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Update December 2018


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13 young miners feared dead in India's remote northeast

Rescuers work at the site of a coal mine that collapsed in Ksan, in the northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya, Friday, Dec. 14. (AP Photo/Sannio Siangshai)

Wasbir Hussain

Gauhati, India (AP) — Thirteen young miners were missing and feared dead following the collapse of a shaft and flooding of a coal mine they were digging illegally in India's remote northeast, police said Friday.

Rescuers were attempting to pump water out of the mine, which flooded Wednesday, police said. National Disaster Response Force workers joined local authorities in the rescue effort.

Police said rescuers can only reach the miners after the water is removed from the mine.

Those missing are believed to be teenage boys used by illegal mining groups to enter "rat hole'" mines with small openings.

They said digging at the mine was banned four years ago, but illegal and unsafe activity by private landowners and the local community is rife. The area in Meghalaya state is about 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Shillong, the state capital.

"It was absolutely an illegal mining activity," said Conrad Sangma, the state's top elected official. He said authorities would crack down on illegal mining groups.

Last month, an activist, Agnes Kharshiing, was assaulted by people involved in illegal mining when she visited the area to protest their activities. She remains hospitalized with life-threatening head and other injuries.

Demand for coal has increased in energy-hungry India.

Migrants from poorer parts of the country come to work illegally in the coal mine area, where they earn enough money to pay off powerful people who make sure the mines' guards don't interfere. People carrying baskets filled with stolen coal on carts or bicycles are a common sight in these areas.

In 2016, six illegal miners died when a section of a closed mine collapsed in Burdwan district in India's West Bengal state. The accident occurred when about 200 illegal miners were extracting coal from the mine.


Macron urges calm, Paris police prepare for more violence

 

Soldiers patrol by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Friday, Dec.14, 2018. Anticipating a fifth straight weekend of violent protests, Paris' police chief said Friday that armored vehicles and thousands of officers will be deployed again in the French capital this weekend. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Elena Becatoros

Paris (AP) — French President Emanuel Macron called Friday for calm as authorities prepared to deploy armored vehicles and thousands of security forces for a possible fifth-straight weekend of violent protests on the streets of Paris.

The "yellow vest" movement, which began its demonstrations Nov. 17 initially to protest an increase in fuel taxes, soon morphed into an expression of rage about the high cost of living in France and a sense that Macron's government is detached from the everyday struggles of workers.

"Our country needs calm. It needs order. It needs to function normally again," Macron said in Brussels, where he attended a European Union summit.

Later, he traveled to Strasbourg to express his condolences in the eastern French city where a gunman killed four people and wounded a dozen more after opening fire Tuesday near a Christmas market. The suspected attacker was killed Thursday in a shootout with police. Macron thanked some of the hundreds of security forces that had helped in the Strasbourg manhunt.

Macron acknowledged in a speech earlier this week that he's partially responsible for the anger displayed by the "yellow vest" protesters — whose movement takes its name from the safety garb that all French motorists must carry. He has announced measures aimed at improving workers' spending power. But he has so far refused to reinstate a wealth tax that was lifted to spur investment in France.

"I don't think our democracy can accept to function with a dialogue that is carried out only with the occupation of the public domain, only by elements of violence," Macron said.

He insisted he had heard the protesters' concerns and defended his promises to speed up tax relief. He has ignored calls for his resignation, which is now among the protesters' various demands.

Paris Police Chief Michel Delpuech told RTL radio that security services intend to deploy about 8,000 officers and 14 armored vehicles in the capital, the same numbers as last weekend. Since the start of the protests, six people have died in protest-related incidents and 1,407 people have been injured, 46 of them seriously, according to government figures.

For the second straight weekend, several weekend French league soccer matches were postponed at the request of authorities.

Some trade unions are now calling for rolling strikes across the country.

"The best action is to go on strike," said Philippe Martinez, the head of leftist trade union CGT. "There are inequalities in this country and we need to make big company bosses pay."

Delpuech said more groups of officers will be deployed this weekend to deter vandals, who last weekend roamed the elegant Champs-Elysees area, smashing store windows and looting stores. On Friday, shops were boarding up their store windows ahead of the protests and many planned to close.

