Clashes erupt as Sri Lankans protest China port deal

Author: 
ERANGA JAYAWARDENA | AP
Sat, 2017-01-07
ID: 
1483785871655253000

AMBALANTOTA, Sri Lanka: Sri Lankan police used water cannons to try to break up violent clashes Saturday between government supporters and villagers marching against what they say is a plan to take over private land for an industrial zone in which China will have a major stake.
The clashes took place as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was attending an opening ceremony for the industrial zone near the port city of Hambantota, about 240 kilometers (150 miles) southeast of the capital, Colombo.
Government supporters armed with clubs first attacked protesters organized by the opposition and led by Buddhist monks in Amabalantota, 22 kilometers (13 miles) from Hambantota. The protesters responded by throwing rocks.
It was not clear how many people were injured, but several people were seen being taken away in ambulances.
The government has signed a framework agreement for a 99-year lease of the Hambantota port with a company in which China will have 80 percent ownership. Officials also plan to set up the nearby industrial zone where Chinese companies will be invited to set up factories. The villagers and monks are opposed to it and demand their residential and farmlands be spared.
A court had issued a restraining order on the protest, saying it could lead to unrest.
China invested over $1.2 billion in the port in what some analysts call its “string of pearls” strategy in countries surrounding its rival India. Although the project has seen losses since 2010, Sri Lanka’s government, at first critical of the enterprise, approached China seeking help to make it viable.
Lawmaker D.V. Chanaka, one of the protest organizers, said he fears the port area will become a “Chinese colony.”
“We are against leasing the lands where people live and do their farming, while there are identified lands for an industrial zone,” Chanaka said. “When you give away such a vast area of land, you can’t stop the area from becoming a Chinese colony.”
After the lease expires, it can be negotiated for another 99 years, according to the framework agreement, whose terms are still being negotiated. The government also has proposed to lease 15,000 acres (6,070 hectares) in Hambantota district and adjoining Moneragala district for the industrial zone.
The Rev. Magama Mahanama, from a group calling itself the Monks’ Organization to Protect National Assets, said that the clergy, following an ancient tradition, would issue a decree to the government to stop the leasing. Historically, kings in predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka are said to have abided by decrees issued by Buddhist monks.
“It’s a way of conveying the message that the monks are not for it,” Mahanama said. “Ninety-nine years means at least two generations. When they (the Chinese) take root here, what’s the guarantee that we will have it back? There is a major threat of cultural erosion and demographic change.”
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, speaking to reporters earlier this week, said the partnership arrangement was necessary to free the country from the debt incurred to build the port. He blamed the debt on former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose government was friendly to Beijing.
Wickremesinghe said the industrial zone was necessary to make the port and the nearby Chinese-financed airport, also running at a heavy loss, viable.
“The port can’t be taken away,” he said, adding that his country’s former British colonial rulers did not take away the Trincomalee harbor or the Colombo port.
___
Associated Press writer Krishan Francis in Colombo, Sri Lanka, contributed to this report.

Main category: 

