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'Oldest known elephant in captivity' dies at 88 in India

Dakshayani, thought to be the world's oldest elephant in captivity, has died at the age of 88 in India.

Given the title Gaja Muthassi or elephant granny, Dakshayani took part in temple rituals and processions at the Chengalloor Mahadeva Temple in the southern state of Kerala.

But her vet said the elephant stopped taking food and died on Tuesday.

Keepers started feeding her pineapples and carrots in recent years after she began to have trouble moving around.

She had not taken part in any public event for several years.

The Travancore Devaswom Board, which runs the temple where she lived, says she was the oldest elephant in captivity and estimated her age at 88.

However, the current Guinness World Record holder for oldest elephant in captivity is Lin Wang.

The Asian elephant died at a zoo in Taiwan in 2003 aged 86, and served with the British Army in World War Two.

Another elephant, Indira, died in India's Karnataka state in 2017 and was reportedly aged "between 85 and 90".

The elephant took part in temple rituals and processions

India has more than 2,400 elephants in captivity.

The former Travancore Devaswom Board president told AFP news agency that Dakshayani was well-treated.

"Due to various practical constraints, we could not let her loose, but instead ensured that she had more than enough space to move around," he said.

However conservationists say many elephants suffer in poor conditions.

UK-based group Action for Elephants says around 800 elephants are held in Indian temples, particularly in Kerala state, and live in "generally abysmal living conditions".

 captionIndia's first elephant hospital is run by the charity Wildlife SOS




ruby Posted on February 08, 2019 15:18

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Hampi: Four arrested for vandalising India monument

Four men have been arrested for vandalising a Unesco World Heritage site in the southern Indian town of Hampi after a video emerged recently.

In the clip, three of them are seen shoving a pillar, which then toppled and broke apart.

The video went viral earlier in the week and prompted widespread outrage on social media.

Hampi, famous for its 16th century ruins and temples, is a popular tourist spot in India.

In addition to the three men who pushed the pillar, which was located outside a temple, a fourth person who was filming the incident has also been arrested.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which looks after heritage sites in the country, registered a police complaint on 6 February, a few days after the video surfaced.

However, police are not sure when the incident took place.

"We are investigating this - it could have even occurred a year or two ago," an officer told BBC Hindi's Imran Qureshi.


ruby Posted on February 08, 2019 15:15

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US-India Farmington university row: 'I fled after fake college raid'

The arrest of 129 Indian students in the US for enrolling in a fake university has sparked questions about how they ended up risking their future to study at a little-known institution. BBC Telugu's Deepthi Bathini reports.

Veeresh (name changed at his request) was at home in California on 30 January when he heard the news - 130 students (the group included one Chinese national) enrolled at the University of Farmington had been arrested. The university had turned out to be a sham run by undercover agents investigating immigration fraud.

He panicked, he says, because he was one of the 600 students who had enrolled at the Michigan-based university.

"I did not know what to believe. I thought it was a rumour but the whole story was out the next day."

He left as soon as he could. He returned to India on 4 February.

Apart from the students, eight alleged recruiters, all Indian citizens, were charged with "conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harbouring aliens for profit," according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).

The university's website used stock images of students working

The 'visa mills'

The University of Farmington was set up in 2015 to catch foreign nationals who had travelled to the US on student visas but stayed on by transferring to fake universities and then obtaining work permits through them.

The practice is common enough that US officials refer to such colleges as "visa mills" and the scam as a "pay-to-stay" scheme.

In 2016, immigration agents set up the fake University of Northern New Jersey and arrested 21 people, mostly from China and India.

This time, the sting operation has sparked a minor diplomatic row - with Indian officials saying the students may have been duped. But the US government denies this, saying students knowingly enrolled in a fake institution for the visa benefits.

The US has long been a favoured destination for Indian students - nearly half of those holding two types of student visas in 2017-18 were either from China (377,070) or India (211,703), according to the US government. While increased regulation has made it harder for students to stay on and work, an array of visas still offer opportunities.

But the choice and the paperwork can be bewildering, say consultants, which makes students more vulnerable to fake colleges and recruiters.

The US government has now shut down the university site

'I had no other option'

Veeresh moved to the US in 2014 for a master's degree at the Northwestern Polytechnic University (NPU) in California.He graduated in 2016 but NPU lost its Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) accreditation.

This accreditation makes students eligible for an extended work permit. Without it, Veeresh could have only worked in the US for one year. So he decided to enrol at another university.

He says a friend told him about the University of Farmington and put him in touch with a recruiter, who was among those arrested.

Farmington offered online courses and what is called curricular practical training (CPT). This is an option that allows student visa holders in the US to work full-time while they study. Although several colleges offer this option, it can also be misused by students who wish to work rather than study in the US.

Veeresh enrolled in October 2017 and he received his CPT the following day.

He says he did what he could to verify the college's credentials. He visited the website, which showed pictures of students in classes, libraries or elsewhere on campus; he compared the documents he was given to those belonging to his friends from other colleges.

In 2011, students in Hyderabad protested after California's Tri-Valley University was shut down

"I called the phone numbers on the website to ask about classes. I was told they would let us know when they schedule them," he said. "After six months, I asked a friend to contact the recruiter, who connected us with someone who again told us they would let us know."

He claims not to have suspected anything and so paid the tuition and waited for more than a year for classes to begin.

"I did not have any other option," he says.

Meanwhile, he continued working and applied for a H1B visa, a non-immigrant visa that allows companies in the US to employ skilled foreigners - mostly technology workers - for up to six years. It's allocated by a lottery system and those who hold the visa can apply for permanent residency and buy property in the country.

'I am wearing an ankle monitor'

Twenty-five-year-old Sravanti (name changed on her request), graduated from NPU at the end of 2016. Like Veeresh, she only had a one-year work permit. So she also enrolled in Farmington and got a CPT that enabled her to work in the US.

But unlike Veeresh, she could not leave the US in time. On 30 January, she says, officials from the Department of Homeland Security came to her house n California to question her.

"I am wearing an ankle monitor and I have been advised not to leave the country without informing them," she told the BBC over the phone.

She says she found out about Farmington from a friend who had already enrolled there. But she says that although she paid the tuition, she did not visit the college website or verify any of the information she was given. She was unable to answer why she did not suspect something was amiss when the online courses didn't start.

Sravanti says she has been told she can opt for "voluntary deportation" but that would include a 10-year ban from entering the US. The other option is to wait for the court hearing in March - and hope that a lenient judge could reduce the length of the ban.

"I am very confused. I want to come back to India but my future looks uncertain," she says. "I am at home through the day. I have nothing else to do. And I am running out of money."

She says her parents know the truth and have been very supportive.

The US state department has denied India's claim that students like Veeresh and Sravanti may have been duped.

"All participants in this scheme knew that the University of Farmington had no instructors or classes (neither online nor in-person) and were aware they were committing a crime in an attempt to fraudulently remain in the United States," a spokesperson told the Hindustan Times.

The American dream

Veeresh had taken a loan of 1.5m rupees (£16,300; $21,000) to help pay for his education. The first university cost him $30,000 and Farmington cost him an additional $20,000. He had to borrow money from his friend to buy a ticket to come back home.

He still hasn't told his parents why he returned.

"They think I am on vacation. But the truth is that I have no job and a college loan to pay off. My parents would be devastated if they knew the truth."

His parents are farmers and Veeresh had hoped to help them out by earning an income in dollars, some of which he could send home.

"I am the only son. I wanted to take care of my parents. We do not own land or a house. I wanted to go to America to earn better so that I can buy a house for my family in India."

This dream - of an American job that pays in dollars - is what motivates most students, says Bhaskar Pulinati, founder of Groovy Overseas Education Consultants.

"More than 90% of the students are looking for a path to permanent residency. Very few of them are concerned about the reputation of the university," he adds.

He says that is why many students prefer Canada and Australia, which offer an easier path to becoming a resident. But the US remains a top choice.

The Chilkur temple in Hyderabad is famous for students praying for visas

"For a student, the priority is to go to the US," says Sirisha Singavaram, a consultant based in the southern city of Hyderabad, where the US consulate issues more student visas than anywhere else in India.

"We do get requests from students who desperately want to go and ask if their documents can be 'edited' so they can enrol in a US college but we deny such requests."

She adds that the problem is most students do not understand the application or visa process and end up relying too much on brokers and consultants.

Veeresh, meanwhile, is looking for a job in Hyderabad. But he is still hopeful of returning to the US.

"To achieve my dream of having my own house and to be able to take care of my parents, I want to go back to the US for a few years."

ruby Posted on February 08, 2019 15:11

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Huawei: Tackling security concerns may take five years

It will take three to five years for Huawei to address security issues raised by the UK government, the company has said.

The Chinese firm, which has earmarked $2bn (£1.5bn) for the process, outlined the timetable in a letter to MPs.

Huawei, the world's biggest producer of telecoms equipment, faces allegations that its equipment could pose a security risk, which it denies.

Last year a UK government report highlighted some areas of concern.

WATCH: Huawei: We would close down rather than spy

The letter was sent last week to MPs on the Commons Science and Technology Committee, but made public on Wednesday. In it, Ryan Ding, president of Huawei's carrier business group said the process of adapting its software and engineering processes to meet the UK's requirements was "like replacing components on a high-speed train in motion".

Several governments, including those of France and Germany, are also considering whether to allow the use of Huawei equipment in sensitive infrastructure. Australia and New Zealand have joined the US in banning the use of Huawei products in their 5G mobile networks.

Western countries' fears around Huawei stem partly from China's 2017 National Intelligence Law. It states that Chinese organisations are obliged to "support, cooperate with, and collaborate in, national intelligence work". This has raised fears that Chinese-made equipment could present a security risk particularly if used in the construction of new 5G networks.

Mr Ding said in his letter last week that the company "has never and will never" use its equipment to assist espionage activities.

"Huawei is a closely watched company," he said. "Were Huawei ever to engage in malicious behaviour, it would not go unnoticed - and it would certainly destroy our business."

British authorities have not found any evidence of spying using Huawei equipment.

'Lack of progress'

The US Justice Department has charged Huawei with conspiring to violate US sanctions on Iran and with stealing robotic technology from T-Mobile.

In December, Huawei's chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada at the request of the US.

Last year's UK government report was written by the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC), which was set up in 2010 in response to concerns that BT and others' use of the firm's equipment could pose a threat.

The body is overseen by UK security officials, including ones from spy agency GCHQ.

It said that it was disappointed that there had been a "lack of progress" in tackling previously identified shortcomings.

ruby Posted on February 08, 2019 13:35

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Yanxi Palace: Why China turned against its most popular show

It was one of China's most popular shows of 2018 - but it's now being pulled from TV screens across the country.

The story of Yanxi Palace, a drama about life in imperial China, broke records when it was released last year.

It was streamed more than 15 billion times on China Netflix-like iQiyi and became the most watched online drama in China for 39 consecutive days.

All that changed in late January when a state media article criticised the "negative impact" of imperial dramas, and it wasn't long before Yanxi Palace was taken off air.

So why has this blockbuster show fallen from grace?

'Bad for Chinese society'

It all started when Theory Weekly - a title linked to state newspaper the Beijing Daily - posted an article criticising period dramas and singling out Yanxi Palace in particular.

It listed several "negative impacts" these shows had on Chinese society, like propagating a luxurious and hedonistic lifestyle, encouraging admiration for imperial life and a glorification of emperors overshadowing the heroes of today.

The magazine named several other popular imperial period dramas, like Ruyi's Royal Love in the Palace, Scarlet Heart and The Legend of Mi Yue.

China wants entertainment to always also promote socialist values

Shortly after the piece was published, Yanxi Palace and Ruyi's Royal Love in the Palace were pulled from state-run TV channels.

The shows are, however, still available on iQiyi, the place that Yanxi Palace was initially produced for and was first shown.

Rival versions of history

"It's not the first time something like this has happened," Prof Stanley Rosen, a China specialist at the University of Southern California, told the BBC.

"But I would say the censorship is certainly getting worse.

"Yanxi Palace was seen as promoting incorrect values, commercialism and consumerism; not the socialist core values that Beijing wants to see promoted."

"For those who are overseeing those productions there should always some educational value or some promotion of Chinese cultural values or some sort of historical narrative that matter," explains Manya Koetse, editor-in-chief of What's on Weibo, a website tracking Chinese social media.

Prof Zhu Ying of the Film Academy at Hong Kong's Baptist University told the BBC. "Censors tend to turn a blind eye to entertainment programs of frivolous nature.

"But that's only until they become too popular and threaten social norms, morally and ideologically. Yanxi is a perfect example of such a show."

Given the popularity of Yanxi Palace, the Theory Weekly article unsurprisingly became a widely debated topic on the internet - and with most comments condemning the critique, authorities were as little pleased with the online debate as with the series itself.

One post, by online news website Phoenix, was shared more than 10,000 times and had more than 32,000 comments, Ms Koetse explains. All of those comments have since been blocked and the entire comment section is turned off.

"The fact that most comment sections have been locked/shut down for now is quite telling," she says.

Too successful abroad?

Another problem might have been the attention Yanxi Palace received from international audiences.

"It could be that the show became too popular outside China," says Mr Rosen. "It's a contradiction of wanting to succeed overseas but also wanting to control the message."

Beijing wants Chinese culture to be promoted outside of China but showing the values that the authorities want to see portrayed.

Beijing hopes to control the narrative of how China used to be

So if a show is popular outside China but carries the wrong values, authorities might think it's better to not have it at all.

Beijing is keen to control the narrative of China's past and president.

President Xi Jinping is promoting the idea of the rise of China as peaceful, and that China believes in harmony.

Yanxi Palace, though, paints an image of a China of intrigue and backstabbing.

"It flies in the face of the message that China wants to send about its peaceful rise," Mr Rosen says.

Eager self-censorship

With Yanxi Palace still available online, it's unlikely Beijing will be able to undo whatever perceived damage the series might have done.

But the very public criticism sends a signal to future programmes.

Often, it only takes one person from the political leadership to see the show, dislike it and contact the propaganda department to arrange for a critical article to be written.

Once published, everybody knows the criticism has high level backing; then TV channels will very quickly self-censor and drop whatever show has fallen from grace.

"Historical dramas have been popular in China since the 1990s," says Ms Koetse. "And one of the reasons why is that official censors used to have somewhat different standards for them than for the more contemporary dramas."

"But if the focus of one of those programmes is too much on conspiracy, power struggles and conflict, then I can imagine that this is not the message about Chinese history they want to see."

President Xi Jinping wants the rise of China seen as peaceful

For future projects this means that producers will likely be more careful.

Already, anything done for TV or streaming has to be vetted and approved. And producers will be less likely to plan an elaborate historical drama if there's a chance it will get shot down by the censors.

"And censorship is getting tighter, I would say," Mr Rosen says. "It's not just series or movies, it's also targeting music like rap for instance."

Struggling for soft power

China often stands in its own way when it comes to building up its soft power.

A point in case are the movies it enters into the Oscars foreign movie category.

There've been plenty of strong candidates in recent years but those didn't get picked, says Mr Rosen, likely because they tell a story that Beijing thinks reflects negatively on China.

The 2017 movie Angels Wear White dealt with child molestation while 2018's Dying to Survive told the story of a cancer patient illegally importing medicine from India.

Both movies were successful in China and have received international praise - but they don't depict the version of China that Beijing wants to world to hear.

"If they tolerated a little bit more criticism, they could be much more successful when it comes to soft power," Mr Rosen sums up.

"But they worry that once they open the floodgates, they won't be able to retain their control anymore."

ruby Posted on February 08, 2019 13:19

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Australia and US make record crystal meth bust

Australian police have arrested six people in Victoria and New South Wales after the biggest seizure of crystal methamphetamine in US history.

Authorities say the 1,728kg (3,800lb) stash - the largest ever intercepted drug shipment to Australia - was found in January at a port in California.

The haul is said to be equivalent to 17 million doses and worth an estimated A$1.29bn ($910m; £705m).

Three of those arrested appeared at Melbourne Magistrates Court on Friday.

Among the suspects are two Americans: a 52-year-old man and a 46-year-old woman. Australian Federal Police (AFP) say they were found with "hundreds of thousands of dollars of proceeds of crime" during a raid in Melbourne.

They are believed to be involved with a US-based crime syndicate that tried to smuggle the drugs in containers marked as carrying audio equipment.

"By stopping this, we have ensured criminals will not profit from the immense pain these drugs would have caused our community," AFP Assistant Commissioner Bruce Hill told reporters.

The crystal meth had been hidden in boxes marked as audio equipment

The arrests are part of an ongoing joint investigation by local and national agencies in the US and Australia.

In 2015, Australia's government established a national taskforce to tackle the growing use of crystal methamphetamine (dubbed "ice"), which has become the most common illicit drug in the country.

The move followed a report by the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) that found crystal meth posed the highest risk to communities of any illegal substance.

Crystal meth is a powerful form of amphetamine and can be smoked, snorted or injected by users.

Victoria state - Australia's second-most populous - consumes more than two tonnes of crystal meth every year, according to government figures.

The ACC says the price of crystal meth in Australia is among the highest in the world, driving the country's organised crime gangs to trade increasingly in the drug.

Commissioner Hill said police believe Mexican cartels are targeting the country, but the identities of the cartels have not been disclosed.

The previous record for an Australia-bound crystal meth seizure was 1,300 kg in 2017.

ruby Posted on February 08, 2019 13:07

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Longest-serving US congressman John Dingell dies aged 92

John Dingell, the longest serving congressman in US history, has died aged 92.

"He was a lion of the United States Congress and a loving son, father, husband, grandfather, and friend," the office of his wife Debbie Dingell said.

The Michigan Democrat was a driving force behind many key liberal laws, notably health programmes.

He was first elected in 1955, serving in the House of Representatives for the next 59 years. He retired in 2015.

After leaving Congress, he closely followed all the twists and turns of US politics, often deploying Twitter to express his position on major issues.

His last post was the day before his death, in which he wrote: "You're not done with me just yet."

Mr Dingell died peacefully on Thursday in his home in Dearborn, Michigan.

"It is with a heavy heart that we announce the passing of John David Dingell, Jr., former Michigan Congressman and longest-serving member of the United States Congress," Debbie Dingell's office said in a statement.

It said that Mr Dingell's wife, who was elected to the House in 2015 to succeed him, was at his side.

"He will be remembered for his decades of public service to the people of Southeast Michigan, his razor sharp wit, and a lifetime of dedication to improving the lives of all who walk this earth," the statement added.

Mrs Dingell did not attend President Donald Trump's State of the Union address on Tuesday, deciding to stay with her husband as his health deteriorated.

'I don't want people to be sorry for me'

Mr Dingell was 29 when he won a special election for his father's seat after the latter's sudden death in 1955.

Former President Barack Obama has described him as one of the most influential legislators of all time.

Mr Dingell served through the terms of 11 US presidents.

Explaining his decision to retire in 2015, he said back then: "I don't want people to be sorry for me. I don't want to be going out feet-first and I don't want to do less than an adequate job."

In 2014, John Dingell was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama

He had said his single most important vote in Congress was for the sweeping 1964 Civil Rights Act, which among other provisions forbade discrimination in employment based on race and sex. The vote almost cost him the next election.

He also played a key role in the creation of Medicare, the government-sponsored health programme for the elderly and disabled and was an early supporter of universal healthcare legislation, including President Obama's 2010 healthcare law.

ruby Posted on February 08, 2019 12:59

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Alabama inmate executed after Supreme Court denies him imam's presence

The US state of Alabama has executed a Muslim inmate after the Supreme Court dismissed his appeal for an imam to be present with him at death.

Convicted murderer Dominique Ray was killed by lethal injection on Thursday as scheduled.

Ray's lawyers had argued that the state favoured Christians because a chaplain was allowed to be in the room with inmates.

Imam Yusef Maisonet instead watched from an adjacent room, reports said.

On Wednesday a federal appeals court agreed to a temporary delay to the execution, saying in its judgement that Ray had a "powerful" claim against the state because it refused to "provide the same benefit to a devout Muslim and all other non-Christians".

However Alabama quickly appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled five to four in its favour.

The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) employs a Christian chaplain who has been in the execution room for nearly every execution since 1997 - but ADOC refused to allow a non-employee to be in the execution chamber instead of the chaplain.

Ray had been an inmate for close to 20 years, the New York Times reported, and converted to Islam while in prison.

He was sentenced to death in 1999 for raping and murdering a 15-year-old girl in 1995.

The state said Ray's imam could be in the witness room but would not be allowed inside the execution chamber

ruby Posted on February 08, 2019 12:54

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Jeff Bezos: Amazon boss accuses National Enquirer of blackmail

The world's richest man, founder Jeff Bezos, has accused the owner of a US gossip magazine of trying to blackmail him over lewd pictures.

He said the National Enquirer's parent company, American Media Inc (AMI), wanted him to stop investigating how they had obtained his private messages.

Mr Bezos and his wife Mackenzie said they were divorcing last month.

Hours later the magazine published details, including private messages, of an extramarital affair.

AMI has not yet responded to the BBC's request for comment.

Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie Bezos announced their separation last month

What does Bezos say?

In a stunning blog post on Thursday, Mr Bezos posted an email he said had been sent to his intermediaries by AMI's representatives threatening to publish "intimate photos" of him and his lover, former TV host Lauren Sanchez.

The billionaire, who also owns the Washington Post newspaper, said AMI had wanted him to make a "false public statement" that the National Enquirer's coverage of him and his mistress was not politically motivated.

