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Sunday, May 8, 2016

Japan announces $7 billion plan to develop Mekong region

May 02, 2016

BANGKOK (AP) — Japan's foreign minister announced a $7 billion initiative Monday to promote development in Southeast Asia's Mekong region, which encompasses parts of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand through which the river flows.

In a speech at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Fumio Kishida affirmed the importance of Southeast Asia's economic prosperity to Japan. He pledged 750 billion yen ($7 billion) in funding over the next three years to support development and growth in the region.

The initiative will help promote "connectivity" within Southeast Asian countries and Japan through funding in infrastructure and development of human resources. Thailand has become a key manufacturing and export hub for Japanese manufacturers such as Toyota and Honda.

"Invigorating the flow of goods and people by connecting the region through roads, bridges and railways is indispensable for promoting economic development," he said, adding that Japan's cooperation will go beyond just building infrastructure.

Over the next three years, "we will make use of funds amounting to 750 billion yen toward cooperation with the Mekong region," Kishida said. Specific details have not been announced but he said Japan would like to work together with the Mekong countries to create a framework to support the various efforts, including regional issues and theme-oriented support, in a detailed manner.

"I am expecting the day when, as a result of these efforts, I can depart from Bangkok eastward in the morning and arrive in Ho Chi Minh City at night and enjoy pho for dinner," he said. Kishida also renewed his call for the establishment of a code of conduct in the South China Sea, where China, Vietnam, the Philippines and others have competing territorial claims, and that prosperity can only achieved if there is peace and stability in the region.

"In this region, there are issues of terrorism, extremism, and ensuring maritime safety and security," he said. "There are multitudes of issues now facing our ASEAN partners. We need to face these issues together, and maintain stability in this region. What is necessary is respect for diversity, and what is fundamental for that is the rule of law."

Referring to Thailand's current political situation and its military government, Kishida said he hoped that the people of Thailand will overcome the current difficult challenges and "play more active role in the region and international community."

The visit to Thailand is part of his regional tour that includes stops in China, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.

Japan battles to care for 100,000 evacuees after quake

By Harumi Ozawa
Minami-Aso, Japan (AFP)
April 18, 2016

Japan on Monday enlisted US help to airlift supplies to some of the 100,000 people made homeless by earthquakes in the country's south, as rescuers struggled to find those still missing in a massive landslide.

Many of those evacuated after their homes were damaged or destroyed have had to sleep in temporary accommodation or huddle in makeshift shelters, and media have reported problems in delivering food and other essentials.

The disaster-prone country's worst humanitarian challenge since 2011 -- when a quake, tsunami and then nuclear meltdown hit the northeast coast -- has left 44 dead as of early Tuesday, Jiji press reported, and more than 1,000 injured.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the government was working to find survivors and care for the displaced, and that the US military had sent aircraft to help with the daunting relief effort.

"Many people are spending anxiety-filled days at evacuation facilities," he told reporters. "We will continue to offer hands-on assistance to the individuals affected."

Around 10,000 people are staying in their cars at an exhibition hall parking lot in the town of Mashiki, but emergency supplies have not been delivered as the facility is not registered as a shelter, Fuji television said.

In another case, volunteers sent supplies and the military brought six tonnes of water to a hospital in Kumamoto city after a doctor complained on Facebook that there was not enough water or food for patients.

"Thanks to this, we don't have to worry about water to wash hands after treating patients," doctor Takeshi Hasuda said.

Kumamoto's mayor took to Twitter on Monday to apologize to the "many voices" who had complained about delays in providing help.

"Please be patient," Kazufumi Onishi wrote, promising that the situation would quickly improve.

The disaster comes at a particularly sensitive time for Abe, just months ahead of elections for the upper house of parliament.

- Race against time -

Up to 25,000 Japanese military and other personnel have fanned out through villages where scores of traditional houses have been left in ruins by Saturday's 7.0 magnitude quake, which struck a part of Japan not used to such tremors.

A number of people are still missing, feared engulfed by landslides, after earthquakes struck the island of Kyushu.

An initial quake on Thursday, measured at 6.2 magnitude by US geologists, affected older buildings and killed nine people. But Saturday's more powerful tremor brought even newer structures crashing down.

Kazuya Shimada, 63, a resident of the landslide-ravaged village of Minami-Aso, said that he had evacuated to another town as his home was uninhabitable.

"Not a single tile is left on the roof," Shimada said.

"I have never seen a landslide like this before," he told AFP. "I had never worried about this before, living here."

Villages in remote mountainous areas have been completely cut off by slippages and damage to roads.

The US military, which has almost 50,000 servicemen and women stationed in Japan, is also taking part in rescue activities.

Tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft were flying to the disaster zone after arriving at a US Marine airbase to take part in relief efforts, officials said.

"The capacity of the Osprey, with vertical takeoff ability, is necessary to swiftly carry supplies to those who are isolated or facing serious traffic congestion," Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said Monday.

More than 500 earthquakes have rocked Kumamoto and other parts of central Kyushu since Thursday, stoking fears that houses not damaged in the two major quakes could yet be affected.

Five airlines including All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines said they will resume flights to Kumamoto Airport on Tuesday, Jiji press reported, quoting transport minister Keiichi Ishii as saying this will help accelerate reconstruction efforts.

But flights from the airport remain suspended, Jiji said, as damage from the quakes, including the collapse of ceilings in the airport's terminal buildings, meant it was unable to carry out security checks.

Japan is one of the world's most seismically active countries, sitting on the so-called 'Ring of Fire' around the Pacific tectonic plate.

A huge undersea quake in March 2011 killed around 18,500 people when it sent a devastating tsunami barreling into the northeast coast, sparking a nuclear disaster at Fukushima.

Authorities were lashed for their response to the meltdown, faulted in particular for confusion as the crisis unfolded as well as the handling of evacuees from stricken areas.

Source: Terra Daily.
Link: http://www.terradaily.com/reports/Japan_battles_to_care_for_100000_evacuees_after_quake_999.html.

China, Japan foreign ministers meet to smooth tense ties

April 30, 2016

BEIJING (AP) — China portrayed the visit Saturday by the Japanese foreign minister as an act of outreach to an angry Beijing, as the two sides try to repair relations bedeviled by disputes over territory, history and competition for influence in East Asia.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Fumio Kishida that the ties must be based on "respect for history, adherence to commitment, and on cooperation rather than confrontation." Relations have gone through "twists and turns in recent years due to reasons best known by Japan," Wang said, adding that China desires "healthy and stable relations" with its neighbor and key economic partner.

