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Jody Wilson-Raybould: Ex-minister increases pressure on Trudeau

A former Canadian justice minister says she faced attempts at interference and "veiled threats" from top government officials seeking a legal favour for a firm facing a corruption trial.

Jody Wilson-Raybould said she was pressed repeatedly to "find a solution" for engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.

PM Justin Trudeau said he disagreed with the minister's testimony and he and his staff acted appropriately.

Opposition leader Andrew Scheer has called on him to resign.

"He can no longer, with a clear conscience, continue to lead this nation," the Conservative leader told reporters, adding that he was calling for a full police investigation.

Speaking to the House of Commons justice committee, the former justice minister and attorney general said she and her staff faced four months of a "sustained" and "inappropriate effort" to push for a possible deferred prosecution agreement for the Quebec-based engineering and construction company.

That agreement would have allowed the firm to avoid a criminal trial and instead agree to alternative terms or conditions, like penalties or enhanced compliance measures.

It was an option rejected in September by the Public Prosecution Service of Canada - an independent authority whose main objective is to prosecute federal offences - and one she supported.

Ms Wilson-Raybould said she and her aides were pulled into multiple conversations and meetings - "a barrage of people hounding me and my staff" - with Mr Trudeau, senior aides from his office and the finance department, and a top bureaucrat.

Wilson-Raybould says she felt political pressure and "veiled threats" from government officials

In those various meetings, they repeatedly raised concerns about the possibility of job losses and potential political ramifications of a trial long after that decision had been made.

"Within these conversations, there were expressed statements regarding the necessity of interference in the SNC-Lavalin matter, the potential of consequences and veiled threats if a deferred prosecution agreement was not made available to SNC," she said.

Mr Trudeau's Liberals have struggled to contain the controversy over the past three weeks.

Though she has been a key figure at the centre of the affair, Ms Wilson-Raybould had not yet not spoken publicly, citing solicitor-client privilege.

That privilege was waived by the government on Monday, paving the way for her appearance before the committee on Wednesday.

This began in early February, when the Globe and Mail newspaper reported on allegations of political interference in the case against SNC-Lavalin.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has faced repeated questions about the matter from opposition parties

The newspaper reported, citing unnamed sources, that Mr Trudeau's office pressured Ms Wilson-Raybould to push the public prosecution service to consider a deferred prosecution agreement.

Ms Wilson-Raybould was attorney general and justice minister until January, when she was shuffled into the veterans affairs portfolio, a move widely seen as a demotion.

An attorney general is supposed to act independently with respect of his or her prosecutorial function.

On 12 February, Ms Wilson-Raybould resigned suddenly from Cabinet, though she remains a Liberal member of Parliament.

Finally on 18 February, Mr Trudeau's top aide Gerald Butts announced he was resigning, denying in a statement that he or anyone on his staff did anything wrong but saying he had to leave so as not to be a distraction from the "vital work" being done by the team.

Mr Trudeau and his officials have denied anything improper took place but have struggled to contain the crisis.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday evening, he said he was worried about jobs at SNC Lavalin and how pensioners would be affected.

Opinion polls indicate the matter is beginning to hurt the Liberals with months to go until the coming general election.

The Quebec-based firm is one of the world's largest engineering and construction companies.

The company and two of its subsidiaries face fraud and corruption charges in relation to approximately C$48m ($36m; £28m) in bribes it is alleged to have offered to Libyan officials between 2001 and 2011.

The firm has openly lobbied to be allowed to enter into a remediation agreement instead of going to trial, saying it has cleaned house and changed its ways.

The agreement - similar to regimes in the US and the UK - essentially suspends prosecution while allowing a firm to agree instead to alternative terms or conditions.

SNC-Lavalin and its supporters say it would be unfair to penalise the company as a whole and its thousands of employees for the wrongdoings of former executives.

Preliminary hearings for the charges are currently before the courts. The company says it will "vigorously defend itself" against the allegations.

A conviction could result in a decade-long ban on bidding on Canadian federal contracts, which would be a major financial hit for the firm.

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 16:20

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'Thousands of US child migrants sexually abused'

The US health department has received more than 4,500 complaints of sexual abuse against detained migrant children from 2014-2018, documents show.

The Department of Justice reportedly received an additional 1,303 sex abuse complaints against unaccompanied minors during the same period.

Congressman Ted Deutch, who released the figures, said at least 154 claims are against facility staff members.

A spokesman for the health department said it takes the claims seriously.

"These documents demonstrate over the past three years there have been 154 staff-on-unaccompanied-minor - let me repeat that, staff-on-unaccompanied-minor - allegations of sexual assault," Congressman Deutch said during a House Judiciary Committee hearing.

The hearing, which focused on the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy that led to thousands of immigrant children being separated from their families, featured testimony from Jonathan White, the deputy director for children's program's at Health and Human Services' (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

"This works out, on average, to one sexual assault by HHS staff on an unaccompanied minor, per week," Mr Deutch continued.

Mr White clarified that those allegations are not against HHS staff, but rather against the contractors who are paid by HHS to run the underage migrant detention facilities.

"I will make that clarification. It doesn't make what happened any less horrific," Mr Deutch responded.

Caitlin Oakley, a spokeswoman for HHS, said the shelters are run by childcare service centres that are licensed by state officials.

"These are vulnerable children in difficult circumstances," she said in a statement to Axios, which first reported the documents.

"When any allegations of abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect are made, they are taken seriously and ORR acts swiftly to investigate and respond."

The allegations include sexual relationships, showing pornographic videos to children and forcible touching, according to Axios.

The figures were revealed as Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform voted to issue subpoenas to Trump administration officials involved in the now-suspended policy of separating parents from their children after they illegally cross the US-Mexico border.

The moment a migrant mother is reunited with her son

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 16:16

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Argentine 11-year-old's C-section sparks abortion debate

News that doctors performed a caesarean section on an 11-year-old rape victim has reignited a debate on Argentina's abortion rules.

The girl became pregnant after being raped by her grandmother's 65-year-old partner and had requested an abortion.

However, her request was delayed by almost five weeks, and some doctors refused to carry out the procedure.

Eventually doctors carried out a C-section instead, arguing it would have been too risky to perform the abortion.

The baby is alive but doctors say it has little chance of surviving.

The girl was 23 weeks pregnant when - after several delays - she was to have the abortion.

The debate on whether to relax Argentina's abortion laws continues to rage

Local media report that the girl had been clear from the beginning that she wanted to terminate her pregnancy, telling officials: "I want this thing the old man put inside me taken out."

Abortion is legal in Argentina in cases of rape or if the mother's health is in danger, but in the case of the 11-year-old girl uncertainty about who her legal guardian was caused delays.

The girl's mother agreed with her daughter's wishes but because the girl had been placed in the grandmother's care some time earlier, the mother's consent was at first deemed not enough.

However, because the grandmother had been stripped of her guardianship for co-habiting with the rapist, she could not provide the necessary consent either.

By the time the issue had been settled, the girl was in the 23rd week of her pregnancy.

Further problems surfaced when a number of doctors at the local hospital refused to carry out the procedure, citing their personal beliefs.

On Tuesday, the health authorities in the northern state of Tucuman instructed the hospital director to follow a family judge's decision and to carry out the "necessary procedures to attempt to save both lives".

The family court which the statement quoted has since come forward to say it had made no mention of saving two lives.

The doctors who performed the C-section said they did so not because of the instruction to "save both lives" but because the abortion would have been too risky.

But human rights groups Andhes puts the blame on the Tucuman state health authorities, and pro-choice groups have said that what happened to the girl amounted to "torture".

Abortion is a contentious issue in Argentina and this latest incident comes six months after a divisive debate about whether abortions should be legalised in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

A bill to that effect was defeated in the senate, much to the dismay of pro-choice groups which had been campaigning for a loosening of the laws for years.

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 16:13

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The murderer who's opening a youth centre

Stephen Mellor was jailed for the murder of a rival drug dealer in February 1997. Now out of prison, he wants to set up a youth centre and prevent other children repeating his mistakes. Here he describes the childhood in Preston that led to him becoming a convicted killer.

I was born in Preston, grew up in Preston, five minutes from the city centre. I had five older brothers, five older sisters, all in a three-bedroom house. From a young age I wanted to be a fireman. Unfortunately, the path I took led me far, far away from that.

Mum and dad worked hard but couldn't provide everything because there were so many of us. I wore my older brothers' shoes and clothes, so there were a few issues growing up with people bullying at school. They'd call you a tramp, but I never fought back.

Then one day, I was only 13 and this lad in the year above was giving me grief. I snapped, gave him two punches and he was out cold. That was me expelled from school at 13 years old.

But I had learnt I could fight. People started giving me respect. So, I was fighting more.

No-one ever knocked on the door and said "he needs to go back to school". So, every day, I'd get up, have something to eat, walk into town.

The next day was the same. From age 13 to 17 I used to hang around the St George's shopping centre. Meet other kids. See what we could do to make money.

There was no path, no direction. It were just that circle, day after day. How can I explain it? It's like a noose.

People called us Townies. If other gangs came into town, we'd end up fighting. You'd go down alleys and have scraps, or you'd rob them in the street.

I was known for my fighting. I got done for biting people's noses off, people's ears off. Twice, I got sent to prison. One was a section 18, which is wounding with intent, and the other one was a section 20, which is malicious wounding.

Outside the house, situated above the shops, where Stephen Mellor grew up

I used to fight a lot of men when I was younger. People got to hear your name and wanted to test it.

We started drug dealing. We just needed to make money and obviously we weren't employed. So we started selling ecstasy tablets and then I got approached by a friend of a friend, asking if I wanted to sell heroin.

He supplied us heroin at a cheap rate, so we were charging half as much as other dealers and still making good money.

I was 17, dealing all over Preston. We had a mobile and we'd write down our number, pass it out and that was it. Every heroin addict in Preston wanted to come to me because they got double. We'd have three, four hundred pounds a week each, cash.

Only, it led to the murder.

John Dookie was also dealing heroin with his mates, but we were undercutting them. They got hold of our phone number from a heroin user, asked to meet us and told us to stop dealing, which we never did. Then it escalated.

One night in February 1997, I was watching a Mike Tyson fight and walked home through their area. I got into a fight with them. That night we went back to their house, climbed over the wall and attacked them. I had a hammer, my mate Tony Kirk had a knife, he stabbed John in the leg. A few days later, John was in a car that tried to run Tony down.

On 14 February, John turned up on my doorstep and said he wanted to speak to Tony. We arranged to meet, but when Tony came round he asked me: "Where's the knife?"

I knew he was capable of using it, but I handed it over.

We met John and we all got into a fight in St Peter's Street in Preston. John staggered off, I went after him and sat him down. He said 'I've been stabbed'. I waved a police car down and said he needed help, then left.

Stephen Mellor, left, at the time of his arrest in 1997 and John Dookie, who was murdered

It wasn't me that physically stabbed John, but I got done for murder under joint enterprise. At that time, I was 18 years old and didn't understand the half of it. Most of what they said in court I didn't follow. Now I know joint enterprise means if you go out with someone to commit a crime, then you can all get held responsible for what happens.

So we all got done. I'll never fight it, though, because I'm guilty.

Not a day goes by where I don't regret what happened. I know John's brother Rob Dookie said he can't forgive us for the murder. I know he says we've never said sorry to his family for what happened.

I would have loved to apologise so many times but I'm not allowed contact with John's family. I can't imagine what they feel or think of me and I can't blame them, to be honest. But I'm not going to forget what happened.

St Peter's Street in Preston, where John Dookie was murdered

It's the smell that hits you first in prison. You've got three or five hundred lads together. All the testosterone and sweat. Then the prison officers want the landings clean, so you get all the chemical smells as well.

Prison's not easy. I got arrested in '97, I lost my brother in March '98 - he drowned in the Navy. My best friend killed himself while I was in prison. My nan also died as well.

There's funny stuff you miss. You'll have flashbacks to the taste of McDonalds. Going into a newsagents in the morning. Stepping in dog poo - you never see dog poo in prison.

I remember my mum saying to me in court: "If you want to see your dad alive outside of prison you need to start sorting your head out". My dad's my best mate but he was knocking on a bit.

My first son was also born just before I was sentenced. I thought I might not get to spend time with both of them outside again, so I needed to turn my life around.

I couldn't read or write when I went into prison but you get a good set of teachers in there and if you show them that you want to sort things out, they'll help you. Every night, I'd go back to my cell and practise my handwriting.

My girlfriend at the time would bring my son to visit me and he used to say things like: "When can dad come home?" That keeps you on the straight and narrow.

I did diplomas in personal training and sports psychology while I was in prison. I got a level 3 qualification in engineering, English and maths, which is like an A-level. I also spent a lot of time with the psychologists. They make you go back to your offence and tell them what you were thinking and feeling at the time. It breaks you down. It strips you right down to your heart.

Stephen Mellor in Preston, where he was born, committed a murder and now hopes to open a youth centre

There's two ways to go in prison, the right way and the wrong way. Put your head down, do your books and your sentence will pass. The other way is getting angry, doing drugs. I'd still be in there if I'd done that.

I got parole after 14-and-a-half years, which was the minimum the judge recommended, so I got out of prison in 2011. Tony's out as well now.

It's an amazing feeling, the day you step out of prison. You're flying. You can't wait to get home. You can have a mobile phone and sleep in your own bed. Eat what you want. You can step in dog poo again.

After being released, I was giving a talk at some conference organised by Timpson, the cobblers, who do a lot of work with ex-cons. Some guy approached me and said 'Would you come and give a talk to some kids?' I said 'Of course'.

Afterwards, they asked me to come work with them, so I got my CRB check and I went to work as a support tutor in Preston.

I was working with a lot of the worst kids in Preston. They're beautiful kids and no-one sees it, all they see is the cheek and the bravado. They live on these estates where there's nowhere for them to go, no activities for them to do, it's just a dead end for them.

Some of them, I know I've turned their lives around.

There's one lad that the police could not control, he'd been done for carrying knives and had no qualms about using one. I took him boxing and he absolutely loved it. Then he came to me one day and opened up. He said: "We're going for a gang fight tonight."

I told him to look at my past. "I've wasted my life but you've got a chance," I told him. "Don't be sitting in a cell when your mates are going to Ibiza. Don't be sitting in a cell when your mates are going to big football games. Don't be sitting in a cell when your mates are going out and meeting girls."

I told him to come with me that night and do some boxing. He didn't go to the gang fight. He's now in full-time work.

Stephen Mellor and some of the young people with whom he has worked since his release from prison

I want to open a youth centre in Preston. We're going to offer a safe place and people who listen.

My business partner's Barry Hastewell. Growing up, me and him were both lads around town, we both had reputations. He did four years for conspiracy to supply cocaine, so between us we've served almost 20 years in prison. But we're both different now. He runs a skip business and he's got a coffee shop, a bar and a lap dancing club in town.

We've got a building. We're about to pick up the keys. Barry's invested some money and we've applied for grants. To start with, it will be me and Barry and my wife Sammy working there. She's put up with me for seven years so she knows how to deal with people who've been through hardship.

Stephen Mellor on the day of his wedding to Sammy

In Preston, the reaction to us opening a youth centre has been about 98% very supportive. I've had a few negative comments. I've had people say: "I wouldn't let my child go there with a murderer." I just say my past is my past, I'll never forgive myself and I just hope their children don't end up needing our help.

Kids are being let down at the moment. You can't go to a university and learn how to speak to these kids. They can't tell the teacher at school because the teachers haven't walked that path.

They can't tell the police. They can't tell people in authority. There's always a trust issue. But we can relate to what these kids are going through. I want them to know that I've been in their shoes. I can help them because I understand.

Stephen Mellor outside the property in Preston where he plans to set up a youth centre

It's not just Preston though. There's so many troubled kids out there, all over the country. It's generation after generation. Living in certain estates, falling in with gangs.

They feel there's no way out, but I want to show them that there is if they want it. I threw my life away for stupidity, I see that every morning. But if I let that negativity drag me down it would be for nothing. It's about turning that negative into a positive.

I feel like I lost my path for a little while, but I am at peace with myself now. I've got a family that support me, I've got a good relationship with my eldest son, who was born while I was in prison. I've got a target that I'm working towards.

I'll never ask for forgiveness. All I'm asking for is the chance to make people's lives better. That's all I'm asking for.

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 16:05

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Sean Cox: Man admits Liverpool fan assault

A man has admitted assaulting a Liverpool fan outside the club's Anfield stadium ahead of a Champions League semi-final.

Simone Mastrelli pleaded guilty to attacking Sean Cox, 53, who was left with severe brain injuries before Liverpool played Roma last April.

At Preston Crown Court, Mastrelli, 30 and from Rome, admitted the attack but denied violent disorder.

Mr Cox, from Dunboyne, County Meath, was left in a coma after the attack.

Mastrelli, who was extradited last month after being arrested on a European Arrest Warrant in Italy, is due to be sentenced later.

Mr Cox, a father-of-three, suffered serious catastrophic head injuries in the attack and has been recovering at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire.

He spent four-and-a-half weeks at the Walton Centre in Liverpool, a specialist neurological unit for brain injuries, following the attack on 24 April, before being airlifted to another specialist unit at Dublin's Beaumont Hospital.

Mastrelli entered a guilty plea to unlawfully and maliciously inflicting grievous bodily harm on Mr Cox.

He pleaded not guilty to a separate count of violent disorder, which he was told will lie on file after the Crown accepted his plea.

Another Roma fan, Filippo Lombardi, 21, was cleared in October of inflicting grievous bodily harm on Mr Cox, though he was jailed for three years for violent disorder.

A third man, Daniele Sciusco, 29, from Rome, admitted violent disorder ahead of the match and was jailed for two-and-a-half years, last August.

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 13:15

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Bradford grooming: Nine jailed for abusing girls

Nine men who raped and abused two teenage girls who were living in a children's home have been jailed.

The girls were aged 14 when the men first began to use drink, drugs and violence to groom and sexually exploit them.

Bradford Crown Court heard the abuse started after the girls moved into the home in 2008.

The nine were convicted of 22 offences including rape and inciting child prostitution.

A tenth defendant was cleared of rape.

One of the women, Fiona Goddard, decided to waive her legal right to life-long anonymity to show other victims of abuse "there is nothing to be ashamed of".

Fiona Goddard, 25, waived her legal right to life-long anonymity to discuss her experiences

Sentencing the men to jail terms ranging from 20 years to 18 months, Judge Jonathan Durham Hall QC said: "You appear not to have shown any respect for the minimum standards of decent behaviour."

During the trial, which lasted more than six weeks, prosecutor Karma Melly QC said the gang had taken advantage of the girls' age and situation.

