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Al-Qaeda remains ‘resilient’, works closely with LeT: UN report

NEW YORK, July 30: Terror group Al-Qaeda remains “resilient”, continues to consider Afghanistan a safe sanctuary for its leaders and works closely with the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Haqqani network despite being overtaken by the Islamic State, a UN counter-terrorism watchdog set up by the Security Council has said in a new report.

The Islamic State itself which has diminished with the loss of its so-called “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, has evolved into a “mainly covert network” and its leadership is focusing on establishing “establish sleeper cells at the local level in preparation for eventual resurgence”, according to the 24th report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team that was submitted to the UN Security Council Al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee this month.

Even in its current form, the report by UN’s terrorism watchdog set up by Resolution 1267 of the Security Council, said the Islamic State poses the most “immediate threat to global security” and remains stronger than Al Qaeda in terms of its “finances, media profile and current combat experience and terrorist expertise”.

But Al Qaeda ‘remains resilient”, the UN body said although there are questions about its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s health and the group’s succession plan.

It “continues to cooperate closely with Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Haqqani Network”, the report said underscoring the threat these Pakistan-based terrorist groups continue to pose for the region and the world. A recent US department of defense reported the existence of hundreds of LeT fighter in Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda remains the source of the largest collection of foreign fighters, which is Afghanistan. And the terrorist outfit responsible for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks remains a potent forced in Afghanistan. Its “members continue to function routinely as military and religious instructors for the Taliban” the report said.

And it remains entrenched there. “Al-Qaeda considers Afghanistan a continuing safe haven for its leadership, relying on its long-standing and strong relationship with the Taliban leadership,” the UN body said.

Jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny ‘poisoned’: Doctor

MOSCOW, July 29: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was “poisoned” by an unidentified toxic substance and doctors have sent him back to jail despite his condition, his lawyer and personal physician said Monday.

The 43-year-old, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, was rushed to hospital on Sunday with swollen eyelids, discharge in the eye and a rash on his upper body, doctor Anastasia Vasilyeva said.

“It is indeed poisoning by some unknown chemical substance,” his lawyer Olga Mikhailova told reporters outside Moscow’s hospital No 64, which treated Navalny.

Vasilyeva wrote on Facebook that “some toxic agent may be the reason for Alexei Navalny’s ‘illness’“.

Navalny has been in jail since last week for calling an unauthorised rally.

After his hospitalisation on Sunday doctors diagnosed Navalny with a skin condition, Vasilyeva said.

They treated him with a steroid and he got better, but he has been sent back to jail despite needing to continue the treatment, she told reporters.

She also said she suspected his prison cell could be contaminated. Vasilyeva is an ophthalmologist who had treated Navalny previously for an eye injury.

She accused the hospital doctors of not wanting to find out what caused Navalny’s condition. “Alexei has been clearly sent back to the detention centre on orders from above,” she said, referring to the authorities.

Navalny was jailed for calling a rally against authorities’ move to block prominent independent candidates from taking part in Moscow parliament elections in September.

Death toll in Nigeria Boko Haram funeral attack rises to 65: Official

GAJIRAM (Nigeria), July 29: An attack this weekend by Boko Haram fighters on a funeral in northeast Nigeria has left 65 people dead, almost triple the initial toll, a local official said Sunday.

Dozens more bodies were discovered following the assault Saturday by gunmen on a village close to the regional capital Maiduguri.

“It is 65 people dead and 10 injured,” local government chairman Muhammed Bulama said.

Bulama said more than 20 people died in the initial attack on a funeral gathering. Dozens more were killed as they tried to chase after the jihadists.

The leader of a local anti-Boko Haram militia confirmed the death toll, while giving a slightly different account of the attack.

Bunu Bukar Mustapha told AFP 23 people were killed as they returned from the funeral and “the remaining 42 were killed when they pursued the terrorists”.

AFP journalists at the scene saw houses burnt in the attack. Relatives collected the bodies of those slain for burial.

Bulama said he thought the latest attack was in retaliation for the killing two weeks ago of 11 Boko Haram fighters by local residents when the jihadists approached their village. The residents also captured 10 automatic rifles.

Boko Haram fighters have repeatedly attacked the surrounding Nganzai district.

In September last year, the group killed eight people and stole livestock in two villages in the area after residents tried to stop them from taking their animals.

Boko Haram has waged a decade-long campaign of violence in northeast Nigeria that has killed around 27,000 people and displaced more than two million.

There are persistent attacks despite repeated claims from the Nigerian government that it has broken the insurgency.

The jihadists have splintered between the Boko Haram faction loyal to historic leader Abubakar Shekau and an affiliate of the Islamic State group.

Shekau’s group tends to hit softer targets including civilians, while the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) has since last year ratcheted up its campaign against the Nigerian military.

In June, 30 people were killed by a triple suicide bombing targeting football fans in Konduga, 38 kilometres (24 miles) from Maiduguri. The attack had the hallmarks of Shekau’s faction.

Late Thursday, the group attacked a camp for displaced people outside the state capital, killing two residents and looting food supplies after burning a nearby military base.

Communities have increasingly turned to self-defence groups to protect themselves against the jihadist attacks.

Vigilantes and local hunters have taken up arms to safeguard local residents amid widespread complaints that the military does not do enough to defend them.

At least 20 killed, 50 injured in attack on VP candidate’s office in Kabul: Govt

KABUL, July 29: At least 20 people were killed and 50 injured in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul on Sunday in a suicide bombing and gun battle at vice presidential candidate Amrullah Saleh’s office, the government said in a statement on Monday.

Saleh, a running mate of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, was slightly injured in the attack.

Afghan forces killed three militants who entered Saleh’s four-storey office after a suicide bomber blew himself up during rush hour, said the interior ministry.

More than 150 civilians were rescued during the six-hour-long operation, said interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi.

No militant group has claimed responsibility for the attack that came only hours after Ghani and Saleh, along with more than a dozen Afghan politicians, launched their two-month long election campaign.

Presidential polls are expected to be held on Sept. 28 but the security situation has been deteriorating across the country with the Taliban and Islamic State fighters mounting near-daily attack on Afghan forces, government employees and civilians.

Modi features in Netanyahu’s election campaign banners

TEL AVIV, July 28: Ahead of an unprecedented snap poll on September 17, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party has displayed banners featuring his pictures with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in a bid to lure support by presenting him in a “different league”.

The Likud party headquarters on Metzudat Ze’ev 38, King George Street, in Tel Aviv was seen with election advertisement banners depicting Netanyahu’s closeness with the three world leaders with Hebrew text on top saying, Netanyahu (in a) “different league”.

Netanyahu’s campaign has focused on bringing out his close chemistry with the world leaders and trying to project him as a leader of unmatched stature in Israeli politics which is crucial for the country’s security.

The Israeli premier will be travelling to India on September 9 to meet Modi, just eight days before the repeat polls in the Jewish state, in what some political analysts feel is a photo-op to project his acceptance worldwide and prop up his campaign just before the polls.

Police Fire Tear Gas At Hong Kong protestors

HONG KONG, July 27: Hong Kong police fired tear gas Saturday at protesters holding a banned rally against suspected triad gangs who beat up pro-democracy demonstrators near the Chinese border last weekend, tipping the finance hub further into chaos.
Riot police fired multiple rounds of tear gas in Yuen Long after tense standoffs with protesters, some of whom were throwing projectiles and had surrounded a police van.

Public anger has been raging since last Sunday when a gang of men in white t-shirts, armed with poles and batons, set upon anti-government protesters and bystanders in Yuen Long station, leaving at least 45 people needing hospital treatment.

The brazen assault was the latest escalation in seven weeks of unprecedented political violence that shows little sign of abating as the city's pro-Beijing leaders refuse to budge.

