - Choe Ryong Hae, vice-chairman of the central committee of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), inspects a farm in
Sariwon, North Korea, in this photo released on April 9, 2019 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea named a new nominal head of state and a new premier, state media said on Friday, replacing the two senior leaders charged with representing Pyongyang in many international engagements and playing a major role in developing the civilian economy.
    Choe Ryong Hae was named President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea at a session of its rubber-stamp legislature that took place on Thursday, Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said, replacing Kim Yong Nam.
    The person holding that position is technically considered North Korea’s head of state and usually represents the country at diplomatic events, though experts say real power remains concentrated in leader Kim Jong Un’s hands.
    Since early 2018 Kim has embarked on a push for economic development and international engagement, including historic summits with the leaders of the United States, China, and South Korea.
    Kim Yong Nam, who was born in 1928, has been one of the longest serving senior officials, having had held the position since 1998, according to data by South Korea’s Unification Ministry.
    His replacement, Choe, was subjected to political “reeducation” in the past, but in recent years appeared to be gaining more influence since he was promoted in October 2017 to the party’s powerful Central Military Commission, South Korean intelligence officials previously said.
    South Korea’s spy agency said in 2017 it believed he was behind the punishment of General Hwang Pyong So, once one of Kim Jong Un’s most-trusted advisers.
    Choe, born in 1950, was one of the most powerful officials in North Korea as head of the Workers’ Party of Korea Organization and Guidance Department, and had been director of cultural exchange programs and vice chairman at the Kim Il Sung Youth League in the 1980s, leading youth delegations on goodwill visits to China, Russia, Japan, Libya and Greece, according to database North Korea Leadership Watch.
    He is a second-generation revolutionary and personally knew the late Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s father, for over 50 years, North Korea Leadership Watch said.
    Choe was one of the three officials sanctioned by the U.S. in December over allegations of rights abuses.
    On Thursday U.S. President Donald Trump, who has had two summits with Kim to discuss North Korean denuclearization and has expressed his willingness for a third, said Washington would leave sanctions in place.
    North Korea also replaced the premier of its cabinet, an official at the center of efforts to jumpstart the economy.
    Leader Kim Jong Un has made economic development the centerpiece of his strategy and told officials this week that building a self-supporting economy would be a blow to the “hostile forces” that have imposed sanctions on the North Korea.
    Pak Pong Ju had served his current post as premier since 2013.
    According to analysts at NK News, a website that monitors North Korea, Pak helped oversee a process of “radical reform” in the economy that helped it survive sanctions.
    Among those reforms were losing control of state-run enterprises, allowing them to operate more freely in the market and to seek private investment, according to a 2017 profile of Pak in NK News.
    Some of those reforms earned the ire of Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, who led North Korea at the time.    But the younger Kim has more openly embraced many of those market changes, and North Korea has sought to ease sanctions and attract more private investment.
    There is little known about Pak’s replacement, Kim Jae Ryong, but his position will be key as Kim Jong Un doubles down on economic development.
    In an expected move, KCNA also reported that Kim Jong Un has been re-elected as chairman of the State Affairs Commission.
(Reporting by Joyce Lee and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by James Dalgleish and Grant McCool)

4/13/2019 North Korea’s Kim Jong Un gives U.S. to year-end to become more flexible by Josh Smith and Joyce Lee
FILE PHOTO - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un takes part in the 4th Plenary Meeting of the
7th Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) in Pyongyang in this April 10, 2019 photo released on
April 11, 2019 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the breakdown in talks with the United States has raised the risks of reviving tensions, but he is only interested in meeting President Donald Trump again if the United States comes with the right attitude, state media KCNA said on Saturday.
    Kim said that he will wait “until the end of this year” for the United States to decide to be more flexible, according to KCNA.
    “What is needed is for the U.S. to stop its current way of calculation, and come to us with a new calculation,” Kim said in a speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly on Friday, KCNA said.
    Trump and Kim have met twice, in Hanoi in February and Singapore in June, building good will but failing to agree on a deal to lift sanctions in exchange for North Korea abandoning its nuclear and missile programs.
    Trump said on Thursday he is open to meeting Kim again, but in his speech on Friday, the North Korean leader said the outcome in Hanoi led him to question the strategy he embraced last year of international engagement and economic development.
    The Hanoi summit “raised strong questions about whether the steps we took under our strategic decision were right, and gave us a sense of caution about whether the U.S. is even really trying to improve the DPRK-U.S. relationship,” Kim said, using the initials of North Korea’s full name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
    In Hanoi, the United States came with “completely unrealizable plans” and was “not really ready to sit with us face-to-face and solve the problem,” Kim said.
    “By that sort of thinking, the U.S. will not be able to move us one iota even if they sat with us a hundred, thousand times, and will not be able to get what it wants at all,” he said.
    “I will be patient and wait until the end of this year for America’s courageous decision, but it will be hard to get as good a chance as last time,” Kim said.
THIRD SUMMIT IN DOUBT
    Kim said his personal relationship with Trump is still good, but that he had no interest in a third summit if it is a repeat of Hanoi.
    At a meeting with South Korean President Moon in Washington on Thursday, Trump expressed a willingness to hold a third summit with Kim but said that Washington would leave sanctions in place on Pyongyang.
    Kim said U.S. leaders “mistakenly believe that if they pressure us to the maximum, they can subdue us.”    The current U.S. policy of sanctions and pressure is “like trying to put out a fire with oil,” he added.
    Still, Kim said he would not hesitate to sign an agreement if it takes into account both countries’ considerations.     The United States had continued to provoke North Korea by testing an anti-ballistic missile system and conducting military drills with South Korea despite Trump’s announcement that large-scale exercises would end, he said.
    Last month, a senior North Korean official warned that Kim might rethink a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests in place since 2017 unless Washington makes concessions such as easing sanctions.
    Kim complained that Washington is coercing South Korea into abiding by sanctions and not pushing forward with inter-Korea projects.
    North Korea has a choice “to continue to improve inter-Korean relations to relieve pressure on the Korean peninsula or to go back to the past when things collapsed amid increasing risks of war,” he said.
    Still, North Korea is committed to better North-South relations and peaceful unification, Kim said.
    “I would like to make it clear that it is my unwavering determination to make a new history of peace and prosperity,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Heekyong YangEditing by Sandra Maler and Cynthia Osterman)
[North Korea came to the meeting without any denuclearization and expected something, this time find some or live with your present condition.    This is not a make friends with South Korea and everythings okay since they want to feel safe next to you.].

4/13/2019 Iraqi militias reject U.S. naming of Iran’s Guards as terrorist group
FILE PHOTO: Members of the Iranian revolutionary guard march during a parade to commemorate the anniversary
of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in Tehran September 22, 2011. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo
    NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) – A group of Iraq’s Shi’ite militia groups said on Saturday that they strongly rejected the designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) as a terrorist organization by the United States.
    The groups, backed and trained by Tehran, delivered a statement from the home of Iran’s consul-general in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf.
    They announced their solidarity with the Muslim people and the Revolutionary Guards who they said helped to prevent four or five states from falling to Islamic State militants.
    President Donald Trump said last week he would name Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization.
    The action by Trump, who has taken a hard line toward Iran by withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and re-imposing broad economic sanctions, marks the first time the United States has formally labeled another country’s military a terrorist group.
    “This is laughable coming from the number one sponsor of terrorism, America,” said a spokesman for the Badr Organisation, without providing evidence.
    Badr is led by Iraqi militia commander and politician Hadi al-Ameri who’s Fateh coalition of militia groups has the second-largest number of seats in Iraq’s parliament.
    “We reject this action from America and say we have honor to be in the Islamic resistance that fought and beat terrorism,” a spokesman for the wider Fateh coalition said.
    Some of the militia groups themselves are designated as terrorist organizations by Washington.
    Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said on Tuesday that Washington’s decision to designate the IRGC a terrorist group could harm his country and the wider region.
    Iraqi security forces declared victory over Islamic State in 2017 with help from a U.S.-led coalition and Iran-backed Shi’ite militias, some of which fought U.S. troops earlier following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
(Reporting by Reuters Video News; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein. Editing by Jane Merriman)
[The complainers above is the reason we still have troops in Iraq.
    In the 1970s, Abdul-Mahdi was a leading member of the Iraqi Communist Party which split into two separate factions, the ICP-Central Committee, ruled Iraq since 1958, and the ICP-Central Leadership, which rejected all forms of cooperation of what it regarded as anti-progressive regimes, in 1967.    Abdul-Mahdi joined the ICP-Central Leadership, and continued being active until it gradually disappeared by the early 1980s, and adopted Iranian Islamic ideas, eventually merging with the Islamists when Ayatollah Khomeini eradicated the communists and other liberal oppositions groups in Iran.    Abdul-Mahdi continued his association with Iran and gradually amalgamated his group within the ICP-Central Leadership with the Iranians, rejecting his Marxist past and devoting all his group's time to propagating Khomeini's ideas in France, where he lived at the time.    He eventually was made a member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an exiled opposition party and militia that was formed by Iran in Tehran in 1982 but composed exclusively of Iraqi exiles.].

4/13/2019 Fighting across Afghanistan as Taliban opens offensive before talks
Wounded Afghan men receive treatment at a hospital one day after the start of the Taliban
spring offensive, in Kunduz province, Afghanistan April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer
    KABUL (Reuters) – Taliban forces attacked the northern Afghan city of Kunduz on Saturday, a day after the launch of their annual spring offensive, as fighting intensified across the country ahead of the next round of peace talks with U.S. representatives.
    Heavy fighting has been going on for weeks but the announcement of the spring offensive while peace talks were due was a blow to any hopes of a quick agreement and was criticized as “reckless” by U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.
    Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement the movement was committed to the peace process but accused Afghan and international forces of stepping up their own operations.
    “We are committed to the ongoing process of negotiation and peaceful resolution, but we cannot be unmoved in the face of military operations and the terrorist wave of occupiers and mercenaries,” Khalilzad said.
    However security officials in Kabul said that apart from the operation in Kunduz, Saturday’s attacks in 15 provinces across the country were limited in scope and had largely been contained.
    “They engaged Afghan security forces to show their presence with the start of their spring offensive,” one senior official said.    “But Afghan forces were on high alert across the country and therefore several attacks were pushed back.”
STRATEGIC CITY
    In Kunduz, the strategic city which briefly fell to the Taliban in 2015, fighters attacked from several directions in the early hours of the morning, causing heavy casualties, the provincial governor’s spokesman Enhamuddin Rahmani said.
    A local health official said more than 70 dead and wounded had been brought into the main city hospital.
    There were also attacks in the northern provinces of Baghlan, Takhar and Badakhshan, as well as Faryab, Sar-e Pul and Balkh, but there were no reports of significant casualties among security forces.
    In southern Afghanistan, Taliban forces launched attacks in the opium-rich province of Helmand, with operations in Nad Ali, Gereshk and Sangin districts, areas that have been fought over for the past 17 years.
    Omar Zwak, the provincial governor’s spokesman, said the attacks had been repelled at the cost of four soldiers and 15 Taliban.    “The fighting will further increase as the weather warms up,” he said.
    Separately, seven members of the security forces were killed in an ambush in the western province of Ghor, leading to an hours-long firefight, provincial government spokesman Abdul Hai Khatibi said.
    While much of the fighting consisted of small-scale engagements, the spread of operations across most parts of the country underlined the struggle facing the Afghan government, still shut out of the peace process by the Taliban’s refusal to talk to what they consider a puppet regime.
    According to U.S. estimates, government forces control just over half the country, but with many areas out of reach of easy communications an accurate picture is difficult.
    Peace talks are due to resume in Doha next week between U.S. envoy Khalilzad and Taliban officials.
(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Sardar Razmal, Jalil Ahmad Rezayee, Storay Karimi, Mohammad Stanekzai and James Mackenzie; Editing by David Holmes)

4/14/2019 Iran’s Zarif urges countries to take position on U.S. step against Revolutionary Guards
FILE PHOTO: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during a news conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister
Mohamed Ali Alhakim, in Baghdad, Iraq, March 10, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily/File Photo
    LONDON (Reuters) – Iran will ask the international community to take a position on the U.S. designation of its Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was cited as saying on Sunday.
    Iran condemned U.S. President Donald Trump’s step last week as illegal.    The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is a powerful elite force which controls much of the Iranian state and economy.
    “We will send messages to foreign ministers of all countries to tell them it is necessary for them to express their stances, and to warn them that this unprecedented and dangerous U.S. measure has had and will have consequences,” Zarif was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.
    Zarif said he had also sent letters to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the United Nations Security Council to protest against “this illegal U.S. measure.”
    Tehran retaliated against Washington’s move by designating the regional United States Central Command (CENTCOM) as a terrorist organization.
    Relations between Tehran and Washington took a turn for the worse last May when Trump pulled out of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, reached before he took office, and reimposed sanctions.
    The United States has already blacklisted dozens of entities and people for affiliations with the IRGC, but had not previously targeted the organization as a whole.
    Revolutionary Guards commanders have repeatedly said that U.S. bases in the Middle East and U.S. aircraft carriers in the Gulf are within range of Iranian missiles.
    Tehran has also threatened to disrupt oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf if the United States tries to strangle Iran’s economy by halting its oil exports.
    Iran’s oil minister said on Sunday that the supply-demand balance in the global oil market is fragile due to U.S. sanctions on Iran and Venezuela and tensions in Libya, and warned of consequences for increasing pressures on Tehran.
(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Jan Harvey and Raissa Kasolowsky)

4/14/2019 Iran says U.S. pressures on Iran, Venezuela making oil market fragile
FILE PHOTO: Iran's Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh arrives for a meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting
Countries (OPEC) in Vienna, Austria, November 30, 2016. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader/File Photo
    LONDON (Reuters) – Iran’s oil minister said on Sunday that U.S. sanctions on Iran and Venezuela and tensions in Libya have made the supply-demand balance in the global oil market fragile, and warned of consequences for increasing pressures on Tehran.
    Oil prices have risen more than 30 percent this year on the back of supply cuts led by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and U.S. sanctions on oil exporters Iran and Venezuela, plus escalating conflict in OPEC member Libya.
    “Oil prices are increasing every day.    That shows the market is worried,” Bijan Zanganeh was quoted as saying by Tasnim news agency.
    “Venezuela is in trouble.    Russia is also under sanctions.    Libya is in turmoil.    Part of U.S. oil production has stopped.    These show the supply-demand balance is very fragile,” Zanganeh said.
    “If they (the Americans) decide to increase pressures on Iran, the fragility will increase in an unpredictable way,” he added.
    Zanganeh said one of the consequences of pressure on Iran was a rise in fuel prices in the United States.
    “Mr. Trump should choose whether to add more pressure on Iran or keep fuel prices low at gas stations in America,” Zanganeh was quoted as saying by the oil ministry’s news agency SHANA.
    The U.S. reimposed sanctions on Iran in November after pulling out of a 2015 nuclear accord between it and six world powers.    The sanctions have already halved Iranian oil exports.
    U.S. President Donald Trump eventually aims to halt Iranian oil exports, choking off Tehran’s main source of revenue.    Washington is pressuring Iran to curtail its nuclear program and stop backing militant proxies across the Middle East.
    OPEC and its allies meet in June to decide whether to continue withholding supply.    Though OPEC’s de facto leader, Saudi Arabia, is considered keen to keep cutting, sources within the group said it could raise output from July if disruptions continue elsewhere.
    The producer group’s supply cuts have been aimed largely at offsetting record crude production in the United States.
(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Jan Harvey)
[Iran leaders have not seen nothing yet as the U.S. is just going through seasonal oil changes and it will continue.].

4/15/2019 Iran leader approves tapping sovereign fund for flood relief
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech during a religious ceremony
in Tehran, Iran April 15, 2019. Khamenei.ir/Handout via REUTERS
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has approved drawing up to $2 billion from the country’s sovereign wealth fund for relief and reconstruction after devastating floods, state media reported on Monday.
    On Sunday, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said the weeks of heavy rain across the country had caused an estimated $2.5 billion in damage to roads, bridges, homes and farmland.    Iran’s worst floods in 70 years had killed at least 76 people and forced more than 220,000 into emergency shelters, state media cited ministers as telling lawmakers.     “Using the National Development Fund is authorized if no other sources are available,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a letter to President Hassan Rouhani read out on Monday on state television.
    However, he urged the government to explore other budgetary measures to fund the relief efforts before tapping the sovereign fund.     In Geneva, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said on Monday an estimated 2 million people needed humanitarian assistance as a result of the floods.
    It had launched an international emergency appeal seeking 5.1 million Swiss francs ($5.1 million) to expand support by Iran’s Red Crescent to an additional 30,000 families – equivalent to about 150,000 people.
    Khamenei’s letter did give an amount but Morteza Shahidzadeh, head of the sovereign wealth fund, said earlier that Rouhani had asked to withdraw $2 billion and Khamenei had in principle agreed.
    The fund is worth about $92 billion, according to the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, which tracks the industry.
    The floods have affected 4,400 villages, damaged 14,000 kilometers (8,700 miles) of roads and destroyed more than 700 bridges.    They have left aid agencies struggling to cope and the armed forces have been deployed to help those affected.
    Iran’s government has said it will pay compensation to all those who have incurred losses, especially farmers, but the state budget is already stretched as U.S. sanctions on its energy and banking sectors have halved oil exports and restricted access to some revenues abroad.
    Iranian officials have repeatedly said the floods have not affected oil production and development, nor impeded the flow of crude through pipelines to client markets.
(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; editing by John Stonestreet)
[It must of been tough for the Ayatollah to take money away from the IRG to give relief to his flooded population.].