She said: "Some of the defendants were actually forceful, threatening and violent, others used alcohol and drugs, others created a manipulated relationship in order to facilitate their sexual exploitation."

Reading from an impact statement, Ms Goddard, 25, told the court: "I can't change what's happened, but I can rebuild my life."

The jury heard it was Basharat Khaliq who first met the girls in 2008, when he was 27 and they were both 14, before taking them to a petrol station and buying them a bottle of vodka.

Over the following years he groomed and repeatedly raped one of the girls and on one occasion abused Ms Goddard.

The abuse began while the two victims were living in a children's home in Bradford

At about the same time the girls also separately met brothers Saeed and Naveed Akthar, with much of the abuse taking place at Saeed's former address on Saffron Drive.

Ms Melly said: "Fiona was used for sex by the men that came to the property.

"She was used by Saeed to get drugs and bring them back, she was told to go and meet dealers and to ensure she came back with drugs though she was given no money for them.

"She was in effect used as a prostitute on his instruction."

The allegations came to light in 2014 when Ms Goddard saw a report on the grooming and sexual abuse of hundreds of young girls in Rotherham on BBC Look North.

She asked her then partner to contact the BBC to say that similar abuse was happening elsewhere and the BBC "quite properly" notified police.

I would like to take this opportunity to explain why I decided to waive my anonymity.

It's because I wanted to show anyone who has gone through, or is going through, anything similar that there is nothing to be ashamed of.

Crimes like these haven't always been dealt with appropriately in the past, but I am proud to say that the police and other services are working really hard to change this and the stigma surrounding it.

I would like to assure people that if they did come forward, they would be believed and supported.

Speaking outside court, Fiona Goddard told the BBC: "These men have influenced every aspect of my life, for as long as I can remember.

"Today, I got to stand in front of them and take that control back and know that they are never going to impact my life again."

Judge Hall told the courtroom: "Your primary victim sits in court and that lady has shown the utmost courage.

"No doubt for years she felt she had no voice and that she was powerless - well she's got a voice now."

He added: "No major city in England and Wales seems to have been spared this problem of grooming by older men acting together or alone."

Nazir Afzal, former Chief Crown Prosecutor in north-west England, said: "Everybody responsible for the safeguarding of these young girls and every other victim has failed them.

"The police don't have the resources, the prosecutors don't have the resources and most importantly the community groups don't have the resources and I think we will be in this position and I will be having this conversation for years to come."

A statement from Bradford Council said: "The Safeguarding Board will look closely at this case to see if there are any lessons we can learn that could help us keep young people safer."

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 12:09

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Manchester Pride: Ariana Grande responds to backlash

Ariana Grande has responded to a backlash over her headlining Manchester Pride.

The US singer is to perform at the event, two years after 22 people died in a suicide attack after her show at the city's arena.

Grande said she "wanted to chime in" after some expressed concerns about a straight artist topping the LGBT event.

She also responded to complaints about ticket price increases, saying they were "out of her control".

In a Twitter response to a user who suggested the LGBT community was being exploited, Grande said she wanted to comment after seeing "many people" discussing the issue.

The 25-year-old said she wanted to "celebrate" a community that had been "so special to me and supportive throughout my entire career...regardless of my identity or how people label me".

"And also I wanna visit a city that means so much to me," she added.

Grande said that Pride events have been headlined by artists "of all sexual orientations and genders, including straight allies like Cher and Kylie Minogue".

"If you truly feel like I didn't deserve to be offered this spot, I respect that. but I did accept it excitedly and gratefully," she said.

The singer added that she was not claiming to be "the hero of the community or the face of the LGBTQ rights movement".

"I just wanna put on a show that makes my LGBTQ fans feel special and celebrated and supported. That's all I wanna do," she added.

There were complaints among some Pride fans when ticket prices were raised to £71 for a weekend pass - up from £30 last year.

Others expressed concerns that Grande's appearance would attract people who did not support the LGBT movement

While others leapt to the star's defence and said there was no need for her to respond to critics.

One fan said the price hike was due to a larger venue being used this year.

The Pride gig at Mayfield Depot is likely to be an emotional return to the city, two years after the Manchester Arena attack.

Less than two weeks after the bombing, she staged the star-studded One Love benefit concert at Old Trafford cricket stadium.

Grande said Manchester "means so much" to her

The singer is currently at both number one and two in the UK singles chart and also has the number one album.

Manchester Pride Live takes place on the weekend of 24 to 26 August.

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 12:05

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Alejandro G Inarritu: Revenant director to chair Cannes Film Festival jury


Oscar-winning director Alejandro G Inarritu has been named this year's Cannes Film Festival jury president.

The Mexican film-maker, who won back-to-back best director Oscars in 2014 and 2015 for Birdman and The Revenant, said he was "humbled" to be asked.

Inarritu follows on from actress Cate Blanchett, who oversaw the jury at last year's event in the south of France.

The jury chooses the winners of awards including the Palme d'Or. The 2019 festival will run from 14 to 25 May.

Cate Blanchett (second right) chaired the Cannes jury in 2018

Inarritu said: "Cannes is a festival that has been important to me since the beginning of my career.

"I am humbled and thrilled to return this year with the immense honour of presiding over the jury.

"Cinema runs through the veins of the planet, and this festival has been its heart."

Festival president Pierre Lescure and artistic director Thierry Fremau praised Inarritu as "not only a daring film-maker and a director who is full of surprises" but also "a man of conviction, an artist of his time".

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 11:55

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Nicaragua releases dozens of prisoners ahead of talks

Dozens of Nicaraguans who were jailed for taking part in anti-government protests have been released, a human rights organisation says.

The number of those released is not yet clear but witnesses said minibuses with inmates had left a number of jails.

The move comes just hours before talks between the government and an umbrella opposition group are due to resume.

The talks had stalled in June amid a crackdown on anti-government protests during which more than 300 people died.

The protests started in April and lasted for months before fizzling out after more than 700 people were arrested. Human rights group say more than 600 of those remain locked up.

The release began in the early hours of the morning with some of the prisoners singing the national anthem when they were told they would be allowed to go home.

A judicial source told local media that between 100 and 150 would be moved from jails into house arrest.

Minibuses carrying inmates left several jails in the early hours of Wendesday

Meanwhile, members of the opposition umbrella group Civic Alliance have arrived for talks on how to put an end to the political crisis.

Ahead of the meeting, they said that their key demand was for all of those arrested for protesting to be released.

Valeska Valle, a member of a student group and one of those representing the opposition at the talks, said that while they welcomed today's move as a positive sign but that it did not go far enough.

"They've been placed under house arrest, we want to insist on their freedom," she said.

The crisis first started in April when demonstrations against changes to the country's social security system widened into calls for the resignation of President Ortega, who has been in power for the past 12 years.

Talks to find a solution to the crisis broke down seven months ago after President Daniel Ortega ruled out calling early elections, which had been the opposition's chief demand.

Since then, hundreds of people have been jailed and opposition activists speak of "persecution" and "the most severe crisis in generations" for human rights.


ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 11:53

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Venezuela crisis: How much aid is getting in?

The Venezuelan government has denied entry at its borders to hundreds of tonnes of humanitarian aid.

Lorries containing supplies from the United States, Brazil and Colombia were turned away.

The US, which supports the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, says it's offering to provide $20m (£15m) of humanitarian supplies.

But despite the recent stand-off, not all international assistance has been rejected.

The Venezuelan government has praised Russia, an ally of president Nicolás Maduro, for sending aid and said 300 tonnes of it had been transported to Venezuela.

There are also a number of international humanitarian organisations working inside the country.

BBC Reality Check looks at what aid is getting in and how it's used.

President Maduro denies there's a humanitarian crisis and says the US-led relief effort is part of a plan to remove his government.

The aid, including food, hygiene and medical kits, was requested by Mr Guaidó, who declared himself interim president last month.

Aid shipments on the Colombian border have so far been blocked by Venezuela

Last week, Mr Maduro announced that Russia was sending 300 tonnes of food and medical supplies to Venezuela, which would arrive on 20 February.

But in response to questions from BBC News, the Venezuelan government provided no further details about the contents of the aid shipment and said there were currently no opportunities to film it.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was asked about the shipment in a daily press call on 21 February and replied that he didn't have any information but would make inquiries.

BBC News also asked the Russian government for information about the status of this aid package but received no reply.

However, the Pan-American Health Organisation, which works with the World Health Organization (WHO) did release information about medical supplies sent by Russia. A shipment of 7.5 tonnes arrived on 21 February.

A similar delivery was made in April 2018.

The WHO oversaw the delivery of a total of 50 tonnes of medicines and supplies last year from foreign countries'

The EU's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has called for a peaceful and political solution to the crisis in Venezuela

Groups working inside Venezuela say the country is facing chronic healthcare shortages.

The country lacks 85% of medicines it needs, according to the Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela.

The UN's Financial Tracking Service (FTS), which collates global data on humanitarian funding, recorded $24m (£18m) for Venezuela in 2018.

The agencies to have received the most money earmarked for Venezuela include the WHO, the United Nations Children's Fund and the Norwegian Refugee Council.

And this includes about $9m (£6.8m) raised through the UN's central emergency response fund for projects to improve nutrition, overseen by international agencies including UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and the WHO.

So far this year, another $15m has been donated, according to the UN database.

Since November, UN agencies had been scaling up existing activities to meet "urgent health, nutrition and protection needs", a representative of the UN's Office for the Co-ordination for Humanitarian Assistance (UNOCHA) said. And about the half the money needed to fund this had been raised so far.

The European Commission (EC) was the largest donor to organisations working inside Venezuela in 2018, according to the database.

It has been sending humanitarian aid to Venezuela since 2016.

The EC focuses on projects to improve access to food and nutrition, water, hygiene and sanitation for people in Venezuela.

Last June, it announced a €35m (£30m) package that included emergency humanitarian relief for people inside the country, measures to protect people displaced in neighbouring countries and development assistance.

That was followed in December by a €20m emergency relief package and an additional €5m plan was announced this year.

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 11:51

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'Fairytale ending' for fat cat Mitzi returned four times

A plump pussycat who was returned to an animal shelter four times has finally found a home.

Mitzi weighed almost 7.7kg (17lb) when she first arrived at Woodside Sanctuary in Plymouth, Devon, as a stray.

The tubby tabby, dubbed "Britain's fattest cat", has since slimmed to 5.3kg (11lbs) and has been rehomed by the family of one of her old owners.

"She's such a sweet cat," shelter manager Helen Lecointe said. "We really hope she's found her fairytale ending."

Unlucky moggy Mitzi has been returned to the shelter in Plymouth four times

Mitzi was rescued by Woodside Sanctuary in 2017 and staff said she had been "extremely unlucky" in her hunt for a forever home.

"It's been ever so sad for Mitzi," Ms Lecointe said. "There was an owner death, a change of circumstance and one owner became very ill."

Mitzi's new owners had wanted to adopt her when their family member died but were unable to look after her in rented accommodation.

The shelter said staff would be looking after Mitzi until April, when her owners were due to move into a new home.

Helen Lecointe said the shelter had offers from all over the world after Mitzi's story went viral

"We had offers from the US, Sweden and the Middle East, but we're so pleased that we've found an owner who already knows her and loves her," Ms Lecointe said.

"It's very unusual for a cat to be returned this many times but sadly she's just been so unlucky."

Nobody knows for sure how the nine-year-old cat became so big but shelter staff thought she might have been fed by people in several houses.

"Like all cats it seems she was very successful at adopting people," Ms Lecointe said. "No-one owned her but everyone was feeding her."

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 11:41

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Abuse survivor to lead Leeds and Ipswich on to pitch

A Leeds United fan who shared his story of domestic abuse in a BBC documentary has been invited by Ipswich Town to lead both teams out on to the pitch.

Alex Skeel, 23, from Bedford, Bedfordshire, was said to be 10 days away from death after being abused by former girlfriend Jordan Worth.

Worth admitted grievous bodily harm and coercive controlling behaviour and was jailed for seven-and-a-half years.

Mr Skeel will lead the teams out when they meet at Portman Road on 5 May.

Ipswich Town said in a Tweet that it admired his "courage" in raising awareness of male domestic abuse, and invited him to lead the teams as a "Community Champion".

Jordan Worth (left) was jailed for seven-and-a-half years for coercive control and violence against her former boyfriend Alex Skeel

Mr Skeel told his story in the programme "Abused By My Girlfriend" which aired in February and is available on BBC iPlayer.

Worth, 22, became the first woman to be convicted in the UK of coercive controlling behaviour in April last year.

During her trial the court heard she would tell him what he should wear and attacked him physically.

Worth subjected her partner to multiple physical injuries, often requiring hospital treatment. She also denied him food and isolated him from his family.

It came to a head when she threw boiling water over him, leaving him with second and third-degree burns.

Leeds United are currently third in the Championship and are chasing promotion to the Premier League.

Mr Skeel said it was an "amazing feeling" to have been asked to lead out the teams.

"Unexpected, but the best feeling in the world," he said.

"Hopefully I will be walking the champions out. Honestly, I'm just lost for words. Both Ipswich and especially the Leeds fans have been amazing. They've made me love my club even more."

An Ipswich Town spokesman said: "Alex's story has touched a lot of people and with Leeds here at the end of the season, it seemed the perfect opportunity for Ipswich Town to show our support for him by offering him the chance to be our Community Champion for the day and lead both teams out."

BBC Radio Leeds' Adam Pope said that he could be walking the teams out ahead of a "thrilling encounter".

"If Ipswich Town manage to take their battle against relegation to the final day then it could be against a Leeds United side looking to clinch promotion to the Premier League," he said.

"It may be that there is nothing riding on the game itself, but for Alex to lead out his beloved side and to be recognised for his efforts to raise awareness of a cause he believes in, will be memorable whatever the significance of the game itself."

A Leeds United spokesperson said: 'We are thrilled that Ipswich Town have reached out to Alex and given him this wonderful opportunity.

"The reaction to Alex's story has been superb and we look forward to him joining us at Elland Road as soon as possible.

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 11:39

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Sir Tom Hunter: Politicians 'have let us down' on Brexit

Sir Tom Hunter: "Is there any politician who can hold their head up through this [Brexit] process? You have let us all down."

One of Scotland's richest men has accused politicians of letting down the country as he called for another referendum to be held on Brexit.

Sir Tom Hunter said voters had been lied to by the Leave campaign during the EU referendum in 2016.

They had therefore made their decision without knowing the facts about what Brexit would mean, he added.

The entrepreneur also said he believed there should be another referendum on independence - but "not now".

Sir Tom was speaking on the first episode of BBC Scotland's Debate Night programme, which also featured Deputy First Minister John Swinney, Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser, Labour MSP Monica Lennon and poet and author Jenny Lindsay.

The programme was being recorded as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn confirmed his party would join the SNP and Liberal Democrats at Westminster in backing calls for another EU referendum - a so-called People's Vote - after his alternative Brexit plan was again defeated in the Commons.Prime Minister Theresa May has said holding another vote on Brexit would be a betrayal of the democratic decision made by the public in 2015.

MPs voted to endorse Mrs May's Brexit strategy on Wednesday evening - but only after she made a series of concessions.

Responding to a question from the audience about whether the UK would ever actually leave the EU, Sir Tom said he did not know - but that he did know the rest of the world is "laughing at us" as "this is no way to run a country".

He said: "What I would like to see is a People's Vote. I don't think it's the perfect answer, but there are no perfect answers here.

"I know the arguments against it and I respect those arguments, but I make decisions based on some facts and we had very few facts (ahead of the referendum) and the facts that did come we were lied to."

Sir Tom said the other 27 EU countries had "stuck together and slapped us about" while the Conservatives were "ripping each other's throats" and some Labour MPs were quitting the party to join the new Independent Group in the Commons.

He added: "Is there any politician who can hold their head up through this process? You have let us all down, and we are going to have to pay."

Sir Tom went on to contrast the Brexit debate with the "grown up debate in Scotland" ahead of the independence referendum in 2014.

He said: "I think there should be another independence referendum in Scotland, just not now.

"Just look at the chaos we are in just now and I don't think even John (Swinney) would want to pile more chaos on top of that. We need to see what happens here and then have a debate."

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said in January she would set out her plans for a second independence referendum "in the coming weeks" even if the UK's departure from the EU is delayed beyond 29 March.

Her deputy, Mr Swinney, told the audience: "We have said that we would wait until there was clarity on Brexit. I don't think anybody could say we have got clarity on Brexit."

Like Sir Tom, Mr Swinney said he now did not know if the UK was ever going to leave the EU - which "makes me feel more optimistic about this process than I have felt for a long time".

He added: "If I had been on this programme maybe a couple of weeks ago, I would have said yes, inevitably we are going to leave and we are going to leave in a hard no-deal Brexit and that would be a calamity.

"I hope in the period that now unfolds we have the opportunity to establish a different route through this.

"Inevitably, by necessity, we have to revoke Article 50 to give us time to establish what is the best way to proceed.

"I happen to favour a People's Vote, which enables the public to decide upon these particular issues."

Labour MSP Monica Lennon said it was not looking possible for a Brexit deal to be agreed before 29 March, and that an extension now seemed inevitable - with Labour backing another referendum in order to avoid leaving without a deal.

But Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser warned that the country's political institutions were increasingly distrusted by people, and it would therefore be "fundamentally dangerous" for politicians to in effect tell voters they had made the wrong decision in 2015.

And he said he remained confident that the country would leave the EU "because that is what the people of the United Kingdom voted for".

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 11:36

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The phone-makers bringing buttons back

The Pro1 has a keyboard hidden inside

An Android phone that slides open to reveal a physical qwerty keyboard inside has launched at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

The F(x)tec Pro1 phone also has a bespoke shutter button on the side to click when taking photos.

The London start-up behind it said it wanted to "return the keyboard" to consumers.

Other handsets with keyboards built in, from brands such as BlackBerry Mobile and Swiss firm Punkt, were also on show.

"A lot of consumer tech still has buttons even though the tech is there to get rid of them," said Adrian Li Mow Ching, founder of F(x)tec.

"Haptic feedback never gives the same satisfaction as pressing a physical button.”

He said that the folding handsets unveiled by phone giants Huawei and Samsung demonstrated that "people want more than the single slab".

Zoe Kleinman with the Pro1

The handset I tried was a prototype, but it ran pretty smoothly. It was chunkier than a standard smartphone and a little heavier.

While I cannot deny that the sliding keyboard was fun to open, I did fear for the hinge and the plastic stand on which the screen sits at an angle.

The keys did take a little getting used to if you are more familiar with a touchscreen pad, but I found I made fewer typos when writing.