Japan needs to "turn its words into deeds," Wang said. High-level ties between the two countries have been largely frozen since Japan nationalized a string of uninhabited East China Sea islands claimed by China in 2012, sparking deep anger among Chinese. Kishida's visit is the first formal one to China by a Japanese foreign minister in more than four years.

Despite their crucial economic relationship, many Chinese harbor deep animosity toward Japan dating from its brutal invasion and occupation of much of China during the 1930s and 1940s. Meanwhile, distrust toward Beijing runs deep among the Japanese public, who see their country's economic and political influence being overshadowed by a rising China.

China is also deeply critical of Japan's alliance with the U.S. and has warned Tokyo to keep out of a festering dispute over China's moves to cement its claim over virtually the entire South China Sea. Beijing has also lambasted moves by Japanese conservatives seen as whitewashing the country's militaristic past and minimizing World War II atrocities committed in China and elsewhere.

China's Xi moves to take more direct command over military

April 21, 2016

BEIJING (AP) — Bolstering his status as China's most powerful leader in decades, Chinese President Xi Jinping has assumed a more direct role as head of the country's powerful armed forces with the new title of commander in chief of its Joint Operations Command Center, state media and analysts said Thursday.

Xi's new position was revealed in news reports that featured prominently on national news broadcasts Wednesday and Thursday in which he appeared publicly for the first time in camouflage battle dress wearing the joint center's insignia.

During his Wednesday visit, Xi called on the center's staff to "closely follow the trends of global military revolution and strive to build a joint battle command system that meets the need of fighting and winning an informationized war," the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Officers should "change their ideas, innovate and tackle difficulties, in a bid to build a joint battle command system that was absolutely loyal, resourceful in fighting, efficient in commanding and courageous and capable of winning wars," Xinhua quoted Xi as saying.

Battle command capacities should be measured by "the standards of being able to fight and win wars," Xi said, stressing the need to prepare for conflicts, analyze possible security risks, and handle effectively "all sorts of emergencies."

The joint center, reportedly located underground in the western outskirts of Beijing, is under the direct supervision of the ruling Communist Party's Central Military Commission, which is headed by Xi and oversees the 2.3-million-member People's Liberation Army, the world's largest standing armed forces.

Xi was accompanied on his visit by the commission's two vice chairmen, Gen. Fan Changlong and Gen. Xu Qiliang. Among his several other titles, Xi is also leader of the ruling Communist Party and chair of a recently created National Security Council, which gives him greater control over the domestic security services.

As head of the military, Xi has overseen a reorganization of the PLA's command structure into five theater commands aimed at better integrating the different services. He has ordered a 300,000-person reduction in forces that will see the elimination of many outdated and non-combat units, and shift the emphasis further from ground forces to the navy, air force and missile corps.

Xi's appearance in battle dress with insignia Wednesday emphasized his more direct role in military affairs. When appearing simply as head of the Central Military Commission he routinely wears olive green tunics, shirts and trousers without insignia or decoration, as did his predecessors.

Xi's new choice of apparel "indicates that he not only controls the military, but also does it in an absolute manner, and that in wartime, he is ready to command personally," said Ni Lexiong, a military affairs expert at Shanghai's University of Political Science and Law.

Three years since taking on the presidency, Xi is widely seen as having accumulated more power and authority than any Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping in the late 1980s. A cult of personality has also sprung up around him to rival that of the founder of the communist state, Mao Zedong, with his slogans, sayings and signature political themes widely disseminated in the media.

Yet his reputation has also been called into question by anonymous letters, allegedly from Communist Party members, calling for his resignation. Revelations in the international media about vast wealth accumulated by members of his extended family have meanwhile flown in the face of his relentless campaign against corruption in the party, military and state industries.

Xi's new title and his visit to the joint center were "more political than military" in significance and don't imply he will take charge of the day-to-day running of the PLA, said Andrei Chang, Hong Kong-based editor of the magazine Kanwa Asian Defense and a close observer of Chinese military affairs.

"Throughout Chinese history, political power has always been founded on control of the military," Chang said. "This was a visit to show off his muscle to his potential enemies and show that he is tough and in charge."

Xi's new title and appearance in battle dress may also be a deliberate message to China's chief rivals, including the U.S., Japan, the Philippines and the self-governing island of Taiwan that China has vowed to conquer by force if necessary.

"The combat uniform is not only to show he is in charge of the military, but also shows that China is ready for a fight amid a tense external situation. It is a bit like telling China's opponents that he is ready for a combat," Ni said.

Along with his structural and personnel reforms, Xi has highlighted the PLA's importance with frequent, highly publicized visits to military bases and a massive parade last September that saw the army's latest equipment wheeled through the center of Beijing while warplanes and helicopters roared overhead.

Xi enjoys special cachet with the armed forces, partly due to his late father's status as a military commander and Xi's own brief service as a uniformed aide to a former defense minister, but also because his muscular foreign policy is popular among Chinese nationalists and the defense establishment.

That's been especially true in the disputed South China Sea, which China claims virtually in its entirety and where it has constructed island airfields on former coral reefs and sought to limit the U.S. Navy's ability to operate in the area.

Xi has remained resolute in that approach despite it being blamed for raising tensions with China's Southeast Asian neighbors and prompting the U.S. to devote more resources to Asia and strengthen its cooperation with traditional allies and even former foe Vietnam.

"The most important message he meant to send to the world is that he will not make a concession on the issue of territory even at the cost of a war," Ni said.

IS jihadists pull out of several Iraq towns: officers

Baghdad (AFP)
March 13, 2016

Islamic State fighters retreated from several western Iraqi towns and towards the Syrian border on Sunday as security forces worked their way up the Euphrates Valley, officers said.

The jihadist organisation's leadership ordered its fighters out of Hit, Kubaysa and Rutba, prompting thousands of civilians to take to the road to meet advancing federal forces while others enjoyed their first hours of freedom in months.

"The majority of Daesh (IS) fighters in Hit, Rutba and Kubaysa have fled through the desert to other regions," Yahya Rasool, Iraq's top security spokesman, told AFP.

Hit, around 145 kilometers (90 miles) west of Baghdad, was one of the main towns in Anbar province that was still held by IS.

Kubaysa is a smaller town to the west of Hit while Rutba is a desert outpost on the road to Jordan about 390 kilometers (245 miles) west of the capital.

