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Update December 2017


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Update December 30 2017 - January 2, 2018

Gunman opens fire on Cairo church; shootout kills at least 9

 

A policeman stands guard in front of Mar Mina church, in Helwan, Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Dec. 29, where several people were killed in a shootout outside the church. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Menna Zaki

Cairo (AP) — A gunman on a motorcycle opened fire Friday outside a church in a Cairo suburb and at a nearby store, sparking a shootout that killed at least nine people, including eight Coptic Christians, authorities said. It was the latest attack targeting Egypt's embattled Christian minority.

The gunman was also killed, along with at least one police officer, officials said.

The local affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack late Friday, saying it was carried out by a "security detail" and that one of its men was "martyred" in the strike. The claim was carried by the group's Aamaq news agency.

The attack began when the gunman tried to break through the security cordon outside the Coptic Church of Mar Mina. It was not clear how many assailants were involved. Egypt's Interior Ministry referred to only one, but the Coptic Orthodox church mentioned "gunmen."

Five people were wounded, including another police officer, Health Ministry spokesman Khaled Megahed said.

The attack came amid tightened security around churches and Christian facilities ahead of the Coptic Orthodox Christian celebrations of Christmas on Jan. 7. Police have been stationed outside churches and in nearby streets across Cairo. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has personally chaired meetings with his top security chiefs in recent days to discuss security during New Year's Eve and the Orthodox Christmas.

President Donald Trump spoke with Egypt's president after the attack, condemning it and reiterating "that the United States will continue to stand with Egypt in the face of terrorism."

"President Trump emphasized his commitment to strengthening efforts to defeat terrorism and extremism in all their forms," a White House statement said. Trump has promised to make protecting beleaguered Christian communities overseas a priority for his administration.

A video circulating on social media after Friday's attack apparently showed the gunman lying on the ground with his face covered in blood. Authorities closed off the area around the church.

The Interior Ministry identified the assailant as Ibrahim Ismail Mostafa, who, the agency said, was involved in several previous militant attacks. The Interior Ministry said he was wounded and arrested but made no mention of his death, which was reported by the Health Ministry.

The assailant had earlier opened fire at the nearby store owned by a Christian, the Interior Ministry said.

Islamic militants have for years battled security forces in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula in an insurgency now led by IS. It is centered in the turbulent northern part of Sinai but has also carried out attacks in the mainland.

The militants are targeting mainly security personnel and Egypt's Coptic Christian minority.

The latest attack, in the southern Cairo suburb of Helwan, showcases the difficulties faced by security forces in containing an insurgency that is growing in sophistication and brutality. The assault came a little more than a month after militants killed 311 worshippers inside a mosque in Sinai, the deadliest attack by militants on civilians in Egypt's modern history.

Last week, they fired a guided rocket that destroyed an army helicopter at the airport of the city of el-Arish in northern Sinai during an unannounced visit there by the defense and interior ministers. At least one senior officer was killed and two wounded in that attack, which pointed to an unusually high level of intelligence available to the militants.

Samir Gerges, a witness to Friday's church attack, said people inside the church closed the gates when the shooting began but that some bullets penetrated the building. Gerges said he was walking along a nearby street when the gunfire broke out. He saw people running and some taking cover in a nearby restaurant.

Another witness, 40-year-old Raouth Atta, was praying inside the church when the violence broke out.

"People were terrified and wanted to check on their families in other buildings of the church," she told The Associated Press by phone. "We stayed inside for 30 minutes before we were able to get out."

Once she was able to leave, Atta said, she saw blood everywhere.

"We kept praying," said the Rev. Boules, who was teaching a class in the church complex. On hearing gunfire, he went to check on his students, who were panicking and terrified.

Since December 2016, Egypt's Copts have been targeted by the militants, who waged a series of attacks that left more than 100 dead and scores wounded. The country has been under a state of emergency since April after suicide bombings struck two Coptic Christian churches on Palm Sunday.

The local IS affiliate has claimed responsibility for all the bombings targeting Christians.

Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population. They have long complained of discrimination in the Muslim-majority nation and claim that authorities have often failed to protect them from sectarian attacks.

Just last week, hundreds of Muslim demonstrators stormed an unlicensed church south of Cairo, wounding three people. The demonstrators shouted anti-Christian slogans and called for the church's demolition, according to the local diocese. The demonstrators destroyed the church's fittings and assaulted Christians inside before security personnel arrived and dispersed them.


Ex-soccer star Weah elected Liberia president by wide margin

Supporters of former soccer player George Weah, Presidential candidate for the Coalition for Democratic Change, celebrate in Monrovia, Liberia, Friday Dec. 29. (AP Photo/Abbas Dulleh)

Jonathan Paye-Layleh

Monrovia, Liberia (AP) — Former FIFA World Player of the Year George Weah has been elected Liberia's new president by a wide margin as the West African nation faces its first democratic transfer of power in more than 70 years.

Vice President Joseph Boakai conceded on Friday, congratulating the ex-soccer star.

The National Election Commission later declared Weah president-elect and his running mate Jewel Howard-Taylor vice president-elect.

Their Coalition for Democratic Change party received 61.5 percent of the final tally, beating Vice President Boakai's Unity Party which got 38.5 percent of the votes, NEC chairman Jerome Korkoya said.

Supporters at Weah's party headquarters immediately erupted into celebrations that brought traffic outside to a complete standstill.

Africa's first female president, Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is stepping aside after two terms at the head of the nation founded by freed American slaves. She led the country from back-to-back civil wars and saw it through a deadly Ebola outbreak that killed nearly 5,000 Liberians but was criticized for not better tackling corruption.

In his first public comments after his rival conceded, Weah said he was "honored to join a new generation of heads of state."

Tweeting in French in response to congratulations from French President Emmanuel Macron, he added that "we have a lot to do together to accelerate the building of tomorrow's Africa."

The 51-year-old Weah, a senator who entered politics after retirement from soccer more than a decade ago, led the first-round vote in October but didn't receive enough ballots to win outright over the 73-year-old Boakai, who has been vice president for 12 years. Sirleaf didn't publicly support either candidate.

In his remarks conceding the election, Boakai offered a "hand of goodwill" to Weah and dismissed the idea of challenging the runoff results in court, alluding to past conflicts.

"I refuse to subject our nation to such an experience," he said. "I reject any temptation of imposing pain, hardship and uncertainty on our people."

Weah is expected to take office in January.

Though voter turnout for Tuesday's runoff was low, he drew support from the younger generation, which makes up a majority of Liberia's population of 4.6 million people.

"We are young people and have suffered in this country for so long," said one supporter, Love Norrision.

The commission said 56 percent of the country's 2.2 million registered voters cast ballots in the runoff, which was contested twice in court amid claims of irregularities, with its original Nov. 7 date delayed.

This was Liberia's first independently run election since the end of its civil wars. The United Nations has helped to oversee past votes.

Weah led the ticket for a coalition party, the Congress for Democratic Change, with Jewel Howard-Taylor as his vice presidential running mate. She is a senator and the ex-wife of imprisoned former warlord and President Charles Taylor, which raised concerns among some Liberians.

Weah had run in the country's last two elections, winning the first round of the 2005 vote that eventually went to Sirleaf. He ran as the vice presidential candidate with diplomat Winston Tubman in the 2011 poll; they boycotted the runoff that granted Sirleaf her second term.

Weah's rags-to-riches story has been an inspiration to many supporters who call him "King George."

He was born in a slum of the capital, Monrovia, and showed early promise in soccer. He played for top local clubs before starting his international career in Cameroon, then moved on to AS Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain, where he became famous.

While with AC Milan, Weah in 1995 won World Player of the Year. He later played for Chelsea and Manchester City.

AC Milan on Friday tweeted its congratulations on "legend" Weah's win. Macron invited him to visit, saying Weah had "a special place in the French's hearts."

Weah's limited educational background hurt his political aspirations, and he returned to school after the 2005 attempt for president. He obtained a high school diploma abroad and earned a degree from Illinois-based DeVry University.

"A personal story of sheer grit," African Union Commission chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat tweeted, pointing out that Weah earned the degree well into his 40s.

As Liberia grappled with the Ebola outbreak in 2014, Weah was elected as a senator, defeating Sirleaf's son Robert for the seat.

Weah's critics have argued that his lack of political experience makes him unequipped for Liberia's top job.


Fiery nighttime blaze kills 15 at rooftop Mumbai restaurant

In this image made from video, a building is shown on fire in Mumbai, India, early Friday, Dec. 29. (Anand Shrivastav via AP)

Ashok Sharma

New Delhi (AP) — Flames shot into the nighttime sky early Friday as a fire engulfed an upscale rooftop restaurant in the Indian city of Mumbai, killing 15 people and sending others fleeing for their lives, fire officials said.

The 1 a.m. fire spread quickly from the restaurant through the four-story building, said Mumbai fire service official Balkrishna Kadam. Eight fire engines battled the blaze for more than five hours, he said.

Video showed a blazing fire atop a building, and then a roof-like shelter collapsing. A bamboo ceiling burned quickly and collapsed as people tried to escape, the TimesNow TV news channel said.

"There was a stampede and someone pushed me," Sulbha Arora Mumbai, a Mumbai gynecologist, tweeted. "People were running over me even as the ceiling above me was collapsing in flames. Still don't know how I got out alive."

The building is located in Kamala Mills, a sprawling former textile compound that has been redeveloped with upscale restaurants and offices and has become a popular nightspot in Mumbai, India's financial and entertainment capital.

Several TV news channels operating from the compound had to shut down some of their broadcasts, reportedly due to equipment damage.

"It was not only difficult but impossible to move out the front door, so we tried to move out our other emergency exit, even though fire balls were falling down," said Sharad Jadhav, a producer for TV-9. "Somehow I managed to get everybody out of the place one by one, and then I came out, and when we came out the roof of the restaurant came crashing down."

More than 50 people were brought to KEM hospital, of whom 12 were treated for non-life-threatening injuries, said Avinash Supe, a doctor at the hospital.

Supe said the deaths were caused by both burns and suffocation.

Fire officials said 14 of the victims had been identified, and there was one unidentified body. The dead included 11 women, they said.

Babu Lal, who was celebrating his granddaughter's birthday at the restaurant, told the TimesNow channel that his granddaughter died in the fire.

Police filed a case of culpable homicide against the owners and the manager of the restaurant. No arrests have been made.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: "Anguished by the fire in Mumbai. My thoughts are with the bereaved families in this hour of grief. I pray that those injured recover quickly."


Top German court rejects ex-Auschwitz guard's prison appeal

In this July 15, 2015 file photo 94-year-old former SS sergeant Oskar Groening listens to the verdict of his trial at a court in Lueneburg, northern Germany. (Axel Heimken/Pool Photo via AP)

Berlin (AP) — Germany's highest court said Friday it has thrown out a bid by a 96-year-old former Auschwitz death camp guard for a reprieve on serving his sentence as an accessory to murder.

Oskar Groening was convicted in July 2015 of being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 Jews and sentenced to four years in prison. A federal court rejected his appeal against the conviction last year.

Groening has remained free during a dispute over his fitness for prison. Prosecutors argued that he is fit to serve time so long as there is appropriate medical care, and regional courts threw out appeals against their decision.

Germany's Federal Constitutional Court said it has now rejected a complaint arguing that Groening's fundamental right to life and physical safety was being violated. In the ruling dated Dec. 21 and released Friday, it said it saw no constitutional reason to question the lower courts' rulings.

The supreme court noted that German law allows for prison sentences to be interrupted if a detainee's health deteriorates significantly.

It wasn't immediately clear when Groening will be formally summoned to start serving his sentence, but he isn't expected to go to prison before the new year.

Groening, who has been dubbed the "accountant of Auschwitz," testified at his trial that he oversaw the collection of prisoners' belongings and ensured that valuables and cash were separated to be sent to Berlin. He said he witnessed individual atrocities but did not acknowledge participating in any crimes.

The court that convicted him ruled, however, that he was part of the "machinery of death," helping the camp function and collecting money stolen from the victims to help the Nazi cause, and thus could be convicted of accessory to the murders committed there.


Turkey, Russia finalize deal on anti-missile defense system

In this file photo taken on Sunday, May 7, 2017, Russian the S-400 air defense missile systems drive during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade in Red Square in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Suzan Fraser

Ankara, Turkey (AP) — Turkey has finalized a deal with Moscow for the purchase of Russia's S-400 anti-missile system, Turkish defense officials announced Friday, despite concerns voiced by some of the NATO member's allies.

The deal, which would make Turkey the first member of the military alliance to own Russia's most advanced air defense system, comes amid strengthening ties between Turkey and Russia and Ankara's deteriorating relations with the United States and other western countries.