Thousands have marched in Hong Kong to demand an independent inquiry into the police's use of excessive force and the unconditional release of those arrested.

Police have been heavily criticised for being too slow to respond to Sunday's violence, fueling accusations of collusion or turning a blind eye to the pro-government mob -- allegations the force has denied.

Hong Kong has been plunged into its worst crisis in recent history after millions of demonstrators took to the streets -- and sporadic violent confrontations erupted between police and pockets of hardcore protesters.

The demonstrations were triggered by a controversial bill which would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, but have evolved into a call for wider democratic reforms and a halt to sliding freedoms.

Saturday's violence compounds the political crisis with the city's pro-Beijing leadership seemingly unable, or unwilling, to end the chaos.

India asks Pak to act now against terror groups

NEW DELHI, July 25: Two days after Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s admission that roughly 40,000 terrorists still operated from territory under Islamabad’s control, India asked Pakistan on Thursday to take credible action against terror camps that existed in the country.

Raveesh Kumar, Spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, said that since Pakistan PM had “acknowledged presence of training camps & the fact that terrorists were being trained & sent to Kashmir to fight,” it was now time for the Pakistan government to take “credible action against the terror camps” that existed in the areas under its control.

Khan had acknowledged the presence of a large number of militants in his country during an interaction at the US Institute of Peace, a Washington-based think tank funded by the US Congress on Tuesday while on a three-day trip to the United States. Khan contended his government was being backed by the powerful military in efforts to disarm the militants.

Khan had claimed that his government was the first to decide against armed militias inside Pakistan. “Until we came into power, the governments did not have the political will, because when you talk about the militant groups, they still have about 30,000 to 40,000 armed people who have been trained… have fought either in Afghanistan, maybe in Kashmir,” he had said.

His government, he claimed, was taking over their (militants) institutes and seminaries and placing administrators to monitor and control.

Pakistan in the past has rarely accepted to the presence of militants and their training camps on its soil despite several dossiers of evidence presented by the Indian government.

India has accused the deep state within Pakistan of using militancy as a strategic asset against its forces in Kashmir, Pakistan, however, has mostly been in denial.

Islamabad is in a race against time to act against terror financing of UN designated terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) before October 2019 or risk getting relegated to the black list of countries rated under the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF) agreements.

India had argued that Pakistan be blacklisted by the FATF following a series of terrorist attacks in India, including the 14 February Pulwama attack in which 40 Indian security personnel were killed.

40,000 militants still on Pak soil: Imran Khan

WASHINGTON, July 24: “Successive governments in Pakistan did not tell the truth to the United States...”

“There were 40 different militant groups operating within Pakistan...”

“The country still has about 30,000 to 40,000 militants who have been trained and fought in Afghanistan or Kashmir...”

“Jaish-e-Mohammed was operating in India…”

These are some of the revelations Pakistan Prime Minster Imran Khan has made at various functions during his visit to the United States, as reported by news agencies.

Speaking at a function on Tuesday he said that successive governments in Pakistan did not tell the truth to the United States, in particular in the last 15 years, adding that there were 40 different militant groups operating in his country.

“We were fighting the US war on terror. Pakistan has nothing to do with 9/11. Al-Qaeda was in Afghanistan. There were no militant Taliban in Pakistan. But we joined the US war. Unfortunately, when things went wrong, where I blame my government, we did not tell the US exactly the truth on the ground,” said Imran Khan.

He was addressing a Capitol Hill reception hosted by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Chairperson of the Congressional Pakistan Caucus.

There were 40 different militant groups operating within Pakistan. So Pakistan went through a period where people like us were worried about could we survive it. So while the US expected us to do more and help the US win the war, Pakistan at that time was fighting for its own existence,” he said.

Speaking at another function at the United States Institute of Peace during his three-day visit to the nation, Khan said that his country still has about 30,000 to 40,000 militants “who have been trained and fought in some part of Afghanistan or Kashmir.”

“There was a watershed in Pakistani politics. In 2014, the Pakistani Taliban slaughtered 150 schoolchildren at Army Public School. All the political parties signed the National Action Plan and we all decided after that, that we will not allow any militant groups to operate inside Pakistan,” Khan said.

“Until we came into power, the governments did not have the political will, because when you talk about militant groups we still have about 30,000-40,000 armed people who have been trained and fought in some part of Afghanistan or Kashmir,” he revealed.

He also admitted that the Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed was operating in India.

He said that even before the Pulwama terrorist attack in which a convoy of Indian security forces were attacked by a car bomb, Pakistan had decided to disarm “all militant groups” and all the political parties had backed it.

On Februray 14, 2019, an attack on an Army convoy in Pulwama left 40 dead and resulted in a retaliatory strike by the Indian Air Force in Balakot on a terror camp of Jaish, which had claimed responsibility for the attack on jawans.

“But because this group claimed responsibility, which was in India as well -- Jaish-e-Mohammed was operating in India -- Pakistan suddenly came in the limelight,” Imran Khan added.

“Even before this had happened, we had already decided that we will disarm all militant groups in Pakistan. And it is Pakistan’s interest, I repeat it is in our interest, because the country has had enough of militant groups,” he added.

Khan admitted that whenever there was progress in improving ties between India and Pakistan it was met by some incident that caused a reversal. But he did not say who was behind the incidents that set back peace process.

New British PM Boris Johnson gives top cabinet job to Priti Patel

LONDON, July 24: Priti Patel, who was sacked as international development secretary in 2017, was on Wednesday appointed to the key role of Home secretary by the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson – the senior-most portfolio held by an Indian-origin MP in British history.

London-born Patel, 47, has been MP from Witham in Essex since 2010. An admirer of Margaret Thatcher, she was in the forefront on behalf of the David Cameron government (2010-2015) during the November 2015 visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to London.

The office of the Home secretary is among the UK’s four ‘Great Offices of State’, others being the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Foreign Secretary.

A fervent Brexiteer who campaigned with Johnson during the 2016 EU referendum campaign, Patel’s role as home secretary puts her in charge of immigration, among other sensitive issues such as security.

Patel will have to take a call on the large number of Indian students caught up in the language test cheating row that has increasingly come on the centrestage during the home secretaryship of her predecessor, Sajid Javid.

She will also be under pressure to implement her promise made during the referendum campaign to relax visa norms to allow the recruitment of chefs from the Indian sub-continent in the UK’s struggling Indian restaurant industry.

Patel was nominated as the ‘Indian Diaspora Champion’ by Cameron and played a frontline role in interactions between the government and the 1.5 million-strong Indian community in the UK, visiting Gujarat and India several times in recent years.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Patel international development secretary in July 2016 but sacked her in November 2017 after it emerged that she held unauthorised meetings with the Israeli government during a holiday.

Patel’s appointment is part of Johnson’s new-look government that excluded several leading lights in May’s team. It remains a Conservative government, but Johnson brought in new faces to prepare for the UK leaving the EU in 99 days on October 31.

Key roles were also expected to be given to junior ministers in the May government, Alok Sharma and Rishi Sunak. Another pro-Brexit Indian-origin Conservative MP, Suella Braverman, may also be appointed to Johnson’s team being put together on Wednesday evening and Thursday.

Sajid Javid, the Pakistan-origin home secretary in the May government with a background in banking, was appointed chancellor. He was one of the candidates for the prime ministership, but was voted out in the early stages.

Kashmir issue won’t be resolved bilaterally: Imran Khan

WASHINGTON, July 23: Buoyed by US President Donald Trump’s offer of mediation on Kashmir, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday said that the contentious issue between the two South Asian neighbours can never be resolved bilaterally.

Khan’s statement came hours after Trump offered to be the “mediator” between India and Pakistan on the Kashmir issue as the two leaders met at the White House where they discussed a host of issues, including the Afghan peace process.

