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Sunday, September 4, 2016

Hong Kong election highlights rising anti-China mood

September 04, 2016

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kongers headed to the polls Sunday for the specially administered Chinese city's most crucial election since the handover from Britain in 1997. The vote for Legislative Council lawmakers is the first major election since 2014 pro-democracy street protests rocked the Asian financial hub, and the outcome could pave the way for a fresh round of political confrontations over Beijing's control of the city.

The election is set to test the unity of Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp as a new generation of radical activists, who emerged in the wake of those protests, joined the race. They're hoping to ride a rising tide of anti-China sentiment as they challenge formidably resourced pro-Beijing rivals for seats. Many of the newcomers back independence for Hong Kong, a once-unthinkable idea that has become widely debated and which has added to divisions with the broader pro-democracy movement.

At stake is the power to keep the city's widely unpopular Beijing-backed leader, Leung Chun-ying, and his government in check. "Pan-democrat" lawmakers currently control 27 of 70 seats, compared with 43 held by lawmakers friendly to Beijing. The democrats are fighting to keep control of at least a third of the seats, which gives them veto power to block government attempts to enact unpopular legislation, such as Beijing's controversial election revamp that triggered the 2014 street protests.

The risk is that the pro-democracy vote will be split, allowing pro-Beijing candidates to take more seats and removing a major hurdle for the government's proposals, which in turn could lead to a new round of political confrontations.

Hong Kong has been the scene of increasingly bitter political turmoil since the last legislative election in 2012. The growing calls for independence highlight frustration among residents, especially among young people, who are chafing under Beijing's tightening hold. A spate of incidents, including the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers who later resurfaced in mainland Chinese detention, has aroused fears that Beijing is reneging on its promise of wide autonomy for Hong Kong under a "one country, two systems" framework.

Authorities have tried to tamp down the independence debate. Election officials disqualified six pro-independence candidates ahead of the vote, though other candidates with similar views made the cut.

Two hours after polls opened, about 3.7 percent of 3.8 million registered voters turned out, the government said. Voters are choosing lawmakers to fill 35 seats in geographic constituencies. There are 84 lists of candidates, so the results will be hard to predict. Another 30 seats are taken by members representing business and trade groups such as accounting, finance, medicine and fisheries. Five more "super seats" are chosen by voters citywide.

MSF evacuates staff from 6 Yemen hospitals after air strike

Paris (AFP)
Aug 18, 2016

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on Thursday said it was evacuating its staff from six hospitals in northern Yemen after 19 people were killed in an air strike on one of its facilities earlier this week.

Monday's Saudi-led coalition strike on Abs hospital in the rebel-held province of Hajja was the fourth and deadliest attack yet on an MSF facility in war-torn Yemen, according to the charity.

The decision to pull staff out "is never taken lightly", the Paris-based aid agency said in a statement, accusing the coalition of "indiscriminate bombings and unreliable reassurances".

"Given the intensity of the current offensive and our loss of confidence in the SLC's (Saudi-led coalition's) ability to prevent such fatal attacks, MSF considers the hospitals in Saada and Hajjah governorates unsafe for both patients and staff," it added.

The hospitals will continue to be manned by local workers and volunteers, MSF said.

Yemen has been gripped by unrest since Iran-backed Shiite Huthi rebels and allied loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh overran the capital Sanaa in September 2014.

The violence increased after a Saudi-led Arab coalition launched a military campaign in March last year to help shore up the government of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.

The coalition stepped up its air strikes this month after UN-mediated peace talks between the rebels and Yemen's internationally backed government were suspended.

- 'Indiscriminate attacks' -

Monday's bombing of Abs hospital drew international condemnation, prompting the coalition to announce an independent investigation into the attack.

MSF said it had shared the hospital's GPS coordinates with all parties involved in the conflict.

"Coalition officials repeatedly state that they honour international humanitarian law, yet this attack shows a failure to control the use of force and to avoid attacks on hospitals full of patients," it said.

"MSF is neither satisfied nor reassured by the SLC's statement that this attack was a mistake."

It also accused all sides in Yemen's war of "indiscriminate attacks without any respect for civilians".

One MSF worker was among those killed in the Abs hospital attack, while another 24 people were wounded.

The group's emergency coordinator Laurent Sury told AFP that "several dozen" international and Yemeni MSF workers were affected by the decision to pull out of the six hospitals.

"Our aim is to open programs, not close them, especially considering the enormous needs in the north," he said. "But today, the minimum security conditions can no longer be guaranteed."

He said that civilians were paying a heavy price in the conflict.