"Last week, we pretty much handled the 'yellow vests,' but we also witnessed scenes of breakage and looting by criminals," Delpuech said. "Our goal will be to better control this aspect."

Police arrested more than 1,000 people in Paris last weekend, and 135 people were injured, including 17 police officers.

Amnesty International also urged authorities to use restraint, describing the security forces' response to the protests as "extremely heavy-handed."

"Police used rubber bullets, sting-ball grenades and tear gas against largely peaceful protesters who did not threaten public order and the organization has documented numerous instances of excessive use of force by police," the group said in a statement.

"Whilst policing demonstrations is a difficult task and some protesters have committed unlawful and violent acts, it is essential that both French law and international human rights law is respected," the statement quoted Rym Khadhraoui, Amnesty International's West Europe researcher, as saying.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner urged protesters to demonstrate peacefully, citing the Strasbourg attack and the work of the security services that were mobilized in the manhunt for the suspect, 29-year-old Cherif Chekatt, who was shot and killed by police.

"I can't stand the idea that today people applaud police forces and that tomorrow some people will think it makes sense to throw stones at us," Castaner said from Strasbourg.

One group of demonstrators has urged a nonviolent protest on the Place de la Republique in Paris under the slogan "Je Suis Strasbourg" ("I am Strasbourg") to show solidarity with the victims of the attack. The slogan evokes the "Je Suis Charlie" motto used by supporters of freedom of speech after a 2015 attack in which 12 people were killed at the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo.


One 'nebulous' word sends sparks flying over Brexit talks

British Prime Minister Theresa May walks by the Union Flag and EU flag as she departs a media conference at an EU summit in Brussels, Friday, Dec. 14. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Raf Casert

Brussels (AP) — As if the Brexit negotiations aren't tense enough, a "nebulous" linguistic fog briefly spread across the European Union summit on Friday.

One word sent sparks flying between two of the biggest protagonists, British Prime Minister Theresa May and EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

EU leaders have rebuffed May's request to sweeten the divorce agreement and help her win over a hostile U.K. Parliament, and Juncker complained to reporters Thursday about a political climate which was sometimes "nebulous, imprecise."

Juncker thought little more of it — until a clearly angry May confronted him at the summit table Friday.

The heated exchange was captured on video with no sound, but lip-readers reported that May said: "What did you call me? You called me nebulous." Juncker was seen shaking his head, apparently replying: "No I didn't."

Talks have been on a knife's edge for months for a divorce which both sides see as a defining moment in their history, with possibly hundreds of billions at stake depending on the outcome. So every word counts, however nebulous.

Juncker later explained that he was talking about the overall debate in Britain, where it is often hard to tell who is on which side, not referring to May personally.

May acknowledged Friday that she had a "robust" exchange with Juncker, but added: "That is the sort of discussion you are able to have when you've developed a working relationship and you work well together."

"What came out of that was his clarity that actually ... he had been talking about a general level of debate," she said.

Juncker was relieved. "I did not refer to her," he said. "I didn't, by the way, know that this word does exist in English."

It was time to kiss and make up. "In the course of the morning, after having checked what I said yesterday night, she was kissing me," Juncker said.


Serbia talks up armed intervention as Kosovo OKs new army

Workers hang Serbian flags in the northern, Serb-dominated part of ethnically divided town of Mitrovica, Kosovo, Friday, Dec. 14. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Florent Bajrami and Llazar Semini

Pristina, Kosovo (AP) — Serbia threatened a possible armed intervention in Kosovo after the Kosovo parliament on Friday overwhelmingly approved the formation of an army. Belgrade called the move a "direct threat to peace and stability" in the Balkans and lashed out at the United States for supporting it.

While NATO's chief called the action by Kosovo "ill-timed," the U.S. approved it as "Kosovo's sovereign right" as an independent nation that unilaterally broke away from Serbia in 2008.

All 107 lawmakers present in the 120-seat Kosovo parliament voted in favor of passing three draft laws to expand an existing 4,000 Kosovo Security Force and turn it into a regular, lightly armed army. Ethnic Serb lawmakers boycotted the vote.

Serbia insists the new army violates a U.N. resolution that ended Serbia's bloody crackdown on Kosovar separatists in 1998-1999. It has warned bluntly that it may respond with an armed intervention in its former province, with Prime Minister Ana Brnabic saying that's "one of the options on the table."