"There is an operation to hunt them down with Iraqi aircraft," said Rasool, spokesman for the Joint Operations Command coordinating the fight against IS in Iraq.

"Hit is surrounded by Iraqi forces from the south and north," he said. "Thousands of families have fled the area to meet our forces."

Iraqi government forces have yet to enter Hit and no security source would immediately confirm whether any holdout IS fighters remained.

However, residents reached by AFP said no jihadists were visible on Sunday following a pullout that began on Saturday.

One resident said IS's local military leader was killed in an air strike as he tried to escape on Saturday.

"Ahmed Mashaan Abdelwahed al-Batran was killed when an air raid destroyed his boat -- he was trying to cross the river with his family," he said.

"Since yesterday, the Hisba (Islamic police) has vanished from the streets. Before they withdrew, Daesh (IS) fighters booby-trapped houses, roads and government buildings," he added.

- First cigarette -

Another Hit resident said one of the first things the men did after IS pulled out was to light a cigarette.

"The young people in Hit are smoking on the street and they also changed back into their normal clothes," he said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

"There are women in the street without the niqab (full veil) for the first time" since the town fell to IS in October 2014, he said.

Witnesses and officials said IS leaders -- many of them from the city of Mosul or foreigners -- tried to slip out of Hit by blending in with fleeing families after shaving their beards.

"Yesterday there was not one razor blade left in the markets of Hit," the second witness told AFP.

The top regional army commander, 7th division chief Noman al-Zobaie, overflew the city to assess the situation, senior officials said.

Naim al-Kaoud, leader of the local Albu Nimr tribe, said tribal fighters in the area were close to Hit but awaiting government coordination to move in.

"The decision to retake control of Hit has to come from the leadership of the security forces. It is when they go in that the recapture of Hit will be complete," he told AFP.

In Rutba, "Daesh's armed men started pulling out last night and completed their withdrawal this morning," a major general told AFP on Sunday.

He said they all moved towards Al-Qaim, a jihadist bastion on the border with Syria, further north in Anbar province.

After launching a final push against IS in provincial capital Ramadi late last year, Iraq's security forces established full control over the city last month.

They have since been securing areas east of Ramadi, further isolating the jihadist stronghold of Fallujah, which is only 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Baghdad.

The US-led coalition that has been carrying out air strikes against IS for more than a year and a half has said that the jihadist group was stretched increasingly thin.

Iraqi forces have in recent weeks been trying to flush out jihadists from vast areas around Lake Tharthar, which straddles Anbar and the province of Salaheddin.

In several of its strongholds, IS is reported to have forcibly recruited children for checkpoints duty as it sends adult males into combat.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/IS_jihadists_pull_out_of_several_Iraq_towns_officers_999.html.

Yemeni forces recapture key port city

25 April 2016 Monday

Yemeni troops have recaptured a key port city from Al-Qaeda militants who held it for a year, in what a Saudi-led coalition hailed Monday as a major victory in which over 800 fighters were killed.

The assault on the southeastern city of Mukalla, home to some 200,000 people, was part of a wider counter-offensive against the Sunni extremists launched by pro-government forces last month after a year in which they had focused their firepower on Shiite Huthi rebels who control the capital.

It comes as government and rebel delegations hold peace talks in Kuwait and after US President Barack Obama during a visit to Saudi Arabia called for a negotiated settlement that would enable both sides to turn their attention on Al-Qaeda.

At the talks, which opened last Thursday, UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said that "significant differences... remain but nonetheless there is consensus on the need to make peace".

The peace talks and Obama visit have contributed to a change in "strategic priorities", with Al-Qaeda back at the top, according to the Soufan Group consultancy.

The rebels' Yemen-based branch, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is regarded by Washington as their most dangerous and the group's militants have come under repeated US air and drone strikes in and around Mukalla.

The rebels used the area as a base to plan attacks overseas, including a January 2015 assault on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that killed 12 people in Paris.

"We entered the city center and were met by no resistance from Al-Qaeda militants who withdrew west," a military officer told AFP by telephone from Mukalla.

The officer, who requested anonymity, said residents had appealed to the rebels to spare the city the destruction of fighting and to withdraw.

Qaeda car bombing

Government troops were backed by special forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as coalition air strikes, commanders said in a statement published by the official Saudi Press Agency.

Loyalist forces also recaptured a swathe of the adjacent Arabian Sea coast, including the city of Shihr and its Mina al-Dhaba oil terminal as well as Mukalla's Riyan airport.

"The operation resulted... in the deaths of more than 800 Al-Qaeda members and some of their leaders, while some others fled," the coalition commanders said.

The death toll could not be independently confirmed and no indication was given of any civilian casualties.

Mukalla is one of a number of southern cities that Al-Qaeda had overrun since the Saudi-led coalition launched its military intervention in March last year when President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi fled into exile after the Iran-backed rebels seized much of the country.

The rebels overran two other provincial capitals further west -- Huta, which government forces recaptured last week, and Zinjibar which they entered late on Saturday, only to beat a tactical retreat.

An Al-Qaeda car bomb killed seven soldiers and wounded 14 as they were entering Zinjibar on Sunday triggering the pullback, military sources said.

"The withdrawal was decided following information that Al-Qaeda was preparing other car bomb attacks against our troops," an officer in the province told AFP.

The counter-offensive against the rebels has come as a fragile April 11 ceasefire between pro-government forces and the rebels firms up.

US drone war

Washington, which has provided reconnaissance and refueling support for the coalition air campaign, had put mounting pressure on coalition leaders to call a halt and seek a negotiated settlement.

Obama joined a Gulf summit last week and Pentagon chief Ashton Carter also held talks with Gulf counterparts.

Washington has been waging a drone war against AQAP since November 2002, when it killed the suspected mastermind of an October 2000 bombing of a US destroyer that killed 17 sailors in the southern port of Aden.

In April last year, a US air strike killed AQAP commander Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, who claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack in a video, outside the presidential palace in Mukalla where the rebels had set up base.

Last month, an air strike on an AQAP training camp in Hajr, west of Mukalla, killed more than 70 rebels, provincial officials said.

During its year-long rule in Mukalla, AQAP imposed its strict interpretation of sharia law forbidding consumption of the mild narcotic qat, a mainstay of Yemeni social life, and demolishing the tombs of revered Sufi mystics.

Source: World Bulletin.
Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/middle-east/171969/yemeni-forces-recapture-key-port-city.