The Turkish Defense Industries Undersecretariat said in a statement Friday that Turkey would buy at least one S-400 surface-to-air missile battery with the option of procuring a second battery. The delivery of the first battery was scheduled for the first quarter of 2020, the statement said.

The two countries on Friday also finalized a financial agreement for the project, under which part of the cost would be financed through a Russian loan, the Defense Industries body said, without revealing details of the deal.

Turkish media reported Friday that Turkey would purchase four S-400 units at a cost of $2.5 billion. Sergei Chemezov, head of Russia's state-controlled Rostech corporation, also told the business daily Kommersant in an interview published Wednesday that the contract was worth $2.5 billion and that a Russian loan would account for 55 percent of the sum.

Chemezov said Turkey would buy four batteries and that the first deliveries would start in March 2020, according to Kommersant.

"It's the first NATO country to purchase our most advanced S-400 system," he said.

The reason for the discrepancy over the number of batteries Russia would supply Turkey was not immediately clear. The Defense Industries body would not disclose the cost of the project or other details, citing "principles of secrecy" agreed to by the two countries.

The S-400 has a range of up to 400 kilometers and can simultaneously engage multiple targets. It's capable of shooting down ballistic missile warheads along with aircraft and cruise missiles.

Russia deployed the S-400s to its base in Syria to deter Turkey when the two nations were on the verge of conflict after a Turkish jet downed a Russian bomber on the Syrian border in November 2015.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced in September that Turkey had signed a deal to buy the Russian system and made a down payment, drawing concerns from some of Turkey's NATO allies.

Some NATO countries have expressed worries that the S-400 system is not compatible with the alliance's weapons systems.

The Defense Industries agency said the Russian system would be operated under the full control of the Turkish military and "in an independent manner, without any links to any outside elements."

"The system's operation, management, and systems recognizing friends and foes will be undertaken through national means," the Defense Industries body said.


Update December 29, 2017

Islamic State claims attack on Shiite center, 41 dead

Security personnel arrive outside the site of a suicide attack in kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Dec. 28. (AP Photo/ Rahmat Gul)

Amir Shah

Kabul, Afghanistan (AP) — A brutal attack claimed by the Islamic State group devastated a two-story Shiite Muslim cultural center in the Afghan capital on Thursday, killing at least 41 people and wounding another 84, many suffering severe burns from the intensity of the explosions.

The IS-linked Aamaq news agency said three bombs were used in the ferocious assault as well as a single suicide bomber who blew himself up inside the center, where scores of people had gathered to mark the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union.

The claim reflects eyewitness reports that said one bomber sneaked into the center and exploded his device. Other explosions occurred outside the building, which also houses the pro-Iranian Afghan Voice news agency, which may also have been a target in the attack.

Earlier, Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danish said an unknown number of suicide attackers set off an explosion outside the center before carrying out an attack inside.

In its statement to Aamaq news agency, the IS said the center was being funded by Iran and used to propagate Shiite beliefs.

Ali Reza Ahmadi, a journalist with the Afghan Voice, told The Associated Press he had been in his office when the explosion shattered the building. He leapt from his second-story office to the roof of the building where he saw flames from the basement.

"I jumped from the roof toward the basement yelling at people to get water to put out the fire," he said.

Shiite leader Abdul Hussain Ramazandada said witnesses reported at least one suicide bomber sneaked into the event and was sitting among the participants. He exploded his device and as people fled more explosions occurred, he said.

At nearby Istiqlal Hospital, director Mohammed Sabir Nasib said the emergency room was overwhelmed with the dead and wounded. Additional doctors and nurses were called in to help and at the height of the tragedy more than 50 doctors and nurses were working to save the wounded, most of whom suffered severe burns.

The death toll rose as the day progressed. By late afternoon Wahid Mujro, spokesman for the public health ministry, said 41 were dead and 84 others were wounded.

The two-story cultural center is located in a poor area of the Shiite-dominated Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood in the west of the capital. The center is a simple structure surrounded by sun-dried mud homes where some of Kabul's poorest live.

In an interview with The Associated Press, a senior member of the Shiite cleric council, Mohammad Asif Mesbah, said the center may have been targeted because it houses the deeply pro-Iranian Afghan Voice news agency. Its owner Sayed Eissa Hussaini Mazari is a strong proponent of Iran and his publication is dominated by Iranian news. Iran is a majority Shiite Muslim nation.

The local Islamic State affiliate has carried out several attacks targeting Shiites in Afghanistan. The IS issued a warning earlier this year following an attack on the Iraqi Embassy in Kabul vowing to target Afghanistan's Shiites. Since then, the IS has taken credit for at least two attacks on Shiite mosques in Kabul and one in the western city of Herat, killing scores of worshippers.

In a telephone interview with The AP, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid denied involvement in Thursday's attack on the cultural center.

The IS affiliate, made up of Sunni extremists, view Shiites as apostates. The IS in Afghanistan is a toxic mix of Uzbek militants belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan who broke with the Taliban, as well as disenchanted insurgents who left the much larger and more well-established Taliban.

As attacks targeting Shiites have increased in Kabul, residents of this area have grown increasingly afraid. Most schools have additional armed guards from among the local population. Still, Ramazandada said security at the cultural center was light.

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani called the attack a "crime against humanity."

In a statement released by the presidential palace, Ghani said: "The terrorist have killed our people. The terrorists have attacked our mosques, our holy places and now our cultural center." He called them attacks against Islam and "all human values."

In a statement, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, John R. Bass, called the attack "horrific" and said "we remain confident the Afghan government and people, supported by their friends and partners, will defeat those behind these terrible acts."

Separately, Dawlat Abad District Gov. Mohammad Karim said a powerful mine killed six shepherd children ranging in age from 8 to 10 on Wednesday.

Afghanistan has the highest number of mine victims in the world, which along with other roadside bombs, kill or wound an estimated 140 people every month.

Elsewhere, a Taliban attack on a security police post in central Ghazni province Wednesday night left three police dead and one other wounded, said Mohammad Zaman, provincial chief of police.


Myanmar drops illegal drone charges against journalists

Malaysian journalist Mok Choy Lin exits a police as she arrives at court in Naypyitaw, Myanmar Thursday, Dec. 28. (AP Photo/Thet Aung)

Bangkok (AP) — A Myanmar court on Thursday dropped additional charges against two foreign journalists and their local staff who were arrested in October for allegedly flying a drone over the parliament.

Lau Hon Meng, a Singaporean, and Mok Choy Lin, a Malaysian, working for the Turkish state broadcaster TRT will be freed from detention together with their local interpreter Aung Naing Soe and driver Hla Tin on Jan.5, after serving a 2-month prison sentence for illegally flying a drone, their lawyer said.

Khin Maung Zaw said that authorities dropped the more serious charges of importing a drone without permission and immigration violations against the foreigners after concluding that the journalists and their staff did not intend to endanger national security.

Authorities also wanted to maintain good diplomatic relations with the countries of the two journalists, he said.

The journalists and their staff were detained Oct. 27 after attempting to fly a drone over the legislative complex in the capital, Naypitaw.

In a separate case Wednesday, a court extended the detention of two Reuters journalists and set their trial for Jan. 10 on charges of violating state secrets.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested Dec. 12 for acquiring "important secret papers" from two policemen. The police officers had worked in Rakhine state, where abuses widely blamed on the military have driven more than 630,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee into neighboring Bangladesh. The charges are punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

Rights and media groups have criticized the new civilian government led by the Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for continuing to use colonial-era laws to threaten and imprison journalists. Such laws were widely used by a military junta that had ruled Myanmar to muzzle critics and the media.


Putin says St. Petersburg explosion was terror attack

 

An investigator speaks on the phone inside a supermarket, after an explosion in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, Dec. 27. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

Moscow (AP) — The explosion at a supermarket in Russia's second-largest city was a terrorist attack, President Vladimir Putin said Thursday, adding that another attack had been thwarted.

At least 13 people were injured Wednesday evening when an improvised explosive device went off at a storage area for customers' bags at the supermarket in St. Petersburg. Investigators said the device contained 200 grams (7 ounces) of explosives and was rigged with shrapnel to cause more damage.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Putin made his comment Thursday at an awards ceremony at the Kremlin for troops who took part in Russia's Syria campaign but did not offer any details. He also said another terrorist attack had been thwarted in St. Petersburg but did not elaborate.

Putin has portrayed Russia's operation in Syria as a pre-emptive strike against terrorism at home. He said the threat of attacks at home would have been much worse if Russia had not intervened in Syria.

"What would have happened if those thousands (of terrorists) that I have just spoken about, hundreds of them had come back to us, trained and armed," he said in comments to Russian news agencies.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov would not say what led authorities to declare the attack an act of terrorism, but he said the fact that the bomb was rigged with shrapnel proved it "was a terrorist attack anyway."

Earlier this month, Putin telephoned President Donald Trump to thank him for a CIA tip that helped thwart a series of bombings in St. Petersburg, Putin's hometown.

The Federal Security Service said seven suspects linked to the Islamic State group were arrested in connection to the alleged plot. The Kremlin said the suspects had planned to bomb Kazan Cathedral and other crowded sites.

In April, a suicide bombing in St. Petersburg's subway left 16 people dead and wounded more than 50. Russian authorities identified the bomber as a 22-year old Kyrgyz-born Russian national.


Tehran police: No more arrests for flouting dress code

In this file photo taken on April 2, 2017, women watch boats sailing on Chitgar Lake, west of Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Amir Vahdat

Tehran, Iran (AP) — Police in Iran's capital said Thursday they will no longer arrest women for failing to observe the Islamic dress code in place since the 1979 revolution.

The announcement signaled an easing of punishments for violating the country's conservative dress code, as called for by the young and reform-minded Iranians who helped re-elect President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, earlier this year.

But hard-liners opposed to easing such rules still dominate Iran's security forces and judiciary, so it was unclear whether the change would be fully implemented.

"Those who do not observe the Islamic dress code will no longer be taken to detention centers, nor will judicial cases be filed against them." Tehran police chief Gen. Hossein Rahimi was quoted as saying by the reformist daily Sharq.

The semi-official Tasnim news agency said violators will instead be made to attend classes given by police. It said repeat offenders could still be subject to legal action, and the dress code remains in place outside the capital.

For nearly 40 years, women in Iran have been forced to cover their hair and wear long, loose garments. Younger and more liberal-minded women have long pushed the boundaries of the official dress code, wearing loose headscarves that don't fully cover their hair and painting their nails, drawing the ire of conservatives.

Iran's morality police— similar to Saudi Arabia's religious police— typically detain violators and escort them to a police van. Their families are then called to bring the detainee a change of clothes. The violator is then required to sign a form that they will not commit the offense again.

Men can also be stopped by the police if they are seen wearing shorts or going shirtless.

Last year, police in Tehran announced plans to deploy 7,000 male and female officers for a new plainclothes division — the largest such undercover assignment in memory - to monitor public morality and enforce the dress code.


India chides Pakistan for treatment of officer's family

The wife, right, and mother of imprisoned Indian naval officer Kulbhushan Jadhav, gesture to media upon arrival for a meeting with Jadhav at the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Dec. 25. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

Ashok Sharma and Munir Ahmed

New Delhi (AP) — India lashed out at Pakistan on Thursday for its treatment of the wife and mother of an Indian naval officer on death row for spying during their first meeting since his arrest.

India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj accused Pakistan of disregarding the cultural and religious sensibilities of Kulbhushan Jadhav's family under the pretext of security precautions, including the removal of bangles and other ornaments as well as a change in attire and shoes.

Swaraj said in a statement in India's Parliament that Monday's meeting in the Pakistani capital could have proved to be a positive step in improving ties between the two countries. Pakistan's military responded by saying India should have "appreciated" Islamabad's gesture instead of launching a smear campaign with "baseless allegations."

The criticism is expected to exacerbate tensions between the longtime rivals who have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947 and regularly exchange fire along their disputed territory in Kashmir.

The meeting was the first between Jadhav and his family since he was arrested by Pakistan in March 2016 after allegedly entering the country from Iran. A Pakistani military tribunal found Jadhav guilty of espionage and sabotage and sentenced him to death, but India obtained an order from the International Court of Justice to halt the execution.

While India says that Jadhav is a retired Indian navy official, the Pakistan government has been describing him as a serving officer.

Swaraj accused the Pakistan government of using the meeting as a "propaganda tool" and violating mutual understandings on the meeting.

During the meeting, Jadhav was seen sitting behind a glass screen in the Pakistani Foreign Office while his mother and wife sat on the other side. They spoke through an intercom for nearly 40 minutes.

