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Maldives opposition candidate says he has won presidential election

COLOMBO, Sept 24: Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has declared victory in the Maldives’ presidential election Sunday, following a controversial campaign observers said was rigged in favour of strongman President Abdulla Yameen.

Solih had the backing of a united opposition trying to oust Yameen and triumphed despite struggling for visibility with the electorate, with local media fearful of falling foul of heavy-handed decrees and reporting restrictions.

“I call on Yameen to respect the will of the people and bring about a peaceful, smooth transfer of power,” Solih said on national television shortly after official results showed he had an unassailable 58 percent of the popular vote.

He also urged the incumbent to immediately release scores of political prisoners.

Yameen, who was widely tipped to retain power, had jailed or forced into exile almost all of his main rivals.

Before polls opened, police raided the campaign headquarters of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and searched the building for several hours in a bid to stop what they called “illegal activities”. There were no arrests.

Mohamed Nasheed, the head of Solih’s Maldivian Democratic Party, said the vote would “bring the country back to the democratic path”.

Yameen would have no option but to concede defeat, said Nasheed, who was elected president of a newly-democratic Maldives in 2008 but currently lives in exile.

“He will not have people around him who will support him to fight on and stay,” he said.

Imran Khan calls India’s statement cancelling talks ‘arrogant’

NEW DELHI, Sept 22: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was disappointed at India’s response to his peace overtures, termed it “arrogant” and “negative”, and said “all my life I have come across small men occupying big offices who do not have the vision to see the larger picture”, a comment that is certain to raise hackles across the border.

Khan’s response on Twitter came even as Pakistan’s information minister Fawad Chaudhry said on Saturday that despite the “unfortunate cancellation” of the planned meeting of foreign ministers on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Pakistan is ready to open the border for Indian pilgrims to access Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur.

India will have to decide on the future course of engagement with Pakistan but Islamabad is ready to discuss all outstanding issues as it believes wars and hostility provide no solution, Chaudhry said in a phone interview a day after India called off a meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries over terror-related concerns.

The “real issue” between the two sides remains Kashmir, he said, adding that Pakistan is “ready to discuss everything”.

“There are several ways we can handle things. One way is we could go to war, both countries have atomic weapons and those who survive can handle the outstanding issues. But it is foolish to think we can go to war,” said the minister, who is considered to be close to Khan.

“The other way is the approach advocated by (Indian national security adviser Ajit) Doval of ‘defensive offence’ where both sides use measures to internally weaken each other. Or we can sit and discuss all issues between us and find a solution.”

He added: “We are ready to discuss everything. We have fought three wars over the past seven decades and we can’t change our neighbours. It is for India to decide.

“But then elections are coming up in India and may be anti-Pakistan slogans sell in India. Anti-India slogans don’t sell in Pakistan.”

Chaudhry’s claims are interesting because New Delhi thinks that even if the civilian government of Pakistan wants peace, Rawalpindi General Headquarters (GHQ), its army command, calls the shots, especially where the country’s relationship with India is concerned.

India on Friday called off the planned meeting between foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and her Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, citing the killing of security personnel by Pakistan-based entities and the release of 20 Pakistani stamps glorifying slain Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani.

Chaudhry said Pakistan too had concerns about terrorism purportedly backed by India in Balochistan. “Our intelligence agencies believe India is sponsoring the movements in Balochistan and then there is the case of (Kulbhushan) Jadhav… This issue of cross-border terrorism goes both ways,” he said.

He added that the “real issue between the two countries is Kashmir” and “lakhs of Pakistanis” back the “struggle” in Jammu and Kashmir. “Blaming everything on Pakistan is not right, India too should correct its mistakes. Blaming us for the administrative, financial and other problems in Kashmir is ridiculous,” he said.

Chaudhry also said it would not be possible for both countries to guarantee that there wouldn’t be terror attacks whenever efforts are made for peace talks.

“Our understanding is that the abrupt cancellation of the meeting reflects the confusion within the government in Delhi and the divisions on this issue. You can’t accept (a proposal for a meeting) and reject it within a day,” he added.