On Friday, Nikola Selakovic, an adviser to the Serbian president, said the country could send in armed forces or declare Kosovo an occupied territory. Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said Serbia will seek an urgent session of the U.N. Security Council over the issue.

The Security Council held closed consultations late Friday on the format of a meeting, possibly on Monday or Tuesday. Council diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because talks were private, said Russia, a close ally of Serbia, wants an open meeting to be addressed by Serbia's president while European nations want a closed session.

The decision will be made by Ivory Coast's U.N. ambassador, the current council president, the diplomats said.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres affirmed the U.N.'s desire to maintain the Kosovo Force as the body that ensures the safety of Kosovo, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said late Friday.

He said "the secretary-general calls on all parties concerned to exercise restraint and refrain from actions that could raise tensions and cause a further setback in the European Union-facilitated dialogue for the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina."

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic visited Serbian troops near the border with Kosovo and later Vucic addressed the nation, denouncing the United States for its apparent support of a Kosovo army and praising allies Russia and China for their opposition to the move.

He said that Kosovo and its "sponsor" — the U.S. — want to "quash" the Serbs, but that he won't allow it.

Vucic says Serbia has been "brought to the edge" by Kosovo's decision and now has no choice but to "defend" itself. It was one of the strongest anti-American outbursts by Vucic, a former pro-Russian ultranationalist turned alleged pro-EU reformer.

Any Serbian armed intervention in Kosovo would mean a direct confrontation with thousands of NATO-led peacekeepers, including U.S. soldiers, who have been stationed in Kosovo since 1999.

Russia denounced the move to form a Kosovo army, saying the ethnic Albanian force must be "disbanded" by NATO in Kosovo.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a move not recognized by Belgrade or Russia. Tensions have remained high between the two sides, and NATO and the European Union — which has led yearslong talks to improve ties between the Balkan neighbors — expressed regret that Kosovo decided to go ahead with the army formation.

"I reiterate my call on both Pristina and Belgrade to remain calm and refrain from any statements or actions which may lead to escalation," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

He said the alliance remains committed "to a safe and secure environment in Kosovo and to stability in the wider Western Balkans." He said they will "re-examine the level of NATO's engagement with the Kosovo Security Force."

The new army will preserve its current name — Kosovo Security Force — but now has a new mandate. In about a decade the army expects to have 5,000 troops and 3,000 reservists, and a 98 million-euro ($111 million) annual budget. It will handle crisis response and civil protection operations — essentially what the current paramilitary force, which is lightly armed, does. Its main tasks would be search and rescue, explosive ordnance disposal, firefighting and hazardous material disposal.

It's not immediately clear how much more equipment or weapons the new army will have or need compared with the current force.

Seeking to reassure Serbia and the international community, Kosovo's Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj said the new army "will never be used against them (Serbs)."

He added: "Serbia's army will now have a partner — Kosovo's army — in the partnership for peace process."

Serbia fears the move's main purpose is to chase the Serb minority out of Kosovo's Serbian-dominated north, a claim strongly denied by the government in Pristina.

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci said that the new army will be "multiethnic, professional and will serve all citizens, peace in Kosovo, the region and wherever in the world, when asked."

He called on a return to dialogue for normalizing ties with Serbia.

The United States hailed Kosovo's parliament vote to form a new army as a first step and reaffirmed "its support for the gradual transition ... to a force with a territorial defense mandate, as is Kosovo's sovereign right."

A U.S. embassy statement in Pristina urged Kosovo to continue "close coordination with NATO allies and partners and to engage in outreach to minority communities."

"Regional stability requires that Kosovo make genuine efforts to normalize relations with its neighbor Serbia, and we encourage both sides to take immediate steps to lower tensions and create conditions for rapid progress on the dialogue," it said.

In a sign of defiance, Serbs in northern Kosovo displayed Serbian flags on their streets and balconies. NATO-led peacekeepers deployed on a bridge in the ethnically divided northern town of Mitrovica to keep the peace.

Kosovo's 1998-1999 war ended with a 78-day NATO air campaign in June 1999 that stopped a bloody Serbian crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists.