According to emails included by Mr Bezos in his blog, an AMI lawyer proposed on Wednesday that the photos would not be published in return for a public statement "affirming that [Bezos and his team] have no knowledge or basis" to suspect such a motive.

Former TV host Lauren Sanchez is reported to be in a relationship with Mr Bezos

"Rather than capitulate to extortion and blackmail," wrote Mr Bezos, "I've decided to publish exactly what they sent me, despite the personal cost and embarrassment they threaten."

Early in the blog post, Mr Bezos mentions AMI's links to President Donald Trump.

Why does he mention Trump?

Mr Bezos said his ownership of the Washington Post was a "complexifier" for him because he had made enemies of "certain powerful people", including President Trump, who is a friend of AMI's boss, David Pecker.

AMI recently admitted it had co-ordinated with the Trump presidential campaign to pay a Playboy model $150,000 (£115,000) in hush money to keep quiet about her alleged affair with Mr Trump.

Mr Bezos notes in his blog post how the publisher had confessed to the so-called "catch and kill" deal to bury Karen McDougal's politically embarrassing story.

AMI's agreement to co-operate with federal authorities means it will not face criminal charges over the payments, Manhattan prosecutors announced in December.

Mr Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen - who facilitated the hush money at the direction, he says, of Mr Trump - has already admitted violating campaign finance laws.

What about Bezos' reputation?

The Amazon boss did not try to hide the potential for embarrassment, writing "of course I don't want personal photos published" and noting what he called "AMI's long-earned reputation for weaponising journalistic privileges".

"But," he continued, "I also won't participate in their well-known practice of blackmail, political favours, political attacks, and corruption. I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out."

His blog contained itemised details of 10 pictures in an email from the magazine's editor, Dylan Howard, who said they had been "obtained during our newsgathering".

New Yorker writer Ronan Farrow alleged that he "and at least one other prominent journalist" had been subject to similar threats from AMI.

Mr Bezos said "AMI's claim of newsworthiness is that the photos are necessary to show Amazon shareholders that my business judgment is terrible".

But the Amazon boss countered that the firm's results "speak for themselves".

Dylan Howard's name, along with those of two National Enquirer reporters, appeared on a story the magazine published on 9 January containing alleged details of Mr Bezos' affair with Ms Sanchez.


ruby Posted on February 08, 2019 11:29

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'How a smartphone saved my mother's life'

As the smartphone falls in price while its capabilities improve, it is becoming a valuable tool in the diagnosis of a growing number of diseases and ailments around the world.

When Yonatan Adiri's mother fell down a bank and briefly lost consciousness when travelling in China, an initial diagnosis suggested she had a few broken ribs, but nothing more serious. Doctors were keen to fly her to Hong Kong for treatment.

But Yonatan's father was worried and took photos of the CT [computerised tomography] scans of the injuries, emailing them to his son. Yonatan showed the images to a trauma doctor, who instantly diagnosed a punctured lung. The flight to Hong Kong might have killed her.

"Who knows what would've happened if he hadn't taken photos?" Yonatan wonders.

The experience inspired the Israeli entrepreneur - formerly Israel's chief technology officer under the late President Shimon Peres - to explore how the smartphone could be developed into a medical grade diagnostic tool.'s urine test kit and app has been given regulatory approval

The result was, a start-up pioneering "medical selfies", as he calls them. The first product is a urine test kit that screens for signs of urinary tract infection, diabetes, and kidney disease.

The standard urine test involves a special dipstick featuring 10 tiny pads that change colour if they detect various substances, such as blood, sugars or proteins, in the urine sample. Normally a trained clinician analyses the colour changes by eye, but's smartphone app can do it equally well using its computer vision algorithm.

A smartphone chatbot called Emily takes people through the process step-by-step using voice, text and video.

The patient slots the dipstick into a colour-coded cardboard frame then scans the whole thing with the phone. The image is sent to the cloud for analysis and the results go to the patient's doctor.

"It's not a wellness device, it's a medical device," says Mr Adiri, emphasising that the product has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration and by European Union regulators.

The urine test app scans the dipstick and analyses the colour changes against a chart

As the test can be done very easily at home, he believes it has the potential to save health systems "hundreds of millions of pounds" in clinician time and earlier diagnosis of diseases that would be far more expensive to treat later on.

The app and kit, which costs £9.99, has been used more than 100,000 times around the world, the company says. Pharmacy chain Boots is currently trialling the service in the UK, and the National Health Service is using it to monitor kidney transplant and diabetes patients.

The main advantage of a smartphone is that it has "huge computational power, a high-resolution screen, excellent cameras and is, importantly, connected and available worldwide," says Dr Andrew Bastawrous, co-founder and chief executive of Peek Vision, a tech company pioneering simple eye tests for developing countries.

About 36 million people in the world are blind, many from easily treatable diseases, he says. Earlier diagnosis could save the sight of the majority of these people.

Dr Andrew Bastawrous demonstrates the Peek Acuity app to his project team in Kenya

But in remote, poorer areas of the world, bulky and expensive medical equipment is hard to come by.

Peek Vision's eye test app, Peek Acuity, displays the letter E on the phone screen and this changes in size and orientation during the test.

The patient points in the direction he or she thinks the letter is pointing and the tester swipes the screen in that same direction. The app works out if the answer was right or wrong. The test results are stored in the cloud and sent to the nearest trained clinician.

"Our app is designed so that almost anybody can use it," says Dr Bastawrous, an academic and eye surgeon who works at the International Centre for Eye Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

"Training takes just a few minutes, so it can be used by non-specialists, including teachers, community leaders and general health workers."

The app can simulate what the world looks like to someone with bad eyesight

The phone's camera can also simulate what the world looks like to the person tested, helping parents clearly understand why their child might need treatment, he says.

So far, more than 250,000 people have been screened in Kenya, Botswana and India, with the costs being picked up by partner charities and governments. The app has won clinical approval in Europe, and Dr Bastawrous says it is "at least as accurate as a conventional eye test".

"The ability to record data at the point of care, take images that could be analysed using artificial intelligence or by experts who cannot be everywhere at once, increases the possibility of universal healthcare being realised across the spectrum of healthcare specialities," he concludes.

There are plenty of other companies and researchers exploring the potential of the smartphone as a medical diagnostic tool, often in conjunction with add-on pieces of kit.

Accenture's Niamh McKenna says smartphone diagnosis has "great potential"

Cellscope, for example, has developed an attachment for the smartphone camera that enables parents to probe a child's ear and take a video of the inside, which is then viewed by a doctor remotely.

The idea is that parents can rule out false alarms and save on wasted trips to the doctor.

Meanwhile, research teams are developing plug-in sensors that can detect a range of diseases, from HIV to Ebola, from a small sample of blood. And attachments can turn the phone's camera into a microscope capable of examining red blood cells for signs of malaria.

"There have been some exciting developments in the evolution of the smartphone as a diagnostic tool," says Niamh McKenna, health lead at consultancy Accenture. "Clinical diagnosis on the move has great potential for application in remote areas.

"However, we need to remind ourselves that ultimately smartphones are being developed as consumer technology and not as medical devices," she adds.

"Trying to repurpose them in this way can lead to confusing consumer propositions and potentially come up against regulatory issues - like data protection."

But if cheap, portable and accurate diagnosis of treatable conditions saves lives as promised, the smartphone could become the most important invention of the last 20 years.


ruby Posted on February 08, 2019 11:21

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Ford Bridgend: New Ineos 4x4 contract 'won't secure jobs'

Winning a contract to build a new 4x4 would not secure all the jobs at risk at Ford Bridgend, according to one of the UK's leading car industry experts.

A decision is imminent on whether Ineos Automotive will build its new off-road vehicle in Portugal or Bridgend - where 1,000 jobs are under threat.

But Aston University's Prof David Bailey said the contract would create no more than a few hundred jobs.

Ford has been asked for a statement.

Prof Bailey, who has written extensively on car industry policy and strategy and has acted as a special advisor to a cross-party group of MPs, said Ineos's plan was seen by some as a "vanity project".

He said it was unclear how many cars would be produced under the potential deal or how profitable the model would be.

Electric future

Jaguar Land Rover, which previously manufactured the Defender model Ineos Automotive hopes to replace, never made much money from it.Prof Bailey said the production of electric motors was much more important to securing Ford Bridgend's future.

In his view this would require the UK remaining in a customs union with the EU, and agreeing a trading relationship that is as close as possible to the single market.

It would also require much more government support for the adoption of electric cars, he said, adding the current situation looked "very worrying" for the engine plant in Bridgend.

Prof Bailey has acted as a special advisor to a cross-party group of MPs

Prof Bailey described a no-deal Brexit as a "catastrophe" for the car industry, which he predicted would mean plant closures.

He believes Ford in Bridgend, Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port - where many Welsh workers are employed - and Jaguar Land Rover in Castle Bromwich in the Midlands are the three sites which are most vulnerable in the event of no-deal.

Bridgend MP Madeleine Moon agreed that a "hard Brexit or any Brexit that does not keep the UK in the customs union will be devastating for the automotive industry, which is based on just on time processes".

She also called for the UK to remain "ideally in the single market to maximise any future sales and development".

'Focused on a deal'

Unite Wales said it had consistently argued against a no-deal Brexit and it was currently working with Ford and the Welsh Government to try and find alternative investment for Bridgend and maximise employment at the plant.

A UK government spokeswoman said it continued to engage with Ford on their European-wide restructuring plans and was working with industry to put the UK "at the forefront of the next generation of new automotive vehicles and technologies".

She added that the best way to avoid a no-deal scenario was for Parliament to agree a deal and "that is what we're focused on".

The Welsh Government economy secretary Ken Skates said: "Whilst there are no immediate implications for the Bridgend Engine Plant, the Welsh Government will continue to work closely with Ford to protect the hundreds of highly skilled jobs at Bridgend and in its supply chain, as well as look for other high-technology opportunities for the site."

ruby Posted on February 08, 2019 11:14

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Women cold water swimming in Gower to help menopause

One of the swimmers said it "releases an inner child"

A group of cold water swimmers have said that plunging into sea temperatures as cold as 6C is helping with the effects of the menopause.

Some also reported improvements in their mental health.

"I didn't realise I was starting to go through the menopause when it happened a few years ago," said Alison Owen, 49.

"I'd read several stories about women who were hitting the menopause and had become anxious or were diagnosed with depression.

"I didn't want anything like that, and I thought I've got to do something to keep myself active and get out there."

Alison left her teaching job last summer to care full time for her daughter who has cerebral palsy, but says that soon afterwards she started to get involved in cold water swimming.

After initially trying sea swimming out for herself around the Gower Peninsula in Swansea, Alison was contacted by other women who were also keen to join in.

"The start of it is just a thrill and excitement. It releases an inner child I suppose, it reminds you what you used to be like before you had kids, before you had a job, before you had a mortgage," she said.

She added that it takes "around 91 seconds of absolute grit" to stay in the water, before the body begins to adjust.

Alison said that the response from women taking part in the swims has been so positive that they formed an impromptu group, The Gower Bluetits, an offshoot of a similar swimming club in Pembrokeshire.

The result is that up to 20 women can be seen charging down the beach screaming before crashing into the sea.

What is the menopause?

The menopause happens when a woman's period stops, and she becomes unable to conceive a child naturally, according to the NHS.

Symptoms can include night sweats, hot flushes, low mood or anxiety and memory problems.

A woman's sex life may also be affected, with decreased sex drive, vaginal dryness and discomfort during sex.

Menopause usually occurs between 45 and 55 years of age, when a woman's oestrogen levels lower.

"I'm going through the menopause," said swimmer Patricia Woodhouse, 53.

"I feel that it's been easier since starting this. The sweats and the night sweats haven't been so bad. I also suffer with anxiety and I've found my anxiety levels don't feel as bad either.

"I still get anxious but it's nothing like it was before."

Patricia puts some of the positive effects she feels down to the triggering of the body's fight or flight mechanism.

"I think it just allows you to let go for 10 minutes, to think about nothing else," she said.

Why does the cold water seem to help?

According to Prof Mike Tipton, an expert in cold water swimming at the University of Portsmouth, the effects the group are reporting are not unusual in the cold water swimming community.

"There is a significant amount of anecdotal evidence that suggests that it works for some things, but we don't know how," he said.

"There are plenty of theories surrounding the effects of cold water swimming but no definitive studies.

Patricia Woodhouse has said the swimming helps with her anxiety

"One of the main issues is that it can be very difficult to isolate the different factors involved. Most cold water swimming involves exercise and socialising - two things we know can have a positive impact on mental health."

Because of that, Prof Tipton said it can be extremely difficult to analyse what role, if any, the water's temperature can have.

"Everybody knows that when you go into a cold shower you get a gasping 'cold shock' response," he added.

"This releases the body's stress hormones, the fight or flight response - as a result people talk about feeling euphoric or high.

"But people need to remember they are engaging in a potentially dangerous activity, that same response can stop you being able to hold your breath in water."

Some members said part of the healing effects they feel are down to their voluntary vulnerability.

"It is a freedom," said Patricia.

"It's the same freedom that children have, they've got no inhibitions, nobody cares what they look like when they're that young, they just get in there.

"That's what we do too, we don't care what we look like, there's no competition, it's just about having fun."

ruby Posted on February 08, 2019 11:08

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Emiliano Sala: Body identified as Cardiff City footballer

The body recovered from the wreckage of a crashed plane is that of Cardiff City player Emiliano Sala, Dorset Police have said.

Sala, 28, was travelling to Cardiff in a plane piloted by David Ibbotson, which went missing over the English Channel on 21 January.

The Argentine's body was recovered late on Wednesday after the wreckage was found on Sunday morning.

Dorset Police confirmed the identification on Thursday night.

In a statement, the force said: "The body brought to Portland Port today, Thursday 7 February 2019, has been formally identified by HM Coroner for Dorset as that of professional footballer Emiliano Sala.

"The families of Mr Sala and the pilot David Ibbotson have been updated with this news and will continue to be supported by specially-trained family liaison officers."

The body was spotted in the wreckage of the plane on Monday and the authorities were able to recover it two days later, despite "challenging conditions".

The Air Accidents Investigations Branch (AAIB) said the operation had been carried out in "as dignified a way as possible" and the men's families were kept updated throughout.

Emiliano Sala (left) was on board a plane being flown by pilot David Ibbotson

The Geo Ocean III, which was involved in finding the wreckage, took the body back to the nearest port of Portland in Dorset, where the body was formally identified.

The Piper Malibu N264DB was en route from France to Cardiff, after the Argentine striker made a quick trip back to his former club Nantes two days after his £15m transfer to Cardiff was announced.

Cardiff City issued a statement shortly after identification was confirmed saying: "We offer our most heartfelt sympathies and condolences to the family of Emiliano. He and David will forever remain in our thoughts."

Some of the club's players reacted via Twitter. Full back Joe Bennett wrote "RIP Emiliano", while centre-half Sol Bamba posted a black-and-white image of the team-mate he never got to play alongside.

Stars from the wider footballing world also paid tribute.

Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger wrote: "Heartbreaking to hear the news about Emiliano Sala. Rest in peace! Thoughts go out to the family and friends of Emiliano and the pilot."

And Arsenal's Mesut Ozil tweeted: "No words to describe how sad this is. Thoughts and prayers go out to his family and also to the family of the pilot."

Mr Ibbotson, 59, from Crowle, North Lincolnshire, was at the controls when the flight lost contact with air traffic controllers on 21 January.

He is yet to be found.

An official search was called off on 24 January after Guernsey's harbour master said the chances of survival were "extremely remote".

But an online appeal started by Sala's agent raised £324,000 (371,000 euros) for a private search led by marine scientist and oceanographer David Mearns.

Working jointly with the AAIB, his ship and the Geo Ocean III, began combing a four square mile area of the English Channel, 24 nautical miles north of Guernsey, to make best use of the available sensors.Mr Mearns said the plane was identified by sonar, 67m (220ft) below the surface, before a submersible with cameras was sent underwater to confirm this.

"I was glad to provide some small comfort to Romina, Mercedes and the whole Sala family during the past two weeks but my heart goes out to the family and friends of David Ibbotson whose loss is the same," Mr Mearns said.

Cardiff fans left a sea of flowers outside the Cardiff City Stadium in tribute to Emiliano Sala

During the recovery operation, the AAIB used a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) to aid the search, with no divers involved.

The body was moved first, and separately from the wreckage, to maximise the chances of it being successfully brought to the surface.

It said efforts to recover the crashed plane as a whole proved unsuccessful, before being abandoned due to poor weather.

"The weather forecast is poor for the foreseeable future and so the difficult decision was taken to bring the overall operation to a close," the AAIB said in a statement.

The AAIB released this photograph of the wreckage of the Piper Malibu

However, the AAIB said video footage captured by the ROV would provide "valuable evidence" for its safety investigation.

Mr Mearns told BBC Radio Wales the AAIB could not have continued searching in the current conditions and admitted finding Mr Ibbotson's would be difficult.

He added: "I've been involved in operations when people were lost and the bodies were found days and weeks after, not far from where they were lost.

"But this is a pretty dynamic place. It's got fairly strong currents, it's not that deep water, you've got a lot of fishing activity, a lot of scallop dredgers moving in and out of the location.

"You cannot expect that the body is going to be in that location for an extended period of time."

Meanwhile, it has emerged that Sala's former club, French Ligue 1 side Nantes, has demanded Cardiff City pay his £15m transfer fee.

Sala was Cardiff's record signing but never played for the club.

The fee was due to be paid over three years but Cardiff have withheld the first scheduled payment until they are satisfied with the documentation.

ruby Posted on February 08, 2019 10:52

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Paris fatal fire suspect recently released from psychiatric care


The fire was brought under control in the early hours of Tuesday morning

The main suspect in the Paris fire which killed 1

  • The fire was brought under control in the early hours of Tuesday morning

The main suspect in the Paris fire which killed 10 people was released from psychiatric care just a week before, officials have revealed.

The eight-storey building was set ablaze - apparently deliberately - in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

The suspect had been placed in psychiatric care 13 times in the past decade, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutor Rémy Heitz told journalists she had been released on 30 January after assessment by a doctor.

The woman, who was in her 40s, lived in the building and was arrested outside, allegedly drunk and trying to set fire to a car.

She was briefly questioned before being sent to a police psychiatric facility. But on Thursday afternoon, officials said she had been returned to police custody following a psychiatric evaluation.

Police called minutes earlier

The arrested woman, named only as Essia B, was "confused", prosecutors said, but denied setting fire to the building.

She has no previous criminal convictions, though has been investigated for at least three offences - one of which involved allegedly setting fire to clothing in a store.

At a news conference, Mr Heitz also revealed that police had been called to the building not long before the outbreak of the fire.

Shortly after midnight local time, one of the building's other residents – who happens to be a firefighter – called police over a residential dispute with his neighbour. He had complained about noise, resulting in an argument.

Police left the scene at around 00:30, officials said.

The first call to firefighters came minutes later.

Rescue teams saved dozens of residents from the inner courtyard location under difficult conditions as the fire spread throughout the eight-storey building.

A survivor describes how she 'jumped across balconies' to escape from the flames

Firefighters with heavy breathing equipment scaled ladders on the exterior to rescue people from windows and balconies. Several firefighters were among the 96 injured.

The blaze was brought under control after five hours.

Days-long wait for relatives

Of the 10 dead, six have been officially identified, Mr Heitz said. One survivor remains in critical condition.

The relatives of two victims have identified them to French media.

Jonathan Jouclas, aged 26, lived on the seventh floor of the building and was found dead, his father Patrick announced on Facebook.

Patrick Jouclas had earlier appealed for help in finding news about his son, spending two days without hearing anything. Late on Wednesday evening, he confirmed that Jonathan had been found in his room.

He was certain that "his habit of playing online with a headset over his ears prevented him from hearing the alarms in time", he said.

Friends of 39-year-old Radia Benaziez told Le Parisien newspaper that she had died in the blaze, describing the architect as an "exceptional woman".

Ms Benaziez worked from her home in the building, the newspaper said.

"She was adorable. Her kindness was matched only by her beauty," one of her former co-workers said.

A baby is also known to be among the victims.

Relatives of some other residents have told French media that some people are missing while they wait for news from authorities.

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 18:25

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Russia's 'Dubak' challenge creates icy works of art

Temperatures of -40C (-40F) and -50C (-58F) in parts of eastern Russia haven't stopped people getting out and having some fun in the snow and ice.

According to the state news agency TASS, current temperatures in Russia are much colder than average for the time of year.

Unsurprisingly, the trick of throwing boiling water in the air and watching it turn into ice - which was popular in North America during the polar vortex - has become a trend. People across the country have been taking part in the "Dubak" challenge, which is Russian slang for bitingly cold weather.

 Yekaterinburg, east of the Ural Mountains, Olga Shklyarova took this image of a round cloud of ice

Jumping for joy or to keep warm in the wintry weather in Chelyabinsk a city close to the Ural Mountains?

Rinat Minkov's wheel of ice water

Alexander Borozdin from Nizhnevartovsk added a touch of colour and used two vessels of water to create this angel-like effect

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 18:16

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A protest Pakistan wants to hide from the world

Why do some protests get reported in Pakistan and others not? M Ilyas Khan examines a story of human rights abuses the media is reluctant to cover and the authorities do not want to be told.

Pakistan's vibrant, at times almost cacophonic media, is struggling to report a fundamental contradiction in state policy.

This was at its most visible this week outside Islamabad's National Press Club.

An open ground outside the club premises - which some call Pakistan's Hyde Park because it is used for gatherings and protests - was occupied by a few hundred students from religious seminaries linked to a banned militant group.

