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Four Pakistanis beheaded in Saudi Arabia for rape, murder

RIYADH (AFP): Saudi Arabia executed four Pakistani men on Thursday convicted of raping and murdering a woman and raping her teenage son, the interior ministry said.

The men were also convicted of stealing jewellery and cash after entering the woman’s home in Riyadh and raping and strangling her, according to a ministry statement cited by the official SPA news agency.

The oil-rich Kingdom has executed 20 people since the start of 2018.

On July 10 last year, a Pakistani citizen was among six people convicted of drug trafficking and homicide were executed in Saudi Arabia, the government said, the highest number of executions in a single day in 2017.

The Pakistani man was beheaded for drug trafficking and five Saudi nationals for homicide, the interior ministry said.

Last year, 141 people were put to death in Saudi Arabia, where executions are carried out by the sword.

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US-led strikes on Syria pro-government forces kill 100: US official

BEIRUT (AFP): The US-led coalition said Thursday it killed at least 100 pro-regime fighters to fend off an attack on its allies in eastern Syria, in one its deadliest confrontations yet with forces backing Damascus.

The initial attack was carried out by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad on key oil and gas installations in parts of Deir Ezzor province controlled by US-backed Kurdish forces.

According to the US Central Command (CENTCOM), coalition advisers were present in the area that was attacked by pro-government forces in Deir Ezzor province late on Wednesday.

“The coalition conducted strikes against attacking forces to repel the act of aggression” against its own personnel and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) hosting them, it said.

Oil and gas target

“We estimate more than 100 Syrian pro-regime forces were killed while engaging SDF and coalition forces,” a US military official said on condition of anonymity.

The SDF and the coalition targeted the attacking forces with air strikes and shelling after “20 to 30 artillery and tank rounds landed within 500 metres of the SDF headquarters location”, the official said.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which only confirmed 45 dead among pro-regime forces, the initial attack took place near Khasham.

The head of the Britain-based monitoring group, Rami Abdel Rahman, said the aim of the attack appeared to be the capture of a key oil field and a major gas plant in an SDF-held area.

The Omar oil field, one of the biggest in Syria, had a pre-war output of 30,000 barrels per day, while the Conoco gas field had a pre-war capacity of 13 million cubic metres a day.

Regime and SDF fighters were involved in several skirmishes in the area last year, as they each conducted parallel operations against some of the Daesh’s last bastions.

Damascus and the US-backed Kurdish militia once worked towards the same goal in the region but they were never allied, and the collapse of the Daesh “caliphate” has further strained an already frosty relationship.

Syrian state media confirmed that dozens were killed in the clash but appeared to deny the forces were army soldiers, describing the victims as “popular forces”.

De-confliction line

According to the Observatory, the forces that launched the attack on SDF positions were local tribal fighters loyal to Assad and militia fighting alongside the regime.

CENTCOM said the attack occurred eight kilometres east of the “Euphrates River de-confliction line,” referring to a boundary agreed by Russia and the US, with the former’s area of operations west of the river and the latter´s to its east.

Daesh militants were flushed out of their last strongholds in eastern Syria and over the border in western Iraq late last year.

But the SDF continues to hunt down surviving militants who have reverted to a clandestine insurgency.

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India´s top court demands answers on Taj Mahal protection efforts

NEW DELHI (AFP): India´s top court demanded a detailed plan for the future of the Taj Mahal on Thursday, warning the state government´s “ad hoc” approach jeopardised the centuries-old monument to love.

Smog has been slowly yellowing the Taj´s brilliant marble and conservationists have long fought to close polluting industries near the 17th-century icon.

But years of interventions — including using mudpacks to draw the stain from the stone — have failed to arrest the slow decay of India´s biggest attraction.

The Supreme Court has ordered the state government of Uttar Pradesh to produce a “vision document” outlining its plan for protecting the wonder of the world within a month, the Press Trust of India reported.

In particular the court expressed concern about a “sudden flurry of activities” in the Taj Trapezium Zone — a buffer around the monument to protect it from pollution.

