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Myanmar army should be removed from politics: UN probe

MYANMAR (AFP): Myanmar’s powerful army should be removed from politics, UN investigators said Tuesday in the final version of a damning report reiterating calls for top generals to be prosecuted for genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority.

A brutal military crackdown last year forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee over the border to Bangladesh. Demands have mounted for those who waged the campaign to face justice.

The UN’s 444-page probe is the most meticulous breakdown of the violence to date. It says the military’s top leadership should be overhauled and have no further influence over the country’s governance.

Myanmar’s military dominates the Buddhist-majority nation, holding a quarter of seats in parliament and controlling three ministries, making their grip on power firm despite political reforms which began in 2011.

But the report said the country’s civilian leadership “should further pursue the removal of the Tatmadaw from Myanmar’s political life”, referring to the nation’s armed forces.

The UN’s analysis, based on 18 months’ work and more than 850 in-depth interviews, urges the international community to investigate the military top brass for genocide, including commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing.

Myanmar’s army has denied nearly all wrongdoing, insisting its campaign was justified to root out Rohingya insurgents who staged deadly raids on border posts in August 2017.

But the UN team said the military’s tactics had been “consistently and grossly disproportionate to actual security threats”.

The report says an estimated 10,000 people were killed in the crackdown and that was likely a conservative figure.

Investigators said the Tatmadaw should be restructured and the process should begin by replacing the current leadership.

Myanmar only recently emerged from almost a half century of military junta rule and Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically-elected government remains in a delicate power balance with the generals.

Their presence in parliament gives them an effective veto on constitutional changes, making any transition to full civilian control extremely difficult.

Army ‘atrocities’
Three key ministries 1 home affairs, border and defence — are also in their hands, giving them carte blanche to conduct security operations with little oversight.

“It is impossible to remove the army out of political life without changing the constitution, and the military have a veto over constitutional changes,” Mark Farmaner, from Burma Campaign UK, told AFP.

The UN team said there were reasonable grounds to believe that the atrocities — including systematic murder, rape, torture and arson — were committed with the intention of destroying the stateless Rohingya, warranting the charges of genocide.

The mission, created by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2017, did not focus its sights entirely on the army.

It directed specific criticism at Suu Kyi, whose global reputation has been shattered by her failure to speak up for the Rohingya against the military.

While acknowledging that the civilian authorities have little influence over military actions, the report said that their “acts and omissions” had “contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes”.

Pointing to “deeply entrenched” impunity in Myanmar, the investigators said the only chance to obtain accountability was through the international justice system.

They also pointed to failings of the UN’s office within Myanmar, alleging that “quiet diplomacy” was prioritised and that those who tried to push the UN’s Human Rights Up Front approach were “ignored, criticised, sidelined or blocked in these efforts”.

The independent UN team will present its findings to member states of the Human Rights Council in Geneva later on Tuesday, after which Myanmar will have a chance to respond to the allegations.

It also repeated suggestions that crimes against the Rohingya be referred to the International Criminal Court, which concluded in August that it had jurisdiction to investigate even though Myanmar is not a member of the treaty underpinning the tribunal.

Myanmar has dismissed the tribunal’s authority and analysts have pointed to the court’s lack of enforcement powers.

The investigators also recommended an arms embargo and “targeted individual sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible”.

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Iran says US pullout from nuclear deal threatens peace

VIENNA (Reuters): The U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal struck between Iran and major powers is “doomed” to seriously affect peace and security in the Middle East, Iran’s atomic chief said on Monday.

President Trump announced in May that Washington was pulling out of the deal, which lifted international sanctions against Tehran in exchange for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities. Many fear the U.S. withdrawal will lead to the deal’s collapse.

“As discerned almost unanimously by the international community, this ominous move is doomed to have serious repercussions for the international and regional peace and security,” the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, told an annual U.N. nuclear watchdog meeting. Salehi, a veteran negotiator with the West, did not elaborate on what those repercussions might be.

Iranian forces are fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, where fighters from Iranian-backed Hezbollah are also deployed. The war in Yemen is also largely seen as a proxy war between Iran and U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.

Some U.S. sanctions lifted under the deal have already been put back in place while others are due to resume in November. European powers have scrambled to protect Iranian oil revenues and shield companies from the U.S. measures to keep them operating in Iran, but many firms have pulled out regardless. The sanctions have contributed to a slide in Iran’s currency, the rial, which has lost about two-thirds of its value this year, hitting a record low against the U.S. dollar this month.

