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No entry to Jerusalem holy site before inspection: Muslim official

JERUSALEM (AFP): A top Muslim official said Thursday worshippers should maintain a boycott of a sensitive Jerusalem holy site until an inspection has been completed after Israel removed more new security installations overnight.

Sheikh Omar Kiswani, director of the Al-Aqsa mosque, joined Palestinian celebrations outside the compound in the early hours of Thursday after Israel removed the installations.

He was lifted onto the shoulders of joyous Palestinians and given a microphone, then said: “Don’t rush my brothers to enter.

“Do not enter until after there is confirmation from the technical committee,” he said, referring to a committee of Muslim officials inspecting the mosque compound, which is also holy to Jews. A meeting was expected to be held on Thursday morning and a decision may be announced afterwards.

A tense standoff has been underway between Israel and Muslim worshippers at the holy site despite the removal of metal detectors on Tuesday, with concerns of major unrest later this week if no resolution is found.

Newly installed railings and scaffolding where cameras were previously mounted had also been removed early on Thursday from at least one main entrance to the Haram al-Sharif compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, an AFP journalist reported.

The compound encompasses the revered Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The crowds grew larger overnight, with some holding up a large Palestinian flag outside Jerusalem’s Old City. Israel installed the new security measures after an attack nearby that killed two policemen on July 14.

Muslims have refused to enter the site and have prayed in the streets outside for more than a week after Israel installed the new security measures. Palestinians view the move as Israel asserting further control over the site. Israeli authorities said the metal detectors were needed because the July 14 attackers smuggled guns into the site and emerged from it to attack the officers.

Deadly unrest has erupted since the new measures were introduced, with clashes breaking out around the compound and in the occupied West Bank, leaving five Palestinians dead.

A Palestinian also broke into a home in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank last week and stabbed four Israelis, killing three of them.

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Trump bars commission of transgender people in US military

WASHINGTON (AFP): President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that transgender people may not serve “in any capacity” in the US military, citing the “tremendous medical costs and disruption” their presence would cause.

In late June, Pentagon chief Jim Mattis delayed for six months a plan put in place under Barack Obama s administration to start accepting transgender recruits. An estimated 2,500 to 7,000 transgender people are among the 1.3 million active duty service members.

“After consultation with my generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the US Military,” Trump tweeted.

“Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.” The issue of transgender rights in America has been increasingly in the spotlight in recent months, especially over how states regulate the use of public restrooms.

The Trump administration faced protests earlier this year after it reversed Obama-era federal protections that urged schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity, not the gender on their birth certificate.

Last month, the Pentagon said the five armed service branches could delay accepting transgender recruits until January 1 as they “review their accession plans and provide input on the impact to the readiness and lethality of our forces,” spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement.

Last week, White explained that the different services were not in agreement on when to accept transgender recruits.

“The service chiefs all had to give their what needed-to-be-done timeframes” for integrating transgender troops, she told reporters. “Different services had different takes. Some asked for time… there were all kinds of different recommendations.”

Perhaps the most famous transgender US soldier is former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who served seven years in prison for one of the largest dumps of classified documents in US history.

Manning, who served as Bradley Manning, was initially sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2013 for leaking more than 700,000 classified documents to WikiLeaks three years earlier. She twice tried to take her own life last year alone, before then-president Obama commuted her sentence just days before he left office in January. Manning walked free in May.

During her incarceration at the Fort Leavenworth military prison, Manning battled for — and won — the right to begin hormone treatment to begin transitioning toward her female identity.

Manning, who is still employed by the army and retains its insurance coverage, has become an icon for transgender activists.

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Pakistan’s military industrial base is better than India’s: Gen Sarath Chand

NEW DELHI (AFP): Pakistan’s military industrial base is “better” than India’s, said India’s Vice Chief of Army Staff (VCOAS) Lieutenant General Sarath Chand, as he “slammed” the performance of ordnance factories at home, Times of India reported.

According to the Indian daily, Chand said on Tuesday that “Pakistan probably has a better industrial base, as far as defence production is concerned, than our country,” adding that Pakistan exported more defence equipment than India.

Speaking at the inaugural session of AMICON 2017, a two-day conference organised by the Indian army and the Confederation of Indian Industry, Chand criticised India’s ordnance factories for not keeping up with changing technology and not undertaking enough research and development initiatives.

