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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Pakistan schools close on anniversary of deadly school siege

December 16, 2015

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan closed schools across the country on Wednesday on the anniversary of last year's Taliban attack that killed over 150 people, 144 of them schoolchildren, officials said.

The closure was part a day of national mourning and a precaution against militant attacks tied to the anniversary, said government spokesman Mushtaq Ghani. Pakistan's top civilian and military leadership attended a ceremony in the northwestern city of Peshawar to award medals to the victims' families.

In his address, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resolved to weed out militant extremism, promising that: "We will take revenge for every drop of our children's sacred blood." In the wake of the attack, Pakistan stepped up its campaign against Islamic militants, lifting a moratorium on the death penalty and trying alleged militant extremists in military courts. The Pakistani army claims to having killed 3,400 Islamic militants in a major military push in the North Waziristan tribal region along the Afghan border, which has long served as a safe haven for local and al-Qaida linked foreign militants. The operation was launched in June 2014, six months before a team of six or seven Taliban militants stormed the army-run school in Peshawar; the attackers all either blew themselves up or were shot and killed by the army.

The main Taliban umbrella group led by Maulvi Fazlullah, who has been based in neighboring Afghanistan, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was revenge for the North Waziristan campaign. The Taliban and their allied Islamic militants have been waging a war against the state for over a decade, killing tens of thousands of people in a bid to install their own harsh interpretation of Islam.

Various public and private organizations held rallies across Pakistan to commemorate the tragedy and show solidarity in the fight against Islamic militants. For several days, mourners have placed flowers and floral wreaths, lighting candles and pasting the victims' photos in various cities.

One of the people attending the Peshawar ceremony was Andleeb Aftab, a teacher at the school who was wounded in the attack and whose 14-year-old son Huzaifa was killed. "My son is a martyr. Martyrs never die. I still feel that my son is around," she told The Associated Press. "I see him playing on the school grounds. Every child of this school is my son."

Associated Press writer Asif Shahzad in Islamabad contributed to this report.

Pakistan test-fires nuclear capable ballistic missile

Islamabad (AFP)
Dec 11, 2015

Pakistan test-fired a nuclear-capable ballistic missile on Friday, the military said, two days after the government confirmed it would resume high-level peace talks with arch-rival India.

The test is the latest in a series carried out by India and Pakistan since both demonstrated nuclear weapons capability in 1998.

The military said it had fired a Shaheen III surface-to-surface ballistic missile which can carry nuclear and conventional warheads within a range of 2,750 kilometers (1,700 miles).

"The successful flight test with its impact point in the Arabian Sea, validating all the desired parameters ... was aimed at validating various design and technical parameters of the weapon system," the military said in a statement.

The head of the Strategic Plans Division, Lieutenant General Mazhar Jamil, congratulated scientists and engineers involved on achieving a "significant milestone" which complemented the country's existing deterrence capability, it said.

Jamil asserted that "Pakistan desires peaceful co-existence in the region for which nuclear deterrence would further strengthen strategic stability in South Asia".

Pakistan last tested the Shaheen III on March 9 this year.

Relations between Pakistan and India -- which have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947 -- have always been fraught but soured further last August amid a rise in clashes along their borders and a row over a Pakistani diplomat meeting Kashmiri separatists.

On Wednesday India's Foreign Minister held talks with her Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz in Islamabad on the sidelines of a regional summit on Afghanistan, where they jointly announced they would resume high-level peace talks.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Pakistan_test-fires_nuclear_capable_ballistic_missile_999.html.

Afghanistan, US mark 10 years of war

Washington (AFP)
Oct 7, 2011

Afghanistan and the United States Friday marked 10 years since the US went to war against the Taliban, triggering a decade-long conflict that has cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

US President Barack Obama honored all those killed since the start of the conflict launched against the Taliban regime in the wake of the September 11, 2001 Al-Qaeda attacks on the United States.

"Ten years ago today, in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, our nation went to war against Al-Qaeda and its Taliban protectors in Afghanistan," Obama said, calling it a "decade of sacrifice."

He saluted "the more than half a million men and women who have served bravely in Afghanistan to keep our country safe, including our resilient wounded warriors who carry the scars of war, seen and unseen."

"We honor the memory of the nearly 1,800 American patriots, and many coalition and Afghan partners, who have made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan for our shared security and freedom," the US president added.

On October 7, 2001, American planes dropped dozens of cruise missiles and laser-guided bombs on strategic targets in Kabul and other Afghan cities after the Taliban refused to surrender Osama bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks.

Within weeks, the Islamic Taliban regime had crumbled under the onslaught of Operation Enduring Freedom. Its fighters had fled and Afghans poured out of their homes celebrating the collapse of one of the most repressive regimes in modern times.