“The international community’s opposition to the U.S. withdrawal … does not nearly reflect the deep anger at the American unilateralism but also the concerns about the extremely difficult situation in our immediate region with all its pervasive chaos and the existing menace of terrorism,” Salehi said in his speech to the IAEA General Conference.






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Russia says MH17 missile was in Ukrainian hands

Monitoring Desk

MOSCOW: Russia is pointing to alleged Ukrainian involvement in the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines flight in July 2014.

This May a team of international investigators had implicated Russia in the crash of MH17, which was shot down while flying over eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew members on board.

While the international team had pointed to the BUK missile system used as evidence, Russia’s Defense Ministry on Monday cited the missile used by serial number, saying it had been in the possession of the Ukrainian military forces since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Gen. Nikolay Parshin, head of the Defense Ministry’s General Missile and Artillery Department, told reporters in Moscow that the missile, found on site of the crash, was produced in the Soviet Union in 1986 and delivered to a military base in Ternopol in the Ukrainian SSR. Parshin said after the USSR fell, the base and all its weapons passed into the ownership of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov also played a recording said to be of “intercepted talks of Ukrainian soldiers.”

“We will bring down one more Malaysian Boeing,” says a voice on the recording identified by Konashenkov as Ukrainian Armed Forces Col. Ruslan Grinchak, who at that time headed the 164th Ukrainian Armed Forces radio engineering brigade, responsible for the airspace, including in the southeastern Ukraine.

Konashenkov also analyzed a video, released earlier by the Dutch-led investigation team, arguing in detail that this evidence of the BUK missile system showed signs of tampering and editing.



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Ukrainians relive bloodshed of Kiev’s Maidan

KIEV (Reuters): A volunteer medic and the man whose life he saved, a lawmaker whose Facebook post calling for protests in Kiev’s Maidan square helped bring down a president. These are some of the characters featured in a virtual reality reconstruction of the bloodiest day in the 2013/2014 street demonstrations in Ukraine, when dozens of protesters were killed in the final moments of Viktor Yanukovich’s rule.

Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the protests, a group of fourteen journalists, designers and IT engineers developed a program allowing the user to walk through the area around Maidan square. Videos of people who were there on February 20 – the bloodiest day of violence – pop up to relate their experiences and explain the significance of particular spots. A transparent blue wall marks where Yanukovich’s forces lined up to repel the protesters.

For Alexey Furman, co-founder of New Cave Media, who covered the protests as a photojournalist, the experience of recreating the event was cathartic. “For me especially it was a very traumatic morning, as it was for hundreds of other people,” he said. “I saw people getting killed.” “I think the project actually helped fight the PTSD that I had because I’d been on Maidan dozens of times in 2013 and 2014,” he said in an interview, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder.

He used to avoid Instytutska street, which runs on a hill down to Maidan and was the scene of much of the bloodshed, because of the painful memories. “But now to be honest, I come to Instytutska and go like ‘Oh, we still don’t have that 3D-model, we have to work on it.'” The team says it took around 200,000 images to build the virtual reality model, a project which was part-funded with a $20,000 grant from Google Labs.

More than 100 people were killed during the protests, who came to be known locally as the ‘Heavenly Hundred”. A small strip of Instytutska was subsequently renamed after them. From exile in Russia, Yanukovich has denied Ukrainians’ widespread belief that he ordered his special forces to open fire. At the end of the experience, the user meets two people whom fate threw together on February 20 – a wounded protester and a medical volunteer who held his hand over the wound “for a good twenty minutes maybe even more,” said co-founder of New Cave Media Sergiy Polezhaka in an interview.

“Hiding in a tiny place under the tree … waiting for danger to calm down a little bit, to save this protester’s life, this is the iconic image from that morning for me.” The user will also meet the journalist turned MP Mustafa Nayyem, whose Facebook post in November 2013, calling for demonstrations against Yanukovich’s decision to pull out of a deal with the European Union, triggered the Maidan revolt. The protests in turn lit the fuse for Russia seizing and annexing Crimea in March 2014 and the outbreak of Russian-backed separatist fighting in the Donbass region that has killed more than 10,000 despite a notional ceasefire.


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Germany concerned about health of anti-Kremlin activist

BERLIN (Reuters): The German government said on Monday it was concerned about the health of an anti-Kremlin activist who is in Berlin for treatment after a suspected poisoning. Pyotr Verzilov, publisher of a Russian online news outlet and affiliated with the anti-Kremlin band Pussy Riot, lost his sight, hearing and ability to walk but is doing better since he arrived in Berlin for treatment on Saturday, two friends said on Sunday.