Troops refuse to fight: Thousands of Yemeni soldiers shun civil war

Friday 22 April 2016

TAIZ, Yemen - Mohammed Abdullah Saeed used to wake up by 5am every day to begin his daily military drills. But when the civil war broke out in Taiz he refused to fight his own countrymen, and fled to his home village.

"Our leadership told us that we should liberate Taiz province from al-Qaeda fighters, but I did not see al-Qaeda in Taiz, I only saw Yemenis kill each other, so the leadership could not convince me to fight," he told Middle East Eye.

"I realized this civil war would destroy our country, and so I fled."

Saeed was not the only conscript soldier to do so - dozens of his colleagues threw down their guns in protest at the coming conflagration, joining an estimated 10,000 who are believed to have deserted.

The result for many were accusations of treachery and isolation, and the loss of any means of support.

The one-time corporal and his comrades came under the control of the Houthi movement after it kicked out the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

"When I fled the camp, the Houthis stopped my salary, and demanded that I join battle. I refused," he said.

He still gets up at 5am, every day. But instead of training he sells qat, the mild narcotic ubiquitous in Yemen, to make ends meet.

"I do not have another alternative," he says, pointing out that he makes about 20,000 riyals a month - about $80. His soldier's salary was almost twice as much.

He is stuck where he is, as the Houthis hunt for deserters they consider traitors.

"The Houthis have caught hundreds of people, some of them deserters, and until now no one knows where they are," he said.

"If the Houthis caught them, they will go to jail."

A question of faith

Other deserters refuse to kill on the basis of religion - it is considered a terrible sin to kill a fellow Muslim.

Fras Alwan, 45, left his unit in Marib province last April, and fled to his village in Taiz's al-Shimayateen district. His salary was stopped a few months later.

"I am a Muslim, and I trust that Allah will not forget me if I am doing according to the Quran, and the Quran says that it is a big sin to kill a Muslim," he said.

Alwan was conscripted into the Yemeni army and fought armed tribes in Marib before the civil war erupted.

"We fought in military campaigns against the tribesmen who attacked power and oil pipelines, but those were thugs and it was our duty to fight them," he said.

The civil war, he said, had turned into a battle between mercenaries fighting for foreign powers, none of whom care about Yemen nor Islam.

"My neighbors respect me so much, because I did not take part in the war, and most of them help me by providing me with work," Alwan said.

But he, too, is trapped in his village and aware that the Houthis consider him a traitor.

Alwan now works as a laborer, earning more than he did as a soldier, but the work is hard.

"I am suffering from arthritis and this profession is very hard for me, but it is the only solution to get money," Alwan said.

Meanwhile, the war rages on around him even despite a UN-backed attempt to end the fighting, with a ceasefire agreement coming into effect earlier this month.

That truce, however, has been violated by all sides and on multiple occasions. Taiz city is still besieged by the Houthi movement, as it seeks to gain control of the province, and Saudi coalition forces continue to drop weapons to their allies.

As both sides gear up for much-delayed peace talks in Kuwait, the US has agreed to join Saudi-led patrols to prevent Iranian weapons reaching Houthi fighters.

Blood and treasure

A source at the defense ministry in Houthi-controlled Sanaa told Middle East Eye that an estimated 10,000 soldiers had refused to fight for any side in the civil war, and a similar number had rebelled against Houthi control and were now fighting against the movement.

In response, the Houthis had enlisted thousands of civilians into its "Popular Committee" forces as replacements, many of whom are raw recruits who have no other means of support in the war.

The source added: "The ministry has stopped the salaries of more than 20,000 soldiers either because they are pro-government soldiers or because they are peaceniks.

"The ministry does not pay salaries for the pro-government and deserters. That MONEY NOW goes to the Popular Committees."

Ammar al-Wardi is one of those soldiers who decided to side with pro-Hadi forces.

He left his brigade in Taiz city when it came under the control of the Houthis, and crossed over to the Popular Resistance forces fighting them.

"I swore to defend my country, and nowadays I defend my country from the Houthis rebels who try to control the country by force," he added to MEE, stating that he gets the same salary of 35,000 riyals ($140) a month, plus 1,000 a day extra "pocket money" from his commanders.

Ahmed Obaid, a retired army officer, said that Sanaa's defense ministry was acting illegally by stopping payments to its soldiers - it can only dock a certain percentage.

"The ministry has to continue giving salaries to all soldiers as this is the right of their families, but the ministry can use some of the salary if the soldier did not obey the ministry," he said.

He stated that Yemeni law has been violated by the different sides, and the language of force has become the only one that can be heard.

Saeed contemplates the consequences of refusing to fight in a war that has killed thousands of his countrymen.

"I hope the war will stop soon," says Saeed. "Then I will stop selling qat and will join the special forces again."

Source: Middle East Eye.
Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/yemenis-who-refuse-fight-white-feathers-2007823567.

Qaeda Fighters Ousted From South Yemen Town: Security

Apr 15, 2016


ADEN: Pro-government forces expelled Al-Qaeda fighters from a provincial capital close to Yemen's second city of Aden on Friday, security officials said.

Soldiers and police drove the jihadists out of Huta, 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Aden, and arrested 49 people suspected militants, they said.

A ceasefire has been in place in Yemen since last Sunday, although fighting is continuing in pockets across the country.

At least 35 pro-government fighters were killed during the first three days of the truce, according to military sources.

The ceasefire is meant to lay the groundwork for forthcoming peace talks in Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia and its Sunni-dominated Arab allies are backing the Yemeni government in the conflict while Shiite Iran supports Shiite Huthi rebels, who have seized the capital Sanaa and other regions.

Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group have taken advantage of the chaos caused by the war to strengthen their grip on southern Yemen.

Forces loyal to President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi have launched operations against jihadists in recent weeks, backed by the firepower of the Arab coalition.

A military official said the operation to liberate Huta was "designed to secure Aden", where Hadi's government has temporarily based itself.

A car bomb exploded on Friday in the port city near a building housing the foreign ministry, without causing casualties, security sources said.

The war has killed more than 6,300 people since March 2015 and worsened already dire conditions in the impoverished country, with more than 80 percent of the population now on the brink of famine.

Source: The New Indian Express.
Link: http://m.newindianexpress.com/news/646461.

Jordanians to replace UAE forces in war on Yemen: Report

Thu Apr 14, 2016

Jordanian military forces and advisers will be replacing UAE troops fighting in the Saudi war on Yemen, following reports of serious disputes among the few "coalition" members, a report says.