They were holding an event to mark Kashmir Day, an official holiday in Pakistan which is observed to highlight human rights violations by Indian security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir.

tThe Kashmir rally was given lots of prominence and went ahead

But on the periphery of the Kashmir rally, police were busy spotting and arresting young men they suspected had come to attend another rally due to be held at the same venue.

Far from being militants, they were members or supporters of a rights movement that has been highlighting abuses by Pakistan's own military, in the ethnic Pashtun regions along the border with Afghanistan.

By the end of Tuesday, more than 30 activists of the Pashtun Tahaffuz (Protection) Movement, or PTM, had been rounded up, thrown in a police truck and taken to a police station.

The drama unfolded against the backdrop of speeches from the Kashmir rally in which speakers listed rights violations in Kashmir by the Indian army, and right in front of the eyes of the waiting media.

Dozens of television and newspaper photographers raced from one end to another trying to capture each arrest on camera.

But it was just their journalistic instincts kicking in - not a race to be first to actually cover the drama.

Because, while their TV channels thoroughly covered Kashmir Day events all over the country, including Islamabad, none of the videos of the arrests of the activists made it to the TV screens. Nor did they make headlines in the morning newspapers.

The six tribal districts of Pakistan - collectively called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), and turned into a vast sanctuary for Taliban fighters fleeing the US invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks - have been likened to an information black hole.

Many say the Talibanisation of these districts was allowed by the Pakistani establishment under a policy which sought to control Afghanistan with a view to prevent it from emerging as a strong regional ally of India, Pakistan's arch-rival.

Subsequent factionalisation of the Taliban drew the Pakistani military into tribal rivalries, triggering large-scale rights violations both by the military and the Taliban.

Manzoor Pashteen has accused the military of covering up years of rights abuses

The number of civilians killed in the conflict runs into thousands, and about three million people have been displaced, many of them many times.

For years, the local population caught in the conflict were too afraid to speak about transgressions, until the PTM burst onto the scene last February and started to circulate well-documented cases of abuses by the military and the Taliban, as well as the nature of the relationship between the two.

The material, the PTM's peaceful tactics and its insistence that the authorities treat people in the tribal areas in accordance with the law, as elsewhere in the country, caught the imagination of the media, and progressive elements across all ethnic groups hailed it as a good omen for the country's quest for democracy.

But then in the second half of 2018 the media came under increasing pressure, reportedly from the military, to stop covering the PTM. One by one, columnists offering analysis of the movement's message and its activities were dropped - not only by the marginal press but some of the most respected newspapers of the country.

PTM supporters have been demonstrating but the story is not making headlines

And any mention of the PTM completely vanished from the television screens.

More recently, the authorities have gone a step further and have begun breaking up PTM gatherings, confident in their knowledge that it is not going to get play in the media.

Over the weekend, police in Balochistan province cracked down on one such PTM gathering in which a prominent activist, Ibrahim Arman Luni, was killed.

Tuesday's gatherings were called by PTM chief Manzoor Pashteen in protest at Mr Luni's killing.

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 17:56

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In pictures: Sony World Photography Awards shortlist

The shortlist for the Open and Youth competitions in this year's Sony World Photography Awards has been announced. The competition received 326,000 entries from 195 countries.

The awards' overall winners will be announced at a ceremony in London on 17 April.

Rebecca McClelland, who chairs the Open and Youth jury, said: "I was astonished with the diversity of work that was entered into the Open and Youth competitions.

"The award represents a very democratic appreciation of photography, from tradition to emergent trends across all genres from nature to fashion."

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 12:45

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Trump sees total rout of Islamic State group as imminent

US President Donald Trump has said territory held by the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq could be "100%" liberated as early as next week.

"It should be announced, probably some time next week, that we will have 100% of the caliphate," he told a gathering of coalition partners.

However, he also cautioned that he wanted to "wait for the official word".

US military and intelligence officials say IS could stage a comeback without sustained counter-terrorism pressure.

Mr Trump shocked coalition allies in December when he declared that the group had been defeated, amid reports he wanted to pull out US soldiers within 30 days.

But he later slowed the withdrawal after several resignations from key defence officials and strong criticism from Republicans and allies abroad.

The global coalition against IS, now numbering nearly 80 nations, was formed in 2014 after the group overran swathes of territory and went on to launch terror attacks outside the region.

How does Trump view the battle against IS now?

"Their land is gone," he told Wednesday's conference in Washington. "The Isis [IS] caliphate has been decimated."

But the group still had "tiny sections that can be so dangerous", he said, and "foreign fighters must not gain access" to the US.

Image copyrightAFP

Image captionUS ground troops first became involved in Syria in 2015

He also referred to the IS propaganda machine, which recruited fighters from Europe and other regions.

"For a period of time they used the internet better than we did," he said. "They used the internet brilliantly but now it's not so brilliant."

The US leader thanked coalition partners, saying, "We will be working together for many years to come."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged the US would continue to fight IS, despite withdrawing troops from Syria.

He called the troop pullout a "tactical change... not a change in the mission", and said the world was entering an "era of decentralised jihad".

Has IS really been defeated?

It has certainly lost control of most of the territory it overran, including its strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.

However, fighting continues in north-eastern Syria, where the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) say they captured dozens of foreign fighters in recent weeks.

A suspected IS member captured by US-backed forces near the Syrian border with Iraq last week

On Tuesday the head of the US military's Central Command, Gen Joseph Votel, told a Senate committee up to 1,500 IS militants remained in a 20 sq mile (52 sq km) pocket on Syria's border with Iraq.

The group, he said, still had "leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and the profane ideology that fuels their efforts".

Meanwhile, a report by a US defence department watchdog cited Central Command as saying that without sustained pressure IS "could likely resurge in Syria within six to 12 months".

Another challenge is what to do with the hundreds of foreign fighters captured by the SDF, as well as their families.

Governments in their home countries are reluctant to take back radicalised militants who swore allegiance to Islamic State.

How will an IS comeback be stopped?

President Trump's comments were more than a month late, as he did not consult his allies about his decision in December to withdraw US troops from Syria. The shock from the surprise announcement has settled, but coalition members want to know how this is going to play out. It's not clear that the administration has sorted that out.

Both Mr Trump and Mike Pompeo called on other nations to take on more commitments for the continued campaign against the IS group, but said they were still in the fight - America would continue to lead it, Mr Pompeo said.

Mr Trump had previously suggested that some of the troops in Syria could be moved to American bases in neighbouring Iraq, from where they could launch commando operations across the border as necessary.

But there are still no official details about how the US will continue the counter-terrorism pressure Mr Trump's generals and intelligence officials have said is necessary to stop IS militants from staging a comeback.

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 12:37

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Brussels Nemmouche trial: Suspect 'was my jailer and torturer'

Two French journalists who were held by Islamic State militants in Syria have given evidence against a man accused of murdering four people at the Brussels Jewish Museum in May 2014.

"I've absolutely no doubt that Mehdi Nemmouche, who is here now, was my jailer and torturer in Syria. I knew him as Abou Omar," said Nicolas Hénin.

Ex-captive Didier François agreed.

The defendant, 33, denies murdering an Israeli couple, a local worker and a French volunteer at the museum.

He travelled to Syria in January 2013 and faces a separate trial in France for his alleged role as an Islamic State jailer.

What the witnesses said

The trial began last month, but it heard for the first time on Thursday from Nicolas Hénin and Didier François, who were held by IS militants in a hospital in Aleppo in June 2013 and freed in April 2014, a month before the Jewish Museum attack.

Of the 23 foreign hostages held by IS, eight were in Aleppo, and Mr François told the court that their captors were all part of a structure, and were involved in organising the Paris and Brussels bombings in November 2015 and March 2016.

He said Paris bomb-maker and Brussels airport suicide bomber Najim Laachraoui was one of the guards.

Nemmouche refused to tell prosecutors if he had ever met the two journalists (file sketch)

Mr Hénin recalled that Mehdi Nemmouche was sadistic because he was full of hatred - "an anti-Semitic hatred". He said Nemmouche admired the Toulouse jihadist killer Mohamed Merah and loathed Shia Muslims.

"We were taken out of our cell for interrogation then put back in a cell next door to the torture room. He was wearing combat dress and we came up against him on several occasions," he said.

Mr François said he had no doubt that Mehdi Nemmouche had tortured Syrian prisoners. "We heard his voice, we recognised his voice," he said.

His fellow ex-captive described how the suspect would hit them during their blindfolded visits to the toilets.

Asked by the federal prosecutor if he had ever met the two journalists, the defendant refused to answer. However, he smiled during some of the accounts given by the two former captives, reporters in court said.

What happened in Brussels in May 2014?

On 24 May 2014, a lone gunman entered the lobby of the Jewish Museum in Brussels. He opened fire on those inside and fled within a couple of minutes. Four people died in the attack in the Sablon area of the city:

French-born jihadist Medhi Nemmouche was arrested carrying two guns six days later in Marseille in southern France.

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 12:26

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Yellow-vest protests: France warns Italy Deputy PM Di Maio

France has warned Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio not to interfere in the country's politics, after he met French "yellow-vest" protesters.

"This new provocation is unacceptable between neighbouring countries and partners at the heart of the EU," the French foreign ministry said.

Mr Di Maio, leader of the populist Five Star Movement, met two leaders of the anti-government protests on Tuesday.

"The wind of change has crossed the Alps," Mr Di Maio tweeted (in Italian).

He also posted a picture of himself with "yellow-vest" leader Christophe Chalençon and Ingrid Levavasseur, who is heading a "yellow-vest" (gilets jaunes) list for elections to the European Parliament in May.

The meeting took place near Paris.

Relations between France and Italy have been tense since the Five Star Movement (M5S) and right-wing League parties came to power in Italy in June 2018.

In January, France summoned Italy's ambassador after Mr Di Maio said Paris had "never stopped colonising tens of African states".

Italy's populist leadership has also recently clashed with France on issues such as migration protests and culture.

Who are the 'gilets jaunes'?

The "gilets jaunes" protests against fuel tax hikes began last November, saying the measure hurt those who live in remote areas of France and depend on cars.

France fuel protests: Who are the people in the yellow vests?

The "gilets jaunes" derive their name from the high-visibility vests they wear - and which French motorists are required by law to carry in their vehicles.

But since their first marches - and the government's subsequent U-turn on fuel taxes - their demands have expanded to boosting people's purchasing power and allowing popular referendums.

In December, French President Emmanuel Macron said he was "partly responsible" for the "insufficient response" to the protests that have rocked the country.


ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 12:23

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Istanbul rescuers pull girl, 5, from rubble after building collapse

Rescuers in the Turkish city of Istanbul have found a five-year-old girl alive among the rubble of a building 18 hours after it collapsed.

The girl, discovered under a mound of debris at what was once an eight-storey apartment block in the city's Kartal district, was taken to hospital.

At least three people died and a dozen more were injured in the disaster on Wednesday afternoon.

It is still not known what caused the building to collapse.

The property was officially home to 43 people living in 14 flats, Istanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya said.

According to Mr Yerlikaya, the top three storeys of the building had been added illegally.

Rescuers search through the rubble in the city's Kartal district

Speaking to reporters just moments before the girl was pulled from the rubble, the governor said that rescuers had "spoken to a girl named Havva".

"They are talking to her right now. Hopefully, with your prayers and their efforts we will reach this girl," he said.

Mr Yerlikaya said that 12 people were being treated at various hospitals, adding that three of them were in a critical condition.

Rescuers continued to search the rubble on Wednesday night

Rescuers worked through the night to search the rubble for survivors.

According to CNN Turk, the building collapsed at about 16:00 local time (13:00 GMT).

As they searched, rescuers occasionally appealed for quiet to listen for any sounds coming from underneath that might indicate people trapped.

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 12:18

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Gilets Jaunes face big decision as Macron fights back

After almost three months of protests, France's yellow-vest movement, which rejected any formal leadership or political affiliation, has split over the question of whether to enter electoral politics.

This citizens' movement has already forced President Emmanuel Macron's first policy climb-down. So far, five separate groups have emerged with plans to contest upcoming elections - either the European parliamentary elections in May, or the French local elections next year.

One recent poll suggested a single list could garner 13% of French votes for the European elections - mainly drawing voters away from the far-right and far-left parties of Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Why fight elections?

"We know we can't stay on the roundabouts forever," said Come Dunis, a candidate with one of the newly formed parties, the Citizens Initiative Rally.

"We can't demonstrate every Saturday. We have to enter the electoral system."

During the latest protests on Saturday scuffles broke out at Place de la République in Paris

Mr Dunis is second on the party's list for the European elections. The transformation from protest movement to political party, he says, is about "turning the page on a political elite that has despised us for 40 years."

"We'll show that unemployed people and forklift truck operators can sit alongside technocrats and bureaucrats in Brussels," he told me.

The gilets jaunes have so far drawn strength from their diversity and breadth of appeal.

Without recognised national leaders, a cohesive set of demands, or even an agreed political outlook, it was a difficult movement for France's government to negotiate with – and Mr Macron ended up offering more concessions than many had initially expected.

So why change the formula?

The yellow vests were forced to organise or die, according to Olivier Costa, research director with France's National Centre for Scientific Research.

"They were cornered," he told me.

"Participation [in the protests] was declining, and the government will not agree to their main requests for new elections or more referenda, so they found themselves continuing to protest – without knowing what for, or where they're heading."

The protests started out on roundabouts but have gradually expanded

But Mr Costa believes the same constraints on their influence on the streets will hamper them in electoral politics.

"No gilets jaunes leaders have the knowledge, qualities or resources to become a strong [political] leader," he said. "They're not good at talking or writing, they're not rich like Trump, they don't have the network or the connections."They are discovering that outside the system it is difficult to have much political impact in France, he believes.

Will Macron be the ultimate winner?

The diversity of the movement has caused problems in organising themselves into a single political bloc. And few of the groups have a coherent list of policies.

But even if yellow-vest candidates won just 7-8% of the vote in the European elections, Olivier Costa argues the real loser would be the far right, for whom it would be a "disaster".

"The main winner would obviously be President Macron," he says.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen's National Rally is seen as the biggest opposition to Mr Macron's party

"His big task is to be ahead of the far right in those elections – and with the gilets jaunes running, he will be."

The risk of inadvertently helping President Macron is one reason why some gilets jaunes are boycotting plans to enter traditional politics. Others believe it would also weaken the movement itself.

"These lists will only serve the executive's power," said Benjamin Cauchy, one of the founders of the movement who is based in Toulouse.

"Whereas on the roundabouts, there are people from the left, extreme left, right, extreme right - all united together in a common desire to have more fiscal and social justice - they won't be able to agree on issues like migration.

"If they want to make a list they must choose a political side, and this will lead to a division of the gilets jaunes."

President Macron has travelled the country taking part in lengthy debates to assess people's grievances

Another of the gilets jaunes who has come to national prominence, Jason Herbert, says he has refused two requests to join the new party lists.

He believes the protesters do not want to commit to politics and their goal is instead to persuade France's existing representatives to take certain political decisions.

How Macron has responded

President Macron has tried to stem the sense of disgruntlement in the country with what he's calling a "grand debate" - a series of local meetings across France to discuss political, economic and social reforms.

His poll ratings are up and he has ruled out the one reform that unites many gilets jaunes: making it easier for citizens to trigger referendums on key issues.

But he has suggested that he may "ask our citizens if they agree" to a few constitutional changes selected by the government, such as reducing the number of MPs in the French parliament, or limiting the number of terms they can serve.

"There's a risk the debate will create frustrations," said Said Ahamada, an MP for Mr Macron's party, LREM, in Marseille.

Said Ahamada says the electorate is losing confidence in MPs

"We weren't able to answer the expectations of the French people," he admits. "And 18 months after the elections, they are impatient. French society believes less and less in its political leaders."

So does that mean that French leaders should be fearful of movements like the gilets jaunes, who seek to change the country from outside its established political system?

Olivier Costa says not.

"France is an old democracy and people are critical of its institutions," he told me. "But this is not the Arab Spring and this is not a dictatorship."

"There were polls at the beginning of this movement saying that 80% of French people thought it was positive and interesting. That doesn't mean 80% of French people are ready for a gilet jaune to be the next president."

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 12:15

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Rolf Harris primary school incident to be investigated

The Ministry of Justice has launched an investigation after convicted paedophile Rolf Harris entered the grounds of a Berkshire primary school.

The school's head teacher confronted the former TV star, who was in conversation with a local sculptor, and asked him to leave the site.

The MoJ said it was "looking into these reports and will take appropriate action".

Harris was jailed for five years in 2014 but released on licence in 2017.

A spokeswoman for the MoJ added: "When sex offenders are released they are subject to strict licence conditions and are liable to be returned to custody for breaching them."

Head teacher Richard Jarrett said: "In line with our standard procedures, an uninvited individual was asked to leave the outer perimeter of the school site yesterday, which he did without delay.

"At no time did any of our pupils come into contact with the individual nor was the individual invited by us onto the school grounds."

'Strange moment'

Harris was seen waving to children as they were waiting in the school hall for their lunch on Tuesday.

He was talking to sculptor Nick Garnett, who was working in the school's "Kiss and Drop" area.

Harris was seen waving to children as they were waiting for their lunch

Mr Garnett told the BBC: "I turned round and there was Rolf Harris, which was a strange moment.

"He asked for a piece of timber. Apparently he's interested in making some carvings, so I gave him a couple of pieces."

He said: "At no point was he near any children. The headmaster dealt with it incredibly calmly."

Speaking to the Press Association, the parent of a pupil at the school said: "What was he doing there?

"I feel like it was a really bad judgement call and I don't think his excuse is effective enough."

Thames Valley Police said: "A report was made that a man was on the site of the school.

"An officer attended the scene but no offence was committed. No arrests were made and advice has been given to the man involved."

Australian-born TV presenter Harris was jailed in 2014 for 12 indecent assaults, relating to four girls between 1968 and 1986.

In May 2017 he was cleared of four unconnected historical sex offences, which he had denied.

In November 2017 one of the 12 indecent assault convictions was overturned by the Court of Appeal.

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 12:11

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R Kelly: backlash as singer announces Australia tour

Singer R Kelly has announced a new tour of Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, sparking widespread criticism in light of abuse allegations against him.

The R&B star posted his plans on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, but later deleted the posts.

The proposed concerts would come on the heels of a documentary detailing decades of alleged sexual abuse by the artist.

Local politicians have called for him to be barred from entering Australia.

On Tuesday, the 52-year old Grammy-winner tweeted "NEW TOUR ALERT", but without giving concrete dates of when he would play, and where.

'Physical and emotional abuse'

R Kelly has not been convicted of any crimes in connection with the abuse claims.

The allegations against him were aired in a January documentary, Surviving R Kelly, which featured detailed accounts of his alleged physical and emotional abuse of women.

It claimed the R&B star ran an "abusive cult" in which he is accused of keeping women captive against their wills.

Following the allegations, numerous former music industry colleagues spoke out against R Kelly, and protesters called for a ban on his music and concerts.

Demonstrators hold a protest near to R Kelly's studio

This is not the first report of a planned R Kelly tour to Australia.

In December, confusion arose when the singer disputed a similar announcement by a tour company, calling it fake news.

At the time, New Zealand victims' advocate Ruth Money and the non-profit group Women's Refuge called for the singer to be banned from performing.

"Popular culture has an immense amount to do with shaping the way people think and the way people behave, and the sort of role models that we hold up, particularly to our young people," she said.

Australia could deny visa

Australia's opposition Labor party released a statement saying the singer should not be permitted to enter the country.

"Labor strongly supports the refusal or cancellation of visas of non-citizens on character or criminal grounds," the document said.

Australia's department of home affairs told the BBC it "does not comment on individual cases", but Australia has previously barred entry to people in similar situations.

Boxer Floyd Mayweather was denied a visa over family violence convictions. Rapper Chris Brown also had his visa denied based on his history of domestic violence.

And in 2014, the country cancelled a visa for US "pick-up artist" Julien Blanc, citing his derogatory views on women.

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 12:07

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Black Saturday: The bushfire disaster that shook Australia

Ten years ago, Australia experienced its worst-ever bushfire disaster when 173 people died across the state of Victoria. Immediately branded "one of the darkest days in Australia's peacetime history", Black Saturday has left a profound legacy. Sharon Verghis reports.

"It was like the gates of hell. There is no other way to describe it."

For Tony Thomas, 7 February 2009 began as another ordinary day. It had been a summer of record-breaking temperatures, prompting days of safety warnings.

But Mr Thomas wasn't overly concerned; they had had scorching days like this before.

In the lush, peaceful hills on the outskirts of tiny Marysville, about 90km (55 miles) north-east of Melbourne, he and wife Penni had carved out a fruitful life running a bed and breakfast on a 60-acre property.

His in-laws had arrived for a birthday lunch. It was a pleasant gathering, despite the suffocating heat. But in the late afternoon, they spotted smoke in the west. Going for a closer look, they saw fire.

The remnants of Australia’s worst day of fires

"It came out of the forest behind us on the other side - at 100k [kilometres] it just roared towards us," Mr Thomas tells the BBC.

At 18.45, the fire hit - "and pretty hard". Mr Thomas's family and the B&B guests ran for shelter in the house as he, his brother-in-law and an employee battled the fire. It was effectively three men with buckets and garden hoses against a roaring, wind-whipped blaze.

At 21.30, another wind change swung the fire towards the hay shed: "That threw flaming hay bombs at us for the next hour or so, massive embers and hay landing on us."