“We have followed the case, of course, and are concerned about the health of Mr Verzilov,” a German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told a regular government news conference. “We hope he will be better soon and that he will recover fully.” The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman and another spokeswoman for the Chancellery said their offices were informed that Verzilov was coming to Berlin but were not involved in organizing the trip.

The ministry spokeswoman declined to say whether Verzilov’s case was discussed at a meeting on Friday between German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov but she added that human rights are always a topic in such talks. Verzilov arrived in Berlin from Moscow late on Saturday on a medical transport plane, the managing director of the Berlin-based Cinema for Peace human rights group, Jaka Bizilj, said on Sunday. The group paid for the transport, and Bizilj said that Russia had been “cooperative” in the matter.

Verzilov is publisher of Mediazona, a Russian online news outlet which focuses on human rights violations inside Russia’s penal system. He staged a brief pitch invasion during the soccer World Cup final in Moscow in July along with three women affiliated with Pussy Riot. Pussy Riot came to prominence in 2012 when its members were jailed for staging a protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin in a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Moscow. The group has since become a symbol of anti-Kremlin protest action.




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Floodwaters rise as killer storm stalks US

GRIFTON (AFP): Catastrophic floods raised the threat of landslides and dam failures across the southeastern United States on Monday, prolonging the agony caused by a killer hurricane that has left more than a dozen people dead and caused billions of dollars in damage. Downgraded to a tropical depression, Florence crept over South and North Carolina, dumping heavy rains on already flood-swollen river basins that authorities warned could bring more death and destruction.

The National Hurricane Center said the storm was expected to weaken further on Monday “before re-intensifying as it transitions to an extratropical cyclone Tuesday and Wednesday.” The National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center warned of “heavy and excessive rainfall over the next couple of days.” There is an “elevated risk for landslides” in western North Carolina and southwest Virginia, as well as a danger of “catastrophic and life-threatening flash flooding” in parts of the Carolinas, it said.

“A lot of people have evacuated already,” said Denise Harper, a resident of Grifton, a small North Carolina town threatened by rising water levels in a nearby creek and the River Neuse. “It’s worrying to watch the water slowly rising.” At least 15 people have died since Florence made landfall Friday as a Category 1 hurricane near Wrightsville Beach — 10 in North Carolina and five in South Carolina. “Unfortunately we’ve still got several days to go,” Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told Fox News.

Long said more havoc lies ahead as the storm broadens its geographic scope over regions deeply saturated with water. Of particular concern were the risks to dams, already stressed by heavy rainfall from a tropical storm earlier in the month, he said, urging citizens to heed official warnings about what is now a “flood event.” “What we have to focus on (is whether there) are any dams that are potentially going to break.”

“People fail to heed warnings and get out or they get into the floodwaters trying to escape their home. And that’s where you start to see deaths escalate,” he told CBS News. “Even though hurricanes are categorized by wind, it’s the water that really causes the most loss of life.” The tiny town of Pollocksville, population 300, found itself cut in two on Sunday afternoon after the River Trent burst its banks.

With the rain pausing for the first time since Friday, local resident Logan Sosebee pulled out his kayak to carry food and supplies to those in need on the other side of the flooded river. “We still have no water and power, so I’m happy to help if I can. There’s nothing else to do,” he said. “But the current is crazy.” “The water… has gone up 10-15 feet (3 to 4.5 meters) in a few days and it’s supposed to keep rising for a few days. I’m a bit worried for my home.”

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper earlier told reporters “the strongest storm bands are dumping two to three inches of rain per hour” over regions that had already received up to two feet of rain. “That’s enough to cause flooding in areas that have never flooded before until now.



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China complains to Sweden over tourists’ treatment

BEIJING (AP): China on Monday urged Sweden to respond to its complaints about the alleged mistreatment of a Chinese family removed by police from a hotel in Stockholm. The foreign ministry and China’s embassy in Stockholm have asked Sweden to investigate the case but have yet to hear back, ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters.

“We once again urge Sweden to take seriously our concerns and take concrete measures to ensure the safety and legal rights and interests of Chinese tourists,” Geng said, adding that the family had been “brutally abused by Swedish police.” Reports said an elderly couple and their son were removed from the hotel on Sept. 2 after they arrived a day before their booking and refused the staff’s requests to leave. Police were called and removed the group, at one point carrying the father out of the door by his arms and legs.