"Today in Yemen, you risk your life when you seek out care, whether you are a pregnant woman needing a Cesarean or child requiring antibiotics."

The hospital strike was the latest in a series of coalition raids that have allegedly hit civilian facilities -- including a school in the rebel stronghold of Saada on Saturday where 10 children were killed.

The UN says more than 6,500 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since last March and more than 80 percent of the population needs humanitarian aid.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/MSF_evacuates_staff_from_6_Yemen_hospitals_after_air_strike_999.html.

Iraqi troops enter Qayyarah in push to Mosul

By Allen Cone
Aug. 23, 2016

MOSUL, Iraq, Aug. 23 (UPI) -- Iraqi forces moved to within 37 miles of Mosul on Tuesday, storming into Qayyarah as the United Nations relief agency scrambled to assist more than 1 million people expected to be displaced.

Troops entered Qayyarah from three locations.

"Priority of the operation is to save and protect civilians in the area, as they are being used by ISIS as human shields," Maj. Gen. Sami Al-Ardedi, commander of special operations for the Iraqi army, said in a statement.

Mosul is Iraq's second largest city and the Islamic State's last major urban stronghold in Iraq.

Qayyarah was captured by the Islamic State in 2014. The air base near the city was recaptured in July.

Gen. Najim al-Jobouri, the commander of Iraq's Nineveh operations, said his forces are weakening ISIS. "I think that they have a lack of foreign fighters," he told CNN.

The Iraqi Defense Ministry has urged Qayyarah residents to evacuate within this week and head toward a settlement near the district's airfield or to Tibna village, which is under the control of Iraqi forces.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced plans Tuesday to set up additional camps for those displaced with a prediction of up to 1.2 people affected.

Contingency plans have been drawn up to provide shelter for up to 120,000 people fleeing Mosul and the surrounding areas.

"Already, in recent months, some 213,000 people have fled their homes in different parts of the country," Adrian Edwards, a spokesperson for the Office of the UNHCR told journalists at the regular press briefing in Geneva on Tuesday. "This includes 48,000 people from the Mosul area; 87,000 from the Fallujah region; and 78,000 from Shirqat, Qayyarah and surrounds."

Since January 2014, some 3.38 million people have fled their homes – including families being displaced multiple times, UNHCR said.

"UNHCR is doing what it can amid enormous challenges to build more camps to accommodate people and mitigate suffering, but additional land for camps and funding is still needed," Edwards said.

The U.N. agency provides shelter, emergency relief kits and legal aid.

UNHCR's overall appeal for $584 million for displaced Iraqis was only 38-percent funded.

Source: United Press International (UPI).
Link: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2016/08/23/Iraqi-troops-enter-Qayyarah-in-push-to-Mosul/3111471978543/.

Bangladesh executes 5th Islamist party leader for 1971 war

September 04, 2016

NEW DELHI (AP) — Bangladeshi authorities executed a top Islamist party leader convicted of war crimes involving the nation's 1971 independence war against Pakistan, officials said. Mir Quasem Ali, a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, was hanged at 10:30 p.m. Saturday, hours after several dozen family members and relatives met him for the last time inside Kashimpur Central Jail near the capital, Dhaka, said Proshanto Kumar Bonik, a senior jail superintendent.

"We are doing our necessary formalities now. We will send the body soon to the ancestral home in Manikganj district for burial," Bonik said. Immediately after the execution, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said security measures were put in place to prevent unrest by Ali's supporters, including deployment of paramilitary border guards and additional police in Dhaka and other cities.

The Jamaat-e-Islami party in a statement protested Ali's execution and called for an eight-hour general strike beginning Monday morning. The execution took place a day after Ali refused to seek presidential clemency. The president had previously rejected appeals for clemency by other Islamist party leaders facing execution.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court rejected a final appeal for reviewing Ali's death sentence handed out by a special tribunal two years ago. After the ruling, the Jamaat-e-Islami party called for a daylong general strike across the country last Wednesday, but got little response.

A special tribunal dealing with war crimes sentenced Ali to death in November 2014. The 63-year-old member of Jamaat-e-Islami's highest policy-making body was found guilty on eight charges, two of which carried the death sentence, including the abduction and murder of a young man in a torture chamber. Ali was sentenced to 72 years in prison on the other charges.

Ali built his fortune by establishing businesses from real estate to shipping to banking, and he was considered one of the party's top financiers. He became the fifth Jamaat-e-Islami party leader to be executed since 2010, when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina formed the special tribunal to try suspected war criminals. Also executed was a close aide of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia from the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

Jamaat-e-Islami is a key partner of Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party in the opposition against Hasina. Hasina's government says Pakistani soldiers, aided by local collaborators, killed 3 million people and raped 200,000 women in the 1971 independence war.