The Indian government has denied Trump’s astonishing claim that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to mediate.

Khan, who is on a three-day official visit to the US, welcomed Trump’s offer of mediation.

“Bilaterally there will never be (a resolution of the Kashmir dispute),” Khan told Fox News, the favourite channel of president Trump. “There was one point when there was General (Pervez) Musharraf and Prime Minister (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee of India when we did get close to the resolution of the Kashmiri issue. But since then we are poles apart and I really feel that India should come on the table; US could play a big part. President Trump certainly can play a big part,” Khan said hours after he met Trump at his Oval Office for the first time at the White House.

“We are talking about 1.3 billion people on this earth. Imagine the dividends of peace if somehow that issue could be resolved,” Khan said when the Fox news anchor read out the Indian statement that it has been India’s consistent position that all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally.

“Any engagement with Pakistan would require an end to cross border terrorism. The Simla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration provide the basis to resolve all issues between India and Pakistan bilaterally,” India said on Monday, refuting that Prime Minister Modi ever asked for US mediation on Kashmir.

Khan welcomed Trump’s remarks, saying “President, I can tell you that, right now, you would have the prayers of over a billion people if you can mediate and resolve this issue”.

Responding to another question, Khan said Pakistan will give up its nuclear weapons if India did so. “Yes, because nuclear war is not an option. Between Pakistan and India, the idea of nuclear war is actually self-destruction because we have two-and-a-half thousand-mile border.

“I think there’s a realisation in the subcontinent that and (if) there was some incident happened last February and we again had tensions at the border... So, there’s a realisation and that’s why I asked, president Trump that if he could play his role, the US as the most powerful country in the world, the only country that could mediate between Pakistan and India and resolve the only issue is Kashmir,” he said.

“The only reason for 70 years that we have not been able to live like civilised neighbours is because of Kashmir,” Khan said.

India has not been engaging with Pakistan since an attack on the Air Force base at Pathankot in January of 2016 by Pakistan-based terrorists, maintaining that talks and terror cannot go together.

Boris Johnson wins contest to become next UK Prime Minister

LONDON, July 23: Boris Johnson, one of the most known British politicians abroad, was on Tuesday elected leader of the ruling Conservative party and will become the next prime minister on Wednesday, taking on the challenging Brexit in-tray that consumed his predecessor, Theresa May.

Boris Johnson, 55, a former journalist educated in Eton and Oxford, won the leadership contest against foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who polled 92,152 of the 1.6 lakh votes from members of the party, which is leading a minority government with the Democratic Unionist Party.

Theresa May will formally step down before Queen Elizabeth on Wednesday after attending her last Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons. Johnson will then be invited to Buckingham Palace and return to Downing Street as prime minister and address the nation.

The Tory government has a thin majority of two in the House of Commons, which may dwindle further if the party loses the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election in Wales on Thursday. It is one of the first tests Johnson will face as prime minister.

Anticipating Johnson’s election and taking over as the prime minister, ministers in the outgoing May government have symbolically resigned or announced they will resign as a sign of opposition to him, opening another divide within the fractious ruling party.

Faced with the task of uniting the party and country, as well as navigating the Brexit minefield, Johnson, a former two-term London mayor, is likely to forego summer holidays because the new deadline to leave the European Union is three months away, October 31.

Besides gaffes and errors in his career, Johnson has attracted renewed criticism over his promise to leave the EU on October 31, with or without an agreement. Senior Tories are grouping together to ensure that an economically crippling no-deal Brexit does not happen.

Every step of the Johnson government is likely to be closely watched, including his composition of the team of ministers: how many pro-Brexiteers and Remainers would be included, or not. Several ministers have announced they would not serve under Johnson.

However, Johnson, who was married to Indian-origin Marina Wheeler and has several links to India, is expected to bring back Priti Patel to the cabinet, and promote junior ministers Alok Sharma and Rishi Sunak, son-in-law of Infosys founder N R Narayana Murthy.

Iran claims it has captured 17 CIA spies, some sentenced to death: Report

DUBAI, July 22: Iran has captured 17 spies working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and some have been sentenced to death, Iranian media reported on Monday.

State television quoted the Intelligence Ministry as saying it had broken up a CIA spying ring and captured 17 suspects. A ministry official said some of those arrested had been sentenced to death, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.

The announcement comes after three months of spiralling confrontation with the West that began when new tighter U.S. sanctions took effect at the start of May. Last week Iran captured a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz after Britain’s Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar in July 4.

“The identified spies were employed in sensitive and vital private sector centres in the economic, nuclear, infrastructural, military and cyber areas... where they collected classified information,” said a ministry statement read on state television.

It was not immediately clear if the arrests were linked to the case in which Iran said in June it had exposed a large cyber espionage network it alleged was run by the CIA, and that several U.S. spies had been arrested in different countries as a result of this action.

Thousands march in fresh wave of protests in Hong Kong

HONG KONG, July 21: Tens of thousands marched in sweltering heat in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong on Sunday as anti-government protests show no signs of let-up, with anger over an extradition bill morphing into a fresh front against what many see as an erosion of freedoms.

Millions have rallied over the past two months in an unprecedented show of force against Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, triggering the worst social turmoil to rock the former British colony since it returned to Chinese rule 22 years ago.

Protesters marched in temperatures of around 31 degrees Celsius from Victoria Park in the bustling shopping district of Causeway Bay to Wan Chai, just one metro stop away, after police shortened the route, citing safety concerns.

Rally organisers lost their appeal to have the march route end at the Court of Final Appeal in Central district, close to where police in June fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse activists.

“I think many people will just march on towards Central,” said pro-democracy legislator Claudia Mo.

“The police are terribly worried, I understand, about possible scuffles, clashes ... violence around the government and legislative complexes and the police headquarters.”

Authorities used massive blue and white water barriers to barricade government and police headquarters, while global bank HSBC, in a rare move, pulled down large metal barriers on the street level of its gleaming skyscraper building.

While most of the rallies have passed off peacefully, some have erupted into violence late at night when more radical protesters have clashed with police.

In images beamed live to the world in recent weeks, protesters besieged police headquarters and on July 1 — the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule — stormed and ransacked the city's legislature.

The latest protest comes a day after tens of thousands gathered to voice support for the police force, who some have accused of using excessive force against activists, and call for an end to the violence.

While some at Sunday's march are calling for universal suffrage, a key demand is for the now-shelved extradition bill, which would have allowed people to be sent to China for trial, to be fully withdrawn.

Other demands include charges against protesters to be dropped and for an independent commission of inquiry into complaints of excessive use of force by police.

“I came back to Hong Kong this summer because of the protests,” said Mandy Ko, 27, who is originally from Hong Kong and now lives in Australia.

“My spirit is still with Hong Kong people.”

Last weekend, two initially peaceful protests degenerated into running skirmishes between baton-wielding police and activists, resulting in scores of injuries and more than 40 arrests.

Ms. Lam has apologised for the turmoil the extradition bill has caused and declared it “dead”. Opponents of the bill, which they fear could be used to silence dissent, say nothing short of its withdrawal will do.

Under the terms of the handover from Britain in 1997, Hong Kong was allowed to retain extensive freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland under a “one country, two systems” formula, including an independent judiciary and right to protest.

But for many Hong Kong residents, the extradition bill is the latest step in a relentless march toward mainland control.

The protests have at times paralysed parts of the financial district, shut government offices and disrupted business operations across the city. Officials have also warned about the impact of the unrest on the economy.

A commentary published in the Chinese Communist Party's People's Daily newspaper on Sunday said: “If violence continues, it will inevitably deal a greater blow to Hong Kong's prosperity and stability.”

China has condemned the violent protests as an “undisguised challenge” to the one country, two systems formula.