Spanish prosecutors file tax evasion charges against Shakira

In this Oct. 11, 2018 file photo, Shakira performs at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Madrid (AP) — Spanish prosecutors have charged pop music star Shakira with tax evasion, alleging she failed to pay more than 14.5 million euros between 2012 and 2014. The Colombian singer denied the charges.

The charges published Friday allege that Shakira listed the Bahamas as her official residence for tax purposes during those years but was in fact living in Spain with her partner, Spanish soccer player Gerard Pique.

Tax rates are much lower in the Bahamas than in Spain.

Shakira said in a statement Friday through her representatives that she was not a legal resident in Spain during the years in question and owed nothing to the Spanish tax authorities, who are using her "as a scapegoat" to frighten other taxpayers into coming clean.

Prosecutors in Barcelona said Shakira's travel abroad was for short periods because of professional commitments, while most of the year she stayed in Spain. They want her to pay tax in Spain on her worldwide income.

Shakira officially moved to Spain for tax purposes in 2015, after having two children by Pique.

A magistrate will assess whether there is enough evidence to put Shakira on trial.

Prosecutors want Shakira to pay a bond of 19.4 million euros — the amount they say she owes in tax, plus 33 percent, in accordance with Spanish law. Otherwise, they recommend a court freeze of her assets to that amount.

Shakira was named in the "Paradise Papers" leaks that detailed the offshore tax arrangements of numerous high-profile individuals, including musical celebrities like Madonna and U2's Bono.

The documents were obtained by German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung and investigated by Spanish news website El Confidencial.

Spain's tax authorities referred their probe to the Barcelona prosecutor's office a year ago.

Sports celebrities have also been in trouble with Spanish tax authorities, including soccer stars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.


Ukraine urges NATO to deploy ships amid standoff with Russia

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko speaks to soldiers during a visit to a military base in Chernihiv region, Ukraine, Wednesday, Nov, 28. (Mykola Lazarenko, Presidential Press Service via AP)

Yuras Karmanau

Kiev, Ukraine (AP) — The Ukrainian president has urged NATO to deploy naval ships to the Sea of Azov amid a standoff with Russia.

President Petro Poroshenko made the call in an interview with the German daily Bild published Thursday, saying that "Germany is one of our closest allies and we hope that states within NATO are now ready to relocate naval ships to the Sea of Azov in order to assist Ukraine and provide security."

In Sunday's confrontation, the Russian coast guard fired on and seized three Ukrainian vessels and their crews that sought to pass from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait, between Russia's mainland and the Crimean Peninsula it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

There was no immediate reaction from German or NATO officials to Poroshenko's request. While NATO condemned the Russian action, the allies will be unlikely to heed Poroshenko's request, which could trigger a confrontation with Russia. A 2003 treaty between Russia and Ukraine stipulates that agreement from each of the two littoral countries is required for warships from any other country to enter the internal sea.

Ukraine insisted that its vessels were operating in line with international maritime rules, while Russia said they had failed to get permission to pass.

Ukraine has released what it said was the exact location where its ships were fired on by Russia, saying they were in international waters west of the Kerch Strait. Russia, meanwhile, insisted the Ukrainian vessels were in its territorial waters and refused to communicate with the Russian coast guard, or accept a Russian pilot to guide them through the narrow strait.

"What were the border guards supposed to do?" Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday. "They fulfilled their duty to protect the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. If they had done something differently, they should have been put on trial for that."

Poroshenko responded by ordering martial law in much of the country, a move that went into effect with parliamentary approval. Putin accused his Ukrainian counterpart of provoking the naval incident as a pretext to introduce martial law in a bid to shore up his sagging popularity and sideline competitors ahead of the March election.

The incident marked the first overt collision between Russian and Ukrainian militaries since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. It has fueled fears of a wider conflict and has drawn strong criticism of Russia from the U.S. and its allies.

In the interview with Bild, Poroshenko lobbied the West for direct military support.

"Russian President Putin wants nothing less but to occupy the sea," he said. "The only language he understands is the unity of the Western world."

Putin, for his part, criticized the West for what he described as connivance with Ukraine's "provocation."

