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US government shuts down over immigration impasse

WASHINGTON (AFP): The United States government shut down on Saturday, after members of Congress failed to reach an agreement on the divisive issue of immigration and government spending.

In a late-night vote, opposition Democrats in the Senate joined to block a bill that would have kept the government running for another four weeks.

The shutdown comes exactly a year after Donald Trump took his oath as US president.

On social media, Trump lashed out at the opposition for the impasse, saying the Democrats “want a shutdown in order to help diminish the great success of the tax cuts, and what they are doing for our booming economy”.

In a separate statement, the White House Press Secretary called Democrats “obstructionist losers, not legislators”.

Just a few hours earlier, the president had praised the Senate’s Democrat leader Charles Schumer for an “excellent preliminary meeting” to avert the shutdown.

Democrats had tried to get concessions from Republicans, particularly on the extension of the immigration programme protecting young immigrants from deportation, which is set to expire in March.

Saturday’s shutdown is only the fourth government closure in 25 years.

Essential government offices and services including the military, the border patrol, air traffic controllers and the FBI, however, will remain in operation until there’s an agreement.

“It’s not as if the public is going to see a massive impact right away,” Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane, reporting from the capital Washington, DC, said.

“But it is politically damaging, and that is what we are seeing from the statement from the press secretary,” Culhane said.

Culhane said that senators are still working on an alternative agreement. But even if a deal is reached, it would still need to pass in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Until then, the shutdown continues.

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UK, Ireland announce fresh DUP-Sinn Fein talks

Monitoring Desk

LONDON: Fresh talks between Northern Ireland’s biggest political parties will start next week in a bid to restore a power-sharing government, British and Irish governments said in a joint statement Thursday.

The announcement came at a joint press conference by Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney and the U.K.’s newly appointed Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley in Belfast.

“Since my appointment as Secretary of State I have had a number of discussions on the way forward to restore the Northern Ireland Executive and other political institutions under the Belfast Agreement,” Bradley said.

Bradley, who was appointed as the new Northern Ireland secretary last week after James Brokenshire resigned due to health reasons, said the fresh talks between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein will start on Wednesday, Jan. 24.

Bradley said “time is short and one last opportunity to reach agreement remains,” but she did not give a deadline for a deal at the end of the talks between the parties.

“Initially, these talks will focus on gaining clarity of understanding on the progress that was made over the last seven months on a range of issues, including formation of the Executive and what are known as legacy issues,” she said.

The previous administration in the U.K. region had collapsed with the resignation of its Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness over a botched energy saving deal called RHI in January 2017. McGuinness, a key Sinn Fein figure, died shortly after resignation and was bu-ried at a high-profile funeral.

Coveney said Northern Ireland has been without a functioning devolved government for more than a year, and “this is not a position that can be sustained for much longer.”

“We all have a responsibility over the coming weeks to make every possible effort to secure the effective operation of the devolved power-sharing institutions,” he said.

“Karen and I will spare no effort in seeking a return to devolved power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, which is at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement,” Coveney added.

The DUP lost support in the March 2 election but managed to remain the biggest party, with a single-seat margin in the Assembly over Sinn Fein.

The issues between the two parties — recognition of the Irish language and the legacy of violence from the 1968-1998 Troubles — further soured relations between the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein.

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German college in hot water over controversial burqa course

Monitoring Desk

BERLIN: A German college has provoked massive public outrage with its Muslim face veils course. The move was slammed as supporting the oppression of women and promoting Islamization, clai-ms which the college denies.

The “Headscarf and Hijab in Dresden – dress codes in Islam” – listed by the Dresden adult education center as part of its curriculum for the spring and summer semester – stirred the wave of public indignation. The one-day course offers participants an opportunity to get an insight into the “origin and meaning” of various female dress codes in Islam.

However, it was apparently the course description on the educational facility’s website that ignited the outrage. “Colorful headgear makes one curious about its wearers. Various colors, forms, binding techniques and materials give hints about the cultural background [of the people wearing various Muslim face veils,” it says. It added that participants would have a chance to try on some Muslim female head wear to discover “how it feels to wear a burqa.”