Police late on Friday seized a cache of explosives and weapons in an industrial building in the New Territories district of Tsuen Wan. Three people were arrested in connection with the seizure, which police described as the largest ever of its kind in Hong Kong.

They said it was unclear if the explosives were related to the protest.

Britain calls ship seizure ‘hostile act’ as Iran releases video of capture

LONDON, July 21: Britain on Saturday denounced Iran’s seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf as a “hostile act” and rejected Tehran’s explanation that it seized the vessel because it had been involved in an accident.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards posted a video online showing speedboats pulling alongside the Stena Impero tanker, its name clearly visible. Troops wearing ski masks and carrying machine guns rappelled to its deck from a helicopter, the same tactics used by British Royal Marines to seize an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar two weeks ago.

Friday’s action in the global oil trade’s most important waterway has been viewed in the West as a major escalation after three months of confrontation that has already taken Iran and the United States to the brink of war.

It follows threats from Tehran to retaliate for Britain’s July 4 seizure of the Iranian tanker Grace 1, accused of violating sanctions on Syria.

British Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt called the incident a “hostile act”. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he had expressed “extreme disappointment” by phone to his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Britain also summoned the Iranian charge d’affaires in London.

A spokesman for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Brigadier-General Ramezan Sharif, said Tehran had seized the ship in the Strait of Hormuz despite the “resistance and interference” of a British warship which had been escorting it. No British warship was visible in the video posted by the Guards.

Iran’s Fars news agency said the Guards had taken control of the Stena Impero on Friday after it collided with an Iranian fishing boat whose distress call it ignored.

The vessel, carrying no cargo, was taken to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. It will remain there with its 23 crew - 18 of them Indians - while the accident is investigated, Iranian news agencies quoted the head of Ports and Maritime Organisation in southern Hormozgan province, Allahmorad Afifipour, as saying.

In a letter to the U.N. Security Council, Britain said the tanker was approached by Iranian forces when it was in Omani territorial waters exercising its lawful right of passage, and the action “constitutes illegal interference.”

“Current tensions are extremely concerning, and our priority is to de-escalate. We do not seek confrontation with Iran,” the letter said. “But it is unacceptable and highly escalatory to threaten shipping going about its legitimate business through internationally recognised transit corridors.”

Zarif told Hunt that the ship must go through a legal process before it can be released, Iran’s ISNA news agency reported.

The strait, between Iran and the Arabian peninsula, is the sole outlet for exports of most Middle Eastern oil, and the seizure sent oil prices sharply higher. The United States, which tightened sanctions against Iran in May with the aim of halting its oil exports altogether, has been warning for months of an Iranian threat to shipping in the strait.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he also discussed the situation with Hunt, his British counterpart.

“We talked about what they’ve seen, what they know, and how they’re beginning to think about how they will respond,” Pompeo said in an interview with the Washington Examiner that was published on Saturday by the State Department. “Iran is in a place today that they have taken themselves.”

Another oil tanker, the Mesdar, was also boarded by Iranian personnel on Friday and temporarily forced to divert toward Iran, but later was allowed to continue on its route through the strait. On Saturday Algeria’s APS news agency said the Mesdar was owned by Algeria’s state oil company Sonatrach.

France, Germany and the European Union joined Britain in condemning the seizure.

The three big European countries are signatories to a 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers that Washington undermined by quitting last year, setting Iran’s already fragile relations with the West on a downward spiral.

Under the pact, Iran agreed to restrict nuclear work in return for lifting sanctions. The European countries opposed the Trump administration’s decision to abandon the agreement last year, but have so far failed to fulfil promises to Iran of providing alternative means for it to access world trade.

“Just spoke to ... Zarif and expressed extreme disappointment that having assured me last Saturday Iran wanted to de-escalate situation, they have behaved in the opposite way,” Hunt wrote on Twitter. “This has to be about actions not words if we are to find a way through.”

Earlier he said London’s reaction would be “considered but robust” and it would ensure the safety of its shipping.

On Friday, Hunt said the solution would be found via diplomacy and London was “not looking at military options.” Britain’s government said it had advised British shipping to stay out of the Hormuz area for an interim period.

During the past three months of escalation, the United States and Iran come as close as ever to direct armed conflict. In June, Tehran shot down a U.S. drone and President Donald Trump ordered retaliatory air strikes, only to call them off just minutes before were to have been carried out.

The vessel had been heading to a port in Saudi Arabia and suddenly changed course after passing through the strait.

The United States has blamed Iran for a series of attacks on shipping around the Strait of Hormuz. Tehran has rejected the allegations. Washington also said it had this week downed an Iranian drone near where the Stena Impero was seized.

The United States is sending military personnel and resources to Saudi Arabia for the first time since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

UK envoy said Trump ditched Iran deal to spite Barack Obama: Report

LONDON, July 13: Britain’s ambassador to Washington believed US President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal because it was associated with his predecessor Barack Obama, according to leaked documents published Saturday.

“The administration is set upon an act of diplomatic vandalism, seemingly for ideological and personality reasons -- it was Obama’s deal,” ambassador Kim Darroch wrote in a diplomatic cable in May 2018.

The cable was included in a second batch of leaked reports published by the Mail on Sunday newspaper, the first of which caused Darroch to resign earlier this week.

Separately, the Sunday Times reported that a government investigation into the leak had identified a civil servant as the person responsible.

Working with officials from the National Cyber Security Centre, part of spy agency GCHQ, and MI6, the probe has homed in on a suspect who had access to historical Foreign Office files, the paper said.

The first leaked reports authored by Darroch were published last weekend, causing major turmoil between Britain and its closest ally.

The ambassador was reported to have described the White House as “inept”, prompting Trump to claim the ambassador was a “pompous fool” whom he would no longer deal with.

Darroch resigned on Wednesday, saying it was now “impossible” to do his job.

In May 2018, Britain’s then-foreign minister Boris Johnson went to Washington to try to persuade Trump not to abandon the Iran deal.

In a cable sent afterwards, Darroch reportedly indicated there were divisions in Trump’s team over the decision, and criticised the White House for a lack of long-term strategy.

“They can’t articulate any ‘day-after’ strategy; and contacts with State Department this morning suggest no sort of plan for reaching out to partners and allies, whether in Europe or the region,” he wrote.

He reported back that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during his talks with Johnson, “did some subtle distancing by talking throughout about ‘the President’s decision’“.

The newspaper reported that, according to Darroch, Pompeo also hinted that he had tried but failed to “sell” a revised text to Trump.

In 2015, the United States, China, Britain, France, Russia and Germany signed a deal with Iran to limit its nuclear programme in exchange for a partial lifting of international economic sanctions.

Trump had long been critical of the deal and withdrew the United States on May 8, 2018.

As well as a government investigation into the leaks, police are also looking into a potential breach of the Official Secrets Act.

London’s Metropolitan Police sparked widespread condemnation on Saturday after a warning to journalists that publishing leaked documents could be a criminal matter.

Johnson, who is now in the race to succeed May as prime minister, said that prosecuting media outlets would have a “chilling effect on public debate”.

ROC welcomes latest US arms sales to Taiwan

By Deepak Arora

TAIPEI, July 9: Republic of China's Foreign Ministry has welcomed the latest arms sales to Taiwan approved by the U.S. Department of State and said it was sincerely appreciated by the government and the people.

The decision reflects the commitment of the U.S. to the Taiwan Relations Act and Six Assurances, as well as the importance placed on ensuring the country maintains robust defensive capabilities in the 40th year of the TRA, the MOFA said.

Major items included in the sales are 108 M1A2T Abrams tanks, 250 Stinger surface-to-air missiles, and related equipment and services. The tanks and Stingers are valued at around US$2 billion and US$223.56 million, respectively.