He wondered if the poor functioning of the factories was caused by a “lack of accountability”, read the TOI report.

“It is very hard to see ordnance factories changing in the present state. Overall, it has become an unsuccessful method of supporting our defence requirements,” observed Chand.

According to the Indian daily, Chand further highlighted the importance of a military industry in times of war, adding that India had been “let down” by “friends […] whenever the chips have been down.”

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10,000 people evacuated after fires in southern France

MARSEILLE (AFP): At least 10,000 people were evacuated overnight after a new wild fire broke out in southern France, which was already battling massive blazes that have consumed swathes of forest, authorities said Wednesday.

The new fire came a day after France asked for Europe´s help to tackle the flames already raging in the tinder dry south, including near the popular resort of Saint-Tropez.

“The evacuations, at least 10,000, followed the progression of the fire. It´s an area that doubles or triples its population in summer,” said a fire service official of the blaze near Bormes-les-Mimosas on the Mediterranean coast.les-Mimosas on the Mediterranean coast.

The number of people on France´s Cote d´Azur bulges in July and August as holidaymakers head to the beach, though the area is experiencing an exceptionally hot, dry summer that has made it especially vulnerable to fires.

On Tuesday over 4,000 firefighters and troops backed by 19 water bombers had already been mobilised to extinguish the flames, which have left swathes of charred earth in their wake.charred earth in their wake.

At least 12 firefighters have been injured and 15 police officers affected by smoke inhalation since the fires broke out on Monday, according to the authorities.

The blazes on Tuesday had devoured around 4,000 hectares (15 square miles) of land along the Mediterranean coast, in the mountainous interior and on the island of Corsica.

With strong winds and dry brush creating a dangerous mix, the government asked its European Union partners to send two extra fire-fighting planes — a request immediately fulfilled by Italy, according to the EU.

But one union official denounced what he said was a lack of spare parts preventing all the aircraft required from being put into action.

Interior Minister Gerard Collomb announced on Tuesday that France would be adding six more firefighting planes to its fleet during a visit to Corsica.

´Apocalyptic´ scenes

A fire in La Croix-Valmer near Saint-Tropez, a resort frequented by the rich and famous, had been contained, local fire chief Philippe Gambe de Vergnes said Tuesday.

But the blaze had already consumed 400 hectares of coastal forest in an area dotted with homes, he said. More than 200 people had to be moved from the area.

La Croix-Valmer´s deputy mayor Rene Carandante described a desolate landscape of blackened headlands fringed by charred umbrella pines, where green forest had once framed the azure waters of the Mediterranean.

“It´s a disaster area. There´s nothing left,” he said. Francois Fouchier, of the local coastal conservation group, told AFP that local wildlife, such as the Hermann´s tortoises, would be victims of the fires. “We are going to find burnt shells.”

Around 80 kilometres (50 miles) inland, 300 hectares of pines and oaks went up in smoke near the village of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. A local official accused the authorities of failing to regularly remove dry undergrowth, making the forest a fire hazard.

The French island of Corsica, situated midway between France and Italy, was also assessing the damage. A resident, whose house had at one point been in danger, spoke of “apocalyptic” scenes.

In the end, disaster was averted after the wind died down, but the blaze engulfed 1,800 hectares of forest and burned several vehicles. Further east, in Carros, north of Nice, a house, three vehicles and a warehouse went up in flames, according to regional authorities.

Speaking to France Info radio, Mayor Charles Scibetta described waking up to a “lunar landscape” and said the inhabitants had a lucky escape.

Riviera becoming ´bushier´

“All of France is mobilised,” the head of the fire service in south-east France, Colonel Gregory Allione told France Info, adding that extra firefighters had been drafted in from the north.

Thomas Curt, a director at the Irsea institute for research into the environment and agriculture, said a fall-off in farming in south-east France since the 1970s had made it more prone to fires. “Farmland is contracting and the forest is naturally expanding, making the area bushier,” he said.

A proliferation in the numbers of homes, roads and power lines near forests also increased the fire hazard, he added. In mid-July, a blaze believed to have been ignited by a cigarette butt tossed out of a car ripped through 800 hectares of land near Aix-en-Provence.

Portugal, meanwhile, which last month suffered deadly forest fires, has been battling fresh blazes since Sunday in the centre of the country, forcing the evacuation of around 10 villages.