Yemen’s Khabar news agency, citing informed sources, reported on Thursday that the decision had been made following a recent visit by Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud to Jordan.

Prince Mohammad, who is the Saudi defense minister, met King Abdullah in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba and signed a package of agreements, including on development of military cooperation.

The report said the deployment of Jordanian forces will now be coming after the United Arab Emirates withdrew the bulk of its military force from Yemen's Ma’rib following a series of military setbacks.

The Saudi crown prince also traveled to the UAE in an effort to mend fences after reports of significant frictions between the two allies over the war on Yemen.

Emirati authorities are reportedly angry with a Saudi decision to dismiss a former general with close ties to the UAE.

In February, the Saudi kingdom sacked Khaled Bahah and appointed Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar to lead the fight against Yemen's Houthis.

Ahmar has been based in Saudi Arabia since the Houthis took over Sana'a in 2014.

Jordanian military forces reportedly took part in the Saudi operation in Aden last July following the flight of Saudi-backed militiamen loyal to former president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Early on Thursday, Saudi military aircraft carried out a fresh round of aerial assaults against the Nihm district of Sana’a Province, though there were no immediate reports of possible casualties and the extent of damage caused.

The development came only hours after Saudi-backed militiamen fired a barrage of artillery rounds at Dhubab, Harir and al-Jumhuri districts in Yemen’s southwestern province of Ta’izz and Ghorab and al-Madaniyah neighborhoods in the provincial capital city of Ta’izz.

Saudi Arabia launched its military aggression against Yemen on March 26, 2015, in a bid to bring Hadi — who is a staunch ally of Riyadh — back to power and undermine the Houthi Ansarullah movement.

More than 9,400 people have been killed and at least 16,000 others injured since the onset of the aggression.

The Saudi strikes have also taken a heavy toll on the country’s facilities and infrastructure, destroying many hospitals, schools, and factories.

Source: PressTV.
Link: http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2016/04/14/460698/Yemen-Jordan-UAE-forces/.

Sudan: Student Protests Ripple Across Sudan

21 April 2016

Khartoum — Students at universities across Sudan have taken to the streets and campuses in protest against the murder of a student at the University of Kordofan on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, protests and demonstrations broke out at the universities of Khartoum, as well as several other universities including Port Sudan in Red Sea state, the University of Kordofan in El Obeyed, and the University of Dongola in the Northern State.

As reported by Radio Dabanga this week, Abu Bakr Hashim, who studied in the first level at the University of Kordofan Faculty of Engineering in El Obeid, was shot dead when students who support the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) fired at members of the United Students Opposition, who were on their way to deliver their student council election list to the university center.


A demonstration by Kordofan University students toured the streets of El Obeid City, monitored closely by agents of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and police.

On Wednesday the Red Sea University students in Port Sudan condemned the killing of student Hashim of the University of Kordofan, and demanded the return of their own students union that has been stopped for years.

Red sea

A student from the Red Sea University told Radio Dabanga that the police broke up a peaceful demonstration at the city market by using batons and tear gas.

One student was seriously injured and taken to Port Sudan hospital for treatment. The police and NISS forces chased the students back to the university campus.

Also on Wednesday, the NISS detained four students from the front of a building complex at the University of Khartoum after beating them; thus bringing the number of student detainees to nine.


A student from the University of Khartoum told Radio Dabanga that the NISS gents attacked the students with batons after they held a vigil at University Avenue and the medical complex demanding the release of the detainees and refusing the sale or transfer of the university headquarters.

He explained that the NISS closed all entrances leading from dormitories to the university and have besieged the university buildings. The four new detainees include Saiyed Mohamed Zain and three other students whose names have not been identified.

White Nile State

A sit-in by sit -in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Imam El Mahdi in Kosti in White Nile State has entered its third week. The students are demanding amendments to the regulations prepared by the university administration earlier last year.

A student told Radio Dabanga the Governor of White Nile state visited the Faculty and asked them to end the sit-in, promising to resolve the problem.

He added that the students are demanding a timetable for the amendments to the regulations and the need to involve students in drafting the new regulations as stipulated in the Constitution of the university.

Source: allAfrica.
Link: http://allafrica.com/stories/201604220407.html.

Pakistani Sikhs open temple after 73 years, risking attacks

April 27, 2016

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — An armed policeman stood guard outside the 300-year-old Sikh temple, known as a gurdwara, in northwest Pakistan. He kept a watchful eye on everyone who passed him on the narrow street, looking for a suspicious gesture, or a bulge beneath the clothes that hints at a hidden gun or a bomb.

Earlier this month, the gurdwara in Peshawar's crowded Old City opened its doors to worshippers for the first time in 73 years. The reopening was celebrated by Pakistan's tiny Sikh minority, but security is a constant concern.

On Friday, a Sikh leader and provincial lawmaker was shot and killed outside his home in a remote area in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province, some 140 kilometers (86 miles) from Peshawar. The murder of Sardar Suran Singh devastated the Sikh community and heightened their fears of militant attacks.

It also added to human rights activists' despair over rising violence against religious minorities in Pakistan. "It is tragic, but this is the trend in Pakistan right now. It is increasingly intolerant," said Zohra Yusuf, chairwoman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the shooting of Sardar Suran Singh, but police disputed their claim, blaming the shooting on political rivalry and saying they had arrested the culprit. There was no response from the Taliban, who often make unsubstantiated claims.

Peshawar is a deeply conservative city at the foot of the mountainous Khyber Pass — once a popular route for traders and tourists travelling to nearby Afghanistan, now the focus of an extremist insurgency. Militants have attacked Peshawar schools, killing children as they studied, bombed buses of government workers and attacked Christians in their churches.

The newly-opened gurdwara has a 24-hour Sikh Security detail as well as police guards, but their Muslim neighbors believe an attack is inevitable. "Security is very necessary ... for the people who want to come here for prayers without any fear," said Gurpal Singh, security chief for Peshawar's Sikh community.

Gohar Iqbal, a bookseller who works at a busy stall opposite the temple was certain the building would be targeted by militants. "We are worrying because of the children if something happens," he said, gesturing to the white cement building that houses a girls' high school, which abuts the gurdwara.

Few in this overwhelmingly Muslim neighborhood welcomed the gurdwara's opening. Apart from the security risks, many simply don't want Sikhs in their midst. The Sikhs that lived in the area and attended the gurdwara left when it closed in the 1940s.

