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India test-fires nuclear-capable ICBM Agni-V

NEW DELHI (Reuters): India tested its longest-range intercontinental missile on Thursday, the defense ministry said, part of efforts to build a nuclear deterrent against neighbouring Pakistan and China.

The 5,000-km range (3,107-mile) Agni missile was tested from an island in India’s eastern coast in the Bay of Bengal, the ministry said on its official Twitter account.

It said the launch was “a major boost to the defense capabilities” of India .

The Agni-V is an advanced version of the indigenously built Agni , or Fire, series, part of a program that started in the 1980s. It has been tested previously before.

New Delhi claims it faces a twin threat from both bitter foe Pakistan, which is developing a nuclear and missile programme of its own, as well as China. A long-running dispute over the Himalayan border with China has flared in recent years.

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Tillerson’s old school way to deal with Trump tweets

WASHINGTON (AFP): When US President Donald Trump launches into one of his tweetstorms it sometimes seems like the diplomatic world is gasping in unison — but not Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Many foreign policy professionals have set up alerts so their phones buzz in their pockets whenever the commander-in-chief insults a foreign leader or issues a vague threat of war.

But not Tillerson, Washington´s chief diplomat and arguably the man who has the toughest job clearing the air after Trump sets off another diplomatic incident with a social media rant.

Tillerson is not on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. When Trump sends a tweet on world affairs a State Department aide prints it and brings it to the secretary for later perusal.

At least, that is how he explained things to his friend and predecessor Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday in a chat after a speech at Stanford University in California.

Rice asked Tillerson a question he gets asked all the time: how can he handle US foreign policy with Trump constantly stirring the pot with his undiplomatic tweets?

Tillerson´s reply went into more detail than usual — although he again insisted that he has no problem with Trump´s remarks and sees them as an opportunity to communicate his vision.

“He´s world class in social media, and I´m not,” 65-year-old former oilman Tillerson admitted. “I have no social media account, I´ve never had any and I don´t intend to have any.”

“It is a great tool when it is used well. The president has used it at a great effect by by-passing the traditional means of communicating,” he told the assembled policy experts.

“And he absolutely thrives with his ability to instantly communicate not just to the American people but to our friends and allies or to our adversaries in the entire world.”

This much has been said before, but surely Tillerson receives a warning before Trump abruptly cancels a planned trip to London or threatens to pull out of the NAFTA trade pact?

The answer is not, apparently. Tillerson likes it that way.

“I don´t know when he´s going to do that, because that is just the way the president operates,” he said.

“The challenge is just getting caught up because I don´t even have a Twitter account to follow what he´s tweeting. My staff usually has to print his tweets out and hand them to me.”

“I´ve actually concluded that´s not a bad system.”

´How do we use that?’

Tillerson explained that it might be anything up to an hour post tweet that he finds out what Trump has been saying, and that means he can gauge official reaction before responding.

“I already have the early reactions to that and it allows me to begin to think about: ´How do we take that?´,” he said.

“OK, this is information. We know what our objectives are and he didn´t change any of them. This is just the way he wants to communicate on a subject, how do we take that and use it?”

Tillerson remains sanguine about Trump´s exotic online monologue, which some critics fear could alienate US allies, despite having fallen foul of it more than once himself.

In October last year, Tillerson met senior Chinese leaders in Beijing and afterwards told reporters that he had back channel communications open with Kim Jong-Un´s North Korea.

When Tillerson arrived back in Washington he discovered — presumably on being handed a print out — that Trump had disavowed his efforts to resolve the nuclear stand-off.

“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump had tweeted.

“Save your energy Rex, we´ll do what needs to be done!”

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Indian boy shot dead in police crossfire

LUCKNOW (AFP): An eight-year-old boy was shot and killed in police crossfire in northern India, an officer said Thursday.

Madhav Bharadwaj was playing with friends in Uttar Pradesh state when he was shot dead in front of his grandfather late Wednesday.

Police said they went into the boy´s village on a tip-off that suspected robbers were hiding out there, and it was unclear who fired the bullet that struck him.

Villagers, however, told local media that only police were shooting.

“Three policemen came to the village and asked the (suspects) to gather at the terrace of a nearby temple for a talk. But suddenly the cops began firing,” the boy´s grandfather told the Times of India newspaper.

“My poor grandson was playing nearby and got hit. I froze for a moment. I was unable to understand what had happened.”

Rajesh Kumar Sonker, a superintendent of police in Mathura district where the incident took place, told AFP an investigation was under way.

“We are probing the case and will soon get to know how the child got hit and killed,” he said.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath offered his condolences to the family and compensation of 500,000 rupees ($7,835).

The state has one of the highest crime rates in India, an issue that Adityanath pledged to tackle with tough policing when he was named chief minister last March.

Rights groups have however accused him of abusing his power after he reportedly said at a rally that criminals would “either be sent to jail or killed in police encounters”.

Police in Uttar Pradesh and other Indian states have been accused of faking “encounters” with suspects to carry out extrajudicial killings.