Chaudhry said peace efforts had suffered a “big hit” because of the meeting being called off. “Pakistan and India should have moved forward,” he said.

He said India should take advantage of the current consensus between Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership on foreign policy issues. “The government and military are very close and there have been few occasions when their relations have been as exemplary as now,” he said.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s policies are linked to the economy and not security, Chaudhry said. “He (Khan) wants to bring crores of people above the poverty line and the latest developments have jeopardised peace efforts in the whole region,” he said.

Despite the latest developments, Pakistan is prepared to open the border at Kartarpur to allow Indian pilgrims to access Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, believed to have been built at the site where Guru Nanak died. “We have completed all the arrangements. This is an issue of the ordinary people, Sikhs and other Indian pilgrims, and an issue of faith. They shouldn’t suffer and we want to formalise the informal proposal the Pakistan Army chief made to (Punjab state minister Navjot) Sidhu,” Chaudhry said.

Chaudhry added: “We have extended a hand to India but you need two hands to clap. If India doesn’t want to, nothing will happen.”

Kim, Moon agree agree to denuclearize Korean peninsula

PYONGYANG, Sept 19: Leaders of the two Koreas agreed Wednesday to end military tensions and try to achieve complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

Kim Jong-un, top leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), and Republic of Korea President Moon Jae-in made the pledge at a joint press conference in Pyongyang.

At the press conference, Kim said that Panmunjom Declaration would serve as groundwork for a new era of peace on the Korean peninsula and he wished to make the peninsula nuclear-free.

The Panmunjom Declaration was signed during Kim's first meeting with Moon in April at the truce village of Panmunjom on the border of the two Koreas.

Kim promised to accelerate the inter-Korean peace talks, further develop inter-Korean relations and visit Seoul in the near future.

Moon said he and Kim have agreed on ways to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula for the first time. In addition, they agreed to end military tensions and transform the inter-Korean border into a "peace zone".

Moon noted that they reached consensus to eliminate all threats of war on the entire Korean Peninsula.

The two sides will also begin work to reconnect cross-border rails and roads before the end of this year, Moon told the press.

Moon, who is expected to meet US President Donald Trump later this month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, added that he hoped discussions between the DPRK and the US would start once again.

Before meeting the press, the two leaders signed a summit agreement.

Defense chiefs from both sides also signed a separate agreement on military affairs in the presence of the two leaders.

Kim and Moon said in a statement Wednesday that the countries planned to jointly bid for the 2032 Summer Olympics.

Beijing welcomed a joint declaration signed by Pyongyang and Seoul on Wednesday, and called for the two sides to maintain efforts to promote interaction and cooperation.

Through the talks and the signing of the declaration, the two sides reached a new and important consensus on improving ties, easing regional military tension and promoting denuclearization of, and peace talks in, the Korean Peninsula, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Wednesday.

North and South Korea to launch joint bid for 2032 Olympics

PYONGYANG, Sept 19: North and South Korea have agreed to jointly bid for the 2032 Olympic Games.

The two countries issued a statement at a news conference in Pyongyang, North Korea on Wednesday following a summit between North Korea leader Kim Jong Un and South Korea president Moon Jae-in.

The statement also said they had agreed to "participate jointly" at international competitions including the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Donald Trump responded to the news by tweeting: "very exciting!"

The idea of a joint bid to host the Summer Games in 2032 was floated last week by Seoul's Sports Minister Do Jong-hwan.

Do said co-hosting the Games would build on the success of this year's Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, where North Korea's participation helped ease tensions on the peninsula.

If the bid is successful it will bring the Summer Olympics to the Korean peninsula for the first time since Seoul hosted the Games in 1988.

But there is already competition from Germany, who have announced plans for a multi-city bid in 2032 while Brisbane has also put its hat into the ring.

Following the 2020 Games in Tokyo, the Olympics will be staged in Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028.

Pakistan court orders release of ousted PM Nawaz Sharif and his daughter

ISLAMABAD, Sept 19: A Pakistani court on Wednesday ordered the release of jailed former premier Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz and son-in-law, suspending prison sentences given by a lower court pending the hearing of their appeals.

