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15 killed in Kazakh plane crash

ALMATY, Dec 27: A Bek Air plane with 95 passengers and five crew members on board crashed near the city of Almaty in Kazakhstan on Friday shortly after taking off, killing at least 15 people, authorities in the Central Asian country said.

The Fokker 100 aircraft was heading for the capital, Nur-Sultan, and “lost altitude during takeoff and broke through a concrete fence” before hitting a two-storey building, Kazakhstan’s Civil Aviation Committee said in a statement.

At least 15 people were killed, and 22 have been hospitalised in grave condition, the Almaty mayor’s office said.

The plane was taking off before dawn. A reporter travelling to the airport said there was thick fog in the area at the time.

The crash site in Almerek village - just beyond the end of the runway - has been cordoned off.

Photographs from the site published by media showed the plane torn into two parts next to a house half-demolished by the impact.

Kazakh carrier Bek Air, which operates a fleet of Fokker 100 jets, could not be immediately reached for comment.

Authorities have not suggested any possible cause of the accident. The aviation committee said it was suspending all flights of that type of aircraft pending an investigation.

“Those responsible will face tough punishment in accordance with the law,” Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev tweeted, expressing condolences to the victims and their families.

FATF seeks clarity from Pakistan on madrassas belonging to banned outfits

PARIS, Dec 22: A global watchdog for terror financing has sought more clarifications and data from Pakistan on actions taken by it against madrassas belonging to the banned outfits, weeks after Islamabad submitted a report to the Paris-based body detailing steps taken by the country to curb terrorism and money laundering.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which kept Pakistan on the Grey List for an extended period till February 2020, had warned in October that Islamabad would be put on the Black List if it did not comply with the remaining 22 points in a list of 27 questions.

Pakistan submitted a report comprising answers to 22 questions to the FATF on December 6.

In response to the report, the FATF’s Joint Group has sent 150 questions to Pakistan, seeking some clarifications, updates and most importantly actions taken against the madrassas belonging to the proscribed outfits.

“We did receive a response from the FATF on our compliance report through an email in which they raised a set of 150 questions. Some of them are seeking more data, some clarifications, and most importantly questions related to madrassas and actions taken against them having affiliation with proscribed outfits,” The News quoted a top official source as saying.

According to officials, Mumbai terror attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed-led Jamat-ud Dawah’s network includes 300 seminaries and schools.

In March 2019, Punjab police said that government seized control of 160 madrassas, 32 schools, two colleges, four hospitals, 178 ambulances and 153 dispensaries associated with the JuD and its so-called charity wing Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation (FIF) in province.

At least 56 madrassas and facilities being run by the JuD and FIF in southern Sindh province were also taken over by authorities in the same month.

Saeed-led JuD is believed to be the front organisation for the Lashkar-e-Taiba which is responsible for carrying out the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The US declared the LeT as a foreign terrorist organisation in June 2014. Pakistan has been given January 8, 2020 deadline to respond to the 150 questions, the official said on Saturday.

The next FATF meeting is scheduled to be held from January 21 to 24 in Beijing where Pakistan will be given an opportunity to defend the points in the report.

Pakistan expects another relaxation probably up to June 2020 in the FATF’s upcoming plenary review meeting, as the February deadline is too short a period for Islamabad to comply with the remaining 22 action plans.

The FATF in its previous statement had said, “Should significant and sustainable progress not be made across the full range of its action plan by the next plenary, the FATF will take action, which could include the FATF calling on its members and urging all jurisdictions to advise their FIs (financial institutions) to give special attention to business relations and transactions with Pakistan”.

Earlier, the FATF had asked 27 questions pertaining to Pakistan’s efforts to stop terrorism financing. But Islamabad managed to satisfy the global watchdog over just five of them.

Pakistan was placed on the Grey List by the FATF in June last year and was given a plan of action to complete it by October 2019, or face the risk of being placed on the blacklist with Iran and North Korea.

The FATF said Pakistan must demonstrate effective implementation of targeted financial sanctions against all UN designated terrorists like Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed, Jaish-e-Mohammad founder Maulana Masood Azhar, and those acting for or on their behalf.

The FATF is an inter-governmental body established in 1989 to combat money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system.

Tsai, 2 others in fray for Taiwan's Presidential elections

By Deepak Arora

TAIPEI, Dec 18: Three candidates, including President Tsai Ing-wen from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), are in fray for the upcoming 15th ROC (Taiwan) presidential election on January 11, according to the Central Election Commission. The other two candidates are Han Kuo-yu from opposition Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) and James Soong from People First Party (PFP).