The Pentagon puts the cost of the operation at $323.2 billion, while Brown University researchers say at least 33,877 people -- foreign and Afghan troops, civilians, insurgents and others -- have died. Of those 1,788 US troops have been killed, and 14,342 wounded, according to the Pentagon.

Ten years on, some US officials see a political settlement with the people they bombed out of power as the answer to resolving one of its longest wars in history that today outstrips the 10-year Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan.

Stanley McChrystal, commander in Afghanistan until he was sacked in 2010, delivered a speech on the eve of the anniversary saying the US-led NATO mission was "a little better than" halfway to achieving its military goals.

"We didn't know enough and we still don't know enough," he said, adding the United States and its allies had a "frighteningly simplistic view" of recent history.

"When we arrived we were woefully underinformed, we also didn't have the tools to get informed: we didn't speak the language," the retired four-star general said.

And he added that the subsequent invasion of Iraq made things "more difficult because it changed the Muslim world view of America's effort."

As the United States turned its focus to Iraq, committing tens of thousands of troops and billions of dollars to ousting Saddam Hussein, the Taliban began to transform from a rag-tag bunch of renegades into a well-disciplined militia.

Outside the White House on Friday, more than 200 protesters filed past, denouncing the war in Afghanistan, carrying model drones and banners that demanded an immediate NATO pullout.

But in Afghanistan, the anniversary passed without public commemoration by either the Afghan government or NATO while on the frontline, and it was business as usual for the 140,000 foreign troops still stationed there.

The anniversary also highlighted antagonism at Western troops, anger over thousands of civilian casualties and corruption within the government of President Hamid Karzai, propped up by the United States and its foreign allies.

"We will be very pleased if they pull out from Afghanistan," said street vendor Khan Agha, 30. "The US and its allies didn't do good when they invaded.

"Despite all the hard times, we had good security in the Islamic regime of the Taliban."

Obama said the United States was "responsibly ending today's wars from a position of strength" though he warned "enormous challenges" remained.

But Karzai himself said his government and the US-led NATO mission had done "terribly badly in providing security to the Afghan people and this is the greatest shortcoming of our government and of our international partners."

Writing in British newspaper The Daily Telegraph under the headline "It's a fantasy to think we are winning the war in Afghanistan," former British ambassador to Kabul, Sherard Cowper-Coles, was scathing of Western strategy.

Military operations, he wrote, "are not curing the underlying disease" of the insurgency and only "a Herculean effort of American-led diplomacy" can correct the errors and omissions of the last decade.

Efforts to broker peace with the Taliban had made scant progress even before the September 20 assassination of Karzai's peace envoy Burhanuddin Rabbani threw the government strategy for brokering a settlement into turmoil.

Some experts fear the country could be sliding back towards the kind of civil war that killed and displaced thousands of people in 1992-96.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Afghanistan_US_mark_10_years_of_war_999.html.

Taiwan's Tsai Ing-wen warns China after landslide victory

By Benjamin Yeh, Amber Wang
Taipei (AFP)
Jan 16, 2016

Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan's main opposition party sent a warning to China after a landslide victory to become the island's first female president Saturday, as voters turned their backs on closer ties with Beijing.

Fireworks lit up the sky at the headquarters of Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as thousands gathered to celebrate the historic win over the ruling China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT).

In her first comments to media, Tsai warned that Chinese "suppression" would damage ties with the mainland.

"Our democratic system, national identity and international space must be respected. Any forms of suppression will harm the stability of cross-strait relations," she said.

Support for Tsai has surged as voters have become increasingly uneasy about a recent rapprochement with China under outgoing KMT president Ma Ying-jeou.

Beijing responded sternly to Tsai's election, with foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei warning that "the Chinese government is rock-firm and will never tolerate any secessionist activity of 'Taiwan independence'".

In a strongly-worded editorial, China's official state news agency, Xinhua, said the DPP's return to power "poses grave challenges to cross-Strait relations" and had "aroused concerns" about Taipei's relationship with Beijing.

Tsai's victory came on the same day that outrage erupted over the treatment of 16-year-old Taiwanese K-pop star Chou Tzu-yu, who was forced to record a video apology after angering Chinese netizens by flying a Taiwanese flag in a recent online broadcast.

Tsai specifically referred to Chou in her address, saying her case had "shaken Taiwanese society".

"This particular incident will serve as a constant reminder to me about the importance of our country's strength and unity to those outside our borders," she said.

Tsai has toned down the DPP's traditionally pro-independence message to assuage Beijing and calm nerves in the United States -- Taiwan's major ally -- which does not want to see tensions flare.

In her address to media she pledged to "work towards maintaining peace and stability" in relations with China, but emphasized it must reflect public will.

