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Update January 2019


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Death penalty for Canadian escalates China-Canada tensions

In this image taken from a video footage run by China's CCTV, Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg attends his retrial at the Dalian Intermediate People's Court in Dalian, northeastern China's Liaoning province on Monday, Jan. 14. (CCTV via AP)

Rob Gillies and Christopher Bodeen

Toronto (AP) — A Chinese court sentenced a Canadian man to death in a sudden retrial of a drug smuggling case and Beijing said that it has denied a Canadian diplomatic immunity, ratcheting up tensions since Canada's arrest of a top Chinese technology executive last month.

A Chinese court in northeastern Liaoning province announced Monday that it had sentenced Robert Lloyd Schellenberg to death, reversing an earlier 2016 ruling that sentenced him to 15 years in prison.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau strongly condemned Monday's proceeding, suggesting that China was using its judicial system to pressure Canada over the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.

In his strongest comments yet, Trudeau said "all countries around the world" should be concerned that Beijing is acting arbitrarily with its justice system.

"It is of extreme concern to us as a government, as it should be to all our international friends and allies, that China has chosen to begin to arbitrarily apply a death penalty," Trudeau said.

Canada later updated its travel advisory for China urging Canadians to "exercise a high degree of caution due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws."

Further escalating the diplomatic rift between the two countries, a Chinese spokeswoman said earlier Monday that Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat taken into custody in apparent retaliation for Meng's arrest, was not eligible for diplomatic immunity as Trudeau has maintained.

A senior Canadian government official said Chinese officials have been questioning Kovrig about his diplomatic work in China, which is a major reason why Trudeau is asserting diplomatic immunity. The official, who was not authorized to comment publicly about the case, spoke on condition of anonymity.

Kovrig, a Northeast Asia analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank, was on a leave of absence from the Canadian government at the time of his arrest last month.

Schellenberg was detained more than four years ago and initially sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2016. But within weeks of Meng's Dec. 1 arrest, an appeals court suddenly reversed that decision, saying the sentence was too lenient, and scheduled Monday's retrial with just four days' notice.

The court gave no indication that the death penalty could be commuted, but observers said Schellenberg's fate is likely to be drawn into diplomatic negotiations over China's demand for the release of Meng.

"Playing hostage politics, China rushes the retrial of a Canadian suspect and sentences him to death in a fairly transparent attempt to pressure Canada to free the Huawei CFO," Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said in a tweet.

The Chinese media began publicizing Schellenberg's case after Canada's detention of Meng, the daughter of Huawei's founder, at the request of the United States, which wants her extradited to face charges that she committed fraud by misleading banks about the company's business dealings in Iran.

Days after Meng's arrest, Kovrig and Canadian businessman Michael Spavor were detained on vague national security allegations. Meng is out on bail in Canada awaiting extradition proceedings that begin next month.

Schellenberg's lawyer, Zhang Dongshuo, said prosecutors had not introduced new evidence to justify a heavier sentence during the one-day trial, during which Schellenberg again maintained his innocence. He said his client now has 10 days to appeal.

"This is a very unique case," Zhang told The Associated Press. He said the swiftness of the proceedings was unusual but declined to comment on whether it was related to Meng's arrest.

The court said it found that Schellenberg was involved in an international drug-smuggling operation and was recruited to help smuggle more than 220 kilograms (485 pounds) of methamphetamine from a warehouse in the Chinese city of Dalian to Australia. A Chinese man convicted of involvement in the same operation was earlier given a suspended death sentence.

Fifty people, including Canadian diplomats and foreign and domestic media, attended Monday's trial, the court said in an online statement.

Earlier Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said authorities had determined Kovrig was not entitled to diplomatic immunity, rejecting a complaint from Trudeau that China was not respecting longstanding practices regarding immunity.

Hua told reporters that Kovrig is no longer a diplomat and entered China on an ordinary passport and business visa.

"According to the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations and international law, he is not entitled to diplomatic immunity," Hua said at a daily briefing. "I suggest that the relevant Canadian person carefully study the Vienna Convention ... before commenting on the cases, or they would only expose themselves to ridicule with such specious remarks."

A former Canadian ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques, said interrogating Kovrig about his time as a diplomat in China would violate Vienna Convention protections of residual diplomatic immunity that mean a country is not allowed to question someone on the work they did when they were a diplomat.

"It's difficult not to see a link" between the case and Canada's arrest of Meng, Saint-Jacques said.