It is not known how many Sikhs live in Pakistan today. The vast majority migrated to India in 1947, the year Pakistan was created as a homeland for Muslims of the subcontinent. The CIA Factbook estimates that 3.6 percent of Pakistan's 180 million people are non-Muslims, including Sikhs, Christians and Hindus.

Sikhs are among the smallest minorities. They are easily identifiable because of their tightly wound and often colorful turbans, and because they share the surname Singh. Many of the Sikhs living in Pakistan are internally displaced, having fled their traditional homes in Pakistan's tribal regions as the threat posed by militants increased.

As the Taliban grew in strength in tribal regions such as Orazkai and Bajour, Sikhs were forced to pay protection money to local militant leaders or were killed, Yusuf at HRCP said. Two years ago, extremists in the area swore allegiance to the Islamic State group. IS militants routinely video the brutal killings of non-Muslims in their territory.

Charanjeet Singh, a volunteer at the gurdwara and a community spokesman, fled his home in Orazkai several years ago. He spoke to The Associated Press from inside the cavernous prayer hall of the gurdwara. Inside the sprawling compound, most of the buildings are crumbling — only the ornately carved prayer hall has been renovated.

Still, remnants of its former glory are visible — a small arch made up of odd-shaped blocks of stone, known as Waziri bricks, remains from the original structure laid around 300 years ago. Charanjeet Singh said the community had been battling government intransigence and local resistance since 2012 to reopen the gurdwara.

In the 73 years it stood empty, the gurdwara was administered by the government's Evacuee Trust, an organization that looks after properties vacated by those who left for India during partition in 1947. Sometimes the buildings are returned to their original owners — as happened with the gurdwara — and at other times they are given to those who migrated from India to Pakistan, provided they can prove they owned property of a similar value in India.

Under the Pakistani government's guardianship, the gurdwara went through many incarnations. At one point, it housed a vocational school and it has been used for private homes. Several members of the Evacuee Trust still work and live there.

Despite receiving a chilly reception from their Muslim neighbors, the Sikhs of the gurdwara are giving shelter to an elderly Muslim woman. In one of the ramshackle buildings lives Begum Shafqat Ara, a diminutive old woman who believes her age to be around 90. She has lived in the gurdwara for some 60 years. She never married and taught at the vocational school, where she continued to live after she retired.

"I didn't have anywhere to go, no family. This is my home," she told AP, sitting on the purple carpeted floor of the gurdwara's prayer hall. Charanjeet Singh says Ara will stay. The Sikh community takes care of her and has promised to continue to do so for as long as she lives. Ara smiled a mostly toothless grin as she heard this and affectionately rested her hand on the knee of a nearby Sikh volunteer who had helped her to the prayer hall.

Despite the dangers they face, Charanjeet Singh said they will not capitulate to the militants. "If we do, they win," he said. "We are fully determined we will keep our holy places open."

Lebanese hope for change in first vote after trash crisis

May 07, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon's capital on Sunday will hold its first elections since a months-long trash crisis left mountains of garbage festering in the streets, with an outsider group of candidates challenging a political establishment widely seen as corrupt and incompetent.

Beirut Madinati, Arabic for "Beirut, My City," has vowed to clean up the city's streets -- and its politics. "We will go to the polls and throw out the corrupt politicians," declared list leader Ibrahim Mneihmneh, a 40-year-old architect, at a recent rally attended by hundreds of people. "We will no longer whine about the trash, traffic, or corruption."

Polling stations for the municipal election will be open on Sunday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. (0400 GMT to 1600 GMT). Results are expected as early as Monday. Madinati hopes to channel the energy of the "You Stink" protest movement, which emerged in response to the trash crisis and went on to challenge the political class that has governed Lebanon since the end of its 1975-1990 civil war.

The leaders behind the "You Stink" movement, which brought thousands of protesters into the streets at the height of the trash crisis, have not formally endorsed Madinati but have attended its rallies.

Since the end of the war, Lebanon has been governed by a power-sharing arrangement among political blocs -- many led by former warlords -- that represent its various religious sects. That has led to widespread patronage and corruption, and more recently to the breakdown of public services.

The trash crisis began last summer when the government closed the city's main landfill without agreeing on a replacement. For eight months trash piled up across the city. An agreement was reached in March to open a new disposal facility, but critics cast it as simply another backroom deal that failed to address the root of the problem.

And the stench grew even worse in April, as excavators dismantled the piles of garbage to carry it out of the city. "When you talk about Beirut, you say she's a beautiful woman," said the well-known Lebanese director Nadine Labaki, who is a candidate on the Madinati list. "Unfortunately, this is not what I'm seeing now."

The Madinati list is made up of independent technocrats who have reached out to voters through town hall-style meetings, rallies and fundraisers. But many wonder if they can succeed in a system dominated by lifelong politicians.

"It's like in the village," said Mohammad Hamza, a Beirut barber. "The outsiders win the elections, and for the next six years nothing gets done, because the political bosses block everything."

Poles hold large anti-government protest in favor of EU

May 07, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Tens of thousands of Poles — perhaps up to a quarter million — marched through Warsaw on Saturday to express their support for the European Union and opposition to a conservative new government which they accuse of eroding democracy.

City authorities estimated that 240,000 turned out in one of the largest street demonstrations this Central European country has seen since communism collapsed 27 year ago. Police said there were 45,000 at the event's peak, but that the number did not include those who came and left at other points.

Either way, an Associated Press reporter saw an endless flow streaming down main streets in what clearly was the largest anti-government demonstration since the Law and Justice party took all power last year and embarked on deep restructuring that it has dubbed "good change."

The protesters object to centralization of power under the right-wing party. The greatest controversy surrounds steps that have paralyzed the Constitutional Tribunal, a top court, neutralizing it as a check on the party's power.

Law and Justice maintains that it has a democratic mandate to make the changes after decisive electoral wins last year. "I am marching because I don't like the 'good change' and I don't like this dividing of Poland and I don't like the weakening of Poland's international position," said Lukasz Lomanowski, a 29-year-old horse-riding instructor.

His voice could be hardly heard amid the sound of trumpets and chants of "we say 'no thanks' to the rotten change" and "free judge, free Poland," raised by the crowd waving white-and-red national flags and the blue-and-yellow EU flags.

One leader of the pro-EU march, Civic Platform party leader Grzegorz Schetyna, a former foreign minister, declared it the biggest demonstration in the democratic era. It was not immediately clear, though, how the numbers compared to protests by miners in the 1990s during the transition to a market economy.