Pakistan army spokesman Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor rejected the Indian allegation that no respect was shown to Jadhav's family.

Ghafoor said Pakistan had informed India before the arrival of Jadhav's wife and mother that they would have to undergo security clearance before the meeting.

"Kulbhushan Jadhav is an established terrorist and his family was allowed to meet with him purely on humanitarian grounds," he told reporters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

The Indian minister said the Pakistani press was allowed on multiple occasions to approach family members closely, harass and hector them and hurl accusations about Jadhav. She said this was despite a clear agreement between the two sides that the media would not be allowed close access.

Jadhav's mother was prevented from talking to her son in their mother tongue, although this was clearly the natural medium of communication, Swaraj said

Despite her repeated requests, the shoes of Jadhav's wife were not returned to her after the meeting, she said.

Pakistan's foreign ministry said Jadhav's mother thanked authorities for allowing the meeting with her son and that Indian allegations were "baseless, counterproductive and regrettable."

"The visitors changed into their own clothes after the meeting. All their belongings were returned to them before they left," Mohammad Faisal told reporters in Islamabad. "The shoes of Commander Jadhav's wife was retained as it did not clear the security check."

In a statement, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif said the shoes were seized after a "metal chip" was found in one of her shoes, which was still being analyzed.

India's opposition joined Swaraj in a rare moment of Parliamentary unity to strongly condemn Pakistan on the issue.

Leaders from the main opposition Congress party and other parties asked the government to lodge a protest with Pakistan and expedite efforts at the International Court of Justice to seek Jadhav's acquittal in the case.


Update December 28, 2017

Russia: Explosion injures 10 at St. Petersburg supermarket

 

Police stand at the entrance of a supermarket, after an explosion in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, Dec. 27. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

Irina Titova

St. Petersburg, Russia (AP) — At least 10 people were injured Wednesday by an explosion at a supermarket in St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city and the site of a deadly subway bombing this year.

The Investigative Committee, the nation's top investigative agency, said a device containing 200 grams (7 ounces) of explosives went off at a storage area for customers' bags. It said the device was rigged with shrapnel to cause more damage.

No one has claimed responsibility for the explosion at a branch of the Perekrestok supermarket chain in the city's northwest Kalininsky district.

Alexander Klaus, the chief of the local branch of the Investigative Committee, said 10 people were hospitalized with injuries.

Andrey Kibitov, a spokesman for St. Petersburg's governor, tweeted that the injured were in satisfactory condition and one had been discharged from the hospital.

A criminal investigation was launched.

While officials stopped short of branding the explosion as a terror attack, the National Anti-Terrorism Committee that oversees anti-terror efforts in Russia said it was coordinating the search for suspects.

Viktoria Gordeyeva, a St. Petersburg resident who walked past the supermarket shortly after the explosion, said people were afraid to enter other stores in the area.

"There was no panic, but people were reluctant to enter a nearby drug store and a grocery store," Gordeyeva said.

Another local resident, Marina Bulanova, a doctor, heard the explosion and rushed to the market to help treat anyone who might be hurt. She said ambulance crews already had taken those injured to city hospitals by the time she got there.

Russian President Vladimir Putin telephoned U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this month to thank him for a CIA tip that helped thwart a series of bombings in St. Petersburg, Putin's home town.

The Federal Security Service, or FSB, said seven suspects linked to the Islamic State group were arrested in connection to the alleged plot. The Kremlin said the arrested suspects had planned to bomb St. Petersburg's Kazan Cathedral and other crowded sites.

In April, a suicide bombing in the St. Petersburg's subway left 16 people dead and wounded more than 50. Russian authorities identified the bomber who blew himself up on a subway line as Akbardzhon Dzhalilov, a 22-year old Kyrgyz-born Russian national.


Malaysia court acquits Australian woman of drug trafficking

Australian Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto leaves her hearing at the Shah Alam High Court in Malaysia, Wednesday, Dec. 27after being found not guilty of trafficking drugs. (AP Photo/Sadiq Asyraf)

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (AP) — An Australian woman was found not guilty Wednesday of trafficking 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) of crystal meth at Kuala Lumpur's airport three years ago, avoiding a possible death sentence.

Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto, 54, was exonerated after Judge Ghazali Cha of the Shah Alam High Court said he was satisfied that she did not know there were drugs in her bag.

Malaysia has a mandatory death sentence for anyone found guilty of carrying more than 50 grams of a prohibited drug.

Pinto Exposto, a mother of three from Sydney, was arrested at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in on Dec. 7, 2014, when the bag she was carrying was found to contain the drugs.

She had arrived from Shanghai and was to catch a connecting flight to Melbourne. The drugs were discovered when she put two bags through the security scanner when exiting the airport.

Pinto Exposto had claimed that she went to Shanghai to meet a U.S. serviceman with whom she had an online romance, and had been asked to carry a bag full of clothes. She said she was unaware that the bag also contained drugs.

Three Australians have been hanged for drug offenses in Malaysia since 1986.


Obama to Prince Harry: Leaders must use care on social media

Britain's Prince Harry, right, interviews former US President Barack Obama as part of his guest editorship of BBC Radio 4's Today programme. (Kensington Palace courtesy of The Obama Foundation via AP)

Gregory Katz

London (AP) — Former President Barack Obama told Prince Harry in an interview broadcast Wednesday that people in leadership roles must be careful in their use of social media and warned against spending too much time immersed in the internet at the expense of the world outside.

Obama did not, however, directly mention his successor, President Donald Trump, who has made the use of Twitter a centerpiece of his presidency.

"All of us in leadership have to find ways to recreate a common space on the internet," he said. "One of the dangers of the internet is people can have entirely different realities. They can be just cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases."

He spoke with Harry in the prince's capacity as guest editor of the BBC Radio 4 news program. Both men said the interview, recorded in Canada in September, was Obama's first since leaving the presidency in January.

Obama said he felt serene the day he left the White House at the end of his second four-year term despite the vast amount of work that remained unfinished. He said it was "hugely liberating" to be able to set his own agenda in the morning to have the time to talk with his wife, Michelle, now that he is no longer president.

"I miss the work itself because it was fascinating," Obama said of his eight years in the Oval Office, citing his health care reforms as one of his proudest achievements.

In a brief live segment at the end of the show, Harry said he did not know if Obama would be on the guest list for his wedding in May to American actress Meghan Markle.

"I don't know about that, we haven't even put the invite or the guest list together, who knows if he's going to be invited or not," Harry said. "I wouldn't want to ruin that surprise."

The Sun newspaper, a popular tabloid, has suggested that the British government is concerned that Harry and Markle may invite the Obamas but not Trump, possibly straining ties between the two governments.

Harry did say his fiancee enjoyed her first Christmas with the royal family.

"The family loved having her there," Harry said.

The prince used his position to ask Obama a "lightning round" of questions of the type normally asked of entertainers, not politicians.

The former president declined to say whether he wears boxers or briefs, preserving a bit of post-presidential dignity, but was willing to say he prefers Aretha Franklin to Tina Turner — "Aretha is the best," he said of the Queen of Soul — and favors retired basketball star Michael Jordan over current phenom LeBron James.

Obama rejected gloomy prognostications about the state of the world, saying that in many ways the world is healthier and wealthier than it has ever been, making it perhaps the best time in human history to be born.

He cited improved treatment of African-Americans and greatly expanded opportunities for young women as achievements of the past few generations that give him hope for the future.

Harry also interviewed his father, Prince Charles, who offered a more downbeat assessment. He said the root causes of climate change are not being addressed even as it caused "untold horrors" in different parts of the world.


Prosecutors demand 12-year prison term for Samsung heir Lee

Lee Jae-yong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, arrives at the Seoul High Court in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Dec. 27. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Hyung-Jin Kim

Seoul, South Korea (AP) — South Korean prosecutors on Wednesday demanded a 12-year prison term for Samsung's jailed billionaire heir, Lee Jae-yong, who maintained his innocence during an appeal of his conviction on bribery and other charges.

In August, a lower court sentenced Lee to five years in prison for offering bribes to former South Korean President Park Geun-hye and her confidante while Park was in office. Both Lee and prosecutors, who earlier had requested a 12-year prison term, appealed that ruling.

Prosecutors said Wednesday during Lee's appeal hearing that they still want Lee to receive 12 years in prison, according to the Seoul High Court. South Korea's Yonhap News Agency cited the court as saying it will issue a ruling on Lee on Feb. 5, but calls to the court went unanswered.

If the court's ruling is appealed again either by Lee or prosecutors, his case will be handed over to the Supreme Court, which will make a final ruling on him.

Lee's bribery case is part of a huge political scandal that led to the ouster of Park in late March after millions of South Koreans took to streets for anti-government rallies for months. Park and her friend, Choi Soon-sil, were arrested and charged with taking bribes from Samsung in return for helping Lee cement his control of the company for a smooth transfer of power.

Prosecutors have also charged both Park and Choi with pressuring Samsung and other big businesses to donate a total of 77.4 billion won ($68 million) for the launch of two nonprofit foundations controlled by Choi.

Samsung, founded by Lee's grandfather, is one of the key family-run South Korean conglomerates that have dominated the country's economy. Some credit them with leading South Korea's export-driven economy and rebuilding its economy from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War, but others say their successes were only possible because of corrupt, collusive ties with government officials.

"It was a typical case showing cozy, collusive ties between government and businesses," special prosecutor Park Young-soo said during Wednesday's court session, according to South Korean media.

Lee, who was convicted of embezzlement, hiding assets overseas and perjury, repeated a denial of the charges, according to Lee's lawyers.

Lee, whose official title is vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, took a higher-profile role after his father and Samsung chair Lee Kun-hee suffered a heart attack in 2014.

Samsung is the world's largest maker of smartphones, television sets and microchips.


Tax-free no more: Saudi Arabia, UAE to roll out VAT in 2018

In this Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017 photo, people leave a hypermarket at a shopping mall in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Aya Batrawy

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have long lured foreign workers with the promise of a tax-free lifestyle, plan to impose a 5 percent tax next year on most goods and services to boost revenue after oil prices collapsed three years ago.

The value-added tax, or VAT, will apply to a range of items like food, clothes, electronics and gasoline, as well as phone, water and electricity bills, and hotel reservations.

Elda Ngombe, a 23-year-old college graduate who's looking for a job in Dubai, said there's one specific purchase she's planning before next year's price hike: "Makeup, because I can't live without makeup."

"I am scared because everything is actually expensive already in Dubai. The fact that it's actually adding 5 percent is crazy," she said.

There will be some exemptions for big-ticket costs like rent, real estate sales, certain medications, airline tickets and school tuition.

Higher education, however, will be taxed in the UAE. Extra costs parents pay to schools for uniforms, books, school bus fees and lunch will also be taxed, as will real estate brokerage costs for renters and buyers.

Other Gulf countries are expected to implement their own VAT scheme in the coming years.

Stores, gyms and other retailers are trying to make the most of the remaining tax-free days in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, encouraging buyers to stock up before the VAT is rolled out on Jan. 1, 2018.

Even with a five percent jump in prices, the tax rate is still significantly less than the average VAT rate of 20 percent in some European countries.

"If you compare with Europe, I don't think it's as expensive. Only in rent and food," said Vera Clement, a mother and assistant manager of restaurants from France who has lived in Dubai for three years.

"We are going to be more careful when we buy something," she added.

The National newspaper, based in Abu Dhabi, says the cost of living in the UAE is expected to rise about 2.5 percent next year because of the VAT. Salaries, meanwhile, remain the same.

As the government adjusts to lower oil prices, the UAE is expected to raise around 12 billion dirhams ($3.3 billion) from the tax.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia recently unveiled the biggest budget in its history, with plans to spend 978 billion riyals ($261 billion) this coming fiscal year as the government forecasts a boost in revenue from the introduction of VAT and plans to reduce subsidies. Still, Saudi Arabia is facing a budget deficit until at least 2023.

The International Monetary Fund has recommended oil-exporting countries in the Gulf introduce taxes as one way to raise non-oil revenue. The IMF also recommends Gulf countries introduce or expand taxes on business profits.

IMF Mideast director Jihad Azour said VAT is part of a long-term tax reform to help Gulf states reduce their dependence on oil revenues.

"It is something that will allow the government to diversify revenues," he told The Associated Press on the sidelines of an event in Dubai, adding that any immediate slowdown in spending by consumers next year will be compensated for with government investments.

In line with IMF recommendations, Saudi Arabia and the UAE this summer imposed a 100 percent tax on tobacco products and energy drinks, and a 50 percent tax on soft drinks.

VAT, however, is by far the most wide-ranging tax to be rolled out in the two countries.