This is the second U.S. weapons package for Taiwan this year and fourth under the administration of President Donald J. Trump. In April, the U.S. Department of State greenlighted a pilot training program and maintenance and logistics support estimated at US$500 million for the country’s F-16 fighters at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.

According to the MOFA, Taiwan is described as a reliable, capable and natural partner contributing to U.S. missions around the world in the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report released June 1 by the U.S. Department of Defense.

As a strong, prosperous and democratic Taiwan is part of the rules-based international order, the U.S. is pursuing a sound partnership and will faithfully implement the TRA as part of a broader commitment to the security of the Indo-Pacific, the report added.

The MOFA said in light of China’s ongoing campaign of coercion against Taiwan, U.S. arms sales are instrumental in maintaining cross-strait and regional peace and stability.

Taiwan will continue investing in national defense and enhancing security cooperation with the U.S. and other like-minded partners to safeguard the country’s freedom and democratic way of life, the ministry added.

UN Releases Second Critical Kashmir Report, India Calls it Output of 'Prejudiced Mindset'

NEW DELHI, July 8: In a second report on Kashmir in 13 months, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has reiterated its accusations about the rising graph of human rights violations and the killing of civilians by state authorities over the past one year.

In June 2018, the then UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein had released the OHCHR’s first report ever on the human rights situation in both parts of Kashmir. While Pakistan welcomed it, India had dismissed the report, calling it biased.

Over a year later, an ‘Update’ published under new chief Michelle Bachelet has reached similar conclusions about continuing human rights violations in Kashmir.

Significantly, it also calls on the UN Human Rights Council, of which India is a member, to “consider… the possible establishment of a commission of inquiry to conduct a comprehensive independent international investigations into allegations of human rights violations in Kashmir”.

The latest report, which chronicles the period from May 2018 to April 2019, also refers to the Pulwama suicide bomb attack which killed about 40 Indian security personnel and how it led to further tension in Kashmir amidst additional strain on relations between India and Pakistan.

The report had been shared with both India and Pakistan on June 11. Following that, India’s letter to the OHCHR was delivered on June 17, with a request that the report not be published.

The latest OHCHR update has also been rejected by India as the output of a “prejudiced mindset” while claiming that it “legitimises terrorism”. MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said that a “strong protest” has been registered with the OHCHR.

“The release of such an update has not only called into question the seriousness of OHCHR but also its alignment with the larger approach of the United Nations,” he said.

The report notes that Jammu and Kashmir civil society organisations have compiled a list of deaths of 160 civilians in 2018, “which is believed to be the highest number in over one decade”. Of the 160 civilians, 71 were allegedly killed by Indian security forces, 43 by members of “armed groups or by unidentified gunmen” and 29 due to shelling by Pakistan troops along the Line of Control.

The OHCHR report noted that the figures provided by the Indian ministry of home affairs are lower, listing the death of 37 civilians, 238 terrorists and 86 security forces personnel till December 2, 2018. In contrast, Kashmiri civil society groups also cited a higher number of deaths of 267 terrorists and 159 Indian security personnel.

The UN body also noted that there is no information of any new investigation into “excessive use of forces leading to casualties” or the status of the five investigations into extra judicial executions in 2016.

“The Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir did not establish any investigations into civilian killings in 2017. No prosecutions have been reported. It does not appear that Indian security forces have been asked to re-evaluate or change their crowd-control techniques or rules of engagement.”

The report stated that despite international concerns, Indian security personnel regularly used shotguns as a means of crowd control, “even though they are not deployed elsewhere in India”.

The OHCHR report cited the case of a 19-month-old girl who was hit by pellets in her right eye in November 2018. “According to information from Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, where most people injured by shotgun pellets are treated, a total of 1,253 people have been blinded by the metal pellets used by security forces from mid-2016 to end of 2018,” it stated.

The report again criticised the return of “cordon and search operations” in 2017, which “enable a range of human rights violations, including physical intimidation and assault, invasion of privacy, arbitrary and unlawful detention, collective punishment and destruction of private property”. There was also criticism of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act remaining as a “key obstacle to accountability”.

The OHCHR report also noted that after the Pulwama attack on February 14, there had been an uptick in the number of attacks against Kashmiri Muslims living and working in different parts of India.

“On social media, individuals, journalists and even some political leaders were inciting hatred and violence against Kashmiri Muslims, people critical of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Kashmir policies or those seeking accountability for human rights abuses in Jammu and Kashmir,” it said, adding that the “Central government-appointed governor of Tripura state” had called for Indians to consider a boycott of all things Kashmiri.

On human rights violations by Pakistan in the part of Jammu and Kashmir across the Line of Control, the report said that residents, especially in Gilgit Baltistan were “deprived of a number of fundamental human rights, particularly in relation to freedoms of expression and opinion, peaceful assembly and association”.

There was also continuing intimidation of journalists, nationalists and pro-independence political party activists in the state’s region under Pakistani control.

The UN Human Right commissioner’s office stated in the report that there was “credible information of enforced disappearances of people from Pakistan-Administered Kashmir including those who were held in secret detention and those whose fate and whereabouts continue to remain unknown”.

Reiterating the observations from 2018 report, the report said that despite “significant challenges”, civil society was able to operate in Jammu and Kashmir, while restrictions in PoK have “limited the ability of observers, including OHCHR, to assess the human rights situation there”.

After the release of the second report in Geneva, MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said in Delhi that “it was a continuation of the earlier false and motivated narrative on the situation in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir”.

He said that the situation created by years of cross border terrorist attacks emanating from Pakistan has been “been ‘analysed’ without any reference to its causality”,

“The Update seems to be a contrived effort to create an artificial parity between the world’s largest and the most vibrant democracy and a country that openly practices state-sponsored terrorism,” Kumar stated.

He also asserted that it was of “deep concern that this Update seems to accord a legitimacy to terrorism that is in complete variance with UN Security Council positions”.

Kumar noted that terrorist leaders and organisations sanctioned by the UN are deliberately underplayed by the report as “armed groups”.

The latest OHCHR report had observed that “while in the 1990s there were reportedly over a dozen armed groups operating in Indian-Administered Kashmir, in recent years four major armed groups are believed to be operational in this region: Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Hizbul Mujahideen and Harakat Ul-Mujahidin”. All four, the report added, “are believed to be based in Pakistan-Administered Kashmir”.

However, Kumar protested that the “the legitimisation of terrorism has been further compounded by an unacceptable advocacy of the dismemberment of a UN member State”.

Stating that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India, the MEA spokesperson said that the Update has undermined its own credibility by “distorting India’s policies, practices and values”.

“Its failure to recognise an independent judiciary, human rights institutions and other mechanisms in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir that safeguard, protect and promote constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights to all citizens of India is unpardonable. Even more so, as it belittles constitutional provisions, statutory procedures and established practices in an established, functioning democracy,” said Kumar.

He further claimed that the “prejudiced mindset of the Update has also chosen to wilfully ignore the determined and comprehensive socio-economic developmental efforts undertaken by the Government in the face of terrorist challenges”.

Asserting that India follows a policy of zero tolerance towards terrorism, he noted that “motivated attempts to weaken our national resolve will never succeed”.

In its reply dated June 17, India had highlighted the judicial structure and the human rights bodies in the state and the presence of a “free and vibrant media in Jammu and Kashmir”.

There was also a reference to “people of Jammu and Kashmir” having “repeatedly exercised their democratic rights” through elections.

“During the April-May 2019 general elections, 40% voters in six Parliamentary Constituencies in Jammu and Kashmir exercised their franchise,” stated India’s letter to OHCHR.

In fact, turnout in two Lok Sabha constituencies – Anantnag and Srinagar – were much lower, at 8.8% and 14.08% respectively.