Clashes erupt as Sri Lankans protest China port deal

Author: 
ERANGA JAYAWARDENA | AP
Sat, 2017-01-07
ID: 
1483785871655253000

AMBALANTOTA, Sri Lanka: Sri Lankan police used water cannons to try to break up violent clashes Saturday between government supporters and villagers marching against what they say is a plan to take over private land for an industrial zone in which China will have a major stake.
The clashes took place as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was attending an opening ceremony for the industrial zone near the port city of Hambantota, about 240 kilometers (150 miles) southeast of the capital, Colombo.
Government supporters armed with clubs first attacked protesters organized by the opposition and led by Buddhist monks in Amabalantota, 22 kilometers (13 miles) from Hambantota. The protesters responded by throwing rocks.
It was not clear how many people were injured, but several people were seen being taken away in ambulances.
The government has signed a framework agreement for a 99-year lease of the Hambantota port with a company in which China will have 80 percent ownership. Officials also plan to set up the nearby industrial zone where Chinese companies will be invited to set up factories. The villagers and monks are opposed to it and demand their residential and farmlands be spared.
A court had issued a restraining order on the protest, saying it could lead to unrest.
China invested over $1.2 billion in the port in what some analysts call its “string of pearls” strategy in countries surrounding its rival India. Although the project has seen losses since 2010, Sri Lanka’s government, at first critical of the enterprise, approached China seeking help to make it viable.
Lawmaker D.V. Chanaka, one of the protest organizers, said he fears the port area will become a “Chinese colony.”
“We are against leasing the lands where people live and do their farming, while there are identified lands for an industrial zone,” Chanaka said. “When you give away such a vast area of land, you can’t stop the area from becoming a Chinese colony.”
After the lease expires, it can be negotiated for another 99 years, according to the framework agreement, whose terms are still being negotiated. The government also has proposed to lease 15,000 acres (6,070 hectares) in Hambantota district and adjoining Moneragala district for the industrial zone.
The Rev. Magama Mahanama, from a group calling itself the Monks’ Organization to Protect National Assets, said that the clergy, following an ancient tradition, would issue a decree to the government to stop the leasing. Historically, kings in predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka are said to have abided by decrees issued by Buddhist monks.
“It’s a way of conveying the message that the monks are not for it,” Mahanama said. “Ninety-nine years means at least two generations. When they (the Chinese) take root here, what’s the guarantee that we will have it back? There is a major threat of cultural erosion and demographic change.”
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, speaking to reporters earlier this week, said the partnership arrangement was necessary to free the country from the debt incurred to build the port. He blamed the debt on former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose government was friendly to Beijing.
Wickremesinghe said the industrial zone was necessary to make the port and the nearby Chinese-financed airport, also running at a heavy loss, viable.
“The port can’t be taken away,” he said, adding that his country’s former British colonial rulers did not take away the Trincomalee harbor or the Colombo port.
___
Associated Press writer Krishan Francis in Colombo, Sri Lanka, contributed to this report.

Main category: 

Taiwan leader heads to Americas; US stops set to irk China

Author: 
GILLIAN WONG | AP
Sat, 2017-01-07
ID: 
1483777664595017100

BEIJING: The Taiwanese leader’s trip to the Americas starting Saturday will be scrutinized by Beijing for signs that the incoming US president’s team will risk its ire by further engaging with the self-ruled island China considers its territory.
President Tsai Ing-wen pledged to bolster Taiwan’s international profile as she set off on a trip to reinforce relations with diplomatic allies in Central America, a task that has taken on new urgency as Beijing ramps up efforts to diplomatically isolate Taipei.
Speaking to reporters before her departure, Tsai said the visits to Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador would “show the international society that Taiwan is a capable and responsible partner for cooperation.”
She will transit through Houston and San Francisco, stops that will irk Beijing, which has urged Washington to prevent Tsai from landing in the US to “refrain from sending any wrong signal to the Taiwanese independence forces.”
Beijing regards the self-governing island as part of China and officials complained after President-elect Donald Trump last month breached diplomatic protocol by speaking by phone with the Taiwanese leader. Trump raised further concerns in Beijing when he questioned a US policy that since 1979 has recognized Beijing as China’s government and maintains only unofficial relations with Taiwan.
US lawmakers often meet with Taiwanese presidents when they transit through the US — most recently in June, when Tsai met in Miami with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
This time, it was not clear if Tsai would meet Trump, though some observers said a meeting with Trump’s transition team could happen despite the risk of Beijing’s anger.
“It should not surprise anyone if the incoming president’s advisers who will be working on Asia policy meet with President Tsai,” said Ross Feingold, a Taipei-based senior adviser at D.C. International Advisory, a consulting firm whose chief executive has been consulted by the Trump transition team.
“China might issue its usual statements of displeasure … but it really doesn’t depart from precedent,” Feingold said. “A meeting with Trump would be the biggest precedent changer.”
Regardless, Tsai is likely to keep the US stops low-key to avoid further inflaming tensions with China, which has been angered by Tsai’s refusal to endorse Beijing’s concept that Taiwan and the mainland are part of a single Chinese nation.
Beijing says failing to endorse the one-China principle would destabilize relations and hurt peace in the region. In late December, in what Beijing called routine exercises, China’s first and only aircraft carrier and a fleet of warships sailed past Taiwan’s south, prompting Taipei to deploy fighter jets to monitor the fleet.
“I’m confident that both Taiwan and the US want this transit to be low profile,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There is nothing to be gained by irritating Beijing.”
In Central America, Tsai will focus on strengthening ties with allies to fend off Beijing’s efforts to draw governments away from Taipei and further diminish its global presence. Beijing and Taipei have competed for allies for much of the nearly seven decades since the end of China’s civil war in 1949, when the defeated Nationalist government fled across the Taiwan Strait.
Tsai, who is leading a delegation of 120 people, will meet with most of the four countries’ leaders and attend the inauguration of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. She said she would also interact with the heads of state of other countries at the inauguration.
Beijing has intervened to prevent the island’s participation in international forums and established diplomatic relations with former Taipei allies Gambia and Sao Tome and Principe. The moves have been seen as effectively abandoning the unspoken diplomatic truce that lasted eight years under Tsai’s China-friendly predecessor. Just 21 countries and governments, mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean, now have official ties with Taipei.
Observers were watching to see if any of the four Central American nations might defect despite Tsai’s efforts, but say stronger US support under Trump’s administration would help balance future diplomatic losses.
“We should expect that in the Trump administration the US would be more vociferous and emphatic about Taiwan’s participation in international organizations,” Feingold said.
Although the US does not challenge China’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, Washington remains Taiwan’s main source of weapons, with $14 billion in approved arms sales since 2009, and is bound by law to consider threats to the island’s security a matter of “grave concern.”
If Beijing aggressively pursues existing Taipei allies, leveraging its growing economic, military and political clout, the competition could prove too expensive for Taipei and prompt Tsai to seek even deeper ties with the US
“She may think now that it’s America or bust,” said Sean King, a Taipei-based senior vice president at consulting firm Park Strategies. “She’s probably going to lose these peripheral countries eventually anyway, so why not go for the gusto and get as close to the US while she can?“