Jubilant supporters expressed their faith in Tsai as she later addressed the crowds, promising to be a strong leader.

"I'm very confident -- we were cheated by Ma's government for so long," said Jimmy Lai, 45.

The United States congratulated Tsai on the victory.

"We share with the Taiwan people a profound interest in the continuation of cross-strait peace and stability," the statement from US State Department spokesman John Kirby said.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond also congratulated Tsai and said he hoped Taiwan and China would "continue their dialogue to resolve differences and maintain the recent trend of constructive relations".

Tsai remains president-elect until she takes office on May 20.

- KMT disaster -

Tsai secured 56.12 percent of the vote, according to the Central Election Commission, with Chu on 31.04 percent.

It was by far the biggest mandate ever won by a DPP president.

KMT candidate Eric Chu called the defeat "an unprecedented drastic change for the KMT" as the party also lost control of the legislature for the first time.

"This is a stunning result that completely overturns the history of Taiwanese elections. Never before has the DPP got anywhere near such a level in national elections," said Jonathan Sullivan, professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.

Analysts said ties with Beijing would inevitably cool as China watches Tsai closely.

"Cross-strait ties will be slowing in the near term as Beijing considers her to be independence-leaning. Future developments will depend on her actions," said Li Fei of the Taiwan Research Institute of China's Xiamen University.

Tsai disappeared from China's most popular social network following her victory, with censors working swiftly to block searches for "Tsai Ing-wen" and "Taiwan elections" on the Twitter-like Weibo network.

Although Taiwan is self-ruling after it split with China following a civil war in 1949, it has never declared independence and Beijing still sees it as part of its territory awaiting reunification.

Ma has overseen a dramatic rapprochement with China since coming to power in 2008 culminating in a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November.

Yet despite more than 20 deals and a tourist boom, closer ties have exacerbated fears that China is eroding Taiwan's sovereignty by making it economically dependent.

Low salaries and high housing prices are also riling voters who feel they have not benefited from the warming relations.

Beijing has warned it will not deal with any leader who does not recognize the "one China" principle, part of a tacit agreement between Beijing and the KMT known as the "1992 consensus" which is the bedrock of the rapprochement.

The DPP has never recognized the consensus.

Source: Sino Daily.
Link: http://www.sinodaily.com/reports/Taiwans_Tsai_Ing-wen_warns_China_after_landslide_victory_999.html.

The world's oldest man, a Japanese, dies at age 112

January 19, 2016

TOKYO (AP) — The world's oldest man, a Japanese who died at the age of 112, said his secret to a long life was not to smoke, drink or overdo it.

Yasutaro Koide, born on March 13, 1903, died two months short of his 113th birthday. Koide (pronounced "Koy-deh") worked as a tailor when he was younger. He was recognized by Guinness World Records as the world's oldest man in August.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare said he died early Tuesday at a hospital in Nagoya, central Japan, where he had been treated for chronic heart problems. In Japan, 111-year-old Tokyo native Masamitsu Yoshida, born on May 30, 1904, succeeds Koide as the oldest man. It was not immediately known whether Yoshida is also the world's oldest male.

Japan, a rapidly aging country, has more than 61,000 centenarians, according to the nation's family registration records. Nearly 90 percent are women. The world's oldest person is an American woman, 116-year-old Susannah Mushatt Jones of Brooklyn, New York.

China's Xi to visit Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran

Beijing (AFP)
Jan 15, 2016

Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran next week, Beijing's foreign ministry said Friday, as the world's second-largest economy seeks greater diplomatic heft in a crucial and tense region.

Spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement that Xi would visit the three Middle Eastern countries over five days from Tuesday.

The trip, Xi's first to the region as president, comes amid mounting tensions over the war in Syria and after protesters ransacked and burned the Saudi Embassy in Tehran over the execution of a Shiite cleric.

China depends on the Middle East for its oil supplies but has long taken a back seat in the region's diplomatic and other disputes, only recently beginning to expand its role, especially in the Syrian crisis.

"China is the biggest importer of Middle Eastern oil," Zhu Feng, professor at Peking University's School of International Studies, told AFP. "So stability in the Middle East is what China would most like to see."

As China's economy has grown, its dependence on imported oil and natural gas has increased, making the Middle East a crucial part of Beijing's strategy as it seeks to expand its influence through Xi's signature foreign policy initiative, known as "One Belt One Road".

The massive investment scheme aims to increase China's footprint from central Asia to Europe through the use of loans to build infrastructure and transport networks.

Touted as a revival of ancient Silk Road trade routes, the initiative underscores China's ambition to wield geopolitical power to match its economic might.