"The authorities in Kiev are successfully selling anti-Russian sentiments as they have nothing else left to sell," he said. "They can get away with whatever they do. If they want to eat babies for breakfast today, they will likely serve them too."


Police search Deutsche Bank offices in money laundering case

Police vans stand in the backyard of Deutsche Bank headquarters during a raid in Frankfurt, Germany, Thursday, Nov. 29. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

David Rising and Frank Jordans

Berlin (AP) — Some 170 police officers, investigators and prosecutors raided the German offices of Deutsche Bank on Thursday on the suspicion bank employees helped clients set up offshore companies in tax havens to launder hundreds of millions of euros.

The investigation emerged from an analysis of documents leaked from tax havens in recent years, including the 2016 "Panama Papers," said Frankfurt prosecutors' spokeswoman Nadja Niesen.

It is focused on two Deutsche Bank employees, aged 50 and 46, and possibly other not-yet identified suspects, she said. Starting at 10 a.m. locally, officers swooped on six buildings in Frankfurt, where Deutsche Bank has its headquarters, as well as premises — including at least one suspect's home — in nearby Eschborn and Gross-Umstadt.

Niesen said the analysis of the Panama Papers and other documents "gave rise to suspicion that Deutsche Bank was helping clients set up so-called offshore companies in tax havens and the proceeds of crimes were transferred there from Deutsche Bank accounts" without the bank reporting it.

In 2016 alone, more than 900 customers are alleged to have transferred some 311 million euros to one such company set up in the British Virgin Islands, she said.

The suspects, both German citizens, are accused of failing to report the suspicious transactions even though there was "sufficient evidence" to have been aware of it.

Deutsche Bank confirmed the search and said "the investigation has to do with the Panama Papers case."

"More details will be communicated as soon as these become known. We are cooperating fully with the authorities," the bank said.

Money laundering has become a growing problem in Europe, where a series of scandals has exposed lax regulation.

And it's not the first time Deutsche Bank has run into trouble over the flow of dirty money.

It was fined more than $600 million by U.S. and U.K. authorities in January 2017 for allowing customers to transfer $10 billion out of Russia in what regulators said was "highly suggestive of financial crime."

The Panama Papers are a trove of documents from a law firm that handled shell companies for thousands of the rich and powerful around the world. While owning a shell company is not illegal, it is used to hide the beneficial owner of a company or transfer, making it important for the handling and laundering of dirty money.

Several other institutions besides Deutsche Bank have been fined by authorities in the U.S. and Europe for not properly checking up on the beneficial owners of shell companies that send money through their accounts.

Analysts say that because these transactions can be lucrative, banks have few incentives to do more than the minimum required by law to check on the identity of a bank.

Most recently, Denmark's biggest bank, Danske Bank, admitted that some 200 billion euros in suspicious money had flown through its Estonian branch from 2007 to 2015. Whistleblower and former employee Howard Wilkinson has indicated that Danske Bank's management was aware of what was going on at the branch, which was among the bank's most profitable units. He has also alleged that family members of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia's spy agency were using the bank for money laundering. The bank's CEO has since stepped down over the scandal.

Another Baltic state, Latvia, has also emerged as a major hub of money laundering, with a 2014 leak showing that tens of billions of dollars were funneled from Russia in 2010-14. Some of the money reportedly went through Deutsche Bank and ended up in major capitals like London, according to The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

There was no indication that Thursday's raid was linked to that scandal, though Deutsche Bank says that it has since stopped providing dollar transactions in some countries, including Latvia.


3 Filipino policemen convicted of murder in brutal drug war

 

In this Aug. 24, 2017, file photo, from left; police officers Jeremias Pereda, Jerwin Cruz and Arnel Oares talk during a senate hearing on the killing of Kian Loyd Delos Santos, a 17-year-old Grade 11 student, allegedly during a drug crackdown in Manila, Philippines. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Jim Gomez

Manila, Philippines (AP) — A Philippine court found three police officers guilty on Thursday of killing a student they alleged was a drug dealer, in the first known such conviction under the president's deadly crackdown on drugs.

Regional Trial Court Presiding Judge Rodolfo Azucena Jr. ruled the officers murdered Kian Loyd delos Santos during raid in a slum in the Manila metropolis last year. It rejected the policemen's claim that the 17-year-old fired back while resisting arrest.