"When you've got 20 to 30 metre-trees burning and the flames are well above that, like a huge ball..." his voice trails off.

"Why people say gates of hell is because everything turned from light to dark very quickly - the sun got blocked out by the smoke.

"The only thing you could see is the glow of the fire through the smoke. We were choking. We only had large tea towels which we were wetting down constantly and wrapping around our faces so we could breathe."

Nearby, David Baetge was also fighting for survival on his property near the town of Buxton, directly adjacent to a large state park.

The town of Kinglake and surrounding regions were devastated

Armed with a comprehensive fire plan and previous firefighting experience, he had seen the smoke but chosen to stay. Like Mr Thomas, the decision would almost cost him his life.

At about 1830, Mr Baetge spotted fire on top of peaks about 3km (2 miles) away - with what he estimated to be 100m-high fireballs.

Even for a bushfire veteran, he was shocked at the speed of the fire as it raced towards him. "The sky was iridescent red with a deafening roar like standing next to a 747 jet," he would later recall in his blog.

"It was like being inside a cocoon of smoke with a maximum visibility range of about 30m and the whole of this hemisphere in every direction was glowing cherry red." He said it was "like being sandblasted - but with burning embers".

All through this once-bucolic landscape, others faced similar struggles.

Karen Curnow was among them. As her house caught fire, she fled in her car with her old dog, hurtling over and around burning trees, guilt-struck at having to leaving her panicked horses behind.

'I escaped the inferno - then found my horse'

Nearby in Kinglake West, local artist Michelle Bolmat was also making a mad dash to safety.

"The ash started to fall, and the darkness came… it became completely black everywhere," she tells the BBC. A tree came down in front of her; but as the heat started to build, she revved her engine and drove over it. "I looked back and saw the fire coming."

All four got through that nightmare night.

But when the sun rose the next morning, it was eerily quiet. The lush landscape was gone.

"Our world turned from beautiful colours to black and grey," Mr Thomas recalls. "There wasn't a spot on the property that wasn't burnt and it was the same across the whole area."

Kinglake suffered the heaviest toll, with 120 perishing. In Marysville, 39 people died - 34 of them locals - and the town was effectively obliterated.

"Probably 22 of those 34 were friends of ours," Mr Thomas says.

Like Marysville, Kinglake had rows of buildings destroyed

After the final embers were doused (the Black Saturday fires continued to 14 March), the true scale of the fires was revealed.

About 400 blazes had burned, most sparked by faulty power lines and lightning, but there were also cases of arson.

A total of 173 people died - Australia's deadliest ever bushfire event. It left several hundreds more injured, more than 2,000 homes destroyed, and more than 7,500 people displaced. The RSPCA estimated that up to one million animals died.

It was unprecedented - even for a country long used to bushfires.

Over the years, Australia has been hit with several deadly blazes. But the Black Saturday fires of 2009 were singular in their ferocity - equal to 1,500 atomic bombs.

The fires scorched houses and vehicles

So what made this event so severe?

Kevin Parkyn, a Bureau of Meteorology senior forecaster, says it was a combination of record temperatures, unusually strong, howling north-westerly winds in excess of 100km/h (60 mph), and a tinder-dry landscape courtesy of a long-running drought. In Melbourne, the temperature reached 46.4C.

"That's a record for Melbourne in 100 years," Mr Parkyn says. "When you went outside, there was just this blast of hot air - it was like having a hairdryer to the face."

No firefighting force stood a chance, especially when the blazes hit Australia's highly flammable eucalypt forests, he says. Spot fires sprang up kilometres downwind of the main front.

"And all these fires joined together to become this massive fire area - which we call pyrocumulonimbus - that started generating its own lightning," Mr Parkyn says. "And of course, lightning started more fires."

The result was intense temperatures capable of melting metal: "It was almost like a living, breathing beast."

Firefighters continued to battle blazes in the weeks after Black Saturday

Did climate change play a role? Mr Parkyn refers to his scientific training: he says it would be hard to say there's no link given the record temperatures now being experienced in Australia in particular, and the frequency of extreme weather disasters internationally. He points to last year's California fires, the US state's deadliest, as one example.

The damage from Black Saturday was also exacerbated by urbanisation, he says. Risk Frontiers, a research centre, has estimated that nearly a million addresses in Australia are located less than 100m from bushland.

In the aftermath, a royal commission inquiry was announced, resulting in widespread changes in bushfire preparation and protocols. The inquiry put the financial cost of the disaster at A$4.4bn (£2.4bn; $3.14bn).

Survivors also secured a A$500m payout - the biggest class action settlement in Australian legal history. But this didn't account for the invisible toll.

A farmer struggles with the conditions on his property

The Beyond Bushfires report, which surveyed more than 1,000 people affected by the fires, found evidence of significant mental health issues including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and severe psychological distress. The rates were significantly higher than what would be expected in the general population, it found.

Lead researcher Prof Lisa Gibbs, from the University of Melbourne, likens the disaster to a fractured window: the cracks spread far and wide, magnified by the small rural populations. She has seen a measurable increase in domestic violence along with mental health issues.

Out of the embers, however, some good has also come. Australia is now significantly better prepared for fires, with new measures including redesigned building codes and improved warning messages.

Internationally, Australian researchers are now leading the way in many firefighting technologies - from tanker perseveration strategies to a world-leading electrical-fault study. The Beyond Bushfires report is now used internationally.

A bushfire-ravaged region, pictured two years after Black Saturday

Regeneration and growth has taken place on a more personal level as well. Mr Thomas is amazed by the resilience of the locals. Communities have rebuilt, the bush has regenerated.

For Karen Curnow says it gave her a chance to start anew: "I don't see myself as a victim or a survivor. I just consider myself a very lucky person."

This week, solemn events have marked the anniversary of the tragedy.

But for many scarred directly by Black Saturday, there will be relief when Thursday is over and people can move on, Mr Thomas says. Marysville is slowly recovering but "it will never be the same town".

"But as a community we stick together," he says. "We're still here. We're still standing."

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 12:03

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Tinnitus: 'Hearing condition makes me feel trapped'

A music fan is urging people to wear ear plugs at gigs because she believes loud concerts caused her to develop the hearing condition tinnitus.

Jessica Berg, 31, from Newport, said she feels "trapped" by the constant ringing sound in her ears.

Her GP diagnosed her with tinnitus and said it was most likely as a result of exposure to loud music.

Action on Hearing Loss said the condition can make people feel "isolated" and "helpless".

About one in 10 people in the UK suffers from tinnitus, which can cause stress, sleep difficulties, anxiety and hearing loss.

The condition is often linked with Meniere's disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and depression, but it is not known how it develops and there is no cure.

Now Ms Berg was diagnosed three years ago and says she concentrates on trying to control the depression and anxiety it can cause.

Ear plugs have been suggested for young people going to gigs to reduce the chances of developing tinnitus

"They can't really tell [what causes it] because it's not a physical thing they can see in the ear, it's something they have to guess," she said.

"My very obvious answer for myself is live music. I used to go out a lot and see live bands. I never thought I should be wearing ear protection, I'd go and stand next to a speaker and never have a care in the world about it.

"I'm very careful now and would never go and stand next to a speaker, but there are products out there that would help protect further damage.

"I've tried them in a couple of gigs and I don't get a spike in my tinnitus I don't get a pain I don't get pain the following days that I would get without protection."

Although many people who develop tinnitus only experience the effects for a short time, often when dealing with a cold or a virus, it can cause serious issues for those who have it permanently.

"The first couple of years were horrendous. It really built up into affecting every single part of my life," Ms Berg said.

"It makes you feel quite trapped at times because you just want to turn it off."


ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 11:49

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My disabled son - ‘the nobleman, the philanderer, the detective’

Robert and Trude mourned what they thought had been a lonely and isolated life for their disabled son. But when Mats died, they discovered that people all over Europe lit candles in his memory.

"We were really very traditional. We didn't want him turning his daily rhythm upside down."

Sitting in a cafe by his office at Oslo City Hall, Robert Steen describes how he used to worry about his son staying up late into the night.

"In retrospect, I think we should have been more interested in the game world, where he spent so much time," says 56-year-old Robert. "By not doing so, we robbed ourselves of an opportunity that we didn't know we had."

Robert delivered his funeral eulogy for Mats in late 2014, in a chapel at the Norwegian capital's Western Cemetery.

Among those who sat listening to his words - in-between relatives and a few people from the health service who knew Mats well - was a group of people the family didn't know.

Only Robert had met them. And only once, the evening before.

Mats had barely left the basement flat underneath his family's home in the last years of his life, so it was strange that people unknown to the family were present at the funeral.

Even stranger - Mats himself had also never met these people.

Father and son - Robert and Mats in Oslo, July 2012

Before his death, these grieving visitors would not have thought of Mats as Mats - but instead as Ibelin, a nobleman by birth, a philanderer and a detective. Some of those paying their respects lived close by, but others had come from afar. They wept for their good friend.

Later in the funeral service one of them would speak, and tell the gathering that just now, all across Europe, people were lighting candles for Mats.

It was written in the stars, it was coded in his DNA.

The Mats that sauntered around with a crown on his head on his fourth birthday in July 1993 would, within a few years, not be able to wa

Mats's fourth birthday

Robert and Trude had received the news in May 1993, in a small office in the large brick building that houses Ulleval Hospital.

Mats's parents learned why their boy kept falling off the swings and hurting himself, why he didn't climb up the ladder on the slide at the nursery, even though he loved to slide down, why he supported himself on his knees like an old man when he rose from a sitting position and why he didn't race the other children.

The doctors told Robert and Trude that Mats had Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a rare disorder that causes muscle degeneration - mostly in boys. Mats's genes contained a coding error that would prevent his muscles from developing normally. And which would finally destroy them.

"After we put Mats to bed that evening we called the doctor. We had been given permission to do that. We could call any time, if we needed more information," says Robert.

With Trude sat by his side, Robert spoke on the phone for more than half an hour.

"I said to the doctor: 'But at least he won't die from this!' The doctor on the other end of the line was silent for a moment, 'no, but our experience is that these patients rarely live to be older than 20'."

Robert pauses.

"He managed to make it to 25."

At the family home in Ostensjo in south-east Oslo, Robert and Trude tried to take it all in.

Mats would not live what they considered a "normal life". He would die young and be taken away from them - without having set his mark on the world.

They were so completely mistaken.

If our DNA maps out our lives even before we are born, how can we choose who we want to be?

Mats found a way and created himself anew.

By the turn of the millennium, the Steen family had moved to a wheelchair-adapted home in Langhus, to the south of Oslo.While Mats was allowed to play his handheld Game Boy during breaks at school, not even Super Mario could chase away the feeling of being different. Mats sat in his wheelchair and an assistant went with him everywhere.

His parents wondered what activity Mats might like to do in his spare time - when his classmates were playing football and running around outside.

Online gaming perhaps? Robert gave him the password to the family PC, and a new world opened up for the 11-year-old.

"In the course of the last 10 years of his life, Mats played between 15,000 and 20,000 hours," Robert said in his eulogy. "That's equivalent to more than 10 years' full-time employment."

But the gaming also caused family friction.

"When the night nurse arrived at 22:00, Mats had to be in bed," says Robert. "Their job was to monitor Mats in bed, not to put him to bed. Mats protested but reluctantly agreed."

Mats had become a gamer. Gamers don't go to bed early.

?Mats gaming as a child

?So who was Mats during all of those hours he spent playing?

He became Lord Ibelin Redmoore and sometimes Jerome Walker. "Jerome and Ibelin are extensions of myself, they represent different sides of me," he wrote.

He immersed himself on the planet Azeroth, in the hugely popular ganme World of Warcraft. Azeroth is a mythical fantasy world. There are continents, seas and forests, cliffs and plains, villages and cities. Mats spent most of his time in a region called the Eastern Kingdoms.

As an online player you get to know this world bit by bit, just as you know your physical world.

There will be places you plan to travel to, and landscapes and cities you will master - some better than others. In some areas you will be on your guard, while in others you will love to hang out. You will find your local inn and meet new, interesting people.

That's the way the world is. That's the way Azeroth is.

Mats made the journey and found a wide circle of good friends.


"When I went past Mats's basement flat during the day and the curtains were closed. That is a sorrow I remember well," says Robert, who works as Oslo's vice-mayor of finance.

"'Oh, no,' I thought, 'he hasn't even started his day yet'. I was sad because his world was so limited."

But non-gamers don't see the whole picture. They don't realise it's more than just shooting and point-scoring.

"We thought it was all about the game. And just that. We thought it was a competition that you were supposed to win."

And there was the matter of Mats's circadian rhythm - his 24-hour daily cycle.

"We didn't understand why it was important for Mats to be online late in the evening and at night," says Robert.

"But of course, it isn't in the morning or in the middle of the day that people are playing. That is when most of them are at school or work.

"We first understood it after he passed away. Until the very end we wanted him to be asleep by 11 at night, like other 'normal' people."

Lisette Roovers, from Breda in the Netherlands, was one of Mats's close gamer friends. She was also one of those present at the funeral in 2014.

She is in Norway again - visiting friend Kai Simon Fredriksen, who also played online with Mats.

"I knew Mats for many years. It was a shock when he died, and it has shaped me," says Lisette, sitting on Kai Simon's sofa in Hoybraten, in north-east Oslo.

Lisette, now 28, was only 15 years old when she met 16-year-old Mats. Or, to be precise, when Lisette's game character Rumour met Mats's game character Ibelin.

"We met in Goldshire," says Lisette.

"It's not a nice place any more, but back then Goldshire was a pleasant little village, where you could meet new, interesting characters. I was looking for someone to role play with, and among others sitting around a campfire was the one I would later learn to know as Ibelin.

"I - or Rumour, rather - acted somewhat impulsively. I jumped out of the bushes and snatched Ibelin's hat. We stood for a moment, staring back and forth, then I ran away with his hat, with no thought of direction."

She smiles a little.

Mats also wrote about this first meeting with Lisette, in a blog post he called Love.

"In this other world a girl wouldn't see a wheelchair or anything different. They would get my soul, heart and mind, conveniently placed in a handsome, strong body. Luckily, pretty much every character in this virtual world looks great."

Lisette says: "Mats was a good friend, sometimes a very close friend.

"We wrote [to] each other about everything, but he didn't write about his condition. I thought his life was like mine. For example, we were both agreed that we hated school."

But there were things on which they could not agree.

"He wrote that he hated snow. I wrote that I loved it. I didn't understand then that he hated it because of his wheelchair. I didn't know about it."

Teenage Lisette's love of gaming concerned her parents. They were worried about her school studies and her apparent lack of a social life. Their solution was to restrict her access to online play.

"Being separated from my game friends was hard for me," Lisette recalls.

But Mats did not fail their friendship. Even if he could not find her in the game, he kept in touch with her through other channels.

"He even wrote a serious letter to my parents, in which he tried to help them understand how important playing was for me," she says. "I have saved that letter."

Robert and Trude knew their son wrote to someone named Lisette.

"Mats spoke quite a bit about these game characters - these avatars - but we didn't think much of it. He told us about Rumour, among others," says Robert.

"She, or Lisette rather, sent him presents, including on his birthday. We thought that was touching, and we also teased him a bit about it. Then he blushed, really blushed.

"So we thought of Lisette as a friend, because of these presents. They were tangible proof of real friendship, you could say.

"We didn't call the others he was in touch with, friends. We called them avatars. Our perception of friendship was very traditional."

In World of Warcraft, you can either play alone or join forces with other players and form a group - or guild. Mats was part of such a group, Starlight, with about 30 members.

"Nobody just becomes a member of Starlight," says Robert, now educated in the ways of the World of Warcraft. "To become a member you have to be recommended by someone who is already on the inside, then complete a trial period of one to two months."

Starlight has existed for more than 12 years and is still an active group.

"Starlight is a special group, because it has remained united for so long. That is probably why friendships in Starlight go so deep," concludes Robert.

Forty-year-old Kai Simon or Nomine, as he is called in the game, is the leader of Starlight.

Every year since Mats's death in 2014, Starlight has held a memorial to share memories of their comrade.

Last year, Kai Simon told other group members that when remembering Lord Ibelin Redmoore, they should focus on running and swimming.

"Ibelin was a runner," Kai Simon explains. "It was important for him to be able to run, and it was important for him to be able to share the experience of running with others."

Is Kai Simon now talking about Mats, or about Mats's game character? Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe this is how it was. The person and the character became one.

In the summer of 2013, Mats was 24 years old. The Steen family were on holiday in Majorca, while Mats - unable to travel - stayed at home in his basement flat with his assistant.

Mats had to have someone with him at all times. Through the years he had a number of different personal assistants - including his uncle. Luckily for Mats, some of the assistants were also interested in gaming.

While his parents were away in Spain, Mats started his blog "Musings of life". In a post titled "My escape", he wrote about life in Azeroth.

"There my handicap doesn't matter, my chains are broken and I can be whoever I want to be. In there I feel normal."

Mats shared his blog with the members of the Starlight guild - one by one. This was how they got to know about their fellow player's offline situation.

Lisette recalls the first time she read the blog.

Lisette next to Mats's character Ibelin

"I was floored. And I got a bad conscience because I had occasionally teased him in the game and had not always been totally considerate.

"Then I thought, 'Do I have to start behaving differently towards him from now on?'. But I decided to treat him just the way I had before. He also wrote in his blog that this is what he wanted."

In online play, she is Chit - a rough and ready character. Offline, she is Anne Hamill, a 65-year-old retired psychologist from Salisbury in the UK.

Anne says she finds it fascinating how the Starlight group functions for those who often fall by the wayside in the offline world.

"Because we meet each other without preconceptions, Starlight feels safe. Even for those who see themselves as outsiders.

"Online play is a fantastic arena for meeting people and building friendships. We discover each other without stereotypes in the way. It provides the chance to find out if we like someone - and only then reveal our age, gender, disability or skin colour if we feel like it.

"I think Mats was lucky to belong to our time, technologically," she adds. "In Starlight he was a key member. If he had been born 15 years earlier, he wouldn't have found a community like that."

About six months before he died, Mats was absent from the World of Warcraft for 10 days. His fellow players wondered where he was.

"Ten days was a very long time to be logged off, because Mats was always there, when you needed someone to play or chat with," says Anne.

When he returned to the game, the others learned that he had been admitted to hospital. Anne says she finally decided to say, in game chat, what she had been thinking.

She wrote: "Mats, you must give someone a possibility to come into contact with us, if something should happen to you. So that we can know, even if you can't give us a message yourself."

She hoped he would either give his password to someone, or come up with his own solution of how to let Starlight know if something had happened to him.

"You are important to us," she wrote.

"You are just saying that because you have learned that I am sitting in a wheelchair," replied Mats.

"I told him that wasn't true," says Anne. "I said, 'you are important to the guild. You are a fantastic listener. You are one of the people who lifts others up in Starlight'."

It was a while before Mats posted again.

"I really understood then, that he had taken what I had said to heart."

On 18 November 2014, Mats died.

Critically ill, he had been admitted to hospital. Doctors managed to stabilise him and said he could soon be allowed home - but then the family were told to come as quickly as they could.

"He was on the fourth floor at the end of a corridor. Every second was precious, the corridor was so long," says Robert.

They came too late.

The photograph Robert took of his son on his deathbed shows a pale young man, with dark wavy hair. He has finely drawn eyes, a noble nose and a mouth marked by the breathing mask he had used for so long. He looks like he is asleep.

Many years before, Lisette had made Mats a drawing. Ibelin is holding Rumour, a scarf conceals his nose and mouth.

"Mats got it through the regular mail," Robert says.

"Now it is hanging on the wall at home."

The day after Mats died the whole family was at home.

"The doorbell was ringing, flowers arrived, neighbours visited. We cried," Robert recalls.

Robert tried to think who he had to tell about Mats's death. He remembered the gamers and wondered how in the world he could reach them.

"Before Mats died, I never thought that I would have to have his password."

But now he needed it.

"That was when I thought of his blog," says Robert.

In fact, Mats had given his father the password to his blog, so that Robert could continuously check its statistics and monitor how many had visited and read each post.

"You don't know who plays a role in your child's life if you don't know their digital friends," says Anne, or Chit - as she offers some advice to parents.

"Make an agreement with your children about how to reach their digital friends in case anything should happen to them. Otherwise, they may have friends who will go around wondering forever what happened."

At the end of the blog post about Mats's death, Robert posted an email address for anyone wanting to get in touch.

"I wrote and cried. Then I hit publish. I didn't know if any replies would come… and then the first email arrived - a heartfelt condolence from one of the players from Starlight.

"I read the email aloud: 'It is with heavy heart I write this post for a man I never met, but knew so well.' It made such an impression."

Then came more messages of condolence - more stories of Mats's gaming life.

"He transcended his physical boundaries and enriched the lives of people all over the world," read one. "Mats's passing has hit me very hard. I can't put into words how much I'll miss him," said the next. "I don't believe that one single person is the heart of Starlight. But if one was, it would have been him."

Robert says: "An entire society, a tiny nation of people began to take shape.

"And it was on a scale that we had no idea existed. More and more emails arrived that testified about the kind of significance Mats had."

When Mats's group, Starlight, learned of his death, the members pooled money so that those who could not afford it had the opportunity to travel to Norway for the funeral.

Robert says the family was very touched.

"We cried and cried from an intense emotional joy that came from seeing what kind of a life Mats had in fact lived. With real friends, sweethearts, people who cared so much that they would fly from another country to the funeral service of someone they had never met. That was powerful."