A company in Dubai called Katerpillar has held training classes for businesses trying to prepare for VAT's compliance and accounting rules. Katerpillar says more than 500 people have signed up for their classes over the past three months. A six-hour course costs 1200 dirhams ($325).

Though the Gulf has long been associated with being a tax-free haven, foreign companies— except in Bahrain— pay corporate income taxes. In Oman, locally-owned companies also pay taxes. Customs duties are in place, though medicine, food and raw material for industry were exempt in the past.

While not labeled a tax, there have also been extra fees associated with government services, including electricity bills for foreigners in the UAE, for example.

Foreigners make up about a third of the Saudi population and far outnumber locals in the UAE. For now, anxious residents have been reassured that there are no immediate plans to impose a payroll tax, which could prompt an exodus of highly-skilled expatriate workers.

Saudi Arabia first introduced personal income, capital gains and corporate taxes in the 1950s, but within six months the law was revised to exclude nationals, according to the Oxford Business Group. In the mid-1970s, during an oil boom and construction drive in Saudi Arabia, the country suspended income taxes on foreigners altogether to attract more expatriates to live and work in the country.

Even so, many residents in the Gulf say the cost of living is already high. Rent can easily eat up a third of income in places like Dubai. Additionally, millions of foreigners across the Gulf send a significant portion of their salaries to relatives back home, leaving them with maybe a third or less of their salary to live off of each month.

"Five percent is, when you put it on top of everything, it will be a lot," said Anna Carig, a pregnant school nurse from the Philippines. "Salaries are not coming up and so it will definitely affect everything."


Update December 27, 2017

Vietnam escapes worst of typhoon that battered Philippines

In this image taken Dec. 24, 2017, people stand in the area damaged by storm Tembin in Lanao del Norte, southern Philippines. (AP Photo)

Hanoi, Vietnam (AP) — A powerful storm that left a trail of death and destruction in the Philippines was downgraded to a tropical depression Tuesday and failed to make landfall in Vietnam.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam's Mekong Delta had been evacuated as the region braced for the arrival of Typhoon Tembin after the storm left more than 160 people dead in the Philippines.

Weather forecasters had expected the delta's southern tip to be in Tembin's path, and said heavy rain and strong winds starting Monday night could cause serious damage in the vulnerable region, where facilities are not built to cope with such severe weather. By Tuesday morning, the storm was downgraded to a tropical depression and forecasters said it would it not make landfall in Vietnam.

The storm was expected to dissipate over the Gulf of Thailand later Tuesday.

Over the weekend, Tembin unleashed landslides and flash floods that killed at least 164 people and left 171 others missing in the Philippines, according to Romina Marasigan of the government's main disaster-response agency.

Initial reports from officials in different provinces placed the overall death toll at more than 230, but Marasigan warned of double counting amid the confusion in the storm's aftermath and said the numbers needed to be verified.

More than 97,000 people remained in 261 evacuation centers across the southern Philippines on Monday, while nearly 85,000 others were displaced and staying elsewhere, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said.

The hardest-hit areas were Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur provinces and the Zamboanga Peninsula. Tembin hit the Philippines as a tropical storm but strengthened into a typhoon before blowing out of the country Sunday into the South China Sea toward Vietnam.

Philippine officials had warned villagers in accident-prone areas to evacuate early as Tembin approached and the government was trying to find out what caused the widespread storm deaths, Marasigan said. She added that it was difficult to move people from homes shortly before Christmas.

"We don't want to be dragging people out of their homes days before Christmas, but it's best to convince them to quietly understand the importance of why they are being evacuated," Marasigan said at a news conference in Manila.

Tembin was among a series of disasters to hit the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines at the peak of Christmas preparations.

An inter-island ferry sank off northeastern Quezon province Thursday after being lashed by fierce winds and big waves, leaving at least five people dead. More than 250 passengers and crewmen were rescued. Earlier in the week, another tropical storm left more than 50 people dead and 31 others missing, mostly due to landslides, and damaged more than 10,000 houses in the central Philippines.


British navy escorts Russian warship near UK waters

A Russian frigate is shown in this undated photo taken from a British Royal Navy warship. (Photo/Royal Navy)

London (AP) — Britain's Royal Navy escorted one of Russia's warships through the North Sea near U.K. waters, officials said Tuesday, amid increasing tensions between the two countries.

The HMS St. Albans with 190 sailors on board was used to escort the Russian Admiral Gorshkov frigate on Monday through what British officials called "areas of national interest" on Christmas Day.

In addition, a Royal Navy helicopter was used to track other Russian vessels in the area.

The navy said there has been a recent surge in Russian vessels traveling near U.K. waters. Officials said that on Christmas Eve, a navy vessel was used to escort a Russian intelligence-gathering ship through the North Sea and English Channel.

Defense Secretary Gavin William said Britain wouldn't tolerate aggression.

"Britain will never be intimidated when it comes to protecting our country, our people and our national interests," he said Tuesday.

There has also been an increase in recent years of Russian fighter planes testing NATO and British air defenses, leading to jets being scrambled to keep Russian fighters away.

The incidents at sea follow a difficult visit to Moscow by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson just before Christmas. Johnson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov disagreed on a number of policy points, reflecting increasing tensions between Britain and Russia.

Johnson accused Russia of meddling in Britain's internal affairs but said there were still areas in which the two countries could work together.

British officials warned this month that Russian ships may cut undersea internet cables in a bid to disrupt communications and commerce.


Macron gets tough as France struggles to deal with migrants

Migrants queue outside a facility to apply for asylum, in Paris, Thursday, Dec. 21. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Elaine Ganley

Paris (AP) — It's getting colder, the clock is ticking and regional authorities are scrambling to meet President Emmanuel Macron's deadline: get migrants off France's streets and out of forest hideouts by year's end.

That won't likely happen, and Macron's government is now tightening the screws: ramping up expulsions, raising pressure on economic migrants and allowing divisive ID checks in emergency shelters.

Critics contend that Macron's increasingly tough policy on migrants — though wrapped in a cloak of goodwill — contradicts his image as a humanist who defeated an anti-immigrant populist for the presidency, and has crossed a line passed by no other president in the land that prides itself as the cradle of human rights.

From snowy Alpine passes to the borders with Spain or Germany, migrants keep making their way to France. In Paris alone, police have evacuated around 30,000 people camping on sidewalks in the last two years.

No one doubts that France's system of dealing with migrants needs fixing, with a perennial housing shortage and long wait times in applying for asylum.

"Living in the street. Living in a tent. Sometimes you get food. Sometimes you not get food," said Samsoor Rasooli, a 25-year-old Afghan standing in line since 6 a.m. to apply for asylum at a Paris facility, where some spend the night on the sidewalk, strewn with filth, to keep their place. The door closed at mid-day, the 100 places allotted that day for applicants filled.

"It's winter. I can't sleep in the street," Rasooli said.

Asylum opens the way for temporary housing, but only one-third of the 95,000 applicants this year were accepted, government officials say.

The huge makeshift camp in the English Channel port city of Calais, dismantled last year, was emblematic of the problems. Its residents were dispersed around France, but others keep coming in hopes of reaching Britain, and are finding a rude welcome.  France's highest administrative body said the migrants have been subjected to inhuman and degrading conditions, and an investigation ordered by the interior minister found that it was "plausible" that police used excessive force against migrants, as Human Rights Watch maintained.

A bill overhauling asylum and immigration policy will be debated in the spring, notably expediting asylum demands but also doubling to 90 days the time a person without papers can be held in a holding center, the last step before expulsion — an approach the government says is "balanced" and "efficient."

Macron said in a speech in July in Orleans before a group of new citizens that he wanted people "off the streets, out of the woods" by the end of 2017. "I want emergency lodgings everywhere."

While his words conveyed humanity, the underlying message bites.

Macron has made clear he wouldn't accept economic migrants in France, wants those who don't qualify for asylum expelled and doesn't want them even trying to come to France.

The French president has been rolling out a multi-pronged approach that stretches to Africa, with points set up in Chad and Niger to pre-select those certain of gaining asylum — and weed out potential economic migrants.

At home, Interior Minister Gerard Collomb has ordered prefects, regional representatives of the state, to crack down on illegal immigration, "act quickly" to expel those who fail to gain asylum and report results within weeks, according to a November order cited by the newspaper Le Monde.

A newer set of orders in December rang alarm bells. Collomb told regional authorities to set up "mobile teams" to run checks in emergency housing to ascertain the status of migrants. Emergency shelters are considered bedrocks of the French tradition of open arms to those in need and have long been considered untouchable, even by security authorities.

The accent on security in dealing with immigration has appalled even some who support the centrist Macron.

In a first, a lawmaker from Macron's young party broke ranks last week with critical remarks about the direction the country is taking on the immigration issue.

"All foreigners in France are not terrorists. All foreigners in France are not indelicate social aid fraudsters," said Sonia Krimi, to the applause of the opposition.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, defeated by Macron in the May presidential race, sees the direction the government is taking as a "political victory" for her anti-immigration National Front party.

"What the government wants is more expulsions" and "more quickly," Jacques Toubon, the state-appointed national rights defender, told France-Inter radio. But "the situation of vulnerable people isn't taken into account."

Feeling the heat, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has announced consultations starting Jan. 11 with mayors, lawmakers and aid groups that play a major role in helping to feed and house migrants.

On the ground, authorities are scrambling to show they are following the president's clear-the-streets orders.

A camp of about 40 Afghan migrants was dismantled last week in the Pas-de-Calais region in northern France, and another was taken down in Macon in the east. On Thursday, a camp on the banks of the Seine river was the latest in Paris to be bulldozed, with 131 migrants taken to shelters.

Police staked out a tollbooth north of Paris in an operation against the "migrant flux," stopping car after car to check for migrants who don't have residency documents.

Patrick Weil, among France's leading immigration specialists, said Macron "tweets about human rights and refugees during the day and at night gives the opposite orders."

Weil contended on BFM-TV that Macron's approach is "the most extreme we've had since the war."

It's coated "with a smile, with bonbons, but in practice it's a dagger," he said.


Pakistan says Indian forces kill 3 soldiers in Kashmir

Kashmiri Muslims carry the body of Noor Mohammed, a top rebel commander during his funeral procession at Aripal, 49 kilometres south of Srinagar in Indian controlled Kashmir, Tuesday, Dec. 26. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)

Munir Ahmed and Aijaz Hussain

Islamabad (AP) — Pakistan said Tuesday that Indian forces killed three of its soldiers near the Line of Control in the disputed Kashmir region.

A military statement said the "unprovoked cease-fire violation" took place Monday in Rawalakot in the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir. It came two days after India's army said four of its soldiers were killed by Pakistani fire along the de facto border between the South Asian rivals.

In the latest shooting, the Indian military said that its soldiers targeted Pakistani posts after they were fired upon. The Indian troops did not suffer any casualties, officials said.

The confrontation happened hours after the wife and mother of an imprisoned Indian naval officer who faces the death penalty in Pakistan for espionage and sabotage were allowed to meet with him in Islamabad.

After Saturday's shooting, the Indian military had said in a statement that the soldiers' killings "will not go in vain." India said Pakistani soldiers had violated the 2003 cease-fire accord by targeting Indian forward posts in the Rajouri sector.

On Tuesday, Pakistan summoned an Indian diplomat and lodged a protest over the killing of Pakistani soldiers.

The Pakistani army initially said the three soldiers were killed by Indian fire, but the Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal later said the Indian fire provided cover for "non-state actors" to plant explosive devices, which killed the soldiers.

"The Indian actions got a befitting response from the Pakistani side and their guns were silenced," he said in a statement.

India and Pakistan have a long history of bitter relations over the Himalayan territory, which both claim in its entirety. Both countries have repeatedly accused the other of initiating border skirmishes that led to the deaths of soldiers and civilians.

They have fought two of their three wars over the region since they gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

Meanwhile, India accused Pakistan of violating mutual understandings on Tuesday's meeting between the imprisoned Indian naval officer and his wife and mother. Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said that contrary to assurances, the overall atmosphere of the meeting was intimidating.

It was the first meeting between Kulbhushan Jadhav and his family since he was arrested in March 2016 after allegedly entering the country from Iran.

A Pakistani military tribunal found Jadhav guilty of espionage and sabotage and sentenced him to death, but India obtained an order from the International Court of Justice to halt the execution.

During the meeting, Jadhav was seen sitting behind a glass screen in the Pakistani Foreign Office while his mother and wife sat on the other side. They spoke through an intercom for nearly 40 minutes.

Faisal said Pakistan allowed the meeting as a "humanitarian gesture" following a request from India.