Tsai is seeking a second four-year term by pairing up with Lai Ching-te, former Mayor of Tainan City and Cabinet Premier. Dr. Tsai is the first woman to hold Taiwan's highest office after winning 6.89 million votes, or 56.12 percent, in the 2016 election.

Tsai's main challenger is Han Kuo-yu, current Mayor of Kaohsiung City in Southern Taiwan. His vice presidential partner, Chang San-cheng, was previous Minister of Science and Technology from March to December in 2014 and then Cabinet Premier from February to May in 2016 just before previous Kuomintang President Ma Ying-jeou handed his power to Tsai.

Seventy-seven-year-old PFP Chairman James Soong is running for the fourth time as a presidential candidate. His vice presidential mate is Sandra Yu, former chairwoman of a local advertising firm United Communications Group. The PFP is a minor party in the Legislature, Taiwan’s central parliament, accounting only 3 out of a total of 113 seats. The Legislature’s election will be held coinciding with the presidential votes on the same day.

Foxconn Technology Founder Terry Guo and current Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je, both observed as prospective presidential candidates a few months ago, have decided not to join the competition.

Three televised policy presentations in Mandarin by the presidential candidates will be staged on December 18, 25 and 27 this month, according to the Central Election Commission. The Commission will hold a pre-election media briefing on January 10 and open its Counting and Information Center on January 11 for foreign correspondents whose prior applications have been approved.

Ex-Pak President Pervez Musharraf sentenced to death by special court for high treason

ISLAMABAD, Dec 17: Former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf was on Tuesday sentenced to death for high treason by a special court. He is the first former military ruler to have been tried and convicted for treason.

The case, along with a bunch of others, was filed against him in 2013 after his return to Pakistan from four years of self-imposed exile to run for parliament to “save” the troubled nuclear-armed state. In this, he faced charges for suspending, subverting and abrogating the Constitution, imposing an emergency in the country in November 2007 and detaining judges of Pakistan’s superior courts.

Musharraf, who had left Pakistan soon after he stepped down as President in 2008, exited the country a second time in March 2016 for “medical treatment”. He was declared an absconder in this case.

Musharraf was indicted on March 31, 2014, and the prosecution had tabled the entire evidence before the special court in September the same year. But the trial lingered on.

The special court, headed by Peshawar High Court Chief Justice Waqar Ahmad Seth, had announced that it would deliver its verdict in the case on Tuesday.

However, the government’s prosecutor, Advocate Ali Zia Bajwa, said that they had submitted three petitions. One of the petitions asks that the court make three individuals - former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar and former Law Minister Zahid Hamid - suspects in the case.

“We want to make Musharraf’s facilitators and companions suspects as well. It is important that the trial of all suspects is held at the same time,” Bajwa said, according to news agency IANS.

During the hearing, Musharraf’s counsel Raza Bashir also sought 15 to 20 days for his client to record a statement.

“Musharraf deserves a right to a fair trial,” he said.

Johnson vows to get Brexit done after sweeping election win

LONDON, Dec 13: Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday hailed a political “earthquake” in Britain after a thumping election victory which clears the way for the country to finally leave the EU next month after years of paralysing deadlock.

With all but one result declared for the 650-seat parliament, Johnson’s Conservative party has secured 364 seats -- its biggest majority since the heyday of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

Condemning more than three years of political wrangling over Brexit, Johnson vowed in his victory speech on Friday to “put an end to all that nonsense” and “get Brexit done on time by January 31, no ifs, no buts”.

By contrast the main opposition Labour party suffered its worst electoral performance since before World War II, forcing leader Jeremy Corbyn to announce plans for his departure.

Sterling jumped overnight to its highest level since mid-2018 on hopes that Johnson will deliver his promise to “Get Brexit Done” after years of uncertainty and deep divisions over Britain’s future.

Early Friday it had pulled back a little to trade at $1.3403.

With such a large majority of MPs, Johnson will be able to get the divorce deal he struck with Brussels through parliament in time to meet the January 31 deadline.

Ratifying the deal would formalise the end of almost five decades of EU-UK integration, although both sides still need to thrash out a new trade and security agreement.

EU Council President Charles Michel said the bloc was set for talks but would do its utmost to protect European priorities.

“My point is very clear: we are ready. We have decided what are our priorities,” Michel said as he arrived at an EU summit where leaders would discuss the aftermath of the UK vote.

The result of Thursday’s election -- the third in almost five years -- signals a personal victory for Johnson, a former London mayor and foreign minister who helped lead the Brexit campaign to victory in the 2016 EU referendum.