Lisette from the Netherlands went to the funeral. So did Anne from the UK, Janina from Finland and Rikke from Denmark.

Kai Simon Fredriksen

On behalf of the Starlight members, Oslo native Kai Simon addressed the congregation.

"While we are gathered here today, a candle is being lit for Mats in a classroom in the Netherlands, a candle burns in a call centre in Ireland, in a library in Sweden there is a candle lit, he is remembered in a little beauty parlour in Finland, a municipal office in Denmark, many places in England. All over Europe, Mats is remembered by many more than those who had the opportunity to come here today.

"I met Mats in a world where it doesn't matter a bit who you are, what kind of body you have, or how you look in reality, behind the keyboard.

"There, what does matter is who you choose to be and how you conduct yourself towards others. What does matter is what is found here," - Kai Simon laid his hand on his temple, "and here." Kai Simon laid his hand on his heart.

In his blog, Mats had written about the computer screen which he had sat in front of for over half his life: "It's not a screen, it's a gateway to wherever your heart desires."

Mats 'Ibelin' Steen memorial.

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 10:57

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India man to sue parents for giving birth to him

A 27-year-old Indian man plans to sue his parents for giving birth to him without his consent.

Mumbai businessman Raphael Samuel told the BBC that it's wrong to bring children into the world because they then have to put up with lifelong suffering.

Mr Samuel, of course, understands that our consent can't be sought before we are born, but insists that "it was not our decision to be born".

So as we didn't ask to be born, we should be paid for the rest of our lives to live, he argues.

Mr Samuel's belief is rooted in what's called anti-natalism - a philosophy that argues that life is so full of misery that people should stop procreating immediately.

This, he says, would gradually phase out humanity from the Earth and that would also be so much better for the planet.

"There's no point to humanity. So many people are suffering. If humanity is extinct, Earth and animals would be happier. They'll certainly be better off. Also no human will then suffer. Human existence is totally pointless."

A year ago, he created a Facebook page, Nihilanand, which features posters that show his images with a huge fake beard, an eye-mask and anti-natalist messages like "Isn't forcing a child into this world and forcing it to have a career, kidnapping, and slavery?" Or, "Your parents had you instead of a toy or a dog, you owe them nothing, you are their entertainment."

Mr Samuel says he remembers first having anti-natalist thoughts when he was five.

"I was a normal kid. One day I was very frustrated and I didn't want to go to school but my parents kept asking me to go. So I asked them: 'Why did you have me?' And my dad had no answer. I think if he'd been able to answer, maybe I wouldn't have thought this way."

As the idea grew and took shape in his mind, he decided to tell his parents about it.

Mr Samuel says he has "very loving relations" with his parents (both of whom are lawyers) and that his mum reacted "very well" and dad too.

"Mum said she wished she had met me before I was born and that if she did, she definitely wouldn't have had me," he says laughing and adds that she does see reason in his argument.

"She told me that she was quite young when she had me and that she didn't know she had another option. But that's what I'm trying to say - everyone has the option."

In a statement, his mother Kavita Karnad Samuel said it was unfair to focus on a "sliver of what he believes in".

"His belief in anti-natalism, his concern for the burden on Earth's resources due to needless life, his sensitivity toward the pain experienced unwittingly by children while growing up and so much more has been ruefully forgotten.

"I'm very happy that my son has grown up into a fearless, independent-thinking young man. He is sure to find his path to happiness."

Mr Samuel says his decision to take his parents to court is only based on his belief that the world would be a much better place without human beings in it.

So six months ago, one day at breakfast, he told his mother that he was planning to sue her. "She said that's fine, but don't expect me to go easy on you. I will destroy you in court." Mr Samuel is now looking for a lawyer to take up his case, but so far he's not had much success.

"I know it's going to be thrown out because no judge would hear it. But I do want to file a case because I want to make a point."

His Facebook posts have also attracted a lot of responses, "some positive, but mostly negative" with some even advising him to "go kill yourself". He has also had worried mums asking him what would happen if their children see his posts.

"Some argue logically, some are offended and some are offensive. To those abusing me, let them abuse me. But I also hear from many who say they support me but can't say this publicly for whatever reasons. I ask them to come out and speak up," he says.

His critics also say that he's doing this to get some publicity.

"I'm not really doing this for publicity," he says, "but I do want the idea to go public. This simple idea that it's okay to not have a child."

I ask him if he is unhappy being born.

"I wish I was not born. But it's not that I'm unhappy in my life. My life is good, but I'd rather not be here. You know it's like there's a nice room, but I don't want to be in that room," he explains.

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 10:08

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Crash driver 'swerved to avoid octopus'

A driver who swerved "to avoid an octopus" before crashing has been arrested on suspicion of drug-driving.

Police were called to the A381 between Malborough and South Milton in Devon, where they found a vehicle upside-down in a ditch on Tuesday evening.

The 49-year-old driver was checked over by paramedics before being arrested.

Officers, who tweeted about the incident, said they found no evidence of an octopus on the road.

Octopuses are not unheard of in the seas off the south coast of England, but this particular cephalopod would have had to crawl more than 5km over hills and fields to find itself in the path of a car on the A381.

Police said they found no evidence of an octopus on the A381 between Malborough and South Milton

A spokeswoman for Devon and Cornwall Police said: "He did a bit of a slow roll into a ditch.

"An ambulance went out and the driver was checked over by paramedics but there weren't injuries enough to go to hospital.

The man, from Salcombe, was arrested on suspicion of driving while unfit through drugs or drink and has been released under investigation pending further inquiries.

Twitter users were quick to respond with puns.

However, police pointed out that driving under the influence of drugs - illegal or prescription - was a serious matter, and could be "just as dangerous as drink-driving".

ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 14:55

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Kelly Franklin murder: Lovers jailed for ex-partner's death

An "evil monster" who stabbed his ex-partner to death in the street has been jailed for life with a minimum of 29 years.

Torbjorn Kettlewell, 30, stabbed Kelly Franklin, 29, more than 30 times in Hartlepool after she ended their abusive 12-year relationship.

His lover Julie Wass, 48, was jailed for eight years for manslaughter.

Both were found guilty of the 3 August killing by jurors at Teesside Crown Court.

Ms Franklin's family said Kettlewell was an "evil, vicious monster" who had "plagued" her life in a "controlling and abusive relationship".

In a statement read to the court, Ms Franklin's sister Stacy said she had got rid of Kettlewell "like a nasty virus".

She told him: "You were meant to have loved her, we will never forgive you."

Kelly Franklin was stabbed in the street in August

Ms Franklin's sister added that the family were "disgusted" Kettlewell initially admitted the murder but then changed his plea, putting them through the pain of a trial.

She also said the children "are flourishing" without their father, adding: "They hate you for what you have done."

Jailing the pair, Judge Mr Justice Jacobs said Ms Franklin had been "worn down" by her abusive relationship with Kettlewell.

"It is never easy for an abused woman to break free, but certainly in the last few months of her life, she did it and did it successfully," he added.

"The tragedy of this case is that it was her success and determination in breaking free, and staying free, that led to her brutal murder on the streets of Hartlepool."

Julie Wass led police to Torbjorn Kettlewell's home

Prosecutors labelled Kettlewell an "utterly self-centred narcissist" who was "coercive and psychologically abusive" towards Ms Franklin and the couple's three children during their relationship, which ended in January 2018.

Wass lived next door to the victim and would report her movements to Kettlewell.

On the day of the killing, Kettlewell, who had bombarded his ex with messages telling her to get back with him, was driven by Wass to find Ms Franklin.

Wass spotted her walking on Oxford Street, where Kettlewell confronted and attacked her.

Wass then drove him to woods near Trimdon before returning to the scene and speaking to police in an attempt to cover up her role.

Stacy Franklin also said Wass, a mother and grandmother, had been "disgusting and heartless".

ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 14:53

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Donald Trump to visit UK in December for Nato summit

US President Donald Trump is expected to visit the UK in December for a Nato summit, the alliance's secretary general has said.

Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement that "the Allies have agreed" to meet to discuss security challenges and how Nato can adapt to keep people safe.

Theresa May said it would be an "important opportunity" to modernise.

Mr Trump's controversial first official trip to the UK took place in July 2018, amid a backdrop of angry protests.

The US president met the Queen at Windsor Castle and held talks with the prime minister at Chequers, while thousands of people marched through central London in protest at his visit.

The police operation for the visit cost an estimated £18m, according to the National Police Chiefs' Council.

The announcement of Mr Trump's December trip led the Liberal Democrats to say they would be "front and centre to protest his visit", while the Green Party tweeted "we'll be there to greet him".

The US president, who has repeatedly criticised the military alliance, will meet heads of state in London - the home of Nato's first headquarters.


Theresa May said: "The UK is one of the founding members of Nato and I am very pleased that the secretary general has asked us to host a meeting of Nato leaders this year to mark its 70th anniversary".

Mr Stoltenberg said the UK continues to play a key role in the alliance, making "essential contributions to our shared security".

'Treated unfairly'

Mr Trump has previously urged Nato to commit 4% of its annual output (GDP) to military spending - double the current target.

On Tuesday, he said in his State of the Union address that the US had been "treated very unfairly by friends of ours, members of Nato" over a period of years.

The announcement came as Nato states signed an agreement with Macedonia, clearing the way for the Balkan nation to become its 30th member.

Meanwhile, Mr Trump announced in his State of the Union speech that he will hold a second nuclear summit with North Korea's leader this month.

Plans for a second summit have been in the works since the two leaders' historic talks last year.

Mr Trump and Mr Kim's meeting last June in Singapore was the first ever between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader.?

ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 14:41

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The defected diplomat turned Barnsley budgie vlogger

In a shed in a back garden in Barnsley, Khaled al-Ayoubi tends to his budgies. He is a long way from his former life.

In 2012, he was Syria's most senior UK diplomat, but quit over the regime's "violent and oppressive acts". He then began a new existence in the South Yorkshire town.

"I (had) one budgie who used to mimic lots of words and dance. That was in Syria," the 47-year-old says.

Disco, Tommy and Farah are among some 20 birds hand-reared and hand-fed by Khaled. He spends hours with them every day.

They are also the stars of his Youtube channel Happy Parrots, where thousands of viewers get tips on feeding, breeding and bathing the colourful birds.

"They are like my children now. I can't live without them," he says. "It's as if you're dealing with a human - they have character."

The birds, which are popular in Syria, have been part of helping him adjust to his new life.

"I was very stressed. I have good neighbours but you can't stay with your neighbours all the time," he says.

"I sit alone, I have no one to speak with. So they are my friends, I feel relaxed with them. They are fabulous animals."In 2012, Khaled led Syria's embassy in London as the charge d'affaires.

A year earlier, pro-democracy demonstrations - inspired by the "Arab Spring" - had taken place in Syria. But they were met by deadly force from the government, which led to more protests demanding President Bashar al-Assad's resignation.

The violence intensified and soon the country had descended into civil war. And so after seven years as a diplomat, Khaled resigned.

"I wasn't happy with the way they were treating the Syrian people," he said. "When I realised the country was going to be destroyed, I said I can't ever be part of that."

Then Prime Minister David Cameron hailed his resignation as "one in the eye" for the Assad regime, which he hoped would "crumble as fast as possible".

Khaled al-Ayoubi (far right) pictured with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (second left) during a presidential trip to Greece

More than six years on, having claimed more than 350,000 lives and created millions of refugees, Syria's civil war continues.

As one of the first diplomats to defect, Khaled says now he was very scared.

"There was a huge danger on me. So they decided for security reasons to transfer me out of London and then I ended up here in Barnsley."

Why Barnsley?

There are currently 40,481 people housed on the UK's asylum dispersal scheme, but they are not dispersed equally around the country.

Barnsley houses 415 asylum seekers, while in other places - like Prime Minister Theresa May's Maidenhead constituency - there are none.

Councils participate in the asylum dispersal scheme voluntary but some, like Barnsley, are now threatening to withdraw.

"We don't want to (withdraw) but we can't carry on in the vein we've been," Barnsley council leader Stephen Houghton told Newsnight.

Government guidance says no more than one in every 200 of the local population should be an asylum seeker.

But asylum seekers often end up clustered in small areas, where private companies contracted by the Home Office can find the cheapest property.

The Local Government Association has suggested the one in 200 cap be applied at ward level.

BBC Newsnight has been shown a list of the 10 wards in Yorkshire with the highest concentration of asylum seekers. In all 10 of them, asylum seekers make up more than one in 200 of the population.

In Park ward in Calderdale, asylum seekers constitute one in 68 of the population. In Barnsley, Kingstone ward has a ratio of one in 86, while in Central ward the ratio is one in 98.

"Very often these are communities with their own social and economic challenges to begin with," Cllr Houghton says.

The cost of housing asylum seekers is footed by the Home Office rather than local authorities.

In a statement, the Home Office said: "Where a local authority agrees to take part, accommodation providers must consult with them on all properties they intend to use as asylum accommodation. Through this process local authorities can raise any concerns they have."

"I have good neighbours, they welcome refugees," he says. "They're really supportive."

But one of the biggest problems Khaled faced once his asylum status became refugee status was finding work.

His wife works in a factory, while Khaled volunteers with the Refugee Council as an advisor and interpreter helping new arrivals.

He recalls meeting refugees who had been attacked or abused since arriving in England. One "lost his knee", while another had eggs thrown at their window.

'We lost our home'

"Migrants - we live uncertainly because we don't know the future. I have no place to go," Khaled says.

He plans to apply for citizenship in order to get a British passport and to "have a country to protect me".

"I am not here for benefits. I came here to be safe," he says. "I abandoned all my fortune. I lost all my properties in Syria... I still live in uncertainty."

Khaled accepts he may not ever see his home country again.

"I would like to die there, but now it's not an option. I know politics, I know this regime has been rehabilitated, so (there's) no way I can go there. If this president went, his son would be the ruler and after 30 years there would be another revolution.

"We lost the country. We lost our home."

ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 14:37

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Should Liam Neeson be cancelled? Here's what columnists say on race row

Fierce debate is raging over actor Liam Neeson's controversial admission that he once wanted to kill a random black man, with some suggesting his unguarded comments amounted to "career suicide".

"The only question anyone in Hollywood will be asking for some time to come is 'Liam who?'" said one newspaper pundit.

Another called his remarks "terrifying, sickening and really saddening".

Yet he has received support elsewhere, with one columnist suggesting he was "brave" to admit "a terrible thought".

In an interview published by The Independent on Monday, Neeson revealed that discovering someone close to him had been raped many years ago had made him want to take out his anger on a random black person.

The 66-year-old said he did not go through with any violence and expressed regret that he had reacted in such a "horrible" way.

Media captionListen to Liam Neeson's comments that sparked the outrage

Speaking on ABC's Good Morning America on Tuesday, Neeson denied he was racist and said he hoped his remarks would start a wider conversation about racism.

That conversation shows no signs of abating and commentators had their say in the press on Wednesday.

Eva Simpson, Daily Mirror

Liam Neeson gave one of the most explosive, career-ending interviews I have ever heard when he told a journalist he wanted to murder a black person, after someone close to him was raped.

He's now furiously back-pedalling and telling anyone who will listen that he is not racist - no doubt with one eye on the effect his comments will have at the box office.

Neeson has admitted he walked around with a cosh for a whole week trying to find someone to attack. I find this utterly terrifying, sickening and really saddening.

There is absolutely no reason to hate someone because of the colour of their skin, but sadly people do.

Natasha Richardson, pictured with Neeson in 2008, died after a skiing accident in 2009

Gary Younge, The Guardian

We should, at the very least, admire [Neeson] for his candour. For all the talk of a post-racial society and Enlightenment values, here's a white man who admits he literally went out for a week or more looking for a black man to murder.

The man who performed a tender love scene with Viola Davis [in Widows] is the same man who fantasised about killing her husband or stepson or anyone else who looked like them.

We should, of course, not ignore Neeson's shame in this. We all do things we regret. We are all fragile. It takes courage to admit the things that we are most ashamed of.

[But] since when did people get credit for confessing that they once thought about killing innocent people on the basis of their race and have since thought better of it?

John Barnes: Liam Neeson 'deserves a medal'

Jan Moir, Daily Mail

I don't think Liam Neeson is a racist. However, you could certainly make a case against him, were you so inclined.

You could damn him to hell forever, because he has certainly committed a terrible sin by Hollywood standards.

The ultimate sin, perhaps. The definitive transgression. When asked a question, he tried to tell the truth.

But if we spool back, what do we find? A crucial point, which is that the young Neeson contemporaneously realised his thinking was wrong and irresponsible. He was ashamed and horrified of how he felt, both then and now.

Neeson played Viola Davis's husband in 2018 crime thriller Widows

Brendan O'Neill, The Spectator

Neeson, in his rage over a rape, was engaging in the horrible art of collective guilt, seeing all black men as legitimate targets for the crime of one particular black man.

That is racist and wrong. But here's the thing: Neeson knows this. He admits the wickedness of his thinking.

He did not make this confession to promote the collective judgement of black people or race-based vengeance, but to do the opposite: to highlight how awful and corrupting such feelings are.

Yet none of this matters to the Twittermob or to those sections of the media that love nothing more than hanging out to dry individuals who have thought or said or done bad things.

The Independent journalist Clemence Michallon: "The gravity of his thoughts hit me"

Celia Walden, Daily Telegraph

My very first thought [on hearing the interview] was: this man has had too much therapy.

We all know that Neeson lost his wife, Natasha Richardson, in a tragic skiing accident 10 years ago. And just last month the actor lost his 35-year-old nephew, Ronan Sexton, who died of head injuries caused by an equally random accident.

So it would not be surprising if Neeson hadn't had help from mental health experts, who probably encouraged him to let it all out.

Only, in doing that, he may have committed career suicide.

ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 14:26

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From Brexit with love: Lithuania sees its chance

They are the hot new trend in finance, and Marius Jurgilas's mission is to lure them to Lithuania. Yet even he has been shocked by the "overwhelming" number of enquiries from UK "fintech" companies in recent months.

The reason is Brexit.

Financial technology companies are making last-minute plans in case of a no-deal Brexit on 29 March. Many are looking to secure financial licences in other EU states to protect their operations, and this Baltic nation has an eye on helping to fill the gap.

Mr Jurgilas, a Bank of Lithuania board member, has had some notable successes.

Customers of new-age bank Revolut might not know it has acquired its banking licence in Lithuania. Google's parent company Alphabet has one too.

  • Mr Jurgilas insists his country's new direction is not all about Brexit.

"It was a coincidence," he says. "Mostly we just want innovation to happen here, not 10 years down the road after things are implemented in Sweden."

The start-ups with EU credentials

Marius Jurgilas is not alone. On the seventh floor of a shiny new office block, the Blockchain Centre is on the hunt for hot new fintech markets in Lithuania's name.

Inside, it is silent and the mood intense. Workers in headphones stare at black screens awash with code.

Motivational posters on the walls carry messages such as: "The future will be decentralised."

This one-year-old centre - which offers co-working space and consultancy services to start-ups using blockchain technology - plays to its EU credentials. Its website has an EU rather than a Lithuanian domain.

Egle Nemeikstyte runs the Blockchain Centre in Vilnius

But chief executive Egle Nemeikstyte says the centre is casting its net far beyond Europe. Australia, Singapore and Israel all want EU partners.

There is still plenty of scepticism about how blockchain should be used, and Ms Nemeikstyte sometimes has to dissuade people from jumping on the bandwagon.

"Lots of people come to us with ideas and we say that's great, but you don't need blockchain for it. Go ahead without it," she advises.

What is blockchain?

Bitcoin and blockchain explained

  • Records data in a verifiable and permanent way across many computers at once
  • Every computer has its own copy of the records - and verifies every new piece of information
  • Faking one copy of the blockchain will not work - because it will not match every other copy
  • Best known for underpinning digital "crypto" currencies, such as Bitcoin

How tight will the rules be?

Lithuania's expansion has been compared to Iceland, where the three biggest banks grew too fast and collapsed during the financial crisis of 2008.

Marius Jurgilas insists such comparisons are unfair and Lithuania is far from gung-ho in the field.

"We don't have the framework yet to know how to manage the risks. We don't want to go too fast in that area," he says of blockchain and crypto-currencies.

And yet the Bank of Lithuania offers "no regulatory sanctions for the first year of operations", which some have suggested could be a sign of laxity. Officials will also be keen to avoid the money-laundering cases that befell its neighbours, Latvia and Estonia.

Crypto-related graffiti on a wall in Vilnius

What Lithuania does offer is a regulatory "sandbox", which allows financial technology companies to test products in a limited environment and under supervision.

Such sandboxes are not common, but they are cropping up in places as disparate as Arizona and Kuwait. Critics worry that they mark a race to the bottom, but supporters insist they boost innovation and can be well-managed.

'Using Lithuania as a springboard'

One of Lithuania's biggest coups, or perhaps risks, has been in backing financial technology company Revolut.

Valued at $1.7bn (£1.3bn), it is one of the world's fast-growing app-based banks.

Brexit is a primary reason for its move to Vilnius, but it will still retain its London HQ and the electric money licence it has from UK regulators.

Last year it advertised for its third head of compliance in less than 18 months, and some have argued that it may be expanding too fast.

However, the company insists it is just looking for the right fit.

The River Neris snakes through the capital Vilnius

And there was "no cutting corners" when the company secured its specialised banking licence from Lithuania, insists head of business development Andrius Biceika.

That will allow Revolut to offer full current accounts, pay interest on deposits and issue loans. By choosing Lithuania, it can operate across the EU.