Also on Tuesday, Indian troops killed a rebel commander in a gunfight in southern Samboora village in Indian-held Kashmir, police said.

Police called the killing of Noor Mohammed a "significant breakthrough."

A statement by police blamed Mohammed for masterminding and coordinating a string of attacks, including an audacious strike recently by three militants near the highly secured airport in the region's main city of Srinagar.

Anti-India protests and clashes followed as the fighting raged on Tuesday, with hundreds of residents hitting streets in solidarity with the rebels. Government forces fired shotgun pellets and tear gas to disperse rock-throwing protesters. There were no immediate reports of injuries.


Kremlin: Russia election boycott campaign may be illegal

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, center, heads to attend a meeting of the Russian Central Election commission in Moscow, Monday, Dec. 25. Russian election officials have formally barred Navalny from running for president. (Evgeny Feldman/Navalny Campaign via AP)

Nataliya Vasilyeva

Moscow (AP) — The Kremlin hinted Tuesday at possible legal repercussions for Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny over his calls for a boycott of the March presidential election.

President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, wouldn't comment on the Election Commission's decision to bar Navalny from running but said the "calls for boycott ought to be carefully studied to see if they are breaking the law."

As expected, Russia's top election body on Monday formally barred Navalny from a presidential run. Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner and Putin's most prominent rival, promptly put out a video statement saying that the ban shows "Putin is terribly scared and is afraid of running against me." He called on supporters to stay away from the vote in protest.

Meanwhile, Putin's backers convened Tuesday afternoon to formally nominate him for presidency after he announced that he will run as an independent candidate.

Prominent lawmakers, film actors, musicians and athletes gathered at a Soviet-era exhibition hall to endorse him. Putin did not attend because of other engagements, Peskov said.

Putin, who has been in power for 18 years and is expected to easily win another six-year term, has so far refrained from campaigning. Navalny, meanwhile, has been aggressively seeking votes all year, reaching out to the most remote parts of the country.

Peskov rejected suggestions that Navalny's absence from the ballot could dent the legitimacy of Putin's possible re-election.

Russian law doesn't specifically prohibit someone from calling for an election boycott, but authorities last year blocked access to several websites that did so.

Navalny rose to prominence in 2009 with investigations into official corruption and became a protest leader when hundreds of thousands took to the streets across Russia in 2011 to protest electoral fraud.

A few years later, and after several short-term spells in jail, Navalny faced two separate sets of fraud charges, which were viewed as political retribution aimed at stopping him from running for office. In his only official campaign before his first conviction took effect, Navalny garnered 30 percent of the vote in the race for Moscow mayor in 2013.

The European Union said in a statement on Tuesday the decision to keep Navalny off the ballot "casts a serious doubt on political pluralism in Russia and the prospect of democratic elections next year."

The EU's spokeswoman for foreign affairs, Maja Kocijancic, pointed to a European Court of Human Rights ruling that Navalny was denied the right to a fair trial when he was convicted in 2013.

"Politically motivated charges shouldn't be used against political participation," Kocijancic said.


Update December 26, 2017

Vietnam evacuates hundreds of thousands ahead of storm

A resident smiles as she walks home with relief supplies being distributed to storm-affected villages of Lanao del Norte Sunday, Dec. 24, in southern Philippines. (AP Photo)

Hanoi, Vietnam (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam's Mekong Delta were evacuated as the region braced for the arrival of Typhoon Tembin after the storm left more than 160 people dead in the Philippines.

Weather forecasters were expecting the delta's southern tip to be in Tembin's path, and said heavy rain and strong winds starting Monday night could cause serious damage in the vulnerable region, where facilities are not built to cope with such severe weather.

National television station VTV reported that several hundred thousand people were evacuated from their houses, which are mostly made from tin sheets and wooden panels.

In Vung Tau city, thousands of fishing boats halted their monthslong fishing trips to return to shore.

Typhoons and storms rarely hit the Mekong Delta. But in 1997, Tropical Storm Linda swept through the region, killing 770 people and leaving more than 2,000 others missing.

Over the weekend, Tembin unleashed landslides and flash floods that killed at least 164 people and left 171 others missing in the Philippines, according to Romina Marasigan of the government's main disaster-response agency.

Initial reports from officials in different provinces placed the overall death toll at more than 230, but Marasigan warned of double counting amid the confusion in the storm's aftermath and said the numbers needed to be verified.

More than 97,000 people remained in 261 evacuation centers across the southern Philippines on Monday, while nearly 85,000 others were displaced and staying elsewhere, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said.

The hardest-hit areas were Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur provinces and the Zamboanga Peninsula. Tembin hit the Philippines as a tropical storm but strengthened into a typhoon before blowing out of the country Sunday into the South China Sea toward Vietnam.

Philippine officials had warned villagers in accident-prone areas to evacuate early as Tembin approached and the government was trying to find out what caused the widespread storm deaths, Marasigan said. She added that it was difficult to move people from homes shortly before Christmas.

"We don't want to be dragging people out of their homes days before Christmas, but it's best to convince them to quietly understand the importance of why they are being evacuated," Marasigan said at a news conference in Manila.

Tembin was among a series of disasters to hit the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines at the peak of Christmas preparations.

An inter-island ferry sank off northeastern Quezon province Thursday after being lashed by fierce winds and big waves, leaving at least five people dead. More than 250 passengers and crewmen were rescued. Earlier in the week, another tropical storm left more than 50 people dead and 31 others missing, mostly due to landslides, and damaged more than 10,000 houses in the central Philippines.


Pope laments 'winds of war' blowing around the world

Pope Francis, flanked by Master of Ceremonies Bishop Guido Marini, waves to faithful during the Urbi et Orbi (Latin for ' to the city and to the world' ) Christmas' day blessing from the main balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Monday, Dec. 25. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Vatican City (AP) — Lamenting "the winds of war" blowing around the world, Pope Francis in his traditional Christmas message on Monday called for a two-state solution to find peace in the Middle East and prayed that confrontation can be overcome on the Korean Peninsula.

The pope took particular aim at areas of global tension where President Donald Trump is playing a critical role. Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital has ignited new violence in the Middle East, while confrontation with North Korea over its nuclear tests has escalated tensions in Asia.

"The winds of war are blowing in our world and an outdated model of development continues to produce human, societal and environmental decline," the pope said in his traditional "Urbi et Orbi" ("to the city and to the world") Christmas message and blessing from the central balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square. About 50,000 faithful packed the square.

As Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, the pope depicted suffering reflected "in the faces of little children," citing war and other tensions in the Middle East and Africa.

He asked for peace for Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and prayed "that the will to resume dialogue may prevail between the parties and that a negotiated solution can finally be reached, one that would allow the peaceful coexistence of two states within mutually agreed and internationally recognized borders."

Francis also prayed for an end to confrontation on the Korean Peninsula and that "mutual trust may increase."

The Christmas message has become an occasion for popes to survey suffering in the world and press for solutions. Francis urged that "our hearts not be closed" as the inns of Bethlehem were to Mary and Joseph before Jesus' birth.

The pontiff lamented that Syria remains "marked by war," that Iraq has been "wounded and torn" by fighting over the last 15 years and that ongoing conflict in Yemen "has been largely forgotten."

Recalling his recent trip to Bangladesh and Myanmar, the pope urged the international community to work "to ensure that the dignity of the minority groups present in the region is adequately protected."

The pontiff also recalled children who risk their lives at the hands of human traffickers to migrate to safer lands, who suffer because their parents don't have work or who are forced into labor themselves or to fight as child soldiers.


Tunisia tries to defuse tension with UAE amid airline spat

Tunisian women stage a protest near the United Arab Emirates' embassy in Tunis, Tunisia, Monday Dec. 25. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)

Bouazza Ben Bouazza

Tunis, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia tried to smooth out emerging tensions with the United Arab Emirates on Monday after Emirates airline barred Tunisian women from boarding its flights and the North African country responded by suspending the Dubai-based carrier's operations in the air and on the ground.

The spokeswoman for the Tunisian presidency dismissed any notion of a "diplomatic crisis" between the two countries, expressing Tunisia's "understanding" of a decision made by the UAE's government to "protect its territory and its airlines."

After the Emirates' decision caused an outcry in Tunisia, the presidential spokeswoman had to speak publicly on a radio station to explain that the ban targeting Tunisian women followed alleged serious threats of attacks.

The spokeswoman, Sa´da Garrach, said the UAE's authorities explained that they made the decision following "serious security information" about alleged plans for attacks by Tunisian women, or women with Tunisian passports, from "tense hotbeds" in Syria and Iraq.

UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted that the ban was temporary and due to security reasons.

In a later written statement, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi "called for overcoming these problems as soon as possible to preserve the relations of brotherhood and cooperation between the two peoples of Tunisia and UAE."

But Caid Essebsi said Tunisia will maintain the suspension of all flights by Emirates to and from Tunis until the UAE's government reconsiders its ban. He stressed the need to preserve the dignity of all Tunisian citizens in the country and abroad and to protect the rights of Tunisian women in all circumstances.

Tunisia summoned UAE's ambassador on Friday following Emirates' ban.

Speaking on Shems FM radio, Garrach, the Tunisian presidential spokeswoman, said the UAE decided on the targeted ban "swiftly, without notifying the Tunisian authorities and even their own ambassador in Tunis," given the "seriousness" of the information they held. While "understanding" the Emirati move, she said the way the UAE proceeded was "unacceptable" and required a "quick reaction" from Tunis.

In an apparent attempt to ease Tunisians' discontent, Gargash, the Emirati minister of state, tweeted that the UAE values Tunisian women and their "exemplary empowerment."

The barring of Tunisian women has caused anger among rights groups and political parties in Tunisia. In a joint statement, three rights groups described the UAE's move as "a violation of the basic rights of Tunisian women and agreements on the free movement of people."

A small protest was held outside the UAE Embassy in Tunis in the afternoon. Protesters called the decision "discriminatory" and "a humiliation to Tunisian women."

Since Friday, several Tunisian women have been barred from boarding Emirates flights in Tunis, Abu Dhabi and Beirut.


N. Korea says it's a 'pipe dream' that it will give up nukes

Visitors watch the North Korean side at the unification observation post in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea Monday, Dec. 25. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Seoul, South Korea (AP) — North Korea said it is a "pipe dream" for the United States to think it will give up its nuclear weapons, and called the latest U.N. sanctions to target the country "an act of war" that violates its sovereignty.

The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved tough new sanctions against North Korea on Friday in response to its latest launch of a ballistic missile that Pyongyang says can reach anywhere on the U.S. mainland. The resolution was drafted by the United States and negotiated with the North's closest ally, China.

"We define this 'sanctions resolution' rigged up by the U.S. and its followers as a grave infringement upon the sovereignty of our Republic, as an act of war violating peace and stability in the Korean peninsula and the region and categorically reject the 'resolution,'" North Korea's foreign ministry said in a statement on Sunday.

The ministry said the sanctions are tantamount to a "complete economic blockade" of North Korea.

"If the U.S. wishes to live safely, it must abandon its hostile policy towards the DPRK and learn to co-exist with the country that has nuclear weapons and should wake up from its pipe dream of our country giving up nuclear weapons which we have developed and completed through all kinds of hardships," said the statement, carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency.

DPRK is short for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

China called for restraint Monday, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying saying that nations should "make positive and constructive efforts to de-escalate tensions" on the Korean Peninsula.

Hua said the new U.N. resolution emphasizes "not inflicting adverse humanitarian impact" on North Koreans and not affecting regular economic activities or humanitarian assistance.

The resolution includes sharply lower limits on North Korea's refined oil imports, the return home of all North Koreans working overseas within 24 months, and a crackdown on ships smuggling banned items including coal and oil to and from the country.

The Trump administration's success in achieving the resolution won praise from the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin of Maryland. "That was a good move, a major accomplishment," he said.

Cardin, who spoke on "Fox News Sunday," said the stepped-up sanctions should be followed by diplomacy aimed at bringing the U.S. and China together on a sustained effort to ease tensions in that region.

But the resolution doesn't include even harsher measures sought by the Trump administration that would ban all oil imports and freeze international assets of the government and its leader, Kim Jong Un.

The resolution drew criticism from Russia for the short time the Security Council nations had to consider the draft, and last-minute changes to the text. Two of those changes were extending the deadline for North Korean workers to return home from 12 months to 24 months — which Russia said was the minimum needed — and reducing the number of North Koreans being put on the U.N. sanctions blacklist from 19 to 15.


