Saturday, 16 February 2019

Last Islamic State 'caliphate' on brink of defeat in east Syria

Last Islamic State 'caliphate' on brink of defeat in east Syria

US-backed fighters in Syria are poised to capture Islamic State's last, tiny enclave on the Euphrates, the battle commander said on Saturday, bringing its self-declared caliphate to the brink of total defeat. 

Last Islamic State 'caliphate' on brink of defeat in east Syria

Jiya Furat said the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had cornered the remaining militants in a neighbourhood of Baghouz village near the Iraqi border, under fire from all sides. 

 "In the coming few days, in a very short time, we will spread the good tidings to the world of the military end of Daesh," he said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. 

 He was speaking after US President Donald Trump said on Friday there would be "great announcements" about Syria over the next 24 hours. 

 Trump has sworn to pull US forces from Syria after Islamic State's territorial defeat, raising questions over the fate of Washington's Kurdish allies and Turkish involvement in northeast Syria. 

 As the SDF advanced under heavy US airstrikes in recent days, a stream of civilians fled the few square miles of hamlets and farmland that remain within Islamic State's 'caliphate', along with defeated jihadists trying to escape unnoticed. 

Though Islamic State fighters still hold out in a pocket of central Syria's remote desert and have gone underground as sleeper cells in Iraqi cities, able to launch new attacks, their territorial rule is, for now, almost over.

 It ends a project launched from the great mediaeval mosque of Mosul in northern Iraq in 2014 when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seized advantage of regional chaos to proclaim himself caliph, suzerain overall Muslim people and land. 

 He set up a governing system with courts, currency and flag that at its height stretched from northwest Syria almost to Baghdad, encompassing some two million inhabitants. 

 Human shields 

 But its reign of terror over minorities and other perceived enemies, marked by massacres, sexual slavery and the beheading of hostages, drew a forceful international military response that pushed it steadily back from 2015. 

Most of the fighters left in Baghouz are foreigners, the SDF has said, among the thousands drawn by Baghdadi's promise of a new jihadist utopia straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border and expunging national borders. 

 All that remains, said Furat, is an encircled pocket some 700 metres square. 

"Thousands of civilians are still trapped there as human shields," he said. 

 The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the SDF had taken control of all of Baghouz after the jihadists there surrendered. 

SDF officials denied this. Spokesman Mustafa Bali said the SDF had caught several militants trying to flee among the civilians.

 Others had handed themselves over. 

 Their fate and that of their families has befuddled foreign governments, with few ready to repatriate citizens who pledged allegiance to a group sworn to their destruction, but who might be hard to legally prosecute. 

The SDF does not want to hold them indefinitely. The fate of Baghdadi is also a mystery. 

He has led the group since 2010 when it was still an underground al-Qaeda offshoot in Iraq.
US diplomat says Russia wants Ukraine's leader 'removed from power'

US diplomat says Russia wants Ukraine's leader 'removed from power'

A US envoy for Ukraine on Saturday accused Russia of seeking to remove Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko from power in the March polls, in the hope of working out a favourable deal with a different government. 

US diplomat says Russia wants Ukraine's leader 'removed from power'

 "What they are trying to do is attack Poroshenko and weaken Poroshenko," Special Representative Kurt Volker stated on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich when asked whether Moscow supports a specific candidate in the presidential election on March 31. 

 "They very much want to see him removed from power and I think they are hoping that they will be able to cut some kind of deal that favours Russia with a new government because they are not getting that from Poroshenko," he said. 

 Poroshenko, who was elected following the ousting of Russia-backed Viktor Yanukovych in the wake of bloody protests in Kiev, is running an uphill battle for re-election. 

 Other top contenders include former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, who once played the role of president in a Ukrainian TV series. 

 After the 2014 uprising, Moscow annexed Crimea and supported Russian-speaking separatists in the industrial east, in a conflict that according to the United Nations had killed some 13,000 people as of the end of last year. 

 Poroshenko's low popularity ratings received a boost after he oversaw the creation of a Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent of Moscow. 

 His standing also increased after Russia seized three of Kiev's navy vessels and two dozen sailors as they tried to pass from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov in November.
N.korea's Kim set  to arrive in Vietnam on February 25 ahead of Trump summit

N.korea's Kim set to arrive in Vietnam on February 25 ahead of Trump summit

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will arrive in Vietnam on February 25 ahead of a planned second summit with US President Donald Trump, three sources with direct knowledge of Kim's schedule told Reuters on Saturday.

N.korea's Kim set  to arrive in Vietnam on February 25 ahead of Trump summit

 Trump and Kim are due to meet in Hanoi on February 27 and 28 following their historic first meeting last June in Singapore.

 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday Washington aims to "get as far down the road as we can" at the summit. 

 Kim will meet with Vietnamese officials when he arrives in Hanoi, said the sources, who requested anonymity citing the sensitivity and secrecy surrounding the movements of the North Korean leader.

 He will also visit the Vietnamese manufacturing base of Bac Ninh and the industrial port town of Hai Phong, one source said.

 Vietnam's president and general secretary of the ruling Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, will meet Kim ahead of a planned trip by Trong to neighbouring Laos, one of the sources with direct knowledge told Reuters. 