US President Donald Trump tweeted his congratulations on a “great WIN!” and said London and Washington would be able to strike a “massive new trade deal” after Brexit.

“This deal has the potential to be far bigger and more lucrative than any deal that could be made with the E.U. Celebrate Boris!” he said.

The Conservatives had been ahead in opinion polls for weeks but the scale of their victory, after a wet and windy pre-Christmas election, was unexpected.

The party took a string of traditionally Labour seats that had not voted Tory for decades, but many of which had backed “Leave” in 2016.

“We must understand now what an earthquake we have created,” Johnson later told party staff, according to the Press Association news agency.

He earlier declared when he was re-elected as an MP that voters had given him “a powerful new mandate to get Brexit done”.

Johnson now has up to five years to govern until he is obliged to call another election.

Labour was heading to its worst result since 1935, losing 59 seats to 203, after what Corbyn admitted had been a “very disappointing night”.

He said he would be stepping down after a period of “reflection”, and would not be leading the party into the next election, which is due by 2024.

Corbyn had promised a second referendum on Brexit in a bid to appeal to half of British voters who still want to stay in the EU.

But he had focused Labour’s campaign on a radical programme of economic change, including re-nationalising some key industries, which failed to woo traditional voters.

Speaking in the early hours of Friday, Corbyn defended his “manifesto of hope” and maintained his policies were “extremely popular” during the campaign.

But he said: “Brexit has so polarised and divided debate in this country, it has overridden so much of a normal political debate.”

Corbyn is personally unpopular and dogged by accusations of sympathising with proscribed terror groups and failing to tackle anti-Semitism within the Labour party.

This is Labour’s fourth successive electoral defeat -- and the second under Corbyn.

The anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats also did poorly and announced they would replace Jo Swinson as leader after she lost her seat in western Scotland to the Scottish National Party (SNP).

The Lib Dems were predicted to win 11 seats, down one on the last election in 2017.

Analysts said Swinson’s campaign to reverse Brexit without even a new referendum was unpopular, while efforts to create a “Remain” alliance to stop Brexit failed.

By contrast the Scottish National Party (SNP), which wants to stop Brexit and deliver an independent Scotland, gained 13 seats to reach 48.

Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party failed to win any seats, but he claimed to have helped Johnson standing down his own candidates in Tory-held seats.

Johnson has promised to put his Brexit plan to parliament before the Christmas break, although it will not likely be ratified until January.

He has then just 11 months to agree a new partnership with the EU before a post-Brexit transition period ends in December 2020.

But with a comfortable majority in parliament, analysts note he could choose to extend that time and negotiate a closer trade deal than previously envisaged.

“Ironically, this is a freer hand for Johnson to negotiate a softer version of Brexit,” said Simon Hix of the London School of Economics.

North Korea says denuclearization not on negotiating table

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 8: North Korea said Saturday that denuclearization has “already gone out of the negotiation table” and it does not need to have lengthy talks with the United States as the end-of-year deadline set by its leader Kim Jong Un for substantial U.S. concessions in nuclear diplomacy looms.

A statement released by North Korea’s U.N. ambassador, Kim Song, accused the Trump administration of persistently pursuing a “hostile policy” toward the country “in its attempt to stifle it” and of using claims that the U.S. is engaged in a “sustained and substantial dialogue” with Pyongyang solely for “its domestic political agenda.”

“We do not need to have lengthy talks with the U.S. now and the denuclearization is already gone out of the negotiation table,” he said.

Song’s statement was a response to Wednesday’s condemnation by six European countries of North Korea’s 13 ballistic missile launches since May. He accused the Europeans — France, Germany, Britain, Belgium, Poland and Estonia — of playing “the role of pet dog of the United States in recent months.” He called their statement “yet another serious provocation” against North Korea’s “righteous measures of strengthening national defense capabilities.”

“We regard their behavior as nothing more than a despicable act of intentionally flattering the United States,” Song said.

His comments follow other recent North Korean statements indicating that prospects are dim for a resumption of nuclear diplomacy between the United States and North Korea.

On Thursday, North Korea’s first vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, issued a warning threatening to resume insults of U.S. President Donald Trump and consider him a “dotard” if he keeps using provocative language, such as referring to North Korea’s leader as “rocket man.”

His statement via state media came days after Trump spoke of possible military action toward the North and revived his “rocket man” nickname for North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un.

North Korea has ramped up its missile tests in recent months, and experts say the launches are likely to continue as a way to pressure Washington into meeting Pyongyang’s demand for new proposals to revive nuclear diplomacy by the end of December.

Diplomatic efforts have largely remained deadlocked since a second summit between Trump and the North Korean leader failed last February.

