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EU Commission ‘regrets loss’ of UK ambassador

Author: 
AFP
Wed, 2017-01-04
ID: 
1483536941879780800

BRUSSELS: The European Commission said on Wednesday it regretted that Britain’s ambassador to the EU Ivan Rogers had resigned, just as London prepared to launch fraught Brexit divorce negotiations. 
“We regret the loss of a very professional, very knowledgeable while not always easy interlocutor and diplomat, who always loyally defended the interests of his government,” said Natasha Bertaud, a spokeswoman for the Commission, the EU’s executive arm.
Asked whether the departure of Rogers less than three months before formal Brexit talks are due to start would negatively impact the process, Bertaud said: “Negotiations have not yet started and as you know we are still waiting for the triggering to start those negotiations.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May has promised to trigger Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty — the formal divorce clause — by the end of March.
The European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, meanwhile paid tribute to the veteran British diplomat for his expertise.
“Best wishes to Sir Ivan Rogers, a much respected UK civil servant in Brussels — who knew what he was talking about,” Verhofstadt tweeted.
There was no immediate reaction from the European Council, which groups the 28 EU leaders under EU President Donald Tusk.
Rogers surprised London and Brussels on Tuesday when he announced he was stepping down early, accusing some in the government of “muddle-headed thinking” about Brexit and how difficult it will be to negotiate.
He also exposed the British government’s apparent lack of a plan, saying that “we do not yet know what the government will set as negotiating objectives for the UK’s relationship with the EU after exit.

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Russia offers Philippines arms and close friendship

Author: 
Reuters
Wed, 2017-01-04
ID: 
1483535875539665700

MANILA: Russia is ready to supply the Philippines with sophisticated weapons including aircraft and submarines and aims to become a close friend of the traditional US ally as it diversifies its foreign ties, Russia’s ambassador said on Wednesday.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has thrown the future of Philippine-US relations into question with angry outbursts against the former colonial power and some scaling back of military ties while taking steps to boost ties with China and Russia.
Illustrating the transformation of Philippine foreign relations since Duterte took office in June, two Russian warships are on four-day visit to Manila this week, the first official navy-to-navy contact between the two countries. 
Russian Ambassador Igor Anatolyevich Khovaev took the opportunity to hold a news conference on board the anti-submarine vessel Admiral Tributs.
He said he understood that the Philippines was intent on diversifying its foreign partners.
“It’s not a choice between these partners and those ones. Diversification means preserving and keeping old traditional partners and getting new ones. So Russia is ready to become a new reliable partner and close friend of the Philippines,” he said.
“We don’t interfere with your relations with your traditional partners and your traditional partners should respect the interest of the Philippines and Russia.”
The Russian navy visit comes less than a month after Duterte sent his foreign and defense ministers to Moscow to discuss arms deals after a US senator said he would block the sale of 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippines due to concern about a rising death toll in a war on drugs launched by Duterte.
Khovaev said Russia had a range of weapons to offer.
“We are ready to supply small arms and light weapons, some aeroplanes, helicopters, submarines and many, many other weapons. Sophisticated weapons. Not the second-hand ones,” Khovaev said.
“Russia has a lot to offer but everything will be done in full compliance with international law.” .
He said it was too early to talk about the scope of military cooperation but, in a clear reference to the United States, said old allies should not worry.
“Your traditional partners should not be concerned about the military ties … If they are concerned, it means they need to get rid of clichés,” he said.
Rear Admiral Eduard Mikhailov, head of the Flotilla of the Russian Navy Pacific Fleet, said on Tuesday Russia wanted to hold maritime exercises with the Philippines to help combat terrorism and piracy.
The United States and the Philippines have been holding naval exercises annually but Duterte has decided to reduce the number of exercises and to move naval drills away from the disputed South China Sea, to reassure China, which is suspicious of US military movements in the disputed waters.