The Islamabad High Court’s order came as a reprieve for Sharif, Maryam Nawaz and Muhammad Safdar, who had been incarcerated since July 13 after an accountability or anti-corruption court found them guilty of corrupt practices linked to the Sharif family’s ownership of upscale London flats.

The anti-corruption court, in response to a case filed by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), had given Sharif an 11-year sentence and his daughter an eight-year term.

The high court bench of Justices Athar Minallah and Miangul Hassan Aurangzeb accepted the appeals filed by the Sharifs and Safdar against the lower court’s verdict of July 6 and said their sentences will remain suspended until the final ruling on their petitions.

“For reasons to be recorded later on, the petitions of Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz and Muhammad Safdar are allowed,” said Minallah.

The bench said the trio would be released on bail after paying Rs 500,000 each as surety. A date will be fixed later for hearing their appeals.

Following arguments by NAB’s special prosecutor, Minallah said the anti-graft watchdog, after conducting a thorough investigation, “couldn’t bring any evidence of Nawaz Sharif’s ownership” of the London flats.

“The prosecution has failed to show the properties belong to Nawaz Sharif. It also failed to prove how Maryam Nawaz was sentenced under the same charge-sheet which convicted Nawaz Sharif,” he added.

“Justice has been served and I congratulate Nawaz Sharif’s supporters,” former foreign minister Khawaja Asif, a staunch Sharif ally, said outside the courtroom, where PML-N supporters were seen celebrating wildly. Dozens of supporters chanted “Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif!”

Three-time prime minister Sharif was ousted and disqualified from holding public office by the Supreme Court in July 2017 in connection with a case related to the Panama Papers leaks.

Sharif has maintained he is innocent and described the anti-corruption cases against him as politically motivated, suggesting collusion between the powerful military and the judiciary to remove him from the political arena ahead of the 2018 general elections.

The polls were won by Imran Khan, whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party is believed to have the military’s backing.

Former minister and senior PML-N leader Ahsan Iqbal told reporters: “Today the court has suspended the decision that was based on revenge.

“This trial is important because even a blind person in Pakistan will see that there was neither law nor Constitution in the decision and it was just pre-poll rigging to pave the way for Imran Khan to win elections.”

Observers said allowing Sharif and his daughter to leave jail and return to normal activities will have an impact on politics in Punjab, the country’s most populous province. The PTI rules the province but their choice of chief minister, a political non-entity, has put the party at a disadvantage.

Already there are rumblings within the PTI over the choice of chief minister as well as those appointed as ministers.

Sharif’s younger brother Shehbaz Sharif, is Leader of Opposition in Parliament, and the PML-N can bank on Sharif’s leaderhsip to reorganise and change strategies in Punjab.

“Nawaz Sharif can focus on Punjab and use all his influence and goodwill to draw support on the ground. In the short term, this may not lead to much, but this could be the beginning of the return of the PML-N to Punjab in years to come,” said journalist Mayed Ali.

Russia launches biggest ever war games; 3,500 Chinese troops to take part

CHITA, (Russia), Sept 11: Russia launched Tuesday what it called its largest ever military drills, with hundreds of thousands of troops taking part along with Chinese soldiers in a show of force NATO condemned as a rehearsal for “large-scale conflict.”

President Vladimir Putin is expected to attend the games after hosting an economic forum in Russia’s far eastern city Vladivostok where his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping is one of the prominent guests.

The week-long war games dubbed “Vostok-2018”(East-2018) “have kicked off” in far eastern Russia, the defence ministry said.

Taking part in the drills are around 300,000 soldiers, 36,000 military vehicles, 80 ships and 1,000 aircraft, helicopters and drones.

Some 3,500 Chinese troops will take part in the games.

The defence ministry released video footage of military vehicles, planes, helicopters and ships getting into position for the initial stage of the drills. Putin praised Russia’s increasingly close ties with China as he met with Xi at the economic forum in Vladivostok on Tuesday.

“We have trustworthy ties in political, security and defence spheres,” the Russian leader said.