4/15/2019 South Korea’s Moon pushes for summit with North Korea’s Kim despite nuclear standoff by Hyonhee Shin
FILE PHOTO: South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in sits takes part in a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump
in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
    SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in said on Monday he will pursue “in earnest” another summit with Kim Jong Un despite the North Korean leader’s recent criticism of Seoul’s self-proclaimed role as a mediator in stalled nuclear talks.
    Moon has been eager to regain momentum in talks with North Korea since Kim’s second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, in Vietnam in February, failed due to conflicting demands by Pyongyang for sanctions relief and by Washington for sweeping North Korean measures to abandon its nuclear program.proper attitude and a methodology,” setting a year-end deadline.
    While North Korea and the United States have been discussing the North’s denuclearization, U.S. ally South Korea has been taking steps to improve its ties with its old rival.
    Moon and Kim have held three meetings over the past year, and Moon’s administration has been keen for a fourth, possibly to mark the anniversary of the first one on April 27.
    Moon, who visited Washington to meet Trump last week, said Kim’s latest address “set the stage” for a fourth inter-Korean summit, which could be a “stepping stone for an even bigger opportunity and a more significant outcome.”
    “Now is the time to begin the preparations in earnest,” Moon told a meeting with senior secretaries, noting that as soon as the North Koreans were ready, he was willing to meet Kim “regardless of venue and form.”
    In his first public remarks since Kim’s address, Moon said he “very much welcomed” that speech, saying it showed Kim’s “unwavering” commitment toward denuclearization and the reopening of negotiations.
    But Moon did not specifically respond to Kim’s criticism that South Korea was too subservient to the “anachronistic arrogance and hostile policy of the United States,” and that the South’s military persisted in “veiled hostility” by conducting exercises with U.S. forces.
    Kim said South Korea should not “pose as a meddlesome ‘mediator’ and ‘facilitator'/i>” between the North and the United States.serious provocative act” that could intensify tension on the Korean peninsula.
    However, Kim said he remained committed to improving relations with South Korea if it showed its “sincerity by practical action, not by words.”
    Any significant improvement in ties between the two Koreas could depend on progress between North Korea and the United States on the North’s denuclearization and that looks doubtful, with neither side showing willingness to make concessions.
    Trump emphasized during last week’s talks with Moon that he was willing to meet Kim again but would not lift sanctions until the North took meaningful steps to dismantle its nuclear programs.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Josh Smith and Robert Birsel)

4/15/2019 India bans BJP state chief minister from campaign after anti-Muslim comment
Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister of India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, addresses the audience
after inaugurating power projects in Allahabad, India, June 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jitendra Prakash
    NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s election commission on Monday banned a Hindu state chief minister from campaigning for three days after anti-Muslim comments in an election that will end next month.
    The saffron-clad Yogi Adityanath, a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party, had been warned this month about his campaign speeches, the election commission said.
    The commission said Adityanath, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, had spoken about a “green virus” in a speech last week in reference to Muslim voters who he said were being wooed by opposition parties.
    Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been playing to its nationalist base and painting its rivals as soft on terrorism and eager to appease Muslims, who make up about 14 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population.
    A BJP spokesman said the party was inclusive towards all communities.    “The party believes in all-together development for all, and we don’t believe in any polarization,” spokesman Harish Srivastava said.
    The election commission also imposed a ban on the leader of the Dalits, people at the bottom of the Hindu caste structure, saying she had violated a code of conduct by asking Muslims to vote en bloc for opposition candidates.
    The ban on Dalit leader Mayawati would run for two days, it said.
    A spokesman for Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which is in an alliance with another regional party in Uttar Pradesh, could not be reached for comment.
    The commission on Monday also banned Azam Khan, a leader from the Samajwadi Party (SP), an ally of the BSP, and minister Maneka Gandhi from campaigning for violating the code of conduct.    Khan was banned for three days, while Gandhi was banned for two days.
    Staggered voting in the general election began last Thursday and will end on May 19.
    Although jobs, nationalism and conditions for farmers are the main issues, religion is an important and sensitive topic.
    The BJP repeated in its manifesto a commitment to build a Hindu temple in the northern town of Ayodhya at a site disputed by Muslims, seeking to gain the support of majority Hindus.
    Last week, BJP president Amit Shah referred to illegal Muslim immigrants as “termites” and vowed to throw them into the sea.
    Surveys suggest Modi’s ruling alliance looks set to win a majority smaller than in the last election in 2014, when it secured a commanding win on a promise to turn India into an economic and military power.
(Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Robert Birsel and David Holmes)

4/15/2019 U.S. denounces “coercion” as China conducts drills near Taiwan by Yimou Lee
The former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Paul Ryan attends a ceremony at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT),
to mark the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, in Taipei, Taiwan March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Fabian Hamacher
    TAIPEI (Reuters) – Chinese bombers and warships conducted drills around Taiwan on Monday, the latest military maneuvers near the self-ruled island that a senior U.S. official denounced as “coercion” and a threat to stability in the region.
    The United States has no formal ties with Taiwan but is bound by law to help provide the island with the means to defend itself and is its main source of arms.
    China has stepped up pressure on Taiwan, whose President Tsai Ing-wen Beijing suspects of pushing for the island’s formal independence, a red line for China which has never renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control.
    “Any attempt to influence Taiwan through threats or coercion, we believe, destabilizes the region and threatens stability in the Taiwan Strait,” James Moriarty, chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan, said at a ceremony to mark the last four decades of U.S.-Taiwan relations.
    China’s People’s Liberation Army said its warships, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft had conducted “necessary drills” around Taiwan on Monday, though it described them as routine.
    China has repeatedly carried out what it calls “island encirclement patrols” in the past few years.
    Taiwan scrambled jets and ships to monitor the Chinese forces, its defense ministry said, accusing Beijing of “trying to change the status quo of the Taiwan Strait.”
    Moriarty said “flying fighter jets and bombers around the island, presumably in connection with what we are doing this afternoon, certainly does not help at all."
    “It hurts stability.    It damages the cross strait relationship.    It damages any attempt by China to win the hearts and minds of Taiwan people,” he told reporters at the institute’s new $256 million facility, the de facto U.S. embassy in Taiwan.
    A delegation led by former U.S. speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, was in Taipei to mark 40 years since the signing of the Taiwan Relations Act, which governs U.S.-Taiwan relations, and to reaffirm Washington’s commitment.
    “We couldn’t ask for a better friend than Taiwan. Taiwan is a democratic success story, a reliable partner, and a force for good in the world,” Ryan said.    “We want the rest of the world to be more like Taiwan.”
    Tsai, who says she wants to maintain the status quo with China but will defend Taiwan’s security and democracy, said at the ceremony that China has been ramping up military threats against Taiwan.
    The visit by U.S. officials comes just weeks after Tsai said the United States was responding positively to Taipei’s requests for new arms sales to bolster its defenses in the face of growing pressure from China.
    Last month, Washington sent Navy and Coast Guard ships through the narrow strait separating the island from the mainland, part of an increase in the frequency of U.S. movement through the strategic waterway to show support for Taipei.
(Reporting By Yimou Lee; Writing and additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; editing by Darren Schuettler)

4/15/2019 China says Japan should do more to seek cooperation, not competition
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono (2nd L) talks during a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) at the
Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China April 15, 2019. Mark Schiefelbein/Pool via REUTERS
    BEIJING (Reuters) – China urged Japan on Monday to do more to follow through on its intention of seeking cooperation with China rather than competition, warning that there was still weakness in their relationship.
    China and Japan have sparred frequently about their painful history, with Beijing often accusing Tokyo of not properly atoning for Japan’s invasion of China before and during World War Two.
    Ties between China and Japan, the world’s second and third-largest economies, have also been plagued by a long-running territorial dispute over a cluster of East China Sea islets and suspicion in China about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to amend Japan’s pacifist constitution.
    But they have sought to improve relations more recently, with Abe visiting Beijing in October, when both countries pledged to forge closer ties and signed a broad range of agreements including a $30 billion currency swap pact.
    The Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, told Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono in Beijing that the improvement in relations was in an initial phase.
    “There are major opportunities, and there are also sensitivities and weaknesses,” China’s foreign ministry cited Wang as saying.
    “The Japanese side has said many times that China and Japan should turn competition into coordination, and (we) hope that Japan can take even more actual steps in this regard.”
    The two countries should constructively manage and control their differences through dialogue, and promote the long-term, healthy and steady development of relations, Wang added.
    Japan’s foreign ministry spokesman, Takeshi Osuga, told reporters in Beijing that the talks, which included Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, had covered a wide variety of topics, including the East China Sea and North Korea.
    While Japan is keen for closer economic ties with its biggest trading partner, it must manage that rapprochement without upsetting its key security ally, the United States.
    Chinese President Xi Jinping is likely to visit Japan this year, as it is the host nation for the G20 summit.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel)

4/15/2019 Trump, Pompeo brush aside Kim’s deadline for nuclear talks flexibility by David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick
FILE PHOTO: North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump talk in the garden of the Metropole hotel
during the second North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday brushed aside North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s demand for Washington to show more flexibility in nuclear talks by year-end, with Pompeo saying Kim should keep his promise to give up his nuclear weapons before then.
    Asked about Kim’s statement last week that he was only interested in meeting Trump again if the United States came with the right attitude, Pompeo told reporters that the president was “determined to move forward diplomatically.”
    But Pompeo said Kim had made a commitment to denuclearize and “we collectively need to see that outcome move forward.”
    “Our teams are working with the North Koreans … to chart a path forward so that we can get there. He said he wanted it done by the end of the year.    I’d love to see that done sooner.”
    Trump and Kim have met twice, in Hanoi in February and Singapore in June, seeming to build personal goodwill but failing to agree on a deal to lift sanctions in exchange for North Korea abandoning its nuclear and missile programs.
    The Hanoi talks collapsed after Trump proposed a “big deal” in which sanctions would be lifted if North Korea handed over all its nuclear weapons to the United States. He rejected partial denuclearization steps offered by Kim.
    Breaking his silence on the summit in a speech to North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly on Friday, Kim said it was “essential for the U.S. to quit its current calculation method and approach us with a new one.”
    He said the outcome in Hanoi led him to question the strategy he embraced last year of international engagement and talks with the United States.
    Kim said his personal relationship with Trump was still good, but that he had no interest in a third summit if it were a repeat of Hanoi.
    He said North Korea would “wait for a bold decision from the U.S. with patience till the end of this year,” raising the potential for the unresolved North Korea nuclear issue to become a liability for Trump during his 2020 re-election bid.
TRUMP: NORTH KOREA ISSUE ‘MOVING ALONG’
    In a speech on Monday in Burnsville, Minnesota, Trump nevertheless maintained an upbeat tone on North Korea, saying the issue was “moving along” with Pyongyang sticking to a freeze in nuclear and missile testing in place since 2017.
    He again stressed his “very good relationship” with Kim “who just said the other day he looks forward to more talks.”
    “Talk is OK.    Talk is OK,” Trump said adding that he did not want the process to move fast.    “It doesn’t have to move fast.    Right now it’s moving along just perfectly.    And we have a good relationship, the sanctions are on … there’s a lot of constructive things going on.”
    On Saturday, Trump said a third summit with Kim “would be good in that we fully understand where we each stand.”
    Despite Trump’s and Pompeo’s remarks, U.S. officials have acknowledged that the two sides have failed to agree on a definition of denuclearization.    And in a year of talks, Pyongyang has given no public indication of willingness to abandon its weapons program unilaterally as Washington has demanded.
    At a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Washington last Thursday, Trump expressed a willingness for a third summit with Kim but said Washington would leave sanctions in place.
    On Friday, Kim accused Washington of escalating hostility “despite its suggestion for settling the issue through dialogue” and called the U.S. policy of sanctions and pressure “as foolish and dangerous an act as trying to put out fire with oil.”
    Last month, a senior North Korean official warned that Kim might rethink the test freeze unless Washington makes concessions such as easing sanctions.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom, Matt Spetalnick, David Alexander and Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Tom Brown)

4/16/2019 Swiss to support Belt and Road push during president’s China trip
FILE PHOTO: A map illustrating China's silk road economic belt and the 21st century maritime silk road, or the so-called "One Belt, One Road"
megaproject, is displayed at the Asian Financial Forum in Hong Kong, China January 18, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/File Photo
    ZURICH (Reuters) – Switzerland will sign an accord backing China’s Belt and Road Initiative when President Ueli Maurer visits China this month, cementing ties with a major trading partner as other Western countries view the gargantuan project with scepticism.
    President Xi Jinping’s new Silk Road initiative has been controversial particularly in Washington, which views it as a way to spread Chinese influence abroad and saddle countries with unsustainable debt, a charge Beijing rejects.
    Locked in a trade war with China, the United States has been particularly critical of Italy’s decision to sign up to the plan, the first for a G7 nation.    Others in the West are less keen to jump aboard, although many have kept an open mind.
    Neutral Switzerland sees the BRI accord to be signed during Maurer’s trip as a way to support economic development, especially in central Asia.
    “The aim of the memorandum is for both parties to intensify cooperation on trade, investment and project financing in third markets along the routes of the Belt and Road Initiative,” the finance ministry said on Tuesday without giving more details.
    Maurer, who is also finance minister, will attend the second Belt and Road summit next week which is expected to draw around 40 foreign leaders.
    The first summit for Belt and Road — which envisions rebuilding the old Silk Road to connect China with Asia, Europe and beyond with massive infrastructure spending — was in 2017.
    Xi has also invited Maurer for a state visit on April 28 and 29, his ministry said. Swiss business and financial leaders will accompany Maurer on his eight-day China trip.
    Switzerland, one of the first Western states to recognize the People’s Republic, was the first country in continental Europe to reach a free trade agreement with China, its largest trade partner after the European Union and United States.
Xi made a state visit to Switzerland in 2017.
(Reporting by Michael Shields, editing by Ed Osmond)

4/16/2019 Taiwan president says Chinese drills a threat but not intimidated by Yimou Lee
FILE PHOTO: Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen speaks before signing up for Democratic Progressive Party's 2020
presidential candidate nomination in Taipei, Taiwan March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan has not been intimidated by China’s military drills this week, President Tsai Ing-wen said on Tuesday, after the latest Chinese maneuvers were denounced by a senior U.S. official as “coercion” and a threat to regional stability.
    China’s People’s Liberation Army said its warships, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft had conducted “necessary drills” around Taiwan on Monday.    It described them as routine.
    Tsai said Taiwan was resolute in its defense.
    “China’s armed forces yesterday sent a large number of military aircraft and naval vessels into our vicinity.    Their actions threaten Taiwan and other-like minded countries in the region,” Tsai said.
    “These actions only serve to strengthen our resolve.    Our military forces have the capacity, determination, and commitment to defend Taiwan and not allow coercion to dictate our own future,” she said.
    Tsai also said the Trump administration had notified Taipei that its pilots could train at the Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
    “It enhances their abilities to defend our air space.    I want to express my appreciation to the U.S. government for the announcement,” she said.
    Tsai was speaking at a forum co-hosted by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to mark the 40th anniversary of     Taiwan-U.S. ties under the Taiwan Relations Act, following Washington’s decision to ditch formal recognition of Taiwan in favor of China in 1979.
    The event was attended by a delegation led by Paul Ryan, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
    The United States has no formal ties with Taiwan but is bound by law to help provide the island with the means to defend itself and is its main source of arms.
    Taiwan scrambled jets and ships to monitor the Chinese forces on Monday, the island’s sefence ministry said, accusing Beijing of “trying to change the status quo of the Taiwan Strait.”
‘ENCIRCLEMENT PATROLS’
    China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said Taipei was seeking to “slander” China and mislead the public with its criticism of the exercises to provoke confrontation.
    “No person or any force should underestimate our firm determination and strong ability to defend the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” it said.
    The People’s Liberation Army Daily said the goal of the drills was to practise a “combined firepower assault” that included electronic jamming from aircraft under the protection of fighter jets.
    Bombers “screamed” towards the area and carried out “sudden attacks” while warships occupied assault positions and conducted attacks on enemy fire points, the official paper of China’s military said.    Landing forces reached specified waters, which were circled by helicopters at low altitude.
    The paper cited a Chinese military representative as saying the exercises were held annually and “completely within the normal legal rights of a sovereign country.”
    China has repeatedly carried out what it calls “island encirclement patrols” in the past few years.
    Ryan said the United States considered any military threat to Taiwan a concern and urged China to stop, saying it was counterproductive.
    “I urge Beijing to choose the path of peace, respect, and civility by resuming dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected administration,” he said.
    China has stepped up pressure on Taiwan and suspects Tsai is pushing for the island’s formal independence.    That is a red line for China, which has never renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control.
    Tsai says she wants to maintain the status quo with China but will defend Taiwan’s security and democracy.
    The visit by U.S. officials comes weeks after Tsai said the United States was responding positively to Taipei’s requests for new arms sales to bolster its defenses in the face of growing pressure from China.
    Washington sent Navy and Coast Guard ships through the narrow strait separating the island from the mainland last month, part of an increase in the frequency of U.S. movement through the strategic waterway to show support for Taipei.
(Reporting by Yimou Lee; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in BEIJING; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel)

4/16/2019 U.S. diplomat for North Korea to discuss denuclearization with Russia
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the 4th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK)
in Pyongyang in this April 10, 2019 photo released on April 11, 2019 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun will visit Moscow this week to discuss Pyongyang’s denuclearization, the U.S. State Department said in a statement on Tuesday.
    Biegun will meet with Russian officials in Moscow on Wednesday and Thursday, the department said.
(Reporting by David Alexander Susan Heavey; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

4/17/2019 Satellite images may show reprocessing activity at North Korea nuclear site: U.S. researchers by David Brunnstrom
FILE PHOTO: Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) are driven past the stand with North Korean leader
Kim Jong Un and other high ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of
country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Satellite images from last week show movement at North Korea’s main nuclear site that could be associated with the reprocessing of radioactive material into bomb fuel, a U.S. think tank said on Tuesday.
    Any new reprocessing activity would underscore the failure of a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi in late February to make progress toward North Korea’s denuclearization.
    Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a report that satellite imagery of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear site from April 12 showed five specialized railcars near its Uranium Enrichment Facility and Radiochemistry Laboratory.
    It said their movement could indicate the transfer of radioactive material.
    “In the past, these specialized railcars appear to have been associated with the movement of radioactive material or reprocessing campaigns,” the report said.    “The current activity, along with their configurations, does not rule out their possible involvement in such activity, either before or after a reprocessing campaign.”
    The U.S. State Department declined to comment on intelligence matters, but a source familiar with U.S. government assessments said that while U.S. experts thought the movements could possibly be related to reprocessing, they were doubtful it was significant nuclear activity.
    Jenny Town, a North Korea expert at the Stimson Center think tank, said that if reprocessing was taking place, it would be a significant given U.S.-North Korean talks in the past year and the failure to reach an agreement on the future of Yongbyon in Hanoi.
    “Because there wasn’t an agreement with North Korea on Yongbyon, it would be interesting timing if they were to have started something so quickly after Hanoi,” she said.
    Trump has met Kim twice in the past year to try to persuade him to abandon a nuclear weapons program that threatens the United States, but progress so far has been scant.big deal” in which sanctions on North Korea would be lifted if it handed over all its nuclear weapons and fissile material to the United States.    He rejected partial denuclearization steps offered by Kim, which included an offer to dismantle Yongbyon.
    Although Kim has maintained a freeze in missile and nuclear tests since 2017, U.S. officials say North Korea has continued to produce fissile material that can be processed for use in bombs.
    Last month, a senior North Korean official warned that Kim might rethink the test freeze unless Washington made concessions.
    Last week, Kim said the Hanoi breakdown raised the risks of reviving tensions, adding that he was only interested in meeting Trump again if the United States came with the right attitude.
    Kim said he would wait “till the end of this year” for the United States to decide to be more flexible.    On Monday, Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brushed aside this demand with Pompeo saying Kim should keep his promise to give up his nuclear weapons before then.
    Town said any new reprocessing work at Yongbyon would emphasize the importance of the facility in North Korea’s nuclear program.
    “It would underscore that it is an active facility that does increase North Korea’s fissile material stocks to increase its arsenal.”
    A study by Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation released ahead of the Hanoi summit said North Korea had continued to produce bomb fuel in 2018 and may have produced enough in the past year to add as many as seven nuclear weapons to its arsenal.
    Experts have estimated the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal at anywhere between 20 and 60 warheads.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Tom Brown and Grant McCool)