The Pro1 will go on sale in July for £649, or $649 in the United States.

F(x)tec says its apps have been optimised for landscape use

The Nokia 950 prototype inspired the Pro1

Lianchen Chen, who designed the device, describes himself as a BlackBerry fan. However, his device was inspired by a prototype from Nokia he was given in 2010, which was never released to the public.

The Nokia 950 had a slide-out keyboard hidden beneath the screen but was only ever given to app developers. Mr Chen said he used it until 2015.

The Pro1 features a full touchscreen in addition to its physical keyboard, an approach shared by BlackBerry Mobile's Key2.

Punkt’s MP02 phone is also covered in buttons, but it has limited functionality compared to modern smartphones. It is designed to be a so-called companion phone rather than a primary device.

Punkt's phone is a "companion" device

Punkt chief executive Petter Neby said the device would have been 75% cheaper to manufacture if it had just a touchscreen rather than physical keys. But he said physical keys gave people a more "optimal" experience.

“We press keys and buttons all the time and expect something to happen,” he told the BBC.

“The touchscreen is a convenience, it’s not optimal for a call to action.”

Both F(x)tec and Punkt deny that the hardware required for a physical keyboard limits the life of their devices.

Mr Neby says he still uses a 10-year-old BlackBerry with physical keys as his primary phone and has experienced no issues with it.

The BlackBerry Key2 sports a touchscreen and a keyboard

UK start-up Planet Computers is another company producing Android phones with physical keyboards. In 2018, it successfully crowd-funded a modernised "digital assistant" device, and is now working on a follow-up phone.

However, there is no indication that the broader mobile phone industry is planning a physical keyboard comeback.

“I am not sure if this is nostalgia or trying to find a way in the market serving those groups that the big guns have no interest in serving,” said analyst Carolina Milanesi from the consultancy Creative Strategies.

“I think this is really more what we see in a market where competing with the top players requires not just different hardware but a different approach to the market.”

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 11:25

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TikTok: Record fine for video sharing app over children's data


The company has agreed to pay $5.7m (£4.3m) and implement new measures to handle users who say they are under 13.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said the app, which was later acquired and incorporated into TikTok, knowingly hosted content published by underage users.

It has ordered TikTok to delete the data.

Additionally, as of Wednesday, TikTok users in the US will be required to verify their age when they open the app.

However, like many social networks, age verification is implemented on a trust basis - a person signing up simply has to lie about their date of birth in order to get around the check.

"We care deeply about the safety and privacy of our users," the firm said. "This is an ongoing commitment, and we are continuing to expand and evolve our protective measures in support of this."Despite this, TikTok said it would not be asking existing users in other countries, including the UK, to verify their age as the settlement only applied to the US.

After being one of the most downloaded apps of 2018, TikTok has an estimated base of 1 billion users worldwide.

But the FTC was concerned about how old some of those users were. Its report said the app had 65 million users in the US, a "large percentage" of which were underage.

TikTok's parent company, China-based ByteDance, acquired in 2017, and incorporated it into TikTok, discontinuing the original app. The apps allowed members to create short videos, set to music, to share with other users.

"For the first three years [of its existence], didn't ask for the user's age," the FTC's statement read.

"Since July 2017, the company has asked about age and prevents people who say they're under 13 from creating accounts. But didn't go back and request age information for people who already had accounts."

The FTC noted media reports suggesting adults on had contacted children who were obviously under 13 because "a look at users' profiles reveals that many of them gave their date of birth or grade in school".

TikTok users in the US will be required to verify their age when they open the app

According to the regulators complaint, was contacted by more than 300 concerned parents in just a two-week period in September 2016. While the profiles of the children involved were subsequently deactivated, the content the child had posted was not deleted.

The FTC said TikTok would be fined because of what it saw a's failure to adhere to the basic principles of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, known as Coppa.

Obligations include being upfront in how children's data is collected and used, as well as a mechanism by which to inform parents their child is using the service, and obtain their consent.

The company was also said to have not responded adequately to parents' requests to delete data, and subsequently held onto that data for longer than was reasonable.

TikTok would not share estimates on how many underage users had been, or still were, on the platform.

TikTok's settlement does not constitute an admission of guilt, but the BBC understands the firm does not plan to contest any of the FTC's allegations. The process of deleting the data in question has begun, but the firm could not give an estimate of how long it would take.

To comply with regulations in future, TikTok said it was launching an "experience" for under-13 users that would strip out much of the functionality of the main app.

"While we've always seen TikTok as a place for everyone, we understand the concerns that arise around younger users," the company said.

"In working with the FTC and in conjunction with today’s agreement, we’ve now implemented changes to accommodate younger US users in a limited, separate app experience that introduces additional safety and privacy protections designed specifically for this audience."

That app experience will disable the ability for users to just about everything TikTok offers, such as "share their videos on TikTok, comment on others' videos, message with users, or maintain a profile or followers".

TikTok told the BBC it did not plan to provide the under-13 experience to users outside of the US, and instead would continue to limit use to those 13 and above.

Users responded by saying the process did not work properly, or that they did not have the required verification.

"I'm sorry but this is ridiculous, I don't have a government ID and I'm 14,” wrote one user on Twitter.

The firm admitted it was "a bit complicated".

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 11:22

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Estonians rescue wild wolf from ice thinking it was a dog

Kind-hearted Estonian workers rushed to rescue a dog in distress from a freezing river on Wednesday - unaware of the fact they were actually about to bundle a wild wolf into their car.

The men were working on the Sindi dam on the Parnu river when they spotted the animal trapped in the icy water.

After clearing a path through the ice, they took the frozen canine to a clinic for medical care.

Only then was it revealed they had been carrying a wolf.

The wolf was covered in ice when pulled from the near-frozen water

The Estonian Union for the Protection of Animals (EUPA) said the wolf had low blood pressure when it arrived at the veterinarian's office, which may have explained its docile nature after the men carried it to their car to warm it up.

Speaking to the Estonian newspaper Postimees, one of the men, Rando Kartsepp, said: "We had to carry him over the slope. He weighed a fair bit."

"He was calm, slept on my legs. When I wanted to stretch them, he raised his head for a moment," he added.

Veterinarians had some suspicions over the large dog's true nature, but it was a local hunter, familiar with the region's wolves, who finally confirmed it for what it was: a young male wolf, about a year old.

"He was calm, slept on my legs," Mr Kartsepp said of the journey to the vet's office

Armed with this new information, clinic staff decided to put the wolf in a cage after treatment - in case it became less docile once it recovered.

The EUPA said it paid for the animal's treatment, and that "luckily, everything turned out well".

The wolf recovered from its brush with death within the day and, after being fitted with a GPS collar by researchers from the national environmental agency, was released back into the wild.

"We are so happy for the outcome of the story, and wish to thank all the participants – especially these men who rescued the wolf and the doctors of the clinic who were not afraid to treat and nurture the wild animal," EUPA said.

Estonia is home to hundreds of wolves, only a handful of which have been collared in recent years. As a species, they usually avoid humans.

It was picked as Estonia's national animal last year by a group of nature organisations.

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 11:18

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‘Britain’s loneliest dog’ Hector finally finds home

A lurcher dubbed "Britain's loneliest dog" has finally found a "forever" home.

Two-year-old Hector had been in a shelter since he was rescued by the RSPCA over welfare concerns in 2017.

Hundreds of people from all over the world offered to re-home him after a campaign by Little Valley Animal Shelter in Exeter, Devon, went viral.

The lonely lurcher, who spent more than 500 days at the shelter, had been its longest-staying resident.

"We couldn't be happier for him," the shelter said. "We can't stop smiling."

Hector captured hearts all over the world after his campaign to find a home went viral

Staff at Little Valley said they were overjoyed their "longest-staying resident had finally found his forever family".

The centre was "inundated" with messages from would-be owners worldwide after its campaign to re-home Hector went viral at the start of February.

The shelter thanked its "amazing supporters" for helping Hector find his "happy ever after".

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 11:14

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Tom Ballard: 'Killer mountain' search for British climber

A helicopter search team has set off to find a British climber who was reported missing on a peak in Pakistan.

Tom Ballard and Italian climber Daniele Nardi last made contact on Sunday, from an altitude of about 20,669ft (6,300m) on Nanga Parbat.

Bad weather and mounting tensions between Pakistan and India had delayed attempts to reach the site.

Ali Sadpara, who has previously scaled the mountain, is understood to be on board the Pakistani army helicopter.

Mr Ballard, from Derbyshire, is the son of Alison Hargreaves, who died descending from the summit of K2, the same year she became the first woman to conquer Everest unaided in 1995.

Nanga Parbat is the world's ninth highest mountain and notoriously difficult to climb.

Stefano Pontecorvo, the Italian ambassador in Pakistan, tweeted on Thursday morning: "Rescue helicopter to search for Daniele Nardi and Tom Ballard is flying and approaching area of Nanga Parbat where they could be."

It has been reported that weather was poor in the area at the time the pair last made contact.

A number of deaths have earned it the nickname of "Killer Mountain".

Mr Ballard, 30, had been living in Italy's Dolomites mountain range with his father for the last few years and is "regarded extremely highly in the climbing world", according to online magazine Planet Mountain.

Alison Hargreaves died while descending from the summit of K2 in 1995

Nanga Parbat has only been climbed in winter once before by experienced Pakistani mountaineer Ali Sadpara.

He is flying to Nanga Parbat to scour the mountain with the Pakistan Army.

A Foreign Office spokesman said they were in contact with Pakistani authorities regarding Mr Ballard's disappearance.


ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 11:13

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Walsall siblings' stomachs removed over cancer risk

Three siblings have had their stomachs removed after testing positive for a cancer gene following the deaths of their mother and sister from stomach cancer.

Tahir Khan, 44, Sophia Ahmed, 39, and Omar Khan, 27, from Walsall, underwent the surgery after a series of tests at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge.

They said the operation had saved their lives and "eliminated" the risk.

However, Tahir's daughter has now been found to have the same gene.

The siblings' mother, Pearl Khan, was 49 when she died 16 years ago, six months after she was diagnosed.

Their 32-year-old sister Yasmin Khan died about six years ago.

Tahir said: "We didn't even think about genetic testing at that time but Sophia was very tenacious and worked with Cancer Research UK to get us all tested."

The screening and tests for all four of the remaining siblings, including their other sister Tracy Ismail, 49, took from about 12 months to three years.

They identified three of them were carriers and each decided to undergo the operation as a preventative measure. Sophia had the operation first, followed by Tahir and Omar.

Tracy, who was the only sibling to find out she did not have the gene, said: "They told me my results first, so I just thought we would all be the same.

"It was very bittersweet. I was totally devastated.

"At one point we were told that if we hadn't had the testing done, I'd be the only sibling left.

"Knowing what my mom and sister had gone through and so quickly, I encouraged them to have the procedure done, and they're all still here."

The siblings' mum Pearl Khan and sister Yasmin Khan both died from cancer

Sophia said: "I read in my sister Yasmin's notes in hospital that they thought it may be genetic so I did some research and found out the hospital in Cambridge was doing a study with Cancer Research so I contacted them and went from there.

"Everyone thought I was mad until we had the results come back and when we saw it was three of us out of the four, I knew it was worth it."

Sophia said she can "still eat and do everything" and added: "The only issue is maintaining my weight and my vitamin deficiencies but in comparison to having stomach cancer and a few years to live, I can't complain.

"I even had a baby after the operation, they thought I might be malnourished or the baby would be tiny, but everything was absolutely fine."

Cancer Research UK said some tests are available for an inherited faulty gene that can increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer.

Tests for gastric cancer can include a blood test and chest X-ray, faecal sample testing, an endoscopy, ultrasound scan and laparoscopy.

gastrectomy is the name of the procedure of removing part or all of the stomach.

During the procedure, the top of the stomach is connected to the gullet, the bottom of the stomach to the first part of the small intestine, and the gullet to either the small intestine or the remaining section of stomach.

This means that the patient will still have a working digestive system, although it will not function as well as it did before.

For about two weeks after the operation, patients are fed through a tube into the vein, but eventually will be able to eat most foods and liquids.

However, people who have had the procedure will need to eat more frequently and smaller portions, rather than three large meals a day, and take vitamin supplements to get the right amount of nutrition.

Now, the food the siblings eat goes into a "small pouch" that was made by connecting the oesophagus to the intestine.

"I used to be 15st but now I'm only just over 10," Tahir said.

"I have to graze constantly because my body just can't get the nutrients it needs otherwise.

"My brother, on the other hand, he still eats like a horse."

Omar has a different view of the procedure.

He said: "At first after everything with my mom and sister I didn't want anything to do with hospitals or doctors or anything like that.

"But seeing my Sophia go through the procedure and have a baby afterwards, I thought 'I've got no excuse'.

"It was a really hard decision for me but it was the best one I've ever made.

"I still can eat whatever I like - burgers, steaks - the only thing I get is exhaustion and cold sweats but I'm still breathing and I'm so thankful for that."

The screening and tests for all of the siblings took from about 12 months to three years

However, Tahir's daughter, Farah, who is 21, has since tested positive for the gene too.

He said: "I am worried about my daughter's future, but I say to her we have all gone through it and are fine now, so whatever happens she'll be OK."

Tahir underwent his surgery five and a half years ago after his test found he had clusters of cancerous cells in his stomach lining.

"They said I effectively had cancer but because it was contained in my stomach lining and I had all that removed, it eliminated it. I could have had only days, weeks, maybe a year maximum left before I would have been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

"There's no doubt in my mind that having the tests and the procedure done saved my life."

Dr Marc Tischkowitz, consultant physician in medical genetics at the University of Cambridge, said: "This is a very rare, specific type of stomach cancer.

"It's a gene that carriers can have for their lifetime and means that they are at risk of developing cancer any time."

He said the stomach removal was "a dramatic life-changing procedure" and said there was "no way of knowing in all cases that the person who carries the gene will 100% have developed cancer in their lifetime".

Georgina Hill, from Cancer Research UK, said: "It's estimated only 3-10% of cancer cases are linked to an inherited faulty gene.

"Anyone worried about their genetic cancer risk should talk to their doctor, who can refer those with a strong family history of certain cancers to a genetic counselling clinic if appropriate."

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 11:10

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Tump Kim talks: What to make of the Hanoi summit collapse?

The second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has ended without any deal or agreement.

Washington insists though that dialogue with Pyongyang will continue and the collapse of the Hanoi summit is not a major disappointment.

Here's a roundup of North Korea experts looking at the summit and what to make of its sudden end.

The "no deal" outcome could have been seen coming a mile away. Indeed, a serious reading of public North Korean statements since last year's Singapore summit would have revealed the core issue that resulted in a lack of agreement.

The day after the Singapore summit, North Korean state media paraphrased Kim Jong-un as noting Pyongyang would take "additional good-will measures" if the US took "genuine measures." By that date, North Korea had dismantled its nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri and announced a moratorium on nuclear tests and intercontinental-range ballistic missile tests.

Weeks later, North Korea would also partially and reversibly dismantle a missile-engine test stand.

When Mr Kim met South Korean President Moon Jae-in for a third summit in Pyongyang last September, they referenced North Korea's nuclear facilities at Yongbyon as an example of something the North would put on the table in exchange for "corresponding measures" from the US.

Finally, on 1 January this year, Kim Jong-un made the same point in his New Year's address: corresponding measures would lead to progress in the US-North Korea diplomatic relationship. This phrase was misinterpreted to mean any range of US concessions, including a possibly a declaration to end the Korean War, when it really meant sanctions relief.

All smiles and yet no final deal

Critically, the sequence matters to North Korea: the US would have to agree for sanctions relief up front for any further concessions on denuclearization to flow. In effect, Yongbyon will remain off the table until the US provides sanctions relief.

Donald Trump confirmed this is precisely what caused the breakdown of talks at his press conference on the second day of the Hanoi summit.

As long as Washington remains unwilling to take the first step on sanctions relief, this process will likely remain stuck. The longer it remains stuck, the more likely it is to collapse.

It is surprising that they didn't come away with a preliminary deal, as they clearly had the outline for one going into the final round of pre-summit negotiations.

The tone of the press conference was relatively positive, indicating that the administration still sees a way forward and intends to continue negotiations.

That's encouraging for now, while also offering some relief to those who thought the US would accept a "bad deal".

However, in the meantime, no concrete obligations have been placed on either side and I would suspect that offers of confidence building measures that we've seen coming from North Korea in the past - such as dismantling of the nuclear test site - are unlikely to continue.

Of all the stakeholders in this process, the lack of movement on the US-North Korea agenda puts South Korea in a very awkward position, unable to secure the sanctions exemptions they were hoping for as part of this deal, which would facilitate the resumption of inter-Korean economic cooperation.

Moreover, despite the president's stated will to continue negotiating with North Korea, in the current domestic political environment, there is a real risk of the momentum for this issue waning amidst a sea of competing interests.

Fundamentally, this summit was supposed to kick off a process through which the two countries were going to try to move to a more win-win relationship, rather than the zero-sum "I win, you lose" frame that has dominated US-North Korea relations since, well, forever.

As such, you have to say that everybody lost.

From Mr Trump's perspective it will be a loss he can weather, however. A "bad deal" in which he gave away a lot would inspire years of debate and pushback from US foreign-policy elites. With this, he's spun it as save-able through working-level talks and will head home and the news cycle will move on.

This is the risk for North Korea.

Momentum is hard to build between these two countries and there is every chance now that Donald Trump becomes distracted by politics in the US and this window of opportunity closes.

Who knows who the next president will be and what he or she aspires to with North Korea?

That the North Koreans went into this agreement demanding "all sanctions" be lifted, as Trump said, suggests there is an increasing desperation on the part of Pyongyang for relief, and that they see any other kind of deal as essentially pointless - we'll have to see their response in the coming day.

North Korea's economy is suffering severely from the sanctions

It is also a major embarrassment for the South Korean government, which had planned a major announcement on the "Future of Korean peace and prosperity" tomorrow and had hopes for a major expansion of cooperation with the North in the wake of this summit.

China and Russia, too, will be very frustrated with this outcome.

The mood in Pyongyang may be tempered, however, by Mr Trump's comments that he will not increase sanctions against the country, and that he would "love" to see them lifted in the near future.

The message is that while no formal relief is going to happen anytime soon, the days of "maximum pressure" are long gone.

President Trump made the right decision to walk away from a deal.

North Korea's ask to remove all sanctions was untenable and also illegal. According to US and UN sanctions, sanctions cannot be removed until complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear program takes place and the regime makes human rights improvements.