Xi for his part said the two countries’ “friendship is getting stronger all the time.” The drills, which also include Mongolian soldiers, have been condemned by NATO as a rehearsal for “large-scale conflict”.

The military exercises come at a time of escalating tensions between Moscow and the West over accusations of Russian interference in western affairs and conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

The Russian army has compared the show of force to the USSR’s 1981 war games that saw between 100,000 and 150,000 Warsaw Pact soldiers take part in “Zapad-81” (West-81) -- the largest military exercises of the Soviet era.

But Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said these exercises are even larger. “Imagine 36,000 military vehicles moving at the same time: tanks, armoured personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles -- and all of this, of course, in conditions as close to a combat situation as possible,” Shoigu said. The exercises will be held across nine training ranges and three seas: the Sea of Japan, the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk.

The Russian army is rolling out all of its latest additions for the event: Iskander missiles that can carry nuclear warheads, T-80 and T-90 tanks and its recent Su-34 and Su-35 fighter planes.

At sea, the Russian fleet is deploying several frigates equipped with Kalibr missiles that have been used in Syria.

Wednesday will see games featuring anti-aircraft technology, while the main event will be on Thursday, the defence ministry told journalists covering the event in eastern Siberia and the Far East.

NATO said that Vostok-2018 “demonstrates Russia’s focus on exercising large-scale conflict”.

“It fits into a pattern we have seen over some time -- a more assertive Russia, significantly increasing its defence budget and its military presence,” the alliance’s spokesman Dylan White said late August.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed such concerns on Tuesday. “These are very important drills but they are part of routine annual work to develop the armed forces,” he told journalists.

Peskov has earlier said Russia’s “ability to defend itself in the current international situation which is often aggressive and unfriendly to our country is justified, essential and without alternative”.

Relations between Russia and the West declined sharply in 2014 with Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of a Kremlin-backed uprising in eastern Ukraine.

The Kremlin has accused NATO of expanding westwards and threatening Russian national security.

Moscow has increased the number of its large-scale military exercises in the Caucasus, the Baltic and the Arctic in recent years. Russia’s previous military exercise in the region, Vostok-2014, was almost half the size, with 155,000 soldiers participating.

The country’s war games in Eastern Europe last year, Zapad-2017, saw 12,700 troops take part, according to Moscow. Ukraine and the Baltic states said the true number was far bigger.

Jailed ex-PM Nawaz Sharif to be granted parole to attend wife Kulsoom Nawaz’s funeral

LAHORE, Sept 11: Pakistan’s jailed former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam and son-in-law Captain (retd) Muhammad Safdar will be granted parole to attend the funeral of Begum Kulsoom, a media report said Tuesday.

The three will be granted parole from the time of Kulsoom’s funeral prayers till her burial, Geo TV reported, citing the Interior Ministry sources.

Sharif, Maryam and Safdar are currently serving jail terms in Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi after being convicted by an accountability court in a corruption case in July.

A request is necessary for parole to be granted, the sources added.

Kulsoom, the wife of Sharif, died Tuesday in London after a long battle with cancer. She was 68.

According to sources, the Sharif family has decided to bring back Kulsoom’s body to Pakistan, it said.

“She will be laid to rest in Pakistan,” the family confirmed.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has condoled the death of Kulsoom and said all facilities will be provided to her family as per law.

The prime minister has directed the Pakistan high commission in London to assist in provision of all necessary facilities to the family of the deceased, said an official statement.

Suicide attack on protesters in Afghanistan kills at least 32 as violence flares

JALALABAD, Sept 11: A suicide attack on protesters in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday killed at least 32 people, officials said, as an uptick in violence across the war-torn country dampens hopes for peace talks and elections.

There were chaotic scenes at several hospitals as medical staff struggled to treat 128 people wounded by the powerful blast in Nangarhar province.

Gul Majid was among scores of protesters blocking the highway between the provincial capital of Jalalabad and a major Pakistan border crossing when he “heard a big bomb”.

“Then I saw flesh, blood and people wounded all around me,” Majid told AFP outside one of the hospitals.

“I am still looking for my friends. I don’t know whether they are alive or dead.”