Guatemala says it is moving embassy in Israel to Jerusalem

Supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami take part in an anti-American rally to condemn U.S. President Donald Trump for declaring Jerusalem as Israel's capital, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Friday, Dec. 22. (AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad)

Guatemala City (AP) — Guatemala's president announced on Christmas Eve that the Central American country will move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, becoming the first nation to follow the lead of U.S. President Donald Trump in ordering the change.

Guatemala was one of nine nations that voted with the United States and Israel on Thursday when the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a non-binding resolution denouncing Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Trump didn't set any timetable for moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and neither did Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales.

In a post on his official Facebook account Sunday, Morales said that after talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he decided to instruct Guatemala's foreign ministry to move the embassy.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki criticized the decision Monday, saying in a statement Morales was "dragging his country to the wrong side of history by committing a flagrant violation of international law."

Al-Malki called it a "shameless act of lawlessness" and "a brazen act of disrespect and disregard" to international alliances of which Guatemala is part.

Guatemala and Israel have long had close ties, especially in security matters and Israeli arms sales to Guatemala.

No other country has their embassy for Israel in Jerusalem, though the Czech Republic has said it is considering such a move.

In a statement, Netanyahu praised Morales' decision and said that he was waiting in Jerusalem.

"God bless you, my friend, President Morales," he said. "I told you recently that there will be other countries that would recognize Jerusalem and announce the transfer of their embassies to it. Well here is the second country and I reiterate: It is only the beginning and it is important."

Trump upended decades of U.S. policy with his Dec. 6 announcement that he was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Though Trump said he was merely recognizing reality and not prejudging negotiations on the future borders of the city, Palestinians saw the move as siding with Israel on the most sensitive issue in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, while the Palestinians claim the city's eastern sector, which was captured by Israel in 1967 and is home to sensitive religious Jewish, Muslim and Christian sites. Many governments have long said that the fate of Jerusalem must be resolved through negotiations.

Trump's announcement has set off weeks of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces that have left 12 Palestinians dead.

Netanyahu has made great efforts to reach out to Latin America in recent years as part of a campaign to counter longstanding support for the Palestinians at the United Nations.

The resolution passed by the General Assembly declared the U.S. action on Jerusalem "null and void." The 128-9 vote was a victory for Palestinians, but fell short of the total they had predicted. Thirty-five nations abstained and 21 stayed away from the vote.


Update December 25, 2017

Jerusalem violence, rain put damper on Bethlehem Christmas

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa arrives to the Church of the Nativity, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, on Christmas Eve, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Sunday, Dec. 24. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Jalal Hassan and Imad Isseid

Bethlehem, West Bank (AP) — It was a subdued Christmas Eve in the traditional birthplace of Jesus on Sunday, with spirits dampened by cold, rainy weather and recent violence sparked by President Donald Trump's recognition of nearby Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Crowds were thinner than previous years as visitors, especially Arab Christians living in Israel and the West Bank, appeared to be deterred by clashes that have broken out in recent weeks between Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces. Although there was no violence Sunday, Palestinian officials scaled back the celebrations in protest.

Claire Degout, a tourist from France, said she would not allow Trump's pronouncement, which has infuriated the Palestinians and drawn widespread international opposition, affect her decision to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land.

"The decision of one man cannot affect all the Holy Land," she said. "Jerusalem belongs to everybody, you know, and it will be always like that, whatever Trump says."

Trump abandoned decades of American policy Dec. 6 by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital and saying he would move the U.S. Embassy to the holy city.

Trump said the move merely recognizes the fact that Jerusalem already serves as Israel's capital and that he was not prejudging negotiations on the city's final borders. But Palestinians, who seek Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as their capital, saw the declaration as unfairly siding with Israel. On Thursday, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to reject Trump's decision. The Old City, in east Jerusalem, is home to sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites.

The announcement triggered weeks of unrest in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including near-daily clashes in Bethlehem, which lies just south of Jerusalem.

By midafternoon, hundreds of people had gathered in Manger Square near the city's main Christmas for celebrations, greeted by bagpipe-playing young Palestinian marching bands and scout troops. Accompanying the decorations was a large banner protesting Trump's Jerusalem declaration.

But after nightfall, the crowds had thinned as rain fell and temperatures dipped to about 9 degrees (49 F). Just a few dozen people milled about Manger Square, while others took shelter in the church and other nearby buildings.

Bethlehem's mayor, Anton Salman, said celebrations were toned down because of anger over Trump's decision.

"We decided to limit the Christmas celebrations to the religious rituals as an expression of rejection and anger and sympathy with the victims who fell in the recent protests," he said.

Next to the square was a poster that read "Manger Square appeal" and "#handsoffjerusalem."

"We want to show the people that we are people who deserve life, deserve our freedom, deserve our independence, deserve Jerusalem as our capital," he said.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the apostolic administrator of Jerusalem, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, crossed through an Israeli military checkpoint to enter Bethlehem from Jerusalem. His black limousine was escorted by a group of men on motorcycles, some of them wearing red Santa hats.

Pizzaballa, who last week rejected the U.S. decision, tried to steer clear of politics. He waved to the crowd, shook hands and hugged well-wishers.

"Now it's time to enjoy," he said. "We as Christians we will enjoy, despite all the difficulties we have. Merry Christmas."

But in his homily during midnight Mass, Pizzaballa prayed for the peace of Jerusalem and appealed to politicians "to have courage" to make bold decisions that respect all peoples. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a Muslim, was among those in attendance.

"There is no peace if someone is excluded. Jerusalem should include, not exclude," Pizzaballa said. "The mother, Jerusalem is our mother, loves all her children. If one is missing, the mother cannot be in peace."

"We need vision," he added. "And despite the many disappointments of the past and of the present days, with determination, do not abandon having a vision, but on the contrary, even more than before, let yourself be provoked by the cry of the poor and the afflicted."

James Thorburn, a visitor from London, said it was important to enjoy the holiday and show solidarity with Bethlehem's residents.

"I know that a lot of people did cancel," he said. "I felt I should come to support the Palestinians."


1 body recovered, 36 feared dead in Philippine mall fire

Firemen battle a fire that rages at a shopping mall, Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017, in Davao city, southern Philippines. (AP Photo/Manman Dejeto)

Davao, Philippines (AP) — Philippine firefighters recovered one body from a burning shopping mall Sunday and there was "zero" chances of survival for 36 other trapped people inside the four-story building in southern Davao city, an official said.

Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio said firefighters told distraught relatives of the 36 trapped employees of a business outsourcing company at the top floor of the NCCC Mall that nobody could survive the extreme heat and thick black smoke.

"They were told that the chances of survival are zero," she said, adding that one of those trapped may be a Chinese or a South Korean, based on the name.

It is unclear when firefighters can break into most areas of the mall, where the blaze was put under control Sunday morning although smoke continued to billow from the building. The firefighters won't stop until all those reported missing are found, Duterte-Carpio said.

Investigators will determine the cause of the fire and the prospects of criminal lawsuits against the mall owners and officials would depend on the outcome of the investigation, said the mayor, who is the daughter of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Duterte, the mayor and Roman Catholic Church officials went to the site and met with relatives of the trapped office employees late Saturday and asked them to pray. The president was photographed wiping his eyes with a handkerchief, his head bowed, at an emotional moment with the relatives.

The mall's marketing manager, Janna Abdullah Mutalib, said the fire started Saturday morning at the third floor where clothes, appliances and furniture are sold, after a storm hit Davao and flooded parts of the city. Except for a grocery at the ground floor and the business outsourcing company at the top floor, the shopping areas were still closed to the public when the fire started mid-morning, preventing a bigger tragedy amid the peak Christmas shopping season.

Duterte served as Davao mayor for many years before being elected to the presidency last year.

It's been a difficult year for the tough-talking, 72-year-old leader, who faced his most serious crisis when hundreds of pro-Islamic State group extremists laid siege on Marawi city, also in the southern third of the Philippines. He declared martial law in the south to deal with the insurrection, which troops crushed in October.

The storm that blew out of the southern Philippines Sunday reportedly left more than 120 people dead with 160 others still missing.


North Korea calls latest UN sanctions 'an act of war'

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley votes in favor of a resolution, Friday, Dec. 22, 2017, at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Seoul, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Sunday called the latest U.N. sanctions to target the country "an act of war" that violates its sovereignty, and said it is a "pipe dream" for the United States to think it will give up its nuclear weapons.

The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved tough new sanctions against North Korea on Friday in response to its latest launch of a ballistic missile that Pyongyang says can reach anywhere on the U.S. mainland. The resolution was drafted by the United States and negotiated with the North's closest ally, China.

"We define this 'sanctions resolution' rigged up by the U.S. and its followers as a grave infringement upon the sovereignty of our Republic, as an act of war violating peace and stability in the Korean peninsula and the region and categorically reject the 'resolution,'" North Korea's foreign ministry said in a statement.

The ministry said the sanctions are tantamount to a "complete economic blockade" of North Korea.

"If the U.S. wishes to live safely, it must abandon its hostile policy towards the DPRK and learn to co-exist with the country that has nuclear weapons and should wake up from its pipe dream of our country giving up nuclear weapons which we have developed and completed through all kinds of hardships," said the statement, carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency.

DPRK is short for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The resolution adopted by the Security Council includes sharply lower limits on North Korea's refined oil imports, the return home of all North Koreans working overseas within 24 months, and a crackdown on ships smuggling banned items including coal and oil to and from the country.

The Trump administration's success in achieving the resolution won praise from the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin of Maryland. "That was a good move," the senator said, "a major accomplishment." Cardin said the stepped-up sanctions should be followed by diplomacy aimed at bringing the U.S. and China together on a sustained effort to ease tensions in that region. Cardin spoke on "Fox News Sunday."

But the resolution doesn't include even harsher measures sought by the Trump administration that would ban all oil imports and freeze international assets of the government and its leader, Kim Jong Un.

The resolution drew criticism from Russia for the short time the Security Council nations had to consider the draft, and last-minute changes to the text. Two of those changes were extending the deadline for North Korean workers to return home from 12 months to 24 months — which Russia said was the minimum needed — and reducing the number of North Koreans being put on the U.N. sanctions blacklist from 19 to 15.


Dimming Christmas lights reflect Venezuela's grim crisis

In this photo Dec. 22, 2017 photo, young men chat near a Nativity scene that decorates Altamira square in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Scott Smith

Caracas, Venezuela (AP) — Marilyn Pitre recalls taking her family on evening strolls at Christmas time through Altamira Plaza in Venezuela's capital, soaking up the dazzling lights and giant tree made of light bulbs in a display that once drew comparisons to New York City's Rockefeller Center.

That was before crisis struck Venezuela. Now the 40-year-old mother of two wouldn't dare set foot in the plaza after dark, fearing robbers. And this season, for the first time in years, no festive lights will bring it to life.

It's a sight that many say mirrors the mood in the once-prosperous oil nation. Middle class residents have cut back on gifts and struggle to afford basic ingredients needed to cook traditional Christmas dishes.

The poor have been hit hardest, some scavenging trash piles year-around to fill their stomachs.

Pitre, pausing in Altamira Plaza on a bright afternoon after leaving work, said she tries to look beyond the shortages and political strife to the deeper meaning of Christmas.

"As Catholics, we celebrate the birth of Jesus," she said. "But it's not the same as before."

Venezuela, a country of 30 million people, sits atop the world's largest oil reserves, but global crude prices crashed three years ago, sending the economy into free fall and sparking social unrest.

Residents endure shortages of cash, soaring inflation and a lack of medicine.

Earlier this year, protesters upset with President Nicolas Maduro's government clashed daily with riot police for four months in Altamira Plaza and in streets across the country. More than 120 protesters were killed and thousands injured.

Inflation is expected to hit 2,400 percent by the year's end, said Henkel Garcia, director of the Caracas-based consulting firm Econometrica, adding that minimum wage workers today have a fifth of the purchasing power than nearly two decades ago, when the late President Hugo Chavez launched Venezuela's socialist revolution.

"This is the darkest Christmas we've ever had," said Guianfranco Perozo, 23, who holds two jobs just to get by.

Searching an open-air market in Caracas for cooking oil, Perozo shrugs when asked if he's bought any Christmas gifts. Any money left after groceries will go to diapers for his 8-month-old daughter, he said.

"There's nothing to celebrate," he said. "Too many people are hungry. Too many people are eating garbage."

Unrest simmers across Venezuela in the days before Christmas. Gasoline shortages in two states left long lines at filling stations, and residents in a community on the outskirts of Caracas protested food shortages one night, setting piles of garbage on fire, according to Twitter accounts.

Water rationing is common, and a mid-day blackout lasting five hours struck millions in Caracas and two neighboring states a week before Christmas.