Main category: 

Taiwan leader heads to Americas; US stops set to irk China

Author: 
GILLIAN WONG | AP
Sat, 2017-01-07
ID: 
1483777664595017100

BEIJING: The Taiwanese leader’s trip to the Americas starting Saturday will be scrutinized by Beijing for signs that the incoming US president’s team will risk its ire by further engaging with the self-ruled island China considers its territory.
President Tsai Ing-wen pledged to bolster Taiwan’s international profile as she set off on a trip to reinforce relations with diplomatic allies in Central America, a task that has taken on new urgency as Beijing ramps up efforts to diplomatically isolate Taipei.
Speaking to reporters before her departure, Tsai said the visits to Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador would “show the international society that Taiwan is a capable and responsible partner for cooperation.”
She will transit through Houston and San Francisco, stops that will irk Beijing, which has urged Washington to prevent Tsai from landing in the US to “refrain from sending any wrong signal to the Taiwanese independence forces.”
Beijing regards the self-governing island as part of China and officials complained after President-elect Donald Trump last month breached diplomatic protocol by speaking by phone with the Taiwanese leader. Trump raised further concerns in Beijing when he questioned a US policy that since 1979 has recognized Beijing as China’s government and maintains only unofficial relations with Taiwan.
US lawmakers often meet with Taiwanese presidents when they transit through the US — most recently in June, when Tsai met in Miami with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
This time, it was not clear if Tsai would meet Trump, though some observers said a meeting with Trump’s transition team could happen despite the risk of Beijing’s anger.
“It should not surprise anyone if the incoming president’s advisers who will be working on Asia policy meet with President Tsai,” said Ross Feingold, a Taipei-based senior adviser at D.C. International Advisory, a consulting firm whose chief executive has been consulted by the Trump transition team.
“China might issue its usual statements of displeasure … but it really doesn’t depart from precedent,” Feingold said. “A meeting with Trump would be the biggest precedent changer.”
Regardless, Tsai is likely to keep the US stops low-key to avoid further inflaming tensions with China, which has been angered by Tsai’s refusal to endorse Beijing’s concept that Taiwan and the mainland are part of a single Chinese nation.
Beijing says failing to endorse the one-China principle would destabilize relations and hurt peace in the region. In late December, in what Beijing called routine exercises, China’s first and only aircraft carrier and a fleet of warships sailed past Taiwan’s south, prompting Taipei to deploy fighter jets to monitor the fleet.
“I’m confident that both Taiwan and the US want this transit to be low profile,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There is nothing to be gained by irritating Beijing.”
In Central America, Tsai will focus on strengthening ties with allies to fend off Beijing’s efforts to draw governments away from Taipei and further diminish its global presence. Beijing and Taipei have competed for allies for much of the nearly seven decades since the end of China’s civil war in 1949, when the defeated Nationalist government fled across the Taiwan Strait.
Tsai, who is leading a delegation of 120 people, will meet with most of the four countries’ leaders and attend the inauguration of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. She said she would also interact with the heads of state of other countries at the inauguration.
Beijing has intervened to prevent the island’s participation in international forums and established diplomatic relations with former Taipei allies Gambia and Sao Tome and Principe. The moves have been seen as effectively abandoning the unspoken diplomatic truce that lasted eight years under Tsai’s China-friendly predecessor. Just 21 countries and governments, mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean, now have official ties with Taipei.
Observers were watching to see if any of the four Central American nations might defect despite Tsai’s efforts, but say stronger US support under Trump’s administration would help balance future diplomatic losses.
“We should expect that in the Trump administration the US would be more vociferous and emphatic about Taiwan’s participation in international organizations,” Feingold said.
Although the US does not challenge China’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, Washington remains Taiwan’s main source of weapons, with $14 billion in approved arms sales since 2009, and is bound by law to consider threats to the island’s security a matter of “grave concern.”
If Beijing aggressively pursues existing Taipei allies, leveraging its growing economic, military and political clout, the competition could prove too expensive for Taipei and prompt Tsai to seek even deeper ties with the US
“She may think now that it’s America or bust,” said Sean King, a Taipei-based senior vice president at consulting firm Park Strategies. “She’s probably going to lose these peripheral countries eventually anyway, so why not go for the gusto and get as close to the US while she can?“