 A  witness saw Kim's close aide, Kim Chang Son, in Hanoi on Saturday visiting a government guesthouse and the Metropole and Melia hotels in the centre of the capital. 

 Reuters was first to report last month that Hanoi was preparing to receive Kim for a state visit this month. 

 Communist-ruled Vietnam, which has embraced economic reforms and developed close diplomatic ties with its former foe the United States, has been widely touted as a model of reform for isolated and impoverished North Korea.

 The former Cold War allies, which share a similar socialist ideology and exchanged military and political support during the Vietnam War, are eyeing a new chapter in relations following Hanoi's opening up and embrace of the West.
Russian university building partly collapses, no casualties

Russian university building partly collapses, no casualties

A university building partly collapsed on Saturday in the Russian city of St Petersburg, trapping people under debris, but emergency services reported no casualties, Russian news agencies reported. 

Russian university building partly collapses, no casualties

 Around two dozen people were trapped in the building of the University of Information Technologies, Mechanics and Optics in the centre of Russia's second biggest city, the agencies said. 

 The roof and several floors of the building collapsed during renovation work. 

A news agency said that acting St Petersburg governor Alexander Beglov had gone to the scene.

Currently  there are no recorded casualties take the scene as search and rescue continues. 
The United Kingdom and Russia hold first talks in over a year

The United Kingdom and Russia hold first talks in over a year

 Junior foreign ministers from Britain and Russia met in Germany on Saturday in the highest-level contact between the two countries since an alleged nerve agent attack in Britain last March froze diplomatic relations. 

The United Kingdom and Russia hold first talks in over a year

 Britain's Minister for Europe Alan Duncan held talks with Russia's First Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov on the margins of the Munich Security Conference, according to the foreign office in London.

 "Alan underlined that we have deep differences, and the Russian state would need to choose a different path and act as a responsible international partner before there can be a change in our current relationship with Russia," it said in a statement.

 Duncan added his own reaction on Twitter, alongside a photo of the pair.

 "While we remain open to a different relationship with Russia, we will continue to stand with our allies and partners in expecting Russia to play its full part in upholding the rules-based international system," he said. 

 The meeting is the first between ministers from the two countries following the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury on March 4 which Britain has blamed on Moscow. 

 The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, which Britain said was done using a Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, plunged relations to their lowest ebb in decades. 

 The attack also led to the death of a British woman who came into contact with the Novichok, as well as injuring several others including a policeman. 

Among a raft of responses, London suspended all planned high-level bilateral contacts between the two countries and cancelled ministers and members of the royal family attending last summer's World Cup in Russia. 

 "(The) minister reiterated the UK's and Allies' firm stance in response to the Russian state's reckless use of chemical weapons in Salisbury," the foreign office added in its statement.

 "He made clear that Russia must address the concerns of the international community. 

 "This includes ending its destabilising activity in Ukraine; and the persecution of the LGBT community in Chechnya."

 The foreign office said Britain would continue to "build and strengthen our cultural ties and people to people links with Russia wherever we can". 

Russia's RIA Novosti news agency cited a "diplomatic source" who disputed the British foreign office's robust description of the talks.

 "The comment published (by London) does not correspond with the tone or the content of the meeting," it said. 

 The source added the British side had "stressed their desire for dialogue". 

 The last ministerial meeting between Britain and Russia was in December 2017, when former foreign secretary Boris Johnson met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow. 

 This weekend's talks took place as ministers from around the world, including those from the US, France, Britain, and Germany, are in Munich for a conference centred on global security issues.
Thousands of protesters clash with police outside Albanian parliament

Thousands of protesters clash with police outside Albanian parliament

 Thousands of opposition supporters protested outside the Albanian parliament Saturday, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Edi Rama, and clashed with police who used tear gas and water cannons. 

Thousands of protesters clash with police outside Albanian parliament

 The socialist prime minister has been in power since 2013. His critics accuse him of corruption. Two police officers were hospitalised and four demonstrators had to be treated for breathing problems after the clashes, the health ministry said. 

Protesters tried repeatedly to break through police lines. Several windows were broken as some demonstrators threw smoke grenades and stones towards the parliament building. 

 Around 10 protesters also tried to force their into the building with an attempt to break down the entrance door, before being pushed back by police inside.

 "The situation is out of control," Lulzim Basha, leader of the main opposition centre-right Democratic Party.

 He blamed the police for having let the demonstrators get too close to the building so as to "incite violence" and allow Rama to denounce the opposition. 

 Thousands of demonstrators were still massed outside parliament by the early afternoon, a journalist said. 

 "The 16th of February will be the last day in power for Rama," Basha told a meeting of his supporters on Wednesday. 

"This regime must be overturned at all costs." Saturday's demonstration in the capital is the latest in a series that Basha has organised. 

 An opposition coalition made up of five parties, ranging from the centre right to the centre left, has accused Rama of "collusion with organised crime" and having "plunged the country into corruption and poverty". 

 They want him to stand aside in favour of a government of technocrats who would prepare early parliamentary elections. 

 One of the characteristics of political life in Albania is the violence of its rhetoric. 

Both the left and the right have accused their opponents of corruption and of being linked to organised crime.