On the issue of injuries suffered by civilians, India argued that there is an “absolute restraint in the use of pellet guns”.

Besides, India also asserted that the Indian army has investigated 1052 allegations of human rights violations and 70 personnel have been punished, since 1994. Investigations in several other cases are ongoing, said its letter.

While India has given a strident response publicly, there is also understanding in official circles that the current UN human rights commissioner Michelle Bachelet may not have had total control over the release of the report.

Last June, India’s protest had been more personalised with an inference that the then UN human rights commissioner was ‘biased’ against India. New Delhi had questioned the “intent” behind the report and hinted that“individual prejudices” had fuelled it.

This time, the MEA’s tone is a bit more nuanced.

Indian officials acknowledge that Bachelet had been quick of the mark in condemning the Pulwama attack in February. They also noted that her oral update at the start of the 41st session of Human Rights Council had made no mention of Kashmir.

She has only raised Kashmir once in her opening statement – at the 39th session of the Human Rights Council that opened just 10 days after she took over on September 1, 2018. Since then, she has opened two more HRC sessions – in February and June this year, but there was a conspicuous absence of Kashmir in her speeches.

Further, the June 2018 report was released several weeks before the start of the regular session of the Human Rights Council. This time, the update has been published in the last week of an ongoing session.

Sources claim that the UN human rights commissioner probably had to give a go-ahead to the publication, since a follow-up update had been mentioned in the original report. The current report does not mention that there will be any other updates.

Besides the lack of absence of Kashmir in the UN human rights chief’s statement, the other difference that Indian officials have noted is that there is more space allotted to the situation within PoK, both in the report and the press note.

Indian officials do not expect any adverse impact from this latest ‘Update’, pointing to the languishing state of the previous report. “It was not discussed in the Human Rights Council, rather some member states criticised the activism of the commissioner. At most, it will be used by Pakistan for point-scoring,” said an Indian official.

On its part, Pakistan welcomed the second report which called for setting up a “commission of inquiry” to investigate human rights violations in Kashmir.

However, Pakistan objected to the report drawing a parallel between the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and the “prevailing environment in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan”.

“Unlike IoK, which is the most militarised zone in the world, AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan remain open to foreign visitors,” said the press release of the Pakistan foreign ministry.

Maryam releases video; shows judge confessing of being forced to convict Nawaz Sharif

LAHORE, July 7: Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Maryam Nawaz on Saturday released a video clip showing an accountability court judge allegedly confessing that he convicted former premier Nawaz Sharif on the pressure of hidden forces.

Addressing a press conference here Maryam, the daughter of jailed premier Nawaz Sharif, said that her father’s entire judicial process was severely compromised.

Sharif (69), has been serving a seven-year prison term at the Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore since December 24, 2018 when an accountability court convicted him in one of the three corruption cases filed in the wake of the apex court’s July 28, 2017 order in Panama Papers case.

Sharif and his family have denied any wrongdoing and allege that the corruption cases against them were politically motivated.

In the video, Judge Muhammad Arshad Malik of the Islamabad-based accountability court is seen confessing during a conversation with PML-N supporter Nasir Butt that he was blackmailed and forced (by hidden hands) to give verdict against Sharif.

I am guilty conscience and cannot sleep well because of this wrongdoing which I was forced to commit, he said.

The Imran Khan government termed the leaked video ‘doctored’ and demanded its forensic audit, saying that “it is an attack on the judiciary.”

Maryam said after the revelation of the video her father should not be kept behind the bars any more.

She also hinted to use this video in the bail case of Mr Sharif in Islamabad High Court.

Nepal denies Tibetans’ request to hold Dalai Lama birthday celebration

KATHMANDU, July 7: The Tibetan community in Nepal called off plans to mark the birthday of their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama after their request for a public celebration was rejected over security concerns, a government official said on Sunday.

The Dalai Lama turned 84 on Saturday and his followers in Nepal had hoped to celebrate the occasion in the capital, Kathmandu, but the communist government rejected their request.

China, which regards the Dalai Lama as a dangerous separatist, has been increasing its influence in the Himalayan nation that is home to about 20,000 Tibetans.

Nepal is a natural buffer between China and India and is considered by New Delhi as its natural ally, but China is also making inroads by pouring aid and infrastructure investment into what is one of the world’s 10 poorest countries.

Beijing sent troops into remote, mountainous Tibet in 1950 in what it officially terms a peaceful liberation and has ruled there with an iron fist ever since.

The Dalai Lama fled to India in early 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.

Krishna Bahadur Katuwal, assistant district administrator of Kathmandu, said the government refused permission for Tibetans to mark the Dalai Lama’s birthday because “infiltrators” could create trouble.

“There could be a law and order problem as infiltrators could organise demonstrations or try to self-immolate,” said Katuwal.

Tibetan news portal Phayul.com said celebration plans were then withdrawn.

Airport immigration authorities in Kathmandu refused to admit a U.S. citizen of Tibetan origin and deported him last month, reportedly at China’s request.

Nepali authorities have also previously detained Tibetans trying to cross the border on their way to India after fleeing their disputed homeland.

Human rights groups say Nepal faces intense Chinese pressure to control the flow of Tibetans crossing the border.

US' planned $2 bn arms sale to Taiwan worries China

BEIJING, June 6: China on Thursday said it was seriously concerned about the US' reported plans to sell arms to Taiwan, an issue that has long plagued Washington-Beijing ties.

The US' tacit support to Taiwan and arms supply to the self-ruled island irks Beijing and the latest report about Washington planning a $2 billion weapons sale to Taipei will add to the raging Sino-American trade tensions.

"We are seriously concerned about the US move. We are firmly against the US' arms sale to Taiwan... Our position is clear and consistent," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang.

According to a news report, the US was planning to sell anti-tank, anti-aircraft weapons among others worth $2 billion to Taiwan, a self-governed island which China claims as its own and vows to reunite with the mainland someday.

"We urge the US to see high sensitivity and severe harm in selling arms to Taiwan, abide by the One-China principle and three joint communiques, stop arms sales to Taiwan as well as cut off its military ties with Taiwan," Geng said.

"We also urge the US to prudently deal with issues related to Taiwan to prevent harm to bilateral relations and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait."

Even if the US severed its diplomatic channels with Taiwan in 1979 and established ties with China, it is bound by law to sell arms to Taipei for its defence.

This has long been a sore point in Washington-Beijing ties and become more contentious after US President Donald Trump came to power.

After taking office in 2016, Trump spoke to Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen by the phone, breaking an almost four-decade protocol that rattled China.

Hong Kong students reject closed-door talks with city leader

HONG KONG, July 5: Student unions from two Hong Kong universities said on Friday that they have turned down invitations from city leader Carrie Lam for talks about the recent unrest over her proposal to allow the extradition of suspects to mainland China.

The invitations followed a pledge by Ms. Lam to do a better job of listening to the voices of young people.

Student leaders said at a news conference that they do not think Ms. Lam is being sincere. Her office invited them to closed-door meetings, but the students said any meeting should be public and include a wider representation.

Young people have taken the lead in protesting against the extradition legislation, which many see as a threat to the rights guaranteed to Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” framework that governs the Chinese territory.

Ms. Lam, who was appointed as Hong Kong’s leader by a committee dominated by pro-Beijing elites, suspended the legislation indefinitely after a huge march against it on June 9 and then a June 12 protest that blocked access to the legislature and nearby streets.

The demonstrations have continued though, with protesters demanding a formal withdrawal of the bill, Ms. Lam’s resignation, the release of dozens arrested after the protests and an independent investigation into a police crackdown on the June 12 protest that included tear gas and rubber bullets.

Taiwan’s passport ranked 30th strongest globally

By Deepak Arora

TAIPEI, July 4: Taiwan’s passport is the 30th strongest in the world, with holders enjoying visa-free and visa-on-arrival access to 146 countries and territories, according to London-headquartered citizenship and residency advisory firm Henley and Partners.