"We will not allow for the nightmare of authoritarian rule to happen," Schetyna said. There was a counter-protest by about 1,000 nationalists and Catholic groups who voiced their opposition to the influence of Brussels on Poland's affairs and the secular lifestyle that has come with EU membership. They held up crosses and an image of St. Mary, praying and singing hymns.

The demonstrations highlight a bitter divide in Poland between those who want deeper integration with Europe and those who feel that EU membership has eroded national sovereignty, only recently regained after the end of the Cold War.

Ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said the demonstration was an expression of dissatisfaction by some groups with the fact that his party won the elections, and was "not a big problem." Poland wants to participate in reforming the EU, but wants to be "separate" on social values, he said.

The protest was organized jointly by the opposition centrist Civic Platform party, which lost power last year, by the civic movement Committee for the Defense of Democracy, known as KOD, and by other opposition parties.

KOD was created in November, shortly after Law and Justice took power and began taking steps that have weakened the Constitutional Tribunal. That move and others which have helped the party centralize power have been condemned by the EU and the Council of Europe, a human rights group.

The ruling party says its changes are aimed at building a stronger nation free of what it says is the continued influence of former communists. Some 5.7 million voted for the party in this nation of 38 million in October elections and it remains popular.

Anarchists clash with police near Austrian border

May 07, 2016

MILAN (AP) — Dozens of hooded anarchists clashed Saturday with riot police who blocked their approach to the Austrian border during a protest against plans to tighten border controls to prevent the passage of migrants.

Riot police just 100 to 200 meters (yards) from Italy's border with Austria responded with tear gas after a group of 50 to 80 anarchists who covered their faces with motorcycle helmets and gas masks threw objects including bricks and firecrackers at a police blockade. The news agency ANSA said about 20 protesters were detained and four officers were injured.

Hundreds of Austrian police were deployed, but never activated, on the other side of the border, while helicopters hovered overhead. The protest spilled over on to the railway, temporarily blocking service, and then onto the heavily traveled Brenner highway, which also suffered delays. As police pushed the protesters deeper back into Italian territory, many shed their helmets and gas masks, scampering up onto a steep hillside overlooking the highway and shouting at police to free their detained comrades.

Italian RAI state television cameras showed police detaining one demonstrator at the railway station, which demonstrators also vandalized, and then another dozen detained in a road nearby. Italian Carabinieri police in Bolzano and Brenner were unable to confirm the number of arrests or injuries.

The demonstration, which included peaceful protesters behind a rainbow flag, comes after Austria announced moves to tighten border controls out of concern that the flow of migrants to northern Europe will shift to Italy after the closure of the Balkans route.

Earlier Saturday, Austria's interior minister, Wolfgang Sobotka, said in nearby Merano that the controls would not be stringent as long as Italy registers all incoming migrants and prevents a large migrant numbers from reaching the border. Austria has appeared to back down on plans to build a wall at the Brenner Pass, saying it would only be put up only in the face of a migrant influx.

The Brenner Pass is an important conduit for tourists and goods transiting Europe, with some 2 million vehicles passing each year. Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano welcomed Sobotka's assurances. Alfano was visiting Ventimiglia, near the border with France, where he said a center for migrants should be closed to discourage new arrivals.

"Migrants need to resign themselves to the fact that they cannot enter France from Ventimiglia, because we do not want to feed false expectations and because transiting across the Italian border, toward bordering European countries, can be a pretext for building walls," Alfano told a news conference.

Services in Greece grind to halt in 3-day strike

May 06, 2016

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Services in Greece, from garbage collection to public transport, shut down Friday as workers kicked off three days of strikes to protest new bailout austerity measures that they say will further reduce incomes.

Several thousand people held peaceful demonstrations in central Athens as part of protests that indicate a growing discontent with the left-led coalition government, which was only re-elected last September.

Unions on Thursday called a 48-hour general strike starting Friday, adding it onto a previously declared Sunday strike. State-run and many private services, including garbage collection, public transport, municipal offices and news broadcasts, were suspended.

Seamen, who had already declared separate strikes, joined in, leaving Greek islands without ferry connections until Tuesday morning. Doctors, dentists and journalists also walked off the job for two days, leaving state-run hospitals functioning with emergency staff and pulling all news broadcasts off the air.

The strike was timed to coincide with a vote in parliament Sunday night on a bill reforming some taxes and overhauling the pension system. The reforms were proposed by the government as part of the country's third international bailout.

The vote will test Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who initially came to power in January 2015 on promises to repeal austerity measures previous governments had imposed to qualify for international rescue loans.

Tsipras' government has a majority of just three seats in the 300-member parliament, and has lost its lead to opposition conservatives in opinion polls amid mounting voter disillusionment. "Everything the unions are doing now is to justify their existence. Absolutely nothing will change," Athens resident pensioner Constantine Andreopoulos said. "And those who came to power after 50 years will not risk their seats. They're not stupid. They will do anything, even sell their souls to the devil."

Tsipras' initial term in power after winning elections in January 2015 was marked by months of tumultuous negotiations with international lenders — the other European countries that use the euro currency, and the International Monetary Fund. Unable to ensure vital rescue loans from the lenders that would prevent Greece from potentially being forced out of the euro, Tsipras called a referendum and new elections last summer, eventually dropping his anti-bailout stance and signing up instead to a third bailout.

The planned pension reforms, under which workers will pay higher contributions, have triggered months of protests, including by farmers who blockaded highways and lawyers who have abstained from court appearances for months.

The government insists the reforms will create a fairer system and end years of political pandering to powerful labor groups. It moved up the parliamentary debate and vote to this week, ahead of a meeting on Greece by eurozone finance ministers — the so-called eurogroup — in Brussels on Monday.

"Despite the parliamentary activity over the coming weekend, however, no major announcement on the ongoing first review of the bailout is expected to come from the eurogroup meeting," said Wolfgango Piccoli of Teneo Intelligence.

He said the finance ministers will possibly discuss ways to lighten Greece's debt burden, but will not announce any concrete details. Greece has been hammered by six years of austerity measures since the country was locked out of international borrowing markets in 2010 amid investor worries about its public finances. About a quarter of the workforce is unemployed.

Talks on further reforms as part of the country's third bailout have been dragging on for more than six months, delaying the payout of vital bailout loans.