“Leather industries and hotels are coming up there. Why?” the court asked, describing the government conservation plan for the Taj as ad hoc and inadequate.

The state government was also directed to notify the court of how many trees had been planted in the buffer zone before any further greenery was felled for construction works, PTI reported.

The Taj faces numerous threats, from air pollution to insects that leave green stains on the rear wall facing the heavily polluted Yamuna River.

Nearly 6.5 million people marvelled at the monument in 2016 but the government in January announced plans to cap visitor numbers to reduce wear and tear.

Anyone wanting to see the main crypt, which houses the couple´s spectacular marble graves inlaid with semi-precious stones, will also have to pay for a pricier ticket.

Building restoration has dragged into a fourth year, leaving scaffolding clinging to the exterior, with work yet to even begin on its imposing dome.

The Taj Mahal was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth in 1631.

The Taj has attracted world leaders and royalty, including former US President Bill Clinton. Diana, the late British princess, was famously photographed alone on a marble seat there in 1992.

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Turkey says to host Syria summit with Russia, Iran

ISTANBUL (AFP): Turkey said Thursday it is planning to host in Istanbul a new three-way summit on Syria with the presidents of Russia and Iran, as the three powers seek to salvage increasingly fragile efforts to end the fighting.

The meeting — the second such tripartite summit on Syria — would come as Turkey presses on with its Olive Branch offensive against Kurdish militia inside northern Syria in an area where Russia has an influence.

No date for the summit was announced but Turkey is currently engaged in intense diplomatic activity with visits to Ankara by US national security advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expected in the coming days.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed to hold the summit in Istanbul alongside Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in telephone talks Thursday, a Turkish presidential source said.

Putin had already hosted a similar three-way summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in November.

In its readout of the talks, the Kremlin did not confirm the holding of the summit but said new contacts between the three sides were discussed.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov added a summit had been discussed but no date had been decided.

‘Managing the tempo’

Without giving details, the Turkish statement said Putin and Erdogan also discussed the three-week Turkish offensive against Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in the Afrin region of Syria.

Some Russian officials have expressed concern about the Turkish offensive but analysts believe it would never have gone ahead without at least the tacit assent of Moscow.

An added complication came with the deadly shooting down of a Russian war plane — resulting in the death of the pilot — by Islamist rebels over the neighbouring Idlib province at the weekend.

Moscow has applauded Turkey for its assistance in helping bring the body of pilot, Major Roman Filipov, back home for burial.

But analysts have noted that no Turkish air strikes against the YPG have taken place in the days since the incident, indicating that Russia has likely closed the air space.

“Russia (is) managing (the) operational tempo of Olive Branch by opening/closing air space,” commented prominent Turkish security analyst Metin Gurcan on Twitter.

The Turkish government has insisted there is “no problem” with air space.

‘Just a warm-up’

The summit, if it takes place, will be the latest example of the increasingly intense contact between Ankara, Moscow and Tehran over Syria.

Russia and Tehran are the key backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey, however, has backed the rebels seeking Assad’s ouster in a seven-year conflict that has left more than 340,000 dead.

Yet Turkey, Iran and Russia have sponsored peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana that have set out the creation of four so-called de-escalation zones; Idlib, the greater Damascus area, the southern region of Daraa and the city of Homs.

But Erdogan again ruled out talks with Russia’s ally Assad, saying: “What will we talk about with a murderer who killed his one million of his citizens?”

Adding even more nuance, European diplomats say that Russia and Iran are having more discord on Syria, with Moscow much more interested in a political solution than Tehran.

“The Iranians are not up for an inclusive political settlement,” a European diplomat, who asked not to be named, said this week. “Iran would not like to see reforms that weaken Assad’s hold. The Russians are in a different place.”

Meanwhile, tensions have escalated between Turkey and the United States, which considers the YPG a valued ally in the fight against jihadists.

Erdogan has repeatedly vowed to press the offensive east to Manbij, where the US has a presence. Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag warned at the weekend Turkey would even fire on troops from its NATO ally if they wore YPG insignia.