In the third quarter update of the Henley Passport Index featuring 199 countries and territories, Taiwan was named one of the “biggest climbers since 2009.” Its plus-24 over the past decade placed it equal second with Albania behind United Arab Emirates in No.1 at plus-41.

Japan and Singapore topped the index with visa-free access to 189 destinations, while Finland, Germany and South Korea came in second at 187.

Among other Asian countries and territories, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Brunei, Macao and China finished 13th, 19th, 22nd, 36th and 74th respectively

The latest tallies compiled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which also take e-visas into account, indicate that Taiwan passport holders enjoy preferential visa treatment in 169 countries and territories.

First published in 2006, the index is based on data from Montreal-based International Air Transport Association.

Erdogan says solution possible for China’s Muslims

BEIJING, July 4: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said a solution could be found to help Muslims interned in Chinese camps “taking into account the sensitivities” of both sides, in comments published Thursday.

Turkey is one of the only Muslim-majority countries to have criticised China over the detention of an estimated one million ethnic Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in the restive Xinjiang province.

But Erdogan struck a softer tone after meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday in Beijing.

“I believe we can find a solution to the issue taking into account the sensitivities of both sides,” Erdogan told Turkish journalists in Beijing before flying back to Turkey, according to Hurriyet daily.

Chinese state media claimed Erdogan said ethnic minorities live happily in Xinjiang, but he made no such comments to Turkish reporters.

He warned against those who sought to “abuse” the Xinjiang issue to create tensions with China, a key investor and trading partner.

“This abuse is having a negative impact on Turkish-Chinese relations. It is necessary that we do not give opportunity to such abuse,” Erdogan said.

He added that Turkey could “send a delegation to East Turkestan”, the name given by activists to Xinjiang.

The president’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, tweeted on Wednesday that the invitation came from the Chinese side.

Erdogan told his Chinese counterpart that Turkey’s “sole wish was for Uighurs in China to live in peace and prosperity,” Altun wrote.

China denies holding people against their will in what it describes as “vocational education centres” aimed at steering citizens away from religious extremism.

Turkey’s foreign ministry in February had lambasted China’s treatment of Uighurs as “a great embarrassment for humanity” and said those in the centres and prisons were “subjected to torture and political brainwashing”.

Imran Khan, Trump to hold maiden meet on July 22: Pak FO

ISLAMABAD, July 4: Prime Minister Imran Khan will meet Donald Trump for the first time on July 22 and their focus will be on “refreshing” bilateral relations, which was hit after the US President publicly criticised Pakistan, cancelled military aid and asked it to do more to fight terrorism.

Khan will make his maiden trip to the United States on the invitation of President Trump, Foreign Office Spokesperson Muhammad Faisal announced during his weekly press conference here on Thursday.

The relations between Pakistan and the US nose-dived after President Trump last year accused Islamabad of giving nothing to Washington but “lies and deceit” and providing “safe haven” to terrorists.

Khan had said in January 2018 that meeting Trump would be a “bitter pill” to swallow should he become Pakistan’s prime minister in elections later that year, but added “I would meet him.” He won the elections and was sworn in as Prime Minister in August last year.

Faisal said that the “agenda of the meeting is being developed through diplomatic channels” but the focus will be to “refreshing bilateral relations.”

The announcement of the meeting between the two leaders comes a day after the US designated the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) as a global terrorist group and Pakistan booked 13 top leaders of the banned Jamaat-ud Dawah (JuD), including its chief and Mumbai attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed, in nearly two dozen cases for terror financing and money laundering under the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997.

When asked about the US move to designate the BLA as a terrorist outfit, Faisal said, “this is acknowledgement of Pakistan’s stance on the outfit.” The Department of the Treasury has designated Saeed as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, and the US, since 2012, has offered a USD 10 million reward for information that brings him to justice.

Saeed-led JuD is believed to be the front organisation for the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is responsible for carrying out the Mumbai attacks that claimed lives of 166 people, including Americans. It had been declared as a foreign terrorist organisation by the US in June 2014.

Last month, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said that President Trump had invited Prime Minister Khan in June but he could not undertake the visit because of the budget session.

He also said that talks between the two leaders would focus on “important regional matters”.

Trump was consistent in his criticism of Pakistan after launching his South Asia and Afghanistan strategy in 2017.

The US has repeatedly asked Pakistan to abide by its UN Security Council commitments to deny terrorists safe haven and block their access to funds.

In September, the Trump administration cancelled USD 300 million in military aid to Islamabad for not doing enough against terror groups like the Haqqani Network and Taliban active on its soil. Trump criticised Pakistan in a Twitter post back in November, saying Islamabad was not doing enough to stop terrorism.

In March, President Trump indicated his readiness to meet Pakistan’s new leadership, amidst the ongoing peace talks between the US and the Taliban facilitated by Islamabad to end the brutal war in Afghanistan.

“Pakistan - we’ll be meeting with Pakistan. I think our relationship right now is very good with Pakistan,” Trump said at the end of a White House media interaction when a journalist asked him to comment on the current situation between India and Pakistan.

US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is spearheading efforts to strike a peace deal with the Taliban with the help of Pakistan.

Khalilzad, the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, said that Pakistan has an important role to play in Afghan peace talks and cannot be under estimated.

The representatives of the Afghan Taliban, the US as well as officials from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been meeting in Doha, Qatar. The talks were facilitated by Islamabad as Washington continues to seek an end to the nearly 18-year war in Afghanistan that has killed over 2,000 US soldiers.

Growing UK-China row over Hong Kong

LONDON, July 4: As the colonial power that handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997, Britain on Thursday ratcheted up its criticism over Beijing’s handling of the recent protests in Hong Kong. The comments came after the Chinese envoy told London not to interfere in China’s internal affairs.

Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt refused to rule out extreme measures such as sanctions and expelling diplomats, taking UK-China relations to a new level after years of London courting Beijing on issues of trade and easier, cheaper visas for Chinese.

Urging Beijing to honour the landmark ‘one country-two systems’ agreement of 1984, Hunt reiterated his support to demonstrators, who recently stormed Hong Kong’s parliament over issues of freedom and extradition to China.

“The way to deal with that violence is not by repression, it is by understanding the root causes of the concerns of the demonstrators that freedoms that they have had for their whole life could be about to be undermined by this new extradition law,” he told BBC.

Asked if he planned to impose sanctions on China or expel diplomats, Hunt refused to rule it out: “No foreign secretary would ever spell out precisely what would happen in a situation like that. You need what Bill Clinton called ‘strategic ambiguity’.”

Hunt’s strong comments came after China’s ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, was summoned to the Foreign Office after he warned London not to “interfere in domestic affairs”, adding that UK-China relations had been “damaged” by Hunt backing the demonstrators.

According to Xiaoming, those who illegally occupied Hong Kong’s parliament should be “condemned as law breakers”, but was told by Simon McDonald, head of the diplomatic service in the Foreign Office, that his comments were “unacceptable and inaccurate”.

Insisting that the UK’s principles were more important than trade relations, Hunt said: “Hong Kong is part of China, we recognise that. We are simply saying that we also have an agreement with the People’s Republic of China, and we would expect that to be honoured”.

In Hunt’s view, the situation in Hong Kong is “very, very serious”.

He added: “We are a country that has championed democracy, the rule of law, civil rights across the world for much of our history. We see the situation as very worrying. And we’re just asking very simply for that agreement that we have with China, from 1984 to be honoured.”

“If you’re asking me about the trade-off between our trading relations and our principles, in the end this is a country that has always defended the values we believe in and we think it’s a very important principle that international agreements are honoured,” he added.