Jamaat-e-Islami, which had openly campaigned against independence, has denied committing atrocities. Hasina has called the special tribunal trials a long overdue effort to obtain justice for the victims of war crimes, four decades after Bangladesh split from Pakistan. Her government has rejected criticism from abroad that the trial process did not meet international standards.

The international human rights group Amnesty International noted that the United Nations had raised questions about the fairness of the trials of Ali and other Islamist party leaders. "There is no question that the people of Bangladesh deserve justice for crimes committed during the War of Independence, but the death penalty is a human rights violation and will not achieve this. It is a cruel and irreversible punishment that most of the world's countries have now rid themselves of," said Champa Patel, Amnesty International's South Asia Director, in a statement released Saturday.

Turkish tanks cross into Syria in 'new phase' against IS

September 03, 2016

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkish tanks have crossed into Syria to the west of a frontier town seized from the Islamic State group last week, in a "new phase" of an operation aimed at sealing off the last stretch of border controlled by the extremists.

The private Dogan news agency reported at least 20 tanks and five armored personnel carriers crossed at the Turkish border town of Elbeyli, across from the Syrian town of al-Rai. The new incursion is unfolding about 55 kilometers (34 miles) west of Jarablus, where Turkish forces first crossed into Syria ten days ago.

The tanks entered from the Turkish border village of Elbeyli and linked up with Turkish-backed Syrian rebels at al-Rai, who are participating in the operation, dubbed Euphrates Shield. The official Anadolu News Agency said that "with this new phase of the operation, the Azaz-Jarablus line is expected to be cleared of terror elements."

Turkish-backed Syrian rebels meanwhile said they had captured three more villages to the west of Jarablus from the Islamic State group, bringing them to 21 kilometers (13 miles) from those positioned at al-Rai. The gap is the last remaining stretch of the Syrian border under IS control.

Three rockets fired from IS-held territory in Syria meanwhile struck the Turkish border town of Kilis, some 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Elbeyli, according to the Turkish governor's office, which said one person was lightly wounded.

The governor's office said five others were wounded last Monday when three rockets hit Kilis. Anadolu said the wounded were children. Dogan says rockets have killed 21 Kilis residents and wounded scores since January.

The Turkish Armed Forces responded to the rockets with howitzers, striking two weapons pits and bunkers, and "destroying the locations and the Daesh terrorists there," Anadolu said, referring to IS by an Arabic acronym.

Turkey's military says its right to self-defense as well as U.N. resolutions to combat the IS group justify its Syria incursions. Turkey and allied Syrian rebels have also fought U.S.-backed Kurdish forces known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG, around Jarablus. Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or the PKK, which Turkey and its allies consider a terrorist organization.

The U.S. has provided extensive aid and airstrikes to the YPG-led Syria Democratic Forces, which have proven to be highly effective against IS. The Syria Democratic Forces, which also includes Arab fighters, has taking a large swath of territory from the extremists along the border with Turkey and closed in on Raqqa, the de facto capital of the extremist group's self-styled caliphate.

Associated Press writer Philip Issa in Beirut contributed to this report.

Syria: Fear rises as Moadamiyeh evacuation begins

3rd of September 2016, Saturday

By Dylan Collins

Buses carrying more than 300 Syrians left the besieged Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh on Friday, in the first stage of a deal that will enable the government to retake control of the rebel-held area.

In the first stage of the deal, 303 people, including 62 gunmen who agreed to lay down their arms and accept a presidential amnesty deal, were bused out of the area and taken to the nearby government-controlled town of Horjelah, according Syrian state news agency SANA.

The Moadamiyeh agreement comes just a week after a deal was struck in neighboring Daraya that brought about the full evacuation of the suburb, a move heavily criticized by the international community as forced displacement.

Those who left Moadamiyeh on Friday were originally from Daraya, having fled heavy bombardments earlier in the year.

"The heroic acts of the Syrian army in Daraya led to the achievement in Moadamiyeh," Alaa Ibrahim, the governor of rural Damascus, told Syrian state TV.

Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from Gaziantep on the Turkey-Syria border, said the concept of "forcing deals on local populations" has been criticized by the United Nations and the international community as something "that would give the government precedent to continue starving its own population into surrender".

The UN's Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura voiced concern that the Daraya agreement was part of a larger strategy by the government to empty rebel enclaves and that it may soon be extended to other areas.