Warning of more to come, Erdogan said: “What we have done so far cannot even be considered a warm up tour. We will carry out our main actions and offensives in the coming period.”

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Gaza hospitals, clinics to reopen after Emirati grant: WHO

GAZA (AFP): Nearly 20 medical centres in Gaza will fully reopen in the coming days after the United Arab Emirates provided financing to end a fuel shortage, the World Health Organization said Thursday.

Three hospitals and 16 medical centres had stopped offering key services in recent weeks as crippling fuel shortages meant they were unable to keep generators going, the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said.

Gaza receives only a few hours of mains electricity a day, so hospitals and other vital services rely on private generators run with fuel provided by the United Nations.

After an emergency UN appeal, the UAE has pledged $2 million for fuel for the coming year, said Mahmoud Dahar, head of the WHO in Gaza.

“We have received an announcement from the UAE that they are going to fund two million, which will make the situation a bit easier for another few months,” he told AFP.

He added that he expected the hospitals and centres to fully reopen “in the coming days.”

The ministry said it was awaiting official confirmation of the UAE funds and did not say when the centres would return to normal operations.

Israel has maintained a crippling blockade of Gaza for a decade which it says is necessary to isolate the territory´s Islamist leaders Hamas. Critics say it represents collective punishment of two million people.

More than two-thirds of Gazans rely on international aid.

Separately on Thursday Egypt, which has also largely sealed its border with Gaza, opened the Rafah crossing for the first time in 2018. It is to remain open for three days.

US President Donald Trump has also withheld tens of millions in aid for Palestinians in recent weeks.

On Thursday, AIDA, a coalition of 70 international charities working in the Palestinian territories, said that decision would particularly affect Gaza.

It said the funding cuts “will lead to increased food insecurity, aid dependency, poverty, isolation, unemployment and hopelessness.”

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Bangladesh court announce five years imprisonment to opposition leader Khalida Zia

Monitoring Desk

DHAKA: Former Bangladesh prime minister and Opposition leader of Bangladesh, Khalida Zia was sentenced to five years imprisonment by a court in Bangladesh on Thursday after she was convicted in corruption case.

Judge of Bangladesh court, Muhammad Akhtar-u-Zaman announced the verdicts and awarded five years imprisonments for the convicted Khalida Zia.

According to international and Bangladesh media reports, the violent clashed started among the protestors and security forces after the verdict.

Security forces trying to disperse the protestors by firing tear gas at thousands of opposition activists who defied heavy security to escort the car taking Zia, a two-time former prime minister, to a Dhaka court for the verdict.

Local media reported that more than policemen were injured and two motorcycles torched during the clashes that broke out several kilometres (miles) from the court premises.

Zia, leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), is charged with embezzling $252,000 from a trust created for an orphanage and faces life in prison if convicted by the Dhaka magistrates’ court.

She has consistently denied the charges, insisting “not a penny” was stolen and saying the legal action was politically motivated.



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Jerusalem ‘key to peace’: Jordan king, Abu Dhabi prince

Monitoring Desk

AMMAN: Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan have both stressed the importance of preserving Jerusalem’s legal and historical status.

The two leaders made the assertion at a Wednesday meeting in Abu Dhabi at which they also discussed bilateral relations and the latest regional developments.

According to Jordan’s official PETRA news agency, King Abdullah also stressed the need to “break the deadlock in the peace process and resume serious talks between the Palestinians and Israelis”.

Negotiations, he said, should be based on a “two-state solution” to the conflict, past UN resolutions, and the 2002 Arab peace initiative, which calls for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

“Jerusalem,” both leaders asserted, “is the key to achieving peace in the region.”

On Dec. 6 of last year, U.S. President Donald Trump recognized the city as Israel’s capital, sparking condemnation and protest from across the region.

Jerusalem remains at the heart of the Middle East conflict, with Palestinians hoping that East Jerusalem — occupied by Israel since 1967 — might eventually serve as the capital of a Palestinian state.

With regard to the region’s current political situation, the two men urged their fellow Arab leaders to step up efforts to reach political solutions “with a view to restoring security and stability for all the people of the Middle East”.