“It has observed that even if the law and order situation is grave, the state cannot resort to such mechanism, which may result in the extrajudicial killings of the alleged criminals,” India´s National Human Rights Commission said in a statement responding to Adityanath´s comments.

Uttar Pradesh police have killed 33 people since Adityanath came to power according to figures in the Indian Express newspaper.

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Kurds react to US border force plan

Monitoring Desk

ERBIL: Syria’s Kurdish National Council on Wednesday said the U.S. plan to form a PYD/PKK-led border security force in Syria could trigger dispute between Kurds and Arabs.

On Sunday, U.S.-led coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon announced plans to establish a 30,000-strong border security force in Syria with the SDF/PKK — a U.S.-backed group drawn up largely of PYD/PKK terrorist elements.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Ibrahim Biro, leading member of the council, said that the U.S. plan would make the Kurds invaders. “The plan can trigger another conflict between the Kurds and the Arabs there.

There is no Kurdish population around the Euphrates River, Biro noted, adding the U.S. supported PYD/PKK in order to keep it away from Russia and Iran.

Biro said they told U.S that the PYD was an offshoot of the PKK, but the U.S started to make propaganda that PYD was different from the PKK.

“What is happening now is completely opposite to the U.S. claims. The latest developments will not serve the Kurdish areas in Syria,” he added.

The PYD/PKK is the Syrian offshoot of the PKK terrorist group, which is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU. Since the mid-1980s, the PKK has waged a wide-ranging terror campaign against the Turkish state, in which an estimated 40,000 people have been killed including more than 1,200 since July 2015 alone, when it resumed its armed campaign against the Turkish state.

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Hamas blasts US aid suspension to UN agency

Monitoring Desk

GAZA CITY: A U.S. decision to suspend financial aid earmarked for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is responsible for helping some 5.3 million Palestinian refugees, is aimed at “ending the Palestinian cause”, according to Hamas.

In a Wednesday statement, the Gaza-based resistance group condemned the move, calling on the UNRWA to resist “U.S. pressure” aimed at eroding Palestinian rights.

The group went on to urge the UN and international rights groups to maintain their support for the Palestinian people and cause.

On Tuesday, the U.S. announced its decision to suspend $65 million in financial aid to UNRWA “for future consideration”.

“It [the aid] is not being canceled,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters. “It’s just being held for future consideration.”

She added, however, that $60 million in U.S. financial aid would still be disbursed to the refugee agency. The move, Nauert stressed, bore no relation to the sensitive issue of Jerusalem, which came to the fore early last month when U.S. President Donald Trump recognized the city as Israel’s capital.

Jerusalem remains at the heart of the Middle East conflict, with Palestinians hoping that Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem might eventually serve as the capital of a Palestinian state.

Trump had earlier threatened to reduce aid to both UNRWA and the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority in response to Palestinian fury over his Jerusalem decision.

 

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Sunni coalition calls for postponing Iraq elections

Monitoring Desk

BAGHDAD: A major Sunni coalition on Wednesday called for postponing this year’s local and parliamentary elections in Iraq.

In a statement, the Unity Alliance of Iraq said it had requested the Iraqi parliament to postpone the polls scheduled for May 12.

The statement, however, did not cite any reason for seeking to delay the vote.

Some Iraqi figures have called for postponing the polls, citing that the vote cannot be held while thousands of people have been displaced from their areas over the fight against Daesh terrorist group.

Iraqi forces have recently managed to dislodge Daesh from the country’s north and south.

Electoral coalitions in the country are often formed based on sectarian and ethnic lines.

Notably, this year’s election will see current Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and former premier Nouri al-Maliki leading two separate electoral coalitions though they are members of the same political party, Dawa.

In Sunni areas in northern and western Iraq, an electoral coalition led by Vice President Eyad Allawi and Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri will vie against an alliance headed by former Vice President Usama al-Nujaifi.

And in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish reg-ion, the Kurdistan Demo-cratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan will compete with other opposition parties, including Movement for Change known as Gorran.

 

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Daesh’s ideological threat still remains in Iraq: NATO

Monitoring Desk

ANKARA: Daesh terrorist group’s ideological threat still remains in Iraq, said Chairman of the NATO Military Committee Gen. Petr Pavel on Wednesday.

“We can say that physically ISIS [Daesh] has been defeated, but that does not mean that the ideology was defeated and that Iraq is now a safe and secured country,” Pavel said in a joint news conference with Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti and Supreme Allied Commander Transformation Gen. Denis Mercier.

They were outlining the main outcomes of the first Chiefs of Defense meeting in 2018 at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Pavel noted that there was a general understanding that Iraq would need assistance “and there is also interest from Iraqi side for that assistance fr-om both coalition and NATO.”

“So we were considering the situation, the options.  And we are generally ready for providing more assistance based on specific requirement from the coalition and from the Iraqi government,” he said underlining the assistance will be focused on training and capability development.