Hua said the allegation that China arbitrarily detained Canadian citizens is "totally groundless."

Canada has embarked on a campaign with allies to win the release of Kovrig and Spavor. The United States, Britain, European Union and Australia have issued statements in support. Trudeau called U.S. President Donald Trump about their case last week and the White House called the arrests "unlawful."

Last week, Poland arrested a Huawei director and one of its own former cybersecurity experts and charged them with spying for China. The move came amid a U.S. campaign to exert pressure on its allies not to use Huawei, the world's biggest maker of telecommunications network equipment, over data security concerns.

The arrests raised concerns over the safety of Poland's nationals in China, although Hua brushed off such worries, emphasizing China's desire for the "sound and steady" development of relations with Poland.

"As long as the foreign citizens in China abide by Chinese laws and regulations, they are welcomed and their safety and freedom are guaranteed," Hua said.


Indonesia recovers Lion Air jet's cockpit voice recorder

Indonesian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Yudo Margin shows the recovered cockpit voice recorder of Lion Air flight 610 that crashed into the sea in October during a press conference on board of the navy ship KRI Spica in the waters off Tanjung Karawang, Indonesia, Monday, Jan. 14. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

Niniek Karmini and Stephen Wright

Jakarta, Indonesia (AP) — Navy divers have recovered the cockpit voice recorder of a Lion Air jet that crashed into the Java Sea in October, Indonesian officials said Monday, in a possible boost to the investigation into why the 2-month-old plane nosedived at high velocity, killing 189 people.

Ridwan Djamaluddin, a deputy maritime minister, told reporters that remains of some of the people who died in the crash were also discovered at the seabed location.

A spokesman for the Indonesian navy's western fleet, Lt. Col.  Agung Nugroho, said divers using high-tech "ping locator" equipment started a new search effort last week in a previously identified target area and found the voice recorder beneath 8 meters of seabed mud. The plane crashed in waters 30 meters deep.

The bright orange device was transported to a port in Jakarta, where it was handed over to the National Transportation Safety Committee, which is overseeing the accident investigation.

"This is good news, especially for us who lost our loved ones," said Irianto, the father of Rio Nanda Pratama, a doctor who died in the crash.

"Even though we don't yet know the contents of the CVR, this is some relief from our despair," he said.

The Boeing 737 MAX 8 jet plunged into the Java Sea just minutes after taking off from Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, on Oct. 29, killing everyone on board.

The cockpit data recorder was recovered three days after the crash and showed that the jet's airspeed indicator had malfunctioned on its last four flights. Lion Air initially claimed that problems with the aircraft were fixed before its final flight.

If the voice recorder is undamaged, it could provide valuable additional information to investigators.

The transport committee's chairman, Soerjanto Tjahjono, said the device will be taken to the investigators' "black box" facility. It will take three to five days to dry and clean the device and to download its data, he said.

"To analyze it, we need more time, depending on the complexity of the problem. Data obtained from CVR is expected to complete our investigation data," Tjahjono said.

Data from a preliminary investigation report, which didn't state any conclusions, showed that the plane's nose pointed down 26 times on its fatal 11-minute flight despite repeated efforts by the pilots to manually aim the nose higher.

Rear Adm. Harjo Susmoro, head of the navy's Center for Hydrography and Oceanography, said the voice recorder was found just 50 meters from where the data recorder was located.

A "heroic" team of 21 divers removed debris and carried out "desludging" operations to reach the voice recorder, he said.

Susmoro said the voice recorder's signal, designed to last 90 days following a crash, would have stopped after about 15 days.

The family of one of the pilots, 41-year-old Harvino, has sued Boeing Co. in Chicago, alleging that aircraft sensors provided inaccurate information, causing the plane to nosedive, and that Boeing failed to provide proper training to pilots on the 737 MAX 8's features.

Indonesian media reported in December that Lion Air's chief executive, Edward Sirait, said the airline was considering canceling its remaining orders for nearly 200 of the Boeing planes.

The Lion Air crash was the worst airline disaster in Indonesia since 1997, when 234 people died on a Garuda flight near Medan. In December 2014, an AirAsia flight from Surabaya to Singapore plunged into the sea, killing all 162 people on board.

Lion Air is one of Indonesia's youngest airlines but has grown rapidly, flying to dozens of domestic and international destinations. It has been expanding aggressively in Southeast Asia, a fast-growing region of more than 600 million people.