Main category: 

US intel report: Putin directed cyber campaign to help Trump

Author: 
Reuters
Sat, 2017-01-07
ID: 
1483746810592350200

WASHINGTON: Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an effort to help Republican Donald Trump’s electoral chances by discrediting Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign, US intelligence agencies said in an assessment on Friday. 
Russia’s objectives were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate former secretary of state Clinton, make it harder for her to win and harm her presidency if she did, an unclassified report released by the top US intelligence agency said.
“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” the report said. “We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.”
The report, although it omitted classified details, was the US government’s starkest public description of what it says was an unprecedented Russian campaign to manipulate the American body politic.
Reports of Russian interference in the already divisive election have roiled Washington, even as the US Congress on Friday certified Trump’s victory in the Electoral College. Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots.
The report neither assessed “the impact Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election” nor did it provide details on the evidence underpinning its conclusions, a fact likely to keep alive the controversy over what Moscow may have done.
Russia denies the US government’s allegations of hacking during the election campaign.

RUSSIAN MILITARY INTELLIGENCE AGENCY
The report said US intelligence agencies believe Russian military intelligence, the GRU, used intermediaries such as WikiLeaks, DCLeaks.com and the Guccifer 2.0 “persona” to release e-mails that it had acquired from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and top Democrats as part of the effort.
The release of the e-mails led to embarrassing media coverage for Clinton and triggered the resignation of the DNC’s chief.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has said he did not receive e-mails stolen from the DNC and top Clinton aide John Podesta from “a state party.” However, Assange did not rule out the possibility that he got the material from a third party.
Russian actors were not found to have targeted US systems that are involved in tallying votes, the report said. The report was produced by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency.
Also on Friday, the US Department of Homeland Security designated US election infrastructure as critical infrastructure, widening the options the government has to protect voting machines from cybertattacks.
While the report found Russia had conducted cybertattacks on both the Democratic and the Republican parties, it made clear that the primary aims were to harm Clinton whether or not she won the election and evolved over time.
“When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election, the Russian influence campaign began to focus more on undermining her future presidency,” it said.
“We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him,” it said. The CIA and FBI had high confidence in this judgment and NSA moderate confidence, the report said.
Neither the Russian embassy in Washington, nor Clinton aides immediately responded to requests for comment.
The report suggested Putin was motivated in part by personal animus toward Clinton.
“Putin most likely wanted to discredit Secretary Clinton because he has publicly blamed her since 2011 for inciting mass protests against his regime in late 2011 and early 2012, and because he holds a grudge for comments he almost certainly saw as disparaging him,” it said.