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Armed men linked to Muslim rebels free more than 150 from Philippine prison

Author: 
Reuters
Wed, 2017-01-04
ID: 
1483521653628952800

MANILA: Around 100 armed men with links to Muslim rebels stormed a prison in the southern Philippines on Wednesday, killing a guard and freeing more than 150 prisoners, some of them Islamic militants, officials said.
The Southeast Asian, majority Roman Catholic nation has for decades been plagued by insurgency by Muslim rebels in its southern islands.
The gunmen opened fire at guards at the North Cotabato District Jail in Kidapawan, prison warden Peter Bongat said on radio. Of the jail’s 1,511 inmates, 158 managed to escape, he said. 
Eight prisoners had since been caught, two had surrendered, while six were killed, according to the office of the president.
Shirlyn Macasarte, acting governor of North Cotabato, said her office had been tipped off about the plan by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) to free its members as early as the second quarter of last year.
“They were involved in murders and at the same time I think they have experience in bomb making so we watched them closely,” Macasarte told news channel ANC.
The leader of the attackers, known by the alias Commander Derbie, had links with the BIFF, a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Macasarte said.
Some members of the MILF and BIFF were said to be behind the killing of 44 police commandos in a secret mission two years ago to capture a Malaysian bomb maker with a $5 million bounty from the US State Department on his head.
In 2014, the government signed a peace deal with the MILF, the biggest Muslim rebel group, but clashes still occur with smaller groups.

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Obama moves to stop Trump gutting signature health care law

Author: 
AFP
Wed, 2017-01-04
ID: 
1483512794938703300

WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama will make a short but politically charged trip from the White House to Capitol Hill Wednesday, calling allied lawmakers to arms in defense of his signature health care reforms. 
Obama’s eight-year drive to extend medical coverage to tens of millions of Americans will come under sustained assault when President-elect Donald Trump takes office January 20 with Republican majorities in both house of Congress.
In a preemptive strike, the outgoing president will meet Senate and House Democrats, “principally (to) discuss how to counter the stated Republican objective of repealing the Affordable Care Act,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
Obama’s rare legislative pilgrimage coincides with a dueling visit to the Congress by Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
“We’re focused on repealing and replacing Obamacare,” Pence said Tuesday. “We look forward to legislation that will give us the tools to roll back the avalanche of red tape and regulation that have been stifling American jobs.”
After a crushing election loss, Democrats may have limited options for stalling reforms without significant Republican defections.
They also face criticism that Obama’s reforms have led to rising insurance premiums and a string of technical problems.
But while Republican opposition to Obamacare is clear, their prescription to fix it is not.
House Speaker Paul Ryan has proposed a tax credit system as a possible replacement, but the costs to government and individuals remains vague.
Some Republicans have suggested repealing Obamacare now and replacing it at later, perhaps after the next election.
But the White House is betting that Americans voters will react with fury if Trump moves to strip millions of coverage with no viable alternative.
They are hoping that public outcry could force Trump to confront some of the more ideologically driven reforms proposed by his own party.
The president-elect is seen as highly sensitive about his public standing.
He has been quick to tweet defensively about perceived slights or reminders that despite his electoral college victory in the November elections, his rival Hillary Clinton still won the popular vote by almost three million ballots.
Trump comes to office with 48 percent of Americans polled by Gallup believing he is handling the transition effectively.
That is far less than the 75 percent approval Obama enjoyed at the same point or George W. Bush’s 65 percent.
Republican legislators are eager to take charge after eight years spent fighting against Obama’s policies.
But some are wary that white working class Americans, who delivered them to office, may bear the brunt of any reforms.
Gutting Obamacare could also have knock-on effects for funding health care for retirees, a group essential to the Republican Party’s survival.
In these two issues, Democrats see pressure points they hope to exploit in defense of Obama’s plan.
“It’s not surprising to me that there are some Republicans who are now a little queasy about the prospect of the impact that repealing Obamacare would have on their own supporters,” said Earnest.
“We know there are people all across the country who benefit from this law, who are protected by this law, whose lives have been saved by this law.”
Obama is believed to have put this point directly to Trump when they talked soon after the election.
Privately many Democrats admit their best hope now could be offering Trump some form of political victory, so long as the plan survives more or less intact.

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Rough start for US Republicans on first day of Trump-era Congress

Author: 
Reuters
Tue, 2017-01-03
ID: 
1483481496145428200

WASHINGTON: The Republican-led US Congress had a rough start to its first session of the Donald Trump era on Tuesday when a public outcry that included a dressing-down from the president-elect prompted the House of Representatives to backtrack on its plans to defang an ethics watchdog.
It was supposed to have been a ceremonious beginning in which lawmakers set plans to enact Trump’s agenda of cutting taxes, repealing Obamacare and rolling back financial and environmental regulations.
With Trump set to be sworn in as president on Jan. 20, Republicans will control both the White House and Congress for the first time since 2007.
The moment was overshadowed, however, by a an uproar over a surprise move by Republicans in the House of Representatives in a closed-door meeting late on Monday to weaken the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which is in charge of investigating ethics accusations against lawmakers.
Trump, who campaigned on a pledge to “drain the swamp” and bring ethics reform to Washington, was not pleased by the timing.
“With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority,” he said on Twitter on Tuesday.
“Focus on tax reform, health care and so many other things of far greater importance!“
The ethics office was created in 2008 following several corruption scandals. Some lawmakers have charged in recent years that it has been too quick to investigate complaints from outside partisan groups.
Lawmakers wanted to have greater control of the watchdog, and inserted changes into a broader rules package, set to pass when the House convened on Tuesday.
Even before Trump’s tweet, many House Republicans, including top leaders, had opposed the measure and worried about its ramifications. Trump’s tweet prompted an emergency meeting and a quick change of course by Republicans.
“It was taken out by unanimous consent … and the House Ethics Committee will now examine those issues,” said AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan.