Bin Zayed, for his part, described Jordan as a “key partner” of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (of which the UAE is a member), “especially in terms of current challenges to the region’s security, stability and coexistence”.

“Jordan plays a vital regional role, especially in terms of the peace process, the Palestine issue and the war on terrorism,” he added, according to PETRA.

Accompanied by his wife, Queen Rania, King Abdullah II arrived in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday for an official visit to the UAE.

His arrival to Abu Dhabi coincided with the departure of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who paid a brief visit to the UAE on Tuesday and Wednesday.


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Germany: Merkel, SPD agree on coalition govt

Ayhan Simsek

BERLIN: German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc and the Social Democrats have reached an agreement on Wednesday to form a “grand coalition” government, after 136 days of post-eleciton stalemate.

Speaking at a joint press conference with party leaders, after a marathon 24 hours of talks, Merkel said they have managed to pave the way for a coalition government that would address real needs and problems of citizens.

“I am convinced that this coalition agreement would lay the groundwork for a good and stable coalition government our country requires,” she stressed.

Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had to give up key ministerial posts, such as interior and finance ministries, as part of the compromise.

CDU’s Bavarian ally Christian Social Union (CSU) secured four ministries, including the Interior.

The Social Democratic Party (SPD), which had been reluctant to enter a new coalition with conservatives, gained six ministerial posts, including foreign, justice, finance and labor ministries.

Local media reported that SPD leader Martin Schulz was the likely candidate of his party for the foreign ministry post. The coalition deal is still subject to approval by the SPD’s around 460,000 members.

The SPD’s traditional left-wing and the youth organization, Jusos, have been opposing a coalition government with the Christian Democrats, and calling for a reform within the party.

On Sept. 24, the Social Democrats suffered their worst election result in decades, but remained the second-largest party in parliament.

Many Social Democrats have blamed their poor showing on the party’s membership in the previous “grand coalition”.

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Turkish FM in Tehran for official visit

Monitoring Desk

TEHRAN: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu arrived in the Iranian capital Tehran for an official visit on Wednesday, according to a diplomatic source.

He met his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif to discuss bilateral relations as well as the status of Jerusalem, according to the source speaking on condition of anonymity due to restriction on talking to the media.

Jerusalem remains at the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict, with Palestinians hoping East Jerusalem that has been occupied by Israel since 1967, might eventually serve as the capital of an independent Palestinian state.

U.S. President Donald Trump last December recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and by doing so triggered international outcry. Cavusoglu is also expected to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as part of his official visit, the source added.

During the meeting bilateral and regional issues as well as Syria are expected to be discussed. The official visit comes after the Sochi talks held in the southern Russian city on Jan. 29-30.

At the Sochi meeting — which included representatives from Syria and the guarantor countries Russia, Iran, and Turkey — a proposal to form a constitutional committee was agreed by all parties.

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Yemen PM urges Saudis to investigate Aden violence

Monitoring Desk

SANAA: Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr on Wednesday called on Saudi Arabia and a military coalition fighting Houthi rebels to investigate recent deadly clashes in Yemen’s coastal city of Aden.

Dozens were killed and scores injured in three days of clashes between southern separatists and government forces in Aden last month.

The violence broke out amid accusations by the so-called Southern Transitional Council to the Saudi-backed government of pushing Yemen to the brink of famine.

Speaking during a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, bin Daghr described the clashes as a “coup” against internati-onally-recognized President  Hadi, according to a government source.

“Bin Daghr called on Saudi Arabia and the Arab coalition to launch an investigation into the recent incidents in Aden,” the source told Anadolu Agency, requesting anonymity because he was unauthorized to speak to media.

The violence came to a halt after Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition called for both sides to observe a cease-fire.

Aden has served as a temporary headquarters for Ha-di’s Saudi-backed government since Houthi rebels overran much of the country — including capital Sanaa — in 2014.

The following year, Saudi Arabia and its Sunni-Arab allies — who accuse the Houthis of serving as an Iranian proxy force — launched a massive military campaign in Yemen aimed at rolling back Houthi territorial gains.