’TROUBLING CHAPTER IN ONGOING STORY’
The report’s conclusions, though lacking details of how the Russians may have relayed the material to Wikileaks and others, will give ammunition to Democrats and Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress who want tougher action against Russia, setting the scene for a potential showdown with Trump.
Trump, who has developed a rocky relationship with US spy agencies and at times disparaged their work, defended the legitimacy of his election victory after receiving a nearly two-hour briefing Friday on the report.
In a statement, Trump did not squarely address whether he was told of the agencies’ belief Russia carried out the hacking.
Instead, he said: “Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations” including the DNC.
“There was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines,” Trump said.
The businessman, who is to be inaugurated as president on Jan. 20, also said he would appoint a team to give him a plan within 90 days of taking office on how to prevent cybertattacks but suggested that he would keep their recommendations secret.
The report did not reveal how the intelligence agencies collected the evidence underpinning their conclusions or the evidence itself, including the means by which Russian military intelligence “relayed” the materials filched from the DNC and other hacking targets to Wikileaks and others, omissions likely to leave the report open to criticism.
Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence who was briefed on the report on Friday, took issue with Trump’s comments.
“The President-Elect’s statement that the Russian hacking had ‘absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election’ is not supported by the briefing, report, or common sense,” Schiff said.
“It is one thing to say that there was no tampering with vote tallying — which is true — it is another thing to say that the daily dumping of documents disparaging to … Clinton that was made possible by Russian cyber operations had no effect on the campaigns,” he said. “The consequence of these disclosures was hugely beneficial to the President-Elect and damaging to the Clinton campaign, just as the Russians intended.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said his panel would continue to compile “facts surrounding Russia’s active measures,” adding: “This is a troubling chapter in an ongoing story.”

Main category: 

Muslim ‘mob’ story sparks fake news warning in Germany

Author: 
AFP
Sat, 2017-01-07
ID: 
1483737097091772600

BERLIN: German media and politicians warned Friday against an election-year spike in fake news after ultra-conservative website Breitbart claimed a “mob” chanting “Allahu Akbar” had set fire to a church on New Year’s Eve.
After the report by the US website was widely shared on social media, police in the city of Dortmund clarified that no “extraordinary or spectacular” incidents had marred the festivities.
The local newspaper, Ruhr Nachrichten, meanwhile, charged that elements of its online reporting on New Year’s Eve had been distorted to produce “fake news, hate and propaganda.”
The justice minister of Hesse state, Eva Kuehne-Hoermann, said “the danger is that these stories spread with incredible speed and take on lives of their own.”
The controversy highlights a deepening divide between backers of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal stance toward refugees and a right-wing movement that opposes immigration, fears Islam and distrusts the government and media.
Tens of thousands clicked and shared the Breitbart.com story with the headline “Revealed: 1,000-Man Mob Attack Police, Set Germany’s Oldest Church Alight on New Year’s Eve.”
It said the men had “chanted ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is Greatest), launched fireworks at police, and set fire to a historic church,” while also massing “around the flag of Al-Qaeda and Daesh collaborators the ‘Free Syrian Army’.”
The local newspaper charged that Breitbart had combined and exaggerated unconnected incidents to create a picture of chaos and of foreigners celebrating terrorism.
Stray fireworks did indeed start a small blaze, but only on netting covering scaffolding on the church, and it was put out after about 12 minutes, it said. The roof was not on fire and the church is not Germany’s oldest.
Dortmund police Thursday said its officers had handled 185 missions that night, sharply down from 421 the previous year.
Overall the squad leader had judged the night as “rather average to quiet,” in part thanks to a large police presence.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily charged that Breitbart had used exaggerations and factual errors to create “an image of chaotic civil war-like conditions in Germany, caused by hard-liners.”
It said the article “may be a foretaste” of what’s to come ahead of parliamentary elections expected in September as some websites spread “misinformation and distortion in order to diminish trust in established institutions.”

Justice Minister Heiko Maas in mid-December warned that Germany would use its laws against deliberate disinformation, and that freedom of expression does not protect “slander and defamation.”

Main category: 

Obama-appointed envoys asked to quit by Trump’s inauguration day

Author: 
Reuters
Sat, 2017-01-07
ID: 
1483737097121772900

WASHINGTON: President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team has issued a blanket mandate requiring politically appointed ambassadors installed by President Barack Obama to leave their posts by Inauguration Day, the US ambassador to New Zealand said on Friday.
“I will be departing on January 20th,” Ambassador Mark Gilbert said in a Twitter message to Reuters.
The mandate was issued “without exceptions” through an order sent in a State Department cable on Dec. 23, Gilbert said.
He was confirming a report in the New York Times, which quoted diplomatic sources as saying previous US administrations, from both major political parties, have traditionally granted extensions to allow a few ambassadors, particularly those with school-age children, to remain in place for weeks or months.
Officials from the State Department and Trump’s transition team were not immediately available for comment. The order threatens to leave the United States without Senate-confirmed envoys for months in critical nations like Germany, Canada and Britain, the New York Times reported.
A senior Trump transition official told the newspaper there was no ill will in the move, describing it as a simple matter of ensuring Obama’s overseas envoys leave the government on schedule, just as thousands of political aides at the White House and in federal agencies must do.
Trump has taken a strict stance against leaving any of Obama’s political appointees in place as he prepares to take office on Jan. 20, aiming to break up many of his predecessor’s signature foreign and domestic policy achievements, the newspaper said.