4/17/2019 Indonesia’s Widodo on course for victory as election results roll in by Tabita Diela and Gayatri Suroyo
A security personnel checks ballot boxes before polls open during elections in
Bogor, West Java, Indonesia April 17, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan
    JAKARTA (Reuters) – Joko Widodo appeared to be heading for victory in Indonesia’s presidential election on Wednesday as “quick count” results from polling stations were posted, in line with opinion polls that had predicted a second five-year term for the low-key reformist.
    Data from six private pollsters – based on partial counts of vote samples – showed that Widodo was winning just over half of the vote and his challenger, former general Prabowo Subianto, was between 5.5 and 11.4 percentage points behind him.
    The best numbers for the president came from the Jakarta-based pollster CSIS, which put Widodo at 55.7 percent and Prabowo at 44.3 percent, after more than three-quarters of its sample had been counted.
    “Enough data has entered to depict a clear picture,” said Kevin O’Rourke, a political analyst and author of the Indonesia-focused newsletter Reformasi Weekly.
    “The victory for Widodo is not resounding, as he failed to attain the psychological 60 percent level that had seemed within reach.    Prabowo performed better than expected, which may embolden him to run yet again in 2024, if he is sufficiently fit,” O’Rourke said.
    A former furniture-maker who grew up in a riverside slum and the first national leader to come from outside the political and military elite.    Popularly known as Jokowi, his everyman image resonated in 2014 with voters tired of the old guard.
    That election was also a contest with Prabowo, former son-in-law of military strongman Suharto who was overthrown in 1998.
    The popular vote gap between the two men five years ago was about 6 percentage points.
    The eight-hour vote on Wednesday for both the presidency and legislature seats across a country that stretches more than 5,000 km (3,000 miles) from its western to eastern tips was both a Herculean logistical feat and testimony to the resilience of democracy two decades after authoritarianism was defeated.
    The poll followed a campaign dominated by economic issues but was also marked by the growing influence of conservative Islam in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority nation.
    A senior government official close to the president said before the election that a win for Widodo with 52-55 percent of the vote would be a “sweet spot,” and enough of a mandate to press on with, and even accelerate, reforms.
    However, a Widodo campaign aide said the president’s victory appeared far from convincing.
    “It’s a slim margin … a very difficult win,” said the aide, who declined to be identified.
    “Jokowi’s programs are long term.    Most people don’t yet feel the benefits of the last five years.    It’s amazing people still support him for the long term.”
FRAUD CONCERNS
    The official election results will not be published until May.    Any disputes can be taken to the Constitutional Court where a nine-judge panel will have 14 days to rule on them.
    More than 10,000 volunteers crowd-sourced results posted at polling stations in a real-time bid to thwart attempts at fraud.
    However, even before the election, the opposition alleged voter-list irregularities that it said could affect millions and vowed legal or “people power” action if its concerns were ignored.
    Widodo campaigned on his record of deregulation and improving infrastructure, calling his first term a step to tackling inequality and poverty in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.
.     But religion has also been a factor.    Conservative Muslim groups have been increasingly influential.
    Widodo, a moderate Muslim from Java island, had to burnish his Islamic credentials after smear campaigns and hoax stories accused him of being anti-Islam, a communist or too close to China, all politically damaging in Indonesia.    He picked Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin, 76, as his running mate.
    Prabowo, a former special forces commander who has links to some hardline Muslim groups, and his running mate, business entrepreneur Sandiaga Uno, pledged to boost the economy by slashing taxes and cutting food prices.
(Graphic: President Joko Widodo’s achievements – https://tmsnrt.rs/2CRgHYC)
(Additional reporting by Agustinus Beo da Costa, Maikel Jefriando, Tabita Diela, Kanupriya Kapoor, Jessica Damiana and Cindy Silviana in Jakarta, Tommy Ardiansyah in Bogor, Mas Alina Arifin in Bandar Lampung; Writing by John Chalmers and Ed Davies; Editing by Robert Birsel)

4/17/2019 China goes all-in on home grown tech in push for nuclear dominance by David Stanway
FILE PHOTO: A model of the nuclear reactor "Hualong One" is pictured at the booth of the China National Nuclear
Corporation (CNNC) at an expo in Beijing, China April 29, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo
    SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China plans to gamble on the bulk deployment of its untested “Hualong One” nuclear reactor, squeezing out foreign designs, as it resumes a long-delayed nuclear program aimed at meeting its clean energy goals, government and industry officials said.
    China, the world’s biggest energy consumer, was once seen as a “shop window” for big nuclear developers to show off new technologies, with Beijing embarking on a program to build plants based on designs from France, the United States, Russia and Canada.
    But after years of construction delays, overseas models such as Westinghouse’s AP1000 and France’s “Evolutionary Pressurised Reactor” (EPR) are now set to lose out in favor of new localized technologies, industry experts and officials said.
    China signed a technology transfer deal with the United States in 2006 that put the AP1000 at the “core” of its atomic energy program.    It also pledged to use advanced third-generation technology in its safety review after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.
    But by the time the world’s first AP1000 and EPR made their debuts in China last year, Chinese designs had become just as viable.
    Though China has yet to complete its first Hualong One, officials are confident it will not encounter the delays suffered by rivals, and say it can compete on safety and cost.
    Beijing has already decided to use the Hualong One for its first newly commissioned nuclear project in three years, set to begin construction later this year at Zhangzhou, a site originally earmarked for the AP1000. [nL3N2152KM]
    “The problem with AP1000 – the delays, the design changes, the supply chain issues and then the trade problems – has forced their hand, and it has become Hualong,” said Li Ning, a nuclear scientist and dean of the College of Energy at Xiamen University.
    He added that China’s licensing procedures would also be an advantage for the home grown tech.    “For the Hualong, there are four reactors already under construction and one of them is near completion already.    It is a Chinese design so it wouldn’t be very hard to license the next four,” he said.
    EDF, France’s state-run utility, which helped build the EPR project at Taishan in Guangdong province, declined to comment.    Westinghouse, now owned by Brookfield after entering bankruptcy restructuring, also did not respond to a request for comment.
INTERNATIONAL AMBITIONS
    China’s ambitions for the Hualong One extend overseas as well.    The first foreign project using the reactor is under construction in Pakistan and the model is in the running for projects in Argentina and Britain.
    “(Hualong One) is competitive,” said Li Xiaoming, assistant general manager of the state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC).    The technologies are now just about the same as those of the United States, France and Russia.”
    “This is the foundation that we will rely on for our future survival and our international competitiveness,” Li said.
    China already has four Hualong Ones under construction, with the first, in the southeastern coastal province of Fujian, set to go into operation late next year, ahead of schedule, said Huang Feng, a member of the expert committee of the China Nuclear Energy Association.
    “China has already become one of the small number of countries that has independently mastered third-generation nuclear power technology, and it has the conditions and comparative advantages to scale up and go into mass production,” he told an industry conference.
    As Beijing gets ready to commission eight reactors a year in order to meet its 2030 clean energy and emissions targets, construction speed will be a crucial consideration, benefiting local developers.
    Huang said the estimated costs of Hualong One and the AP1000 were now roughly the same, and much now depended on scaling up production to cut costs and allow the Chinese design to compete not only with other reactors, but also with coal-fired power.
    Li of CNNC said while foreign-designed projects would still be built, it would “make no sense” to rely on foreign technology if China’s own domestic reactors were equally safe and reliable.
    “There are probably some technologies where we will continue to cooperate, but overall we will gradually turn to our own,” he said.
($1 = 6.7139 yuan)
(Reporting by David Stanway; editing by Christian Schmollinger)

4/18/2019 North Korea calls for Pompeo to be dropped from talks; tests tactical weapon by Joyce Lee and Hyonhee Shin
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives guidance while attending a flight training of Korean People's Army Air Force at undisclosed
location in this April 16, 2019 photo released on April 17, 2019 by North Korea's Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea said on Thursday it no longer wanted to deal with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and said he should be replaced in talks by someone more mature, hours after it announced its first weapons test since nuclear talks broke down.
    The North’s official KCNA news agency quoted senior foreign ministry official Kwon Jong Gun as warning that no one could predict the situation on the Korean peninsula if the United States did not abandon the “root cause” that compelled North Korea to develop nuclear weapons.
    The statement came shortly after North Korea announced that leader Kim Jong Un had overseen the testing of a new tactical guided weapon, which KCNA said has a “peculiar mode of guiding flight” and “a powerful warhead.”
    It was the North’s first weapon test since talks in Vietnam between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in late February broke down over conflicting demands by North Korea for sanctions relief and by the United States for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.
    KCNA gave no details on the weapon that was tested on Wednesday but “tactical” implied a short-range weapon rather than the long-range ballistic missiles that have been seen as a threat to the United States.
    KCNA quoted Kwon, who is in charge of U.S. affairs, as saying the Vietnam summit, the second between the two leaders, showed that talks could go wrong “whenever Pompeo pokes his nose in.”
    “I am afraid that, if Pompeo engages in the talks again, the table will be lousy once again and the talks will become entangled,” Kwon said.
    “Therefore, even in the case of possible resumption of the dialogue with the United States, I wish our dialogue counterpart would be not Pompeo but other person who is more careful and mature in communicating with us.”
    While Kwon did not elaborate on why North Korea felt compelled to develop nuclear weapons, it has long spoken of the need to defend itself from what it sees as U.S. aggression.
    Kim said last week said the breakdown in talks risked reviving tensions and he gave a year-end deadline for the United States to change its attitude.
    Despite the failure of the Vietnam summit, Trump has stressed his good relationship with Kim.
    Kwon also said the two leaders were on good terms, even as he castigated Pompeo for “fabricated” stories as part of a “publicity stunt.”    He did not elaborate.
    Kwon said Pompeo had made “reckless remarks hurting the dignity of our supreme leadership,” apparently referring to him agreeing to the characterization of Kim as a “tyrant” at a U.S. Congressional hearing last week.
    U.S. government officials were not immediately available for comment on the call to replace Pompeo.
‘USEFUL REMINDER’
    Earlier, Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, said the newly tested weapon was likely a short-range cruise missile that could be launched from the ground, sea and air.
    Kim oversaw the test of an unidentified tactical weapon in November.
    Experts said in November Kim wanted to shift the mainstay of the North’s conventional military power from a nearly 1.3 million-strong army to high-tech weapons.
    The young leader said last April that he would stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles because the nuclear capabilities of North Korea, which has tested nuclear devices six times, had been verified.
    “This does serve as a useful reminder of one critical fact: Chairman Kim Jong Un never promised to stop testing all weapons in his military arsenal, just nuclear weapons and ICBMs that have the potential to hit the U.S. homeland,” said Harry Kazianis of the Washington-based Center for the National Interest.
    A U.S. official said that, according initial information, U.S. forces did not detect a missile launch from North Korea.    Checks were underway, said the official.
    Referring to the test, a White House official said: “We are aware of the report and have no further comment.”
    South Korea’s presidential Blue House declined to comment on the test, referring questions to the defense ministry.    It said it was analyzing the nature of the weapon and North Korea’s intentions.
    Kim’s visit to the testing site came after he visited the North Korean Air and Anti-aircraft Force on Tuesday, according to KCNA.
    Kyungnam University’s Kim Dong-yub said the latest test appeared to partly be a message to the United States that North Korea would not bow to sanctions.
    “It’s also an internal message to the North Korean people and to the military” to instill trust in their own security by reinforcing conventional weapons, he said.
    Satellite images from last week showed movement at Yongbyon, North Korea’s main nuclear site, that could be associated with the reprocessing of radioactive material into bomb fuel, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the United States said on Tuesday.
    U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said in a Bloomberg News interview on Wednesday the United States needed to see “a real indication from North Korea that they’ve made the strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons” before a third summit between Trump and Kim.
(Reporting by Joyce Lee, Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, Idrees Ali, Jeff Mason and Phillip Stewart in WASHINGTON; Editing by Sandra Maler, Paul Tait, Robert Birsel)

4/18/2019 Iran says its armed forces are not a regional threat
FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a news conference with Iraqi President
Barham Salih (not pictured) in Baghdad, Iraq, March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani/File Photo
    LONDON (Reuters) – President Hassan Rouhani said Iran’s armed forces did not pose a threat to its neighbors as he addressed a display on Thursday of Iran’s latest military equipment, including domestically produced fighter jets and Russian-made missile systems.
    The parade to mark Army Day came as U.S. President Donald Trump pursues his drive to contain Iran’s power in the Middle East by means of sanctions.
    Thousands of soldiers marched past Rouhani and top military commanders at the parade in Tehran marking Army Day while new Iranian-built fighter jets flew overhead.
    Iran also showed off missiles, submarines, armored vehicles, radars and its Russian-supplied S-300 defense system that can take down aircraft and missiles in the sky.
    “I want to tell the regional countries that the armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran are not against you and your national interests.    They stand against invaders… The roots of our problems are the Zionist regime and American imperialism,” Rouhani said.
    He also said Iran sought “regional security and stability.”
    The parade was held by the national defense force which controls the country’s biggest ground force.    Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards is in charge of a growing arsenal of ballistic missiles.
    The head of Iran’s air force, Brigadier General Aziz Nasirzadeh was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA that “The enemy knows our military power and I doubt they dare to make a stupid and adventurous move against us; But if they do, we will respond in the strongest way possible.”
    Iran strongly condemned Washington for officially designating the Revolutionary Guards as a foreign terrorist organization on Monday.
    At Thursday’s parade Rouhani called the U.S. move against the Guards “abhorrent” and said it was an insult to all Iran.
(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

4/18/2019 As Indonesia president heads for poll win, police warn on security by Augustinus Beo Da Costa and Ed Davies
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo reacts after a quick count result during the Indonesian
elections in Jakarta, Indonesia April 17, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su
    JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesian President Joko Widodo appeared on course on Thursday for a second term, based on unofficial vote counts and despite the objections of his rival, while police vowed firm action against any rallies that could disturb security.
    Results from private pollsters who counted vote samples from Wednesday’s poll point to a comfortable win for Widodo, raising hopes for a splurge of reforms in his second term.
    The “quick counts” showed Widodo winning the popular vote with at least 54 percent, giving him a lead of around eight percentage points over former general Prabowo Subianto, who was narrowly defeated by Widodo in the election five years ago.     The counts from reputable pollsters have proved to be accurate in previous elections, though the official result will not be announced until May.
    Prabowo, a former son-in-law of military strongman Suharto who was overthrown in 1998, said on Wednesday he was not trailing Widodo and believed his share of the vote was in a 52-54 percent range.
    “We have noted several incidents that have harmed the supporters of this ticket,” Prabowo said, without giving detail.
    With Prabowo’s supporters planning to march in central Jakarta after midday prayers on Friday, national police chief Tito Karnavian warned against rallies.
    “I appeal to anyone not to mobilize, whether to mobilize people to celebrate victory or mobilize due to dissatisfaction,” said Karnavian, pledging firm action.
    At the same news conference, chief security minister Wiranto called for people to avoid “any act of anarchy that breaches the law” while waiting for the official election result.
    In 2014, Prabowo had also claimed victory on election day, before contesting the results at the Constitutional Court, which confirmed Widodo’s win.
    Widodo said on Wednesday the results indicated he had regained the presidency of the world’s fourth-most-populous nation, but urged supporters to wait for the election commission to announce official results.
‘NO CASE’
    The front page of Indonesia’s English-language Jakarta Post newspaper carried the headline: “Five More Years” next to a picture of the president.
    Financial markets rose before trimming gains with the rupiah currency up 0.3 percent from the previous close and the Jakarta stock index up 0.6 percent by midday.
    Alexander Raymond Arifianto, a political analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, said Widodo’s margin of victory meant the opposition did not appear to have a strong case to claim the election was stolen.
    But he noted risks that Islamist supporters of the challenger, including the hardline Alumni 212 movement, could hit the streets to dispute the election.
    “So Prabowo has no case, but the hardliners and Alumni 212 can create lots of headaches for Jokowi if they go ahead with their protest plan tomorrow and in future weeks,” he said, referring to president by his nickname.
.     Novel Bamukmin, a spokesman for Alumni 212, said the movement planned a peaceful march after Friday prayers at Jakarta’s Istiqlal mosque.
    “We just want to bow down to express our gratitude in order that this victory is recognized,” he said, referring to Prabowo’s claim he won the election.
    Islamist groups have in the past been able to mobilize tens of thousands of supporters.
    From late 2016, they organized a series of big protests against the Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the first ethnic-Chinese Christian to hold the job, who was subsequently jailed for insulting the Koran.
(Additional reporting by Fransiska Nangoy; Editing by Robert Birsel)