The North’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that it is entirely up to the United States to choose what “Christmas gift” it gets from the North.

North Korean officials have previously said whether North Korea lifts its moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests depends on what actions the U.S. takes.

When Trump and Kim held their first summit in Singapore in June 2018, North Korea said it was willing to deal away its advancing nuclear arsenal in return for outside political and economic benefits.

Before the Singapore talks, North Korea had long said it would denuclearize only if the U.S. withdrew its 28,500 troops from South Korea, ended military drills with the South and took other steps to guarantee the North’s security.

But many foreign experts doubt whether North Korea would completely abandon a nuclear program that it has built after decades of struggle and sees as essential to its survival.

Finland elects youngest-ever prime minister

HELSINKI, Dec 9: Finland’s Social Democrats elected a 34-year-old former transport minister to the post of prime minister on Sunday, making her the youngest head of government in the country’s history.

Sanna Marin narrowly won Sunday’s vote to replace outgoing leader Antti Rinne, who resigned on Tuesday after losing the confidence of the coalition partner Centre Party over his handling of a postal strike.

“We have a lot of work to do to rebuild trust,” Marin told reporters on Sunday night, while deflecting questions about her age.

“I have never thought about my age or gender, I think of the reasons I got into politics and those things for which we have won the trust of the electorate.”

At 34, Marin also becomes one of the world’s youngest state leaders, ahead of Ukraine’s prime minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, who is currently 35.

Former PM Antti Rinne had headed Finland’s centre-left five-party coalition since June, and Marin’s appointment is unlikely to lead to significant policy changes by the Social Democrat-led administration.

“We have a shared government programme which we have committed to,” Marin said.

The SDP won April’s legislative elections on promises to end years of economic belt-tightening introduced by the Centre Party to lift Finland out of a recession.

Rinne stepped down after several weeks of political crisis over a plan to cut wages for 700 postal workers.

Finland’s postal service withdrew the reform plans in November after widespread strikes, but questions emerged over whether or not Rinne had previously endorsed the cutbacks, leading to the Centre Party declaring it had lost its trust in the prime minister last Monday.

Parliament is expected to formally swear in the new prime minister on Tuesday.

India, Australia to hold 2+2 talks next week

NEW DELHI, Dec 3: India and Australia are set to hold their third combined dialogue of the defence and foreign secretaries on December 9, with the Indo-Pacific and preparations for Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit next year expected to top the agenda.

This year’s edition of the talks, popularly known as the 2+2 dialogue, assume additional significance as they come months after India, Australia, Japan and the US decided to upgrade their interactions in the “Quadrilateral” format to the ministerial level in September.

Australia’s foreign secretary Frances Adamson and defence secretary Greg Moriarty will meet their Indian counterparts Vijay Gokhale and Ajay Kumar in New Delhi, people familiar with planning for the dialogue said.

“The main focus will be on the bilateral outcomes for Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit in January,” said a person who declined to be identified.

“Issues such as defence, maritime, cyber and critical technology cooperation and counter-terrorism cooperation will also be on the agenda,” the person added.

Morrison is visiting India at the invitation of his counterpart Narendra Modi and will deliver the inaugural address at the Raisina Dialogue.

The Indo-Pacific and the situation in the South China Sea, where India and Australia have called for freedom of navigation and overflights in accordance with international rules, are also expected to figure in the discussions, the people cited above said.

All aspects of bilateral relations will be reviewed, with the focus on security and strategic relations.

India has put in place 2+2 dialogues, either at the level of officials or ministers, with several key partners, including Japan and the US. During the maiden India-Japan 2+2 ministerial dialogue, held in New Delhi over the weekend, the two sides called for a “free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific region in which the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity are ensured, and all countries enjoy freedom of navigation and overflight”.

India and the US are expected to hold their ministerial 2+2 dialogue in Washington on December 18.

Hong Kong gears up for a week of lunchtime protests

HONG KONG, Dec 2: Hundreds of office workers in Hong Kong’s business district gathered on Monday for the first in a week of lunchtime protests backing the pro-democracy movement after its resounding victory in district polls held last week in the Chinese-ruled city.

A day earlier police again resorted to firing tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters as they marched past the city’s Kowloon waterfront, after first going to the U.S. consulate on Hong Kong island to show gratitude for Washington’s support.

There was no such confrontation at the two-hour rally in the central business district on Monday, as some people went back to their offices after their demonstration of solidarity. Others said they would be striking for the full five days.

The gathering in Chater Garden probably drew Hong Kong’s best-dressed protesters, and organisers have called on them to come out every day this week.