Main category: 

Republican plan to repeal health care law is reckless, irresponsible, says Obama

Author: 
AP
Sat, 2017-01-07
ID: 
1483733025681367900

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama derided as “reckless” on Friday a Republican plan to repeal his health care law now and replace it later, predicting that the replacement may never come.
In an opinion piece in the New England Journal of Medicine, Obama sought to dispel the notion that Republicans could fulfill their campaign promises to gut the Affordable Care Act immediately without risking devastating consequences for consumers. Calling that approach “irresponsible,” Obama urged Republicans to do the work now to develop an alternative.
“Given that Republicans have yet to craft a replacement plan, and that unforeseen events might overtake their planned agenda, there might never be a second vote on a plan to replace the ACA if it is repealed,” Obama wrote. “And if a second vote does not happen, tens of millions of Americans will be harmed.”
In his final days in office, Obama has been ramping up a public push to pressure Republicans over their plans to undermine “Obamacare,” his signature legislative achievement. He traveled Wednesday to Capitol Hill to strategize with Democratic lawmakers, and on Friday he will answer questions on health care during a live-streamed interview at Blair House, the government guest house across from the White House.
Although Democrats are largely resigned to the likelihood the GOP will succeed in repealing the law, they are seeking to exploit divisions among Republicans who for years have been unable to unite behind an alternative.
President-elect Donald Trump’s team has said repeal is the first order of business, and leaders in Congress hope to deliver a bill voiding much of the law to Trump by late February. Yet with no replacement ready to go, they have been discussing a repeal that would not take effect for 18 months or longer, giving them time to devise a new plan.
Although House Speaker Paul Ryan said this week that lawmakers will vote on a replacement this year as well, it is unclear how Republicans could move that quickly to replace a law that took more than a year to craft — especially given GOP disagreements about how to pay for popular parts of the law they hope to preserve.
But Obama said the uncertainty of a repeal with no replacement could lead insurance companies to bail on the health care marketplaces during the phase-out years, leaving millions without insurance. He said it would set up a “cliff” with harmful consequences if lawmakers fail to approve a replacement in time.

Main category: 

Trump on border wall: Mexico will pay us back

Author: 
AP, Reuters
Sat, 2017-01-07
ID: 
1483733025741368300

WASHINGTON: President-elect Donald Trump on Friday tweeted that Mexico will reimburse American taxpayers for a new border wall and that US money spent will be for the “sake of speed.”
Trump criticized news reports that taxpayers would pay for his planned border wall, saying they were failing to report that US funds used to start the project would be repaid by Mexico.
His tweet came as top aides consider a plan to ask Congress to ensure money is available in US coffers for the wall, but to rely on existing law that already authorizes fencing and other technology along the southern border.
CNN and other media organizations reported on Friday that Trump’s transition team had signaled to congressional Republicans that he preferred to fund the border wall through the appropriations process as soon as April.
Trump said in his note on Twitter that initial US funding would be to get the wall started more quickly and Mexico would eventually repay the US. Trump’s top aide Kellyanne Conway said the president-elect was not going back on his campaign promise to have Mexico pay for the wall.
“Nothing has changed from our perspective. Congress is taking it on themselves to explore different options to pay for the wall,” she told CBS News’ “This Morning” program on Friday.
The potential approach was confirmed on Thursday by two congressional officials and a senior transition official with knowledge of the discussions; all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Trump said in a tweet early Friday: “The dishonest media does not report that any money spent on building the Great Wall (for sake of speed), will be paid back by Mexico later!” Mexico’s president and other senior officials have repeatedly insisted that Mexico will not pay for a wall.
During his campaign, Trump repeatedly told voters that if elected he would build a wall along the US southern border and make Mexico pay for it.
Trump transition spokesman Sean Spicer said putting US money up-front “doesn’t mean he’s broken his promise.” In an interview Friday on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Spicer said: “I think he’s going to continue to talk to them (the Mexican government) about that.”
The approach could also stave off a legislative fight that Trump might lose if he tried to get Congress to pass a measure authorizing the kind of border wall he promised during the campaign.
It is not clear how much could be done along the 2,000-mile border without additional actions by Congress. Lawmakers passed the Secure Fence Act of 2006, but most of those 700 miles have already been built. Some areas are in much better shape than others, though, and long stretches are made up of fencing that stops vehicles but not pedestrians.
But whatever steps might be taken without Congress’ approval would be likely to fall short of the extravagant new wall on the border that Trump repeatedly said Mexico would pay for during his campaign for the White House.