There are "indications that after Daraya we may have other Darayas," he told reporters in Geneva on Thursday.

"There is clearly a strategy at the moment to move from Daraya" to other besieged areas "in a similar pattern".

Jan Egeland, the UN humanitarian chief, said the UN humanitarian task force for Syria had "failed the people of Daraya".

The UN has underlined that it was not consulted on the Daraya deal, and described the evacuation of the suburb as a forced displacement.

Fears of 'demographic change'

In the second stage of the Moadamiyeh deal, rebels who refuse to hand over their weapons will be forced to leave the suburb, probably to rebel-controlled Idlib province.

It was not clear when the second stage would be implemented or when government security forces would take over control of the suburb.

The deal was reportedly reached on Tuesday in a meeting between Moadamiyeh's local council, government officials and Russian military officers at the army's 4th Armored Division headquarters in the mountains on the southern outskirts of Damascus.

"It wasn't a negotiation or a conversation, it was a threat," Moadamiyeh-based media activist Dani Qappani told Al Jazeera. "They basically told us: 'Either surrender or we burn Moadamiyeh.'"

"They know the situation here. There's little to no food or medical supplies," said Qappani, adding that residents of the besieged suburb could not hold out much longer.

"Once they finish evacuating people of Daraya who are living here, they'll try to begin the process of surrendering arms and dismantling the revolutionary establishments inside the city."

Moadamiyeh was hit with toxic sarin gas in 2013, according to the UN, and has suffered a three-year government siege, leaving its 28,000 residents with little food or medical supplies.

Rebel fighters in Moadamiyeh have negotiated several local truces with the government since 2012, and the suburb has been spared much of the destruction and bombing that occurred in Daraya, just a mile away.

"At the core of the matter is the clearing of the area," said Qappani.

"A large portion of people don't want to leave their homes because they don't want the regime to forcefully change the demography of the area."

Abo Kanan al-Dimashqi, a member of the Moadamiyeh local council, told Al Jazeera he believes the government "clearly wants to do what it did in Daraya".

"They want to clear the area and put a different sect here. That's their plan - a demographic change."

After last week's deal in neighboring Daraya, government troops took control of a completely empty suburb - once home to a quarter of a million people.

"The government is now gaining some momentum on the outskirts of the capital with this new tactic, forcing the population into leaving their areas through years of siege," said Al Jazeera's Ahelbarra.

"Now after Daraya, today is Moadamiyeh. There are concerns that the government is going to further replicate the resettling of the Sunni community in different parts of the capital. There are fears that Douma, a major opposition stronghold near the capital, could be the next."

Source: al-Jazeera.
Link: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/09/syria-fear-rises-moadamiyeh-evacuation-begins-160902132143798.html.

Uzbek Cabinet praises harsh Karimov before burial

September 03, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — In a statement ahead of President Islam Karimov's burial Saturday, Uzbekistan's government hailed the authoritarian leader as a statesman and democrat though he was widely criticized abroad for harsh repression of dissent,

The 78-year-old Karimov, whose death from a cerebral hemorrhage was announced Friday, was being laid to rest in his birthplace of Samarkand, the ancient Silk Road city. Karimov's coffin was placed in the Registan, the renowned square flanked on three sides by madrassahs covered in intricate, colorful tiles and topped with aqua cupolas. The Interfax news agency said the square was packed with thousands of men — women were excluded — to hear a mufti give a funeral prayer that said "Islam Karimov served his people."

The body was then taken to the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, another architecturally significant site. Karimov became leader of Uzbekistan in 1989 when it was a Soviet republic, then held power with ruthless determination throughout all of Uzbekistan's independence. He crushed opposition, repressed the media and was repeatedly denounced by activists abroad for human rights violations including killings and torture.

His Cabinet, however, said in a statement that Karimov "attained a high authority in the country and in the international community as an outstanding statesman, who has developed and implemented a deeply thought-out strategy of building a democratic constitutional state with a civil society and a market economy."

Karimov cultivated no apparent successor, and his death raised concerns that the predominantly Sunni Muslim country could face prolonged infighting among clans over its leadership, something its Islamic radical movement could exploit.

"The death of Islam Karimov may open a pretty dangerous period of unpredictability and uncertainty in Uzbekistan," Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian parliament's foreign affairs committee, told the Tass news agency on Friday.

Given the lack of access to the strategic country, it's hard to judge how powerful the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan might be. Over the years, the group has been affiliated with the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, and it has sent fighters abroad.

Under the Uzbek constitution, if the president dies his duties pass temporarily to the head of the senate until an election can be held within three months. However, the head of the Uzbek senate is regarded as unlikely to seek permanent power and Karimov's demise is expected to set off a period of jockeying for political influence.