Search for 2-year-old Spanish toddler in narrow well

Emergency services look for a 2 year old boy who fell into a well, in a mountainous area near the town of Totalan in Malaga, Spain, Monday, Jan. 14. (AP Photo/Gregorio Marrero)

Aritz Parra

Madrid (AP) — More than 100 firefighters and emergency workers in southern Spain searched Monday for a 2-year-old toddler who fell into a narrow and deep borehole.

Rescuers have been unable to get into the borehole, which is no wider than 25 centimeters in diameter and is believed to go down more than 100 meters. On Monday afternoon they were deploying three different approaches to reach the bottom of the well but without damaging its structure or blocking it with soil and rocks, local authorities said.

According to rescuers, the boy fell into the hole early Sunday afternoon after walking away from his parents while playing in a mountainous area near the town of Totalan, northeast of the city of Malaga.

The hole, which is too narrow for an adult to enter, had been bored a month earlier during water prospection works and had not been covered or protected, local media reported.

The provincial representative of the Spanish government, Maria Gamez, said that firefighters using a robot camera in the early hours of Monday found a bag of candy that the boy was carrying when he went missing. It was some 75 meters down the shaft, where rescuers were unable to get their equipment further down.

Civil Guard spokesman Bernardo Molto told Spanish public broadcaster TVE that efforts would now focus on using more sophisticated equipment to widen the hole while also digging separate tunnels to access the shaft.

Asked whether the investigation is also considering any other reasons for the boy's disappearance, Molto told reporters that the authorities' priorities are "searching, locating and rescuing the boy."


Russia tells Japan retaking Pacific islands not on horizon

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono enter a hall for their talks in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Jan. 14. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Vladimir Isachenkov

Moscow (AP) — Russia's top diplomat threw cold water Monday on Tokyo's hopes for a quick return of four Pacific islands at the center of territorial dispute, warning Japan it must recognize the islands as part of Russia as a starting point for talks.

The stern statement from Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, which followed the talks with his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono, appeared to reflect Moscow's efforts to temper Japanese expectations of an imminent deal on the Kuril Islands dispute.

It sets a tough stage for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's trip to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin later this month. Abe has recently voiced hope that this year will mark a breakthrough in solving the dispute and spoke about an imminent change in the islands' status — remarks that angered Moscow.

Speaking after the talks, Lavrov said Moscow saw recent statements from Abe as unacceptable.

"Russia's sovereignty over the islands isn't subject to discussion. They are part of the territory of the Russian Federation," Lavrov told reporters, noting the U.N. Charter supports Moscow's ownership of them.

The Soviet Union took the four southernmost Kuril Islands during the final days of World War II. Japan asserts territorial rights to the islands, which it calls the Northern Territories. The dispute has kept the countries from signing a peace treaty.

Speaking at the start of the talks, Japan's Kono said Russia and Japan needed to solve the territorial problem to set the stage for expanded economic and other ties.

Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Takeshi Osuga said during a separate briefing in Moscow the two ministers had a "serious and frank exchange." He wouldn't comment on specifics and said Russian and Japanese diplomats would continue discussions on the issue.

Putin and Abe agreed in November to accelerate negotiations based on a 1956 Soviet proposal to return two of the islands to Japan, but Lavrov's somber tone indicated that Japanese expectations of a quick breakthrough were premature.

Abe's optimism raised concerns in Russian nationalist circles and fueled criticism of the Kremlin. In an apparent attempt to contain the damage, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the Japanese ambassador to warn Tokyo not to "artificially incite the atmosphere regarding the peace treaty problem and try to enforce its own scenario of settling the issue."

Lavrov struck a similar chord as he sat down Monday with Kono.

"Once again, I would like to ask our Japanese colleagues to strictly follow agreements by our leaders," he said.

After their talks, the Russian diplomat said he also drew Kono's attention to a statement by Abe's political aide suggesting that solving the territorial dispute with Russia would help efforts by Japan and the U.S. to deter China.

Lavrov called the statement "outrageous," adding that it raised new questions about the independence of Japanese foreign policy.

"We wondered whether Japan could be independent given such reliance on the U.S. and we were told that Japan would act proceeding from its national interests," Lavrov said. "We would like to hope it will indeed be so."

He said the Soviet Union proposed returning the two islands to Japan before Tokyo struck a military alliance with the U.S. in 1960.

Lavrov noted that Russia remains concerned about the U.S. military buildup in the Pacific, including the deployment of U.S. missile defense components that he said create security risks for Russia and China.


