Explosions, gunshots heard at resort in Philippines capital

AFP

Gunfire was reported at a hotel and a casino resort in the Philippine capital on Friday, the operator of the complex said, and the militant Islamic State group (IS) quickly claimed responsibility.

“Resorts World Manila is currently on lockdown following reports of gunfire from unidentified men,” the company said on its Twitter account.

“The company is working closely with the Philippine National Police to ensure that all guests and employees are safe.”

IS said “lone wolf soldiers” from its group carried out the attack, according to the SITE Intelligence Group that monitors terrorist organisations.

Police confirmed there were reports of gunfire at Resorts World, which is across a road from one of the main terminals of the Philippines’ international airport.

There were no immediate reports of fatalities or injuries.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte imposed martial law last week across the southern region of Mindanao to crush what he said was a rising threat of Islamic State there.

He declared martial law shortly after militants went on a rampage through the southern city of Marawi, which is about 800 kilometres (500 miles) south of Manila.

Security forces are still battling the militants in Marawi, and the clashes there have left at least 171 people dead.

Duterte said last week he may need to declare martial law across the rest of the country if the terrorism threat spread.

DAWN.com

World needs to talk to N. Korea, not threaten it: Putin

Reuters

BEIJING: Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that Moscow was opposed to any new countries acquiring nuclear weapons, but that the world should talk to North Korea rather than threaten it.

Putin, speaking in Beijing, said nuclear tests of the type that Pyongyang had been carrying out in recent weeks were unacceptable, but that a peaceful solution to rising tensions on the Korean peninsula was needed.

“I want to confirm that we are categorically against the expansion of the club of nuclear powers, including with the Korean Peninsula and North Korea,” said Putin, who said any such move would be “harmful and dangerous”.

“But at the same time, we understand that what we have observed in the world recently, and specifically flagrant violations of international law and incursions into the territory of foreign states, changes in regime, lead to such kinds of arms races.” Putin did not specify what countries he had in mind, but he has in the past repeatedly criticised the United States for military operations in Iraq, Libya and Syria, and accused it of trying to oust legitimate governments.

“In this connection, we need to act in a joined-up way, (and) strengthen the system of international guarantees with the help of international law and with the help of the UN Charter,” said Putin.

“We need to return to dialogue with North Korea and stop scaring it and find ways to resolve these problems peacefully.” The Russian leader said he thought such an approach was possible because of what he called “the positive experience” of holding talks with Pyongyang in the past.

“If you recall, there was a time when North Korea announced it was suspending this kind of (nuclear) programme, but unfortunately certain participants in the negotiations process did not have enough patience. I think we need to return to this.” Putin said he was briefed by his defence minister after North Korea’s latest missile test.

Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2017

Ivanka Trump draws line with father on Syrian refugees

AFP

WASHINGTON: First Daughter Ivanka Trump is contradicting her father, the US president, insisting that allowing Syrian refugees to immigrate to the United States “has to be part of the discussion” over ending Syria’s years old civil war.

“I think there is a global humanitarian crisis that’s happening, and we have to come together, and we have to solve it,” she told NBC News in an interview aired on Wednesday.

President Donald Trump has signed executive orders banning Syrian refugees from entering US territory, saying that they present a national security threat. Federal courts have ruled against the ban, placing it indefinitely on hold.

Opening America’s borders to the refugees “has to be part of the discussion, but that’s not going to be enough in and of itself.”

Trump has suggested creating “safe zones” for refugees and displaced people in the Middle Eastern country, and launched a cruise missile strike against President Bashar al-Assad’s military in response to an apparent chemical weapons attack.

The Syrian war has triggered the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, with more than 320,000 people killed and millions displaced. More than five million people — about a quarter of the population — have fled the country.

Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2017

‘Huge’ explosion near Damascus Airport: monitor

AFP

A massive explosion struck near Damascus International Airport early on Thursday setting off large fires, a monitoring group said, without specifying the cause.

The blast was outside the airport itself. It was not immediately clear whether it was the result of an air strike or a ground attack, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Israeli warplanes have hit the airport and other bases around the capital in the past, targeting what it said were weapons stockpiles of its Lebanese foe Hezbollah, which is allied with the Syrian government.

Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television said the explosion was “probably” caused by an Israeli air strike.

“The blast was huge,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP. “It’s unclear what caused the explosion but there are fires raging at the site.” Al-Manar said the strike caused only material damage.

“Al-Manar’s correspondent reported that an explosion struck at dawn on Thursday in fuel tanks and a warehouse near Damascus International Airport and that it was probably the result of an Israeli strike,” the channel said.

The airport lies about 25 kilometres southeast of the capital.

It was hit by Israeli air strikes in December 2014, Syrian state media reported at the time.

‘Blast consistent with Israeli policy’

Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz said a massive explosion near Damascus International Airport on Thursday was consistent with Israel’s policy, but stopped short of confirming his country was behind it.

Israeli warplanes have hit the airport and other bases around the Syrian capital in the past, targeting what it said were weapons stockpiles of its Lebanese foe Hezbollah, which is allied with the Syrian government.

“We are acting to prevent the transfer of sophisticated weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon by Iran,” Katz told army radio.

“When we receive serious information about the intention to transfer weapons to Hezbollah, we will act. This incident is totally consistent with this policy.” In line with its usual practice, Israel’s military has declined to comment on the incident.

Israel has sought to avoid being dragged into the six-year civil war in Syria, but acknowledges carrying out air strikes there to stop what it says are deliveries of advanced weapons to Hezbollah.

Israel does not usually confirm or deny each individual raid it carries out.

Last month, in the most serious incident between the two countries since the Syria conflict began, Israeli warplanes struck several targets, drawing retaliatory missile fire.