He noted how the Coalition fighting Daesh in Iraq was “transitioning from combat to stabilization”.

“Consequently, we deliberated how NATO could adapt our current activity within our training and capacity building initiative in Iraq, upon request by the Iraqi authorities and taking into consideration the importance of local ownership and buy-in.”

For his part, Scaparrotti said the NATO’s contributions to the defense of Europe are “significant and appreciated”.

“A resurgence of Russia as a strategic competitor, growing unrest and instability in Africa and the Middle East as well as terrorism is reshaping our strategic environment,” Scaparrotti said.

“This security environment is compounded by the rapid growth and proliferation of new technologies; technologies that can be acquired by both state and non-state actors.

He underlined that national, bilateral, and collective alliance efforts in NATO’s allied Command Operations must be integrated and mutually reinforced. “This is fundamental to our success because Strategic Unity keeps us strong,” he added.

 

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Turkish, Russian diplomats discuss Syria over phone

Monitoring Desk

ANKARA: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and his counterpart Russian Sergey Lavrov discussed Syria over phone, said a Turkish diplomatic source on Wednesday.

Cavusoglu and Lavrov exchanged views on the developments in Syria, an upcoming conference on the war-torn country in Russia’s coastal city of Sochi and also cease-fire violations by the Bashar al-Assad regime, the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to restrictions on talking to the media, said.

It added the phone call was arranged upon Lavrov’s request.

Sochi is the designated venue of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress set for Jan. 29-30.

The congress is expected to be attended by all sectors of Syrian society except for terror groups.

Syria has been locked in a vicious civil war since early 2011 when the Assad regime cracked down on pro-democracy protests with unexpected ferocity.

Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and more than 10 million others displaced, according to UN officials.

 

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Russia offers platform for direct Afghan-Taliban talks

Monitoring Desk

MOSCOW: Russia is ready to provide a platform for direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, according to the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday.

In a written statement, the ministry said Russia was strongly in favor of the commencement of direct negotiations between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban in order to end the fratricidal civil war, and was ready to provide an appropriate platform.

“Experience in international stabilization efforts in Afghanistan proves the inefficiency of the power solution.

“We need serious steps to begin the peace process on the basis of UN Security Council resolutions.”

The statement added that achievement of peace in Afghanistan was crucial because the situation in Afghanistan had an impact on the security situation in neighboring regions.

Meanwhile, in the Afghan capital, Kabul, Mohammad Ismaeel Qasimyar, chief adviser to the country’s High Peace Council (HPC), the main government body tasked with reaching a peace deal with the Taliban, told Anadolu Agency the government in principle welcomed any cooperation that strengthened and facilitated the peace process.

“However, we have to learn from the prospects and possibilities of realization of it,” Qasimyar said, adding that Afghanistan wished all regional and international players to seek their interests in peace and stability in Afghanistan rather than in an “imposed war”.

In the backdrop of a recent informal session of talks between the Taliban and Afghan officials in Istanbul, Qasimyar hailed the goodwill of the Turkish people and Ankara government towards Afghanistan.

The meeting was held on Saturday and Sunday.

Addressing a news conference in Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia would provide every possible support to Pakistan to turn it into a developed country.

The minister acknowledged Pakistan’s efforts in eradicating terrorism, and said the terrorists spread inside Afghanistan along the area bordering Pakistan posed a grave danger to Islamabad.

He said several agreements had been signed between Pakistan and Russia for the provision of helicopters and military equipment.

He added that Pakistan’s presence in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization would strengthen relations between the two countries.

According to the Foreign Ministry statement, Lavrov is heading to New York on Wednesday for two days to participate in two high-level sessions:

“Non-Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction: build confidence-building measures” and “Building regional partnerships in Afghanistan and Central Asia as a model of the interdependence of security and development”.

 

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Israel banning reconstruction work at Al-Aqsa: Official

Monitoring Desk

JERUSALEM: The Israeli authorities have warned officials at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque against undertaking any restoration work inside the flashpoint mosque compound, a Palestinian official said Tuesday.

“Israeli police forced their way into the office of the Al-Aqsa reconstruction committee and warned engineers against carrying out any mosaic work or restoring the Dome of the Rock’s wooden ceiling,” Firas al-Dib, a spokesman for Jerusalem’s Jordan-run Religious Endo-wments (Awqaf) Authority, told Anadolu Agency.

“Police have also prohibited any reconstitution work in the Al-Qibli and Marwani mosques [both of which are located in the Al-Aqsa compound],” he said.

“They even threatened the reconstruction director with detention if any additional work was carried out,” al-Dib added.

For Muslims, the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is considered the world’s third holiest site. Jews, for their part, refer to the area as the “Temple Mount”, claiming it was the site of two Jewish temples in ancient times.

The city of Jerusalem, in which Al-Aqsa is located, remains at the heart of the Middle East conflict, with Palestinians hoping that East Jerusalem — currently occupied by Israel — might one day serve as the capital of a Palestinian state.