OBAMACARE IN SIGHTS
As expected, Ryan was re-elected speaker on a vote of 239-189. He was first elected speaker in October 2015 after predecessor John Boehner retired following repeated revolts by House conservatives.
The speaker election was part of the ceremony involved in the first meeting of the 115th Congress, as the 435 members of the House of Representatives and a third of the 100-member Senate were sworn in.
Ryan, who kept his distance from Trump during his campaign only to embrace him after his Nov. 8 victory, said Republicans understood from the 2016 election that Americans were dissatisfied with Washington.
“We hear you. We will do right by you and we will deliver,” Ryan said.
Trump has made clear he wants to move swiftly to enact proposals he outlined during the campaign such as simplifying the tax code and slashing corporate tax rates.
He also promised to make good on a Republican pledge to repeal and replace Democratic President Barack Obama’s 2010 signature Affordable Care Act — a law better known as Obamacare.
“People must remember that ObamaCare just doesn’t work, and it is not affordable,” Trump said on Twitter on Tuesday, adding: “It is lousy health care.”
In the first step of a process that could take years, Republican Senator Mike Enzi introduced a resolution on Tuesday to provide for repeal of the law.
House Republicans were set to clear the decks later for Obamacare repeal by tucking a measure to prevent Democrats from slowing or stopping repeal legislation into a vote on rules governing House procedures.
But Republicans face a dilemma on a replacement program to provide health insurance to people who do not have a plan at work or cannot afford private coverage.
The White House says the law has expanded coverage for 20 million Americans, including an estimated 13.8 million people who buy insurance on exchanges, many who receive tax credits to make it affordable.
“If Republicans repeal the Affordable Care Act they’ll be hastening the demise of Medicare that millions of seniors rely upon for their basic health care needs,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a news briefing.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not address Obamacare in remarks on the Senate floor on Tuesday. He has said his top priorities for the new Congress were dealing with the “massive overregulation” he said had been a brake on the US economy and making changes in the tax code to stop companies from moving jobs out of the country.
Republicans might use upcoming spending bills funding government agencies to try to kill some environmental and banking regulations. Trump also is expected to try to use his executive powers toward that end.

OBAMACARE DEFENSE
Leading Democrats warned of a fierce battle over Obamacare and said they planned to mobilize grassroots support for it. Obama is scheduled to meet on Wednesday with congressional Democrats to discuss strategies for fending off the Republican attacks on Obamacare.
But Senator Charles Schumer, in his first floor speech as the top Democrat in the Senate, said he was ready to work on some issues with Trump.
“If the president-elect proposes legislation that achieves that — on issues like infrastructure, trade, and closing the carried interest loophole, for instance — we will work in good faith to perfect and, potentially, enact it,” Schumer said.
“When he doesn’t, we will resist.”
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi told a packed House chamber that Democrats would work with Trump “wherever we can,” including reforming taxes and trade deals.
Pelosi also warned that Democrats would “stand our ground” and fight Trump and Republicans if they attempt to weaken environmental regulations or civil rights protections.

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Fire in historic Chilean city ‘practically’ controlled