Too much brine? Study highlights growing toxic brine problem

The Sept. 4, 2015 file photo shows the Carlsbad, Calif. desalination plant in Carlsbad, Calif. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

Berlin (AP) — The world's thirst for fresh water is causing a salty problem.

Desalination plants around the world are producing enough brine waste to swamp an area the size of Florida with a foot of salty water every year, according to a U.N.-backed report released Monday.

The study by researchers from Canada, the Netherlands and South Korea warned that much of the brine is being dumped untreated into the sea, and some is laden with toxic chemicals, causing harm to sea life.

The authors called for better brine management, particularly in countries that rely heavily on desalination for their water needs, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar.

"We know that water scarcity is increasing in many regions across the world due to increased water demands, which are associated with population increase and economic growth," said one of the authors, Manzoor Qadir, assistant director of the United Nations University's Canada-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health.

At the same, climate change is making the availability of freshwater less predictable, such as by changing the amount of runoff snow in some regions, he said.

The authors examined 16,000 desalination plants worldwide and found they produce 142 million cubic meters (5,014 million cubic feet) of brine each day, or 51.8 billion cubic meters a year. That's about half more than previous studies had estimated, said Qadir.

The researchers called for better brine management, noting that studies have shown it can be used in aquacultures to boost yields of salt-tolerant species of fish, and the metals and salts contained in it — such as magnesium and lithium — could be mined.


Kim looking to 'achieve results' in 2nd summit with Trump

In this Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands as they pose for a photo before talks at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Li Xueren/Xinhua via AP)

Christopher Bodeen

Beijing (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has reportedly told the leader of his only major ally, China, that he wants to "achieve results" on the nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula during a second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.

The comments, contained in Chinese state media reports Thursday, came a day after Kim left Beijing on his special armored train after a two-day visit to the Chinese capital.

Kim's trip to China — his fourth in the past 10 months — is believed to be an effort to coordinate with Beijing ahead of a possible second summit with Trump. It comes after U.S. and North Korean officials are thought to have met in Vietnam to discuss the site of the summit.

North Korea will "make efforts for the second summit between (North Korean) and U.S. leaders to achieve results that will be welcomed by the international community," Kim was quoted as saying by China's official Xinhua News Agency.

All sides should "jointly push for a comprehensive resolution of the Korean Peninsula issue" and North Korea will "continue sticking to the stance of denuclearization and resolving the Korean Peninsula issue through dialogue and consultation," Xinhua quoted Kim as saying.

Kim also said North Korea hopes its "legitimate concerns" will be given due respect, a reference to its desire for security guarantees and a possible peace treaty to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War.

He also credited Chinese President Xi Jinping with helping reduce regional tensions, saying "the Korean Peninsula situation has been easing since last year, and China's important role in this process is obvious to all."

The North's Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim told Xi that the North remains unchanged in its push to seek a negotiated resolution of the nuclear standoff. It said Kim also mentioned unspecified difficulties in improving ties with the United States and moving nuclear diplomacy forward.

Xi was quoted by Xinhua as saying that China supports the U.S.-North Korea summits and hopes the two sides "will meet each other halfway." KCNA said Xi accepted an invitation to visit North Korea, although details of when he might go were not given.

It wasn't clear from the reports if Kim was in back in North Korea, but his train presumably would arrive sometime Thursday.

Xi has yet to visit North Korea since taking office in 2012.

Trump and Kim met in Singapore in June for the first-ever leaders' meeting between their nations, but there has been a standoff ever since, with dueling accusations of bad faith.

Kim's Beijing visit was seen as part of an effort to win Chinese support for a reduction of U.N. sanctions imposed over his nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. The sanctions have severely impacted his country's already ailing economy.

While North Korea hasn't conducted any test launches or detonations in more than a year, it has displayed no real intention of abandoning the programs that are seen as guaranteeing the government's survival.

The trip also came after he expressed frustration in his annual New Year's address over the lack of progress in negotiations with Washington since the Singapore summit, saying that if things don't improve — meaning that if sanctions relief and security guarantees aren't in the offing — North Korea might have to find "a new way" forward.

While Trump says he considers Xi key to enticing Kim into taking concrete steps toward denuclearization, the president's own relationship with his Chinese counterpart has frayed over the U.S.-China trade war.

Officially, at least, China says it considers the tariff battle and North Korea's weapons programs to be entirely separate.