"Xi Jinping is very committed to projecting China's image overseas, to boosting China's international footprint to a level which is commensurate with its fast-growing economic and military power," Willy Lam, professor of politics at Chinese University of Hong Kong, told AFP.

Beijing was trying to project power and influence in the Middle East, seeing an opening in the troubled region as US policy "hasn't been very successful under (US President Barack) Obama", he said.

China was presenting itself as "a mediator with no strings attached", added Lam, in contrast to Washington, which has "vested interests in that part of the world going back four, five decades".

- 'Rare opportunity' -

This week a Chinese diplomat urged "calm and restraint" between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but Xi's trip was most probably organised before the discord erupted between Riyadh and Tehran, Zhu said.

"Clearly now there are tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, so he will be going there in the role of persuader" seeking cooperation against in the fight against the Islamic State jihadist group, Zhu said.

"China will try and do what it can, but it still won't play a main role."

In a commentary, the official Xinhua news agency said: "Although China never takes sides, it will be a rare opportunity for China to call for calm and restraint from both sides."

In the past month, Beijing has hosted high-level members from both the Syrian regime and its opposition.

It has consistently urged a "political solution" to the Syrian crisis, despite being seen as having long protected President Bashar al-Assad, and four times vetoed UN Security Council measures aimed at addressing the conflict.

Last year, China helped broker a landmark nuclear deal with Iran, which has begun to emerge following years of international isolation.

Days after the signing of the historic framework agreement, Iran was approved as a founding member of the Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is expected to provide funding for One Belt One Road.

On Wednesday, China published its first official Arab Policy Paper, claiming a "broad consensus on safeguarding state sovereignty and territorial integrity, defending national dignity, seeking political resolution to hotspot issues, and promoting peace and stability in the Middle East".

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Chinas_Xi_to_visit_Saudi_Arabia_Egypt_Iran_999.html.

As China Republic turns 100, centenarians look back

Taipei (AFP)
Oct 9, 2011

Liu Peng-hua is as old as the Chinese Republic, which celebrates its 100th anniversary on Taiwan Monday, having lived through some of the most tumultuous changes in world history.

When he was born in what is today the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning, the nation had just deposed its last emperor, many women still had bound feet, and almost all men wore their hair braided into long ponytails, or queues, stretching down their backs.

"There were no bicycles or cars in our village. Most of the time when we needed to go somewhere, we traveled on foot or rode horses or donkeys," Liu told AFP in his home near Taiwan's capital Taipei.

"Whenever I think about it, it's like a dream. So many things have happened since then. So much has changed."

The Republic of China emerged after the Qing dynasty collapsed, bringing over 2,000 years of nearly unbroken imperial history to an abrupt end, but the republic itself only lasted until 1949 on the mainland.

That year the Communists took control and the remnants of the republic, its officers and bureaucrats, moved to Taiwan, which still calls itself the Republic of China although Beijing claims sovereignty over the island.

Taiwan has more than 1,500 centenarians like Liu, while China has at least 18,000 -- men and women who have lived through a time of great historical upheaval.

The transformations that were set in motion by the fall of the empire and the rise of the republic were deep and far-reaching, said Eugene Chiu, a history professor at Tunghai University in central Taiwan's Taichung city.

"The revolution in 1911 was by no means just a political revolution. The impact was comprehensive, and it introduced western educational, legal and military systems -- even the concept of democracy -- to China," he said.

By contrast, the society Yu Chen-ping was born into in east China's Shandong province in 1907 was one steeped in ancient traditions abandoned only reluctantly.

"I kept my queue until I was 15 years old and got married," Yu told AFP at his apartment in Taipei.

At the time of Yu's birth, part of Shandong was controlled by Imperial Germany and large parts of China were reduced to the status of a semi-colony, a source of deep humiliation for the once-proud Asian power.

Fast forward to 2011, and China is again rapidly assuming the attributes of a superpower, wielding the world's second-largest economy, while enjoying expanding political and military clout far beyond its borders.

But it is development that has only come after decades of bitter strife, much of it unimaginably bloody, and much of it pitting Chinese against Chinese.

Liu and Yu fled to Taiwan in 1949, in a hasty retreat that forced both of them to leave behind their wives, because they had fought on the losing Nationalist side in a civil war that brought the Communists to power.

While the two sides have reconciled somewhat, the continued political division between them is testimony to the violence of the conflict that ended 62 years ago. And old enmities die slowly.

"My father had had dozens of acres of land, but all was stolen by the Chinese communists. You just don't know how bad they were," 100-year-old Liu said.

However, for all the political and social change that has swept across China and Taiwan over the past century, the most profound transformation may have been in the way people think.

Both societies have increasingly liberal cultures, with an ever-broadening definition of what type of behaviour most people can tolerate.