The 80,000 to 120,000 North Korean people inside those prisons camps are being exploited by Kim Jong-un as free labour to fund and architect his nuclear and missile weapons program.

Reports indicate that some may even have chemical and biological weapons tested on them.

Authorities brutally crack down on any dissent

Failure to reach a deal in Hanoi demonstrates the need to craft a more comprehensive policy toward North Korea one that see human rights and denuclearization as interconnected.

Future diplomacy, if it's even possible, should reflect the multifaceted nature of current US law.

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 11:05

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Michael Cohen: Takeaways from testimony of Trump's ex-lawyer

Michael Cohen is unleashing a series of explosive accusations directed towards Donald Trump touching on multiple controversies that have bedevilled the president during his time in office. Here are five takeaways from his dramatic testimony to Congress.

Mr Cohen suggests the president had advance knowledge of his son's June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians and that WikiLeaks was poised to release damaging information about Democrats.

He says the president personally signed cheques reimbursing him for a hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels. He alleges that the president was fully aware of ongoing negotiations for a Trump Tower in Moscow well into the 2016 presidential campaign.

Many of these assertions rely almost exclusively on Cohen's word - the word of a man who has already admitted to lying to Congress and to the federal government on his taxes. What's more, while his allegations are certainly politically damaging, they aren't incontrovertible evidence of legal misconduct by the president.

Michael Cohen: Trump told me 'Don Jr had worst judgement in world'

If there is a case to be made against Mr Trump, it will have to rely on more than the word of his former lawyer and fixer.

That's not to undersell the blockbuster nature of the day's proceedings, however. The public now has a chance to determine, under the glare of the spotlight, whether Cohen lied in the past to protect the president or is lying now to protect himself.

Or, perhaps, a bit of both.

Most of the early attention paid to Michael Cohen's testimony involved his connections to the assortment of controversies that have swirled around Mr Trump since he became president.

It's one thing to read the advance text of a committee statement, however, and it's another to see it in the flesh. If there were any doubts about how effective Cohen would be as a witness, he quickly put them to rest.

Cohen - in a dark suit, with his voice occasionally wavering - testified about what it was like to work with Mr Trump for more than a decade. What he learned, he said, made him ashamed.

He called his former boss a racist, a cheat and a conman. He says he had both good and bad attributes, but that bad outweighed the good.

"Since taking office," Cohen said, "he has become the worst version of himself."

Republicans were quick to pounce. Mark Meadows asked why, if Cohen was so ashamed, he stuck with Mr Trump for 10 full years. Wasn't it a possibility, he suggested, that Cohen was bitter that he didn't get a White House job and was taking it out on his former boss?

"I got exactly what I wanted," Cohen replied, noting that he preferred to spend his time in New York, with his teenage children.

That may have been the case two years ago, but there's little chance Cohen wanted - or imagined - the situation he finds himself in now.

Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee have repeatedly hit on what could be the most legally damaging part of Cohen's testimony on Wednesday.

Mr Trump's former lawyer has presented new, documentary evidence of payments made to him by Mr Trump - including a cheque with the president's signature. He says this money was a reimbursement for his 2016 election eve hush-money payment to Stormy Daniels. The adult film star was poised to claim that she and Mr Trump had sexual relations in the 2006.

US government prosecutors in New York have said that Mr Cohen's payment to Daniels constituted an undisclosed campaign contribution in violation of federal election law - a charge to which Cohen has pleaded guilty.

If Cohen can help draw a connection between the Daniels payment and the president himself, it could implicate Mr Trump in a crime.

The president's legal team has responded to similar allegations in the past by arguing that the payments to Cohen were part of a retainer fee and that Mr Trump had no knowledge of Cohen's illegal activities and was relying on his lawyer to know and abide by campaign finance law.

The more evidence Cohen presents to back up his claim that Mr Trump was fully aware of the hush-money payments, the more difficult it becomes for him to maintain this position.

The Republican strategy for responding to Cohen's testimony has been clear from the beginning. They want to paint the former lawyer as a convicted liar who can't be trusted on any count.

They're less concerned about rebutting the individual allegations - about Trump Tower, Russia business dealings, hush-money payments or WikiLeaks revelations - than they are in dismissing Cohen's testimony as the work of an untruthful man being put forward by enemies of the president for political purposes.

Congressman Paul Gosar went so far as to hold up a large sign with "Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!!" emblazoned over a picture of the witness.

Cohen has tried to parry these charges multiple ways. One is to claim that he has come to the realisation, after Mr Trump's performance as president, of how damaging his support of his former boss has been.

He cited the Charlottesville violence, the Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin and the president's coarseness on Twitter as prime examples. That could be a tough sell, however, given the litany of allegations Cohen has levelled against Mr Trump that predate his time as president.

A more effective counter has been when Cohen has tried to hold himself up as a cautionary tale - that he is making amends because his life has come crashing down and not the other way around.

"I protected Trump for 10 years," he told the committee. "The more people that follow Mr Trump as I did blindly are going to suffer the same consequences that I'm suffering."

He called himself the "picture perfect example of what not to do".

Cohen isn't going to convince many that he's a saint or a sympathetic figure. When he's been his most effective on Wednesday is when he hasn't tried to.

Donald Trump wrapped up his day in Vietnam around the time Cohen began his congressional committee testimony. After a lavish dinner of chilled shrimp, grilled steaks and "chocolate lava cake" with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he returned to his hotel room, where if past history is any guide, he probably reviewed the day's news coverage.

What he saw couldn't have made him happy. US media - including his favourite, Fox News - are giving the Cohen hearings wall-to-wall coverage. The president's second summit with Mr Kim, being billed as "historic" by the White House, has been relegated to a secondary story.

That might change on Thursday, when the two leaders hold a joint press event where they could announce the results of their negotiations. But for one day at least his former lawyer - who he once said was a "fine man with a wonderful family" and later called a "rat" - held the national stage.

Cohen has given Democrats on the Oversight and Reform Committee a number of threads to pursue in further hearings and investigations. It isn't a stretch to imagine that portions of his testimony could someday be cited by Democrats as evidence for impeachment hearings.

In addition Cohen hinted at other potential presidential wrongdoing and illegalities - including a conversation with the president in June 2018 - that he couldn't discuss because they are currently being investigated by US attorneys in New York.

The president is half a world away, but the fallout from Cohen's day on Capitol Hill - a day when Cohen called the president a racist, a conman and a cheat, and Republicans called Cohen a liar - will be waiting for him when he gets home.

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 11:02

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India and Pakistan in 'uncharted waters'

"We are in uncharted waters," says Husain Haqqani, alluding to the latest round of heightened hostilities between India and Pakistan.

The former Pakistani ambassador to the US served as an adviser to three Pakistani prime ministers. He is the author, most recently, of Reimagining Pakistan: Transforming a Dysfunctional Nuclear State.

After Tuesday's air strikes by India targeting militants in Pakistani territory, Pakistan promised to respond "at the time and place of its choosing".

Less than 24 hours later, Pakistan said it had launched air strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) dividing Pakistan and Indian-controlled Kashmir. It also claimed to have shot down two Indian Air Force jets in its airspace in Kashmir and arrested two pilots on the ground. India has shut down parts of its airspace in the north of the country.

Many believe that the Pakistani strike could be seen as a tit-for-tat - it, like India, feels the need to placate its domestic constituency. But the challenge now is to contain the escalation of hostilities before things get completely out of control.

For one, Tuesday's air strikes by India were completely unexpected. They are the first launched across the LoC - the de facto border that divides Kashmir - since a war between the two countries in 1971.

"Pakistani military establishment had banked on India's reluctance to escalate in using asymmetrical warfare (terrorism) under the nuclear umbrella," Professor Haqqani told me.

Indian warplanes crossed the Line of Control and struck targets in Pakistan on Tuesday

"India feels it has found a soft spot where it can strike - whether on ground using special forces as in 2016 or using air strikes as they have done now - without crossing that threshold."

Professor Haqqani says Pakistan "does not want war with India but its military faces a credibility challenge".

"It does not want to shut all jihadi groups. But the jihadis' presence is a constant source of problems. In 2011 the Americans entered Pakistani air space to get Osama Bin Laden. Now the Indians entered Pakistani air space, dropped bombs and returned home without resistance.

"How will the Pakistani military explain itself to a public that accepts a huge military budget on the grounds of its military's ability to defend Pakistani sovereignty?"

Daniel Markey, a senior professor at Johns Hopkins University in the US, says the problem is that "most military solutions to the Pakistan problem at India's disposal are far, far more costly to India than they are likely to bring about the desired end state".

"Everyone in Delhi knows this. The goal now is to introduce a higher level of punishment for each instance of Pakistani aggression. It's not a bad strategy, as long as each move is calculated carefully and there aren't too many mistakes.

"For instance, in this episode, some reports suggest that Indian aircraft had intended to fire from the Indian side of the LoC, but wind forced them into Pakistani territory. If true, that's the sort of unintended element of escalation that introduces new risk at each step."

Daniel Markey believes the escalation is more serious than one anticipated - "moving the conflict into Pakistan 'proper' was intended to be a muscular and different move, one that most recent Indian prime ministers would have been reluctant to take".

So is there a real threat of a nuclear conflict?

"Sadly, there is always a real threat of nuclear escalation between India and Pakistan, but we are several steps from that at this moment. Aside from accidental or unauthorised use (both unlikely), we would need to see a significant conventional escalation in this conflict before nuclear use looks likely," says Dr Markey.

"But these escalations are possible, especially if Pakistan's next step were to raise the stakes by hitting Indian civilian targets."

That is highly unlikely - but the question for the countries now is can they find a way of stepping back from their most dangerous flashpoint in decades?

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 10:52

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Ethiopia PM Abiy Ahmed to host a fundraising dinner

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed will be hosting a fundraising dinner to help secure $1bn (£750m) for infrastructure projects in the capital.

Officials said tickets will be charged at more than $175,000 per person, but further details are unclear.

The dinner hopes to boost foreign investment into one of Africa's fastest growing economies.

Since coming to power last year, Mr Abiy has pushed for wide-scale economic reform in Ethiopia.

A video released by the prime minister's has set out plans for the redevelopment of Addis Ababa, including an expansion of green spaces and retail areas.Correspondents say Ethiopia likes to raise funds itself rather than rely heavily on foreign donors. Similar events have been arranged for economic investment and humanitarian relief.

Prime Minister Abiy sold his watch for $175,000 during a recent event for infrastructure development in Ambo, 100km (60 miles) west of Addis Ababa. About $14m was raised in total.

Mr Abiy came to power after three years of protest led by ethnic Oromos, who were demanding an end to what they considered their political and economic marginalisation.

The prime minister, who is Oromo himself, has pushed through a series of significant reforms, making peace with neighbouring Eritrea and releasing the state's tight grip on parts of the economy.

His economic ambitions including a multibillion-dollar privatisation of Ethiopia's telecoms, energy, shipping and sugar industries. A domestic stock exchange is set to launch in 2020.

The reforms have attracted millions of dollars in foreign investment, especially from the Middle East.

But Mr Abiy's crackdown on corruption has drawn criticism from members of the country's previous regime.

In June 2018, he was targeted in bomb attack which killed two people at a rally in support of his government.

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 10:47

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Air-France KLM: Dutch surprise France by taking airline stake

France has reacted frostily to the Dutch government's sudden purchase of a stake in Air France-KLM in attempt to counter French influence.

Shares in the airline company fell 11% after the Netherlands government said late on Tuesday it was acting to protect "Dutch interests".

The Dutch bought a 14% stake, aiming to match France's 14.3% share.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire insisted the company should be "managed without national public interference".

The Dutch move began late on Tuesday, with an initial acquisition of 12.7% of Air France-KLM shares.

According to French reports, the government in Paris was informed of the Dutch move only an hour before a press conference on Tuesday night, and after the shares had been bought.

A ministry source told AFP news agency the Dutch move was both "surprising" and "unfriendly", more in the manner of market traders than a state shareholder.

The Dutch government then upped its stake on Wednesday to 14%.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the Dutch government should "clarify its intentions".

"Buying this stake ensures we have a seat at the table," Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra said of the initial move, which cost about €680m (£583m; $774m). By the end of Wednesday it had spent €774m.

The justification, he said, was to protect Dutch economic interests and jobs - particularly regarding Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. Schiphol is Europe's third busiest airport after London Heathrow and Paris Charles de Gaulle.

KLM is more profitable than its French counterpart and retains much public support for its reputation as the national carrier. The monarch of the Netherlands, King Willem-Alexander, even serves as a co-pilot on the company's planes on a regular basis to maintain his pilot's licence.

King Willem-Alexander flies as a KLM co-pilot - in secret- twice a month

There was widespread political support in the Netherlands for the secret share-purchase. Centre-right CDA leader Sybrand Buma said it was of "great significance for a solid future for KLM".

Mr Hoekstra is expected to meet his French counterpart later in the week, which French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux predicted would be a "frank but friendly, but especially frank" discussion.

Air France-KLM was formed out of a merger of the two national flag carriers in 2004 - though the airlines themselves have continued to operate under their own separate banners.

Until now, the Netherlands held only a 6% stake in KLM - the smaller subsidiary - while France owns 14.3% of the parent company.

The surprise move from the Dutch came after a series of disagreements in which the Dutch felt they did not have enough influence in the holding company, which was deciding strategy.

Disagreements between the holding company and KLM management - mainly about the autonomy of the Dutch airline - have been made public in the past year.

Strikes in France in 2018 caused company-wide losses, much to KLM's frustration. A Canadian CEO, Ben Smith, was appointed at the holding company and seen as trying to assert greater authority over the Dutch subsidiary.

In recent weeks, reports emerged that the position of KLM's CEO Pieter Elbers could be under threat because of his vocal support for keeping the two operations separate.

Last week, the group announced a "goal of simplifying and improving the governance", part of which involves increasing collaboration.

French financial newspaper La Tribune characterised the sudden move by the Netherlands as a "thunderbolt" while Le Monde saw it as a "stock market blitzkrieg".

The Air France-KLM board of directors was expected to meet on Wednesday to discuss the fallout.

Delta Air Lines and China Eastern Airlines each hold a 8.8% stake in the company.

  • Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari has been re-elected for a second four-year term.

    His main rival, runner-up Atiku Abubakar, has called the election a "sham" and vowed to challenge the result in court.

    Here are five things we've learnt from an election marred by controversy.

    With 73 million able to vote, this could have been Africa's biggest-ever election - but only a third of the electorate showed up.

    So what was billed as a record-breaking election did break the records but for an altogether different reason. The 2019 general election recorded the lowest turnout in Nigeria's 20-year history as a democracy.

    Nationwide turnout has been on a steady decline since 2003. The general decline - especially in the south - could indicate a decreasing faith in the political establishment and what it can deliver for the people. Voter apathy appears to have set in.

    The runner-up and main opposition candidate, Atiku Abubakar, says there was foul play in the tallying of votes.

    He says it is curious that the total number of votes cast in one of his strongholds, Akwa-Ibom, was 50% lower in this election than it was in 2015.

    Mr Buhari normally has significant support in the north of the country, where he is seen as a principled man of the people. His numbers have been consistent there for the past five presidential elections.

    Turnout was significantly lower in Nigeria's southern regions, where Mr Abubakar had hoped his numbers would increase.

    He did win in the south, but not by a big enough margin to cut Mr Buhari's lead of four million votes.

    Mr Abubakar also questioned why the parts of the north ravaged by the Islamist militia group, Boko Haram, had high voter turnouts.

  • Borno and Yobe states in the north-east are strongholds of the governing All Progressives Congress (APC). Their support has not wavered, even though security concerns have displaced some two million people.

  • The Independent National Electoral Commission (Inec) made provision for the 400,000 internally displaced people to vote in or around their camps.

    The region delivered high numbers despite attacks on election day by Boko Haram and its offshoot, the so-called Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).

    No more presidential election posters for another four years

    Inec delayed the election day by a week because of logistical problems.

    This sparked complaints from people who had already travelled to their home towns to vote, and now would have to make the journey twice.

    However, this would have affected the supporters of both candidates equally.

    Some analysts suggest the use of electronic voting systems has made human error and manipulation more difficult.

    Though there are reported cases of electronic voter verification devices failing, many believe the use of technology has helped understand the electorate and their true behaviour at the polls, as well as curb voter fraud.


ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 10:43

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Former Swiss officer Johan Cosar sentenced for fighting IS

A Swiss military court has sentenced a former soldier for fighting against the Islamic State group in Syria.

Johan Cosar used his military training to recruit hundreds of men to defend Christian groups from IS.

He was found guilty of undermining Switzerland's neutrality and security by joining a foreign army - and given a three-month suspended sentence and fined 500 francs (£383; $500).

Cosar made no attempt to hide his actions, and remains proud of them.

He says he plans to appeal the sentence - which is relatively lenient when compared to the maximum of three years in prison.

He was born in Switzerland, and is a Swiss citizen. But his grandparents have Syrian roots, and the Cosar family are members of the Syriac Christian community.

After returning from Syria, he was arrested and charged under Switzerland's military penal code, which forbids Swiss citizens from serving in foreign armies.

The verdict reflects similar sentences handed down to other Swiss men over the last 10 years, most of whom joined the French Foreign Legion.

At the outset of the trial, an army spokeswoman said: "The law forbids fighting for a foreign force. Who that force actually is, is irrelevant."

Now 37, Cosar says he originally travelled to Syria to work as a freelance journalist, but when he saw that Islamist groups were advancing on Christian communities he felt he had no choice but to defend them.

He helped to found the Syriac Military Council, recruited for it, and readily shared the military skills he had learned in the Swiss army, among them weapons training and setting up checkpoints. At the height of the fighting, he was in charge of more than 500 men.

But joining a foreign army without the explicit permission of the government is forbidden under Switzerland's military penal code.

There are good historic reasons for this law: for centuries young Swiss men left their then-poor country to fight abroad. Swiss mercenaries were recruited by Napoleon, by Spain, the Netherlands, and even the British.

But once Switzerland established itself as a neutral country, its government decided it could be awkward to have Swiss men fighting on multiple sides of Europe's wars, and forbade the practice.

Today just one vestige of the Swiss mercenary tradition remains: the Swiss Papal Guard in Rome.

Cosar - in his civilian clothes - arrives in court in Switzerland

The opening of Cosar's trial was greeted by a small demonstration of his friends and family, carrying banners proclaiming "fighting Islamic State is not a crime."

Cosar himself has suggested he deserves a medal, not a trial, because he was "fighting terrorism" and protecting Christian minorities in Syria from, he believes, certain death.

The atmosphere inside the courtroom was described as relaxed.