Author: 
Agence France Presse
Tue, 2017-01-03
ID: 
1483470780773804300

SANTIAGO: A large fire that burned 150 homes in the historic port city of Valparaiso, Chile has been “practically” brought under control, an official said Tuesday.
Monday’s fire forced dozens of residents to take refuge in shelters and devoured green hillsides in the Laguna Verde neighborhood, on the southern outskirts of the colonial city.
“It is practically controlled. We just have to finish off the fire. Once that’s done, we’ll start clearing the debris and begin rebuilding,” said Mayor Gabriel Aldoney.
But authorities have warned the weather could complicate matters. High temperatures and strong winds were forecast for Tuesday afternoon in Valparaiso, where it is mid-summer.
Hundreds of firefighters were dispatched to battle the blaze Monday, along with water-dumping airplanes and helicopters.
The cause of the blaze was not known.
The fire left 19 people hurt, most suffering from smoke inhalation.
Nearly 150 people have sought refuge in emergency shelters.
Valparaiso’s many hills, narrow streets and wooden houses make it vulnerable to fires.
Last March, a fire killed one person and destroyed 600 hectares (1,500 acres) of woods around the city.
And in 2014, wildfires killed 15 people and destroyed some 3,000 houses.
Located 120 kilometers (75 miles) northwest of the capital Santiago, Valparaiso is the seat of the Chilean Congress and a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Dubbed the “jewel of the Pacific,” it spans 40 hills, offering stunning views of the sea.
Thousands of tourists stroll its narrow cobblestone streets and ride cable cars up the steep hills each year.
The city was a famous port of call in its heyday, from the mid-19th century to the early 20th.
But the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 brought its glory days to an abrupt end.
Today, it relies heavily on tourism, and living standards are lower than the average in Chile.

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Nigeria attacks S.Africa police after ‘barbaric’ death

Author: 
Agence France Presse
Tue, 2017-01-03
ID: 
1483473311714148200

LAGOS: Nigeria has urged “urgent” diplomatic action after one of its citizens died in a violent confrontation with South African police, in what they called a “barbaric” and “extra-judicial” killing.
The incident involves Nigerian man Victor Tochukwu Nnadi, who was allegedly choked as he lay handcuffed on a main street on Thursday.
Photos and film footage taken by witnesses show a prone body with a swollen face and blood coming from his mouth.
“The barbaric behavior of the perpetrators is not only unacceptable, but also calls for urgent attention by diplomatic authorities in Nigeria and South Africa,” said Abike Dabiri-Erewa, a senior aide to the president on foreign affairs and the Nigerian diaspora.
“While appealing to Nigerians to avoid crimes, the extra-judicial killing of Nigerians is… unacceptable,” she said.
South African police said Nnadi resisted arrest on suspicion of drug dealing and died after swallowing a dose of heroin that he was trying to sell.
A group representing expatriates, the Nigerian Union in South Africa (NUSA), complained there had been no examination to confirm he had died of heroin.
South African police say they are carrying out further investigations.
“The accused is innocent until proven guilty,” NUSA spokesman Emeka Ezinteje Collins told AFP. “This is not a crime to be a Nigerian. We tend to believe that Nigerian lives don’t matter to them.”
Nnadi’s brother, who tried to prevent the arrest, was himself detained and remains incarcerated.
According to NUSA, there are around 800,000 Nigerians in South Africa, many of them living in Johannesburg.
The community was badly hit by a wave of xenophobic violence in April 2015 that, according to an official toll, left seven people dead and thousands homeless.
In its latest report, an independent watchdog said 640 people had died from police brutality or in police custody in South Africa.

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Japan representative to Taiwan says bilateral ties at their “best”

Author: 
Reuters
Tue, 2017-01-03
ID: 
1483472945334101400

TAIPEI: Ties between Japan and Taiwan are at their best, Japan’s representative on the island said on Tuesday, at the unveiling of a new name for Japan’s representative office that has riled China.
Japan and Taiwan have extensive business ties and also share concern about an increasingly assertive mainland China.
But Japan, like most of the world’s countries, maintains only informal relations with Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province.
Japan has diplomatic ties with Beijing — recognizing China’s position that there is only “one China” and Taiwan is part of it.
“Currently Japan-Taiwan relations are at their best, but we should take further steps to develop a good relationship,” Mikio Numata, Japan’s chief representative, said at a ceremony with Taiwan’s vice foreign minister, Leo Lee.
The ceremony was to officially change the name of Japan’s office on the island — its de facto embassy — to the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association.
It had been called the “Interchange Association, Japan” since it was set up in the 1970s. Since then, Japan has grown to become Taiwan’s third largest trading partner and second largest source of foreign tourists.
China has criticized the name change because it includes the word “Taiwan.” Its foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang repeated opposition on Tuesday, saying China had lodged representations with Japan about it.
Japan should “not send any wrong messages to the Taiwan authorities or the international community and not cause new interference in Sino-Japan ties,” Geng told reporters in Beijing.
Numata said the name change was to make it clear who the parties were.
“The goal was to put ‘Japan’ and ‘Taiwan’ in the name to clearly point out the counterparts of the exchange,” he said.
Many major countries, including the United States and Britain, operate representative offices in Taiwan under various names. The US mission is the American Institute in Taiwan.
Business relations between the mainland and Taiwan have grown significantly over the past decade but tension has increased since the island elected a president from an independence-leaning party last year.
China distrusts President Tsai Ing-wen and has stepped up pressure on her following a protocol-breaking phone call between her and US President-elect Donald Trump.
Trump later cast doubt on the US commitment to the “one China” policy and on the weekend, he did not rule out meeting Tsai in future.
Geng said there should be no official contacts between the United States and Taiwan.
“The Taiwan issue has always been the most important and sensitive one in relations between China and the United States. We urge the US to fully recognize the sensitivity of the Taiwan issue,” Geng said
“I think that on the relevant issue Trump’s team is very clear.”