4/18/2019 Exclusive: Dispute flares among U.S. officials over Trump administration Iran arms control report by Jonathan Landay and Arshad Mohammed
FILE PHOTO: A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers
and representatives of the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union during
the Iran nuclear talks at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A new Trump administration report on international compliance with arms control accords provoked a dispute with U.S. intelligence agencies and some State Department officials concerned that the document politicizes and slants assessments about Iran, five sources with knowledge of the matter said.
    U.S. President Donald Trump is intensifying a drive to contain Iran’s power in the Middle East, which has raised fears that his administration wants to topple the Tehran government or lay the groundwork to justify military action.
    The administration says it is trying to halt Iranian “malign behavior” in its support for Islamist militants in the region and denies seeking the overthrow of the Islamic republic’s government.
    The clash among U.S. officials emerged on Tuesday when the State Department posted on its website, and then removed, an unclassified version of an annual report to Congress assessing compliance with arms control agreements that the sources saw as skewed Iran.
    The report’s publication follows the administration’s formal designation on Monday of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran’s elite paramilitary and foreign espionage unit, as a foreign terrorist organization.
    Washington also has piled on tough economic sanctions following Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.    The administration also is waging a propaganda campaign, including over social media, aimed at fueling popular anger against Iran’s government.
    Several sources said the report, which reappeared without explanation on Wednesday, made them wonder if the administration was painting Iran in the darkest light possible, much as the George W. Bush administration used bogus and exaggerated intelligence to justify its 2003 invasion of Iraq.
    A State Department spokeswoman defended the judgment on Iran, saying in an email that it was “informed by careful assessment of all relevant information.”
    The report was published to meet a mandatory April 15 deadline by which it had to go to Congress, the department said.    A more comprehensive unclassified version will be provided after the completion of a review of what information in the classified report can be made public, the spokeswoman said.
    The department did not address the internal dispute over the report or concerns of politicization.
    The unclassified “Adherence to and compliance with arms control, nonproliferation and disarmament agreements and commitments” report omitted assessments of Russian compliance with landmark accords such as the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the New START arms control treaty.     The State Department spokeswoman said that the U.S. position that Russia is in violation of the INF Treaty “is clear.”     The report also failed to include detailed assessments published in previous years of whether Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Syria and other nations complied with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).    Instead, the report replaced those assessments with a five paragraph section entitled “country concerns.”
    The section made no mention of judgments by U.S. intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran ended a nuclear weapons program in 2003 and has complied with the 2015 deal that imposed restrictions on its civilian nuclear program.
    Instead, it said Iran’s retention of a nuclear archive disclosed last year by Israel raised questions about whether Tehran might have plans to resume a nuclear weapons program.
    It added that any such effort would violate the NPT, as would any Iranian retention of undeclared nuclear material, though it offered no evidence that Iran had done either.
    “It’s piling inference upon inference here to try to create a scary picture,” said a congressional aide, who requested anonymity to discuss the issue, as did the other sources.    The aide added that by stripping out much of the report’s normal content, the documents largely had become about Iran.
    “There is significant concern that the entire sort of purpose … was to help build a case for military intervention in Iran in a way that seems very familiar,” the source said, referring to the Bush administration’s use of erroneous intelligence before the invasion of Iraq 16 years ago that ousted President Saddam Hussein.
    The 12-page report, down from last year’s 45-page document, reflected a disagreement between Assistant Secretary of State Yleem Poblete, whose office is charged with its drafting, and her boss, Undersecretary of State Andrea Thompson, three of the sources said.
    Two sources said Poblete had sought to include information such as news stories and opinion pieces in the report, which traditionally is based on legal analyses of U.S. intelligence reports.
    The State Department did not comment on Poblete’s role.
    “And it had other obvious errors,” said a former U.S. official familiar with matter.    A draft of the unclassified version had included classified information, the official said.    “It’s been described to me as just a big food fight within the department over an initially inadequate draft.”
    A second former U.S. official said he believed that the report was being used to advance the Trump administration’s views on Iran rather than to reflect information gathered by intelligence agencies and assessments of that information by State Department experts.
    “This ‘trends’ section is adding a political tinge or politicizing the report,” said the fourth source on condition of anonymity, saying the administration seemed to be using a once objective report “to back up subjective assertions,” analysts asked if there was an effort underway to demonize Iran.
    “The worst case of course would be that we are observing signs of a politicization of intelligence for the purpose of serving what the top of the administration would like to accomplish,” said nuclear expert Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.
    “We have seen … that in the past with the (Iraq) war,” he said.    “This is a potential warning sign about that.”
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)

4/19/2019 China’s politburo meets to discuss economic situation: Xinhua
FILE PHOTO: Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the meeting with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (not pictured)
at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China April 1, 2019. Kenzaburo Fukuhara/KYODONEWS/Pool via REUTERS
    BEIJING (Reuters) – A top decision-making body of China’s ruling Communist Party met on Friday to discuss the current economic situation, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
    The report said Chinese President Xi Jinping presided over the politburo meeting.    It did not elaborate on specifics of what was discussed at the meeting.
(Reporting by Beijing Monitoring Desk; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)

4/19/2019 In Indonesia’s election, the winner is Widodo – and Islam by Kanupriya Kapoor and Fanny Potkin
Incumbent Indonesian president Joko Widodo talks to media about the result of a presidential election,
during a press briefing in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 18, 2019. REUTERS/Angie Teo
    JAKARTA (Reuters) – Two months before this week’s presidential election in Indonesia, prize-winning novelist Eka Kurniawan declared in an opinion column that “the Islamists have already won.”
    Unofficial results from Wednesday’s poll show that incumbent President Joko Widodo was actually the winner and is set for a second five-year term – but they also reveal a hardening bloc of conservative Muslims who voted for his challenger.
    Widodo’s commitment to pluralism in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country may have narrowly won him the race.    But the Indonesia he must govern is now more polarized by religion, and he may struggle to meet the demands of Muslim groups that backed him and fend off more hardline Islamists who did not.
    “In the short term, Widodo will have to accommodate the opinions and interests of the Muslim-majority because, if the majority feels insecure, it is difficult to protect minorities,” said Achmad Sukarsono, a political analyst with Control Risks.
    “This is just being pro-people.    It doesn’t mean Indonesia will turn into Saudi Arabia or that the country will go straight to amputating a hand for theft.”
    While nearly 90 percent of Indonesians are Muslim, the country is officially secular and is home to sizeable Hindu, Christian, Buddhist and other minorities.
    Some fear Indonesia’s tradition of religious tolerance is now at risk, however, as conservative interpretations of Islam become more popular.    Among myriad measures of this, demand for sharia finance is growing and more women are covering their heads or donning full veils in public.
ISLAMIST FORCES
    Widodo’s rival, former military general Prabowo Subianto, buttressed his challenge by forging an alliance with hardline Islamist groups and religious parties to tap into this trend.
    Unofficial results show that not only did Prabowo maintain support in conservative strongholds like Aceh, West Java and West Sumatra – he won four more provinces that had gone to the incumbent when he ran against him in 2014.
    These provinces are seen as among the most conservative because they have introduced sharia-based by-laws and their demographic make-up is more than 97 percent Muslim.    Prabowo won in at least 13 out of 34 provinces in Wednesday’s election.
    Analysts say such divisions are here to stay.
    “This election has produced a more divided political map,” said Eve Warburton, a research fellow at Australian National University.    “When Widodo and Prabowo are no longer on the front line, divisions may mellow but they will not disappear.”
    Prabowo has complained of widespread cheating and is threatening to contest the results.
    Many of the hardline Islamist clerics and groups backing Prabowo’s presidential bid were the same as those who in 2016 and 2017 led mass protests to topple the ethnic-Chinese, Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a one-time close ally of the president.
    Widodo, at risk of appearing anti-Islam, distanced himself from Purnama, who was eventually jailed for blasphemy.    He also launched a systematic campaign to woo the country’s largest moderate Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), and to appeal to Muslim voters by appearing ‘more Islamic’ himself.
    But the president shocked more moderate and progressive supporters when he chose as his running mate NU scholar Ma’ruf Amin.    As chairman of the Indonesia Clerics Council in 2016, Amin issued a fatwa banning Muslims from joining Christmas mass, and his testimony helped convict Purnama.
    Nonetheless, Amin helped in the eyes of some voters to remove any doubt about Widodo’s commitment to Islam and neutralize the overall threat to Indonesia’s official secularity from groups gunning for an Islamic state.
        One presidential aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that as vice president, Amin, who is an expert on Islamic finance, was expected to “have an important role, particularly on religious issues and policies.”
    But aides are confident of Widodo’s ability to “handle” the demands of religious groups that helped propel him to victory.
    “The president can embrace (the religious forces) with all kinds of social and economic efforts, but at the same time he will be forceful to reject their agenda to change the ‘Pancasila’ in any way,” the aide said, referring to the country’s secular ideology.
VICTORY FOR MODERATE ISLAM
    Hardline groups that were once on the fringes of Indonesian politics, most notably the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), have increasingly muscled their way into the mainstream and arguably provide a political voice for conservative Indonesian Muslims.
    The FPI and similar groups call for an Islamic state, with Islamic law for all Muslims in the country.
    That may be popular with many voters – according to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center, 72 percent of Muslims favor making sharia the official law.
    But for prominent moderate Muslim figure and Widodo campaign adviser Yenny Wahid, the election nonetheless represents a victory for moderate Islam.
    “Widodo will be bolder now than before in sealing off space that Islamists have tried to occupy in politics and social life,” she told Reuters.    “It is time now for moderate Muslims to consolidate based on the election win.”
(Additional reporting by Tom Allard; Editing by Alex Richardson)

4/19/2019 China says Silk Road not geopolitical tool, understands concerns by Ben Blanchard
A man walks past a flower installation set up for the upcoming Belt and Road Forum in front of the Chinese Foreign
Ministry in Beijing, China April 18, 2019. Picture taken April 18, 2019. Jia Tianyong/CNS via REUTERS
    BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s Belt and Road project is not a “geopolitical tool” or a debt crisis for participating nations, but Beijing welcomes constructive suggestions on how to address concerns over the initiative, the government’s top diplomat said on Friday.
    Beijing will host a Belt and Road summit next week which 37 foreign leaders will attend, including some of China’s closest allies, though the United States which has been critical of the project is only sending low level representatives.
    The Belt and Road Initiative, as it is formally called, is a key initiative of President Xi Jinping, and envisions rebuilding the old Silk Road to connect China with Asia, Europe and beyond with massive infrastructure spending.
    But it has proved controversial in many Western capitals, particularly Washington, which views it as merely a means to spread Chinese influence abroad and saddle countries with unsustainable debt through nontransparent projects.
    The United States has been particularly critical of Italy’s decision to sign up to the plan last month, during Xi’s visit to Rome, the first for a G7 nation.
    Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi, the government’s top diplomat, told reporters that the Belt and Road scheme had brought real benefits to participating countries.
    “This partnership relationship is not a geopolitical tool, but a platform for cooperation,” he said.
    “You can’t put hats like ‘debt crises’ onto the head of the Belt and Road, and this is not something any participating country would recognize,” Wang added.
    “Of course, there is a development process for the Belt and Road.    You can’t get there in one step, and it’s unavoidable it will cause some worries during its development.    So we welcome all sides to come up with constructive suggestions,” he said.
CLOSE ALLIES COMING
    The number of foreign leaders at the April 25-27 summit is up from 29 last time, mainly from China’s closest allies like Pakistan and Russia but also Italy, Switzerland and Austria.
    The United States will not send high-level officials, a U.S. State Department spokesman said earlier this month, citing concerns about financing practices for the initiative.
    Wang said there would be Americans at the summit, made up of diplomats, state-level officials, executives and academics, though he did not give details.
    “We welcome any country that is interested to take part.    When the United States participates, or whether it participates, is up to them to decide,” he added.
    While the United States and China are currently working to end a bitter trade war, they have numerous other areas of disagreement, including human rights and U.S. support for self-ruled Taiwan.
    China on Monday condemned as “slanderous” criticism U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made of Beijing’s policies in South America last week.
    “The United States has no plans to send high-level officials from Washington to the Belt and Road Forum,” a U.S. Embassy in Beijing spokesman said.
    “We call upon all countries to ensure that their economic diplomacy initiatives adhere to internationally-accepted norms and standards, promote sustainable, inclusive development, and advance good governance and strong economic institutions.”
    At the first Belt and Road summit two years ago, the United States submitted a diplomatic note to China complaining about North Korea’s participation, though since then Washington and Pyongyang have sought to re-set ties, including with two summits between their leaders.
    Wang said North Korea would also take part in this year’s summit, but gave no further details.
    “I think this is normal as it’s an economic cooperation initiative.    All countries have the freedom to attend, but I think they don’t have the right to prevent any other country from participating.    This is an open, inclusive platform.”
    More than 150 countries are sending delegations, and there will be some 5,000 guests, Wang said.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Michael Perry)

4/20/2019 North Korea slams Bolton’s ‘dim-sighted’ call for sign of denuclearization
National Security Advisor John Bolton adjusts his glasses as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks while meeting with
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 2, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has criticized U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton’snonsensecall for Pyongyang to show that it’s serious about giving up its nuclear weapons, the second time it has criticized a leading U.S. official in less than a week.
    U.S. President Donald Trump has said he is open to a third summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but Bolton told Bloomberg News on Wednesday there first needed to be “a real indication from North Korea that they’ve made the strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons.”
    “Bolton, national security adviser of the White House, in an interview with Bloomberg, showed above himself by saying such a nonsense,” North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui told reporters when asked about his recent comments, the Korean Central News Agency said on Saturday.
    “Bolton’s remarks make me wonder whether they sprang out of incomprehension of the intentions of the top leaders of the DPRK and the U.S. or whether he was just trying to talk with a certain sense of humor for his part, with its own deviation,” she said, referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name.
    “All things considered, his word has no charm in it and he looks dim-sighted to me.”
    The North Korean vice minister also warned that there would be no good if the United States continued “to throw away such remarks devoid of discretion and reason.”
    North Korea said on Thursday it no longer wanted to deal with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and that he should be replaced in talks by someone more mature, hours after it announced its first weapons test since nuclear talks broke down.
(Reporting by Joori Roh, Josh Smith; Editing by Nick Macfie)

4/20/2019 China to show new warships as Beijing flexes military muscle on navy anniversary by Ben Blanchard
A female soldier of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy stands guard at a news conference ahead of the 70th anniversary
of the founding of Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy, in Qingdao, China, April 20, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee
    QINGDAO, China (Reuters) – China will show off new warships including nuclear submarines and destroyers at a parade next week marking 70 years since its navy’s founding, a senior commander said on Saturday, as Beijing flexes its increasingly well-equipped military muscle.
    President Xi Jinping is overseeing a sweeping plan to refurbish the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by developing everything from stealth jets to aircraft carriers as China ramps up its presence in the South China Sea and around self-ruled Taiwan.
    The navy has been a key beneficiary of the modernization plan as China looks to project power far from the country’s shores and protect its trading routes and citizens overseas.
    Last month, Beijing unveiled a target of 7.5 percent rise in defense spending for this year, a slower rate than last year but still outpacing China’s economic growth target.
    Deputy naval commander Qiu Yanpeng told reporters in the eastern city of Qingdao that Tuesday’s naval parade – likely to be overseen by Xi himself, though China has not confirmed that – will feature 32 vessels and 39 aircraft.
    “The PLA Navy ship and aircraft to be revealed are the Liaoning aircraft carrier, new types of nuclear submarines, new types of destroyers, as well as fighter aircraft,” Qiu said, without giving details.    “Some ships will be revealed for the first time.”
    The Liaoning, the country’s first carrier, was bought second-hand from Ukraine in 1998 and refitted in China.
    It’s not clear if China’s second carrier, an as-yet unnamed ship developed and built purely in China, will also take part, but in the past few days state media has run stories praising recent sea trials.
    Around a dozen foreign navies are also taking part. While Qiu did not give an exact number, China has announced the parade would include ships from Russia, Singapore, India, Thailand and Vietnam – which frequently complains of Chinese military activity in the disputed South China Sea.
    China’s last naval battles were with the Vietnamese in the South China Sea, in 1974 and 1988, though these were relatively minor skirmishes.
    Chinese navy ships have also participated in international anti-piracy patrols off Somalia’s coast since late 2008.
STRONG NAVY ‘ESSENTIAL’
    Qiu reiterated China’s frequent stance that its armed forces are not a threat to anyone and that no matter what happens it will never “pursue hegemony.”
    “It is fair to say that the PLA Navy has not brought war or turbulence to any place,” Qiu said.
    But China has been scared by its past and needs good defenses at sea, he added.
    “A strong navy is essential for building a strong maritime country,” Qiu said.    “From 1840 to 1949, China was invaded by foreign powers from the sea more than 470 times, which caused untold suffering and deep wounds to the Chinese nation.”

    China has frequently had to rebuff concerns about its military intentions, especially as military spending continues to scale new heights.
    Beijing says it has nothing to hide, and has invited foreign media to cover next week’s naval parade and related activities, including a keynote speech by navy chief Shen Jinlong, who is close to Xi.
    Zhang Junshe, a researcher at the PLA’s Naval Research Academy, told reporters after Qiu had spoken that inviting foreign navies to take part in the parade was a sign of China’s openness and self-confidence, noting China had also done this for the 60th anniversary in 2009.
    “New nuclear submarines and new warships will be shown – this further goes to show that China’s navy is open and transparent,” said Zhang.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by John Ruwitch in SHANGHAI; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)

4/20/2019 Blast, gunfire as attackers hit Afghan communications ministry in central Kabul by Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Rupam Jain
Men carry injured people outside the building of Ministry of Communication and
Information Technology in Kabul, Afghanistan April 20, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
    KABUL (Reuters) – Gunmen attacked the communications ministry in the center of Kabul on Saturday, interrupting months of relative calm in the Afghan capital and underlining security threats that have continued despite efforts to open peace talks with the Taliban.
    Saturday’s attack opened shortly before midday with an explosion at the entrance to the multi-storey building housing the ministry in a busy commercial area of the city, followed up by gunfire which could be heard over a mile away.
    The area around the building was sealed off by police as at least three attackers battled security forces, Interior Ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said.
    By early afternoon, he said at least two of the attackers had been killed and gunfire could no longer be heard.
    However, there was no confirmation that the attack was over.
    The explosion, which security officials said appeared to have been caused by a suicide bomber, was also close to the heavily fortified Serena Hotel, one of the very few Kabul hotels still used by foreign visitors.
    There was no immediate word on further casualties and no claim of responsibility for the operation, which marked a return to the kind of complex urban attack that have been familiar features of the Afghan conflict over recent years.
    Hundreds of people have been killed in Kabul in attacks by militant groups including the Taliban and Islamic State.
    But as U.S. officials have held a series of meetings with representatives from the Taliban, Kabul has been relatively calm.    While heavy fighting has carried on across Afghanistan and Taliban militants have announced their now customary spring offensive, it had been several months since the last major attack on civilian targets in the capital.
    The attack, just days after a planned meeting between Taliban officials and Afghan politicians and civil society representatives in Qatar was canceled, underlined the hurdles facing efforts to reach a peace settlement.
    Officials have said they hope to hold a meeting soon but no date has been set.
(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Rupam Jain, James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Macfie and Kenneth Maxwell)