KCNA reported that Kim on Wednesday visited a pharmaceutical plant belonging to Beijing Tongrentang Co. Ltd., where he watched production processes.

It said he met with Xi at the Great Hall of the People on Tuesday after a welcoming ceremony. Later Tuesday, Xi gave a grand banquet for Kim, his wife Ri Sol Ju and other visiting North Korean officials.

At Tuesday's daily Chinese foreign ministry briefing, spokesman Lu Kang said Beijing remains supportive of efforts to end tensions over U.S. demands for a halt to North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

"We always believe that, as key parties to the Korean Peninsula issue, it's important for the two sides to maintain contact and we always support their dialogue to achieve positive outcomes," Lu said.

Tuesday was Kim's birthday but there was no word of any official celebration.


Celebrations in Congo's capital as opposition candidate wins

Residents celebrate in Kinshasa Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, after learning that opposition presidential candidate Felix Tshisekedi had been declared the winner of the elections. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Mathilde Boussion and Saleh Mwanamilongo

Kinshasa, Congo (AP) — Joyous dancing erupted in the streets of Congo's capital to celebrate the surprise victory of opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi, who was early Thursday declared winner of the long-delayed, disorganized and controversial presidential election.

"Today I am happy," said Tshisekedi. "Happy for you, my base (his supporters). Happy for the people of Congo. Everyone is celebrating that there is peace. No one could imagine the scenario where an opposition candidate could be victorious!"

However, rival opposition candidate Martin Fayulu charged the results had been rigged by outgoing President Joseph Kabila who made a backroom deal with Tshisekedi. Kabila may have negotiated with Tshisekedi to prevent anti-corruption crusader Fayulu from winning, according to Fayulu, diplomats and observers.

Tshisekedi, who received 38 percent of the vote according to the electoral commission's results, had not been widely considered the leading candidate and is relatively untested. Long in the shadow of his father, the now deceased opposition leader Etienne, Tshisekedi startled Congo shortly before the election by breaking away from the unified opposition candidate, Fayulu, to stand on his own.

Fayulu quickly denounced Tshisekedi's victory as fraud. The results were an "electoral hold up" that were "rigged, fabricated and invented" and do "not reflect the truth of the ballots," said Fayulu. Speaking to the press shortly after the results, Fayulu called on the Congolese people to "rise as one man to protect victory."

Fayulu, a former Exxon manager and Kinshasa lawmaker, received 34 percent of the vote in the electoral commission's results. He claims that he won a majority of the votes and that he was deprived of victory because a deal was made with Tshisekedi.

"How long are we going to negotiate results?" said Fayulu. "In 2006, Jean-Pierre Bemba's victory was stolen, in 2011 Étienne Tshisekedi's victory was stolen. In 2018 victory won't be stolen from Martin Fayulu."

Fayulu urged the Catholic Church to release the results from its team of 40,000 observers who recorded voting tallies posted at each of the polling centers. Last week, the Catholic Church said their observations showed a clear winner, and many say that was Fayulu.

Several diplomats briefed on the matter told The Associated Press that the figures compiled by the Catholic Church showed that Fayulu won an absolute majority of the votes. Two diplomats also said that all major observation missions, including from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community, showed similar results with Fayulu the winner. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Kabila's government made a deal with Tshisekedi to declare him the winner, as hopes faded for ruling party candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who received just 23 percent of the official results. The constitutional court has 14 days to validate the results.

Happy demonstators in Kinshasa, however, showed no signs of wanting to challenge Tshisekedi's victory.  Many said they were delighted pleased with Tshisekedi's win and to see Kabila step down.

"This is the coronation of a lifetime," the deputy secretary-general of Tshisekedi's party, Rubens Mikindo, said shortly after the announcement that his candidate had won, above the cheers at party headquarters. "This is the beginning of national reconciliation."

The election may enable Congo to achieve its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960. Kabila has ruled since 2001 in the troubled nation rich in the minerals key to smartphones around the world and has amassed vast wealth. He is barred from serving three consecutive terms, but during more than two years of election delays many Congolese feared he'd find a way to stay in office.

Attention now turns to Congo's powerful Catholic church and whether it will dispute the official results.

If the church finds that Fayulu won, "how will the population react?" Stephanie Wolters, analyst with the Institute for Security Studies, posted on Twitter. She added, will the African Union "consider a power transfer 'enough' or will they push for investigation and real result?"