"We are going to pilot all this in Lithuania and then passport to other countries," says Mr Biceika. "We are seeing lots of companies using Lithuania as a springboard."

Gearing up for no-deal Brexit

In the UK, all the talk about Lithuania has travelled the corridors of Level 39 - a three-floor tech hub in London's Canary Wharf, where a number of its residents have been making insurance plans for Brexit.

TransferGo - a money transferring company for migrant workers - received its electronic money licence from the Lithuanian central bank in July 2018.

BABB - a yet-to-launch money transfer company that has no connections to Lithuania - is also midway through the process.

While both made the decision because of Brexit uncertainty, both also cited Lithuania's local talent and helpful regulators as other motivations.

The 'G-spot of Europe'?

Go to an event for fintech start-ups in Vilnius and the room teems with enthusiastic young entrepreneurs.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, various international companies came here to save money. Among them was Western Union, where many Lithuanians learnt the ropes of finance.

"We used to compete over low costs," says Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Simasius. "But now it is more about talent."

Vilnius has certainly been putting itself out there. In mid-2018, it launched a bizarre tourist campaign called "G-spot of Europe" complete with tagline: "Nobody knows where it is but when you find it, it's amazing."

The city's tourism office has launched a racy campaign to entice visitors to Lithuania

Co-working hub Rise Vilnius is where you will find dozens of the new companies. Backed by British bank Barclays, it is one of seven such hubs in Mumbai, Tel Aviv, London, Manchester, Cape Town and New York.

"There was scepticism that we would find enough fintech start-ups here, but we proved them wrong," says Mariano Andrade Gonzalez, executive director of Barclays' operations centre in Lithuania.

The mayor of Vilnius says companies have discovered that the city's workforce is particularly suited to the new start-ups, because Lithuanians have good mathematical skills.

"Maybe that goes down to the dark times of the Soviet Union. People studied these things instead of social studies.

"It was natural for us to move into fintech, even before Brexit. We are willing to adapt to the future, not fight it."

ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 14:18

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Why so many young women don't call themselves feminist

In recent years, feminist movements have attracted significant attention in Europe and North America. So why do so many young women still say they do not identify with the term?

Fewer than one in five young women would call themselves a feminist, polling in the UK and US suggests.

That might come as a surprise as feminism - the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of equality of the sexes - has been in the spotlight lately.

A day after the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, millions around the world joined the 2017 Women's March. A key aim was to highlight women's rights, which many believed to be under threat.

Another defining moment came when sexual harassment claims were made against film producer Harvey Weinstein by more than 80 women - allegations he denies.

Online movements have also gained momentum. Actress Alyssa Milano suggested that anyone who had been "sexually harassed or assaulted" should reply to her Tweet with "#MeToo", resurrrecting a movement started by activist Tarana Burke in 2006.

Half a million responded in the first 24 hours and the hashtag has been used in more than 80 countries.

Jameela Jamil has been an advocate for body positivity

Many other celebrities have publicly embraced feminism, including actresses Emma Watson, who launched an equality campaign with the United Nations and "body positivity warrior" Jameela Jamil.

Movements like #everydaysexism and discussion points such as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Ted talk, We should all be feminists, have also struck a chord with millions.

Rejection of feminism

These events have all helped to bring feminism to mainstream attention.

So it is perhaps unexpected that the identity "feminist" has not gained more popularity among young women in the Western world.

In the UK there has been a small increase in the number of women who identify as such.

A 2018 YouGov poll found that 34% of women in the UK said "yes" when asked whether they were a feminist, up from 27% in 2013.

It's a similar picture in Europe, with fewer than half of men and women polled in five countries agreeing they were a feminist. This ranged from 8% of respondents in Germany, to 40% in Sweden.

However, people do not appear to reject the term feminism because they are against gender equality or believe it has been achieved.

The same study found that eight out of 10 people said men and women should be treated equally in every way, with many agreeing sexism is still an issue.

This appears to represent a shift in attitudes over time.

A study of 27,000 people in the US found that two-thirds believed in gender equality in 2016, up from a quarter in 1977.

And in a 2017 UK poll, 8% said they agreed with traditional gender roles - that a man should earn money and a woman should stay at home - down from 43% in 1984.

If many believe gender equality is important, and still lacking, then why do relatively few people - including young women - identify as feminist?

It could be that they do not feel the term speaks to them.

The term feminist is less likely to appeal to working-class women, polls suggest.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk "We should all be feminists" has been viewed more than 6 million times

Almost one in three people from the top social grade ABC1 - those in managerial, administrative and professional occupations - called themselves a feminist in a 2018 poll. This compared with one in five from grades C2DE, which include manual workers, state pensioners, casual workers, and the unemployed.

But those from lower income backgrounds are just as likely to support equal rights. Eight out of 10 people from both groups agreed men and women should be equal in every way, when asked for a 2015 poll.

This may suggest lower income groups support the principle behind feminism, but aren't keen on the word itself.

Race can also shape views of feminism.

Research into the views of US millennials found 12% of Hispanic women, 21% of African American women, 23% of Asian women and 26% of white women identify as a feminist.

Three-quarters of all the women polled said the feminist movement has done either "a lot" or "some" to improve the lives of white women.

However, just 60% said it had achieved much for women of other ethnicities - a sentiment shared by 46% of African American women.

Another hurdle may be some of the stereotypes and misconceptions associated with feminism.

In her introduction to the recently published anthology Feminists Don't Wear Pink and Other Lies, curator Scarlett Curtis refers to the stereotype of feminists as not wearing make-up, or shaving their legs or liking boys.

These stereotypes have persisted through the ages. In the 1920s, feminists were often called spinsters and speculation about their sexual preferences was rife. Almost a century later, these views still hold some sway.

Having interviewed a diverse group of young German and British women for my research, I found associations of the term "feminism" with man-hating, lesbianism or lack of femininity was a key factor in rejections of the label "feminist".

The majority said they did not want to call themselves feminist because they feared they would be associated with these traits. This was despite many stressing they were not homophobic and some identifying as lesbian or bisexual.

So, how could the image of feminism be improved?

Arguably, as a society we should do more to challenge narrowly defined expectations of how women should look and act.

Working harder to make this movement more inclusive could mean that feminism speaks to the experiences and concerns of diverse groups of women.

Nevertheless, whichever label women choose to adopt, the indication that the vast majority of people now support equality - and acknowledge it has not yet been achieved - is heartening.


ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 12:51

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Why celebrities are being sued over images of themselves

Celebrities and the paparazzi have a notoriously tense relationship. From accusations of invasion of privacy to criticism of unflattering photos, stars have regularly hit out at those who are paid to pursue them.

But in the last couple of years, a new wave of complaints has started flowing from the other side.

A number of well-known celebrities, including Jennifer Lopez and model Gigi Hadid, have had lawsuits filed against them for posting paparazzi images on their social media accounts.

So what exactly is going on with these copyright disputes?

You might think that being the subject of an image means you can use it freely.

But according to copyright law, it's the photographer who usually owns an image's rights unless it's been licensed to a third party like their agency or employer.

So whether you're a celebrity who has been papped leaving the latest Hollywood hotspot or someone who posed for a friend, the ownership of the photograph typically falls to the person who pressed the button.

Neel Chatterjee, a US lawyer who specialises in high-profile intellectual property disputes, says social media has created an "enormous amount of complexity" in the field.

He says in part the problem is caused because functions like online re-tweets allow images to proliferate quickly far beyond the control of the copyright holder.

Selfies (like those popularised by heiress Paris Hilton) are safe from such disputes

In recent lawsuits, photograph agencies have claimed that it's not fair for celebrities to reproduce and distribute their images to their millions of fans without license. Some have even appealed for compensation for loss of earnings.

The stakes are made even higher because of the monetary value of some of the social media feeds in question, with some earning up to $1m per sponsored post on platforms like Instagram.

Khloe Kardashian was among the first people to be publicly pursued in one of these copyright cases.

She was sued for infringement in 2017 after posting a paparazzi photograph of herself visiting a Miami restaurant on her Instagram feed.

Xposure Photos, a UK based agency, sought damages of more than $175,000 for the post.

They said the image, which had been exclusively licensed to the Daily Mail, was used by Khloe without their permission and their accreditation had been erased.

Khloe and Kim Kardashian are among those who have spoken out again the crackdown

They argued her post, shared to almost 67m followers, constituted "wilful, intentional, and malicious" infringement of their copyright.

Kardashian eventually deleted the image and both sides agreed to dismiss the suit last year.

But the star has acknowledged the row is an ongoing problem for her and her sisters.

She told Twitter fans that it might take longer for her to share images from events because she had to obtain proper permission first.

"I have to license my own image which blows my mind," she said in reply to one fan.

"They can legally stalk me and harass me and then on top of it all I can't even use the pictures of myself they take LOL," she tweeted to another.

Last week, model Gigi Hadid became the latest star to be slapped with a lawsuit over an image she posted of herself.

A complaint against the model alleges that her Instagram account "includes at least 50 examples of uncredited photographs of Hadid in public, at press events, or on the runway".

Gigi Hadid revealed in October she was being "legally pursued" over a photograph

It was reported last month that Jennifer Lopez is being sued in a similar case involving an image posted on her Instagram story - a temporary post that disappears after 24 hours.

They are several more examples of a similar nature and the problem looks unlikely to go away.

The rise of 'copyright trolling'

Mr Chatterjee says these cases are becoming known within the industry as "copyright trolling".

He believes photo agencies are exploring it as a "new and incremental way" of increasing their revenue streams.

"They're going to take a picture outside a nightclub or restaurant whether or no they have a relationship with this famous person or not," he says, when asked if paparazzi should be worried about offending stars.

And it's not just celebrities themselves being targeted.

A number of so-called "fan accounts" have also reported being aggressively pursued on copyright grounds, with some apparently being shutdown altogether in the process.

When some Kardashian fans complained about the problem last year, Kim said her family was even considering hiring their own photographers to try and bypass the problem.

"It's just one of those things that offends common sense," Mr Chatterjee says of the copyright law.

"If someone's harassing me and takes a photograph of me and I happen to like the picture and want to make use of it, after they harassed me and made money from me - now they can sue me for that?"

He also cast doubt on accusations of loss of earnings.

"If you look at Kylie Jenner for example," he says. "You know when she promotes something, her distribution is so much broader that anything these agencies would be able to achieve.

"In some ways they amp up the iconic nature of some of these images."

Do the celebrities have a defence?

US National Football League (NFL) star Odell Beckham Jnr is another person embroiled in a legal battle involving paparazzi.

The player, who has more than 12 million Instagram followers, accused one agency of extortion last year after allegedly receiving a demand for a $40,000 payment over an image he had shared.

Reports regarding the lawsuit said he wanted to defend himself over his "rights to publicity" - conditions within some states' laws which protect a person's right to control how their name or likeness is used commercially.

The defence has been used before.

In 2014 actress Katherine Heigl sued a US drugstore chain after they used a paparazzi image of her carrying the pharmacy's shopping bags for promotion on social media. That case was eventually dropped, apparently in return for the post's deletion and a confidential donation to a charity.

But, as Mr Chatterjee points out, this defence in regards to paparazzi copyright complaints remains complex and largely untested in case law.

Of the lawsuits filed against celebrities so far, many have been dismissed or settled before being litigated to resolution.

"You'll see people offering to settle for say $10-20,000," he says, "Which seems like a lot of money but in context of litigation costs it's really not that much - especially for these high profile figures."

"It's going to take someone like a Kardashian who has tons of money who sees other commercial benefits by litigating these questions. It very well may take someone like that to actually fight this stuff."

ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 11:48

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State of the Union: Trump announces second North Korea summit


What happened at Trump's State of the Union address?

US President Donald Trump has announced in his State of the Union speech that he will hold a second nuclear summit with North Korea's leader this month.

In an address to the nation with the theme "Choosing Greatness", he vowed once again to build a border wall.

While appealing for political unity, the Republican president also said "ridiculous partisan investigations" could damage US prosperity.

In a rebuttal, Democrats accused Mr Trump of abandoning US values.

His primetime address came less than a fortnight after he backed down to end the longest ever US government shutdown when Democrats refused to fund a US-Mexico border wall.

Federal agencies could close again if no spending plan is agreed by the end of next week.

What did he say about North Korea?

The president said in his 82-minute speech on Tuesday night that he would meet Kim Jong-un in Vietnam from 27-28 February.

"Much work remains to be done," Mr Trump said, "but my relationship with Kim Jong-un is a good one."'

Plans for a second summit have been in the works since the two leaders' historic talks last year.

Mr Trump and Mr Kim's meeting last June in Singapore was the first ever between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader.

While Pyongyang has not conducted any atomic or ballistic missile tests since last summer, it has yet to agree to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme.

The US envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, is in Pyongyang for talks, paving the way for the second leadership summit.

The nuclear word Trump and Kim can't agree on

What might a second summit achieve?

Mr Trump's goal will be to extract pledges from Kim Jong-un without giving too much ground. The Trump administration has said it is not willing to lift sanctions, but it has mentioned helping out the North's economy.

However, handing over such aid to a secretive state which has yet to declare a list of its weapons facilities or allow in independent inspectors is bound to raise more than eyebrows.

So Mr Trump has to extract a written pledge from Mr Kim. Otherwise these summits will be seen as all show, and very little substance.

As for Mr Kim's bargaining chips, we have been told he could be prepared to give up his nuclear production site known as Yongbyon.

I've also been told by some sources close to Pyongyang that Mr Kim does want to achieve something his father and grandfather never did. A peace treaty.

The prospect of becoming the US president who ended the 68-year long Korean War is bound to be a tantalising one for Mr Trump.

What did he say about unity?

After two years of rancorous partisanship, Mr Trump on Tuesday night repeated calls for political unity that he has made in his last two annual speeches to Congress.

"Together, we can break decades of political stalemate," he said. "We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions."

Mr Trump raised potential areas of agreement, such as infrastructure improvements, lowering prescription drug costs and fighting childhood cancer.

But he added: "An economic miracle is taking place in the United States and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations."

Democrats have launched a flurry of inquiries into the Trump administration since they took over the US House of Representatives last month.

"You weren't supposed to do that!" - Trump and Democratic women share an unexpected moment of unity

A special prosecutor is still investigating alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, which the president and Moscow deny.

As Mr Trump delivered his nationally televised speech, his chief congressional antagonist was sitting at the rostrum over his shoulder.

The Democratic leader of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, tweeted afterwards: "It will take days to fact-check all the misrepresentations that the president made tonight."

A photo of Nancy Pelosi clapping after Mr Trump's address has gone viral

A message to his base

It was a speech that was billed as bipartisan, but beneath the flowery language were the same sharp divides and disagreements.

Mr Trump has never really acknowledged his party's ballot-box defeat in the mid-term elections last November.

By instigating the recently concluded government shutdown, he acted like he still had the political upper hand - even when it was clear to almost everyone that this was not the case.

So this State of the Union address presented a quandary. How can a president reconcile himself to divided government while still asserting that everything is going great for him?

For this president, the answer was to effectively shrug at the setbacks. To focus his message, where it counted, towards his political base.

And to stick with the message that won him the presidency in 2016 and, he appears to believe, will keep him in the White House for another term next year.

How did Democrats respond?

Stacey Abrams delivered the Democratic response to President Trump

Stacey Abrams, who lost her race last year to be governor of Georgia, delivered the Democrats' response to Mr Trump.

She was the first African-American woman to give the party's rebuttal.

Ms Abrams said: "The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people - but our values."

She also said that while she is "disappointed" with Mr Trump, "I still don't want him to fail."

Democratic female lawmakers who attended Mr Trump's speech wore white to celebrate the 100th anniversary of American women gaining the right to vote.

They sat stony-faced as their Republican counterparts rose for the applause lines.

But Democrats surprised Mr Trump with a standing ovation when he said there were more women in the workforce and in Congress than ever before.

"That's great!" said the president, delighted by their reaction. "Really great."

US First Lady Melania Trump (R) waves as Ivanka Trump (L) looks on

What did he say about foreign wars?

Mr Trump said his administration was holding "constructive talks" with the Taliban to find a solution to the conflict in Afghanistan.

"The hour has come to at least try for peace," he added.

The president also said "virtually all" of the territory once occupied in Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State group had been liberated from "these bloodthirsty monsters".

"It is time to give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home," he told the chamber.

He said 7,000 US troops had died and more than $7tn (£5.4tn) had been spent by America on nearly two decades of war in the Middle East.

"Great nations do not fight endless wars," said the president, who campaigned on an 'America First' platform.

What did Trump say on border security?

The president devoted much of his speech to border security, vowing once again to build a US-Mexico barrier and calling illegal immigration "an urgent national crisis".

But he refrained from declaring a national emergency that might allow him to bypass Congress for wall funding.

With another government shutdown deadline impending on 15 February, the president has few options to deliver his signature campaign promise.

Mr Trump told his audience that working-class Americans pay the price for illegal immigration.

Despite the president's call for unity, the reception from Democrats was frosty for most of the evening.

Meanwhile, Republicans shouted their approval - especially when Mr Trump talked about the wall along the southern border.

When the president said: "The state of our union is strong", members of his party stood and chanted: "USA!"

The Democrats stayed seated. But then the mood changed.

As the president noted the record number of women in Congress, Democrats gave a standing ovation - and they began shouting: "USA!"

Republicans joined in - they all chanted together.

Bitter adversaries experienced a rare, happy moment of togetherness. And the president was right in the middle of it.

ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 11:42

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Behind the legacy of America's blackface

Democratic Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam has refused to resign from office following the emergence of a photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook featuring a white man in blackface alongside another man wearing a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) robe.

On Friday, Mr Northam apologised and claimed that he was one of the two men in the photo, and in a news conference on Saturday denied being either man in the picture, refusing calls to resign.

At the disastrous news conference, the governor also admitted to wearing blackface at another occasion in 1984 when he dressed up as Michael Jackson for a dance contest, strangely boasting about winning the competition because he could moonwalk.

He then lost the support of Virginia's senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, as well as Virginia's first and only African-American governor, L Douglas Wilder.

All three men plus a growing number of politicians on both sides of the aisle have called for his resignation, yet Mr Northam appears intent to try to weather this storm.

Mr Northam's blackface controversy is America's third major blackface scandal in a matter of months.

Ralph Northam's page in the 1984 yearbook of Eastern Virginia Medical School

In January, journalist Megyn Kelly formally left NBC after defending blackface on her show in October.

And also in January, Florida's secretary of state Michael Ertel resigned after photos emerged of him wearing blackface when he dressed up as a Hurricane Katrina victim for a costume party.

Blackface has a long and troubling history in the United States, so one must wonder why so many prominent Americans are unaware of or indifferent to the harm it causes.

Tensions surrounding blackface stem from the fact that America remains unwilling to educate people about the history of blackface, according to Howard University professor Greg Carr.

"It is not taught at all in school. Even in the most basic sense," says Prof Carr. "If it were taught, it would become problematic in America because the vestiges of blackface minstrelsy are a deep part of American culture."

The practice of blackface grew in popularity in the 1830s as white actors would darken their faces with a mixture of charcoal, grease, and soot and perform as caricatures of African-Americans.

The purpose of these performances was to demean and dehumanise African-Americans, and it should come as no surprise that this minstrel theatre of anti-black propaganda grew in popularity as the call for the abolition of slavery increased.

Sheet music cover image of the song 'Jim Crow'

"The purpose of blackface was mocking… and erasing black culture, turning it into a figment of the white imagination for entertainment," says Prof Carr.

"Minstrels began caricaturing black characters they claimed to have seen on plantations dancing and singing. They would dress up in ill-fitting clothes, rags or approximations of tuxedos."

New Yorker Thomas Dartmouth Rice, considered the "father of American minstrelsy", performed under the blackface persona of Jim Crow, and his rendition of Jump Jim Crow was one of the most popular songs in America.

Mr Rice travelled across the US performing as Jim Crow, and his mocking caricature of black manhood and culture would become the new American narrative of black existence.

It became common for Americans to refer to black men as Jim Crow, and the widespread popularity of Mr Rice's song Jump Jim Crow made many foreigners believe it was the national anthem.

Though Mr Rice died in 1860, blackface and Mr Rice's legacy of Jim Crow continued unabated.

Sheet music depicting white singer and comedian Al Jolson in blackface

When Southerners instituted a series of segregationist laws, poll taxes, and literacy exams with the explicit purpose of returning African-Americans to a life akin to pre-civil war chattel slavery, they named these laws Jim Crow.

And in 1915, when America's first blockbuster movie, DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation, hit theatres, it featured white actors in blackface behaving as savages as they attempted to rape white women.

A group of Klansmen surrounding freed man Gus (played by white actor Walter Long in blackface) in a scene from Birth of Nation

This film not only brought blackface to the big screen, but its heroic depiction of the KKK normalised the white supremacist terrorist organisation.

The KKK became an active part of American politics during the early 20th century.

President Woodrow Wilson screened Birth of a Nation at the White House, and he reportedly lauded the film as "like writing history with lightning."

From the White House and across the nation, anti-black caricatures orchestrated by racist white Americans were considered historical truths, and blackface and minstrelsy remained an oppressive American norm.

In 1929, as cartoons and animation boomed, Walt Disney debuted Mickey Mouse, who was based on vaudevillian minstrel shows, and the first depictions of the famous mouse featured him in blackface.

And while Mickey Mouse soon lost his blackface, the minstrelsy remained.

People from Padstow in Cornwall have been blacking up for an annual parade for 100 years but is that ever OK?

Jim Crow remained the law of the land in South until the civil rights era of the 1960s ended segregation and returned voting rights to African-Americans.