In big cities like Taipei, age-old morality is coming to an end, and open displays of affection between the sexes are no longer frowned upon. When Liu was young in the early 20th century, it was an entirely different world.

"At that time, if men and women hugged in public they risked having stones thrown at them by passers-by," said Liu, one of a dwindling number of people whose life histories offer a last link to a distant past.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/As_China_Republic_turns_100_centenarians_look_back_999.html.

China's Hu calls for reunification with Taiwan

Beijing (AFP)
Oct 9, 2011

China's President Hu Jintao on Sunday called for Taiwan and the Chinese mainland to reunite, as he marked the 100th anniversary of the revolution that ended the nation's long imperial history.

Speaking at a ceremony attended by top Communist Party leaders -- including former President Jiang Zemin, who made his first public appearance since rumors emerged that he had died -- Hu also ruled out Taiwanese independence.

"Achieving reunification through peaceful means is what most suits Chinese people's fundamental interests, including Taiwan compatriots," he said.

"We must strengthen our opposition to Taiwanese independence... and promote close exchanges and cooperation between compatriots on both sides."

The ceremony at the Great Hall of the People marked the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, which overthrew the Qing dynasty, bringing more than 2,000 years of nearly unbroken imperial history to an abrupt end.

The Republic of China then emerged, but it only lasted until 1949 on the mainland.

That year, the Communists took power and the remnants of the republic moved to Taiwan, which still calls itself the Republic of China although Beijing claims sovereignty over the self-ruled island.

"Working together to promote the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations... should be the goal of both sides," Hu said, adding both should "heal the wounds of history".

Relations between the two sides have improved markedly since the Beijing-friendly Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou came to power in 2008.

China is Taiwan's largest trading partner, its largest investment destination, and now also home to a growing number of Taiwanese.

They, and thousands of short-term travelers, now have access to direct flights every week, whereas all air travel once had to go through Hong Kong.

On Sunday, two of China's top carriers announced they would launch more direct flights to Taiwan, the state-run Xinhua news agency said.

China Eastern Airlines will increase the number of weekly direct flights between the eastern city of Hefei and Taiwan's capital Taipei from October 31.

China Southern Airlines, meanwhile, will increase its weekly direct flights between the northeastern city of Shenyang and Taipei from November 1, the report said.

But many Taiwanese are wary of the military threat posed by China, which has never given up on its goal of regaining the island, by force if necessary.

Hu reiterated that China was committed to peaceful development, amid concerns about the nation's military build-up and growing territorial assertiveness.

"China was, is, and will be a positive force for maintaining world peace and promoting common development," he said.

Beijing has repeatedly sought to alleviate fears over its pursuit of sophisticated missiles, satellites, cyber-weapons and fighter jets, stressing that its policy is "defensive in nature."

But its neighbours view with concern China's increasing assertiveness in its claims over the East and South China Seas, most of which it considers its maritime territory, but where other Asian nations have competing claims.

As Hu spoke, Jiang was shown sitting alongside other top officials at the ceremony -- broadcast live on state television -- looking frail and tired.

It was the 85-year-old's first appearance in public since rumours emerged in July that he had died, which eventually forced Xinhua to issue a rare public denial.

Source: Sino Daily.
Link: http://www.sinodaily.com/reports/Chinas_Hu_calls_for_reunification_with_Taiwan_999.html.

Polish president calls for beefed-up NATO presence

January 18, 2016

BRUSSELS (AP) — Polish President Andrzej Duda called on NATO Monday to make its presence "as permanent as possible" in Poland to safeguard his country and region from an aggressive Russia.

"The point is that NATO troops are deployed and are visible," Duda said while visiting alliance headquarters in Brussels. Poland is the host nation for NATO's next summit in July. Duda made clear his hope that that meeting will decide on a long-term stationing of NATO troops in his country.

Pressed by reporters to give details on what commitments he is seeking, Duda didn't cite numbers, but said the minimum size of the NATO force should be large enough to "ensure the security of the eastern flank" of the alliance.

"Today everything suggests that we need a significant presence of infrastructure and of troops there, on the ground, in Central and Eastern Europe. We need a good system of support for these forces and a system of defense in case of any act of aggression," Duda said.

NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg made no commitment, but indicated Poland will not be disappointed. "NATO now has a persistent military presence in the region of which Poland is a part," Stoltenberg said. "And I trust that after the Warsaw summit we will see more NATO in Poland than ever before."

Some allies have been reluctant to commit to a significant and permanent NATO presence in Eastern and Central Europe because of a 1997 agreement with Russia. But Duda said the Warsaw summit's main goal should be reinforcing the security of his and other former Soviet bloc countries now in NATO, as well as southern European countries threatened by a spillover of Islamic extremism from the Middle East and North Africa.