4/22/2019 Easter bombings rock Sri Lanka - Death toll passes 200, includes Americans by Kirk A. Babo and Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY
    “Several” Americans are among the at least 207 people are dead and 450 injured in simultaneous terrorist attacks that appear to be coordinated at several high-end hotels and churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed Sunday.
    “The United States condemns in the strongest terms the terror attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter morning,” Pompeo said in a statement released by the State Department.    “Attacks on innocent people gathering in a place of worship or enjoying a holiday meal are affronts to the universal values and freedoms that we hold dear, and demonstrate yet again the brutal nature of radical terrorists whose sole aim is to threaten peace and security.”
    At least six different explosions reportedly hit hotels and churches as worshippers gathered for Easter services in the cities of Colombo, neighboring Negombo and Batticaloa on the opposite side of the island, according to The Associated Press.    Hours later, a blast at a guesthouse killed at least two people.
    An eighth explosion rocked the area of Dematagoda on the outskirts of Colombo, killing three police officers who were conducting a search at a suspected safe house, Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardena said.    The occupants apparently detonated explosives to prevent arrest.
    Officials said 13 suspects have been arrested.
    The attacks raised fears of copycats.    In New York City, police officers “will make periodic visits to all houses of worship, giving special attention to those with Easter services,” police spokesman Sgt. Brendan Ryan said.
    Dozens of foreigners are among the dead in Colombo, according to hospital Director General Anil Jasinghe.    Among them were two who are both citizens of the U.S. and the United Kingdom.    Also there are three Indians, one Portuguese national, two Turkish nationals and three British nationals.
    The statement also says nine foreigners are reported missing.
    Two of the blasts were suspected to have been carried out by suicide bombers, according to the unnamed official, but no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
    It’s the deadliest spate of violence in Sri Lanka since the South Asian country’s bloody civil war ended a decade ago.    The island nation of more than 21 million people off the southern tip of India has been relatively peaceful since the civil war ended, though its various factions have continued to jostle for power.
    The majority are Sinhalese, mostly Buddhist, and the minority Tamil are Hindu, Muslim and Christian.    Targeted in Sunday’s attacks, Christians, with a lower profile than some of the other factions, have only encountered scattered incidents in recent years.
    In his Easter Sunday message in Vatican City, Pope Francis noted the “cruel violence” of targeting Christians who had come together in prayer.
    “I want to express my loving closeness to the Christian community, targeted while they were gathered in prayer, and all the victims of such cruel violence,” Francis told a crowd of around 70,000 people in St. Peter’s Square.    “I entrust to the Lord all those who were tragically killed and pray for the injured and all those who are suffering as a result of this dramatic event.”
    The first blast rang through St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo.    Alex Agileson, who was in the vicinity, said buildings in the surrounding area shook with the blast, according to the AP.
    He said a number of injured were carried in ambulances.
    The second explosion was reported at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, a Catholic majority town north of Colombo.
    Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe condemned the attacks and warned against spreading unverified reports in a statement issued on Twitter.
    “I call upon all Sri Lankans during this tragic time to remain united and strong.    Please avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation,” he said.    “The government is taking immediate steps to contain this situation.”
    President Donald Trump tweeted his condolences to the victims early Sunday morning, but incorrectly stated that the explosions killed “at least 138 million people.”    A new statement was issued with the same pledge to help, and the accurate number of casualties.
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed “deep shock” over the attacks and said “the entire world must unite in the battle against the scourge of terrorism.”
    Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Biships and archbishop of Galveston-Houston, issued a statement calling the attacks a “great evil.”
    Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo in Sri Lanka, implored the nation’s government to start a “very impartial strong inquiry” and to punish those responsible “mercilessly because only animals can behave like that.”
Contributing: Associated Press
Sri Lankan soldiers secure the area around St. Anthony’s Shrine after a blast in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Sunday.
A series of eight bombings killed more than 200 people and left hundreds more injured. ERANGA JAYAWARDENA/AP

4/22/2019 Iran’s supreme leader picks new Revolutionary Guard chiefr
    TEHRAN, Iran – Iran supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Sunday appointed a new chief of the country’s powerful Revolutionary Guard, picking a general with a history of threatening the U.S. just days after America designated the paramilitary force a terrorist organization.    Taking over the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile program will be Gen. Hossein Salami, a 59-year-old who had been serving as a deputy commander in the Guard.

4/23/2019 Sri Lanka radical group blamed by Ryan W. Miller, USA TODAY
    Suicide bombers who were part of a domestic militant group that might have international ties coordinated and carried out a string of deadly bombings at churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, the country’s health minister said Monday.
    Seven members of the radical Muslim group National Thowfeek Jamaath killed at least 290 people and injured 500 more on Easter Sunday in the South Asian island nation, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said.
    The U.S. State Department said at least four Americans were killed and several others seriously injured.
    Senaratne said the country’s top officials had been told earlier this month an attack by National Thowfeek Jamaath was possible.
    International intelligence agencies began warning the country’s officials on April 4, and on April 9 the defense ministry included the group’s name in a warning to the police chief, Senaratne said.    An April11 report also warned of an attack, Senaratne said.
    Senaratne said the country’s prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and his Cabinet were unaware of the intelligence until after the attacks because of political dysfunction.
    Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando told the BBC that the intelligence “never indicated it was going to be an attack."

4/24/2019 ISIS claims bombings in Sri Lanka by Ryan W. Miller, Jorge L. Ortiz and Joey Garrison, USA TODAY
    The Islamic State on Tuesday claimed responsibility for a series of bombings at churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday that killed 321 and injured 500.    The group made the claim through its Amaq News Agency.
    Its statement, two days after the deadly attacks, came after a senior government official said the bombings were “in retaliation” for mass shootings at two mosques in New Zealand last month.
    Neither IS nor the Sri Lankan government offered any evidence.    Sri Lanka’s Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne had said seven members of the radical Muslim group National Thowfeek Jamaath – a domestic militant group that might have international ties – were behind the attacks.
    IS, which has lost territory it previously held in Iraq and Syria, did not provide any video, photos or testimony from people who carried out the attacks pledging loyalty to IS, The Associated Press reported, as the group often does.
    The terrorist organization’s claim said: “The perpetrators of the attack that targeted nationals of the countries of the coalitions and Christians in Sri Lanka before yesterday are fighters from the Islamic State.”
Disagreement and dysfunction
    “The preliminary investigations have revealed that what happened in Sri Lanka was in retaliation for the attack against Muslims in Christchurch,” Ruwan Wijewardene, Sri Lanka’s defense minister, told the country’s parliament, according to the Independent.
    Fifty people were killed and dozens wounded in the attack in Christchurch on March 15 during Friday prayers.    A 28year-old Australian man, Brenton Tarrant – a self-described white supremacist – has been charged in the shootings.    But regarding “retaliation,” the office of New Zealand’s prime minister said it hasn’t “seen any intelligence upon which such an assessment might be based,” the AP reported.
New Zealand Prime Minister
    Jacinda Ardern’s office also added that it understood “the Sri Lankan investigation into the attack is in its early stages.”
    International intelligence agencies began warning Sri Lankan officials of a possible attack on April4, and on April 9 the Defense Ministry included the name of the little-known National Thowfeek Jamaath in a warning to the police chief, Senaratne said Monday.
    But Senaratne said Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his Cabinet were unaware of the intelligence until after the attacks because of political dysfunction.
    The bombers were all Sri Lankan, authorities said, but international influence is suspected.    Police said 40 suspects had been arrested as of early Tuesday, including the driver of a van allegedly used by suicide bombers.
    Nine bombings took place Sunday in the deadliest instance of violence in Sri Lanka since the civil war ended
Contributing: Jordyn Noennig, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Jane Onyanga- Omara, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
A bomb blast victim’s coffin is carried after a funeral service in Negombo
on Tuesday, two days the bombings in Sri Lanka. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

4/29/2019 U.S. trade delegation to visit China, talks will focus on intellectual property, tech transfer by OAN Newsroom
    President Trump has said a massive trade deal is in the works between the U.S. and China, and it could be the biggest deal ever made.
    “I think a trade deal with China is good for the world, it’s good for us and China, but it’s good also for the world,” stated the president.    “I think it’s a very important and we’ll see if it happens.”
    Representatives of the world’s two largest economies have met several times in an effort to hammer out a deal to end their trade war.
    The U.S. is now sending a high level delegation to Beijing.    This includes Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who have said the two sides are making progress.
    “There’s still some major, major issues left, but we’re certainly making more progress than we would have thought when we started,” stated Lighthizer.
FILE – In this Feb. 15, 2019, file photo, Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, right, gestures as he
and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, left, and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer pose for a group photo
at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)
    This comes after Chinese Vice Premier Liu He met with President Trump at the White House, and praised the president for his direction.    The vice premier will meet with the U.S. delegation on April 30th, and then a Chinese delegation will head to Washington for further negotiations on May 8th.
    The talks will center around several trade issues, including intellectual property, forced technology transfer, non-tariff barriers and enforcement.    The U.S. has accused China of intellectual theft, while China has denied the allegations.
    President Trump has slapped tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese products, and in retaliation China has targeted $110 billion in American imports.
    Negotiators are reportedly aiming to strike a draft trade deal by the end of May.

4/30/2019 Iran continues to export oil despite U.S. sanctions by OAN Newsroom
    Iran intends to continue exporting oil despite stricter U.S. sanctions.    During a live broadcast Tuesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani confirmed his country will continue to export crude oil.
    The announcement comes days after U.S. officials announced they will not renew sanction waivers for five nations to purchase Iranian oil.    The U.S. decision was heavily criticized in Tehran after Rouhani said the elimination of waivers is a hostile measure.
In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani
speaks during a cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, April 24, 2019. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
    “It is possible that the Americans can block a path for our oil exports, but this is not the case of the Americans pressuring and closing the only door available for Iran’s oil exports,” stated the Iranian leader.    “There are six other doors available, and the Americans don’t know it.”
    The U.S. sanctions were imposed when President Trump withdrew America from the Iran Nuclear Deal.
    Statistics show the U.S. sanctions have cost Iran over $10 billion in revenue.

5/4/2019 China putting minority Muslims in ‘concentration camps,’ U.S. says by Phil Stewart
FILE PHOTO: Workers walk by the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education
centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States accused China on Friday of putting well more than a million minority Muslims in “concentration camps,” in some of the strongest U.S. condemnation to date of what it calls Beijing’s mass detention of mostly Muslim Uighur minority and other Muslim groups.
    The comments by Randall Schriver, who leads Asia policy at the U.S. Defense Department, are likely to increase tension with Beijing, which is sensitive to international criticism and describes the sites as vocational education training centers aimed at stemming the threat of Islamic extremism.
    Former detainees have described to Reuters being tortured during interrogation at the camps, living in crowded cells and being subjected to a brutal daily regimen of party indoctrination that drove some people to suicide.
    Some of the sprawling facilities are ringed with razor wire and watch towers.
    “The (Chinese) Communist Party is using the security forces for mass imprisonment of Chinese Muslims in concentration camps,” Schriver told a Pentagon briefing during a broader discussion about China’s military, estimating that the number of detained Muslims could be “closer to 3 million citizens.”
    Schriver, an assistant secretary of defense, defended his use of a term normally associated with Nazi Germany as appropriate, under the circumstances.
    When asked by a reporter why he used the term, Schriver said that it was justified “given what we understand to be the magnitude of the detention, at least a million but likely closer to 3 million citizens out of a population of about 10 million.”    "So a very significant portion of the population, (given) what’s happening there, what the goals are of the Chinese government and their own public comments make that a very, I think, appropriate description,” he said.
    The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday used the term re-education camps to describe the sites and said Chinese activity was “reminiscent of the 1930s.”
    The U.S. government has weighed sanctions against senior Chinese officials in Xinjiang, a vast region bordering central Asia that is home to millions of Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities. China has warned that it would retaliate “in proportion” against any U.S. sanctions.
    The governor of Xinjiang in March directly dismissed comparisons to concentration camps, saying they were “the same as boarding schools.”
    U.S. officials have said China has made criminal many aspects of religious practice and culture in Xinjiang, including punishment for teaching Muslim texts to children and bans on parents giving their children Uighur names.
    Academics and journalists have documented grid-style police checkpoints across Xinjiang and mass DNA collection, and human rights advocates have decried martial law-type conditions there.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Leslie Adler)

5/4/2019 ‘I shall reign with righteousness’: Thailand crowns king in ornate ceremonies by Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panarat Thepgumpanat
People sit near an image of King Maha Vajiralongkorn during his coronation in Bangkok, Thailand, May 4, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
    BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn on Saturday completed Buddhist and Brahmin rituals to symbolically transform him into a living god as the Southeast Asian nation crowned its first monarch in nearly seven decades.
    The coronation of King Vajiralongkorn, 66, took place inside the Grand Palace throne hall in Bangkok after a period of official mourning for his revered father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in October 2016 having reigned for 70 years.
    The king sat on a golden throne under a nine-tiered umbrella to receive royal regalia including a gold-enameled, diamond-tipped crown in ceremonies that mixed glittering pomp with solemn religious rites.
    The monarch was joined by new Queen Suthida after a surprise announcement three days before the coronation that the thrice-divorced monarch had married for a fourth time.
    His coronation comes amid the uncertainty of an unresolved election battle between the current military junta chief and a “democratic front” trying to push the army out of politics.
    “I shall continue, preserve, and build upon the royal legacy and shall reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of the people forever,” the king said in his first royal command.
    Traditionally uttered after a king is crowned, the king’s first command serves to capture the essence of his reign.    The king’s command was similar to that of his father’s.
    Late in the afternoon, the king was carried in a royal palanquin in a procession from the Grand Palace to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, where yellow-clad Thais awaited his arrival, repeatedly chanting, “Long live the king.”
    After 80 Buddhist monks chanted, the king proclaimed himself the Royal Patron of Buddhism: “I will rightfully protect Buddhism forever.”
    Later, King Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida will perform a private housewarming ritual at the royal residence in the Grand Palace where they will stay the night, as previous kings have done, ending the first of the three-day coronation ceremonies.
    In his first speech earlier on Saturday to members of the royal family, the Privy Council, and top government officials, among others, the king called for national unity.
    “I invite everyone here and all Thai people to share my determination and work together, each according to his status and duty, with the nation’s prosperity and the people’s happiness as the ultimate goals,” he said.
    Military junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, the speaker of the army-appointed parliament and the chairman of the Supreme Court – representing the three branches of government – also spoke to express “gratitude” to the king.
    Prayuth is seeking to stay on as an elected prime minister after the first elections since the military seized power five years ago.    Final results of the March 24 vote will be announced after the coronation.
DIVINE MONARCH
    Thai coronation rituals are a mixture of Buddhist and Hindu Brahmin traditions dating back centuries.    One of the many official titles King Vajiralongkorn will take is Rama X, or the 10th king of the Chakri dynasty founded in 1782.
    Saturday’s rituals were about transforming him into a “Devaraja,” or a divine embodiment of the gods.
    The king received the royal golden plaque containing his name and title, the royal horoscope, and the royal seal, which were made in a three-hour ritual last week.
    He also received and put on five articles of the royal regalia from the chief Brahmin.
    The high-reaching crown, which weighs 7.3 kg (16 lb) symbolizes the summit of Mount Meru, the Hindu god Indra’s heavenly abode, and its weight represents the monarch’s royal burden.
    King Vajiralongkorn put the crown on his head himself with the help of court officials, and adjusted it several times during the ceremony.
    Before the crowning ritual, he appeared dressed in white robes as he underwent a purification ritual, sitting under a canopied fountain that poured consecrated waters over his head.
    The country’s Buddhist Supreme Patriarch also poured sacred waters over the king, followed by Brahmin priests and royal family members.    During the ceremonies, the king gave alms to saffron-robed, barefoot monks.
    The monarch also granted Queen Suthida, a former Thai Airways flight attendant and head of his personal bodyguard regiment, her full royal title.
    Outside the palace walls, people in yellow polo shirts sat on roadsides, holding up portraits of the king and the national flag as 19th-century cannons fired to announce the new reign.
    Yellow is the color of Monday, the day the king was born, and the color of the sun, which represents the monarch in the cosmos, according to Thai culture.
    One onlooker, Kanjana Malaithong, told local media she had traveled since 1 a.m. from northern Thailand to witness the ceremony, shown live on big screens outside the palace.
    “I’m so overjoyed … There’ll never be another chance like this, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event,” she said.
    During 18 months of his reign so far, King Vajiralongkorn has moved to consolidate the authority of the monarchy, including taking more direct control of the crown’s vast wealth with the help of Thailand’s military government.
    Thailand ended absolute rule by its kings in 1932, but the monarchy remains highly revered as the divine symbol and protector of the country and Buddhist religion.
(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Kay Johnson, Stephen Coates and Ros Russell)

5/4/2019 Iran to keep enriching uranium despite U.S. move: parliament speaker
FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a meeting with tribal leaders
in Kerbala, Iraq, March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-Deen/File Photo
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran will continue with low-level uranium enrichment in line with its nuclear deal with world powers, Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani was quoted as saying on Saturday, despite a U.S. move to stop it.
    Washington acted on Friday to force Iran to stop producing low-enriched uranium and expanding its only nuclear power plant, intensifying a campaign aimed at halting Tehran’s ballistic missile program and curbing its regional power.
    “Under the (nuclear accord) Iran can produce heavy water, and this is not in violation of the agreement.    Therefore we will carry on with enrichment activity,” the semi-official news agency ISNA quoted Larijani as saying.    The Fars agency carried a similar report.
    Heavy water can be employed in reactors to produce plutonium, a fuel used in nuclear warheads.
    The United States also scrapped its sanctions waiver that had allowed Iran to evade a 300-kg limit on the amount of low-enriched uranium it can store under the nuclear deal at its main nuclear facility of Natanz.
    Washington said the move was aimed at forcing Tehran to end its production of low-enriched uranium, a demand Iran has repeatedly rejected as it says it uses the uranium to help produce electricity.
    Until now, Iran was allowed to ship low-enriched uranium produced at Natanz to Russia before it hit the 300-kg limit, an expert said.
    The United States also said it would no longer waive sanctions that allowed Iran to ship to Oman for storage heavy water produced at its Arak facility beyond a 300-tonne limit set in the 2015 nuclear deal.
    A senior parliamentarian called for talks with Iran’s partners in the nuclear deal and the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure Iran could continue to enrich uranium, ISNA reported.
    “With new sanctions, America wants to slow Iran’s nuclear industry, so new talks should be held with nuclear deal members and the IAEA to approve that Iran can enrich fuel to 20 percent and higher,” Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, head of parliament’s national security committee, was quoted as saying by ISNA.
    Separately, President Hassan Rouhani said live on television on Saturday that Iran must counter U.S. sanctions by continuing to export its oil as well as boosting non-oil exports.
    “America is trying to decrease our foreign reserves … So we have to increase our hard currency income and cut our currency expenditures,” Rouhani said.
    “Last year, we had we non-oil exports of $43 billion.    We should increase production and raise our (non-oil) exports and resist America’s plots against the sale of our oil.”
    Friday’s U.S. move, which Rouhani made no direct reference to, was the third punitive action Washington has taken against Iran in as many weeks.
    Last week, it said it would stop waivers for countries buying Iranian oil, in an attempt to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero.    It also blacklisted Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps.
    The Trump administration’s efforts to impose political and economic isolation on Tehran began last year when it unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal it and other world powers negotiated with Iran in 2015.
(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; editing by John Stonestreet and Hugh Lawson)

5/4/2019 President Trump still confident deal will be reached with North Korea by OAN Newsroom
    President Trump expresses confidence in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, following reports that say the country is testing out new missiles.
People watch a TV showing a file footage of North Korea’s missile launch during a news program at the
Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, May 4, 2019. North Korea on Saturday fired several
unidentified short-range projectiles into the sea off its eastern coast, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said,
a likely sign of Pyongyang’s growing frustration at stalled diplomatic talks with Washington meant to provide coveted
sanctions relief in return for nuclear disarmament. The signs read: ” North Korea fired short-range missiles.” (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
    In a tweet Saturday morning, the president said anything is possible, and he believes Kim realizes North Korea’s economic potential, and will not do anything to interfere with that.
    President Trump also said the chairman doesn’t want to break his promise to him, and that a deal will happen.
    Trump tweet: “Anything in this very interesting world is possible, but I believe that Kim Jong Un fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea, & will do nothing to interfere or end it. He also knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!
    His remarks come amid reports of North Korea testing more nuclear missiles from its east coast Saturday, despite previously agreeing to stop its nuclear ambitions.
    However, the U.S. said it will keep a close eye on the Asian nation.