The men had been protesting over the appointment of a local police chief, provincial governor spokesman Ataullah Khogyani said.

Provincial health director Najibullah Kamawal and Khogyani both confirmed the latest casualty toll.

The attack came hours after a double bombing in front of a girls’ school in the provincial capital Jalalabad, which killed a boy and wounded four others.

The first explosion happened in front of Malika Omaira girls’ school at around 8:30 am (0400 GMT), Khogyani said earlier.

A second bomb went off as students from a neighbouring boys’ school and locals gathered at the scene, he added.

There has been no claim of responsibility for any of the attacks, but the Taliban and the Islamic State (IS) group are active in Nangarhar.

A wave of violence across Afghanistan in recent weeks has claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians and security forces, as the Taliban makes gains on the battlefield and IS launches deadly urban attacks.

The fighting has tempered optimism that had been tentatively growing as Afghan and international players ratchet up efforts to convince the Taliban to negotiate an end to the 17-year conflict.

An unprecedented ceasefire in June followed by talks between US officials and Taliban representatives in Qatar in July raised hopes that peace negotiations could bring an end to the fighting.

There has been speculation the two sides will meet again this month.

The Taliban have long insisted on direct talks with Washington and refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they see as illegitimate.

But newly appointed US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has cancelled further talks with the militants until he has reviewed the American strategy, a Western official in Kabul told AFP on the condition of anonymity.

The information could not be immediately confirmed. One militant source, a senior Taliban commander based in neighbouring Pakistan, had told AFP he expected more talks to be held “soon”.

The intensified fighting has also fuelled speculation over whether Afghanistan’s long-delayed parliamentary elections will go ahead on October 20.

The country’s already overstretched security forces will be tasked with protecting thousands of polling stations around the country at a time when they are already struggling to beat back insurgents.

Delivering ballot papers and monitoring the vote, which is seen as a test run for next year’s presidential election, will be challenging, officials have warned.

In the past two days Taliban fighters killed nearly 60 members of the security forces in a spate of attacks in the country’s north and threatened a provincial capital for the second time in as many months.

After seizing a military base in Sar-e-Pul, Taliban fighters were closing in on the provincial capital in a situation that could result in “disaster” if reinforcements were not sent, the area’s police chief Abdul Qayom Baqizoy warned on Monday.

Baqizoy compared the threat to the Taliban’s extraordinary raid last month on the provincial capital of Ghazni -- fighters held large parts of the city located just two hours from Kabul for days.

On Tuesday security forces had managed to push back Taliban fighters by a couple of kilometres, locals and officials said.

Saudi Arabia hints at ‘changing geography of region’, plan might turn Qatar into island

RIYADH, Sept 1: A Saudi official hinted Friday the kingdom was moving forward with a plan to dig a canal that would turn the neighbouring Qatari peninsula into an island, amid a diplomatic feud between the Gulf nations.

“I am impatiently waiting for details on the implementation of the Salwa island project, a great, historic project that will change the geography of the region,” Saud al-Qahtani, a senior adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, said on Twitter.

The plan, which would physically separate the Qatari peninsula from the Saudi mainland, is the latest stress point in a highly fractious 14-month long dispute between the two states.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of supporting terrorism and being too close to Riyadh’s archrival, Iran -- charges Doha denies.

In April, the pro-government Sabq news website reported government plans to build a channel -- 60 kilometres (38 miles) long and 200 metres wide -- stretching across the kingdom’s border with Qatar.

Part of the canal, which would cost up to 2.8 billion riyals ($750 million), would be reserved for a planned nuclear waste facility, it said.

Five unnamed companies that specialise in digging canals had been invited to bid for the project and the winner will be announced in September, Makkah newspaper reported in June.

Saudi authorities did not respond to requests for comment and there was no immediate reaction on the plan from Qatar.

After the dispute erupted last year, Qatar -- a small peninsula nation -- found its only land border closed, its state-owned airline barred from using its neighbours’ airspace, and Qatari residents expelled from the boycotting countries.

Mediation efforts led by Kuwait and the US, which has its largest Middle East air base in Qatar, have so far failed to resolve the dispute.

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