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Complete shutdown in IOK against arrest of Hurriyat leaders

SRINAGAR (AFP): A complete shutdown was observed in occupied Kashmir (IoK) on Tuesday to protest against the arrest of Hurriyat leaders by Indian authorities.

Call for the shutdown was given by the joint resistance leadership comprising Syed Ali Gilani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Muhammad Yasin Malik to register protest and condemn the revengeful, arbitrary and illegal arrest of Hurriyat leaders. All shops, business establishments and educational institutions are closed while traffic is off the road.

The puppet authorities have imposed strict restrictions and deployed Indian troops and police personnel in strength in Srinagar to prevent people from staging demonstrations against the arrest of Hurriyat leaders.

The Indian National Investigation Agency (NIA) had summoned Hurriyat leaders including Altaf Ahmad Shah, Merajuddin Kalwal, Peer Saifullah, Ayaz Muhammad Akbar and Shahid-ul-Islam at its office in Humhama area of Srinagar, yesterday, and arrested them after implicating them in false cases. Later, they were taken to New Delhi.

The Indian National Investigation Agency had arrested Hurriyat leaders Altaf Ahmad Shah, Merajuddin Kalwal, Peer Saifullah, Ayaz Muhammad Akbar, Shahid-ul-Islam and Nayeem Ahmed Khan from Srinagar and Farooq Ahmed Dar from New Delhi. Those arrested from Srinagar were later airlifted to New Delhi.

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Pakistan has better defence industrial base than India’s, admits Indian VCOAS

NEW DELHI (Web Desk): Vice Chief of Army Staff (VCOAS) in India Lt. Gen. Sarath Chand acknowledged Tuesday that Pakistan has a better defence industrial base than that of India due to a higher number of exports of defence-related equipment.

According to The Indian Express, he admitted that the Indian defence industry had lagged behind with the passage of time due to lack of technological advancements. Although he stressed that there is no competition in this field with Pakistan, he expressed dissatisfaction with the performance of Indian ordnance factories that were unable to produce weapons according to the needs.

“Pakistan has a better industrial base export and defence production (than India) … (They) export defence equipment abroad more than what we are doing,” he said while speaking at AMICON 2017. Lt. Gen. Chand said that the Indian defence industry had failed to comprehend with the changing times with insufficient research and technology.

The top-tier Indian army official revealed that the state is highly dependent on imports to compete in war-like situations. He credited the Make in India programme and Defence Procurement Policy 2016 initiated by the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, calling it major steps for the improvement of defence industry.

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Mattis blasts Pentagon over pricey Afghan uniforms

WASHINGTON (Reuters): US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has issued a sharp rebuke after the Pentagon wasted millions of dollars buying the Afghan army a pricey uniform that may have made soldiers easier to spot.

According to a memo released Monday, Mattis told Pentagon procurement officials that the decision to buy the overpriced woodland green camouflage uniforms “serves as an example of a complacent mode of thinking.”

“Cavalier or casually acquiescent decisions to spend taxpayer dollars in an ineffective and wasteful manner are not to recur,” Mattis wrote in the July 21 memo.

The office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issued a report last month saying the Pentagon may have spent as much as $28 million more than necessary when it decided in 2007 to purchase the dark-green camouflage uniforms.

SIGAR also found that a private company held rights to the camo design and that Afghanistan´s then defense minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, essentially chose the pattern on a whim. The proprietary design meant the uniforms cost about 40 percent more than non-proprietary camouflage.

The highly critical SIGAR report also says officials ordered the uniforms without conducting any formal testing or evaluation.

“The purpose of equipping the Afghan National Army is to bolster the Afghan government´s capacity to provide for its own security, and ultimately, to help defend our country from terrorist attack,” Mattis wrote.

He added that he wanted the episode to serve as a “catalyst” to bring to light wasteful practices. Lawmakers at the House Armed Services Committee are scheduled to hold a hearing Tuesday on the matter.

Mattis is considering whether to send thousands more US troops to Afghanistan to help beleaguered Afghan partners as they struggle to contain a resurgent Taliban.

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Mumbai building collapse kills at least eight, many feared trapped

MUMBAI (AFP): A 40-year old four-storey building collapsed in the Indian city of Mumbai on Tuesday, killing at least eight people with more than 20 feared trapped, fire and police officials said.