Switzerland's government, however, does not want to send a signal that fighting in foreign wars will be tolerated in any circumstances at all, however "honourable".

Dozens of Swiss citizens have travelled to Syria to fight for IS, or to marry the Islamist group's soldiers. A few are already back and in prison.

Others are still in northern Syria, together with thousands of other foreign fighters, detained in camps run by Syrian opposition groups. Like countries across Europe, Switzerland is agonising over what to do about them.

Fighting for a banned group like IS carries a much stiffer prison sentence of up to 20 years. Switzerland's justice minister said this week she would like Swiss foreign fighters to be tried "on the spot" in Syria rather than back in Switzerland.

No-one, however, seems quite sure how that would work. The Swiss government is due to announce its policy on foreign fighters next week.

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 10:12

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The 'caravans of love' visiting Spain's empty villages

Spain is ground-zero for rural depopulation within the European Union. Over decades, millions have migrated to the cities to find jobs. Those left behind in villages are often elderly - or they are single men working in agriculture. So, how does a lonely Spanish shepherd find love?

The ancient stone cottages of Pradena de Atienza, tumble down the sides of a valley. Antonio Cerrada is 52 and has worked here, with animals, all his adult life. Like his father and grandfather before him, his days are spent tending goats on the farm he runs with his brother.

Antonio's home may be just a two-and-a-half-hour drive north from Madrid, but with its bare mountains and the icy winter wind it feels much further.

"If it wasn't for me and my brother, this village would have been abandoned a long time ago," he says.

Fewer than 10 people live year-round in Pradena de Atienza. Antonio has seen dozens of his neighbours up sticks for a new life in the city. He never wanted to leave - but he longed for a partner. And in his 30s, he began looking in earnest for a woman who would not be put off by life in an almost-deserted village.

It wasn't easy.

"There was a television programme - Farmer Seeks Wife, or something. It was on TV on a Tuesday. I wanted to go on that programme," he says.

It didn't happen. Then Antonio heard about the Caravan of Women - or Caravan of Love, as it is sometimes known.

This is a commercial initiative bringing coach-loads of single women from Madrid to meet unattached men in the countryside at organised dinner-dances. Manolo Gozalo has been co-ordinating these excursions with his partner, Venecia Alcantara, since 1996.

The couple are perhaps their own best advert - they fell for each other during one of Manolo's first Caravans.

"We've organised around 600 parties so far… Maybe 180 couples have formed relationships. Of course, not all of them have lasted, but around 100 couples are still together," says Manolo.

Venecia Alcantara prepares for an evening's entertainment

When Antonio read the Caravan was coming to a restaurant in a village nearby, he dumped his overalls, scrubbed up, and headed out. Maria Carvajal, a Colombian living in the capital, was the last to get off the bus.

"We were all dancing, and Antonio kept looking at me," she remembers. "So I said to him, 'Do you want to dance?' He told me he didn't know how to… So I went and sat down again. But he just didn't stop staring at me! That's how it all started."

Antonio and Maria, on one of the first occasions they met

At dinner Antonio and Maria sat at the same table - a spark was lit.

"We talked and talked. Then we talked some more," recalls Antonio.

His shyness had dissolved by the time the music started again.

"We went downstairs to dance, drank some beer, and that was it!"

 Linda Pressly's report for Assignment on the BBC World Service

The couple arranged to meet a fortnight later at another Caravan party in the region. Then Antonio invited Maria to visit Pradena de Atienza for a weekend. He booked a rural hotel for just the two of them, and showed Maria around.

Antonio was relieved that Maria took to the almost-empty village immediately.

"I liked the tranquillity," she says simply.

And after working for more than a decade in Madrid as a cleaner, she was ready for a change.

"When I first arrived from Colombia, I would sometimes go dancing with my friends in Madrid. But after a while I was just going from home to work, from work to home."

A farmer watches the women arrive

Maria counts herself lucky.

"The friend I travelled with on the Caravan attended a lot of those parties over many months. She met a lot of people, but she never found anyone special. I met Antonio the first time I went."

The impetus for the caravans was rural depopulation - to encourage relationships between women from the cities with the men left behind in villages.

Rural outward migration began in earnest under Franco's dictatorship at the end of the 1950s, when factory jobs in urban areas offered opportunities to those arriving from farming communities. Now, the survival of more than 4,000 of Spain's rural hamlets and communities hangs in the balance - 1,300 municipalities have fewer than 100 people.

But the caravans have also courted controversy. Critics say transporting women across Spain for the pleasure and enjoyment of men "commodifies" them. And the fact that most of those on the Caravans are migrants - from Latin America and Eastern Europe - makes them more vulnerable. More than once, buses have been daubed with graffiti - Caravana Machista (the Macho Caravan) and La mujer no es ganado (a woman is not cattle).

In spite of the disapproval, Manolo Gozalo continues to organise one caravan a month. And even in an age of internet dating and hook-up apps, there is still take-up.

"People want to meet each other in real life - this is the advantage of the caravans," he says.

"There are lots of companies organising singles nights in the cities, but we just do it in the countryside where there are still so many single men. And a lot of those men don't know how to use the internet - some of them can barely use a mobile phone."

It is nearly six years now since Antonio and Maria met. Antonio is still hugely excited at finding love after looking for so long. And there's something else that's new - a toddler, also Antonio, born nearly 18 months ago.

"It's so exciting to see him when I get home from work - to see how he's doing, to play with him… I'm out with the animals all day, and then in the evenings I have someone to talk to… It's like a home now, not just somewhere to live," Antonio says.

So are they thinking about more additions to the family?

"No, no, no," says Maria laughing.

"I'm 51 now - I had little Antonio when I was 50, and fell pregnant when I was 49. I already have a daughter of 31, and I have grandchildren older than this one! So there are no more kids coming at my age! But Antonio wanted a child."

For Antonio Cerrada the novelty of being a parent has not worn off - he is enjoying every minute. And he is sanguine about the future, and whether his son will be one of those who helps to keep the village of Pradena de Atienza alive, or whether - like so many others - he leaves for the city.

"I'm going to leave my roots here for him just as my father left his roots for me. And if he wants to follow tradition in the village, well that's up to him."

When a Syrian stonemason and his family were granted asylum in Greece in 2017 they immediately made their way to the island of Crete - completing a journey begun by their great-grandparents 130 years ago.

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 10:10

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Airlines reroute to avoid Pakistan

Airlines operating flights from East Asia to destinations in Europe are having to reroute their planes away from Pakistan and northern India.

The airspace is closed because of escalating tension between the two countries, following the shooting down of two Indian military jets.

Flights via Pakistan have been cancelled and other flights rerouted.

Thai Airways has taken the more drastic step of suspending all its flights destined for Europe.

With flight space south of Pakistan becoming crowded, the Bangkok-based airline has not been able to establish alternative routes for its flights.

"By closing the airspace, every flight from Thailand to Europe has been affected. For flights that are going to depart this evening, we will call an urgent meeting to consider the impact of such events," said Thai Airways president Sumeth Damrongchaitham.

Singapore Airlines and British Airways are among the operators which have had to reroute flights. Singapore Airlines said longer flight routes would make refuelling necessary.

Alex Seftel and travelling companion Hannah Kingsley are waiting for a new flight out of Bangkok

Alex Seftel, who works as a journalist, was en route from Bangkok to London on Wednesday on a flight with Taiwanese operator Eva Air. The flight was turned back over Calcutta in northern India.

"We were on the flight, a couple of hours in, and I noticed on the flight route map that it was going in the opposite direction," he said.

"There was a lot of circling around and we had very little information until we got into the airport."

Back in Bangkok, passengers waited several hours for an explanation before being transferred to a hotel for the night, with a new flight provisionally scheduled for early Thursday.

Some international flights have been rerouted through Mumbai on India's western coast.

Mark Martin, founder and chief executive at Martin Consulting India, said about 800 flights a day used the India-Pakistan air corridor, making it "very critical".

"You can't overfly China, so you have to overfly Pakistan and India and go to South East Asia and Australia. Most of the traffic destined for Bangkok and Singapore will have to fly over Iran and then possibly take a detour," he said.

The recent flare-up between Indian and Pakistan over the disputed region of Kashmir began when a suicide car bomb killed 40 Indian paramilitary police on 14 February. India retaliated with an airstrike on what it said was a militant training base on TuesdaIf you are happy to be contacted by a BBC journalist please leave a telephone number that we can contact you on. In some cases a selection of your comments will be published, displaying your name as you provide it and location, unless you state otherwise. Your contact details will never be published. When sending us pictures, video or eyewitness accounts at no time should you endanger yourself or others, take any unnecessary risks or infringe any laws. Please ensure you have read the terms and conditions.

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 09:54

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Can Georgian wine win over global drinkers?

The former Soviet state of Georgia is considered to be the birthplace of winemaking. But as it aims to boost exports around the world, will its unique wines be too challenging for most drinkers?

I am following two men into a dark cellar that feels more like a tomb than part of a winery.

Buried underground are a number of qvevri - large lemon-shaped clay pots full of grape juice slowly fermenting into wine.

Each of the containers holds 2,000 litres of juice, which is added together with the grape skin and seeds, and left for six months.

It is an ancient form of winemaking that historians say was first used in Georgia in at least 5,980 BC. This makes the former Soviet state, located in the Caucasus region south of Russia, the world's oldest wine-producing country.

Georgian wine can be an acquired tatse

But what does wine made by the qvevri method taste like? The amber-coloured liquid is poured into my glass, and looks like brandy.

It tastes a bit meaty, and my taste buds revolt. My head gets fuzzy, almost straight away.

"It's a challenge for the newcomer, but when you get through the initial shock, it is rewarding," says Koka Archvadze, deputy director of the Tsinandali estate, some 100km (62 miles) east of Georgia's capital Tbilisi.

For centuries winemaking has been a key part of the Georgian economy, with most exports going to Russia. The relationship has, however, not always worked in Georgia's favour.

While Georgia has always prided itself on its large number of indigenous grape varieties, when part of the USSR from 1922 to 1991 the Communists dug up many of the treasured old, but low-yielding red and white vines. They did this so as to replace them with high-volume vines so they could make mass-produced wines.

The country's main wine region, Kakheti, is located in the east of the country

When Georgia gained its independence there was a big effort to increase propagation of the older varieties.

Then in 2006, with Russia buying 95% of Georgia's wine exports, Moscow banned their importation. Georgians believed the ban was a political attack in retaliation to the pro-Western policies of the then Georgian President Mikheil Saakashkvili.

The move crippled the Georgian wine industry, and it started to look for export sales in countries other than Russia.

Although Russia repealed the embargo in 2013, Georgia now exports its wine to 55 countries. And while Russia is still its largest export market, its share has fallen to 62%. It is followed by Ukraine at 12%, China 8% and Kazakhstan 4%. Overall exports last year were 18% higher than in 2017.

Irakli Cholobargia, from the Georgian National Wine Agency, says they are now increasingly focusing on western Europe and North America.

"In volume we are not the big country," he says. "Our maximum capacity [for production] now is 300 million bottles a year, which is the size of one big Australian winery.

"We cannot compete with France, Spain, Chile and South Africa [in size], but what we offer is our uniqueness, our grape varieties, and qvevri wine, our history.

"Our strategy now is to be established in the Western and Asian markets, and to diversify the whole export market."

One Georgian winemaker who is increasing his exports is Gia Piradashvili, founder of Winiveria.

His wines are now available in countries including Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway, and the US.

Gia Piradashvili has seen some of his wines stocked by Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy and France

"We do not want to mass produce commercial wines, and we don't work with large chains and supermarket," he says. "Instead we work with niche wine boutiques and high quality restaurants.

"I never thought that my wine would be offered in very good restaurants in Italy or France, Michelin-starred restaurants. But now we do, and we are not alone."

Back at the Tsinandali estate it now exports to countries including Switzerland and Monaco. Established in the 17th Century, Tsinandali is said to be the first winery in Georgia to produce its wine in glass bottles.

With qvevri wines accounting for up to 10% of Georgian production, many of the rest are made by modern methods. But with the grape varieties being so unique, the flavours can be different to what many people in western Europe or the US expect.

"The flavour profile for many people is not attractive quite frankly," says Lisa Granik, a New York-based expert on Georgian wine, who has the top Master of Wine qualification.

"Or it is so unusual that they have difficulty understanding it."

She adds that the Georgian names can also be hard to pronounce, and that many Americans "don't even know where Georgia is, they confuse it with the American state [of the same name]".

While some Georgian wines are old-fashioned, others are made in a modern way

Consistency is another challenge, says Ms Granik, because many Georgian wineries do not add any sulphur dioxide to their bottles to act as a preservative.

"It is difficult for them to withstand the travelling [as a result]," she says. "The hygiene and consistency has to be ramped up."

However, Ms Granik concludes that as more wine drinkers in the West want to try something new and different, Georgian wines could grow in popularity.

"There are a lot of millennials who don't want a Bordeaux. They are looking for something that is weird and wild.

"And they like this notion of natural, anti-corporate wine that's old and ancient, and they are open to this."

ruby Posted on February 28, 2019 09:50

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Eritrean Press: Reporting on Africa's most secretive state

He's the editor of a popular Facebook page that provides news from a country with one of the world's worst records on press freedom. But not even the journalists who write for him know his real identity.

On the surface, J's life appears fairly ordinary.

He has a day job, a family and a football team he follows religiously.

But J is also the anonymous editor of the largest page on Facebook reporting news from his home country, Eritrea.

Rami Malek won the award for best actor

Chinese broadcaster Mango TV is facing criticism after its online transmission of the Oscars amended a reference to homosexuality in best actor winner Rami Malek's speech.

Accepting the award for his performance in Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic of British rock act Queen and lead singer Freddie Mercury, Rami Malek said the film could help those struggling with their identity.

The picture appears in a military magazine from 1950

You're not alone if this image looks familiar to you.

Though you've probably never seen a photo of Staff Sergeant Louis Cappazzoli or US Navy recruits Nancy Kelley and Joe Ewing, there is probably something in this picture that you do recognise.

Ninja is known for his trademark coloured hair and bandana

In 2018, Ninja was at the top of his game and untouchable.

At his peak Tyler "Ninja" Blevins led video gaming streaming site Twitch with more than 200,000 subscribers - people have paid $5, $10 or $25 (£3.84, £7.68 or £19.20) per month to watch him play video games such as Fortnite.

When a doctor in Ontario, Canada, became exasperated with some of her patients' sexually inappropriate behaviour, she took to social media to vent her feelings.

In two days, her post on discussion website Reddit was upvoted 28,000 times and sparked 2,000 comments, which included useful tips and advice, as well as similar stories.

Chyna got her start in WWE as Triple H's enforcer and took part in various intergender matches

Pro wrestling fans are divided after WWE announced that former wrestler Chyna would be inducted into their Hall of Fame this year as part of wrestling team D-Generation X.

Fans are overwhelmingly supportive of her induction, though many have argued that she should be added on her own rather than as part of a larger group.

People attend a vigil in front of the India Gate war memorial in Delhi

Indians from across the country have taken to social media to offer shelter to people from Indian-administered Kashmir after a suicide bomber killed more than 40 paramilitary police in the north India state.

The attack took place on the Srinagar-Jammu highway about 20km (12 miles) from the main city in Srinagar.

Zhai Tianlin enjoys the red carpet, here at the 2018 Bazaar Men of the Year in Beijing

Zhai Tianlin - also known as Ronald Zhai - is a well-known actor in China who is used to the limelight.

With more than 11 million followers on the social media website Sina Weibo, he's more accustomed to positive comments and praise from fans.

Simone Giertz's brain tumour 'Brian' in Antarctica

On 4 February, YouTuber Simone Giertz posted a photo on Instagram that surprised and delighted her followers in equal measure.

"You know what this is?" the 28-year-old wrote in a post liked almost 36,000 times. "You see that iceberg in the back? That's Antarctica. And that pink thing on the left? That is my brain tumour."

From a different angle the name on the hat becomes clear

Keeping warm whilst training is always advisable, but when a Georgian wrestler's hat was featured in the media, little did he know he would come under fire for his choice of clothing.

On 13 February, two Georgian news websites published a photo of Jaba Kvelashvili, who was out running with the national wrestling team, accusing him of wearing a "Russia" hat.

ruby Posted on February 27, 2019 11:40

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'Tiniest baby boy' ever sent home leaves Tokyo hospital

A baby boy who weighed just 268g (9.45oz) at birth has been released from hospital in Japan, and is believed to be the smallest boy in the world to be sent home healthy.

The baby was born by emergency C-section in August, and was so small he could fit into a pair of cupped hands.

The infant was nurtured in intensive care until he was released last week, two months after his due date.

He had grown to a weight of 3.2kg, and is now feeding normally.

Born at 24 weeks, the tiny boy spent five months in hospital.

"I can only say I'm happy that he has grown this big because honestly, I wasn't sure he could survive," the boy's mother said, according to Tokyo's Keio University Hospital.

Doctor Takeshi Arimitsu, who treated the extraordinary baby, told the BBC he was the the smallest infant born (on record) to be discharged from a hospital, according to a database of the world's littlest babies held by the University of Iowa.

He said he wanted to show that "there is a possibility that babies will be able to leave the hospital in good health, even though they are born small".

and weighing a healthy 3.2kg - twelve times his birth weight - just before he left hospital

The previous record-holder was a boy born in Germany, weighing 274g. The smallest surviving baby girl in that same database was also born in Germany, in 2015, and reportedly weighed 252g.

Keio University Hospital said the survival rate of babies born weighing less than a kilogram is about 90% in Japan. But for those born under 300g, that falls to around 50%.

Among the very smallest babies, the survival rate is much lower for boys than girls. Medical experts are unsure why, though some believe it could be linked to the slower development of male babies' lungs.

ruby Posted on February 27, 2019 11:32

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Pakistan India: Pakistan shoots down Indian aircraft over Kashmir

Pakistan says it has shot down two Indian military jets and captured two pilots in a major escalation between the nuclear powers over Kashmir.

India says it lost one MiG21 fighter and a pilot is missing in action.

Pakistani PM Imran Khan said the two sides could not afford a miscalculation with the weapons they had.

India and Pakistan claim all of Kashmir, but control only parts of it. They have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947.

The aerial attacks across the Line of Control (LoC) dividing Indian and Pakistani territory are the first since a war in 1971.

They follow a militant attack in Kashmir which killed 40 Indian troops - the deadliest to take place during a three-decade insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir. A Pakistan-based group said it carried out the attack.

The BBC's Soutik Biswas, in Delhi, says the challenge for India and Pakistan now is to contain the latest escalation before things get completely out of control.

In a televised address, he warned against further escalation.