"We need such strengthening of security today," Duda said. "NATO must be adequately prepared for the rising challenges to security."

Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this story.

Macedonia names caretaker PM ahead of early poll

January 19, 2016

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Lawmakers in Macedonia have approved conservative politician Emil Dimitriev as caretaker prime minister following a Western-brokered deal to resolve a political crisis triggered by a wiretapping scandal.

Late Monday, parliament approved Dimitriev, a senior member of the governing VMRO-DPMNE party, ahead of early elections on April 24. It also voted to dissolve the assembly on Feb. 24 — midway through its four-year term.

Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski stepped down last week as part of the agreement brokered with the assistance of the European Union and U.S. The crisis stemmed from allegations the government illegally wire-tapped 20,000 people, including police, judges, and foreign diplomats.

The opposition Social Democrats say the April election date is too early to allow an investigation of potential election-register anomalies and implement agreed upon reforms in the news media.

Colombia's half-century conflict at a glance

January 19, 2016

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — A glance at Colombia's half-century guerrilla conflict:

HOW IT STARTED The 1948 assassination of populist firebrand Jorge Eliecer Gaitan led to a political bloodletting known as "La Violencia," or "The Violence." Tens of thousands died, and peasant groups joined with communists to arm themselves. A 1964 military attack on their main encampment led to the creation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

REBEL AIMS Though nominally Marxist at its founding, the FARC's ideology has never been well defined. It has sought to make the conservative oligarchy share power and prioritized land reform in a country where more than 5 million people have been forcibly displaced, mostly by far-right militias in the service of ranchers, businessmen and drug traffickers. The FARC lost popularity as it turned to kidnapping, extortion and taxes on cocaine production and illegal gold mining to fund its insurgency.

US INVOLVEMENT In 2000, the United States began sending billions of dollars for counter-narcotics and -insurgency efforts under Plan Colombia, which helped security forces weaken the FARC and kill several top commanders.

THE HUMAN TOLL More than 220,000 lives have been lost since 1958, most of them civilians. In the past two decades, many of the killings were inflicted by the militias, which made peace with the government in 2003. The FARC abducted ranchers, politicians and soldiers who were often held for years in jungle prison camps. Its captives included former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors, all of whom were rescued in 2008.

PEACE EFFORTS Mid-1980s peace talks collapsed after death squads killed at least 3,000 allies of the FARC's political wing. Another effort fell apart in 2002 after the rebels hijacked an airliner to kidnap a senator. The current talks have been going on since 2012 in Havana.

AGREEMENTS SO FAR Negotiators have reached accords on land reform, combatting drug trafficking, the guerrillas' political participation and punishing war crimes on both sides. WHAT REMAINS How and under whose auspices the FARC will demobilize. President Juan Manuel Santos wants to put any deal to a national referendum, though the FARC is pushing for ratification through a constitutional convention. The ELN, a smaller rebel group, is not part of the peace process but has been in exploratory talks with the government.

Burkina Faso capital security tightens after jihadi attack

January 18, 2016

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — In the wake of a weekend attack that killed at least 29 people, security was beefed up across Burkina Faso's capital Monday as businesses and banks reopened.

The West African nation also announced a joint effort with neighboring Mali in the fight against Islamic extremists in the West African region. "Please go ahead and search my bag. We want to be protected and there is no way to refuse this," said Fati Doussa, to security guards as he visited a bank to get some cash. Metal detectors have been placed at banks.

"We know it is just going to be different from now on," said Ousmane Sawadogo, a cell-phone seller some 200 meters (218 yards) from the Splendid Hotel which was attacked Friday night. The attack was the first of its kind in Burkina Faso, a largely Muslim country that had managed to avoid the kinds of jihadi attacks that have hit neighboring Mali since 2012.

At the site Monday, forensic experts and investigators from France and Burkina Faso, dressed in white, filled the brown dusty street, gathering evidence in secured areas near the hotel and the Cappuccino Cafe.

Military forces ended the siege Saturday. Burkina Faso's security minister, Simon Compaore, said Sunday 32 people were dead, including three jihadis. French Ambassador Gilles Thibault said Monday that about 30 people were dead in addition to the three attackers who were killed by French forces. Thirty others were still hospitalized, and about 180 had been freed by French and Burkina Faso forces during and after the siege, he said.

"We were awaiting an attack like this one," he said. "It's impossible to say if these types of operations will be limited to just this one." Officials Saturday said forces killed three attackers in the Splendid Hotel and another in a neighboring hotel.

Military spokesman Capt. Guy Herve Ye on Monday said, however, that they have clearly identified three attackers and are investigating what they thought was a fourth. He said that many witnesses said that there were women among the attackers, though he says that is probably because the attackers had long dreadlocks.