Millions of others desperate for work have fled Venezuela. Antonieta Lopez, 35, will celebrate this Christmas for the first time without her husband, forced to find a job in Chile nearly a year ago when work dried up at home.

Still, money is tight, and Lopez said she could only afford to buy her son, Matias, two items from his wish list — a Captain American action figure and a pair of Star Wars masks.

Sitting next to her on the steps of a quiet plaza, her mother, Evelyn Avellaneda, 70, said she's not able to buy things she'd normally put on the dinner table for Christmas. That includes a bottle of red wine.

Plenty of people are out walking past shops, but few buy things, Avellaneda said, adding that when they do find affordable items, there are long waits.

"There are lines at the banks. There are lines in the stores," she said. "There are lines everywhere."


Update December 23-24, 2017

Bitcoin goes on wild ride and it may only get crazier

In this April 7, 2014, file photo, Bitcoin logos are displayed at the Inside Bitcoins conference and trade show in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Marley Jay

New York (AP) — What's a bitcoin worth? Lately nobody knows for sure, but after a wild ride on Friday, it's worth a good deal less than it was Thursday.

After losses over the last few days, the digital currency fell as much as 30 percent overnight in Asia, and the action became so frenzied that the website Coinbase suspended trading. It later made up much of that ground, and slumped 9.5 percent to $14,042 Friday, according to the tracking site CoinDesk.

Experts are warning that bitcoin is a bubble about to burst, but things might get crazier before it does: A lot of people have heard of bitcoin by now, but very few people own it.

"Bubbles burst when the last buyers are in," said Brett Ewing, chief market strategist for First Franklin. "Who are the last buyers? The general public, unfortunately."

Ewing said 40 percent of bitcoin belongs to just 1,000 people, and hedge funds and other major investors are going to start buying it soon. But those funds may buy bitcoin and also protect themselves by placing bets that it will fall. Retail investors may just buy it only to see it fall.

"I think investors should approach it with caution and I think many people will dive into it not understanding what it is," he said.

As bitcoin skyrocketed this month, the volume of trading was unprecedented as investors hoping to catch a ride up piled in. Prices have risen so fast, the Friday returned the price of bitcoin only to where it was trading two weeks ago.

The volatility has created a circus-like atmosphere. Some companies that have added the word "bitcoin" or related terms to their names to get in on the action. The craziest thing is, it's worked.

Long Island Iced Tea Corp. until this week had been known for its peach-, raspberry-, guava-, lemon- and mango-flavored drinks. Then, on Thursday, the company announced a radical rebranding. It's changing its name to Long Blockchain Corp., shifting its primary focus from iced tea to "the exploration of and investment in opportunities that leverage the benefits of blockchain technology."

Blockchain is a ledger where transactions of digital currencies, like bitcoin, are recorded.

Shares in Long Island Iced Tea soared 200 percent in one day.

The Hicksville, New York, company did what investors are doing, hitching a ride on a currency that raced from less than $10,000 at the end of November to almost $20,000 on Sunday. And it cost less than $1,000 at the beginning of the year.

The rise of price of bitcoin, which is still difficult to use if you actually want to buy something, has led to heated speculation about when the bubble might burst.

The currency has been, if nothing else, highly elastic, bouncing back every time it crashes, which occurs about once every quarter.

It fell 11.5 percent over two days in early December and 21.5 percent over five days in November.

Curiosity has now driven bitcoin to the futures market, where investors bet on which direction it will go.

Bitcoin futures started trading on two major exchanges — the Cboe and CME — this month. Those futures fell about 8 percent Friday.

If people get burned, it won't be because they were not warned.

The Securities and Exchange Commission put out a statement last week warning investors to be careful with bitcoin and other digital currencies. The Commodities Futures Trading Commission has proposed regulating bitcoin like a commodity, similar to gold or oil.

Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, a financial watchdog, issued a similar warning recently.


29 die, 29 injured in South Korean building fire

 

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire at an eight-floor building in Jecheon, South Korea, Thursday, Dec. 21. (Kim Hyung-woo/Yonhap via AP)

Kim Tong-Hyung

Seoul, South Korea (AP) — South Korea's government on Friday began investigating a fire that tore through an eight-floor building and killed 29 people in the central city of Jecheon in the country's deadliest blaze in nearly a decade.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in was planning to visit the scene where police and government agencies, including the national fire agency and forensic service, launched a joint inspection into the cause of Thursday's fire.

Fire department officials said it likely began at the building's parking lot. A Jecheon fire department official, who didn't want to be named, citing office rules, said there was nothing so far to suggest that the fire had been deliberately set.

Local media showed firefighters battling the blaze with trucks and helicopters, and a man jumping from a window as firefighters held a mattress below.

The fire left 29 others injured. Most of those who died were women who had been using the public bath on the second and third floors, which made it harder for them to escape, fire department officials said.

It was the country's worst fire since 2008, when 40 people died at a refrigerated warehouse in Icheon, near capital Seoul.

Organizers for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics said the Olympic torch relay had been scheduled to pass through Jecheon on Friday, but the route had been revised because of the tragedy.

The building had several restaurants and leisure facilities, including a gym, the public bath and an indoor golf practice facility.


Australia announces biggest meth seizure at 1.2 tons

In this photo provided by the Australian Border Force, bags of seized methamphetamine are displayed in Perth, Australia, Friday, Dec. 22. (Australian Border Force via AP)

Trevor Marshallsea

Sydney (AP) — Australian police said Friday they made the country's largest seizure of methamphetamine — a 1.2 ton haul with a street value estimated at A$1.04 billion (US$802 million).

Eight men, all from Australia, were charged as a result of the bust in the West Australian coastal town of Geraldton, after what police called a "complex, multi-agency investigation which traversed the country."

A press release issued by a combination of five law enforcement agencies, including the Australian Federal Police, said the seizure surpassed the previous record meth bust, a 903-kilogram haul in Melbourne early this year.

It is also the largest drug bust of any kind in Western Australia, the country's largest state, with almost 13,000 kilometers (8,000 miles) of coastline.

Police said the drugs had been transported on a private boat that docked in Geraldton in the early hours of Thursday morning and loaded into a van. Police intercepted the vehicle as it reversed from the dock.

Police arrested three men in the van, a further three on the boat, plus two more in a hotel in Perth, culminating a five-month operation that dismantled a complex drug trafficking network.

Fifty-nine bags containing some 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of methamphetamine each were seized from the vehicle. An additional bag containing approximately 20 kilograms of methamphetamine was found on the vessel.

The three men on the boat and the two seized at the Perth hotel were charged with importing a commercial quantity of a border controlled drug. The occupants of the van were charged with possessing a commercial quantity of a border controlled drug reasonably suspected of having been unlawfully imported. Both offences carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Federal police will allege in court these men intended to distribute the drugs along the east coast of Australia, said federal police Deputy Commissioner Operations Leanne Close.

Police did not say where the meth came from before reaching Geraldton.


India, China hold talks on long-running border dispute

Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, right, talks with Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi before their meeting in New Delhi, India, Friday, Dec. 22. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

Ashok Sharma

New Delhi (AP) — India and China on Friday discussed ways to prevent a repeat of a recent face-off between their armed forces at a Himalayan plateau where their borders meet and agreed that resolving their boundary disagreements served the interests of both countries.

Relations between the two Asian giants have often been strained, partly due to an undemarcated border. They fought a month-long border war in 1962 and have been trying to settle the boundary since the 1980s.

The two sides agreed Friday that pending the final resolution of the boundary issue, it was necessary to maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas, a statement by India's External Affairs Ministry said at the end of daylong talks.

The Indian side was led by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and the Chinese delegation by Special Representative Yang Jiechi. The two had met in Beijing in July on the sidelines of a meeting of the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) summit.

"The talks were positive and focused on bringing out the full potential of the closer developmental partnership between the two countries," the statement said. "They re-emphasized their commitment to achieve a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution to the India-China boundary question at an early date."

The latest confrontation took place where India and China's border meets that of Bhutan. It started in June when Indian troops moved in to stop China from constructing a road in the Doklam region in Bhutan. Both countries agreed to pull back their troops on Aug. 28.

The border dispute continues to bedevil relations between the giant Asian neighbors — armed with nuclear weapons and with 2.6 billion people between them — despite a recent warming of economic relations.

Each side accuses the other of occupying its territory. China claims some 90,000 square kilometers (35,000 square miles) of territory in India's northeast and cites the region's cultural affinity with Tibet as evidence that the area is part of what it calls "southern" Tibet. India says China occupies 38,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles) of its territory in the Aksai Chin plateau in the western Himalayas.

Friday's was the 20th meeting between the two sides on the border issue since mid-1980s.


Toshiba unveils device for Fukushima nuclear reactor probe

Toshiba Corporation unveiled a pan-tilt camera designed to inspect the interior of the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station in Yokohama, Friday, Dec. 22. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

Mari Yamaguchi

Yokohama, Japan (AP) — Toshiba Corp.'s energy systems unit on Friday unveiled a long telescopic pipe carrying a pan-tilt camera designed to gather crucial information about the situation inside the reactor chambers at Japan's tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant.

The device is 13 meters (43 feet) long and designed to give officials a deeper view into the nuclear plant's Unit 2 primary containment vessel, where details on melted fuel damage remain largely unknown.

The Fukushima plant had triple meltdowns following the 2011 quake and tsunami. Finding details about the fuel debris is crucial to determining the right method and technology for its removal at each reactor, the most challenging process to safely carry out the plant's decades-long decommissioning.

Japan's stricter, post-Fukushima safety standards also require nuclear plant operators elsewhere to invest more time and money into safety measures.

On Friday, Kansai Electric Power Co. announced that it would decommission two idle reactors at the Ohi Nuclear Power Plant in western Japan, citing the difficulty of adding all the safety requirements at the nearly 40-year-old reactors that would be needed to get approval for their restart.

Reports have said it would cost about 58 billion yen ($500 million) and take 30 years to decommission a reactor, about half the estimated cost to restart one.

Also Friday, Japan Nuclear Fuel said that it was postponing the planned launch of its trouble-plagued spent fuel reprocessing plant by three more years until 2021. It cited delayed approval by the authorities. It also said it was postponing the planned manufacturing of fuel from recycled plutonium and uranium.

The mission involving Toshiba's new probe at Fukushima's Unit 2 reactor could come as soon as late January. Company officials said the new device will be sent inside the pedestal, a structure directly below the core, to investigate the area and hopefully to find melted debris.

The device looks like a giant fishing rod about 12 centimeters (4.7 inches) in diameter, from which a unit housing the camera, a dosimeter and thermometer slowly slides down. The probe, attached by a cable on the back, can descend all the way to the bottom of the reactor vessel if it can avoid obstacles, officials said.

Two teams of several engineers will be tasked with the mission, which they will remotely operate from a radiation-free command center at the plant.

A simpler predecessor to the pipe unveiled Friday had captured a limited view of the vessel during a preparatory investigation in February. A crawling robot sent in later in February struggled with debris on the ground and stalled in the end due to higher-than-expected radiation, its intended mission incomplete.

The upgraded probe has been co-developed by Toshiba ESS and International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning, a government-funded unit of construction and nuclear technology companies over the past nine months.


Update December 22, 2017

Philippine ferry sinks; 4 dead, 7 missing, 240 rescued

Volunteers pull a rubber boat with rescued passengers from the ill-fated M/V Mercraft 3 at Infanta township, Quezon province in northeastern Philippines Thursday, Dec. 21. (AP Photo/DJ Kyle)

Infanta, Philippines (AP) — A Philippine inter-island ferry with more than 250 passengers and crew, including Christmas holiday travelers, sank Thursday after being battered by fierce winds and big waves off the country's northeast, leaving at least four people dead and at least seven others missing, officials said.

About 240 were pulled alive, some with injuries, from the rough sea by navy and coast guard personnel and a flotilla of fishing boats after the M/V Mercraft 3 sank in the Polillo Strait between Quezon province's Infanta town and the ferry's destination, Polillo island, officials said.

A survivor, Donel Jade Mendiola, told DZMM radio that bad weather briefly delayed the ferry's departure, but the weather improved and the vessel then left from Quezon's Real town. Strong winds and large waves started to lash it about two hours into the trip, he said.

"The vessel came to a halt and started taking in water in the front side. The passengers dashed to one side and the ferry started to sink," Mendiola said. He said the passengers were instructed to don life vests.

Coast guard boats, navy vessels and fishing boats rescued 240 people, including many who drifted in the rough sea, coast guard spokesman Armand Balilo said, adding that the 206-ton ferry could carry 286 people and apparently wasn't overcrowded.