“Search and rescue operations are still on,” said P.S. Rahangdale, chief fire officer of the Mumbai Fire Brigade, adding two firemen were injured during the rescue operation. A total of 16 people had been rescued so far, he said.

The ground floor of the building in the suburb of Ghatkopar housed a nursing home, which was vacant at the time, while the rest of the building was occupied by three or four families on each floor, he said.

In 2013, 145 people were killed in three separate building collapses around Mumbai, on the western coast, the highest in recent years.

In the eastern city of Kolkata, a portion of an almost century-old building collapsed killing two people and some were feared trapped, media channels reported.

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Erdogan in Qatar for talks on Gulf crisis

DOHA (AFP): Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Doha on Monday as part of a Gulf tour aimed at defusing a dispute between Turkey´s ally Qatar and neighbouring Arab states.

Erdogan was greeted by Qatari ruler Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani in Doha ahead of their first face-to-face talks on the Gulf crisis, state news agency QNA reported.

Turkey has sided with Qatar in the crisis, the worst to hit the region since the 1981 establishment of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council.

On June 5, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain suspended diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar over allegations that Doha had too close ties with Iran and supported extremist groups.

Qatar has denied the allegations.

Erdogan held talks on Sunday in Kuwait, which is leading mediation efforts in the crisis, and Saudi Arabia, where King Salman hailed the Turkish leader´s “efforts in the fight against terrorism and its financing”.

Erdogan has voiced support for the mediation efforts of Kuwait, a possible indication Ankara sees Kuwait as the key to resolving the crisis.

Qatar´s emir on Friday said he was open to talks with the Saudi-led bloc on condition the emirate´s “sovereignty” was respected.

His call received a cold reception from the UAE´s state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, who wanted Qatar to review its policies.

“Dialogue is necessary, but it should be based on a revision” of Qatar´s stance, he tweeted.

Qatar has emerged as Turkey´s number one ally in the Middle East in recent years, with Ankara and Doha closely coordinating over issues including the Syria conflict where the two are staunch foes of President Bashar al-Assad.

Turkey is also setting up a military base in Qatar, its only such outpost in the region. It has expedited the process since the crisis began and reportedly now has 150 troops in the emirate.

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Young Pakistan military officers oppose terrorism, says US expert

WASHINGTON (AFP): The new generation of Pakistani military officers is more sensitive to terrorism than its predecessors, says Robin Raphel, former assistant secretary of state for South Asia, rejecting a claim by the Afghan ambassador that those officers are more likely to back terrorism than current Pakistani commanders.

At a weekend seminar on Afghanistan at the Aspen Institute, California, America’s most prestigious forum on security issues, Ms Raphel said a lack of clarity in Washington’s policies was preventing Pakistan from breaking its links with the Haqqani network.

Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s ambassador in Washington, spoke before Ms Raphel and urged the international community to stop supporting Pakistan.

“Pakistan is moving toward becoming a state that supports terrorism as an element of foreign policy, to a state that believes in terrorism,” he claimed.

He alleged that the new cadre of officers in the Pakistani military believed in terrorism as an ideology and as those officers rose through the ranks, they would create more problems for the world.

“If we continue to give Pakistan a free pass, imagine the conflict at a time when the military is one million strong, has nuclear weapons, has sophisticated intelligence and believes in extremism at its core,” he warned.

He also urged the international community to work with the Pakistani civilian leadership to keep the military in check.

Since Pakistan’s ambassador Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary decided not to attend the seminar because of a recent experience in Washington where he was hooted and ridiculed at a similar event, Ms Raphel was apparently the only friend Pakistan had in the seminar. She told the Afghan ambassador that his statement was “a little bit misleading” and inaccurate.

Ms Raphel, who is an old friend of Pakistan and had to face an FBI inquiry last year because of her alleged links with Islamabad, also disagreed with Mr Mohib’s claim that “terrorism and Pakistan are equated”.

She said Pakistan was one of the numerous countries that have a “proxy” in Afghanistan. It was likely to keep that proxy as long as uncertainty existed on the outcome of the conflict, she added.

The discussion about Pakistan’s role overshadowed the primary topic of the panel discussion, the Trump administration’s Afghanistan policy, expected later this month.

Ms Raphel noted that during a visit to Pakistan earlier this month, Senator John McCain too asked Islamabad to do more and what he heard from the Pakistanis was: They too are waiting for an overall US policy.