Israel used its Arrow interceptor to destroy what was believed to have been a Russian-made SA-5 missile, and Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to destroy Syria’s air defence systems “without the slightest hesitation” if it happened again.

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to destroy Syrian air defence systems if they were used again.

On January 13, Syria accused Israel of bombing Mazzeh air base in the western suburbs of the capital. There were several strikes near the same base last year.

In April 2016, Netanyahu admitted for the first time that Israel had attacked dozens of convoys in Syria that he said were transporting weapons destined for Hezbollah.

Israel and Syria are still technically at war, though the armistice line had remained largely quiet for decades until 2011 when the Syrian conflict began.

Israel and Hezbollah fought a devastating 34-day war in 2006 which killed 1,200 people in Lebanon, mainly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

Large asteroid to pass close to Earth on Wednesday: Nasa

Reuters

An asteroid more than 400 metres wide will pass close to Earth on Wednesday, zooming by at a distance of just over 1.8 million kilometres, but with no chance of impact, according to Nasa scientists.

Smaller asteroids routinely make closer passes to Earth, but 2014 J025, discovered in May 2014, will be the largest asteroid to come this near to the planet since 2004, flying by at only about 4.6 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon, 1.8m km.

“We know the time that the object is going to be closest within seconds, and the distance is known within hundreds of kilometres,” Davide Farnocchia, a mathematician at Nasa’s Near-Earth Object program, said by telephone on Tuesday.

Having several years of data on the asteroid’s trajectory gives scientists the ability to predict its path very confidently, he added.

The asteroid, estimated to be between 600-1,400 metres wide and twice as reflective as the Moon, won’t be visible to the naked eye, but sky watchers should be able to view it with home telescopes for one or two nights starting on Wednesday.

The approach of J025 will be the asteroid’s closest for at least the next 500 years.

In 2004, the 5km wide asteroid Toutatis passed about four lunar distances, or just under 1.6m km from Earth.

Amateur astronomers may be watching J025’s journey, but Farnocchia said he and his colleagues have moved on to tracking even closer encounters, such as asteroid 1999 AN10, an 800m wide rock predicted to pass only 380,000km from Earth, or slightly less than the distance to the Moon, in 2027.

Opposition disputes Turkey vote as EU urges probe

AFP

ANKARA: Turkey’s opposition on Tuesday demanded the annulment of a contentious referendum that approved sweeping constitutional changes boosting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s powers, claiming blatant vote-rigging had swung the result.

The European Union also urged a probe into the poll fraud claims after international observers voiced concerns, but US President Donald Trump showed no such scruples, calling Erdogan to offer his congratulations.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy leader Bulent Tezcan formally requested that the Supreme Election Board (YSK) cancel the result.

The opposition is particularly incensed by a last-minute move by the YSK to accept ballot documents in envelopes without an official stamp. “This is was an election without legitimacy,” Tezcan said after delivering the complaint to YSK headquarters in Ankara, claiming there was an organised campaign to “steal” the people’s will. “There is only one thing to do … and that’s to annul the referendum,” he said.

CHP chief Kemal Kilicdaroglu also said the government and the YSK had “staged a coup against the national will” in a posting on Twitter. He said ‘No’ would have emerged victorious were it not for the YSK’s changes. “We won’t stop until we find justice,” he said.

The joint mission of OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) said the YSK move on the stamps “removed an important safeguard”. They also said the campaign — which saw the ‘Yes’ camp dominating the airwaves — was conducted on an “unlevel playing field”.

But Erdogan rebuked the OSCE mission, telling the monitors: “know your place”, and saying Turkey had no intention of paying any attention to the report.

EU Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas also called on the Turkish authorities “to launch transparent investigations into these alleged irregularities found by the observers”.

The final results are due to be published in around 10 days and it is in this period that the YSK will consider the objections. Then the opposition can appeal to the constitutional court.

In a blow to the president’s prestige, the ‘No’ campaign notched up the most votes in Turkey’s three biggest cities: Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. Analysts have said the ‘No’ camp’s performance was impressive especially given that the election was held under a state of emergency first imposed after the failed July coup.

“Under the conditions of the emergency and despite the pressures, our country came out and took control of the future,” said CHP leader Kilicdaroglu.

The Hurriyet daily said a major cabinet reshuffle was now in the offing, with changes expected in some 10 cabinet posts.

Meanwhile, parliament agreed to extend the state of emergency — already in place for nine months — for another three months to July 19.

DAWN.com

Trump administration to review Iran sanctions relief: State Dept

AFP

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Tuesday he has told Congress of plans to review whether sanctions relief given to Iran as part of the 2015 nuclear deal was in US national security interests.

The notification came as the White House certified that Iran was complying with its commitments under the deal negotiated by former President Barack Obama, which is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror through many platforms and methods,” Tillerson wrote in a letter to Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan.

“President Donald J. Trump has directed a National Security Council-led interagency review of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that will evaluate whether suspension of sanctions related to Iran pursuant to the JCPOA is vital to the national security interests of the United States.”

The certification of Iran’s compliance with the terms of the deal must be issued to Congress every 90 days. The latest notification was the first issued by the Trump administration.

The deal placed curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions. Trump has repeatedly denounced the agreement, and in a January interview with the Times of London and Bild newspaper called it “one of the worst deals ever made”. But he declined to say whether he intended to “renegotiate” the deal, as he asserted regularly during the presidential campaign.

The pact was signed in July 2015 by Iran and six major powers — the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany.

Critics of the agreement, including Israel, have argued that when some of the terms of the deal expire in 10 and 15 years it will leave Tehran on the threshold of building a bomb.

DAWN.com