The description further says that the course was supported by Dresden city authorities. The German public, however, apparently found the educational initiative inappropriate, and its promotion spurred a barrage of critical comments on the college’s official Facebook page.

“These pieces of clothes (burqa, etc.) are used in Islam for the oppression of the Muslim women! And you offer such a course, which is also funded by the city of Dresden? [Does it mean that] women from other cultures, who live here, should gradually get used to such “clothes?” one person commented.

“We live in 2018 and not in the Middle Ages. These robes (burqas) are anything but arousing curiosity. This appeasement of Islam is just pathetic,” another wrote. Some appeared doubtful if the college really offered such a course “in earnest,” while others said “it must be a joke.”

Other comments pointed out that the “colorful description of the course” seems to suggest that it overlooks the fact that many women are “forced” to wear face veils under the threat of violence and those who still refuse to wear them are ostracized by their families.

The issue also drew the attention of some German politicians and rights activists. Joerg Kiesewetter, a regional lawmaker and member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Demo-cratic Union party, said the course “abounds with naivety.”“We would like to [live in] a society in which we can look each other in the eyes and must not learn how people should veil themselves,” he said, as cited by the German Bild daily.

The initiative was also criticized by the German Muslim women’s rights activist, Seyran Ates, who said the course in fact promotes a traditional role model for a woman in Islam. The language of the course description “presents the worldview behind the veiling in an uncritical manner and downplays its significance,” she said, adding, that Muslim face veils are symbolic of a society where gross gender inequality still exists.

Defending their controversial course, the college accused the German media of “flawed reporting bordering on populism.” It also charged that it had “deliberately stirred up controversy” around the program. “The course that dates back to spring 2016 and will be held for the fifth time is neutral and impartial,” it said in a statement Tuesday.

“Wearing of burqa is by no means glorified [during the course], not to mention propagandized,” college director Juergen Kuefner said in the statement. He added that participants would have an opportunity to “take a look at the religious and cultural reasons behind the dress codes in Muslim cultural space in a critical manner.”

He further explained that the course was developed primarily for volunteers working with asylum seekers and “who are in contact with the refugees from the Arab world.” Kuefner also pointed out that classes are led by a specialist in ethnology who also studied women’s roles and rights in the Muslim world.

The statement, apparently, failed to assuage public anger as people continued to blast the college. Some continued to call the course an “indoctrination,” adding, that “Sharia law is here presented as some dance courses.”


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Turkey extends state of emergency for 3 months

Monitoring Desk

ANKARA: The Parliament ratified on Thursday a prime ministry motion, extending the ongoing state of emergency in Turkey for three months.

The sixth extension will become effective from Friday at 1.00 a.m (2200GMT Thu-rsday). The ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party and the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) backed the motion, while the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and People’s Democratic Party (HDP) opposed it.

According to the constitution, a state of emergency can be declared for a maximum period of six months.

To enact the state of emergency, the government must foresee serious indications of widespread violence which may interfere with the democratic environment or basic constitutional rights and freedom of its citizens.

Turkey declared a state of emergency for the first time on July 20, 2016 following a deadly coup attempt by Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO).  FETO and its U.S.-based leader Fetullah Gulen orchestrated the defeated coup of July 15.



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Russia to invite US, UNSC to be observers at Syrian talks

Monitoring Desk

MOSCOW: Moscow is ready to expand cooperation with the US on settling the conflict in Syria on a firm international legal basis, Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov has said.

Russia is sending an invitation to the US and UN Security Council members to participate as observers in the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, Antonov told Sputnik.

Moscow wants the existing de-confliction mechanism between Russia and the US in Syria to remain despite the withdrawal of a significant part of the Russian troops from Syria. US-Russian relations have deteriorated over the past year, but Antonov noted that President Donald Trump “came to power with the goal to improve bilateral ties.” The ambassador added: “I am sure that the president did not give up on that goal. But he was unable to reach it.”