Karimov was known as a tyrant with an explosive temper and a penchant for cruelty. His troops killed hundreds unarmed demonstrators with machine guns during a 2005 uprising, he jailed thousands of political opponents, and his henchmen reportedly boiled some dissidents to death.

Report: Uzbek government says President Karimov has died

September 02, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's state news agency is citing the government of Uzbekistan as saying that President Islam Karimov has died. The 78-year-old Karimov was the only leader independent Uzbekistan ever had. He was reported to have been hospitalized last week and rumors of his death have circulated for days.

The RIA-Novosti news agency on Friday cited the Uzbek government as saying his funeral would be held on Saturday.

German nationalists seek gains in Merkel's political base

September 03, 2016

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision a year ago to open the borders to a surge of migrants is casting a long shadow over a state election this weekend in Germany's economically weak northeast, where an anti-immigration party is poised for strong gains.

Polls suggest that the 3-year-old Alternative for Germany can expect to win over 20 percent of votes Sunday in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, a coastal region where Merkel has her parliamentary constituency.

That would give it a chance of overtaking Merkel's conservatives for second place, and perhaps even finishing as the strongest party in the state legislature. That would be an embarrassment, though a manageable one, for the chancellor as she looks ahead to national elections next year.

The migrant influx that saw Germany register more than a million newcomers last year has divided Germans and helped reduce Merkel's popularity ratings from stellar to solid. New Year's Eve robberies and sexual assaults blamed largely on foreigners, and two attacks committed by asylum-seekers in July and claimed by the Islamic State group, have raised tensions.

The influx has slowed drastically this year. Merkel says the government has "worked incessantly," citing moves to toughen asylum rules and integrate refugees. She has stuck to her insistence, first voiced a year ago, that "we will manage" the refugee crisis.

Still, Alternative for Germany, or AfD, has thrived over recent months by opposing Merkel's approach. It fared well in three state elections in March. Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, a sparsely populated area of the formerly communist east, looks like fertile ground.

"There is an alliance of all parties under the chancellor's motto, 'We will manage it,' and we are the only ones who say we don't want to manage it at all," AfD deputy leader Alexander Gauland said this week. His party has no intention of going into government, and other parties won't work with it.

Gauland said that while people in Mecklenburg may have no refugees in their villages, "they of course see on television, and in the streams that have come to Germany, there's a threat to what they feel is home."

He described Merkel's late-night decision on Sept. 4 last year, along with Austria's then-chancellor, to open the borders to migrants from Hungary as "dictatorial." Such sentiments combine in Mecklenburg with long-standing resentment in rural areas that have seen facilities dwindle as the population shrinks, according to Hajo Funke, a political science professor at Berlin's Free University. The state's 9 percent unemployment rate is well above the 6.1 percent national average.

Mecklenburg is currently the only state where the far-right National Democratic Party — which Parliament's upper house is trying to ban — is represented in a state legislature. Polls suggest it may be swept out Sunday as some supporters switch to AfD.

The state has been run for a decade by the parties that currently govern Germany. The center-left Social Democrats lead the regional government, with Merkel's Christian Democrats as their junior partners.

Keen to prevent their supporters from jumping ship, local leaders have resorted to sharp rhetoric on Muslims and the migrant crisis. The state's conservative interior minister, Lorenz Caffier, has led calls within the Christian Democrats for Germany to ban the burqa and other face-covering veils worn by some Muslim women.

Center-left governor Erwin Sellering said Merkel "awakened the impression last fall that we had to take in unlimited numbers of refugees, and at the same time acted as though everyone who expressed reservations was either far-right or an idiot."

The Mecklenburg election comes as German politicians begin to focus on a national election expected in late September 2017. It's the first of five state votes before then, with the next due in Berlin Sept. 18.

Merkel has yet to say whether she will seek a fourth term next year, as is widely expected. There is no obvious alternative, and no sign of a challenger, in her conservative bloc. Merkel has held her constituency in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania since 1990.

The fallout for the chancellor from Sunday's result, however it turns out, should be limited. It's unlikely to help heal a festering spat between Merkel and the Bavarian branch of her conservative bloc, which has spent the past year criticizing her refugee policy.

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is home to only 1.6 million of Germany's 80 million people. AfD won 24.3 percent of the vote in another eastern state, Saxony-Anhalt, in March and that didn't shift government policy.

Merkel "has strong nerves," Funke said. "She can hold course with great determination when she makes a decision, and on the question of refugee policy she decided out of conviction." "I don't think she will be deflected from this course by these results," he said, "because it is only Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania."