5/5/2019 North Korean leader Kim oversaw testing of multiple rocket launchers: KCNA by Cynthia Kim and Joyce Lee
North Korean military conducts a "strike drill" for multiple launchers and tactical guided weapon into the East Sea during
a military drill in North Korea, in this May 4, 2019 photo supplied by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has conducted a “strike drill” for multiple launchers, firing tactical guided weapons into the East Sea in a military drill supervised by leader Kim Jong Un on Saturday, the North’s state media reported on Sunday.
    The purpose of the drill was to test performance of “large-caliber long-range multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons by defense units,” the Korean Central News Agency said.
    Photographs released by KCNA showed the tactical guided weapons fired could be a short-range, ground-to-ground ballistic missiles, according to Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at Korea’s Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies.
    While such a missile launch would be in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions, at least it would not involve long-range ballistic missiles that have been seen as a threat to the United States.
    “What was sobering for me was that unexpectedly, there was a photo of short-range, ground-to-ground ballistic missile, otherwise known as the North’s version of Iskander,” said IFE’s Kim.
    The new, solid fuel ballistic missiles can fly as far as 500 kilometers (311 miles), putting the entire Korean Peninsula within its range and are capable of neutralizing the advanced U.S. anti-missile defense system (THAAD) deployed in South Korea, the military analyst said.
    The South Korean defense ministry, however, put the range of weapons fired on Saturday at between 70 to 240 km (44 to 149 miles).
    Giving orders on Saturday for the test firing, North Korean leader Kim stressed the need to “increase the combat ability so as to defend the political sovereignty and economic self-sustenance” of North Korea in the face of threats and invasions, the report said.
    The statement came a day after the test firing, which analysts interpreted as an attempt to exert pressure on Washington to give ground in negotiations to end the North’s nuclear program after a summit in February ended in failure.
    North Korea had maintained a freeze in nuclear and ballistic missiles testing in place since 2017, which U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly pointed out as an important achievement from his engagement with Pyongyang.
    “With North Korea never promising to completely stop all missile testing — it only promised a self-imposed moratorium of testing long-range missiles such as ICBMs that can hit the U.S. homeland — we should not be shocked by North Korea’s short-range launch,” said Harry Kazianis, director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest.
    The latest test firing prompted Seoul to call on its communist neighbor to “stop acts that escalate military tension on the Korean Peninsula” on Saturday, while Trump said in a Twitter post that he was still confident he could have a deal with Kim.
    “I believe that Kim Jong Un fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea, & will do nothing to interfere or end it,” Trump wrote.    “He also knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!
    The projectiles, fired from the east coast city of Wonsan around 9 a.m. (0000 GMT) flew about 70 kms to 200 kms (44-124 miles) in a north-easterly direction, South Korea’s Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement on Saturday.
    The South Korean military initially described it as a missile launch, but subsequently gave a vaguer description and said it was conducting joint analysis with the United States of the latest launches.
    “Yes, the tests were the most serious since the end of 2017, but this is largely a warning to Trump that he could lose the talks unless Washington takes partial denuclearization steps offered by Kim,” said Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.    “A resumption of long-range test could be next unless Kim gets what he wants soon.”
    Talks stalled after a second summit between Kim and Trump in Hanoi in February failed to produce a deal to end Pyongyang’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.
    North Korea demanded Washington to lift the U.S.-led sanctions in return for a partial dismantling of its nuclear weapons program, while the United States wanted the quick rollback of the North’s entire nuclear weapons program.
    The North’s last missile launch was in November 2017, when it tested an intercontinental ballistic missile.    Soon after that missile test, the North declared that its nuclear force was complete, after which Pyongyang extended an olive branch to the South and the United States.
(Reporting by Cynthia Kim and Joyce Lee; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Leslie Adler & Simon Cameron-Moore)

5/5/2019 Iran using all resources to sell oil in ‘grey market’: deputy minister
FILE PHOTO: Gas flares from an oil production platform at the Soroush oil fields in the Persian Gulf,
south of the capital Tehran, July 25, 2005. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/File Photo
    DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran has mobilized all its resources to sell oil in a “grey market,” bypassing U.S. sanctions that Tehran sees as illegitimate, state media quoted Deputy Oil Minister Amir Hossein Zamaninia as saying on Sunday.
    The United States, which last year withdrew from a 2015 Iran nuclear deal with world powers, has told buyers of Iranian oil to stop purchases by May 1 or face sanctions.
    Iran says it will continue to export oil in defiance of U.S. sanctions, part of a campaign by Washington aimed at halting Tehran’s ballistic missile program and curbing its regional power.
    “We have mobilized all of the country’s resources and are selling oil in the ‘gray market’,” state news agency IRNA quoted Zamaninia as saying.
    Zamaninia gave no details about the “gray market,” but Iran is widely reported to have sold oil at steep discounts and often through private firms during sanctions earlier this decade.
    “We certainly won’t sell 2.5 million barrels per day as under the (nuclear deal),” Zamaninia said, giving no figures for current sales.
    “We will need to make serious decisions about our financial and economic management, and the government is working on that.”
    “This is not smuggling. This is countering sanctions which we do not see as just or legitimate,” Zamaninia said.
(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Dale Hudson)

5/6/2019 Sri Lanka police discover suspected training camp for Islamist militants by Alexandra Ulmer and Omar Rajarathnam
A police officer stands inside a training camp allegedly linked to Islamist militants
in Kattankudy, near Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, May 5, 2019. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
    KATTANKUDY (Reuters) – Sri Lankan police on Sunday discovered a 10-acre camp in the eastern town of Kattankudy, where Islamist militants linked to the deadly Easter attacks are believed to have practiced shooting and bombmaking.
    The walled terrain is nestled in a poor residential area on the outskirts of the home town of Zahran Hashim, who is believed to have been a key player in plotting the April 21 attacks.    Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the church and hotel bombings that killed more than 250 people.
    The narrow, sandy plot is dotted with a cinderblock four-storey watchtower, as well as mango trees, a chicken coop and a goat shed.
    “They wanted to show this place was normal.    If someone comes to see, it looks like a farm.    But what they were doing is terrorism,” said a senior police officer in the Batticaloa area, asking to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to media.
    Police found bullet holes in the wall on one side of the grounds, as well as long tubes suspected of holding bombs, the officer said.
    Two owners of the plot of land have been arrested, the officer said.
(Reporting by Reporting By Alexandra Ulmer and Omar Rajarathnam in KATTANKUDY, additional reporting by Shihar Aneez in COLOMBO; Editing by A. Ananthalakshmi and David Goodman)

5/7/2019 Sri Lanka says dismantles big part of bombers’ network, freezes assets by Ranga Sirilal
A policeman stands guard outside the sealed office of National Tawheed Jamaath (NTJ), a
banned Islamist group in Kattankudy, Sri Lanka, May 6, 2019. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
    COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lankan authorities say they have dismantled a major part of the network linked to the Easter Sunday bombings, confiscating bomb-making material and freezing assets worth about $40 million linked to the plotters.
    In an audio statement issued by the defense ministry on Monday, acting police chief Chandana Wickramaratne said almost all suspects and plotters involved in the April 21 attacks had either been arrested or were dead.
    "There were also two people among that group of plotters who are experts in bombs and those two are dead now,” Wickramarate said.    “They had stored part of the explosives for future attacks and we have confiscated all of this.”
    Investigators are still tracking down 10 more key players associated with plotting the bombings, which killed more than 250 people, including 42 foreigners, a military source told Reuters on Tuesday.
    “The investigations show there were another 8 to 10 people who attended meetings with the other plotters,” the source said.
    Assets worth about $40 million belonging to the bombers and plotters linked to the April 21 attacks have been frozen, police spokesman Ruwan Gunesekera said.
    Sri Lankan authorities have said the bombings were believed to have been carried out by two little-known domestic Islamist groups, the National Tawheed Jamaath (NTJ) and Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim (JMI). Islamic State has claimed responsibility.
    Investigators from eight countries, including the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Interpol, are helping Sri Lanka with the investigation.
    In focus are whether the plotters had any foreign help, the sources of funding and if the bombers had any credible link to Islamic State.
    Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena told Reuters over the weekend that all indications pointed to Islamic State involvement.
(Reporting by Ranga Sirilal and Shri Navaratnam; Editing by Peter Graff and Clarence Fernandez)

5/7/2019 Exclusive: Analysts – Images show construction on China’s third – and largest – aircraft carrier by Greg Torode and Ben Blanchard
A satellite image shows what appears to be the construction of a third Chinese aircraft carrier at the
Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, China April 17, 2019. CSIS/ChinaPower/Maxar Technologies 2019/Handout via REUTERS
    HONG KONG/BEIJING(Reuters) – Construction of China’s first full-sized aircraft carrier is well under way, according to satellite images obtained and analyzed by a U.S. think tank.
    The images from April, provided to Reuters by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, reveal considerable recent activity during the last six months on a large vessel at the Jiangnan shipyard outside Shanghai.
    China has not formally confirmed it is building a third carrier, despite recent hints in state media, and the timing and extent of its carrier program remain state secrets.
    The Pentagon said last week that work had begun, but no images have emerged until now.
    Both Asian and Western militaries, and regional security analysts, are seeking information on the carrier, which is expected to be China’s first large, modern platform capable of leading a full range of strike group operations.
    The effort to build a large, locally designed carrier is seen as a core part of China’s extensive military modernization drive.    A series of recent Reuters Special Reports showed how that effort is challenging decades of U.S. strategic superiority in East Asia. (Click this link to read the series: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/section/china-army)
    The CSIS images show a bow section that appears to end with a flat 30-metre (98-foot) front and a separate hull section 41 meters wide, with gantry cranes looming overhead.
    That suggests a vessel, which China has dubbed Type 002, somewhat smaller than 100,000-tonne U.S. carriers but larger than France’s 42,500-tonne Charles de Gaulle, analysts say.
    Fabrication halls the size of several soccer pitches have been built nearby, and work appears to be continuing on a floodable basin, possibly to float the finished hull into the nearby Yangtze River estuary.
    “While details regarding the Type 002 are limited, what is observable at Jiangnan is consistent with what is expected for the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s third aircraft carrier,” said the CSIS’ ChinaPower analysis, published on its website Tuesday.
    CSIS analyst Matthew Funaiole told Reuters that images taken late last year were inconclusive, but that now the work under way is clear.
    “From what we can see there has been a lot of activity in the last six months or so,” he said.    “It would appear that it is the third carrier, and if it is not, it’s hard to envisage what other large vessel it would be.”
    The Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military modernization, issued last Friday, noted that the third carrier would probably be larger than the first two and fitted with a catapult launch system to accelerate aircraft during takeoff.
    “This design will enable it to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early-warning aircraft, and more rapid flight operations,” the report said.
    Funaiole and other analysts said it was unclear what kind of catapult – traditional steam-powered or a more cutting-edge electromagnetic system – would be used.
    It also remains unclear whether the Type 002 would be nuclear-powered.    China has 10 nuclear-powered submarines, but so far no surface ships with nuclear propulsion; some analysts think China is not ready to make that step.
    Singapore-based regional security analyst Ian Storey said a full-sized carrier would make some of China’s neighbors nervous and highlight the importance of their strategic relationship with the United States.
    “Once completed, it will outclass any warship from any Asian country, including India and Japan,” said Storey, of the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.    “It is yet another indication that China has emerged as Asia’s paramount naval power.”
    China’s first two carriers are relatively small, with only up to 25 aircraft, less than half the number aboard U.S. carriers, and have jump ramps built into their bows.    That configuration limits not just the types of aircraft that can fly off them, but how much weaponry and fuel they can carry.
    Its first carrier, the Liaoning, was a Soviet-era Ukrainian ship bought secondhand in 1998 and re-fitted in China.    A still-unnamed second carrier based on that design, launched in 2017, was built locally.
    The Liaoning had been seen as more of a training platform for teaching personnel the tricky art of carrier operations.    But last month, Chinese state media said the ship “is starting to play a combat role following recent modifications and intensive training exercises.”
    The second carrier has been undergoing sea trials from its base in northern Dalian and is not expected to enter service until 2020.
    China’s state media have quoted experts as saying China needs at least six carriers.    The United States operates 11 carriers.
    China’s Ministry of Defence did not respond to a request for comment.
(Reporting By Greg Torode in Hong Kong and Ben Blanchard in Beijing. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

5/7/2019 Seoul urges North Korea to halt military action, says missile tests escalate tensions by OAN Newsroom
    Seoul is urging caution to North Korea, following Pyongyang’s recent series of missile tests.    In a statement Tuesday, South Korea confirmed the launches of several short-range projectiles in North Korea over the weekend.
    The North Korean Central News Agency has claimed the test was a strike drill intended to increase the country’s combat ability in order to defend their sovereignty.
FILE – This Saturday, May 4, 2019, file photo provided by the North Korean government shows a test of weapon systems, in North
Korea. North Korea’s test of what appears to be new short-range ballistic missile may not have been a direct threat to the United States,
but experts warn it’s almost certainly an omen of bigger problems on the horizon. Independent journalists were not given access to cover
the event depicted in this image distributed by the North Korean government. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)
    South Korea’s defense ministry has since called on the north to stop all actions that heighten tensions on the peninsula.
    “We are very concerned about North Korea’s action, which goes against the purpose of 19th of September Military Agreement,” stated Choi Hyun Soo, spokesperson for the South Korean Defense Ministry.    “We urge North Korea to stop action that intensifies military tension on the Korean Peninsula.”
    In the meantime, the Trump administration is remaining optimistic about a potential nuclear deal with Pyongyang.
    Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the missile launches did not present a threat to the U.S. or its allies and won’t derail diplomacy talks.

5/8/2019 Report: Iran prepares to withdraw from parts of nuclear deal
    TEHRAN, Iran – Iran on Wednesday will announce it is partially withdrawing from the nuclear deal it struck with world powers, a year to the day that President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. from the accord.    The terms of the withdrawal remain unclear, though the IRNA news agency said President Hassan Rouhani will explain Iran’s decision in letters to leaders of Britain, France and Germany that will be handed to ambassadors in Tehran. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif separately will write to the European Union.

5/8/2019 Iran rolls back pledges under nuclear pact abandoned by Washington by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin
FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a meeting with tribal leaders
in Kerbala, Iraq, March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-Deen/File Photo
    LONDON (Reuters) – Iran announced on Wednesday it was scaling back curbs to its nuclear program under a 2015 deal with world powers, and threatened to do more — including enriching uranium to a higher level — if countries did not shield it from U.S. sanctions.
    A year after Washington pulled out of the nuclear deal, President Hassan Rouhani unveiled measures that do not appear to violate its terms yet, but could do so in the future if Iran were to persist on the course he set out.
    Rouhani said Tehran would halt sales of excess enriched uranium and heavy water to other countries.    Such sales, used to keep Iran’s own stockpiles below caps under the deal, were already effectively blocked by a U.S. sanctions move last week.
    And he threatened that in 60 days Iran would resume enrichment of uranium beyond the low level permitted under the deal, unless the five other powers signed up to it found a way to protect Iran’s oil and banking industries from U.S. sanctions.
    “If the five countries came to the negotiating table and we reached an agreement, and if they could protect our interests in the oil and banking sectors, we will go back to square one,” Rouhani said.
    “The Iranian people and the world should know that today is not the end of the JCPOA,” he said, using the acronym for the nuclear deal.    “These are actions in line with the JCPOA.”
    The 2015 deal was signed between Iran, the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.    Iran agreed to curbs on its nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.
    Washington’s European allies opposed President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out and have tried to find ways to blunt the impact of new U.S. sanctions, in the hope of persuading Tehran to continue to abide by it.
    However, their efforts have largely failed, with all major European companies abandoning plans to do business with Iran for fear of U.S. punishment.
    France’s defense minister said she wanted to keep the deal alive, and Iran could face more sanctions if it did not honor it: “Today nothing would be worse than Iran, itself, leaving this agreement,” Florence Parly told BFM TV.
    The Kremlin blamed Washington for provoking Iran’s move.    Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin had predicted consequences from the “unthought-out steps” of U.S. withdrawal.    “Now we are seeing those consequences.”
    China said the agreement should be implemented and called on all sides to avoid an escalation of tensions.
TENSIONS
    The weeks leading up to the anniversary of Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement have seen a sharp tightening of U.S. sanctions and an increase in tensions on other fronts.
    From this month, Washington has effectively ordered countries around the world to stop buying any Iranian oil or face sanctions of their own.    It has revoked waivers that had allowed some countries to continue buying Iranian oil and it aims to reduce Iranian crude exports to zero.
    Washington has also blacklisted Iran’s Revolutionary Guards force as a terrorist organization and Iran responded with threats to close the Gulf’s strait of Hormuz if its ships were blocked there.
    Washington announced the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Gulf to counter what it says are Iranian threats.    Tehran says the USS Abraham Lincoln is replacing another carrier that had already left the area under a scheduled rotation, and calls the announcement “psychological warfare” based on old news.
    The looming total ban on oil sales is likely to sharply increase the economic hardship for Iran’s 80 million people.    Finding a response is the biggest test yet for Rouhani, a pragmatist who has faced strong opposition from the hardline faction of Iran’s leadership throughout his six years in office.
    The nuclear deal was the flagship policy of Rouhani, who won two landslide elections on promises to end Iran’s isolation and open its economy up to the world.    Ultimate authority in Iran is in the hands of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, a cleric in power since 1989, who signed off on the nuclear deal but remains close to the hardline faction that challenges Rouhani.
    Washington’s European allies say Trump’s repudiation of the deal hurts the pragmatic wing of Iran’s leadership and plays into the hands of hardliners.    It means ordinary Iranians see no economic benefits from Rouhani’s efforts to open the country.
    The Trump administration argues that the deal, negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama, was flawed because it is not permanent, does not address Iran’s missile program and does not punish Iran for meddling in the affairs of other countries.
    Trump’s hard line is backed by Israel and Washington’s Gulf Arab allies, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which see Iran as a foe and which gain leverage over global oil prices by keeping Iranian crude off the market.
    Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted: “After a year of patience, Iran stops measures that US has made impossible to continue.”    Zarif said the remaining countries had a “narrowing window” to save the deal.
(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; by Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Sophie Louet in Paris; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Jon Boyle)