America has only had 50 years since the racist propaganda popularised by blackface has not been the law of the land.

Despite the progress of the 60s, many Americans resisted the change: dehumanising narratives of African-Americans being animalistic and sexualised have remained relatively common in America.

America does not teach this history of blackface in any curriculum known to Prof Carr, and Americans can only learn about this history if they do their own research or take courses in college about African American history.

 captionA Burial Burning of Jim Crow on June 11, 1967

Since the civil rights era and the end of Jim Crow, America has become more diverse and less racist, but some white Americans began wearing blackface to impersonate some of their black heroes.

Mr Northam dressed as Michael Jackson while Kelly referenced blackface as a Halloween costume on her show in October.

Yet as Mr Northam shows, allowing white Americans to wear blackface opens up a Pandora's box of racist propaganda.

In one instance he's "celebrating" Michael Jackson, and in the next he's associated with an image of a white man in blackface smiling next to someone dressed in KKK robes.

It can be nearly impossible to differentiate between white naiveté and malice regarding blackface, but regardless of a non-black person's intent, the impact is detrimental to black Americans.

Blackface, minstrelsy and white Americans mocking black culture have remained a part of US culture that some refuse to address.

Blackface obviously should not have a place in an equitable, non-racist society, but sadly, it has always played a significant role in American life.

ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 11:35

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Venezuela crisis: The 'colectivo' groups supporting Maduro

In this dingy building in a suburb of Caracas, Hugo Chávez is very much alive. A statue of Venezuela's late president, dressed in military uniform, stands prominently at a corner of the main room as if welcoming everyone who enters.

Glued to the decaying wall, a picture of him smiling, printed on the yellow, blue and red colours of the national flag, looks over the table where Subero and his men spend hours in meetings.

Subero's decades-old links to Chávez go far beyond ideology. The 47-year-old retired sergeant fought in the attempt Chávez led on 4 February 1992 to overthrow then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez. The movement failed, and Subero, Chávez and others spent some of the following years in jail.

Subero's loyalty to his leader, however, was left unshaken.

He now leads one of the dozens of groups called colectivos, or collectives, which see themselves as the defenders of Chávez's Bolivarian revolution and vow to defend his successor, President Nicolás Maduro, as he faces his biggest challenge yet.

The embattled leader has resisted mounting pressure to step down and call early elections while Juan Guaidó, head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, gathers international recognition after declaring himself interim president.

But Subero and many others in his colectivo, by no coincidence called 4 de Febrero, seem ready to stand up for Mr Maduro, who has been in power since 2013.

"I'm willing to fight until my death," says Subero.

'Foreign interference'

The colectivos emerged during Chávez's years and, with government backing, spread across communities as social organisations supporting the implementation of official aid programmes. They are believed to have a few thousand members all around the country.

But some have been accused by the opposition and human rights groups of acting as paramilitary groups, often using force to impose their control over neighbourhoods and attack government critics, protestors and journalists.


  "I'm ready and willing to go to war"

As discontent with Mr Maduro grows, fuelled by an economy in freefall and widespread shortages of food and medicine, some fear things could turn even more violent with the armed colectivos, working alongside security forces loyal to the president, playing a key role in the streets.

At least 40 people were killed across the country in a week alone last month, according to the United Nations, with pro-government forces blamed for most of the deaths.

For Subero, a father of three who did not want to give his real name, the crisis here is "being induced by foreign powers", a claim often made by Mr Maduro and his allies, and an invasion is being planned, a fear consistently fanned by the government though it has never happened.

"I'm ready and willing to go to war," he said, surrounded also by religious sculptures and placards with the face of another local hero, 19th Century independence leader Simón Bolívar, who Chávez claimed to be his "revolutionary" inspiration.

"Who said Venezuela cannot be the new Vietnam?" wondered Jorge Navas

In a dimly lit room next door, the old television, as usual, was tuned to Venezuela's state broadcaster, which devotes much of its time to the latest about Mr Maduro and his government.

As Jorge Navas watched it, Diosdado Cabello, a key Chavista, was passionately warning thousands of supporters of a possible international operation in the country.

"We're a militia and when the moment arrives, we'll take up arms," Mr Navas said, despite most colectivo members usually denying having any involvement in armed violence.

??Why Venezuela matters to the US... and vice versa

Earlier this week, Mr Maduro said he could not rule out the possibility of civil war as a result of the impasse, and warned US President Donald Trump, whose government is backing Mr Guaidó, that he risked a repeat of the Vietnam War if he intervened.

From 1965 to 1973, hundreds of thousands of US soldiers were sent to help fight communist forces in a costly and unsuccessful war which brought domestic civil unrest and international embarrassment.

"Who said Venezuela cannot be the new Vietnam?" wondered Mr Navas.

Mr Guaidó has rubbished the threat of a civil war in Venezuela as an "invention".?

Opposing a 'coup'

Sombra, also not his real name and Spanish for "shadow", is a member of a different colectivo, Guerra a Muerte, its name taken from the Decree of War to the Death issued by Bolívar in 1813 during Venezuela's war for independence.

For him, the problems his "beautiful nation" has faced are a result of its people not recognising "the huge legacy left by the eternal commander", meaning Chávez.

I'd give my life to the revolution, of course"

Sombra, who also works as a security guard, said Mr Maduro was the legitimate president - despite his re-election last year being disputed by many inside and outside the country - and that the efforts by the opposition to oust him constituted a coup.

"We want things to be resolved through dialogue," he said. "[But] I'd give my life to the revolution, of course."

ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 10:15

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Karim Hossam: The rise and fall of a match-fixing tennis prodigy

Karim Hossam was one of the best young tennis players in the world. He looked set to play at the biggest tournaments, with the top players of the game. Instead he was sucked into one of the biggest match-fixing rings yet discovered in a sport riddled with corruption. The BBC's Simon Cox and Paul Grant use confidential documents to tell the story of his downfall.

It was inside a modest hotel room in Tunisia in June 2017 that Karim Hossam's tennis career started to unravel. Across from the 24-year-old sat two former British police detectives. They were investigators for the Tennis Integrity Unit, which probes corruption within the game, and they suspected Karim had been fixing matches. In a series of interviews over six months he revealed how four years earlier he had become a part of one of the biggest match-fixing rings in tennis.

The International Tennis Federation Futures tournament at Sharm el-Sheikh is a distant cousin to the glamour, money and crowds of Wimbledon or the French Open. Played at a small tennis club next to a shopping mall, there is a smattering of spectators and the prize money for the whole tournament is $15,000 (£11,500) - about a quarter of the sum made by a first-round loser at Wimbledon.

Karim Hossam had already won the tournament four times when he arrived to compete there again in 2013. Still only 20, the young Egyptian player was the great hope for North African tennis.

As one of the best junior players in the world, hovering on the edge of the top 10, he had started to play in the big ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) tournaments with the stars of the sport. He'd played at the Australian Open and the French Open, but the ITF (International Tennis Federation) tournament at Sharm was one of the many around the world where thousands of lower-ranked players try to scrape a living.

Karim Hossam was preparing for a match when a player he didn't know well approached him. "Do you want to lose the match and get $1,000 (£770)?" he asked. The same player had contacted Hossam months earlier, at the Qatar Open, asking if he wanted to lose the first set for $1,000. On that occasion he was facing one of the world's best players, Richard Gasquet - then ranked ninth in the world, some 300 places above Hossam - and he replied: "I'm playing Gasquet, I'm not here to sell a match."

captionRichard Gasquet playing Hossam at the Qatar Open

But in Sharm el-Sheikh it was different. It didn't really matter if he won or lost and after thinking it over Hossam decided to go ahead with it. He told the investigators, "I just wanted to try it because I never tried it… I thought this guy was actually like lying to me… I didn't know that betting existed." The player wasn't lying, though, and after losing the match Hossam went with him to a local branch of Western Union to get his money.

The gamblers behind this would have made much more than $1,000, and would have bet on other matches too, often making multiple bets on one match. "Having that insider knowledge of people involved in match-fixing in a specific sport particularly tennis… you can really make some fairly decent money," says Fred Lord, Director for Ant-Ccorruption at the International Centre of Sport Security in Qatar. "We're talking figures around about half a million euros."

What Karim Hossam didn't realise was that he had sold his career for $1,000. Being found guilty of a single offence by the tennis authorities is punishable by a lifetime ban from the game.

Hossam couldn't keep it to himself so he told his father, who had helped to finance his career. He told investigators his father "was really pissed and he was like, 'You're ruining your life'".

After this first offence, Hossam said, he tried for a while to avoid doing it again. But he also thought that if he had more money it would be easier to advance his career. "I wanted to go play big tournaments, you know, like I was going to the US for camp or whatever and I needed money," he said.

 captionKarim Hossam playing at the Air Berlin International Junior Championships in July 2010.

So he continued taking money to lose, and before long he was also acting as a fixer, the middleman between gamblers and players. Sometimes it involved losing a match, or on other occasions a single set. It depended what the gamblers wanted and what got them the best odds.

He spent the next four years helping to fix dozens of matches in Egypt, Tunisia and Nigeria, typically earning $200 for a $1,000 fix. A cache of confidential documents seen by the BBC shows how the young player arranged the fixes through Facebook messages with dozens of North African players. In May 2016 he contacts a player with an offer: "Bro. You lose first set then win the match. You get 2,500." The figures were always in dollars.

When the other player agrees to this, Hossam makes sure he understands his instructions: "So you will lose the first set then win the match. Do you surely understand?" The player responds, "Score is not important. I just need to lose first set?"

He is reassured by Hossam: "Most important thing is you drop the set then win." The player tells Hossam, "Hopefully it's OK because I need the money." They carry on messaging throughout the afternoon but there's a hitch and the fix doesn't go through.

On other occasions it runs more smoothly. In August 2016 he messages another player in the early hours of the morning: "One set for 3,000." Intrigued by the offer, the player replies, "How much to lose?" and he is told, "Lose for 3,000 my friend." In the event the player did lose.

The documents the BBC has seen implicate more than 20 players, most of them from North Africa, in either directly fixing matches or failing to tell the authorities when they were approached. Any player who is approached and asked to fix a match has to report it and failure to do so is an offence that can lead to a lengthy ban.

In June 2017 the tennis anti-corruption authorities finally caught up with him.

In his first interview with investigators he told them how he was drawn into fixing.

"I just couldn't afford playing any more and like my dad was paying for me, and then my dad has to pay for my brother as well, and then I wasn't getting any income," he says, the transcript shows.

After the interview ends he messages his younger brother, Youssef, who is also a professional tennis player.

"They caught me in my room bro," he writes. "And I was stupid I didn't delete some things."

 captionWhen this photograph was taken in September 2017, 19-year-old Youssef Hossam - ranked 334 in the world - was looking for a sponsor to support his career and help him realise his talent.

Hossam tells his brother he is hopeful of escaping any tough sanctions by co-operating with the authorities. "I am telling them I want to work with them. Would be [expletive] great if that is possible. I travel and get money to catch all the fixers."

That wasn't how it turned out. Days after he was interviewed by the Tennis Integrity Unit, Karim Hossam was provisionally banned from playing tennis. That same day he messaged a fellow player telling him about the ban but vowing, "I am gonna bet even more now."

By the time of his final interview, in January 2018, Karim Hossam says he has been reduced to coaching children. The investigators ask if he will give evidence against the player who first corrupted him.

"We feel very strongly that if he's done that to you he's probably done it to other people and he's probably still doing it," one of the investigators tells him. "So he's somebody, I'm sure you would agree, you would want to get out of tennis, because he is a danger because he grooms young players… If it wasn't for him you may never be where you are today."

Karim had hoped there would be some benefit for him in co-operating with the Tennis Integrity Unit, and seems disappointed that he has got nothing out of it.

"I gave a lot of information. I didn't really lie about anything, I was open," he tells them.

"But receiving a lifetime ban in tennis, I mean I've been playing tennis for 17 years, I was only forced to do this under circumstances… So pretty much like I don't see any like benefits from my side… I honestly don't have any more evidence… I don't have any more chats."

In July 2018 Karim Hossam was banned for life. But the confidential files the BBC has seen show he continued to try to corrupt the sport.

In August 2018 he has a long conversation with a player to whom he offers $3,500 to lose a set by a specific score. In the end, word gets out the match is fixed and the gambler backs off. Karim Hossam suspects one of the players has talked. "My friend we need men not babies," he tells him.

The BBC contacted Karim Hossam to ask him about these messages and his contact with other players but he didn't respond.

The documents reveal one of the largest match-fixing rings in tennis ever discovered, implicating more than 20 mostly North African players. Last month police in Spain arrested 15 people in a match-fixing ring said to involve 28 Spanish players linked to an Armenian gambling ring. Armenian gamblers were also involved in a match-fixing ring uncovered by Belgian police in June 2018. The files the BBC has seen show that one of Karim's contacts was an Armenian.

Most of the players in this match-fixing ring have not been sanctioned. And the player who first corrupted Karim Hossam - the one investigators wanted him to testify against - is still playing professional tennis.

 captionKarim Hossam's highest world ranking was 337th in September 2013

The documents seen by the BBC have been sent to the Tennis Integrity Unit, and the whistleblower who contacted the BBC is critical of the unit's response.

"The TIU are ineffective because their processes are inefficient and slow. They receive evidence about someone and their investigation is ended two years later," he says.

"I had a player tell me he is definitely going to get a lifetime ban soon and is going to go out with a bang in the last couple of tournaments he is going to play. Why allow players this chance?"

The Tennis Integrity Unit said it was at the forefront of the fight against sporting corruption, and had successfully prosecuted 44 people in the last two years - 16 of whom were given lifetime bans. It added that it couldn't comment on ongoing investigations as "public disclosure would inevitably alert suspects and allow credible evidence to be discarded or destroyed".

In 2018 an independent review panel looked into the integrity of tennis after a BBC News and BuzzFeed investigation revealed suspected illegal betting. It said the Tennis Integrity Unit had a backlog of cases and that there was a "tsunami" of corruption within the sport.

The sport's governing body, the International Tennis Federation, told the BBC: "We are committed to protecting the integrity of tennis and putting in place the necessary measures to do that". But it conceded, "there is a significant amount of work to do."

ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 14:46

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Daniel Williams: Body found in missing student search

A body has been found in a lake in the search for a missing 19-year-old student, police said.

Daniel Williams, from Sutton in London, has been missing since Thursday after failing to return home after a night out at the University of Reading.

Police searching for him discovered the body in Whiteknights Lake near the university's campus.

Thames Valley Police said the death was being treated as unexplained and was not believed to be suspicious.

No formal identification has taken place, the force said, but Mr Williams' family has been informed.

In response to the "very sad" news, the university said activities on campus would continue as normal and support would available to students and staff.

A major search, aided by search and rescue volunteers and the National Police Air Service, was launched over the weekend for second-year computer science student Mr Williams.

Police said they had checked a lake and surrounding countryside on Monday.

Search crews were seen searching Whiteknights Lake in a small boat until about 13:00 GMT on Monday.

Lead investigator, Supt Jim Weems, said recent snow had "not hampered" the search, but the night Mr Williams disappeared was "one of the coldest" of the year.

A vigil was hosted on Monday in the Whiteknights campus bar, 3sixty, where Mr Williams was last seen.

 captionPolice water search teams have spent two days in the lake

At the scene

The forensic team arrived just before 11:00 GMT and there were lots of police on the scene.

A small group - including plain clothes officers and forensic specialists - gathered on the bank of the lake and were deep in conversation.

The water search team has packed their equipment away, their job is done.

Police have closed the nearby footpath, but the university campus remains open.

Speaking before the body was found, the university's Anglican Chaplain Mark Laynesmith told the BBC students were in "shock".

Acting vice-chancellor Prof Robert Van de Noort said support was being offered to Mr Williams' housemates and friends.

Mr Williams' family described him as "a happy, normal 19-year-old enjoying university life" and said they had "no concern at all" about him before he went missing.

Supt Weems said the disappearance was "completely out of character".

ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 14:42

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Four children die in Stafford house fire

Four children have died in a house fire in Stafford.

The blaze in the Highfields area of the town in the early hours also left another sibling and the parents injured.

The children have been named locally as Riley, Keegan, Tilly and Olly who are aged between three and eight.

The siblings' two-year-old brother Jack survived the blaze, along with his mother, Natalie Unitt, 24, and her partner Chris, 28.

Rob Barber, deputy chief fire officer for Staffordshire fire and rescue service, said a man, woman and baby jumped from the first floor window of the house.

Tearful neighbours said they heard "screaming" and saw flames "lashing" out the windows. A senior police officer described the blaze as "absolutely heartbreaking".

 captionA handwritten note attached to flowers was left at the scene from the children's grandparents

Part of the roof has collapsed, windows were shattered and the rooms were left blackened by the blaze, which happened at about 02:40 GMT at the house on Sycamore Lane.

Staffordshire Police said Tilly was aged four and the three boys were aged three, six and eight.

Neighbour Wendy Pickering was in tears as she remembered the children, who she often saw while taking her granddaughter to school.

"It is a real shock," she said.

"We heard screaming, but we weren't sure if the children were in the garden."

Her husband Bryan said he was alerted to the fire by his dog barking during the night.

"The flames were lashing out of the upstairs window," he said.

A hand-written note attached to a cuddly toy in an area nearby where people had laid down tributes read: "RIP Babes xx life is so so cruel. All our thoughts are with the family at this very sad time."

Another note read: "Will be dearly missed, love Uncle Dave and Auntie Lou Lou", while another added: "To my lovely grandkids I will always miss you. Love you always xxx."

captionThe family are being supported by specialist police officers

 captionTarpaulin covers the house as crews carry out investigations

Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service are examining the house as part of their investigation, but Mr Barber said he could not comment on a possible cause.

He added: "Our firefighters were faced with very difficult conditions inside the property due to the severity of the fire."

Ch Insp John Owen, of Staffordshire Police, expressed his sadness at the "tragic incident" on Twitter.

Absolutely heart breaking. Thoughts are with the family and friends of the precious lives that have been lost. Thoughts also with my colleagues in the police and fire who have been working at this tragic incident.

A West Midlands Ambulance Service spokeswoman said: "When crews arrived they found an ongoing serious house fire.

"Three occupants, two adults and a child, had managed to get out of the property. Tragically, four children from the property were confirmed dead on scene.

"Our thoughts are with the family at this exceptionally difficult time."

Matthew Ellis, Staffordshire Commissioner for Police Fire and Crime, paid tribute to emergency services for working in "tragic and difficult circumstances in the middle of the night".

"For something like this to happen it's just heart-breaking," he said.

"It's very difficult to imagine just how professional and how dedicated these people are, but they are all human beings.

"Whilst they will all stay professional, this will affect all of those individuals who are involved in that for a long time to come."

Jeremy Lefroy, the Conservative MP for Stafford, described the fire as "unbelievably tragic".

The deaths of four children at a house fire in Highfields this morning is unbelieveably tragic. My deepest sympathies and prayers go to their families also sends her thoughts and sympathies. Thanks to all of the emergency services dealing with this tragedy.

ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 14:37

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Ceon Broughton 'filmed dying girlfriend' at Bestival

A man filmed his girlfriend as she died over a period of hours after he had given her Class A drugs, a court has heard.

Louella Fletcher-Michie, 24, the daughter of Holby City actor John Michie, was found dead in woods on the Bestival site in Dorset in 2017.

Ceon Broughton, 29, denies her manslaughter and supplying drugs.

His trial at Winchester Crown Court heard he told her concerned family she was being a "drama queen".

Jurors heard Mr Broughton filmed Ms Fletcher-Michie while she was "disturbed, agitated and seriously ill".

William Mousley QC, prosecuting, told the court the defendant had given his girlfriend the Class A drug 2CP while they attended the Bestival event in the grounds of Lulworth Castle in September 2017.

"He did not intend to cause her harm and Louella willingly took that which she was given, but it had a terrible effect," he said.

captionCeon Broughton, 29, denies manslaughter and supplying Class A drugs

Mr Mousley said Ms Fletcher-Michie died after a "significant period of suffering".

He told the court Mr Broughton had continued filming over several hours, adding: "He even did so, the prosecution suggest, after she was apparently dead."

In video clips shown to the court, Ms Fletcher-Michie repeatedly shouts at Mr Broughton to telephone her mother but he tells her to "put your phone away".

Carol Fletcher-Michie eventually spoke to her daughter at 18:48 and grew concerned after she "could hear her screeching".

Her parents were so worried they set off for the festival, repeatedly messaging and calling Mr Broughton, the prosecutor told the jury.

Her brother, Sam, also contacted Mr Broughton and urged him to seek medical help. However, Mr Broughton replied saying "call back in an hour" and referred to Louella as a "drama queen", jurors heard.

The court was told by the prosecution that a month before Ms Fletcher-Michie's death, Mr Broughton was handed a 24-week prison sentence suspended for one year.

"His failure to get her treatment which may well have saved her life was borne of selfishness and in self-preservation," Mr Mousley said.

"Because to have done otherwise, to have acted positively, he knew would have exposed him to the possibility of arrest and prosecution for a criminal offence punishable with imprisonment."

"Failure to act was a substantial cause of her death," he added.

Ceon Broughton, 29, of Island Centre Way, Enfield, London, denies manslaughter and supplying Class A drugs.

ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 14:25

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Bruce McArthur: Door knock saved serial killer's victim

Canadian serial killer Bruce McArthur was in the middle of another possible murder when he was arrested by police last January, a court has heard.

Gruesome details of the 67-year-old's killings have been revealed in court on the first day of his sentencing.