Gabon opposition says presidential guard attacks HQ, 1 dead

September 01, 2016

LIBREVILLE, Gabon (AP) — Gabon's presidential guard attacked the opposition party headquarters overnight, killing one person and injuring at least 20, opposition representatives said Thursday following protests against the re-election of this central African country's president.

President Ali Bongo Ondimba beat opposition candidate Jean Ping by a slim margin, setting the stage for unrest. Bongo won with 49.8 percent of the vote, while Ping had 48.2 percent. The constitutional court must finalize provisional results, which came a day later than expected

Around 1 a.m. Thursday, soldiers in green berets identifying them as the presidential guard shot live rounds during an attack on Ping's opposition headquarters, injuring at least 20 people, according to Paul Marie Gondjout, an opposition electoral representative who was there.

Ping's campaign director, Rene Ndemezo'o Obiang, said one person was killed. Ping was not in the building. A resident said government forces also attacked the RTN opposition radio and television station.

State television reported that Cabinet ministers will meet Thursday morning. Before the attack on the opposition headquarters, police fired tear gas at hundreds of opposition demonstrators in the capital, Libreville, who responded by setting fire to cars and debris in front of the National Assembly. Flames and smoke rose in the night sky.

Witnesses said demonstrators in several other districts vandalized a mall, looted a bank and burned buildings, including one belonging to the vice prime minister. Looting and clashes also followed Bongo's previous election win in 2009, when he came to power after the death of his father, longtime ruler Omar Bongo.

European Union observers criticized what they called a "lack of transparency," and the EU called for electoral officials to publish results from all polling stations. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged political leaders and their supporters "to refrain from further acts that could undermine the peace and stability of the country." He also called on security forces to exercise restraint.

Philippine leader declares 'state of lawlessness' after bomb

September 03, 2016

DAVAO, Philippines (AP) — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared a "state of lawlessness" Saturday after suspected Abu Sayyaf extremists detonated a bomb that killed 14 people and wounded about 70 in his southern hometown.

Duterte, who inspected the scene of Friday night's attack at a night market in downtown Davao city, said his declaration that covers the southern Mindanao region did not amount to an imposition of martial law. It would allow troops to be deployed in urban centers to back up the police in setting up checkpoints and increasing patrols, he said.

An Abu Sayyaf spokesman, Abu Rami, claimed responsibility for the blast near the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Davao University and a five-star hotel, but Duterte said investigators were looking at other possible suspects, including drug syndicates, which he has targeted in a bloody crackdown.

"These are extraordinary times and I supposed that I'm authorized to allow the security forces of this country to do searches," Duterte told reporters at the scene of the attack, asking the public to cooperate and be vigilant.

"We're trying to cope up with a crisis now. There is a crisis in this country involving drugs, extrajudicial killings and there seems to be an environment of lawless violence," said Duterte, who served as mayor of Davao for years before elected to the presidency in June.

The attack came as Philippine forces were on alert amid an ongoing military offensive against Abu Sayyaf extremists in southern Sulu province, which intensified last week after the militants beheaded a kidnapped villager. The militants threatened to launch an unspecified attack after the military said 30 of the gunmen were killed in the weeklong offensive.

Some commanders of the Abu Sayyaf, which is blacklisted by the United States and the Philippines as a terrorist organization for deadly bombings, ransom kidnappings and beheadings, have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group. The military, however, says there has been no evidence of a direct collaboration and militant action may have been aimed at bolstering their image after years of combat setbacks.

Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said the bomb appeared to have been made from a mortar round and doctors reported many of the victims had shrapnel wounds. Despite the emergency, Duterte said he would proceed with a trip to Brunei, Laos and Indonesia starting on Sunday. At an Asian summit in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, Duterte said in jest that most of the leaders he would meet, including President Barack Obama and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, have had a taste of terrorist attacks.

Witnesses initially gave conflicting accounts, according to police, with some saying that a cooking gas tank exploded at a massage section and food stalls of the night market while others suggested it may have been some kind of an explosive.

Police immediately set up more checkpoints in key roads leading to the city, a regional gateway about 980 kilometers (610 miles) south of Manila. Police forces in the capital also went on full alert at midnight.

TV footage showed bodies lay scattered amid plastic chairs strewn about at the scene of the blast moments after the blast, which was heard several blocks away. Ambulance vans drove to and from the area.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement that local authorities in the Philippines continue to investigate the cause of the explosion, and the United States stands ready to provide assistance to the investigation.