"If we let it happen, it will remain neither in my nor Narendra Modi's control," he said.

Pakistan's information ministry tweeted a video purporting to show a captured Indian pilot

Mr Khan referred to air strikes by Pakistan across the LoC earlier on Wednesday, saying that Pakistan had been obliged to respond to Tuesday's air strikes by India against militant targets in north-western Pakistan.

"Our action is just to let them know that just like they intruded into our territory, we are also capable of going into their territory," he said.

He added that Pakistan had offered to help with India's investigation into the Pulwama attack.

Mr Modi has not yet made any comment, but Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said her country would act "with responsibility and restraint".

"India does not wish to see further escalation of the situation," she said, speaking from a meeting with Russian and Chinese foreign ministers in China.

Pakistan's information ministry published but subsequently deleted a video purporting to show one of the Indian pilots that the Pakistani military says it has captured.

In the video, the pilot - who is blindfolded and appears to have blood on his face - identifies himself as Wing-Commander Abhinandan.

The ministry also tweeted what it said was footage of one of the downed Indian jets.

In India, Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Raveesh Kumar acknowledged the loss of a jet and its pilot.

He also said that an Indian plane had shot down a Pakistani fighter jet and Indian ground forces observed it falling on the Pakistani side of the LoC. Pakistan has denied any of its jets were struck.

Pakistan's assertion that it had shot down two Indian aircraft came shortly after Islamabad said its warplanes had struck targets in Indian territory.

Pakistan said it had "taken strikes at [a] non-military target, avoiding human loss and collateral damage".

Indian authorities said the Pakistani jets had been pushed back.

In a briefing, Pakistan's military spokesman Maj Gen Ghafoor said jets had "engaged" six targets in Indian territory but then carried out air strikes on "open ground".

"We don't want to go on the path of war," he said.

India said Tuesday's air strikes on Balakot in north-western Pakistan killed a large number of militants but Pakistan said there had been no casualties.

The US, EU and China have all called for restraint.

The challenge for India and Pakistan now is to contain the escalation before things get completely out of control.

It is almost unprecedented for two nuclear-armed countries to carry out air strikes into each other's territories.

"We are in uncharted waters," Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to the US and adviser to three Pakistani prime ministers, told me late on Tuesday.

An Indian defence analyst believes Indian security forces will now have to be prepared for a "full spectrum of conflict".

However Daniel Markey from Johns Hopkins University in the US says we are "several steps away" from nuclear escalation.

A further escalation, he believes, will happen if Pakistan's "next step were to raise the stakes by hitting Indian civilian targets".

That is highly unlikely.

Pakistan has closed its entire airspace, its civil aviation authority said. Nine airports in northern India have been closed, reports in India said.

The flight monitoring group Flight Radar says international flights are also avoiding the area.

Both Indian and Pakistani troops have been shelling across the LoC. Four Pakistani civilians were killed and 10 others were injured in cross-border shelling on Tuesday.

On the Indian side, five soldiers were also injured in the firing, officials told the BBC. Schools in at least two districts along the LoC - Rajouri and Poonch - have been closed.

People living along the de facto border have been asked to leave their homes.


ruby Posted on February 27, 2019 11:28

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Thousands of migrant children report they were sexually assaulted in U.S. custody

House democrats held a press conference Monday ahead of a vote to try to roll back President Donald Trump's declaration of a national emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border. (Feb. 25) AP


Thousands of migrant children who crossed the southern border into the U.S. have reported they were sexually assaulted while in government custody, according to Department of Health and Human Services documents released Tuesday by Rep. Ted Deutch's office.

In the past four years, 4,556 children said they were sexually assaulted while in the care of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement, which takes custody of unaccompanied minors who cross the southern border alone and those who are separated from their families. 

Allegations go back to 2015, meaning the reported assaults started under the Obama administration. But the allegations have increased in the past two years after the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy that led to at least 2,800 family separations flooding the department with additional children.

The data show the majority of the alleged assaults were carried out by other minors in custody, but at least 178 were carried out by staff.

"These documents detail an environment of systemic sexual assaults by staff on unaccompanied children," said Deutch, a Democrat from Florida, in a House Judiciary Committee meeting Tuesday. "These documents tell us that there is a problem with adults, employees of HHS, sexually abusing children."

Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., speaks during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill on Feb. 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Wong, Getty Images)

Cdr. Jonathan White, who has overseen the care of migrant children at Health and Human Services, responded angrily to the congressman, saying the government officials at his department have never been accused of such a crime.

"Those are not HHS staff in any of those allegations," White said. 

Instead, the department contracts with more than 100 local shelters that house and care for children in its custody. Those facilities are inspected by state child welfare officials, and criminal charges can be filed against employees by state or federal prosecutors.

When a sexual assault is reported to Health and Human Services, White said, it is investigated fully, and those found to be legitimate are referred to the Justice Department of Justice for prosecution. 

Data provided by Deutch's office show that of the 4,556 complaints investigated by Health and Human Services, 1,303 – 29 percent – were sent to the Justice Department for further review. White said the vast majority of those cases later proved to be unfounded.

"Any time a child is abused in the care of (the refugee resettlement office) is one time too many," White said Tuesday.

The data were included as part of a large set of documents provided to the Judiciary Committee on the eve of Tuesday's hearing. At the start of the hearing, Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., complained about the last-minute document dump, arguing that it took the administration six weeks to answer their questions.

"The Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security until last night stonewalled the legitimate request for information by this committee," Nadler said. "That is absolutely inexcusable."

The House Oversight and Reform Committee took it a step further Tuesday, issuing the first subpoenas against the Trump administration after failing to receive answers on separated migrant families that were first posed in July. The subpoenas were directed at Attorney General William Bar, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. 

"When our own government rips vulnerable children, toddlers and even infants from the arms of their mothers and fathers with no plan to reunite them, that is government-sponsored child abuse," said committee chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. "It is our job to step in and protect those children. Further delay is not an option."

Tuesday's hearing was the second time House Democrats have grilled the administration over family separations. The House Energy and Commerce questioned Health and Human Services officials on Feb. 7 about last summer's family separations and the separations that continue to happen when Homeland Security agents decide migrant parents pose a danger to their children. 

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw also is considering a request from the American Civil Liberties Union to vastly expand the number of separated migrant families the government must identify and possibly reunite. In June, Sabraw ordered the administration to reunite more than 2,800 families that were separated at the time. But media reports and an internal government watchdog revealed that the administration was systematically separating families a full year before it formally announced its zero-tolerance policy, possibly leading to thousands of additional separations.

The ACLU said the government needs to account for all those families. Sabraw is expected to decide on that request in the coming days.

The Department of Homeland Security also is dealing with a spate of deaths in its custody. Three migrants have died after crossing the border since December, and an Honduran woman delivered a stillborn baby at an immigration detention facility in Texas on Feb. 21.

sarah Posted on February 27, 2019 10:09

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New device can detect cancer in just a drop of blood

Some types of cancer, such as ovarian cancer, tend to remain undetected until they are too advanced for treatment to be effective. Now, an innovative tool may be able to detect cancer easily, quickly, and in minuscule amounts of blood.

A newly developed, highly sensitive device can detect cancer in very small clinical samples.

In a bid to find a simple, effective way of identifying hard-to-diagnose cancers, researchers from the University of Kansas (KU) in Lawrence and the KU Cancer Center and KU Medical Center in Kansas City have now developed an ultrasensitive cancer-detecting device.

The device, which is called a "3-D-nanopatterned microfluidic chip," could successfully detect cancer markers in the tiniest drop of blood or in a component of the blood called plasma.

Lead author Yong Zeng, an associate professor of chemistry at KU, and his team describe how the novel tool works in a paper that the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering has published.

This device, the scientists explain, identifies and diagnoses cancer by "filtering" for exosomes, which are tiny vesicles that some eukaryotic cells produce.

In the case of cancer cells, exosomes contain biological information that can direct tumor growth and spread.

"Historically, people thought exosomes were like 'trash bags' that cells could use to dump unwanted cellular contents," Zeng explains. "But, in the past decade," he adds, "scientists realized they were quite useful for sending messages to recipient cells and communicating molecular information important in many biological functions."

"Basically, tumors send out exosomes packaging active molecules that mirror the biological features of the parental cells. While all cells produce exosomes, tumor cells are really active compared to normal cells," Zeng notes.

A high-sensitivity diagnostic tool

The novel device is a 3-D nanoengineering tool with a herringbone pattern that "combs" for exosomes, pushing them to come into contact with the surface of the tool's chip for analysis. This process is called "mass transfer."

"People have developed smart ideas to improve mass transfer in microscale channels, but when particles are moving closer to the sensor surface, they're separated by a small gap of liquid that creates increasing hydrodynamic resistance," notes Zeng.

"Here, we developed a 3-D nanoporous herringbone structure that can drain the liquid in that gap to bring the particles in hard contact with the surface where probes can recognize and capture them," he further explains.

In order to develop this state-of-the-art device, Zeng and team collaborated with Andrew Godwin, who is an expert in tumor biomarkers and the current deputy director of KU Cancer Center.

To test the chip's effectiveness, the researchers used clinical samples from individuals with ovarian cancer, a type of cancer that is notoriously hard to detect.

In doing so, the team found that the chip was able to detect the presence of this cancer in even the tiniest amount of plasma.

"Our collaborative studies continue to bear fruit and advance an area crucial in cancer research and patient care — namely, innovative tools for early detection," says Godwin, pointing out that, "This area of study is especially important for cancers such as ovarian, given the vast majority of women are diagnosed at an advanced stage when, sadly, the disease is for the most part incurable."

Multiple clinical applications

The researchers are also thrilled that the new device is easy to make, as well as being cheap to produce, meaning that wide distribution could be possible without increasing patient costs.

"What we created here is a 3-D nanopatterning method without the need for any fancy nanofabrication equipment — an undergraduate or even a high school student can do it in my lab," notes Zeng.

"This is so simple and low-cost it has great potential to translate into clinical settings," he emphasizes, explaining that the team "[has] been collaborating with Dr. Godwin and other research labs at the KU Cancer Center and the molecular biosciences department to further explore the translational applications of the technology."

Even more importantly, Zeng and colleagues argue that this innovative device is, in principle, very adaptable. They believe that in the future, doctors could use it to diagnose many different forms of cancer, as well as other diseases.

"Now, we're looking at cell-culture models, animal models, and also clinical patient samples, so we are truly doing some translational research to move the device from the lab setting to more clinical applications," the lead researcher says.

sarah Posted on February 27, 2019 09:57

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Why is the MWC tech show full of men?

As I walked into the chaotic registration zone at the hall hosting Xiaomi’s press conference, my first event of the 2019 Mobile World Congress (MWC), I soon became aware that I looked… different.

I was dressed reasonably smartly and was even dutifully wearing my delegate's lanyard just like everybody else, even though I hate it – it is too long and I had to tie a knot in it when I realised people were not admiring my belt but trying to read my name.

But, in the sea of people milling around awkwardly, waiting to collect a pass giving them access to the event, my colleague Tracey and I were two of very few women.

It was a woman who gave me my pass. It was also a woman who was pouring out glasses of wine for the reception afterwards. But there were no women speaking inside the hall during the presentation.

We left in a hurry to go to another event across town, hosted by Huawei, the brand everybody is talking about both here in Barcelona and around the world.

Once there, I looked at the long queue snaking round outside the beautiful Italian Pavilion in the heart of Barcelona. I was once again in the minority. Inside, there were no women on stage here either.

I shared a taxi to the next event with analyst Carolina Milanesi, who travels the world attending technology industry events such as MWC. It was the same every year, she told me as we chatted.

“At CES [the Las Vegas technology fair], the thing was booth babes and skimpily dressed people – that’s not the case here but women are in the position of being the hostess, they are smart and look nice but they are serving,” she told me.

“You are either sexually objectified or you are the housewife but you are not seen as making a decision about tech or buying it.”

The conference halls are also full of men

At my final event of the day, hosted by Microsoft, the organisers had clearly tried to even out the presenters, alternating men and women – although after the first four speakers, there was a succession of men before the next woman joined the stage.

On day one of the exhibition itself, I spent an hour in the priority queue to try out Microsoft’s HoloLens2. Not only was I the only woman in that queue, there were only a tiny handful in the enormous, general queue, which, I heard, was four hours long. The security guard at the front was a woman.

Around the conference halls, I found myself constantly jostled by crowds of men swarming around concept cars, robots and 5G smartphones. Meanwhile, the press officers who were constantly pinging me on email, asking me to meet their exhibiting clients were more likely to be women than men.

Claire, not her real name, is attending MWC for the first time, working for one of the major global brands.

“I have to say I am surprised by how few women there are at the event - barring of course hospitality and venue staff,” she told me

“I thought that this should be different [to other industry events] - it's much more consumer focused - but a common theme among the women I've met here is the fact that the halls are a sea of testosterone.”

She thinks some technology companies need to rethink their priorities.

Men queue up to take a picture of Huawei's foldable phone

“The industry talks a good game about being relevant to women - but it's hard to believe that for some companies it's anything more than lip service when you look around the hall,” she said.

One company under scrutiny for many reasons already is Huawei, which has a huge presence here.

In one hall, it occupies a vast space, easily the size of a supermarket. And every single delegate's lanyard bears the Huawei logo.

We arrived before its stand opened but waiting to greet people when it did were women dressed in national costumes from around the world.

Thankfully, there were no bikinis but still I couldn’t quite decide whether this was a beautiful display of global inclusivity or a cringeworthy homage to Miss World.

The million dollar question here of course is – why aren’t there more women here? It’s not like female attendees are screened out. If you’ve got the 450 euros, and/or press or analyst credentials, you can come.

A spokesman for the Global System for Mobile Communications trade body, which organises MWC, told me that in 2018 24% of the delegates had been women, a 1% increase on 2017. Over 100,000 people attend.

He also told me about the Women4Tech programme, which runs a number of events aimed at women working in and around the industry during the four days of MWC.

I love tech, I have spent years covering the subject as a journalist and I don’t feel my gender prevents me from doing so. It’s very rare that I feel actively unwelcome at an event – I don’t here either - and the days when people used to ask me who was looking after my children while I was working seem, fortunately, to be behind me.

It’s more subtle than that - and not necessarily a conscious bias. Perhaps it’s a vicious cycle - women like me come along, feel a bit like we should be serving the drinks and then decide not to return. We have to shout louder, jostle harder, raise our arms higher to get those photos.

The men I have spoken to about it seem a bit embarrassed. The women seem resigned.

An industry friend of mine told me it was one reason why she chose to avoid these events.

Don’t forget, though, that women are equally expected to consume all of this technology. And if we disappear, our voices will not be heard when it comes to their design.

Here’s an example of what I mean.

At a networking event one evening, I chatted to the owner of a mobile phone company over a glass of wine. We were discussing the new trend for folding phones. And I said I would prefer one that folded out to be the size my existing phone is now.

He asked me why on Earth that was the case, so I showed him how awkwardly it fits into the pockets of my jeans. And he was absolutely astonished.

His fitted just fine, he said - he’d never even thought about it.

ruby Posted on February 27, 2019 09:44

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House votes to block Trump border wall national emergency

The US House of Representatives has voted to revoke President Donald Trump's emergency declaration over building a US-Mexico border wall.

The bid to overturn the declaration now goes to the Republican-majority Senate, where some conservatives have said they will vote with Democrats.

Mr Trump, who declared the emergency after Congress refused funding for the wall, has said he will veto the bill.

The resolution passed the Democrat-led House by a margin of 245-182.

Thirteen Republicans sided with Democrats in rejecting Mr Trump's national emergency, which suggests Congress would not have the two-thirds majority of both chambers needed to override a veto from the president.

Lawmakers are using a provision from the National Emergencies Act to overrule the president, but it requires both chambers to vote for it and to complete voting within 18 days.

The president has called the situation at the southern border a "crisis" and on 15 February, issued a declaration of emergency in order to bypass Congress and build a wall with military funding.

Democrats say the declaration is unconstitutional and that Mr Trump has manufactured the border emergency.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said on Monday: "This isn't about the border. This is about the constitution of the United States. This is not about politics. It's not about partisanship. It's about patriotism."

What a difference a few years - and a new presidential administration - make.

In 2014, when Barack Obama used his executive authority to defer deportation of certain classes of undocumented migrants, Democrats defended him, while Republicans howled about an abuse of presidential authority.

Now it is Republicans attempting to explain President Donald Trump's use of an emergency declaration to redirect funds toward his border wall, while Democrats issue dire warnings of White House overreach.

Such is the ease with which the playing field flips in American politics.

The Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, joined by a handful of Republicans, have rebuked Mr Trump for this wall declaration.

That sets up a showdown in the Senate, where some conservatives - particularly those up for re-election in 2020 battleground states - are uneasy about going along with what they see as a dangerous precedent.

They could hand their president an embarrassing setback, forcing him to use his first veto of his administration. Then - because a congressional veto override seems unlikely - the legal battle will shift to the courts.

The battle for public opinion will stay firmly in the realm of the politicians, of course.

While many Republicans were critical of using an emergency declaration for a wall prior to Mr Trump's decree, some are now arguing the president is using the authority given to him by the constitution.

Republican leader Mitch McConnell says the emergency is an "understandable consequence" of Democrats refusing to negotiate with Mr Trump

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said Republicans would uphold Mr Trump's decision and accused Democrats of ignoring the emergency at the border.

Ohio Representative Warren Davidson said: "I think he didn't necessarily have to do the emergency declaration, but he did, and it's legal," the Washington Post reported.

But others maintained Mr Trump's response to a lack of congressional funding was inappropriate.

In the Senate, more Republicans have expressed concerns about setting a dangerous precedent, and Vice-President Mike Pence met members during a closed-door lunch on Tuesday to discuss the issue.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has maintained the emergency declaration is "the predictable and understandable consequences of Democrats' decision to put partisan obstruction ahead of the national interest".

Mr Trump's emergency declaration would open up almost $8bn (£6bn) for the wall, which is still considerably short of the estimated $23bn cost of the barrier along almost 2,000 miles (3,200km) of border, but far more than the $1.375bn allotted by Congress for barriers.

ruby Posted on February 27, 2019 09:42

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Michael Cohen 'to accuse Trump of racism and lies'

President Donald Trump's convicted former lawyer Michael Cohen is expected to accuse him of criminal conduct during a hearing on Capitol Hill.

Speaking on Wednesday to a House of Representatives panel, Cohen will allege possible tax fraud and racist language by Mr Trump, say US media.

The White House has questioned why lawmakers invited someone who has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress.

Cohen was sentenced to three years and will begin his custodial term in May.