McArthur pleaded guilty to eight counts of first-degree murder last week.

Monday's evidence was so disturbing that a prosecutor took the unusual step of warning the packed court that it could affect their mental health.

"Ask yourself if you need to be here," Michael Cantlon said.

Pictures from McArthur's computer revealed that he posed many of his dead victims naked apart from a fur coat or hats, the court heard.

At least one had his eyes taped open and others had unlit cigars hanging from their lips.

McArthur shaved some of his victims' heads and beards after strangling them, and kept bags of hair in Ziploc bags at a shed near a Toronto cemetery.

The big break on the case came when McArthur killed Andrew Kinsman last summer.

Kinsman had an entry in his diary marked "Bruce" on 26 June 2017, the day he disappeared.

Video surveillance footage showed him getting into a car that was traced back to McArthur in autumn of that year.

Over the next several months, police kept McArthur under surveillance and covertly searched his apartment with a warrant.

In court, friends and family of Kinsman expressed rage and sorrow while reading their victim impact statements.

"We searched for Andrew for six months. I knew he was gone, but still we looked." his sister Patricia Kinsman told the court, fighting back tears of anger.

"His life was snuffed out by this man. We don't say his name."

Kinsman's friend Adrian Betts said he was angry with himself, for not seeing McArthur for what he was. McArthur had known Kinsman and Skandaraj Navaratnam for years before he killed them.

"I thought I was a good judge of character but I didn't see the wolf in the fold," Betts said through tears in court.

 captionBruce McArthur was arrested on 18 January

Final victim

McArthur's arrest was precipitated by concern that he had taken another potential victim back to his apartment.

That individual - a married man identified only as "John" in court - fit the profile of many previous McArthur victims.

He had arrived in Canada five years ago from the Middle East, and his family did not know he was gay, Mr Cantlon told the court.

Texts between John and McArthur reveal the two had met on a gay dating app and had discussed keeping their affair secret.

Last January, John went back to McArthur's apartment.

McArthur told him "he wanted to try something different" and pulled out a pair of handcuffs.

He chained John to his four-poster steel bed frame, and put a black bag over his head.

There were no holes in the bag to see or breathe.

When John tried to remove the bag, McArthur tried to tape his mouth shut.

At that moment police knocked on the door.

 captionBruce McArthur's bedroom, where police believe he killed many of his victims

During their investigation, police uncovered a USB device containing nine folders, with several of the eight victims' names.

The final folder was named "John".

It contained photos of John that were downloaded the same day McArthur murdered Kinsman.

History with the police

The Crown concluded its evidence on Monday afternoon.

It was revealed that McArthur had three encounters with the police before becoming a suspect in Kinsman's murder.

In 2003, McArthur was convicted of assault after hitting a former sexual partner over the head with a metal pipe. In 2014, after he had already committed three murders, he was granted a record suspension, which means his criminal past would no longer be shown on background checks.

In 2013, McArthur was interviewed as part of the police investigation into the disappearances of Navaratnam, Faizi and Kayhan.

As a long-time friend of Navaratnam, police considered McArthur a witness, not a suspect.

Two weeks after he was interviewed, he bought a new van.

Then in 2016, in the midst of his killing spree, he was interviewed by police for a third time, when he tried to strangle a friend in his van.

McArthur had invited the friend into his van, presumably for casual sex, and asked him to lie in the back on top of a fur coat. The victim noted the van was lined in plastic.

McArthur grabbed his wrist and the victim remembered he had an "angry" look on his face. He then started to strangle him with his hands.

"What do you want from me? Why?" the victim asked before finally escaping.

He called the police, and McArthur was brought in for an interview, but not charged.

Police found his version of events "credible" and McArthur's 2003 arrest did not come up on background searches.

More to come

The next two days will be focused on victim impact statements, before his sentencing on Wednesday.

First-degree murder carries a mandatory life sentence, with no parole for 25 years.

The judge said the only thing he must decide is whether to sentence him to consecutive life sentences, or whether McArthur can serve eight life sentences concurrently.

Either way he will not leave prison before he is 91.

ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 14:21

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Virginia governor's deputy Justin Fairfax denies assault claims

As Virginia Governor Ralph Northam faces calls to resign over a racist photo, a woman has claimed his possible replacement sexually assaulted her.

Lt Governor Justin Fairfax, 39, has denied the assault, allegedly in 2004 at a Democratic political convention.

Mr Fairfax said the "uncorroborated smear" was meant to derail his career.

Mr Northam, meanwhile, still denies he is either of two people - one in blackface, the other in Ku Klux Klan robes - pictured on his yearbook page.

The governor and lieutenant governor are both Democrats.

A statement from Mr Fairfax's office said on Monday: "Only now, at a time of intense media attention surrounding Virginia politics, has this false claim been raised again.

"He has never assaulted anyone - ever - in any way, shape or form."

The statement added that Mr Fairfax will "take appropriate legal action" regarding "this defamatory and false allegation".

The lieutenant governor told reporters it was a "totally fabricated story, out of the blue, that's meant to attack me because of where I am in politics".

Mr Fairfax would make history as one of the few African Americans ever to become a US governor if Mr Northam were to resign over his racist photo controversy.

Big League Politics, the conservative outlet which published the claims against Mr Northam and Mr Fairfax, noted it had not spoken to the woman accusing Mr Fairfax.

The website shared what it said was a screenshot of the woman's private Facebook post about the alleged assault.

Mr Fairfax is not named in the post, which refers to a Democratic holder of statewide office who is in line for a "very big promotion".

The BBC is not identifying the woman, but has contacted her and is awaiting a response.

What is Lt Gov Fairfax accused of?

In the rotunda of the state capitol in Richmond on Monday, Mr Fairfax described the encounter as "100% consensual".

He said the woman had been "very interested" in him and "was very much into the consensual encounter".

He told reporters the woman maintained contact with him in the months that followed their interaction.

The BBC contacted Mr Fairfax for comment, but did not receive an immediate reply.

The Washington Post said it had investigated the woman's claims in 2017, but did not publish a story because statements by the woman and Mr Fairfax could not be corroborated.

On Monday, the Post detailed the allegations and also noted that there had been no red flags or inconsistencies in the story, as Mr Fairfax's statement asserted.

The woman reportedly told the Post she had met Mr Fairfax in 2004 at the Democratic national convention.

After they realised they had a mutual friend, they began talking and Mr Fairfax asked her to walk back to his hotel room to retrieve some papers, according to the Post.

The woman reportedly told the paper that their encounter in the hotel room began consensually, but claimed that Mr Fairfax then held her down and assaulted her.

What's the latest with Ralph Northam?

Virginia's governor is fighting for his political life in a racism row.

Mr Northam denies he was in a photo of a man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes that appeared in his 1984 medical school yearbook page.

He first apologised on Friday and said he was one of the two people, before changing his story a day later.

Media captionVirginia governor says sorry for racist photo

He has admitted separately blackening his face to impersonate singer Michael Jackson at an event the same year, while he was at Eastern Virginia Medical School.

On Monday, the beleaguered governor met his cabinet members and reportedly implored them to give him a chance to prove he was not the person in the photo.

According to CNN, Mr Northam told the meeting he is afraid of being labelled "racist for life".

Meanwhile, a few dozen protesters gathered at the state capitol to demand the governor step down.

Former Vice-President Joe Biden has led Democratic calls for Mr Northam to resign, saying he has lost all moral authority.

African-American politicians in Virginia called the photo "disgusting", and Republicans have also urged him to resign.

Mr Fairfax has not explicitly echoed those calls, instead saying the governor should make a decision that is in Virginia's best interests.

ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 14:10

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Quadriga: Cryptocurrency exchange founder's death locks $140m

Canada's largest cryptocurrency exchange is unable to access millions in digital currency following the sudden death of its founder.

Quadriga has filed for creditor protection and estimates that about C$180m ($137m; £105m) in cryptocurrency coins is missing.

It has not been able to locate or secure its cryptocurrency reserves since Gerald Cotten died in December.

Cotten, 30, had sole responsibility for handling the funds and coins.

In court documents filed with the Nova Scotia Supreme Court on 31 January, his widow Jennifer Robertson, says the laptop on which Cotten "carried out the companies' business is encrypted and I do not know the password or recovery key".

"Despite repeated and diligent searches, I have not been able to find them written down anywhere," the affidavit states.

The company hired an investigator to see if any information could be retrieved but ongoing efforts have had only "limited success in recovering a few coins" and some information from Cotten's computer and phone.

The company is also investigating whether some of the cryptocurrency could be secured on other exchanges, according to court files.

They say about 115,000 Quadriga users hold balances in their personal accounts in the form of cash obligations and cryptocurrency.

The company estimates it owes about C$250m ($190m; £145m) - including C$70m in hard currency.

The affidavit says the majority of the cryptocurrency was kept by Quadriga in a "cold wallet" or "cold storage", which is located offline and used to secure cryptocurrency from hacking or theft.

Liquidity problems for the British Columbia-based company began in January 2018 when Canadian bank CIBC froze C$25.7m linked to its payment processor after the bank had difficulty determining who were the owners of the money.

Those problems have been compounded by Cotten's passing.

The founder died unexpectedly due to complications with Crohn's disease while travelling in India, according to court documents.

In a statement posted online last Thursday, Quadriga said it is working to address its "liquidity issues, which include attempting to locate and secure our very significant cryptocurrency reserves held in cold wallet".

The company is due in court in Nova Scotia on Tuesday for a preliminary hearing on appointing firm Ernst and Young as an independent monitor to oversee the proceedings.


ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 14:04

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Paris fire: Ten dead and many injured at apartment block

Media captionThe fire was brought under control in the early hours of Tuesday morning

Ten people including a baby have died in a fire at an eight-storey building in south-western Paris, fire service officials say.

More than 30 people - including six firefighters - were injured. One person is in a serious condition.

Fifty people were evacuated by ladders from the blaze in the upmarket 16th arrondissement.

The Paris prosecutor says it may have been deliberately started. Police have detained a female suspect.

French President Emmanuel Macron said that the country "had woken up to tragedy", and praised the fire services for their courage.

Rue Erlanger is a residential street close to the Parc des Princes soccer stadium.

How did people escape?

The fire started on the second floor and spread across the 1970s building on Erlanger street shortly after 01:00 (00:00 GMT), forcing some residents to scramble on to nearby rooftops to escape the flames and smoke.

An eyewitness at the scene told France Télévision:

"The fire alarm went off at 00:30, a little after midnight, and smoke was everywhere already. I live on the eighth floor, the top floor, so I tried to pass from balcony to balcony to get away, And then we huddled up in a corner. Other people climbed up to where I was to escape the flames."

About 250 firefighters were deployed to the scene, not far from the Bois de Boulogne park, helping to rescue those trapped on the roofs. Pictures showed flames coming from the top floor windows and firefighters in breathing apparatus scaling ladders to reach residents.

"When we arrived, we were faced with an apocalyptic situation. Lots of people were calling for help from the windows", the spokesman said.

Six firefighters are among the injured, reports French broadcaster BFMTV.

The fire was brought under control after a five-hour operation, but the death toll could still increase, a fire service spokesman told the AFP news agency.

Nothing of the fire is visible from the end of the street, which has been sealed off, the BBC's Hugh Schofield reports from Paris.

Firefighters says the closure complicated their task because they could not use their vehicles. The courtyard also acted as a funnel, helping the flames to spread from the lower to the upper floors. Neighbours are being quizzed by journalists.

Surrounding buildings in the area have been evacuated as a precaution. Town hall officials have been tasked with finding alternative accommodation.

What do we know of the suspect?

An investigation has been opened into the criminal charge of causing death by arson, AFP reports.

French media say the woman is suspected of trying to set fire to a car parked near the building after a row with a neighbour.

Paris Prosecutor Rémy Heitz said the suspect was known to psychiatric services.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has sent her condolences to the victims, and is on her way to the site, along with Interior Minister Christophe Castaner.

Just a few weeks earlier, four people were killed after a huge blast at a bakeryin the centre of the city.

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ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 13:55

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José Mourinho Spain tax fraud settled in multi-million deal

Ex-Manchester United boss José Mourinho has agreed a prison term in Spain for tax fraud but will not go to jail.

A one-year prison sentence will instead be exchanged for a fine of €182,500 (£160,160). That will be added to a separate fine of €2m.

Spain rarely enforces sentences of less than two years for non-violent or first-time offenders.

He was accused of owing €3.3m to Spanish tax authorities from his time managing Real Madrid in 2011-2012.

Prosecutors said he had created offshore companies to manage his image rights and hide the earnings from tax officials.

Image rights cover the use of a person's likeness, voice, signature and mannerisms - and can be very lucrative for footballers and managers.

Mr Mourinho's move to Manchester United in 2016 was even delayed after it emerged his previous team Chelsea owned the trademark to his name.

Spanish prosecutors said that Mr Mourinho, a Portuguese national, had set up multiple business entities in the British Virgin Islands and elsewhere to manage his image rights.

They argued that was designed to obscure his financial gain from such deals - and he left it undeclared in his tax statements after he moved to Spain.

He is the latest high-profile football personality to strike a deal with Spanish authorities, which are pursuing a crackdown on tax evasion or fraud by the country's many resident star players.

In January, Cristiano Ronaldo accepted a fine of €18.8m and a suspended 23-month jail sentence, in a case which was also centred around tax owed on image rights.

He was playing for Real Madrid at the time of the offence between 2010 and 2014 - the same team Mr Mourinho was managing at the time of his own tax violation.

Unlike the Ronaldo case, Spanish media were not told about Tuesday's hearing, so there was no crowd to meet the former Manchester United manager, who lost his job in December.

Another former Real Madrid star, Xabi Alonso, is also facing charges over alleged tax fraud amounting to about €2m, though he denies any wrongdoing.

Marcelo Vieira, who still plays for the club, accepted a four-month suspended jail sentence last September over his use of foreign firms to handle almost half a million euros in earnings.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Neymar have also found themselves embroiled in legal battles with the Spanish tax authorities.

As in many of the cases, Mr Mourinho's deal which spared him from prison had been agreed in advance with tax officials.

ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 13:48

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Brexit: EU digs heels in over deal

So. how open does the EU seem almost a week on from parliament narrowly voting in favour of an amendment to find alternatives to the backstop guarantee to keep the Irish border open after Brexit?

After all, with every passing day as we've heard , again and again and again, the clock is ticking us all towards an increased chance of a no-deal Brexit with all the costs and chaos that could involve.

Well, if I were to speak in weather forecast terms, I might describe current EU attitudes as frosty with a chance of ice.

If Theresa May comes to Brussels later this week, she will be received politely and listened to attentively.

But if her EU ask remains centred around getting a time limit to, or allowing the UK a unilateral get-out mechanism from, the Irish border backstop or if she pushes again for pure technology as a means of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.

This is not because the EU has suddenly become cavalier about the prospect of a no-deal Brexit - far from it. The club may be over the moon about just sealing the world's largest ever bilateral deal with Japan but that's no replacement for trade and cooperation with neighbouring UK.

It's just that the EU sees so many reasons not to budge over the backstop: solidarity with EU club member Ireland over "caving in" to departing member UK; defending the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland peace process; and above all (in the eyes, hearts and pockets of many EU politicians and businesses) defending the integrity of the EU's single market.

So when Sajid Javid, the UK's home secretary, announced at the weekend that sorting out the backstop would just involve "a bit of good will" on behalf of the EU, I could almost hear the groans of European exasperation from my Brussels living room.

This is something that those in the UK who knowingly repeat that "the EU will give in, in the end" perhaps don't fully appreciate.

Choice of two evils?

The EU certainly does budge at times, even when it has repeatedly ruled out such a move but it performs U-turns out of self-interest, to safeguard the bloc in some way.

Take the oft-cited Greek debt crisis - the EU acted in the interest of the eurozone currency. That is ultimately why it changed its line on member country Greece.

  • The Brussels calculation is that a no-deal Brexit would be damaging for the EU but exposing the entire EU single market to clear vulnerabilities would be the worst of two evils.

The backstop guarantee for the Irish border ensures a means of sealing the long, meandering, porous border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in a way that technology alone (as many Brexiteers are suggesting) cannot.

The EU worries about tariff-dodging and about non-EU standard products being smuggled into the EU's single market "through the back door" - via Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.if technology alone could seal a border in terms of customs and regulatory checks then you would no longer see the existing infrastructure in place between close allies and neighbours non-EU Norway and EU member Sweden or between Switzerland, which has very tight relations with the European Union, and its EU neighbours.

So, instead of dramatically changing or weakening the backstop, the EU is more than happy - as officials indicated today to visiting members of the UK's parliamentary Brexit Select Committee - to repeat or re-package its previous reassurances about the backstop.

For example:

  • That the backstop is a fall-back mechanism, not intended to be used
  • That all sides would prefer to complete a "deep and ambitious" trade deal that would obviate the need for the backstop
  • That if such a trade deal were not completed in time, the backstop would not need to be triggered if the transition period (in which the UK legally leaves the EU but remains a member in practical terms while new trade relations are being negotiated) were extended.

An important aside on the transition period: there's a new proposal the EU understands is now being championed by Downing Street - The Malthouse Compromise. Brussels would likely reject this, not only because it seeks to rewrite the backstop but because it suggests paying the EU to extend the transition period even in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

The EU argues (and this is included in the text of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement) that if the Brexit deal is not passed by the House of Commons, there will be no transition period. Full stop.


Now, the EU is not at all convinced that re-hashing assurances about the backstop will be enough to satisfy MPs who voted to change it. They believe the bar set by the DUP and hard-line Brexiteers is too high for any tweaks the EU might be willing to make. Which leaves EU leaders sceptical that Theresa May actually has the majority of MPs behind her.

Just this weekend for example, the EU's deputy chief Brexit negotiator, Sabine Weyand, retweeted a UK commentator pointing out signs of splintering in the brief truce inside the Conservative Party.

Which is why the EU will continue to show ice-cold resolve - at least for now. Hoping, by not giving an inch over the backstop, that the Prime Minister will be forced to look across the political divide, to the Labour Party, for another means to find parliamentary support for the Brexit Deal - such as opting for a permanent customs union with the EU.

This is the EU's hope. But European diplomats see in Theresa May a politician who likes sticking to her Plan A's.

 captionIs the UK Prime Minister simply playing for time?

From the beginning we've discussed the big possibility that with such a divided country, parliament, party and cabinet, the prime minister will simply keep playing for time, inching forward small step by small step until so close to the cliff-edge of having no Brexit deal at all that most MPs will end up backing her and her deal at the very last moment.

This is high-risk brinkmanship.

Dublin is deeply concerned about the consequences of a no deal Brexit - for peace above all but also about the impact on the Irish economy. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar heads to Brussels this Wednesday for high-level meetings. That same day his deputy flies to Washington to lobby for US support to safeguard the Good Friday Agreement and to ensure the Irish border stays open.

Could US disapproval over UK pressure on the backstop makes things more complicated for a future UK-US trade deal?

It won't make things any simpler.

ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 13:44

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Australia floods: Two found dead as waters grip Townsville

Two men have died in floodwaters that have forced large-scale evacuations in the Australian city of Townsville.

The pair's bodies were found near a park on Tuesday, following what has been described as a "once in a century" flood in the northern Queensland city.

Police did not confirm whether the victims were two men, aged 21 and 23, whose disappearances on Monday had led to the discovery of the bodies.

Thousands of houses may have been flooded, officials said on Tuesday.

Townsville has received more than a metre (3.3ft) of rain in the past 10 days - the equivalent of the region's total annual rainfall.

Police did not give further details about the two deaths, other than to say their relatives had been notified.

At least 19 people found trapped in floodwaters have been rescued since Sunday, according to state officials.

Media captionThe council released a dam which had swollen to double its capacity

In one instance, two police officers were pulled to safety after being forced to cling to trees when floods swept away their vehicle.

Volunteer rescuers and the army have used small boats, tanks and trucks to evacuate residents in low-lying areas. More than 1,100 people have been moved to higher ground.

On Sunday, authorities were forced to open the gates of the city's main dam after it swelled to double its capacity - releasing up to 1,900 cubic metres of water a second.

PM praises 'strong' community

Floodwaters had begun to recede in some areas on Tuesday, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison toured the city and praised the efforts of local officials.

"I know that we had two deaths confirmed this afternoon but the scale of the evacuations that took place, it was an extraordinary achievement," Mr Morrison told radio 2GB.

However, local officials warned that forecasts of more heavy rain could pose fresh dangers in coming days.

Mr Morrison said Townsville would receive airlifts of food, water and other supplies, and that residents could apply for relief payments of up to A$1,000 (£550; $725).

"It is a big clean-up. It will be a big job, but the community is really strong," he told reporters.

People have also been warned after crocodiles, snakes and other wildlife were reportedly spotted in flooded suburban streets.Northern Queensland has a tropical climate and experiences monsoon rain from December to April.

But the recent downpour has been described as "unprecedented" by Australia's Bureau of Meteorology.

Image captionOne crocodile was spotted lurking on a suburban driveway in Townsville

The level of rainfall has eclipsed records set in 1998 during a disaster known as Night of Noah.

"We've never seen weather like this," said Townsville mayor Jenny Hill on Monday.

January was the hottest month on record for Australia as a whole, with the southern city of Adelaide reaching a record 47.7C.

The heat has sparked bushfires, including more than 40 blazes on the island state of Tasmania which have been burning for over two weeks.

Extreme temperatures have also caused a rise in hospital admissions, widespread power outages, and reports of mass wildlife deaths.

ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 13:37

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