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Islamophobic attack targets mosque

Monitoring Desk

AMSTERDAM: A mosque in the Dutch capital Amsterdam was targeted by a group of far-right extremists, head of the mosque said on Thursday.

The far-right ‘Rechts in Verzet’ movement claimed responsibility for the attack and hanged anti-Islam banners and headless model in front of the Emir Sultan Mosque in Amsterdam.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Kamber Sener, head of the mosque, condemned the incident and said there were many far-right extremists who tried to frighten Muslims.

Sener said they encountered such an incident for the first time and added an investigation into the incident has been launched.

The banners hanged outside the mosque read:

“Islam must be stopped. We do not want a mosque tied to [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan in northern Amsterdam.”

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52 killed in bus fire in Kazakhstan

Monitoring Desk

ASTANA: At least 52 people were killed in a bus fire in northwestern Kazak-hstan, the country’s Interior Ministry said on Thursday.

“There were 55 passengers and two drivers on the bus,” in the Aktobe region, Ruslan Imankulov, the ministry’s E-mergency Situations Com-mittee representative, told reporters.

“Five passengers managed to escape with injuries.”

He added that the reason for the fire was unknown.

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Donald Trump Trump unveils ‘Fake News Awards’

WASHINGTON (AFP): At loggerheads with much of the US news media since his election, Trump finally doled out his “Fake News Awards” after weeks of speculation, recognizing what he had called “the most corrupt & biased of the Mainstream Media.”

CNN ‘won’ the most awards, getting mentioned four times out of the 11 total spots.

Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman, who writes a regular opinion column — not news articles — for The New York Times, nabbed the number one spot.

The administration said he merited the award for writing “on the day of President Trump’s historic, landslide victory that the economy would never recover.”

Following the former reality star’s stunning rise to power, Krugman had written that Trump’s inexperience on economic policy and unpredictability risked further damaging the weak global economy.

The list also pointed to an error from ABC’s veteran reporter Brian Ross, who was suspended for four weeks without pay after he was forced to correct a bombshell report on ex-Trump aide Michael Flynn.

In follow-up tweets to his “Fake News” announcement, the commander-in-chief posted that “despite some very corrupt and dishonest media coverage, there are many great reporters I respect and lots of GOOD NEWS for the American people to be proud of!”

“Together there is nothing we can´t overcome — even a very biased media. We ARE Making America Great Again!”

‘Reflexive slurs’

Quoting figures from the International Federation of Journalists which reported the deaths of more than 80 journalists last year, Flake said Trump’s “reflexive slurs” were an affront to their sacrifice.

From his longtime questioning of Barack Obama’s birth certificate to his dismissal of what US intelligence agrees was a Russian effort to sway the 2016 election as a “hoax,” Flake accused Trump of weakening trust in American institutions — while emboldening despots around the world.

Citing the examples of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte or Venezuela´s Nicolas Maduro, who all employed the term “fake news” in recent months, he accused Trump of encouraging brutal and authoritarian regimes to persecute the press.

“This feedback loop is disgraceful, Mr President,” Flake said. “Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press, but it seems he has now in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language.”

Earlier in the day, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders had pushed back at Flake´s criticism, suggesting the senator was simply “looking for some attention” — and accusing him of defending the “oppressive Cuban government” during a recent trip to the communist-ruled island.

While Flake’s combative stance was not echoed by the Republican mainstream, it was mirrored by his Arizona colleague and fellow Trump critic McCain, in an opinion piece for The Washington Post entitled “Mr President, stop attacking the press.”

“Whether Trump knows it or not, these efforts are being closely watched by foreign leaders who are already using his words as cover as they silence and shutter one of the key pillars of democracy,” McCain warned.

Citing the Committee to Protect Journalists, McCain noted that 2017 was one of the most dangerous years on record for the profession, with 262 journalists jailed over their work — 21 of them on charges of “fake news.”

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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!”