Protests over the last six months have drawn a wide swathe of Hong Kong society - from students to pensioners. Even white-collar professionals, like those in Chater park, have sometimes blocked roads in recent weeks, leading to face-offs with police.

Monday’s rally appeared aimed specifically at bringing in more workers from advertising agencies to help build publicity.

Fred, a 24-year-old advertising professional said he and his colleagues had helped create promotional materials in their own time for the so-called “yellow economy”, the businesses seen as supporting the pro-democracy movement.

Many pro-democracy protesters have adopted the colour yellow and yellow balloons have been seen at rallies.

“From the advertising perspective, we can help promote the brands that speak out for Hong Kong,” said Fred.

Another protester in the park said his advertising agency had closed for the week in solidarity, and hoped other agencies would do likewise.

“We are trying to come out and be the first industry to come out and stop working for five days,” said 28-year-old Ryan.

“We are just stopping work for companies. But the advertising talent will keep advertising for the movement, designing posters and leaflets.”

During Sunday’s protest police fired tear gas to disperse thousands of anti-government protesters, some of whom chanted “revolution of our time” and “liberate Hong Kong”. That followed a period of relative calm after November 24 district elections delivered an overwhelming victory to pro-democracy candidates.

The protest in the busy shopping district of Tsim Sha Tsui followed a “thanksgiving” march by hundreds to the U.S. consulate.

Shops and businesses in Tsim Sha Tsui closed early as police sprayed volleys of tear gas at demonstrators, arresting some and forcing hundreds to flee towards the harbour.

The protesters’ demands include an end to Beijing’s alleged meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, universal suffrage and an inquiry into police use of force.

The unrest since June has at times forced the closure of government offices, businesses, schools and the international airport, helping drive the city into recession for the first time in a decade in the third quarter.

Japan for peaceful resolution of Kashmir issue through dialogue

NEW DELHI, Dec 1: Japan on Sunday called for a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir issue through dialogue in view of the long-standing differences of views on the region.

A day after India and Japan held the first combined dialogue of their defence and foreign ministers, popularly known as the 2+2 dialogue, Japanese foreign ministry spokesperson Atsushi Kaifu told reporters here there wasn’t a detailed discussion on the Kashmir issue during the talks.

“I don’t remember the ministers going into the detailed discussion of this specific Kashmir issue,” Kaifu said in response to a question on whether Kashmir had figured in the dialogue.

“But at the same time, I can say we looked at the situation there very carefully and we are aware of the long-standing differences of views with regard to Kashmir. We hope a peaceful resolution through dialogue will be done,” he said.

Kaifu didn’t refer to India’s August 5 decision to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status and subsequent tensions with Pakistan, or the security lockdown in Kashmir.

A joint statement issued after Saturday’s 2+2 dialogue said India and Japan consider terror groups based in Pakistan a threat to regional security. They also called on Pakistan to take “resolute and irreversible action” against such groups and to comply with terrorism-related international commitments.

Kaifu described the 2+2 talks as “historic” and said Japan had such a dialogue with only seven countries, including the US, France and Russia. The talks had also prepared the grounds for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit next month for his annual summit with his Indian counterpart, he said.

Both sides want an open, free, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific region, he said, adding that North Korea and China had figured in the talks.

“The Japan-China relationship is back on the normal track…Now Japan and China have lively communications but we don’t compromise in any way on some principled issues such as maritime and security issues, including South China Sea and East China Sea,” he said.

If China follows and acts according to international rules, there “will be more opportunities for both sides and I think this also could apply to (India)”, he added.

Replying to a question regarding uncertainty about the Japan-backed bullet train project between Mumbai and Ahmedabad following the formation of a new government in Maharashtra, Kaifu said Indian and Japanese officials were working closely to tackle challenges that are usually associated with such large schemes.

“We are working very hard, a joint feasibility study has been conducted and a MoU has been signed. Japan has also built facilities to train Indian personnel for this project,” he said.

Asked about New Delhi’s decision to opt out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade pact last month, Kaifu said the 15 other countries involved in the negotiations would try to address India’s concerns. The RCEP issue had figured when Japan’s defence and foreign ministers met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday and both sides had explained their positions, he said.

Kaifu said Japan is keen to work with India on developmental projects aimed at enhancing connectivity in third countries in the Indo-Pacific region and Africa and also within India in regions such as the northeast. Replying to a specific question on whether Japan would take up such projects in Arunachal Pradesh, Kaifu said his country is aware of the “current status of that area” and discussing matters carefully.

China, which claims Arunachal Pradesh is part of south Tibet, has opposed any foreign-backed projects in the state.

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