The delayed results, nearly two weeks after the Dec. 30 vote, came after international pressure to announce an outcome that reflected the will of the people. The United States threatened sanctions against officials who rigged the vote.

The largely peaceful election was marred by the malfunctioning of many voting machines that Congo used for the first time. Dozens of polling centers opened hours late as materials went missing. And in a last-minute decision, some 1 million of the country's 40 million voters were barred from participating, with the electoral commission blaming a deadly Ebola virus outbreak.

Defiantly, tens of thousands of voters in one of the barred communities held their own ballot on election day. Fayulu won easily.

Congo's government cut internet service the day after the vote to prevent speculation on social media. As the electoral commission met this week, anti-riot police moved into place outside.

Some Congolese weary of Kabila's 18-year rule, two turbulent years of election delays and years of conflict that killed millions of people said they simply wanted peace. Some said they would be happy as long as Fayulu or Tshisekedi won, while recalling the violence that followed past disputed elections.

Many Congolese objected to Shadary, suspecting that Kabila would continue to rule from behind the scenes.

Now Congo faces a new leader who is little known after spending many years in Belgium and living in the shadow of his outspoken father.

The 56-year-old Tshisekedi took over as head of Congo's most prominent opposition party in early 2018, a year after his father's death.


Parts of Austria, southern Germany sink deeper into snow

A man makes his way at the early morning after heavy snow fall in Munich, Germany, Thursday, Jan. 10. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Berlin (AP) — Heavy snow is ongoing in parts of Austria and southern Germany, with several places cut off and the bad weather expected to last until Friday morning.

Austrian police said Thursday that a 16-year-old boy from Australia was killed in an avalanche in St. Anton am Arlberg as he was skiing with his family on Wednesday. That brought to at least 15 the number of weather-related deaths reported in Europe over the last week.

Several railway lines in the Alps were closed because of the snow, trucks and cars got stuck for hours on a highway in southwestern Germany and schools were closed in parts of Bavaria.

Roads into several places were closed, among them Galtuer in western Austria, where a massive avalanche in 1999 killed 31 people.


Macedonian PM struggles to secure majority for name change

Opponents to the change of the country's constitutional name protest outside the parliament building prior to a session of the Macedonian Parliament in the capital Skopje, Wednesday, Jan. 9. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

Skopje, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia's prime minister was struggling Thursday to get the required number of lawmakers to finalize constitutional changes that will rename the country North Macedonia and allow its NATO accession under a deal with neighboring Greece.

Zoran Zaev told reporters in Skopje that he has not yet secured support from the required two-thirds of the 120-seat parliament, or 80 lawmakers. A planned parliamentary session on the matter Friday was postponed.

Zaev's efforts were complicated when a small ethnic Albanian party demanded that the planned constitutional designation "Macedonian citizenship" be changed to "citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia."

The party says this will safeguard the identity of ethnic Albanians — about a quarter of Macedonia's 2.1-million population.

Zaev said the reference to Macedonian citizenship is key for his country in the deal with Greece. He also said that a group of opposition conservative lawmakers who had initially supported the constitutional changes — and were subsequently ejected by their VMRO-DPMNE party — strongly opposed the ethnic Albanians' demand.

Hundreds of opposition supporters protested in front of parliament for a second day Thursday against the deal, demanding early elections and the dissolution of parliament.

VMRO leader Hristijan Mickoski addressed the rally, accusing Zaev of "bargaining" with lawmakers to secure the two-thirds majority.

He has claimed Zaev exerted pressure on members of the judiciary on cases involving conservative party lawmakers, or their family members, accused in connection with a violent parliament invasion last year.

"Look how publicly, how openly, this trade is going on with (Macedonia's) name and identity, like at a market stall," Mickoski said.
 


4 on trial over theft of huge gold coin from Berlin museum

This Dec. 12, 2010 file photo shows the gold coin 'Big Maple Leaf' in the Bode Museum in Berlin. (Marcel Mettelsiefen/dpa via AP)

Berlin (AP) — Four young men went on trial in Germany Thursday over the brazen theft of a 100-kilogram (221-pound) Canadian gold coin that disappeared from a Berlin museum two years ago.

Two brothers and their cousin, identified in German media as 24-year-old Wayci Remmo, 20-year-old Ahmed Remmo and 22-year-old Wissam Remmo, are accused of stealing the "Big Maple Leaf" coin from the Bode Museum in March 2017.