Derek Gatopoulos and Raphael Kominis contributed

Far right rally against Merkel's migrant policies in Berlin

May 07, 2016

BERLIN (AP) — About 1,000 right-wing extremists and others protesting Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policies squared off with about 4,500 counter-demonstrators outside the Berlin chancellery on Saturday, chanting slogans at one another but being kept at a wide distance by police in full riot gear.

Protesters from the far-right cheered and jeered as counter-demonstrators who tried to break through the police cordon were quickly overwhelmed and dragged away by officers. Occasional bottles and even a beer stein flew from the counter-demonstration but fell far short of the far-right march about 150 meters (yards) away, amid chants of "Nazis out."

On the other side, the right-wing demonstrators held signs with slogans like "No Islam on German Soil" and chanted "Merkel must go" while waving German flags. About 1.1 million migrants crossed into Germany last year raising concerns nationwide about how the country would cope with the influx.

Still, the anti-Merkel rally drew only about a fifth of the numbers organizers had expected and three counter-protests drew about 7,000 people. Police said some 1,700 officers were on hand to keep the peace at those demonstrations, and seven other unrelated protests in the capital on Saturday.

There were no immediate reports of injuries of either police or demonstrators.

Bus driver's son Sadiq Khan becomes 1st Muslim London mayor

May 07, 2016

LONDON (AP) — Throughout his election campaign, Sadiq Khan had a simple mantra: London made me. The city's new mayor appealed to voters as a true child of Britain's diverse and dynamic capital. Like many Londoners, he's the son of immigrants, born to parents who came to Britain from Pakistan. Like more than 1 million of the city's 8.6 million residents, he's Muslim. And on Friday the 45-year-old Labour Party politician became the first person of Islamic faith to lead Europe's largest city.

Khan won despite a concerted, and controversial, campaign by Conservative rival Zac Goldsmith to taint him with ties to Islamic extremists, claiming Khan had shared a platform with a radical London imam.

Khan, a former human rights lawyer, accused Goldsmith of trying to divide Londoners, and pointed out that he'd often shared platforms with people he disagreed with. His team unearthed photos of the imam meeting Goldsmith, too.

Khan stands on the political center-left, and supported Labour policies including the legalization of gay marriage, a stance he said brought death threats. Before polling day, he urged Londoners to "choose hope over fear" and back him.

Khan was born in London in 1970, one of eight children of a bus driver and a seamstress. He grew up in a three-bedroom public-housing apartment in south London, sharing a bedroom with brothers until he was in his early 20s.

Khan attended a local state high school with a gritty reputation. "It was a tough school ... you had to be street-wise," he told the New Statesman magazine. He went on to study law at the University of North London before training as a solicitor. He became a partner in human rights law firm Christian Khan, and in 2005 was elected to Parliament for Tooting, the area where he grew up.

Khan served as communities minister in the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown before Labour lost power in 2010. His role included fostering cohesion in the years after the July 2005 London transit bombings, when al-Qaida-inspired suicide bombers killed 52 commuters.

Married to lawyer Saadiya Ahmed — the couple has two daughters — Khan is a fan of boxing, and colleagues say he's a deft and powerful political operator. A member of the mainstream, social-democratic strand of Labour, he's more of a centrist than current leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was kept at a distance from Khan's mayoral campaign. Khan was quick to criticize Labour members who made anti-Israel remarks and urged Corbyn to be tougher in stamping out anti-Semitism.

On the campaign trail, Khan said that London "gave me the helping hand I needed to fulfill my potential." He has spoken of his gratitude that his family had a secure, affordable home when he was growing up — something he fears younger Londoners are increasingly denied, in a city where market-rate rents and property prices have soared and local authorities build little social housing.

He says he'll make housing his priority as mayor, building 50,000 new homes a year and giving locals "first dibs" on some new properties. Tony Travers, a local government expert at the London School of Economics, said Khan's policies were firmly in the political center, but his election was a "remarkable step" for the city.

"The majority of people who voted for him will not have been Muslims," Travers said. "So that does suggest that despite all the challenges of being a Muslim in the West, a city like London sort of shrugs its shoulders and says, 'He's a mainstream politician.'"

Philippine campaign ends in panic as Trump-like mayor leads

May 07, 2016

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A bruising presidential campaign was drawing to a close in the Philippines on Saturday, with a last-minute attempt by the president to unify candidates against a front-running mayor perceived as a threat to democracy virtually collapsing.

After crisscrossing the archipelago nation for three months, five presidential candidates led by Mayor Rodrigo Duterte will converge in the vote-rich capital Manila for their final rallies ahead of Monday's vote.

On the eve of the final day of campaigning, President Benigno Aquino III made a desperate call on candidates to agree to an alliance to defeat the brash Duterte, who has been likened to U.S. Republican front-runner Donald Trump for his controversial remarks but has topped pre-poll surveys.

Duterte's 30-point lead in surveys can be overcome if his trailing rivals — mainly former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas and Sen. Grace Poe — join hands, Aquino said, implying that some of them should back out and support a single aspirant.

Under the Philippine electoral system, a candidate who gets the most votes is proclaimed the winner, even if no one gets a majority. Poe, however, refused an invitation by Roxas, who has been backed by Aquino, to meet and discuss an arrangement where she would be forced to back out. Vice President Jejomar Binay also stated he would not step aside. Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who has trailed far behind in surveys, has also vowed never to surrender.

Duterte's camp said calls for an alliance against him "reeks of stench of defeat." "It's an admission that a victory by Mayor Rodrigo Duterte has virtually become inevitable," said the mayor's national campaign manager Leoncio Evasco Jr.

A longtime mayor of southern Davao city, the 71-year-old Duterte courted controversy with his profanity-laden speeches, vulgar jokes and devil-may-care irreverence but has successfully tapped into public insecurities with a bold promise to wipe out crime and corruption in three to six months if he is elected.

Aquino, business executives and church leaders felt that he crossed the line when he joked about wanting to have raped first an Australian missionary, who was gang raped and brutally killed by inmates in a 1989 jail riot.

When the Australian and U.S. ambassadors sniped at his joke, Duterte asked them to shut up and expressed openness at the possibility of severing ties with major Western allies if he wins the presidency. He also has threatened to close Congress if lawmakers try to impeach him if he wins next week and has said he would allow Marxist guerrillas to play a political role in his government.

A senator has threatened to immediately try to impeach Duterte if he becomes president. Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV has filed a corruption complaint alleging the mayor hired non-existent employees and kept a huge amount in a joint bank account with his daughter that he did not declare publicly in 2014, as required by law. Duterte has denied any wrongdoing.