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Mozambique cease-fire to be extended 60 days: Opposition

Author: 
Associated Press
Tue, 2017-01-03
ID: 
1483470942863857100

JOHANNESBURG: The head of Mozambique’s opposition movement says a cease-fire declared a week ago will be extended for two months to allow peace talks to continue in a “favorable environment.”
Afonso Dhlakama’s announcement comes a day after he spoke by phone with President Filipe Nyusi, the Portuguese news agency Lusa reported Tuesday.
Talks between the government and the opposition Renamo movement, aided by international mediators, have been hurt by attacks on officials from both camps.
The two sides fought each other in a devastating civil war that ended in 1992. The ruling Frelimo party won 2014 elections, but Renamo alleged fraud and wants a bigger role in the government as well as more autonomy in areas it dominates.

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Brazil chases escaped inmates after bloody prison riot

Author: 
Agence France Presse
Tue, 2017-01-03
ID: 
1483470680613791300

MANAUS, BRAZIL: Brazilian police staged a massive manhunt Tuesday for scores of convicts who escaped during a prison riot that ended with 56 inmates killed by their rivals, many of them beheaded.
In all, 184 inmates escaped from two prisons in Amazonas state as a local drug gang took gruesome revenge on members of a rival gang, authorities said.
Of those, 144 remain at large and 40 have been recaptured, according to the latest count.
Police have set up roadblocks in the area and deployed teams to track down the remaining convicts.
The initial riot at the Anisio Jobim Penitentiary Complex in the state capital, Manaus, was followed by uprisings at two other prisons.
Authorities swiftly brought them under control in a crack-down — but not before 72 had escaped from the nearby Antonio Trindade Penal Institute.
They joined the 112 who had already escaped through a network of tunnels discovered at the Anisio Jobim prison.
Besides the 56 inmates killed at Anisio Jobim, four were killed in fighting between prisoners at the Puraquequara Penitentiary Unit, also in Amazonas state.
Despite the massive manhunt, one alleged escapee appeared to mock the authorities on Facebook.
The man, Brayan Bremer, posted pictures of himself and other purported escapees giving the thumbs-up sign and feasting on fruit against a backdrop of thick vegetation.
“I’m coming, watch out single ladies,” said one post.
Officials have not confirmed the account belongs to an escaped prisoner.
But it went viral in Brazil, getting 14,000 “likes” on Facebook and inspiring instant memes of the prisoner’s face plastered on posters for famous jailbreak movies like “The Shawshank Redemption” and TV series “Prison Break.”
The riot was no laughing matter, though.
Authorities described a horrifying scene of decapitated and brutalized bodies strewn around the prison when they regained control Monday morning after a riot that raged through the night.
Bloodied and burned bodies were stacked in a concrete prison yard and piled in carts, said an AFP photographer at the scene.
The prisoners took 12 guards hostage, who have now been freed.
Authorities blamed the riot on fighting between the Family of the North (FDN), a powerful local gang, and rivals from the First Capital Command (PCC), one of Brazil’s largest gangs.
The PCC’s base is in Sao Paulo, some 2,700 kilometers (1,650 miles) to the southeast.
The riot was the deadliest in more than a decade for Brazil’s underfunded and overcrowded jails.
In October, prison riots triggered by fighting between rival gangs killed 33 people.
And in 1992, a riot in Sao Paulo’s Carandiru prison left 111 people dead.
Prisons are often controlled in Brazil by drug gangs, whose turf wars on the outside are also fought out among inmates.
Overcrowding exacerbates the problem, human rights activists say.
Brazil’s justice ministry said in a 2014 report that the country’s prisons need 50 percent more capacity to handle the current number of inmates: 622,000.
That is the world’s fourth-largest prison population after the US, China and Russia, according to the report.

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