The fourth suspect, identified only as 20-year-old Dennis W., worked as a security guard at the museum, which is located in the heart of the German capital. He is accused of scouting out the scene of the crime.

The opening of the trial at Berlin's district court drew intense media interest in Germany because of the Hollywood-style nature of the heist and their families' alleged ties to organized crime.

Prosecutors believe that the Remmos smashed a protective case and then managed to lift the coin out of a museum window before fleeing along a rail track with their haul in a wheelbarrow. They are suspected of later cutting up the coin, valued at about 3.75 million euros ($4.33 million), and selling the pieces.

The men's lawyers have denied the accusations leveled against their clients and accused prosecutors of presenting no evidence linking them to the theft.

If convicted, the men could face up to 10 years' imprisonment for serious theft, though the three youngest defendants may be sentenced as juveniles because they were under 21 at the time of the crime.


North Korea confirms Kim's departure to China for summit

In this Monday, Jan. 7, 2019 photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walks with his wife Ri Sol Ju at Pyongyang Station in Pyongyang, North Korea, before leaving for China. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

Foster Klug

Seoul (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is making a four-day trip to China, the North's state media reported Tuesday, in what's likely an effort by Kim to coordinate with his only major ally ahead of a summit with U.S. President Donald Trump that could happen early this year.

Kim departed for China on Monday afternoon with his wife Ri Sol Ju and other top officials, the North's Korean Central News Agency said. It said Kim is visiting China at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

South Korean media reported that Kim's distinctive armored train was expected to reach Beijing on Tuesday morning, which happens to be Kim's birthday.

Kim's trip comes after U.S. and North Korean officials reportedly met in Vietnam to discuss the location of a second summit between Kim and Trump as the two nations look to settle the North's decades-long pursuit of a nuclear arsenal.

Washington and Pyongyang seemed close to war at points during 2017 as the North staged a series of increasingly powerful weapons tests that got it tantalizingly close to its nuclear goal of one day targeting with pinpoint accuracy anywhere on the U.S. mainland

Possibly fearing the effect on his country's terrible economy of crushing outside sanctions imposed because of his weapons' tests, Kim abruptly turned to diplomacy with Seoul and Washington last year. Three times he visited China, which is North Korea's most important trading partner and a key buffer against pressure from Washington.

But even after what was seen as a blockbuster summit between Kim and Trump in Singapore last June — the first-ever between the leaders of the war enemies — there's been little real progress in nuclear disarmament.

Washington is pressing the North to offer up a detailed accounting of its nuclear arsenal, while Pyongyang says it has already done enough and it's time for the U.S. to ease harsh international sanctions that hold back the North Korean economy.

Despite Trump's repeated assurances that another summit will allow he and Kim to make a grand deal to settle the nuclear standoff and change a relationship marked by decades of animosity and mistrust, outside analysts are highly skeptical that the North will easily abandon a nuclear arsenal constructed in the face of deep poverty and likely seen by Kim as his only guarantee of regime survival.


Gabon government thwarts coup attempt, 2 plotters dead

In this image from TV, a soldier who identified himself as Lt. Obiang Ondo Kelly, commander of the Republican Guard, reads a statement on state television broadcast from Libreville, Gabon, saying the military has seized control of the government, Monday Jan. 7. (Gabon State TV via AP)

Yves Laurent Goma

 Libreville, Gabon (AP) — Gabon's government thwarted an attempted military coup on Monday, retaining control of the oil-rich West African nation after two plotters were killed and other army officers were arrested, the government said.

Authorities regained control of state broadcasting offices and a major thoroughfare in the capital, Libreville, which were the only areas taken over by the officers, government spokesman Guy-Betrand Mapangou told Radio France International.

He said five army officers who took over state radio were arrested. Two other coup plotters were killed when security forces took over and freed some hostages, according to a presidential statement reported by RFI.

A curfew was imposed over the capital, Libreville, and the internet was cut. The city on the Atlantic Ocean coast was being patrolled by military tanks and armed vehicles.

Earlier Monday a soldier who identified himself as Lt. Obiang Ondo Kelly, commander of the Republican Guard, read out a statement saying the military had seized control of Gabon's government in order to "restore democracy." He was flanked by two other soldiers holding weapons; all were dressed in camouflage uniforms and green berets.

Those soldiers have been taken into custody and President Ali Bongo's government remains in control, government spokesman Mapangou said.

Bongo, who has been in power since 2009, has been out of the country since October amid reports that he had a stroke. He recently addressed the country in a New Year's message that was filmed in Morocco, where he has been receiving medical treatment.