A statement on the Chinese Embassy’s website posted Saturday said its citizens were asking for “punishment, apology and compensation in time.” “The Chinese Embassy in Sweden is deeply appalled and angered by what happened and strongly condemns the behavior of the Swedish police,” the statement said. The Swedish Embassy in Beijing posted on its microblog Sunday that it had been made aware of the accusations against the police and an independent investigation into the incident would be conducted to determine whether there had been “negligence or illegal behavior.”

In Stockholm, however, Chief Prosecutor Mats Ericsson said an investigation was closed on Sept. 7 after concluding that police had done nothing wrong. “This is very normal (when you have) disorderly behavior,” he was quoted as saying by the Aftonbladet newspaper, one of Sweden’s largest. “Police have the right to remove a person from one place to another,” he said. Citing a police report, the tabloid said two people were lying on a sofa in the hotel lobby and refused to leave the premises at about 1:45 a.m. About 25 minutes later, a police patrol decided to remove them and the two people started screaming, reportedly about “human rights.”

The incident comes amid low-level tensions between Stockholm and Beijing over China’s detention of a Chinese-born Swedish national on suspicion of leaking state secrets. China has rebuked Sweden for demanding the release of Hong Kong-based bookseller Gui Minhai, 53, who was taken off a train by police in eastern China on Jan. 20 while in the company of two Swedish diplomats with whom he was traveling to Beijing.




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Dozens buried in Philippine landslide as China counts cost of Typhoon Mangkhut

PHILIPPINE (AFP): Philippine rescuers on Monday searched desperately for dozens feared buried under a landslide unleashed by Typhoon Mangkhut, which also left a trail of destruction in Hong Kong and saw millions evacuated in southern China.

The confirmed death toll across the northern Philippines, where the main island of Luzon was mauled by fierce winds and rain, reached 65 and was expected to rise further given the number of missing.

Four more were killed in China’s southern province of Guangdong.

Searchers used shovels and bare hands to dig through mounds of rocky soil in the northern Philippine mountain town of Itogon, where 11 bodies have been pulled from the rubble and dozens more may still be trapped after a landslide buried an emergency shelter.

Relatives of the missing were among those taking part in the search for survivors, with little hope they are still alive.

“We believe that those people there, maybe 99 percent, are already dead,” the town’s mayor Victorio Palangdan told reporters.

Tearful families surrounded a whiteboard bearing names of the dead and missing as others inspected recovered bodies for signs these could be their loved ones.

Joan Catteg, 42, told AFP her missing cousin Harvey had taken shelter at the bunkhouse.

“He texted his wife not to worry. He said nothing bad will happen to him and that once the rain stops, he will go up. But he hasn’t returned until now.”

More than 155,000 people remain in evacuation centres in the Philippines two days after Mangkhut — the world’s most powerful storm this year — struck, said national police spokesman Benigno Durana.

Across northern Luzon, which produces much of the nation’s rice and corn, farms were under muddy floodwater, their crops ruined just a month before harvest.

Hong Kong began a massive clean-up Monday after the typhoon raked the city, shredding trees and bringing damaging floods in a trail of destruction.

The government of the high-rise city described the damage as “severe and extensive” with more than 300 people injured.

The monumental task of cleaning up began as residents, some in suits and ties, struggled to get back to work on roads that remained blocked by felled trees, mud and debris.

Bus services were halted and commuters piled onto platforms trying to board infrequent trains after trees fell on overhead power lines. Schools will remain closed through Tuesday.

Landslides and severe flooding affected some areas, with over 1,500 residents seeking refuge in temporary shelters overnight.

– ‘King of Storms’ –

The storm, with gusts of more than 230 kilometres per hour (142 mph), sent buildings swaying and water surging into homes and shopping malls in Hong Kong, with some roads waist-deep in water.

Windows in tower blocks and skyscrapers were smashed as people cowered inside.

In the neighbourhood of Heng Fa Chuen, thousands of rocks and pebbles from the sea covered parkland along the coastline which had been battered by waves.

The city’s main Victoria Park became an obstacle course with hundreds of trees down and many completely uprooted.

In the neighbouring gambling enclave of Macau, all 42 casinos shut down for the first time in its history as the storm approached.

They opened again on Monday but Macau was still in recovery mode after severe flooding hit parts of the city, forcing emergency workers to rescue people from shops and homes using boats and jetskis.

On Monday morning, shopkeepers in Macau were hosing down their stores which had been caked in mud after the floodwaters receded.

The storm made landfall in mainland China late Sunday, killing four in Guangdong including three hit by falling trees.