And despite Congress’ involvement in approving any spending, such an approach might also open Trump to charges of circumventing the House and the Senate to take unilateral actions, something he repeatedly criticized President Barack Obama for doing. A spending bill including money for border construction could also provoke a legislative showdown given potential opposition from Senate Democrats.
Still, several lawmakers and congressional officials said the administration could have significant flexibility in taking additional steps without Congress’ approval.
“There’s a lot of things that can be done within current law,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a longtime proponent of comprehensive immigration reform, though he emphasized that a lasting solution on immigration would take action by Congress. “You cannot minimize the potential impact of the administration doing what they can do under the law,” he said.
However, some immigration hard-liners have already expressed the desire to see Congress take a vote, given how prominent the wall was during Trump’s presidential campaign, and their desire to act on the issue.
Trump’s vow to build an impenetrable, concrete wall along the southern border was his signature campaign proposal. “Build the wall!” supporters would chant at his rallies. “Who’s going to pay for it?” Trump would ask them. “Mexico!” Trump often promised the wall would be built of hardened concrete, rebar and steel as tall as his venues’ ceilings, and would feature a “big, beautiful door” to allow legal immigrants to enter.
Most experts viewed such promises as unrealistic and impractical, and Trump himself sometimes allowed that the wall would not need to span the entire length of the border, thanks to natural barriers like rivers. After winning the election, he said he would be open to stretches of fencing.

Main category: 

Ukraine’s military denies Russian hack attack

Author: 
AFP
Sat, 2017-01-07
ID: 
1483733025801368900

KIEV: Ukraine’s military on Friday denied a report claiming Russia may have hacked targeting software for its heavy artillery in a breach that could have helped Moscow track Kiev’s big guns.
The cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike — the same one that discovered the Kremlin’s alleged interference in the US election — said in December it had evidence Russian hackers might have bolstered Moscow’s spying on Ukraine’s forces in the eastern war zone.
CrowdStrike said the malware was installed on software used to aim Ukraine’s D-30 howitzer guns that were the backbone of the government’s forces fighting Russian-backed insurgents for 31 months.
The conflict has claimed the lives of nearly 10,000 people and was one of the main factors why Moscow’s relations with the West are at a post-Cold War low.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry blasted the claims and rejected any allegations that it led to a majority of its howitzers being destroyed during the conflict.
It stressed that “artillery losses were many times smaller and not caused by the reason” given by CrowdStrike.
Ukraine’s rebuttal came a day after high-profile US Senate hearings in which the heads of three intelligence agencies all pointed the blame at Russia’s most senior officials for hacking into the Democratic National Committee during the presidential campaign.
Democrat Hillary Clinton said the leaked information was one of the reasons for which she lost to Donald Trump — the president-elect who has publicaly praised Russian leader President Vladimir Putin.
Fears of Russia also trying to influence upcoming European elections have put a new focus on cybersecurity firms. But Ukraine was adamant that CrowdStrike was wrong on this occasion.
“The spread of false information leads to a heightening of social tensions and undermines people’s trust in Ukraine’s armed forces,” the defense ministry said.
The December CrowdStrike report said that “from late 2014 and through 2016, FANCY BEAR X-Agent implant was covertly distributed on Ukrainian military forums within a legitimate Android application.”
Fancy Bear is a code name for a group of Russian hackers that CrowdStrike has linked to the country’s secretive military intelligence.
“Successful deployment of the FANCY BEAR malware within this application may have facilitated reconnaissance against Ukrainian troops,” the report said.
It added said some 80 percent of Ukraine’s howitzers were destroyed during the war — a vast figure that had never been reported before and would mean nearly the entire arsenal of Ukraine’s biggest guns being erased.
The targeting program was provided to Ukraine’s under-funded army by volunteers and not developed by the Defense Ministry itself.

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