On Tuesday, he was officially disbarred from practising law by the New York State Supreme Court, New York media reported.

The penalty came as he began three consecutive days of testimony in a closed-doors hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. His Wednesday testimony to the House Oversight Committee will be public.

The 52-year-old was convicted last year by New York federal prosecutors of campaign finance violations and tax evasion and by special counsel Robert Mueller of lying to Congress about Trump Organization plans in Moscow.

Mr Mueller is nearing the end of a 21-month justice department investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, which both Mr Trump and Russia have denied.

At his December sentencing Cohen, a former Trump loyalist, blamed his misdeeds on "a blind loyalty" to Mr Trump.

Ahead of the hearings, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders called Cohen a "disgraced felon", saying it was "laughable that anyone would take a convicted liar like Cohen at his word".

Mrs Sanders' statement added it was "pathetic to see him given yet another opportunity to spread his lies" before Congress.

How the jailing of Cohen affects Trump

The Wall Street Journal reported a person familiar with the matter as saying Cohen would provide "evidence of criminal conduct since Mr Trump became president" that involved a hush money payment to conceal an alleged affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels.

The lawyer will accuse Mr Trump of being directly involved in efforts to conceal the alleged affair weeks before the 2016 election, according to US media.

The president has denied having the affair, or that he told Cohen to pay off Ms Daniels.

According to the Journal, Cohen will detail Mr Trump's "lies, racism and cheating" over a decade of working for him.

He is expected to offer financial documents showing possible tax fraud by Mr Trump, which may spur lawmakers to renew demands for the president's tax returns.

The president's former right hand man will also describe racist remarks from Mr Trump during their private conversations.

The Journal reports Cohen will accuse the president of questioning the intelligence of African Americans.

CBS News reported a source as saying the racist language allegedly used by the president is "chilling".

Cohen is also expected to offer explanations to lawmakers about why he lied to them about the Trump Organization's plans to build a tower in Moscow.\

Democrat Elijah Cummings, chair of the Oversight Committee, said last week lawmakers would question Cohen about Mr Trump's possible conflicts of interest and finances.

Republicans, meanwhile, have highlighted Cohen's unreliability.

In an op-ed in USA Today on Tuesday, Republican Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mark Meadows of North Carolina called the hearing "a partisan circus meant to destroy Trump".

Meanwhile, Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz is denying that a tweet directed at Cohen was a threat.

In a text message exchange with a reporter for Vox, Mr Gaetz denied the tweet was considered witness-tampering, contending it was "witness-testing".

It comes after Cohen's originally scheduled testimony was postponed, after he cited "threats against his family" brought by Mr Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

ruby Posted on February 27, 2019 09:39

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Cardiff Half Marathon runners died of 'natural causes'

Two men who died after collapsing at the end of the Cardiff Half Marathon last year died from natural causes, a coroner's investigation has found.

Ben McDonald, 25, from Cardiff, and Dean Fletcher, 32, from Exeter, went into cardiac arrest after crossing the finishing line within three minutes of each other in October 2018.

They both died at the city's University Hospital of Wales.

No inquest will take place, the coroner's office said.

Mr McDonald worked at Cardiff International White Water centre. He ran the half marathon with his girlfriend Amy Stanton-Foo, his two brothers, a brother-in-law and two sisters-in-law.

Speaking after his death Ms Stanton-Foo described him as a "happy, smiley, adventurous, loving person".

Father-of-one and former Cardiff University student Mr Fletcher had been part of a 350-person team which was raising funds for neuroscience, mental health and cancer research at the institution.

He was described as an "amazing husband and father".

ruby Posted on February 27, 2019 09:26

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Vietnam deports Kim Jong-un impersonator ahead of summit

A Kim Jong-un impersonator has been deported from Vietnam ahead of the real North Korean leader's meeting with US President Trump in Hanoi this week.

Hong Kong resident Howard X staged a fake summit with Trump impersonator Russell White last week.

The two were later held for questioning by Vietnamese police and told to cease all their political jesting.

Howard X says officials have since told him his visa is "invalid", but says he has received no further explanation.

"Satire is a powerful weapon against any dictatorship. They are scared of a couple of guys that look like the real thing," Howard X, who was wearing a black suit and thick black glasses in the style of Kim Jong-un, told reporters.

He and Mr White took part in a faux summit in Vietnam's capital, Hanoi, telling reporters they intended to scale down North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

"We're working toward peace. Through negotiations, with dialogue, we want to help North Korea of course," Canada-born Mr White told reporters at the time, dressed as Donald Trump.

"Hopefully he can overlook all my nuclear missiles and lift the sanctions," answered Howard X, a full-time impressionist who visited Singapore ahead of the first US-North Korea summit last year.

The men were later detained by police whilst giving an interview to a local TV station.

Vietnamese police told the pair to stop their impersonations and said they could only travel around the city with an approved itinerary and escort, AFP news agency reports.

"The real reason is I was born with a face looking like Kim Jong-un, that's the real crime," said Howard X.

Howard and a Donald Trump impersonator go hand in hand in Singapore

He added he believed he was being deported because the North Korean leader had "no sense of humour".

The Kim lookalike took part in similar satirical stunts during the first US-North Korea summit in Singapore last year.

He was also escorted away by security at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea after dancing in front of North Korea's cheerleading squad.

President Trump and Kim Jong-un are due to meet in Hanoi on 27-28 February for talks expected to focus on persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons programme.

Their first summit in Singapore last June generated significant coverage and optimism, but delivered very few concrete developments.

Both sides said they were committed to denuclearisation, but gave no details of how this would be carried out or verified.

ruby Posted on February 27, 2019 09:03

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George Pell: Cardinal's bail revoked after sexual abuse conviction

Cardinal George Pell has been remanded in custody after being found guilty of sexual offences against children in Australia.

The ex-Vatican treasurer abused two boys in 1996, a jury found in December.

Pell's bail was revoked on Wednesday, placing him in custody for the first time. He will be sentenced on 13 March.

The cardinal is the most senior Catholic figure ever convicted of sexual abuse. He maintains he is innocent and has lodged an appeal.

A jury unanimously convicted Pell of one charge of sexually penetrating a child under 16, and four counts of committing an indecent act on a child under 16.

The verdict and details of the case had been kept secret until Tuesday due to legal reasons.

Each charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail, a court heard on Wednesday.

Pell's conviction has rocked the Catholic Church. He was considered one of the Pope's closest advisers and spent five years overseeing the Vatican's finances.

On Tuesday, the Vatican confirmed that Pell was prohibited from public ministry, and banned from having contact with minors. He has to abide by these rules until any appeal is over.

Pell was archbishop of Melbourne when he abused two 13-year-old boys in a cathedral following a mass, the County Court of Victoria heard last year.

After telling them they were in trouble for drinking communion wine, Pell forced each boy into indecent acts, prosecutors said. He abused one of the boys again in 1997.

Pell has been swarmed by media and onlookers before his court appearances

The court heard testimony from one of the victims. The other died of a drug overdose in 2014.

In a preliminary sentencing hearing, Pell's lawyer, Robert Richter QC, described it as "no more than a plain, vanilla sexual penetration case".

He submitted 10 character references for the cardinal, including from former Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

However, prosecutors argued that Pell's "serious offending" warranted significant jail time.

Judge Peter Kidd said the abuse was "callous" and "brazen", adding: "It did involve a breach of trust and a degree of impunity. How else did he think he was going to get away with it?"

He revoked Pell's bail following a lengthy hearing.

George Pell bowed towards the judge and leaned on his walking stick, before officers took him down from the courtroom and into custody.

Earlier, he'd arrived to face a crowd of angry campaigners waving placards - many had come to see the moment he lost his liberty.

Though an appeal looms, Pell will return to court in two weeks to learn his sentence.

The Australian cleric rose in prominence as a strong supporter of traditional Catholic values, often taking conservative views and advocating for priestly celibacy.

He was summoned to Rome in 2014 to clean up the Vatican's finances, and was often described as the Church's third-ranked official.

Pell (r) was one of the Pope's closest advisers at the Vatican

But his career has been dogged first by claims that he covered up child sexual abuse by priests, and then later that he was himself an abuser.

Pell was demoted from the Pope's inner circle in December. His term as Vatican treasurer expired on Sunday.

The sexual abuse of children was rarely discussed in public before the 1970s, and it was not until the 1980s that the first cases of molestation by priests came to light, in the US and Canada.

In the decades since, evidence of widespread abuse has emerged globally. In Australia, an inquiry heard that 7% of the nation's Catholic priests had abused children.

Pope Francis has established a committee to tackle sexual abuses. In recent days, he has promised concrete action, calling clergy guilty of abuse "tools of Satan".

But critics say he could do more to combat paedophiles and those who conceal abuse.

ruby Posted on February 27, 2019 08:50

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Pakistan-India: Pakistan 'shoots down two Indian jets' over Kashmir

Pakistan says it has shot down two Indian Air Force jets in a major escalation of the Kashmir conflict.

A spokesman said one plane had fallen inside Pakistani territory and two pilots had been arrested. There is no comment from India. Pakistan has denied reports one of its jets was shot down.

Both India and Pakistan claim all of Kashmir, but control only parts of it.

The nuclear powers have fought several wars since independence from Britain in 1947. All but one were over Kashmir.

The aerial attacks across the Line of Control (LoC) dividing Indian and Pakistani territory are the first since a war in 1971.

They follow a militant attack in Kashmir which killed 40 Indian troops - the deadliest to take place during a three-decade insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir. A Pakistan-based group said it carried out the attack.

Pakistan's assertion that it had shot down two Indian aircraft came shortly after Islamabad said its warplanes had struck targets in Indian territory.

Pakistan said it had "taken strikes at [a] non-military target, avoiding human loss and collateral damage".

Indian authorities said the Pakistani jets had been pushed back.

In a briefing, Maj Gen Ghafoor says that Pakistan "had no alternative to respond" to Tuesday's Indian air strikes on its territory.

However he said Pakistan had not hit Indian military targets because "we don't want to go on the path of war".

India said Tuesday's air strikes on Balakot in north-western Pakistan killed a large number of militants but Pakistan said there had been no casualties.

India has reportedly announced restrictions on its airspace. The Vistara airline said flights in the region were being suspended. Pakistan has also stopped flights from at least five airports including Islamabad and Lahore, reports say.

The flight monitoring group Flight Radar says international flights are also avoiding the area.

Troops have been shelling across the LoC. Four Pakistani civilians were killed and 10 others were injured in cross-border shelling on Tuesday.

On the Indian side, five soldiers were also injured in the firing, officials told the BBC. Schools in at least two districts along the LoC - Rajouri and Poonch - have been closed.

People living along the de facto border have been asked to leave their homes.

In December Yogita Limaye examined why there had been a rise in violence in Kashmir

October 1947: First war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir just two months after they become independent nations.

August 1965: The neighbours fight another brief war over Kashmir.

December 1971: India supports East Pakistan's bid to become independent. The Indian air force conducts bombing raids inside Pakistan. The war ends with the creation of Bangladesh.

May 1999: Pakistani soldiers and militants occupy Indian military posts in Kargil mountains. India launches air and ground strikes and the intruders are pushed back.

October 2001: A devastating attack on the state assembly in Indian-administered Kashmir kills 38. Two months later, an attack on the Indian parliament in Delhi leaves 14 dead.

November 2008: Co-ordinated attacks on Mumbai's main railway station, luxury hotels and a Jewish cultural centre kill 166 people. India blames Pakistan-based group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

January 2016: Four-day attack on Indian air base in Pathankot leaves seven Indian soldiers and six militants dead.

18 September 2016: Attack on army base in Uri in Indian-administered Kashmir kills 19 soldiers.

30 September 2016: India says it carried "surgical strikes" on militants in Pakistani Kashmir. Islamabad denies strikes took place.


ruby Posted on February 27, 2019 08:46

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Concerns raised over Putin spokesman's daughter working for EU

Concerns have been raised after it emerged that Elizaveta Peskova, the daughter of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, is interning for a French member of the European Parliament.

The right-wing MEP Aymeric Chauprade said Ms Peskova's internship with him began in November 2018 and would run until late April.

Fellow MEPs have objected to her having access to meetings and databases.

But a Parliament spokeswoman said Ms Peskova could only see public files.

Elizaveta (Liza) Peskova has been studying law in Paris and is well-known socially. Her Instagram account has some 78,000 followers.

She has lived in France for several years and has not shied away from politics. She visited a shipyard two years ago in Crimea after the region was seized and annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014.She has more recently posted observations on the French "Gilets Jaunes" (yellow vests) protests, comparing scenes in Paris at night to the computer game "Zombie Apocalypse".

Her father, Dmitry Peskov, is President Vladimir Putin's long-serving press secretary. Last month, Mr Peskov castigated the EU for imposing sanctions on two Russians blamed for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK.


Mr Peskov has served the Russian president for a number of years

With European Parliament elections in May, there are fears that Russia may seek to influence the polls, as it has been accused of doing in France and elsewhere.The question for critics is exactly what material Ms Peskova will have access to.

As a resident of France, she is entitled to work at the Parliament as an intern and her employer, Mr Chauprade, insists she has access only to details already in the public domain and nothing that is secret, not even the work of the EU-Russia delegation to which he belongs.

Mr Chauprade, a former international adviser of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, is a well-known supporter of Russia's seizure of Crimea. He is vice-chair of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group led by UK Eurosceptic Nigel Farage.

A Parliament spokeswoman confirmed that Ms Peskova could go to any public meeting or delegation meeting as long as it was not restricted or held in private. Interns did not have access to confidential documents but would have access to the email database, she said.

The internship with Mr Chauprade was a contractual relationship with the MEP and not with the parliament itself, the spokeswoman said.

But Mr Chauprade is on the Parliament's security and defence subcommitteeas well as the foreign affairs committee, so he will receive a number of key documents.

Latvian MEP Sandra Kalniete said there was no security clearance at the Parliament as there was at Nato. "The internship of Putin press secretary Peskov's daughter is contrary to any security standards," she told the country's public broadcaster, LSM.

French Socialist MEP Christine Revault d'Allonnes-Bonnefoy called the revelation "shocking".

"The daughter of the Kremlin's spokesman is not just anybody. I am surprised this hiring was validated by the parliament personnel service," she told the AFP news agency.


ruby Posted on February 26, 2019 13:02

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French Islamic State accused handed over to face trial in Iraq

Thirteen French citizens accused of fighting for the Islamic State group are to be tried in Iraq rather than face charges back home in France.

Iraqi President Barham Saleh said the 13 were handed over by Syrian Kurdish forces last month.

French President Emmanuel Macron declined to comment, saying it was a sovereign matter for Iraq.

The news comes as several Western countries struggle with the fate of alleged militants returning from Syria.The UK, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United States have all grappled with the question of whether to allow those who left to join the Islamic State to return - and potentially face prosecution when they do.

The fate of the 13 French citizens was revealed during a press conference between presidents Macron and Saleh in France, following bilateral talks.

They are due to be tried on terrorist charges - which may carry the death penalty under Iraqi law.

French broadcaster BFMTV reports that it will make no difference whether they are accused of directly fighting for the Islamic State group, or merely providing other assistance to it - the penalty remains the same.

In France, the government says those who commit such crimes abroad should be tried in the territory in which the offence occurred, a stance it has repeated recently amid a global debate on returnees from Syria.

Despite facing trial abroad, the French captives can expect the normal consular assistance offered by the republic to any of its citizens jailed in a foreign country.

Iraq's decision to prosecute the 13 allows France to sidestep the political maze facing many other countries - though some reports suggest there may be dozens of other French captives awaiting a similar fate.

The French case is the latest development in an ongoing crisis about how to treat those who travelled to Syria during its civil war, but now want to return to their home countries in Europe.

Kurdish fighters from the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) hold hundreds of prisoners captured during their fight against the IS group. But the SDF is an alliance of militias, and has warned that they cannot prosecute their captives and imprison them indefinitely.

US President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has urged European countries to take custody of their citizens and put them on trial - warning that if they refuse, the prisoners may simply be released instead.

The question over their fate has prompted national debate in several countries.

In the UK, there is a national debate over the future of Shamima Begum, who left London in 2015, aged 15, to travel to Syria. Now living in a refugee camp, and with a newborn child, she has asked to return.

Shamima Begum: 'I got tricked and I was hoping someone would have sympathy with me'

The UK has instead said it will strip her of her citizenship - arguing that it can do so despite international law, because she is entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship through inheritance.

Her husband is a Dutch convert to Islam, and is thought to have surrendered to a group of Syrian fighters about two weeks ago. She has previously said she may apply for Dutch citizenship.

And despite President Trump's urging to European nations to take in their citizens, he has publicly banned the return of Alabama native Hoda Muthana.

Meanwhile, in Belgium, the government is wrapped in a court case to prevent women returning from camps in Syria - though it remains open to taking in their children.

Russia has repatriated more than 100 children whose parents are imprisoned in Syria and Iraq, returning them to family members.

ruby Posted on February 26, 2019 12:52

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Saudi Arabia: Crown Prince MBS takes charm offensive East

Saudi Arabia has embarked on a global charm offensive.

In the last few days it has appointed its first-ever female ambassador to its top diplomatic post - Washington DC - while its de facto leader, the controversial Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has just concluded a high-profile tour of Asia, discussing billions of dollars' worth of trade and investment deals in China, Pakistan and India.

Less than five months have elapsed since the West recoiled in horror over the grisly, planned murder of Saudi journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul.

The CIA and most western intelligence agencies concluded that the crown prince, known by his initials MBS, was most likely behind the murder, something Saudi officials strongly deny.

Previously feted in Western cities, MBS was largely shunned by the West at the recent G20 summit in Buenos Aires.He faces ongoing condemnation in the Western media, not just for the Khashoggi affair, but for locking up peaceful protesters, including women, and for pursuing a catastrophic war in Yemen.

So what does he do? He turns eastwards, just as other Gulf Arab leaders did in 2011 following European criticism of autocratic practices in their region. He got a red-carpet welcome.

In Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country now in dire financial difficulties, MBS dispensed Saudi largesse and was honoured with a 21-gun salute, an escort of fighter jets, and a gift of a gold-plated submachine gun.

In India he was warmly greeted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and went on to discuss huge investment deals, primarily in the energy sector. And in China, Asia's emerging superpower, the crown prince held talks with President Xi Jinping and signed a $10bn (£7.6bn) refinery deal.

How the murder of journalist could affect the Saudi crown prince

Saudi royals do not travel alone. If you are the crown prince and de facto ruler, you take with you a vast entourage of 1,100 in several planes, occupying hundreds of hotel rooms, as well as a personal, portable gym.