Authorities there said they had evacuated more than three million people and ordered tens of thousands of fishing boats back to port before the arrival of what Chinese media dubbed the “King of Storms”.

In the city of Zhuhai, a stone’s throw from Macau, volunteers and police pulled fallen trees and debris off highways.

“I think it will take us three or four days before it gets back to normal,” said Zhang, a police officer clearing a road near Nanshui town.

Rice paddies and banana plantations along the highway were flooded and destroyed, while some factories in nearby industrial areas suffered damage.

“I was scared. I didn’t dare go out last night. At one point the flooding was this high,” said Zhen Jingli, from Yashao village, pointing to his waist.

In neighbouring Guangxi, alerts were issued for a dozen rivers running high due to the downpours and expected to rise even higher, leading to possible floods in the next 24 hours, Xinhua news agency reported.

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Putin, Erdogan hold talks on Syria’s rebel-held Idlib

SOCHI (AFP): Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Monday to try to come to an agreement over the Syrian rebel stronghold of Idlib.

The leaders of the two countries are on opposite sides of the deadly seven-year conflict but remain key global allies.

“We have a lot of issues to discuss, including difficult ones,” Putin said at the start of the talks at his residence in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.

He added that the meeting would help “find solutions for where there are none yet.”

“I think not just the region, but the entire world has eyes focused on our meeting today,” Erdogan said for his part, in comments that were translated into Russian.

“I believe that the statement we will make after the Sochi meeting will give new hope to the region,” he added.

Russia-backed forces of the Syrian regime have massed around Idlib province in recent weeks, sparking fears of an imminent air and ground attack to retake the last major opposition bastion.

The United Nations and non-governmental organisations have repeatedly warned that such an offensive would unleash a “bloodbath” and “humanitarian catastrophe” in Idlib, which is home to three million people.

Turkey has intensified negotiations with Russia to avert a possible attack, repeatedly calling for a ceasefire.

Erdogan and Putin met previously on September 7 in Tehran for a three-way summit with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that saw the Russian and Turkish leaders openly disagree over how to deal with the rebel stronghold, which borders Turkey.

“The situation with Idlib is acute,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told RIA Novosti state news agency ahead of the talks Monday.

“There are certain differences in approaches” between the leaders, he added.

– Mass exodus fears –

The two men met as Turkey’s military has sent significant reinforcements to Idlib in recent weeks, according to media reports.

They were sent over the border Sunday and included tanks and other hardware, with a convoy of 50 military vehicles, according to the Hurriyet daily.

Russia and Iran are key allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Turkey however backs opposition fighters seeking the ouster of the Syrian leader, and has said a large-scale offensive against the rebels could trigger a mass exodus towards its border.

Russian and Syrian air strikes, artillery fire and barrel bomb attacks have killed more than 30 civilians across the province in the past month, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The bombardment has slowed over the past week, however, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday that the Syrian regime is not preparing a major offensive against Idlib, adding that Moscow will do everything to protect civilians.

“What is being presented at the moment as the beginning of a Russian-backed offensive by Syrian forces is not a faithful representation of the facts,” Lavrov said.

“We are doing everything to ensure that the civilian population would not suffer,” he said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Friday said Turkey was ready to cooperate with anyone in the fight against terror groups in Syria, but criticised the Damascus regime for using the presence of jihadist groups to legitimise a possible operation in Idlib.

The Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, when the Assad regime launched a vicious crackdown on pro-democracy protests that evolved into a complex conflict involving jihadists and world powers.

It has killed an estimated 360,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.

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Police shoot man in Brussels after knife attack

BRUSSELS (Reuters): Belgian police shot and seriously wounded a homeless man who they said attacked them with a knife after they found him sleeping rough in Brussels on Monday.

Prosecutors dismissed any terrorist motive on the part of the man, who they identified as a Belgian national of Egyptian origin, and opened investigations into both the knife attack and the police officers’ use of a firearm.

Shortly after 9 a.m. in an area dominated by government offices, two police officers used a baton and pepper spray on the man when he pulled the knife after they woke him and asked him to move on. When he slashed one in the face, the other officer shot the man in the chest and leg. A third shot missed.

The prosecutors office said the officer was only slightly hurt. The man was rushed to hospital, where he was in a stable condition by late afternoon but still unable to give evidence.

The man was in his early 40s and believed to be homeless, the prosecutors added in a statement.

Belgium has been on high alert for politically motivated violence since Brussels-based Islamic State militants attacked Paris in 2015 and Brussels in 2016. Prime Minister Charles Michel expressed his support for the injured police officer on Twitter, calling for “respect for our security forces”.