Obama will have an opportunity to offer his personal condolences to Duterte when the two leaders plan to meet on the sidelines of the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders with some Western leaders in Laos next week, Price said.

Associated Press writers Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.

Philippines' Duterte declines meeting with UN's Ban

02 September 2016 Friday

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has railed against the United Nations for criticizing his government, has declined a request to meet UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, officials said Thursday.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that "contacts were had to try to set up a time" for a meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN forum meeting in Laos next week, but that "no time could be agreed upon."

A foreign affairs spokesman in Manila said that 11 heads of state had requested meetings with Duterte during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting, and that he had said yes to nine of them.

"Please understand that he cannot accept them all and no one should impute any negatives on those he could not accommodate," said Charles Jose in Manila.

Duterte's spokesman Ernesto Abella said the September 6-8 ASEAN meeting in Vientiane was "extraordinarily full" and that "a number of possible meetups have to be presently foregone."

Duterte has launched several tirades against the world body after a UN special rapporteur criticized his crackdown on crime, even  threatening to pull out of the United Nations, a threat he later withdrew.

"Maybe we’ll just have to decide to separate from the United Nations. If you are that disrespectful, son of a whore, then I will just leave you," Duterte said in a press conference last month.

He later said the threat was just a "joke."

Nearly 2,000 people have been killed since Duterte was sworn into office on June 30 and immediately launched his war on crime, according to the national police chief.

Duterte has insisted most of the 756 people confirmed killed by police were drug suspects who resisted arrest, while the others died due to gang members waging warfare against each other.

However rights groups, some lawmakers and others have said security forces are engaging in unprecedented extrajudicial killings.

Source: World Bulletin.
Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/todays-news/176905/philippines-duterte-declines-meeting-with-uns-ban.

First halal food hotel opens in Buddhist Thailand

02 September 2016 Friday

In an effort to broaden its Muslim traveler base, Thailand opened its first Islamic hotel in an effort to attract more Muslim visitors and to promote its economy on a national and international level.

A predominantly Buddhist country, the four-star Al Meroz hotel in Bangkok, which opened in November last year, hopes to play its part in changing that, and to cash in on the booming halal travel market.

“There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. It’s a huge market,” said the hotel’s general manager, Sanya Saengboon.

“Just one percent of that amount of market is enough for us to thrive. Al Meroz hotel is place for tourists, who want a safe and a comfortable place".

Nearly 658,000 tourists from the Middle East out of 30 million foreigners visited the country last year, with an increase of 10 percent during 2015 compared to 2014, according to tourism data in Thailand.

The Al Meroz, with its mosque-like architecture, has two prayer rooms and three halal dining halls and usually organizes Islamic lectures for staff members working in the hotel who have different faiths and beliefs.

Source: MoroccoWorld New/Reuters

Source: World Bulletin.
Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/asia-pacific/176910/first-halal-food-hotel-opens-in-buddhist-thailand.

Launch pad blast destroys SpaceX rocket, Facebook satellite

By Leila Macor, with Jean-Louis Santini in Washington
Miami (AFP)
Sept 2, 2016

An unmanned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad during a test in Florida on Thursday, destroying a satellite that Facebook planned to use to beam high-speed internet to Africa.

The blast at Cape Canaveral -- though it caused no injuries -- marks a setback for the California-based private space firm and its founder, internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, who wants to revolutionize the launch industry by making rocket components reusable.

"Loss of Falcon vehicle today during propellant fill operation," Musk tweeted. "Originated around upper stage oxygen tank. Cause still unknown. More soon."

Dramatic footage broadcast by ABC News showed the rocket burst into a roaring ball of flame amid what appeared to be a succession of blasts -- sending its payload tumbling to the ground as a dense plume of black smoke filled the air.

"At approximately 9:07 am ET (1307 GMT), during a standard pre-launch static fire test for the Amos-6 mission, there was an anomaly at SpaceX's Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex 40 resulting in loss of the vehicle," the firm said.

"Per standard operating procedure, the pad was clear and there were no injuries."

But the explosion destroyed the Israeli communications satellite that the Falcon 9 was due to deliver into orbit on Saturday -- drawing a dismayed reaction from Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg.

"As I'm here in Africa, I'm deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX's launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent," Zuckerberg said on his Facebook page.

Facebook was contracted to use the Amos-6 to provide broadband internet coverage for large parts of sub-Saharan Africa and other remote parts of the world as part of the social media giant's Internet.org initiative.

"Fortunately, we have developed other technologies like Aquila that will connect people as well," Zuckerberg said, referring to the solar-powered plane being developed by Facebook to make the internet available in remote areas.