The entourage includes journalists from the state-controlled media who can then report back to the population how well their leader is being received.

  • MBS's position inside Saudi Arabia was already considered secure even before this trip - there are no other serious contenders for the throne. But being warmly embraced in important Asian countries plays well to a Saudi audience and helps dispel the notion of him being a pariah in the wake of the Khashoggi murder.

America though, will be a tougher nut to crack. It is no coincidence that the newly appointed Saudi ambassador to Washington is a woman.

Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud is a successful businesswoman in her own right. She has also championed a greater role for Saudi women in society.

Princess Reema (r) met British PM Theresa May in Riyadh in 2017

But she will have to contend with a highly critical Congress, and US media that have reported extensively on the shortcomings in Saudi Arabia's human rights record.

Her predecessor in the post, Prince Khalid bin Salman Al Saud, departed Washington in a hurry after the Khashoggi affair. He has been accused of complicity in the journalist's murder, which he denies, and was told not to return without a clear explanation of what happened.

So where does all this leave Europe? In short, in a quandary.

Saudi Arabia is Britain's biggest Middle East trading partner with up to 50,000 British jobs dependant on it.

With its enormous oil wealth, the desert kingdom is a massive market for exporters and - controversially - a major buyer of British weaponry, something the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has promised to end.

Relations with Britain and France are cooler, but neither has taken significant measures against Riyadh. Germany, however, has reacted to the Khashoggi killing with a freeze on arms exports, something that now threatens to disrupt the UK-Saudi defence relationship since parts of the Typhoon fighter jet are produced in Germany.

Saudi Arabia's message to the West appears to be twofold. By drawing closer to big, important nations in Asia, it says: "We do have other friends around the world and they're happy to do business with us." By sending a young female ambassador to Washington, it says: "We know we have ground to make up so we are happy to listen to what you have to say."

What matters to Saudi Arabia's critics though, is whether any of this will make any difference to the way in which all political dissent has been suppressed at home, something that continues to embarrass those Western governments doing business with Riyadh.

ruby Posted on February 26, 2019 12:48

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Firm fined £600,000 over bridge worker death in Aberdeen

A firm has been fined £600,000 after a worker died during construction of a new bridge in Aberdeen.

Ian Walker, 58, from Dundee, was crushed by an excavator at the site of the so-called third Don crossing in January 2016.

Balfour Beatty Civil Engineering Ltd admitted breaching Health and Safety and Construction Regulations guidelines at Aberdeen Sheriff Court.

The £22.3m bridge - named the Diamond Bridge - opened in June 2016.

HSE principal inspector Niall Miller said after the case: "This was a tragic and wholly avoidable incident, caused by the failure of the civil engineering company to implement safe systems of work, and to ensure that health and safety documentation was communicated and control measures followed."

The bridge, linking Danestone and Tillydrone, was constructed to help ease congestion.

ruby Posted on February 26, 2019 12:45

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Scottish woman's shock at finding snake in suitcase from Australia

When Maria Boxall found a snake in her luggage following a holiday in Australia, she thought it had been placed there by a member of her family.

But the Scottish grandmother quickly realised it was not a practical joke - when she touched it, it moved.

She had inadvertently transported the reptile in her suitcase on a flight from Queensland to Glasgow.

Ms Boxall only discovered it hiding in a shoe - complete with shed skin - as she unpacked at her Stirlingshire home.

The snake was taken outside in the shoe and contained by a relative until Scottish SPCA staff arrived in Bridge of Allan.

It turned out to be a python, which is not dangerous.

The snake was curled up inside a shoe

Mrs Boxall's son-in-law Paul Airlie told the story of the international-travelling snake to an Australian radio station.

He said she had mentioned thinking she had seen a snake in her room over there before she left but had thought it was gone.

Scottish SPCA animal rescue officer Taylor Johnstone said: "I can confirm that we removed a snake from a property in Bridge of Allan.

"I responded to a call from a woman who had just returned from a holiday in Australia who had found a small snake inside her shoe in her suitcase.

The snake was taken outside and contained until the SSPCA would collect it.

"When I arrived, the snake had been contained by the caller, so I safely removed the snake from the property. Upon examination, the snake was found to be a spotted python which is not venomous.

The snake is in quarantine at our animal rescue and rehoming centre in Edinburgh."

It is thought the snake may be given to a zoo after it passes quarantine.

ruby Posted on February 26, 2019 12:39

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George Pell: Reporting on a secret trial about child sex abuse

Reporting on a secret trial can be confronting and confusing.

For several months, journalists like me have been going back and forth to Melbourne's County Court, unable to broadcast what we'd learnt about George Pell's crimes.

Now the suppression order on the case has been lifted, those details can finally be made public.

Outside court, there was at times high drama - all the sound and fury of cameramen jostling and campaigners brandishing placards at the cardinal as he arrived.

But after the initial hearings, the crowds and the cameras petered out, and the cardinal no longer needed a police escort to sweep him into the building.Inside court, things also settled into a predictable routine.

George Pell would sit in the dock with his notebook, listening, writing, but never really betraying any emotion.

He was excused from standing due to a knee injury, and often sat with his legs stretched out.

He wasn't called to give evidence, and so we didn't hear a word from him for the majority of the trial.

As the court heard vivid descriptions of how in 1996 he had forced himself upon two victims, pushing his archbishop's robes to one side in order to expose himself, he didn't flinch

Pell's case has drawn huge attention around the world

The jury was told how one young boy had pleaded for Pell to let him go - only to be shocked into a silence that would last for decades.

Pell's defence barrister is one of Australia's most experienced and expensive lawyers - his speeches focused on areas of doubt.

Robert Richter QC repeated over and over how highly improbable - if not impossible - it would have been for any of the abuse to have occurred.

Instead, he insisted that his client had become a scapegoat for the crimes of other Catholic clerics.

At one stage, Mr Richter even referred to Pell as "the Darth Vader of the Catholic Church", painting him as a bold leader vilified by the media.Pell certainly has his critics - some came to the court to watch and see him in the dock.

Although the proceedings couldn't be reported, there was nothing to stop members of the public coming in to listen.

Campaigners and abuse survivors sat mixed in with the media, some sighing as they heard accounts of the abuse.

Some of Pell's supporters attended too, sending sympathetic smiles in his direction, and exchanging small talk as he went in and out of the court.

After two trials, one hung jury and many months of waiting - the results of this long process are now public.

The pace of justice has felt slow at times, but it has resulted in one of the Catholic Church's most prominent and powerful figures being held to account.

ruby Posted on February 26, 2019 12:37

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Fiona Onasanya: Speeding MP released from prison

Disgraced MP Fiona Onasanya has been released from prison less than four weeks after she was convicted of lying to police over a speeding ticket.

Onasanya denied being behind the wheel when her car was spotted being driven at 41mph in a 30mph zone in July.

She was found guilty of perverting the course of justice and served her sentence at Bronzefield Prison, Surrey.

The 35-year-old solicitor was expelled by the Labour Party but remains MP for Peterborough.

Onasanya was convicted at the Old Bailey

The MP's Nissan Micra was caught by a speed camera in Thorney

Onasanya's Nissan Micra was caught by a speed camera in Thorney, Cambridgeshire.

She was jailed for three months on 29 January having been convicted at the Old Bailey.

Her release comes a day after the attorney general's office rejected a complaintwhich said the sentence given to her was unduly lenient.

Onasanya - who has said she intends to appeal against her conviction - is the first sitting MP to be jailed since Terry Fields was sentenced to 60 days for failing to pay his £373 poll tax bill in 1991.

ruby Posted on February 26, 2019 12:35

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Brexit: Theresa May facing no-deal revolt as cabinet meets

Theresa May is facing the threat of a revolt by Remain-supporting ministers as she chairs a crucial cabinet meeting on her Brexit negotiations.

Three ministers - including one who attends cabinet - say they will quit unless the PM agrees to take no-deal off the table.

But one of the PM's closest allies has warned pushing back the 29 March exit would not make getting a deal easier.

Mrs May is due to make a statement to MPs at about 1230 GMT.

The BBC's Nick Watt says the feeling is Mrs May will "lean into" the rebel ministers' demands and Brexiteers have been told to expect a "very difficult message".

She has just returned from a summit in Egypt where she held a number of meetings with EU leaders and continued to press for more concessions to placate critics of her deal, in particular on the Irish border backstop.

News of the growing unrest within the cabinet came after Labour announced a significant shift in its policy - a decision to back another referendum if its own alternative Brexit plan is rejected.

Mrs May's Brexit deal was comprehensively rejected by MPs on 15 January and she has said they'll get a second chance to vote on it - possibly with some changes - by 12 March.

Margot James, Richard Harrington and Claire Perry have threatened to quit unless no deal is taken off the table

But writing in the Daily Mail, ministers Richard Harrington, Claire Perry and Margot James said Mrs May must promise now that she will rule out the possibility of the UK leaving the EU without a deal if her agreement is rejected again, and instead seek a way to delay.

Mr Harrington, a business minister, told the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire that it was "absolutely absurd" that, with 31 days to go before the UK is due to leave, a no-deal exit was still a possibility.

"The idea that no deal is a negotiating tool is absolutely incorrect. No-one believes it in the EU. As far as we are concerned the responsible thing is to rule it out."

Theresa May held talks with Angela Merkel and other EU leaders at a summit in Egypt

Unless Mrs May was willing to provide the necessary reassurances, he said he would vote for Parliament to "take control" of the process by backing an amendment - a legislative tool - being put before the Commons by Labour's Yvette Cooper and Conservative Oliver Letwin.

If passed, it would give MPs the power to demand a delay to Brexit if a deal cannot be agreed by 13 March.

He said he was prepared to rebel and quit, if necessary, insisting this would be the "honourable thing" to do.

"Warm words alone will not be enough. It has to be a clear undertaking that she is prepared to remove no-deal and have a short extension to Article 50."

Three other senior cabinet ministers, Greg Clark, Amber Rudd and David Gauke, have already signalled they could also be prepared to vote for the Cooper-Letwin option if there is no breakthrough in the next few days.

Mrs May has long resisted any suggestion that the UK's departure from the EU could be postponed beyond 29 March.

Leading Tory Brexiteer Esther McVey, who quit the cabinet in November, said those pressuring the PM to rule out no deal should be making their views known in private.

Going public showed they were "losing their nerve" and "bottling" it, she told the BBC.

"These people should not be threatening and going to the papers and weakening her hand. If they are going to go, then just go."

If the UK did leave without a formal agreement on 29 March, she said the UK and EU should enter into what she described as a short "static period" where everything remained the same.

This, she said, would give both sides the time and space to discuss how trade would operate, such as what, if any tariffs, would apply to imports and exports.

Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington said that calls to avoid a no-deal Brexit by delaying the deadline for leaving the EU did not resolve the issues.

"It ends up simply deferring the need to face up to taking decisions. It's not an actual course of action in its own right," he told the BBC.

Labour has said it will support the Cooper-Letwin amendment, making its chances of success far higher.

But leader Jeremy Corbyn also wants to use Wednesday to put his own plan for Brexit - which includes a "comprehensive customs union" with the EU and "close alignment" with the single market - before the Commons.

He told his MPs on Monday night that if - as expected - that plan is rejected, the party will formally throw its weight behind another public vote.

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said that if Labour's Brexit proposals did not get through Parliament "we, the Labour Party will either put down ourselves, or support an amendment, in favour of a public vote".

That vote, he added, "ought to be on the option, on the one hand, of a credible leave deal and. on the other hand, remain".


  • Crucial cabinet meeting to focus on the Brexit impasse
  • Then Theresa May gives a statement to the House of Commons updating them on her progress
  • Meanwhile, members of her negotiating team return to Brussels to continue talks


ruby Posted on February 26, 2019 12:25

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paxex Posted on February 25, 2019 16:46

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Venezuela Aid Live: Why is Branson being told to 'back off'?

To say Venezuela is in the middle of a political crisis would be an understatement. President Nicolás Maduro is locked in a power struggle with Juan Guaidó, an opposition politician and the self-declared interim leader of the country.

So what better way to make the situation less complicated than to add a spat between one of the world's richest people and the bass player from Pink Floyd?

Yes... it's a pretty weird situation.

Richard Branson, the British billionaire behind the Virgin group of companies, announced last week that he was planning to hold a concert to raise money for aid for Venezuela - inspired by similar benefits like Live Aid.

The concert, Venezuela Aid Live, is due to happen this Friday in the Colombian border town of Cucuta, near a bridge that connects it to Venezuela (a bridge, incidentally, that President Maduro has blocked off with shipping containers to prevent US aid getting in).

Mr Branson says the concert will be free for people who can go in person, and live-streamed internationally for those who can't.

The ultimate goal, Mr Branson says, is to raise tens of millions of dollars through donations, and to get aid through President Maduro's blockades - although how exactly he will do that remains unclear.

"Let the music inspire and mobilise you," he adds. "United through music, we can make a huge difference and help bring an end to the needless suffering of millions."

And now, in response, Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters has released a video telling Mr Branson to "back off".

In a two-minute video posted on Twitter, the musician says Mr Branson's "Live-Aid-ish" concert has "nothing to do with humanitarian aid at all".

"It has to do with Richard Branson, and I'm not surprised by this, having bought the US saying: 'We have decided to take over Venezuela, for whatever our reasons may be,'" Mr Waters says.

"But it has nothing to do with the needs of the Venezuelan people, it has nothing to do with democracy, it has nothing to do with freedom, and it has nothing to do with aid."

He adds that he has "friends that are in Caracas" who claim there is "no civil war, no mayhem, no murder, no apparent dictatorship, no suppression of the press"

Mr Branson says it was a direct request from Mr Guaidó and opposition leader Leopoldo López.

In an earlier social media video, the billionaire says: "Juan Guaidó, who has been recognised as Venezuela's legitimate president by over 40 nations, and the EU, and Leopoldo López, an opposition leader currently under house arrest in Caracas, have asked us to help organise a beautiful concert, to help bring global attention to this unacceptable, and preventable, crisis."

Mr López has been under house arrest since 2014.

An official line-up hasn't been released yet but a few celebrities have confirmed that they're taking part.

The concert's organisers have also released a list of 32 people they have invited to perform, which includes young Latin stars Rudy Mancuso, Juanes and Despacito singer Luis Fonsi, and Swedish DJ Alesso.

Lele Pons, a Venezuelan-American singer and actress who was the most-looped individual on Vine before it shut down in 2016, and Venezuelan singer Danny Ocean have both released videos saying that they will perform.

According to Mr Branson, the goal is to raise $100m (£76.8m) in 60 days through donations on a website.

 added goal, organisers say, is to "reopen Venezuela's border so humanitarian aid can finally reach those who need it the most".

Which takes us neatly to our next point...

How are they going to get aid into the country?

This is a much trickier question - and the answer is: we don't know.

For context: there is a bridge between Cúcuta and Venezuela, with US military planes and lorries carrying tonnes of humanitarian aid parked on the Colombian side.

So, the aid is there. Mr Maduro, however, has blocked the Venezuelan side with shipping containers.

Lorries and planes carrying tonnes of humanitarian aid are being held at the border

Mr Maduro says the aid is part of a plot by the US to invade the country, while his Vice President, Delcy Rodriguez, claims the US aid is contaminated with carcinogens to "poison our populations".

The president has said that he's willing to take aid from his allies - Cuba and China, for example - but he has explicitly refused to accept anything from his opponents.

Mr Branson, who explicitly blames Mr Maduro for the crisis, would most likely fall under this category.

Mr Guaidó has said he plans to get aid into the country on 23 February, by urging Venezuelans to mobilise en masse and form "caravans" and a "humanitarian avalanche" at the borders. Even with this effort, it is uncertain whether or not aid will be allowed in.

A spokesman for Mr Branson told BBC News that he was working with the Colombian entrepreneur Bruno Ocampo to organise the concert and sort out the logistics - while Mr Ocampo said their methods for getting aid over the border "remain confidential, to prevent compromising our efforts".

He added: "Our plans are well orchestrated and we will soon share more details."

This is the view of Mr Waters - and of humanitarian organisations like the United Nations and Red Cross.

For example, United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters earlier this month that "humanitarian action needs to be independent of political, military or other objectives".

He added: "What is important is that humanitarian aid be depoliticised and that the needs of the people should lead in terms of when and how humanitarian aid is used."

Mr Waters referenced this when he told Mr Branson: "Don't politicise aid. Leave the Venezuelan people alone to exercise their legal right to self-determination."

The bass player, however, waded into politically murky waters himself when he confidently proclaimed that there was "no apparent dictatorship" in Venezuela.

A spokesperson for Mr Branson told BBC News that the primary aim of the concert was to "raise awareness" and to "create a way for the global community to pledge their support".

They added: "While the political context of the crisis is complex, this is purely a humanitarian effort that cannot replace the need for political and diplomatic solutions."

Live Aid was arguably the pinnacle of the benefit concert, eventually raising a reported $125m for victims of the famine in Ethiopia in 1985. In fact, it's so legendary that it was recreated in all its glory in the recent Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.

And announcing that he was hosting Venezuela Aid Live, Mr Branson specifically says he was inspired by the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, and by Live Aid, and how they both "moved the world to action".

Richard Branson says he was partly inspired by Live Aid 1985

But behind the glamour of these concerts were troubling reports that the money raised hadn't quite ended up where it was supposed to.

In the case of Concert for Bangladesh, the cash was tied up in a decade-long battle with tax officials in the US, while Live Aid was plagued by unconfirmed reports claiming the money it had raised was actually being used by Ethiopia's leader to amass weapons to crush opposition rebels.

There have been similar concerns about subsequent benefit concerts. Huge, high-production gigs have often been followed up with questions about how the money was organised and distributed to the people that needed it.

Benefits after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, for example, are thought to have raised more than $9bn - but these fundraising efforts were later marred by allegations of financial impropriety by musician Wyclef Jean's charity Yele Haiti. Years after the disaster, people in Haiti said their communities were far from being rebuilt.

Venezuela Aid Live's organisers, however, tell BBC News that Live Aid and Concert for Bangladesh "helped raise global awareness" and "mobilised unprecedented public support".

"It is fair to say that in the decades since [these concerts], co-ordination in the humanitarian sector has improved enormously," they say, adding that the technology involved is better too.

"Based on the many lessons learned, the organising team is committed to an approach that is professional, unbureaucratic, efficient, transparent, and accountable."

All of the money raised will be transferred to the Colombian NGO Solidaridad Por Colombia, they add, which will hold it in a trust before working with aid experts to distribute it.


ruby Posted on February 20, 2019 17:01

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