Pak announces crackdown on terror funding, Hafiz Saeed booked

ISLAMABAD, July 3: Pakistani authorities on Wednesday announced a crackdown on terror financing by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and its front organisations, saying cases had been registered against LeT founder Hafiz Saeed and 12 of his aides.

Twenty-three cases were registered in Lahore, Gujranwala and Multan in Punjab province against the leadership of LeT, Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD) and Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF) for using a network of trusts and non-profit organisations to collect funds for terrorism, a spokesman for the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) said.

The spokesman identified the LeT and JuD leaders booked in the cases as Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, his brother-in-law and close aide Abdul Rehman Makki, MaliK Zafar Iqbal, Ameer Hamza, Muhammad Yahya Aziz, Muhammad Naeem Sheikh, Mohsin Bilal, Abdul Raqeeb, Ahmad Daud, Muhammad Ayub, Abdullah Ubaid, Muhammad Ali, and Abdul Ghaffar. The LeT and JuD leaders were accused of collecting “funds for terrorism financing through assets/properties made and held in the names of trusts/non-profit organisations”, the spokesman said.

Experts said this was probably the first time Saeed was directly named in a case registered against LeT and its front organisations for involvement in terror. The move came less than two weeks after the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) assessed Pakistan’s actions to curb terror financing and concluded it had missed two sets of targets under an action plan finalised after the country was put on the watchdog’s “grey list” last year. FATF also called for the prosecution of those involved in terror financing.

LeT has been banned in Pakistan since 2002 and the charities since last year.

The CTD spokesman said the action was being taken in line with the implementation of UN sanctions against designated groups and individuals and also in keeping with a directive issued by the National Security Committee following a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan in January.

The cases, which were registered on July 1 and 2, named trusts and organisations such as Dawat ul Irshad Trust, Muaz Bin Jabal Trust, Al-Anfaal Trust, Al Hamd Trust, and Al Madina Foundation Trust.

The spokesman said: “Large-scale investigations have been launched into matters of JuD , LeT & FIF regarding their holding and use of trusts to raise funds for terrorism financing. They made these assets from funds of terrorism financing, they held and used these assets to raise more funds for further terrorism financing. Hence, they committed multiple offences of terrorism financing and money laundering under the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997. They will be prosecuted in Anti-Terrorism Courts for commission of these offences.”

The assets and organisations had already been taken over by the government in compliance with UN Sanctions, the spokesman added.

There was no official reaction from Indian officials but people familiar with developments said Pakistan had resorted to similar steps in the past to ease pressure from the world community.

Reprieve for Vijay Mallya as UK court allows extradition appeal

LONGON, July 2: Controversial businessman Vijay Mallya was handed a lifeline by the England and Wales high court on Tuesday when it permitted him to appeal against the February 3 order of home secretary Sajid Javid to extradite him to India.

Facing charges of financial offences running into over Rs 9,000 crore, Mallya, who lost in the Westminster Magistrates Court after a year-long trial in December 2018, will now not be immediately extradited but will be able to mount further legal challenges in the high court.

Justice Leggatt and Justice Popplewell rejected four grounds put forth by Mallya’s defence team but upheld one that questioned the magistrates court’s findings on alleged misrepresentation by Mallya and his companies in securing loans from IDBI.

The lower court had upheld India’s charges, but Justice Leggatt said: “We have been persuaded that there is a reasonably arguable case against the approach of the chief judge (of the magistrates court) on whether there is a prima facie case”.

He said in his ruling that the charge of misrepresentation “is not what has been alleged in the extradition request…it is arguable that the findings of the chief judge (Emma Arbuthnot) are based on a misreading of evidence.”

Justice Leggatt rejected other grounds such as risk to human rights in the Arthur Road jail, inability to get a fair trial in India, Mallya’s claim that he is being punished for his opinions, and that there would be a ‘breach of specialty’ if he were sent to India.

Mallya, who attended the hearing with his son Siddhartha Mallya and partner Pinki Lalwani, said after the ruling: “I always said there is no prima facie case against me. I am still ready to return the money to the bank”.

“Airline business is fragile. Every time an airline fails, the promoter is cornered, punished. It is not a good policy of the government. Who thought Jet will collapse.”

Under the India-UK extradition treaty, ‘specialty’ is a rule that the person sought will be tried only for those offences mentioned in the extradition request, and not for others.

Mallya’s lawyer, Claire Montgomery, argued that there would be a ‘breach of specialty’ because over 40 case are ongoing against him in India, many with non-bailable warrants. There is no assurance from New Delhi that the other cases would be dropped if he is extradited, she said.

She also argued that India had submitted a fraction of relevant paperwork, adding that if the full material were submitted, the magistrates court would not have reached the conclusions it did. India, she alleged, chose not to submit annexures included in loan applications that had details of Kingfisher Airlines.

Montgomery reiterated the principal claim made previously in the magistrates court, that Mallya’s inability to repay the loans was a result of business failure, and not due to dishonesty or conspiracy to defraud banks.

“There is no justification for her assertions (in the judgement) about misrepresentations about the financial position of the company. The charge of misrepresentation is unsubstantiated in the ruling”, she asserted.

Pay back ‘looted’ money and leave Pakistan: PM Khan to Zardari, Sharif

ISLAMABAD, July 2: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has declared that his government would not offer any amnesty to politicians like ex-president Asif Ali Zardari and premier Nawaz Sharif accused in corruption cases but if they returned the “looted money” under a plea bargain, they could leave the country.

Khan also revealed that the incarcerated former prime minister Sharif’s sons tried to secure the release of their father with the help of “two friendly countries.”

Khan did not reveal the names of the two countries but said they just conveyed him the message but did not press for Sharif’s release.

“They told me that we will not interfere,” said Khan, who was accompanied by the adviser on Finance, Hafeez Sheikh, and Federal Board of Revenue Chairman, Shabbar Zaidi.

Sharif, 69, has been serving a seven-year prison term at the Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore since December 24, 2018 when an accountability court convicted him in one of the three corruption cases filed in the wake of the apex court’s July 28, 2017 order in the Panama Papers case.

Sharif and his family have denied any wrongdoing and allege that the corruption cases against them were politically motivated.

In May, the apex court rejected Sharif’s review petition seeking bail on medical grounds and permission to go abroad for medical treatment.

Khan said that those convicted for corruption would not be allowed to go away until they gave back the stolen money.

“They need to return the country’s money first then they can go anywhere they want,” he said.

“If Nawaz (Sharif) wants to go abroad for his medical treatment then he should return the looted money first and if Asif Ali Zardari has such an issue he should return the money,” Khan told ARYNewsTV on Monday.

“The NRO will not be offered,” he said, referring to a deal similar to the National Reconciliation Ordinance issued by former dictator Pervez Musharraf, under which cases against a large number of politicians and political workers were dropped.

“Two NROs issued by Musharraf to [PML-N’s ‘supreme leader’] Nawaz Sharif and [PPP Co-Chairman] Asif Ali Zardari destroyed the country... Later, both of them also gave NROs to each other,” Khan said.

The prime miniser added, “Money launderers are being kept as VIPs. I have asked the law ministry to shift them to a jail where regular prisoners are kept.”

“A plea bargain can be allowed and no foreign country can do anything. They (Sharif and Zardari) will have to pay the money,” he said.

Former president Zardari is in the custody of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) for his role in three corruption cases.

He has been named in a multi-million dollar money laundering case along with his sister Faryal Talpur.

According to the NAB, the duo made transactions of Rs 150 million through alleged fake bank accounts.

Khan also spoke about the economy and said that it would improve as the difficult time was over.

Khan said his government had spent USD 10 billion on debt servicing on loans taken by the previous governments.

“A comprehensive plan is being devised including new legislation to control smuggling and money laundering,” he said.

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