5/8/2019 Explosion shakes Afghan capital, no word on casualties
Smoke rises from the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan May 8, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
    KABUL (Reuters) – An explosion shook an upscale area of the Afghan capital on Wednesday, the third day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, sending a cloud of smoke and dust into the sky, Reuters witnesses said, but it was not clear if there were any casualties.
    Security around Kabul has been tight since Taliban militants announced their annual spring offensive and the group vowed to target Afghan government and foreign installations.
    Interior Ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said the blast was in the Shahr Naw area of Kabul, but he had no details on casualties.
    Rahimi added there was sporadic gunfire in the area.
    Qais Zaman, a witness, said the site of the explosion was close to the Attorney General’s office.    The area was cordoned off as ambulances and police trucks rushed to the scene.
    The blast comes just over two weeks after gunmen targeted the communications ministry in central Kabul, killing at least seven people.    That attack was claimed by Islamic State.
(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Writing by Hamid Shalizi, Editing by Robert Birsel)

5/8/2019 Iran threatens to begin enriching stores of uranium by OAN Newsroom
    The U.S. is on high alert as Iran begins to distance itself from parts of the Obama-era nuclear deal.    Iranian President Hassan Rouhani outlined the terms of a partial withdrawal Wednesday.
    The Iranian leader threatened to begin enriching his stores of uranium if the remaining countries in the deal refuse to help Iran find relief for its sanctioned oil and banking sectors.    The enriching process could put Iran on track to developing nuclear weapons.
    Last week marked the end to waivers, which allowed some countries to continue buying limited amounts of sanctioned Iranian oil.
    “The Americans will see for themselves that over the next few months we will continue to export our oil…there are six other doors available and the Americans don’t know it,” stated Rouhani.    “We have to export our oil by all means possible within our power and stand up against them — the Americans.”
In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani heads a cabinet meeting
in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, May 8, 2019. Rouhani said Wednesday that it will begin keeping its excess uranium and heavy water from its
nuclear program, setting a 60-day deadline for new terms to its nuclear deal with world powers before it will resume higher uranium enrichment. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
    The Iranian president also pulled out of a planned deal to sell off excess uranium from its nuclear power sector.    He set a 60-day deadline for the leaders of Britain, China, France, Germany and the EU to negotiate better terms for the deal.
    This comes one-year after President Trump pulled out of the Iran Nuclear Deal and reinstated sanctions on Iran.

5/9/2019 Iran’s ‘surgery’ cuts compliance on nuclear deal by Kim Hjelmgaard and Deirdre Shesgreen, USA TODAY
    Iran’s president announced Wednesday that the nation would stop complying with two provisions in the nuclear accord it signed with world powers.
    Hassan Rouhani said Iran would reduce its compliance with the 2015 deal in response to new restrictions imposed by the Trump administration, part of a broader U.S. campaign to ratchet up economic and military pressure on Tehran.    Iran’s declaration came on the oneyear anniversary of President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.
    Rouhani said Iran will keep excess low-enriched uranium and “heavy water” from its nuclear program inside the country – as opposed to selling it internationally – in a move that effectively amounts to a partial breach of the deal.
    The Trump administration said last week it would sanction any country or business that purchased those products from Iran.
    Rouhani set a 60-day deadline for new terms to the nuclear accord, absent negotiations with the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and the European Union.    He said that if those terms aren’t met, Iran will resume higher uranium enrichment, the process that creates nuclear fuel.
    “We felt that the nuclear deal needs a surgery, and the painkiller pills of the last year have been ineffective,” Rouhani said in a nationally televised address.    “This surgery is for saving the deal, not destroying it.”
    American officials slapped yet more economic penalties on Iran Wednesday.    The White House announced sanctions barring Iran from exporting iron, steel, aluminum and copper, which it said were the regime’s largest non-petroleum- related sources of export revenue.
    Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran and senior policy adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said Iran intends to expand its nuclear weapons program.    “That is in defiance of international norms and yet another attempt by the regime at nuclear blackmail,” he said.
    “The U.S. has tried to bring Iran to its knees with its maximum pressure campaign in a minimum amount of time, and for about a year, the Iranians demonstrated restraint and remained committed to their obligations under the nuclear deal,” said Ali Vaez,     Iran project director at the Crisis Group, a nonpartisan group focused on preventing conflict.
    “But they have increasingly less to lose because the U.S. sanctions have effectively deprived them of all the benefits that the nuclear deal promised,” Vaez said.
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook
President Hassan Rouhani says Iran will store low-enriched uranium and “heavy water.” EPA-EFE

5/9/2019 Europeans reject “ultimatums” from Iran as it eases nuclear curbs
FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Feb. 14 2019. Sergei Chirikov/File Photo
    BERLIN (Reuters) – European countries said on Thursday they wanted to preserve Iran’s nuclear deal and rejected “ultimatums” from Tehran, after Iran scaled back curbs on its nuclear program and threatened moves that might breach the pact.
    Iran announced steps on Wednesday to ease curbs on its nuclear program, in response to new U.S. sanctions imposed after Washington abandoned the deal a year ago.
    Experts say the new moves announced by Tehran so far are not likely to violate the terms of the deal immediately.
    But President Hassan Rouhani said that unless world powers find a way to protect Iran’s banking and oil industries from U.S. sanctions within 60 days, Iran would start enriching uranium beyond limits allowed in the deal.
    “We reject any ultimatums and we will assess Iran’s compliance on the basis of Iran’s performance regarding its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA and the NPT,” read a statement issued jointly by the European Union and the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany.
    The JCPOA refers to the 2015 nuclear deal, and the NPT refers to the non-proliferation treaty that bans countries from developing nuclear weapons.
    They also said they regretted the re-imposition of sanctions by the United States and added that they remained committed to preserving and fully implementing the Iran nuclear deal.
    “We are determined to continue pursuing efforts to enable the continuation of legitimate trade with Iran,” said the European states, adding that included getting a special purpose vehicle aimed at enabling business with Iran off the ground.
    The 2015 nuclear deal requires Iran to curb its nuclear program in return for the elimination of international sanctions.    It was signed by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
HARDLINERS
    The administration of President Donald Trump abandoned the agreement a year ago and imposed U.S. sanctions, which it has ratchetted up this month, effectively ordering all countries to halt all purchases of Iranian oil or face their own sanctions.
    Washington’s European allies have opposed the U.S. decision to abandon the nuclear deal, which they say plays into the hands of hardliners in Iran and undermines pragmatists within the Iranian leadership who want to open the country up to the world.
    They have tried to develop a system to allow outside investors to do business with Iran while avoiding falling foul of U.S. sanctions.    But in practice this has failed so far, with all major European companies that had announced plans to invest in Iran saying they would no longer do so.
    Iran has always denied that it was seeking a nuclear weapon, but the United Nations concluded Tehran had been doing so before 2003.
    Tehran says it wants to abide by the nuclear deal but cannot do so if its economy is still subjected to sanctions.    A spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation said on Thursday Tehran’s goal was to bring the agreement “back on track.”
    Supporters of the nuclear deal, including Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama and European allies, say the pact extends the time it would take Iran to make a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so, and guarantees that it would be caught.
    Lifting sanctions would show ordinary Iranians the benefits of cooperating with the world and make it harder for hardliners to roll back reforms, they argue.
    The Trump administration argues that the nuclear deal was flawed because it is not permanent, does not address Iran’s missile program and does not punish Iran for what Washington considers meddling in regional countries.
    Trump’s hardline stance is supported by Israel and by Arab allies of the United States such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which consider Iran a foe and gain leverage over global oil prices from having its exports taken off the market.
    For a graphic on Iran’s nuclear program, click on https://tmsnrt.rs/2WqRqfI
(Reporting by Madeline Chambers and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, Writing by Peter Graff, Editing by William Maclean)

5/9/2019 Christian woman who was on death row has left country, Pakistan says by Asif Shahzad
FILE PHOTO: Governor of the Punjab Province Salman Taseer is reflected as he speaks to the media after meeting
with Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy, at a jail in Sheikhupura,
located in Pakistan's Punjab Province November 20, 2010. REUTERS/Asad Karim/File Photo
    ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan on Thursday provided its first official confirmation that Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who spent eight years on death row falsely charged with blasphemy, had left the country more than six months after being acquitted by the Supreme Court.
    The case created an international furor in October, after her release prompted days of rioting and demands for her death from hardline Islamists who rejected the outcome and warned Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government not to let her leave.
    “Asia Bibi has left Pakistan of her free will,” foreign office spokesman Mohammad Faisal told reporters in Islamabad, the capital.    “She is a free person and left of her own free will.”
    Faisal did not confirm media reports that she had joined family members in Canada, however.
    On Wednesday, Bibi’s lawyer Saif-ul-Malook said she had left for Canada to unite with her daughters, who were believed to have already taken asylum there but Canadian authorities have not confirmed this.
    In November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada was in talks with Pakistan about helping Bibi.    This week, Canada said it had no comment on the matter, however.
    Pakistan’s Supreme Court in January upheld an earlier verdict to free Bibi, but officials have worried that her sudden departure could trigger further riots.
    Islamists have been criticizing the government and the military for caving in to what they call pressure from the West.
    Bibi’s departure is a Western conspiracy against Islam, a hardline extremist party, Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, which has made blasphemy a rallying cry, said in a statement on Wednesday.
    The farm worker and mother of five was convicted in 2010 of making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors working in the fields with her objected to Bibi’s drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.
    Two Pakistani politicians who sought to help her were assassinated, including Punjab province governor Salman Taseer, who was shot by his own bodyguard.
    Any insult to Islam or the Prophet Muhammad carries a death sentence in Pakistan, although no one has been executed in decades.
    Blasphemy is such a sensitive issue that a mere accusation can result in mob lynching. At least 67 people have been killed over unproven blasphemy accusations since 1990, human rights groups say.
    The blasphemy laws are often invoked to settle personal scores and to intimidate liberal journalists, lawyers and politicians.
(Writing by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

5/9/2019 U.S., Japan, India and Philippines challenge Beijing with naval drills in the South China Sea
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell during a divisional tactics exercise in the
South China Sea, January 15, 2019. Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Harris/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS
    TOKYO (Reuters) – In fresh show of naval force in the contested South China Sea, a U.S. guided missile destroyer conducted drills with a Japanese aircraft carrier, two Indian naval ships and a Philippine patrol vessel in the waterway claimed by China, the U.S. Navy said on Thursday.
    While similar exercises have been held in the South China Sea in the past, the combined display by four countries represents a fresh challenge to Beijing as U.S. President Donald Trump threatens to hike tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods.
    “Professional engagements with our allies, partners and friends in the region are opportunities to build upon our existing, strong relationships,” Commander Andrew J. Klug, the captain of the U.S. destroyer, the USS William P. Lawrence, said in a statement.
    Japan sent one of its two big aircraft carriers, the Izumo, while India deployed a destroyer, the INS Kolkata, and a tanker, the INS Shakti.
    The week of joint drills, which ended Wednesday, comes after two other U.S. warships sailed near islands in the region claimed by China on Monday, prompting a protest from Beijing, which said the action infringed its sovereignty.
    The U.S. Navy says it conducts such freedom of navigation operations in international waters around the world, even in seas claimed by its allies, without political considerations.
    China claims almost all of the strategic South China Sea with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam pushing competing claims to parts of the maritime region.    The United States, Japan and India do not have any territorial claims there.
    In a separate challenge to Beijing in Asian waters, the USS William P. Lawrence and another U.S. destroyer sailed through the Taiwan Strait in April separating Taiwan, which Beijing views as a rogue province, from the Chinese mainland.
(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Michael Perry)

5/9/2019 China says ‘fed up’ with hearing U.S. complaints on Belt and Road
FILE PHOTO: A Belt and Road Forum (BRF) logo is seen outside the China National Convention Center
in Beijing, China, April 25, 2019. REUTERS/Jason
    BEIJING (Reuters) – China is “fed up” with hearing complaints from the United States about its Belt and Road program to re-create the old Silk Road, the government said on Thursday, following stinging criticism from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
    The initiative, a key thrust of President Xi Jinping’s administration, has hit opposition in some countries over fears its opaque financing could lead to unsustainable debt and that it aims more to promote Chinese influence than development.
    China sought to tackle those concerns at a summit in Beijing last month, promising to make the program sustainable and green and follow international standards, especially regarding debt.
    The United States has been particularly critical, and Pompeo, speaking in London on Wednesday, slammed China for peddling “corrupt infrastructure deals in exchange for political influence” and using “bribe-fuelled debt-trap diplomacy.”
    In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said various people in the United States had been making “irresponsible comments” on the program, especially before the summit when, he said, such criticism reached a crescendo.
    “But what was the result?    One hundred and fifty countries, 92 international organizations and more than 6,000 delegates from various countries attended the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, including 50 delegates from the United States,” Geng told reporters.
    “I think this is the international community taking actual actions to cast a vote of confidence and support in the Belt and Road initiative, and the best response to the words and actions of the United States.”
    In the past two days, some Americans have been “singing the same old tune,” seeking to attack and smear the program, he added.
    “They’re not fed up with saying it; we’re fed up with hearing it,” he said.
    “I want to remind them again, don’t overestimate your ability to create rumors, and don’t underestimate the judgment of others.    If they want to, let them continue talking.    We will continue getting on with things.”
    The spat has fueled already tense relations between Beijing and Washington, most notably over their trade war, which the two countries have been seeking to end.
    Vice Premier Liu He will hold talks in Washington on Thursday and Friday aimed at salvaging a deal that appeared to be unraveling after U.S. officials accused China of backtracking on earlier commitments and President Donald Trump threatened to hike tariffs on Chinese goods on Friday.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

5/9/2019 China threatens retaliation if tariffs increase by OAN Newsroom
    Beijing is threatening to take retaliatory measures against the U.S. if it goes through with raising tariffs on imported Chinese goods.    The Chinese Ministry of Commerce issued the warning in a statement Wednesday.
    Ministry spokesperson Gao Feng said Beijing is prepared to implement countermeasures if trade frictions escalate.    Despite this, the White House appears to be standing by its decision to slap 25-percent tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods on Friday.
FILE- In this March 5, 2019, file photo the Cape Kortia container ship, left, heads into the
Port of Tacoma in Commencement Bay in Tacoma, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
    “China hopes the United States meets China half way and resolves problems through dialog rather than unilateral steps, stated Feng.    Our goal is to reach a mutual beneficial deal based on mutual respect and treating each other equally…China is fully prepared, determined and capable of defending its legal rights.”
    The Chinese vice premier is headed to Washington Thursday for the next round of trade negotiations.

5/9/2019 U.S. seizes North Korean cargo ship for violating international sanctions by OAN Newsroom
    A North Korean cargo ship used to transport coal has been seized by the U.S. for violating international sanctions.
    The Department of Justice recently announced that the rogue regime was concealing the origin of the vessel, called the ‘Wise Honest,’ which was used to deliver coal in exchange for machinery since November 2016.    It’s Pyongyang’s largest bulk carrier, and the first to be seized by the U.S. for violating sanctions.
    The U.S. then issued a warning to the rogue regime and anyone who helps it, saying they will be caught if it happens again.
This undated photo released by the U.S. Justice Dept, Thursday, May 9, 2019, shows the North Korean cargo ship Wise Honest. The Trump administration
says it has seized a North Korean cargo ship that U.S. officials say was used to transport coal in violation of international sanctions.
    President Trump weighed in on the deteriorating relationship with North Korea during an event at the White House Thursday:
    “Well, we’re looking at it very seriously right now.    They were smaller missiles, short-range missiles…nobody’s happy about it, but we’re taking a good look and we’ll see.    The relationship continues, but we’ll see what happens.    I know they want to negotiate.    They’re talking about negotiating, but I don’t think they’re ready to negotiate.”
    This comes amid reports another missile was fired out of North Korea.