The court sentenced the officers to up to 40 years in prison without parole, although they can appeal. Aside from the prison term, the policemen, who appeared in court in handcuffs and in yellow detainee shirts, were ordered to pay damages to Santos's impoverished family.

Duterte's crackdown, which has left thousands of suspects dead reportedly in clashes with the police, has alarmed Western governments and U.N. rights experts and horrified human rights watchdogs. The volatile president has stressed he does not condone extrajudicial killings, although he has repeatedly threatened drug suspects with death and has assured police he would back them up in ways that human rights watchdogs say have encouraged law enforcers to act with impunity.

"A shoot first, think later attitude can never be countenanced in a civilized society. Never has homicide or murder been a function of law enforcement," Azucena said in his ruling. "The public peace is never predicated on the cost of human life."

Duterte's government called the ruling "a triumph of justice," which disproved critics' assertion that the judiciary was a rubberstamp.

"As we have always stressed, the conduct of the government's anti-illegal drug campaign is based on accountability. Therefore, we do not — and we will never — tolerate unjustified police violence, brutality or killing," presidential spokesman and chief legal counsel Salvador Panelo told a news conference.

Opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros, who has railed against the drug killings, said the court decision proved that extrajudicial killings under Duterte's crackdown were really being committed by rogue members of the national police force.

"This is a light in the darkness," Hontiveros said in a statement. "Despite the gruesome climate of killing and impunity in the country, this verdict sends the message that there is hope and justice. And we will fight for more light and truth until the darkeness cannot overcome them."

Hontiveros said the numbers of drug killings, which started to rise when Duterte took office in mid-2016 and launched his trademark war against drugs, could not have reached "catastrophic levels if these killings did not have a sinister principle and policy behind them."

Duterte and police officials have repeatedly stated there was no state policy to kill drug suspects illegally.


Sri Lankan lawmakers bar disputed PM from using state funds

 

Sri Lanka's disputed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, gestures as he arrives for a meeting with his supporting law makers at the parliamentary complex in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Thursday, Nov. 29. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

Bharatha Mallawarachi

Colombo, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankan lawmakers on Thursday approved a motion barring disputed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa from using state funds after he lost two no-confidence votes, in an escalation of the country's political crisis.

The motion was passed with 123 votes in the 225-member Parliament as Rajapaksa supporters boycotted the proceedings for a third day, accusing Speaker Karu Jayasuriya of bias and breaching parliamentary rules.

The passage of the motion was a setback for Rajapaksa because it demonstrated that a majority of lawmakers oppose the former strongman, who ruled Sri Lanka as president from 2005 to 2015.

Sri Lanka has been in a political crisis since Oct. 26, when President Maithripala Sirisena abruptly fired Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed Rajapaksa. Both claim to be the legitimate officeholder, with Wickremesinghe saying he has majority support in Parliament and his firing was invalid. Rajapaksa has moved into the prime minister's office, while Wickremesinghe has refused to leave the premier's official residence.

Parliament has passed two no-confidence motions against Rajapaksa and the speaker has declared that Rajapaksa is no longer prime minister and his government has been dissolved. But Rajapaksa continues to function as prime minister with the backing of Sirisena, who has dismissed the no-confidence votes, saying proper procedures were not followed.

Ravi Karunanayake, a lawmaker from Wickremesinghe's party who presented the motion, said Parliament has full control over public finance and the secretary to the prime minster has no authority to approve any expenditures from state funds.

Dinesh Gunawardena, a member of Rajapaksa's purported Cabinet, said his camp refuses to accept Thursday's vote. He said since a budget has already been approved for this year with allocations for the prime minister's office, any amendment to it needs to be brought in the form of a law by a government minister. He said it is also unlawful to debate a matter that is before a court.

The Court of Appeal has agreed to hear a petition challenging the right of Rajapaksa and his ministers to hold office after the no-confidence votes.

"Parliament has full and exclusive control over public funds. The government cannot spend a cent of public revenue without the authorization of Parliament," said Asanga Welikala, a constitutional expert at the Center for Policy Alternatives think tank.

However, the vote may only be symbolic because Gunawardena's contention that an approved budget needs to be changed by law is technically valid, he said.