Two former Olympic officials, Jean-Noel Rey from Switzerland and Jean-Pascal Kinda from Burkina Faso, were killed, Swiss and Burkina Faso authorities said. It was not clear if they had been together during the attack or if their presence was a coincidence.

Kinda, 73, was a former Olympic Committee president who had gone to the Cappuccino Cafe to pick up a paper, said his friend and a local magistrate Mathias Tankoano. Rey was co-president of the Swiss bidding committee for the 2006 Olympics, Swiss media reports said. He was in Burkina Faso for a charity project to open the canteen of a school, the reports said.

The toll also includes a Ukrainian woman who was co-owner of the Cappuccino Cafe, along with her 9-year-old son, according to Ukrainian and Italian officials, and six Canadians, according to Canada officials. The six were traveling together as part of a humanitarian mission, and four them were from the same family.

The list of those killed include eight citizens of Burkina Faso, two Ukrainians, two Swiss, two French and one each from the U.S., the Netherlands, Portugal and Libya, and one French-Ukrainian, according to Burkina Faso officials who released a partial list. Other bodies were being identified.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb put out a formal statement Sunday naming three of the attackers as men, according to SITE Intelligence Group which monitors extremist sites. It said it was a "drop in the sea of global jihad."

The group on Friday claimed responsibility for the attack saying al-Mourabitoun fighters carried out the siege. Al-Mourabitoun joined AQIM last year and they claimed their first joint attack was the Nov. 20 seizure of the Radisson Blu in Mali that killed 20 people.

Benin's President Thomas Boni Yayi visited Ouagadougou Monday to show support and the backing of the Economic Community of West African States. "What could have led to such hatred? It is unimaginable. I am so dejected. We must prepare ourselves for an adequate response," he said near the site of the attack.

Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Christian Kabore said regional forces must combine to fight extremism. "We need to combine our intelligence and military to better fight terrorism, notably at our borders. This does not only concern West Africa. We are in an asymmetric war. We need to train our armed forces for this type of combat," Kabore said Monday. "From now on we are going to take all measures to prevent such things from happening again."

Burkina Faso and Mali's prime ministers met Sunday and agreed to share intelligence, strengthen transnational cooperation and have join patrols along shared borders, they said.

Associated Press writer Ludivine Laniepce contributed to this report.

NASA's Scott Kelly unveils first flower grown in space: an orange zinnia

by Andrew V. Pestano
Washington (UPI)
Jan 17, 2016

NASA astronaut and International Space Station Commander Scott Kelly has shared images of the first flower grown in space: a zinnia that recently came to bloom.

"First ever flower grown in space makes its debut!" Kelly wrote on Twitter, showcasing the orange zinnia aboard the ISS. "Yes, there are other life forms in space! #SpaceFlower"

After growing red romaine lettuce aboard the ISS, zinnia flowers were chosen by the NASA Veggie plant growth facility project because they could help scientists understand how plants flower and grow in microgravity, NASA said in a statement.

"The zinnia plant is very different from lettuce," Veggie project manager Trent Smith said. "It is more sensitive to environmental parameters and light characteristics. It has a longer growth duration between 60 and 80 days. Thus, it is a more difficult plant to grow, and allowing it to flower, along with the longer growth duration, makes it a good precursor to a tomato plant."

First ever flower grown in space makes its debut! #SpaceFlower #zinnia #YearInSpace pic.twitter.com/2uGYvwtLKr— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) January 16, 2016

Scientists will continue to monitor the zinnia crop, closely following Kelly's care and observations. NASA also said that growing plants may have psychological benefits in combating isolation and confined environments.

"The unexpected turns experienced during this Veggie run have actually offered bountiful opportunities for new learning and better understanding of one of the critical components to future journeys to Mars," NASA wrote.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/NASAs_Scott_Kelly_unveils_first_flower_grown_in_space_an_orange_zinnia_999.html.

China shoots for first landing on far side of the moon

Beijing (AFP)
Jan 15, 2016

China will launch a mission to land on the far side of the moon in two years' time, state media reported, in what will be a first for humanity.

The moon's far hemisphere is never directly visible from Earth and while it has been photographed, with the first images appearing in 1959, it has never been explored.

China's Chang'e-4 probe -- named for the goddess of the moon in Chinese mythology -- will be sent to it in 2018, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

"The Chang'e-4's lander and rover will make a soft landing on the back side of the moon, and will carry out in-place and patrolling surveys," it cited the country's lunar exploration chief Liu Jizhong as saying on Thursday.

Beijing sees its military-run, multi-billion-dollar space program as a marker of its rising global stature and mounting technical expertise, as well as evidence of the ruling Communist Party's success in transforming the once poverty-stricken nation.