5/10/2019 Exclusive: U.S. commander says he could send carrier into Strait of Hormuz despite Iran tensions by Phil Stewart
U.S. aircraft carrier the USS Abraham Lincoln is pictured while it travels through the Suez Canal
in Egypt May 9, 2019 in this picture obtained from social media. Bud Kinsey/via REUTERS
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The commander overseeing U.S. naval forces in the Middle East told Reuters on Thursday that American intelligence showing a threat from Iran will not prevent him from sending an aircraft carrier through the vital Strait of Hormuz, if needed.
    Vice Admiral Jim Malloy, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet, did not say whether he would send the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group into the strategic waterway off Iran, through which passes a fifth of oil consumed globally.
    The group, whose deployment to the Middle East was fast-tracked by President Donald Trump’s administration as a warning to Iran, transited through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea on Thursday and was now under Malloy’s command.
    “If I need to bring it inside the strait, I will do so,” Malloy said in an interview by phone.    “I’m not restricted in any way, I’m not challenged in any way, to operate her anywhere in the Middle East.”
    Iran has dismissed the U.S. contention of a threat as “fake intelligence.”    Tensions have risen between Tehran and Washington since the Trump administration withdrew a year ago from a 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran and began ratcheting up sanctions to throttle the Islamic Republic’s economy.
    The Pentagon said it expedited the Lincoln’s deployment and sent bombers to the Middle East after U.S. intelligence signaled possible preparations by Tehran to stage attacks against U.S. forces or interests.    Malloy said the intelligence was linked “with actual activity that we observed
.”
    “And that was certainly enough for me … to say that we saw this as a threat,” he said.
    U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say one of the pieces of intelligence indicated Iran had moved missiles on boats.    One of the officials said the particular missile observed was perhaps capable of launching from a small ship.
    The officials also noted growing concerns about the threat from Iran-backed Shi’ite militia in Iraq, which have long avoided any confrontation with U.S. troops under the shared goal of defeating Islamic State, a Sunni militant organization.
    Malloy, whose naval forces would support efforts to defend U.S. troops throughout the region, did not enter into details on the U.S. intelligence.    But he confirmed that some of the U.S. concerns centered on Iranian missiles.
    “It might be a new fielding of technology by Iran,” Malloy said, adding the weaponry “falls under the category of destabilizing and offensive in nature.”
‘NOT IN A WAR-PLAN FOOTING’
    The nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers required Tehran to curb its uranium enrichment capacity to head off any pathway to developing a nuclear bomb, in return for the removal of most international sanctions.    Iran has always said it pursued a nuclear program for peaceful purposes only.
    In the past month, the U.S. designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) as a terrorist organization and increased sanctions pressure, with an explicit goal of slashing Iran’s oil exports to zero.
    Beyond the deployment of the Lincoln, the United States also dispatched B-52 bombers to the Middle East in response and is also weighing the redeployment of Patriot missiles after pulling several out of the region last year, officials said.
    Some of Trump’s critics fear the White House is intentionally provoking Iran.    Although the military sought the deployments, the announcement itself came in a statement from White House national security adviser John Bolton – a hawk on Iran policy.
    Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat, said he worried “that the Trump administration is leading us toward an unnecessary war.”
    Malloy, in his first interview since the IRGC designation, confirmed that U.S. forces were operating at a heightened state of readiness.    Still, Malloy stressed that the U.S. military was not seeking or preparing for war with Iran.
    “I am not in a war-plan footing and have not been tasked to do so,” Malloy said.    “However we are absolutely ready to respond to any aggression against the United States, partners in the region, or our interests.”
    Trump also reaffirmed that message on Thursday, saying he did not want conflict.
    “We have one of the most powerful ships in the world that is loaded up and we don’t want to do anything,” Trump told reporters.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)

5/10/2019 Muslims afraid, resentful as ethnic divide deepens in Sri Lanka by A. Ananthalakshmi and Ranga Sirilal
Muslims pray inside a mosque in Kattankudy, Sri Lanka, May 4, 2019. Picture taken May 4, 2019. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
    RATHMALYAYA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) – N.K. Masliya says she has been visiting a neighborhood clinic in the northwestern Sri Lankan village of Rathmalyaya for over five years, always dressed in a black abaya – a cloak-like over-garment worn by some Muslim women.
    But when Masliya went to the clinic nearly three weeks after Islamic militants killed over 250 people in churches and hotels across the country, she said things had changed.
    The 36-year-old said she was in a queue with her five-year-old daughter when a nurse told her to remove her abaya, saying: “What if you blow us up with your bomb?
    Muslim groups say they have received dozens of complaints from across Sri Lanka about people from the community being harassed at workplaces, including government offices, hospitals and in public transport since the Easter Sunday attacks.
    The government has blamed the attacks on two little-known radical Islamic groups.    Islamic State has claimed responsibility.
    In the city of Negombo, where over 100 people were killed at the St. Sebastian’s Church during Easter prayers, many Pakistani refugees said they fled after threats of revenge from locals.
    Now, anger against Muslims seems to be spreading.    On Sunday, a violent clash erupted between local Muslims and Christians after a traffic dispute.
    “The suspicion towards them (Muslims) can grow and there can be localized attacks,” said Jehan Perera of non-partisan advocacy group, the National Peace Council.    “That would be the danger.”
    A ban on facial veils and house-to-house searches by security forces in Muslim-majority neighborhoods across the country have added to the distrust.
    The government says it is aware of tensions between communities and is closely monitoring the situation.
    “The government is consciously in dialogue with all the religious leaders and the community leaders,” Nalaka Kaluwewa, Sri Lanka’s director general of information, told Reuters, adding that security has been increased across the country to avoid any communal tensions.
BUDDHIST HARDLINERS
    Muslims make up nearly 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 22 million, which is predominantly Buddhist.    The Indian Ocean island was torn for decades by a civil war between separatists from the mostly Hindu Tamil minority and the Sinhala Buddhist-dominated government.
    The government stamped out the rebellion about 10 years ago.
    In recent years, Buddhist hardliners, led by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or “Buddhist Power Force,” have stoked hostility against Muslims, saying influences from the Middle East had made Sri Lanka’s Muslims more conservative and isolated.
    Last year, scores of Muslim mosques, homes and businesses were destroyed as Buddhist mobs ran amok for three days in Kandy, the central highlands district previously known for its diversity and tolerance.
    The violence in Kandy was triggered by an attack on a Buddhist truck driver by four Muslim men after a traffic dispute.    The driver later died from the injuries.
    BBS’ chief executive Dilantha Vithanage said as successive Sri Lankan governments had failed to address what he called a rise in Islamic extremism, Sri Lankans might be forced to do it on their own.
    “This is a bigger danger than Tamil separatism,” Vithanage told Reuters.
    Sri Lanka’s junior defense minister, Ruwan Wijewardene, told Reuters the government was taking measures to curb radicalization but conceded that communal tensions were a big concern.
BOYCOTTING BUSINESSES
    In Batticaloa, an eastern city home mainly to Christians and Hindus and where a bomber from a neighboring town attacked an evangelical church on Easter, a Tamil group has called for a boycott of Muslim-run businesses.
    The alleged ringleader of the Easter attacks, preacher Zahran Hashim, and the bomber who targeted Zion Church in Batticaloa were natives of neighboring Kattankudy, a Muslim-dominated town.
    “If you have any dignity, stop buying from Muslim shops,” read a red-inked leaflet distributed in Batticaloa and produced by a group called ‘Tamil Youth, Eastern Province.’
    Two members of the group, who both said had lost relatives in the blast, told Reuters that resentment had been building for years against the people of Kattankudy.
    “They have always been hostile towards us.    They do not eat from our places.    If they are going to grow by insulating themselves, we might as well too,” one of them said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
    Business has plummeted at the around 250 Muslim-owned stores in Batticaloa and some will be forced to shut unless sales pick up, said Mohamed Kaleel, the vice-president of the Batticaloa Traders Association.
PRIOR WARNINGS
    Among many Muslims, resentment is also building because they believe the community is being unfairly targeted, even though the government was warned repeatedly about possible attacks.
    The government has said it had received prior warnings about impending attacks on churches but these were not shared across agencies and admitted that was a lapse.
    Muslim community leaders have also said they had repeatedly warned the authorities about Zahran, the alleged mastermind, for years.
    “The government knew about the bombings and yet they didn’t take any action.    But once it happened, they are targeting us innocent people.    This is not fair,” said Milhan, a resident in the northwestern town of Puttalam.
    Abdullah, a Muslim preacher in Puttalam who declined to give his full name, said the discrimination will alienate Muslims and make them more vulnerable.
    “By doing this, extremism will only increase, it won’t go away.    This is what happened with the Tamils,” he said.
(Reporting by A. Ananthalakshmi and Ranga Sirilal in Rathmalyaya, Alexandra Ulmer and Omar Rajarathnam in Batticaloa, and Shihar Aneez in Colombo; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

5/10/2019 Taiwan president says China steps up infiltration efforts by Yimou Lee
FILE PHOTO: Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen attends a ceremony to sign up for Democratic Progressive Party's
2020 presidential candidate nomination in Taipei, Taiwan March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
    TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen said on Friday that China has stepped up its efforts to infiltrate and gain influence in Taiwan and she asked national security agencies to counter Beijing’s efforts.
    Tsai, speaking to reporters after a national security meeting, said China’s influence operations included attempts to interfere with elections and fake news campaigns.
    She did not detail specific incidents but said Taiwan’s national security agencies would be finding ways to tackle China’s moves.
    Tsai said Taiwan would deter military aggression in the Taiwan strait, vowing to boost defense capabilities, including upgrading military equipment and the recently launched program to build submarines locally.
    “The Chinese Communist Party continues to demonstrate provocative actions in the Taiwan Strait, destroying the status quo across the Taiwan Strait,” Tsai said.
    Her comments follow a spike in cross-strait tensions last month when China’s military staged extensive drills with warships, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft around the island.
    Taiwan scrambled jets to monitor the drills, which a senior U.S. official at the time described as “coercion” and a threat to regional stability.
    Beijing suspects Tsai is pushing for the island’s formal independence and has steadily stepped up political and military pressure.
    Any formal independence move is a red line for China, which has never renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control.
    Tsai has says she wants to maintain the status quo with China but will defend Taiwan’s security and democracy.
    The U.S. House of Representatives this week unanimously backed legislation supporting Taiwan as members of the U.S. Congress push for a sharper approach to relations with Beijing.
(Reporting by Yimou Lee; writing by Farah Master and Greg Torode; editing by Darren Schuettler and Michael Perry)

5/10/2019 ‘Missiles like these will start the war’: North Korea tests showcase growing capability by Josh Smith
FILE PHOTO: North Korean military conducts a "strike drill" for multiple launchers and tactical guided weapon into
the East Sea during a military drill in North Korea, in this May 4, 2019 photo supplied by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
KCNA via REUTERS/File Photo ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
    SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s second missile test on Thursday signals it is serious about developing new, short-range weapons that could be used early and effectively in any war with South Korea and the United States, analysts studying images of the latest launches say.
    Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw the first flight of a previously untested weapon – a relatively small, fast missile experts believe will be easier to hide, launch, and maneuver in flight.
    Photos released by state media on Friday showed Thursday’s test involved the same weapon.
    The tests have increased tensions after the last U.S.-North Korea summit collapsed in February in Hanoi with no agreement over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program.
    South Korean President Moon Jae-in said late on Thursday the launches seemed like a protest over the failed summit, while North Korea has defended the tests as routine and self-defensive.
    Some analysts say the multiple tests show the missiles aren’t only for political show.
    “This second test solidifies that these launches are not just to stir the pot and elicit a U.S. response to resume negotiations,” said     Grace Liu, one of a team of missile experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) in California.    “They are developing a reliable, operable missile that can defeat missile defenses and conduct a precision strike in South Korea.”
DEFEATING MISSILE DEFENSES
    The U.S. and South Korean responses to the launches have been muted, with U.S. President Donald Trump and other officials emphasizing the missiles are not the large, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the United States.
    But analysts said the military applications of the new missiles should not be underestimated.
    “The Trump administration keeps downplaying these missiles because they are not ICBMs, but even though they can’t reach the U.S. mainland, it’s missiles like these that will start the war,” said Melissa Hanham, a weapons expert at Datayo, which tracks international security threats.
    “They are small, easy to hide, easy to maneuver and you can’t tell what kind of warhead they are carrying.    They could carry a nuclear weapon.”
    In a preliminary report on Wednesday, the North Korea tracking website 38 North said the new missile looks similar to Russia’s SS-26 Iskander missile, and could exploit gaps in South Korean and American missile defense coverage.
    The United States and South Korea field Patriot and THAAD missile batteries designed to shoot down various ballistic and cruise missiles, but their capabilities have been disputed.
    While the origin of the North Korean missile remains unclear, a team of analysts at CNS told Reuters that Thursday’s test confirmed the missile is capable of maneuvering to elude defenses and protect its launch crew from detection.
    “You can tell from the low apogee that this missile maneuvers a bit in boost to defeat missile defenses and aircraft hunting the launcher,” said Jeffrey Lewis of CNS.
    Michael Duitsman, a rocket propulsion expert with the team, said North Korean state media photos of the launch show likely thrust vanes and steerable fins that guide the missile with precision and allow it to maneuver through much of its flight.
    While Saturday’s missile was fired from a transporter erector launcher (TEL) vehicle with wheels, Thursday’s test featured a tracked vehicle.
    Use of a tracked vehicle, which North Korea has more experience building, suggests it may plan to deploy a large number of the missiles and launchers, said Joshua Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review.
    “This seems to be their only mass-production option for highly capable TELs at the moment,” he said.
    The missile uses solid fuel, which allows the weapon to be easily moved and fired more quickly than those using liquid fuel, analysts said.
    In the end, the new missiles add a new level of unpredictability to an already tense situation, Hanham said.
    “If North Korea pulls out (an ICBM) everyone knows it’ll be launched with a nuke,” she said.    “These little missiles you don’t know, so it’s hard to be prepared.”
POLITICAL SHOCKWAVES
    The new weapon’s maneuverability and low flying has led some South Korean officials to hesitate to label the weapon a “ballistic missile,” a weapon that would likely violate United Nations Security Council resolutions.
    “Given its low altitude, more careful analysis is required,” said ruling party lawmaker Ahn Gyu-baek, citing military officials.    “One should also be careful to not aggravate the situation with hasty actions.”
    Ahn said South Korean military officials had assessed a number of potential political motives behind the missile launches.    Those included increasing pressure for sanctions relief, and protesting Seoul’s military buildup including the purchase of new F-35 fighter aircraft as well as joint military drills by the United States and South Korea, which North Korea complained about in statements defending the tests.
    The tests also likely held a message for domestic audiences designed to boost support for Kim’s government, he said.
    “The Kim regime is determined to fight pressure with pressure,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.    “It is threatening to raise regional tensions and create political problems for Moon and Trump if not offered economic concessions it failed to win in Hanoi.”
    While Kim may not return to launching ICBMs or testing nuclear weapons immediately, he may seek other provocative ways to break the stalemate, Pollack said.
    “Kim Jong Un has given the United States until the end of the year to rethink its approach,” he said.    “But if they don’t get a meaningful response to these tests, maybe they’ll try to push the envelope further.”
(Reporting by Josh Smith. Additional reporting by Joyce Lee. Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

5/10/2019 U.S., Iran tensions unyielding, Europeans reject Iran ‘ultimatums’ over nuclear deal
FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends talks in the Black Sea resort
of Sochi, Russia, Feb. 14 2019. Sergei Chirikov/File Photo
    BERLIN (Reuters) – European countries said on Thursday they wanted to preserve Iran’s nuclear deal and rejected “ultimatums” from Tehran, after Iran relaxed restrictions on its nuclear program and threatened moves that might breach the 2015 international pact.
    Iran’s announcement on Wednesday, related to curbs on its stockpiling of nuclear materials, was in response to U.S. sanctions imposed following President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the accord with Tehran a year ago.
    Iran’s initial moves do not appear to violate the accord yet. But President Hassan Rouhani said that unless the world powers which signed the deal protect Iran’s economy from U.S. sanctions within 60 days, Iran would start enriching uranium beyond limits set in the agreement.
    “We reject any ultimatums and we will assess Iran’s compliance on the basis of Iran’s performance regarding its nuclear-related commitments …,” read a statement issued jointly by the European Union and the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany, co-signatories of the deal.
    “We are determined to continue pursuing efforts to enable the continuation of legitimate trade with Iran,” they said, adding that this included getting a special purpose vehicle aimed at enabling non-dollar business with Iran off the ground.
    In response, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a Twitter post that EU countries should uphold their obligations in the nuclear deal with Iran and normalize economic ties despite U.S. sanctions, “instead of demanding that Iran unilaterally abide by a multilateral accord.”
    The nuclear deal required Iran to curb its uranium enrichment capacity to head off any pathway to developing a nuclear bomb, in return for the removal of most international sanctions.    A series of more intrusive U.N. inspections under the deal have verified that Iran is meeting its commitments.
    Iran has always denied that it was seeking a nuclear weapon and says it wants to abide by the nuclear deal.
    The Trump administration argues that the nuclear deal was flawed because it is not permanent, does not address Iran’s missile program and does not punish Iran for what Washington considers meddling in regional countries.
    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alluded to that in a statement on Thursday.
    “To date the regime’s default option has been violence, and we appeal to those in Tehran who see a path to a prosperous future through de-escalation to modify the regime’s behavior,” Pompeo said.
    “Our restraint to this point should not be mistaken by Iran for a lack of resolve,” Pompeo said.
Iran nuclear deal – https://tmsnrt.rs/2WqRqfI
TRUMP RENEWS TALKS APPEAL
    Trump, who has previously expressed a willingness to meet Iranian leaders to no avail, on Thursday renewed that appeal in an impromptu news conference at the White House.
    “They should call.    If they do, we’re open to talk to them,” Trump said.
    He also said he could not rule out a military confrontation given the heightened tensions.    Trump declined to say what prompted him to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier group to the region over what was described as unspecified threats.
    In an MSNBC interview, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations Majid Takht Ravanchi said: “All of a sudden he decided to leave the negotiating table … What is the guarantee that he will not renege again?
    He dismissed U.S. allegations of an Iranian threat as “fake intelligence” comparing it to the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
    The commander overseeing U.S. naval forces in the Middle East told Reuters on Thursday that American intelligence showing a threat from Iran will not prevent him from sending an aircraft carrier through the vital Strait of Hormuz, if needed.
    “I am not in a war-plan footing and have not been tasked to do so,” U.S. Vice Admiral Jim Malloy, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet, said in a phone interview.    “However we are absolutely ready to respond to any aggression against the United States, partners in the region, or our interests.”
    The Trump administration has ratcheted up sanctions this month, effectively ordering all countries to halt all purchases of Iranian oil or face their own sanctions.
    The move creates a dilemma for Washington’s European allies which say they share its concerns about Iranian behavior but think the Trump administration’s tactics are likely to backfire.
    The European allies believe Trump’s campaign to isolate the Islamic Republic plays into the hands of Tehran hardliners and undermines pragmatists within the Iranian leadership who want to open the country up to the world.
    French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday called for the nuclear deal to be extended to cover other issues of concern to the West, such as Iran’s regional policies and ballistic missiles, rather than jettisoned.
    “Leaving the 2015 nuclear agreement is a mistake because it is undoing what we have already done.    That’s why France is remaining and will remain a part of it and I deeply hope that Iran will remain,” Macron said.
    German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU wants to avoid an escalation in the dispute and Tehran must recognize that it is in its own interests to remain committed to the deal.
    European countries have tried to develop a system to allow outside investors to do business with Iran while avoiding falling foul of U.S. sanctions.    But in practice this has failed so far, with all major European firms that had announced plans to invest in Iran saying they would no longer do so.
    A spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation said on Thursday Tehran’s goal was to bring the agreement “back on track.”
    But Tehran has also maintained that it will leave the deal, known as the JCPOA, unless it receives more economic support as envisaged by the 2015 pact.
    “We have not left the JCPOA so far, but we have put such a move on our agenda and that would happen step by step,” Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi was quoted as saying by state-run PressTV on Wednesday night.
    Supporters of the nuclear deal, including Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama and European allies, say the pact extends the time it would take Iran to make a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so, and guarantees that it would be caught.
    Lifting sanctions, they argue, would show ordinary Iranians the benefits of cooperating with the world and make it more difficult for hardliners to roll back reforms.
(Reporting by Madeline Chambers, Andreas Rinke, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, Steve Holland and Phil Stewart; Writing by Peter Graff and Grant McCool; Editing by Mark Heinrich and James Dalgleish)

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