"In a context of contested legitimacy and authority, even symbolic acts by Parliament to demonstrate its lack of confidence in the purported government are very powerful," Welikala said.

During the no-confidence motions two weeks ago, rival lawmakers exchanged blows, and those supporting Rajapaksa threw books, chairs and chili powder mixed with water to try to block the proceedings. Amid the disturbance, Jayasuriya resorted to voice votes.

Both Sirisena and Rajapaksa rejected the results of the votes, saying important issues should not be decided by voice. Sirisena has said he will only accept a vote taken by name or through the electronic voting system.

Sirisena served as health minster when Rajapaksa was president. In 2014, he joined hands with opposition parties and defeated Rajapaksa in the 2015 presidential election. His decision to appoint Rajapaksa as prime minister astonished many.

Rajapaksa is considered a hero by some in the ethnic Sinhalese majority for ending a long civil war by crushing ethnic Tamil Tiger rebels. However, his time in power was marred by allegations of wartime atrocities, corruption and nepotism.

Tensions had been building between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe for some time, as the president did not approve of economic reforms introduced by the prime minister. Sirisena has also accused Wickremesinghe and another Cabinet member of plotting to assassinate him, a charge Wickremesinghe has repeatedly denied.

On Sunday, Sirisena said he will not appoint Wickremesinghe as prime minister even if he controls a majority in Parliament.

Wickremesinghe's party has criticized Sirisena's stance, saying he should act within the constitution and that it does not provide for personal vendettas.


Scientists: World still isn't ready for gene-edited babies

David Baltimore, Nobel laureate and chair of the organizing committee delivers the statement by the organizing committee during the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong, Thursday, Nov. 29. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu).

Marilynn Marchione

Hong Kong (AP) — A group of leading scientists has declared that it's still too soon to try making permanent changes to DNA that can be inherited by future generations, as a Chinese researcher claims to have done.

The scientists gathered in Hong Kong this week for an international conference on gene editing, the ability to rewrite the code of life to try to correct or prevent diseases.

Although the science holds promise for helping people already born and studies testing that are underway, a statement issued Thursday by the 14-member conference leaders says it's irresponsible to try it on eggs, sperm or embryos except in lab research because not enough is known yet about its risks or safety.

The conference was rocked by the Chinese researcher's claim to have helped make the world's first gene-edited babies, twin girls he said were born earlier this month. Conference leaders called for an independent investigation of the claim by He Jiankui of Shenzhen, who spoke to the group Wednesday as international criticism of his claim mounted.

There is no independent confirmation of what He says he did. He was scheduled to speak again at the conference on Thursday, but he left Hong Kong and through a spokesman sent a statement saying "I will remain in China, my home country, and cooperate fully with all inquiries about my work. My raw data will be made available for third party review."

Several prominent scientists said the case showed a failure of the field to police itself and the need for stricter principles or regulations.

"It's not unreasonable to expect the scientific community" to follow guidelines, said David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate from California Institute of Technology who led the panel.

There already are some rules that should have prevented what He says he did, said Alta Charo, a University of Wisconsin lawyer and bioethicist and a conference organizer.

"I think the failure was his, not the scientific community," Charo said.

Gene editing for reproductive purposes might be considered in the future "but only when there is compelling medical need," with clear understanding of risks and benefits, and certain other conditions, said Dr. Victor Dzau, president of the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, one of the conference sponsors.

"Not following these guidelines would be an irresponsible act," he added.

Other sponsors of the three-day conference are the Academy of Sciences of Hong Kong, the Royal Society of the United Kingdom and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and U.S. National Academy Sciences.
 


DAILY UPDATE

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

13 young miners feared dead in India's remote northeast

Macron urges calm, Paris police prepare for more violence

One 'nebulous' word sends sparks flying over Brexit talks

Serbia talks up armed intervention as Kosovo OKs new army

Spanish prosecutors file tax evasion charges against Shakira


Ukraine urges NATO to deploy ships amid standoff with Russia

Police search Deutsche Bank offices in money laundering case

3 Filipino policemen convicted of murder in brutal drug war

Sri Lankan lawmakers bar disputed PM from using state funds

Scientists: World still isn't ready for gene-edited babies