But for the most part it has so far replicated activities that the US and Soviet Union pioneered decades ago.

"The implementation of the Chang'e-4 mission has helped our country make the leap from following to leading in the field of lunar exploration," Liu added.

In 2013, China landed a rover dubbed Yutu on the moon and the following year an unmanned probe completed its first return mission to the earth's only natural satellite.

Beijing has plans for a permanent orbiting station by 2020 and eventually to send a human to the moon.

Space flight is "an important manifestation of overall national strength", Xinhua cited science official Qian Yan as saying, adding that every success had "greatly stimulated the public's... pride in the achievements of the motherland's development."

Clive Neal, chair of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group affiliated with NASA, confirmed that the Chang'e-4 mission was unprecedented.

"There has been no surface exploration of the far side," he told AFP Friday.

It is "very different to the near side because of the biggest hole in the solar system -- the South Pole-Aitken basin, which may have exposed mantle materials -- and the thicker lunar crust".

The basin is the largest known impact crater in the solar system, nearly 2,500 kilometers wide and 13 kilometres deep.

"I am sure the international lunar science community will be very excited about this mission," he told AFP. "I know I am."

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/China_shoots_for_first_landing_on_dark_side_of_the_moon_999.html.

Putin visits China in first trip since Kremlin comeback

Moscow (AFP)
Oct 9, 2011

Vladimir Putin will travel to China next week to cement long-standing ties with the world's top energy consumer, the prime minister's first trip abroad since he announced his planned Kremlin comeback.

Accompanied by a 160-member delegation including top tycoons, Putin will visit Beijing on October 11-12 for energy and political talks with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao.

Putin has paid frequent visits to China in his capacity as president and prime minister since he took power in 1999.

His latest visit to Beijing follows his last month's announcement that he plans to reclaim the presidency in a bid that may keep him in power until 2024.

While the timing of the working trip appears to be a coincidence, observers say it is richly symbolic and could see Putin lay out his foreign policy priorities for years to come.

"It's symbolic that Putin, who's very well known in China, is going there at this particular time," Sergei Sanakoyev, head of the Russian-Chinese Center of Trade and Economic Cooperation, a Moscow-based lobby group, told AFP.

Russia, the world's largest energy producer, and China, the world's largest energy consumer, set much store by their bilateral ties.

China became Russia's top trading partner for the first time last year and the two countries seek to nearly double trade to $100 billion by 2015 and then to $200 billion by 2020.

Moscow and Beijing are both veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council and this week infuriated the West by blocking a UN resolution against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's deadly crackdown on protests.

Putin's expected return to the presidency will likely give a further boost to bilateral ties.

"The Chinese have betted on him returning to the Kremlin. It's an open secret," Sanakoyev said.

Chinese businessmen and politicians, he said, have always known that Putin remains the top figure in the Russian political pecking order even after he installed his protege Dmitry Medvedev in the Kremlin in 2008.

The powerful prime minister, who will seek a third Kremlin mandate in March presidential polls, this week talked up ties with China at an investor conference, his first major public address since the September 24 announcement.

"We have a huge common border with China. We have lived together for thousands of years," he said. "Today our bilateral ties are perhaps at their highest level in history aside from a very brief Soviet postwar period."

The leaders will oversee the signing of a series of agreements, a Putin spokesman said, declining further details. Plans to pump Russian gas to China over the next three decades are expected to top the agenda.

Russian gas giant Gazprom and China National Petroleum Company signed a framework agreement in 2009 that could eventually see almost 70 billion cubic meters of Russian gas sent to China annually for the next 30 years.

A firm gas contract has so far proved elusive as talks have become mired in pricing disagreements. Contrary to expectations, Hu's June visit to Moscow delivered no breakthrough.

Chinese officials said last November the prices backed by the two sides differed by $100 per 1,000 cubic meters. Sanakoyev, citing his own information, said the two sides are believed to have narrowed the difference to $50.

A Gazprom spokesman declined comment, saying the talks were confidential.

Valery Nesterov, an energy analyst at Troika Dialog investment bank, was dubious that Putin would clinch a firm contract with China because Gazprom's negotiating position is weakened by intensifying competition and other factors.

"It is difficult to expect a breakthrough taking into consideration the complicated, long-drawn-out talks and the fact that the deadline has been pushed back many times," he said.

In an eyebrow-raising incident, Russia's security service the FSB revealed this week that it had been holding a Chinese national identified as Tong Shengyong for the past year on espionage charges linked to Russia's S-300 surface-to-air missiles.

Neither the Kremlin nor Beijing, a major purchaser of Russian weapons, issued any comment in a possible attempt to suppress the issue ahead of the talks.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Putin_visits_China_in_first_trip_since_Kremlin_comeback_999.html.