Among the survivors taken to a Quezon hospital was a 61-year-old Australian identified by authorities as Roland Kempt, who lives in the Philippines, the coast guard said in a statement.

The dead consisted of two women and two men, Quezon officials said.

Earlier this week, a tropical storm left more than 50 people dead and 31 others missing, mostly due to landslides, and damaged more than 10,000 houses in the central Philippines before weakening and blowing into the South China Sea. The storm drenched Quezon province on the southern tip of northern Luzon island, but there were no storm warnings when Mercraft 3 sailed out, officials said.

Rescue efforts were temporarily stopped after nightfall due to bad weather, coast guard officials said, adding that a coast guard helicopter that tried to fly to the area earlier in the day was hampered by strong winds.

Many of those rescued were taken to a government emergency hall in Dinahican village in Infanta, where Quezon officials brought clothes, food, water and medicine, Juanito Diaz, who heads Quezon's disaster-response agency, said by telephone.

Frequent storms, badly maintained vessels and weak enforcement of safety regulations have been blamed for past accidents at sea in the Philippines, including on Dec. 20, 1987, when the ferry Dona Paz sank after colliding with a fuel tanker, killing more than 4,300 people in the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster.


Police still checking terror link to Melbourne car ramming

A white SUV vehicle is shown after it was driven into striking pedestrians, Thursday, Dec. 21, in Melbourne, Australia. (Australian Broadcast Corp. via AP)

Trevor Marshallsea

Sydney (AP) — Australian police were investigating whether there was any terrorism-related motivation behind the car ramming attack on Melbourne pedestrians that left 12 people injured, four of them in critical condition.

Victoria state police Acting Chief Commissioner Shane Patton said on Thursday night that early indications were the driver of the car, a 32-year-old Australian citizen of Afghan descent with a history of drug abuse and mental health issues was not motivated by terrorism. He said the ramming was being treated as a "singular" incident.

On Friday morning, however, Patton said the man had made several utterances while under police guard in hospital on Thursday night, including mentioning poor treatment of Muslims, and that police were still exploring terrorism as a possible motive.

"He spoke about dreams, he spoke about voices but he also did attribute some of his actions to the poor treatment of Muslims," Patton told the Channel Nine television network on Friday.

Asked if there were links to terrorism, he said: "That's certainly one area we're exploring in respect to motivation."

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull also reiterated that "no terrorism link has been identified" but that "nothing should be ruled out."

"This was a despicable and cowardly act," Turnbull said. "But I want to reassure Australians that this is an isolated incident. We should continue to go about our daily lives the way we always do."

Patton said the man, who ran a red light and drove a white SUV into pedestrians crossing central Melbourne's busy Flinders Street before crashing into a traffic barrier around 4:45 p.m. Thursday, was not known to intelligence agencies.

He said the man would undergo psychiatric assessment, with police hoping to formally interview him on Friday afternoon. The man was on a mental health plan but didn't show for a scheduled appointment on Thursday morning, Patton said.

The driver is known to police following a 2010 minor assault matter and has a history of drug use and mental health issues.

Seven of the 19 people admitted to the hospital were discharged overnight. Melbourne media reported three patients remained in critical condition, including an 83-year-old man, and that a 4-year-old boy's condition had improved from critical to stable.

Patton said nine foreign nationals were among the injured, including from South Korea, China, Italy, India, Venezuela, Ireland and New Zealand.

Police said a second man, aged 24, who was arrested after being seen filming the incident and found to have three knives in his possession, had been released.

He's expected to be charged with drugs and weapons possession but the alleged offences are not linked to the car ramming.

Patton reassured the public hundreds more police would be on the streets over Christmas and New Year.

It is the second time this year that Melbourne, regularly ranked one of the world's most livable cities, has been traumatized by a car attack.

In January, six people were killed and more than 30 were injured when a car was driven up a footpath in Bourke Street, near Thursday's incident. Police arrested the driver, who was known to police for a history of illicit drug use, family violence and mental health problems. Police said the case was not terrorism-related.

There have been a number of car attacks in other parts of the world in recent years, many of them linked to terrorism.

In October, a man drove a truck down a New York City bicycle path, killing eight people. The driver is accused of providing material support to the Islamic State group among other charges, including murder.

In an August attack, 13 people were killed and more than 100 were wounded when a vehicle rammed into pedestrians on a walking street in Barcelona. London has seen three such attacks this year, two linked to Islamic extremists and another seen as a reprisal attack outside a mosque, killing 13 people altogether.

A vehicle attack on a shopping street in Stockholm in April killed five people, while an attack on a Christmas market in Berlin last December killed 12.

The deadliest such attack in recent years took place in Nice, France, in July 2016 when a man drove a refrigerated truck weighing about 20 tons into a crowd, killing 86 people.


Catalan separatists regain majority in regional election

 

Catalan independence supporters wave a pro-independence Catalan flag and celebrate at the ANC (Catalan National Assembly) headquarters after results of the regional elections in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Dec. 21. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Aritz Parra and Ciaran Giles

Barcelona, Spain (AP) — Catalonia's secessionist parties won enough votes Thursday to regain a slim majority in the regional parliament and give new momentum to their political struggle for independence from Spain.

It was hardly an emphatic victory, however, as the separatists lost support compared to the previous vote in 2015, and a pro-unity party for the first time became biggest single bloc in the Catalan parliament.

The result left more questions than answers about what's next for Catalonia, where a long-standing push for independence escalated to a full-on clash with the Spanish government two months ago.

It was also a blow to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who as a result of the separatists' defiance ousted the Catalan Cabinet and called the early election hoping to keep them out of power.

Instead, the election's outcome favored fugitive former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who campaigned from Belgium where he is evading a Spanish judicial probe into the attempt to split from Spain. The investigation could lead to charges of rebellion and sedition that carry penalties of decades in prison.

Puigdemont, who got the most votes of any separatist candidate, greeted the results with delight and called them a rebuke to Spain's central government.

"The Spanish state has been defeated," Puigdemont said. "Mariano Rajoy has received a slap in the face from Catalonia."

In a televised appearance from Brussels, the 54 year-old former journalist didn't make clear if he would try to return home, where an arrest warrant awaits him.

The other main winner was Ines Arrimadas, the leading unionist candidate. Scoring 25 percent of the votes, her pro-business Ciutadans (Citizens) party won 37 seats, which will be the biggest single bloc in the 135-seat regional assembly.

"The pro-secession forces can never again claim they speak for all of Catalonia," Arrimadas said, promising her party will continue to oppose the separatists. "We are going to keep fighting for a peaceful co-existence, common sense and for a Catalonia for all Catalans."

But pro-independence parties — Puigdemont's Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia), left-republican ERC and the anti-capitalist CUP — together won 70 seats, two above a majority but two less than in the previous parliament. The three groups fell short of winning a majority of votes, though, getting 48 percent of the total.

"The election has resolved very little," said Andrew Dowling, a specialist in Catalan history at Cardiff University in Wales. "Independence has won but in a way similar to 2015 — majority of seats but not in votes."

Dowling said that with the independence vote not reaching over half of the ballots cast, the European Union was not likely to get involved although the bloc will be keen on seeing the Spanish government actively address Catalonia's grievances.

Rajoy has said that taking over control of the region again would be something he would consider if independence is sought by a new Catalan government. Spain's constitution bars secession.

Thursday's election saw a record turnout of nearly 82 percent of the 5.5 million eligible voters in Catalonia.

The election was held under highly unusual circumstances, with several pro-independence leaders either jailed or in self-imposed exile for their roles in staging a banned independence referendum that was declared illegal by Spain's highest court.

Eight of the absent politicians were elected as lawmakers. Unless their status changes, they will have to renounce their seats and pass them on to other party members or else the pro-independence bloc could be down a crucial share of votes.

Weeks of campaigning involved little debate about regional policy on issues such as public education, widening inequality and unemployment. At the heart of the battle instead was the recent independence push that led to Spain's worst political crisis in decades.

Tensions have been high in Catalonia since an Oct. 1 referendum backed independence, when Spanish police used rubber bullets and batons against voters who tried to block them from removing ballots from polling stations. Separatist regional lawmakers made a unilateral declaration of independence Oct. 27, prompting Spain's national government to take the dramatic step of firing the regional government and dissolving the Catalan parliament. Courts later ordered the arrest of the former Catalan leaders.

No incidents were reported during voting Thursday.

A new Catalan attempt to secede would also be an unwelcome development for the European Union, which is already wrestling with legal complications from Britain's planned exit from the bloc. Senior EU officials have backed Rajoy, and no EU country has offered support for the separatists.

Catalonia's independence ambitions also have scant support in the rest of Spain.

The outcome of the political battle is crucial for the region, which accounts for 19 percent of Spain's gross domestic product. An economic slowdown has been the most immediate consequence of the Catalan independence push. Spain's central bank last week cut its national growth forecasts for next year and 2019 to 2.4 percent and 2.1 percent, respectively, cutting a percentage point off its previous predictions and citing the conflict in Catalonia as the cause.


South Korea's nut rage executive to avoid jail time

 

In this May 22, 2015, file photo, former Korean Air executive Cho Hyun-ah, center, is surrounded by reporters as she leaves the Seoul High Court in Seoul, South Korea. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Hyung-Jin Kim

Seoul, South Korea (AP) — The former Korean Air executive whose onboard "nut rage" tantrum delayed a flight in 2014 will avoid jail as South Korea's top court upheld her suspended prison term on Thursday.

Cho Hyun-ah, who is the daughter of the company's chairman and was the head of the airline's cabin service at the time of the incident, achieved worldwide notoriety after she had an onboard tantrum after a first class flight attendant served her nuts in a bag instead of on a dish. Infuriated, Cho ordered the chief flight attendant off the flight forcing the plane to the gate at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport.

Cho was previously sentenced to one year in prison. She was released later after a high court shortened the prison term to 10 months and suspended that sentence for two years, confirming some charges but acquitting her of a contested charge of violating the aviation security law.

The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld Cho's suspended jail term, saying a majority of judges ruled that diverting a plane that was taxiing didn't constitute forcing a change in the plane's route, a crime that can be punished by up to 10 years in prison.

According to a Supreme Court statement, Cho "yelled several times" to crew members, ordering them to tell the plane's captain to "stop the flight immediately" because she didn't want to let in a flight attendant who didn't know about proper service procedures. After being informed of Cho's request and overwhelmed, the captain was forced to return the flight to the gate, it said.

Court officials said Thursday's verdict is final and cannot be appealed.

During her trial, Cho admitted using violence against one flight attendant by pushing her shoulder and throwing an object at her. A statement from one crew member described Cho as behaving like an "angry tiger."

The incident was a lightning rod for anger in a country whose economy is dominated by family-run conglomerates known as chaebol. The first and second generations of these families were credited with helping to transform South Korea into a developed nation. But the third generation is often regarded as pampered and entitled, and the public is less tolerant of their excesses.


Mystery solved as Australian sub found after 103 years

In this undated image, fish swim around the helm of the Australian submarine HMAS AE1 off the coast of the Papua New Guinea island of New Britain. (Australian Department of Defence via AP)

Trevor Marshallsea

Sydney (AP) — One of Australia's oldest naval mysteries has been solved after the discovery of the wreck of the country's first submarine more than 103 years after its disappearance in World War I.

The AE1 vanished off the New Guinean island of New Britain on September 14, 1914, with 35 crew aboard from Australia, New Zealand and Britain.

It was the first Allied submarine loss of the war and the first wartime loss for the Royal Australian Navy, yet the exact reason for its sinking remains unclear.

No fewer than 12 fruitless hunts for the sub had been carried out over the past several decades, but Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne said Thursday it was located more than 300 meters (984 feet) below the surface in a search using a Dutch-owned survey vessel that started only last week.

While the reasons for the submarine's sinking remain unclear, Payne said the Australian government was now trying to contact descendants of those killed on board.

"It was the first loss for the RAN and the first Allied submarine loss in World War I — a significant tragedy felt by our nation and our allies," Payne said in a statement.

Payne said a commemorative service was held to remember those who died after the vessel was found. Australia will now discuss with the Papua New Guinean government the building of a lasting memorial and ways to preserve the site.

The AE1 made final contact with an Australian ship at 2:30 p.m. the day it disappeared. Mystified villagers on a nearby island at the time spoke of seeing a "monster" or "devil fish" that appeared and quickly disappeared into the water.

It has always been assumed the AE1 was not a victim of enemy action, since the only German vessel nearby at the time was a small survey ship.

Because no wreckage, oil or bodies were found, it was also believed the AE1 sank intact, most likely after striking a reef that punched a hole in the pressure hull. Whether or not this is what happened is still to be publicly verified..
 


DAILY UPDATE

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