"We will keep working until everyone has the opportunities this satellite would have provided."

European satellite operator Eutelsat -- Facebook's partner in the project -- said in a statement it was committed to expanding broadband access in Africa despite the loss of the Amos-6.

- Heaviest payload -

A NASA spokeswoman told AFP that emergency services at the nearby Kennedy Space Center were monitoring the situation and conducting air quality tests to ensure there is no threat to the health of staff.

Officials at the center advised workers to remain inside until further notice, but Brevard County Emergency Management said there was no threat to the public from the incident.

The Amos-6 was the heaviest payload to date for a SpaceX rocket, with an estimated value of between $200-300 million, according to John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

The accident -- the second of its kind since SpaceX was founded in 2002 -- comes just over a year after a Falcon 9 rocket failed after liftoff on June 28, 2015, destroying a Dragon cargo capsule bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

Before that, SpaceX had logged 18 successful launches of the Falcon 9 -- including six of 12 planned supply missions to the ISS carried out as part of a $1.6 billion contract with NASA.

It had carried out another eight successful launches since June 2015, including last month when a Falcon 9 successfully placed a Japanese communications satellite in orbit, and then landed intact on a floating drone ship.

Before then the firm lost several rockets as it attempted to land them upright on an ocean platform at the end of a flight -- a crucial part of its strategy for reusable spacecraft.

- 'Valuable experience' -

While the blast is likely to disrupt SpaceX plans for six more launches between now and January 2017, experts made clear that such incidents are a normal part of the space learning curve.

"It's clearly a setback, but how great the setback is and how long the delay, it's impossible to know until there is more information available," said Logsdon.

He noted that the launch pad damaged on Thursday was distinct from the one that will serve to launch SpaceX's Crew Dragon, intended to ferry astronauts to the ISS starting in late 2017.

NASA said in a tweet that Thursday's SpaceX explosion "reminds us that spaceflight is challenging. Our partners learn from each success & setback."

Loizos Heracleous, a professor of strategy at Warwick Business School, said such setbacks were par for the course -- and would not affect SpaceX's stated long-term goals of slashing the cost of space flight through the use of reusable rockets, and eventually colonizing Mars.

"SpaceX is gathering valuable experience, and each accident brings lessons on how to enhance the integrity of the craft for future missions," he said.

"Given that SpaceX is working to provide NASA with a way to transport not just cargo, but also astronauts to the International Space Station, it is especially crucial that such learning takes place before that happens."

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Launch_pad_blast_destroys_SpaceX_rocket_Facebook_satellite_999.html.

US astronauts complete spacewalk for ISS maintenance

Washington (AFP)
Sept 1, 2016

Two US astronauts aboard the International Space Station successfully completed a spacewalk Thursday to make repairs and install new equipment.

"NASA astronauts completed all planned tasks + a few extra," the US space agency said on Twitter.

Americans Jeff Williams, 58, and Kate Rubins, 37, completed their mission at 1841 GMT after six hours and 48 minutes in space.

It was their first time in space in nearly two weeks. At that time, they attached an international docking adapter in anticipation of increased private spaceship traffic.

This time, Williams and Rubins retracted one of the thermal radiators outside the space station. Astronauts unsuccessfully tried to push it back into position last year.

They also "installed two enhanced high definition cameras on the station's truss and tightened bolts on a joint that enables one of the station's solar arrays to rotate," NASA said.

The cameras will be used to monitor spaceships transporting freight and astronauts.

The mission was the 195th spacewalk undertaken to build and maintain the ISS.

It was the fifth spacewalk for Williams, a veteran astronaut who on August 19 surpassed US astronaut Scott Kelly's record for the most cumulative days in space for an American.

Kelly has 520 days in space over his career.

Williams will have 534 days in space by the time he wraps up his stint at the ISS and returns to Earth next week.

It was the second spacewalk for Rubins. She is the 12th woman to walk in space.

In their August 19 spacewalk, Williams and Rubins installed a special parking spot on the ISS and connected power and data cables for the docking adapter.

The fittings will enable the space station to share power and data with visiting spaceships.

NASA describes the docking adapter as a "metaphorical gateway to a future" that will allow a new generation of US spacecraft -- the first since the space shuttle program ended in 2011 -- to carry astronauts to the space station.

The second docking adapter is expected to be launched in late 2017.

The adapters will work with Boeing's CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon, two spaceships under construction that are planned to ferry astronauts to the space station.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/US_astronauts_complete_spacewalk_for_ISS_maintenance_999.html.