Gabon, sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest oil producer, has been ruled for more than half a century by Bongo and his father, Omar, who died in 2009. Critics have accused the family of profiting from the country's natural resources while not investing enough in basic services for the population of more than 2 million. About one-third of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.

As news of the coup reverberated through the international community, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the attempted coup and called on all in the country to follow its constitutional laws, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

The African Union also affirmed its support for the Bongo government.

"The African Union strongly condemns the coup attempt this morning in Gabon," the head of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, said on Twitter. "I reaffirm the AU's rejection of all anti-constitutional change."

In his brief New Year's address, the 59-year-old Bongo declared that the country was "indivisible" and acknowledged his health problems without giving details. "A difficult period," he called it, and a challenge that he surmounted "thanks to God." He promised to put all of his efforts into improving the daily quality of life for Gabon's people.

The French-educated Bongo, who was the country's defense minister before becoming president, narrowly won re-election in 2016 in a vote opposition rival Jean Ping claimed was plagued by irregularities, and he continues to call himself the country's real president.


Britain testing 'no-deal' scenario as Brexit vote nears

Some 150 trucks leave Manston Airfield during a 'no-deal' Brexit test for where 6,000 trucks could be parked at the airfield near Ramsgate in south east England, Monday, Jan. 7. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Gregory Katz

London (AP) — Britain is testing how its motorway and ferry system would handle a "no-deal" Brexit by sending a stream of trucks from a closed local airport to the port of Dover — even as some legislators try to pressure the government to rule out the scenario.

The tests began Monday morning and are intended to gauge how severe the disruption would be if Britain leaves the European Union on March 29 without an agreed-upon withdrawal deal.

It is widely expected that an abrupt departure would lead to the introduction of tariff and customs barriers that would slow fast-moving ferry and rail traffic that links Britain to continental Europe. There are concerns that major traffic jams leading in and out of ferry ports like Dover would greatly hamper trade and leave Britain without adequate food and medicine.

Parliament is expected to resume its debate over the government's planned withdrawal deal Wednesday, with a vote widely expected a week later.

There are no indications that lobbying over the Christmas and New Year holiday period has garnered Prime Minister Theresa May more support for her plan.

The withdrawal agreement, which is required before more wide-ranging discussions on future relations can commence, foresees relatively close economic ties with Europe, particularly in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, in order to avoid the imposition of a hard border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K.

As well as frustrating a number of lawmakers who want a complete break from the EU, the plan also raises the prospect that the U.K. could be "trapped" in a customs arrangement if no agreement on future trade ties is reached. There are also a number of lawmakers who have said they will vote against the deal because they want another referendum on Britain's membership of the EU.

A vote that had been scheduled in December was delayed as May admitted it would face certain defeat.

May said Monday she is still trying to get more from EU leaders, who insist they are not willing to sweeten the deal. She told hospital workers in Liverpool there has been "some further movement" from the EU but did not provide specifics.

"We are continuing to work on further assurances on further undertakings from the European Union in relation to the concern that has been expressed by parliamentarians," she said.

She was castigated in Parliament by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who said the prime minister is wasting precious time by pushing a deal that has no support.

The prospect of the bill's possible defeat next week has renewed concern about a "no-deal" scenario. Fears about economic disruption Monday prompted roughly 200 legislators including some from the prime minister's Conservative Party to write to May asking her to rule out the no-deal scenario.

May has not spelled out how she will respond if the withdrawal bill is voted down next week.

Brexit minister Kwasi Kwarteng said Monday that the government is still focused on winning the vote.

"A week is a very long time in politics. We don't know what the numbers are," he told BBC. "We have got a week. I think the situation — as it always does — has developed, it evolves. I am very hopeful that the deal will be voted through next week."


Cargo ship sinks off Turkey's Black Sea coast; 6 dead

A Turkish coast guard and a medic help a crew member after a Panama-flagged vessel, Volgo Balt 214, sank in rough waters off the Black Sea coastal province of Samsun, Turkey, Monday, Jan. 7. (DHA via AP)

Ankara, Turkey (AP) — A cargo ship sank in rough waters off Turkey's Black Sea coast on Monday, killing six crew members including its captain, officials and media reports said. Seven other crew members were rescued.

Turkish authorities launched a search and rescue mission off the Black Sea coastal province of Samsun after receiving a distress signal from the Panama-flagged vessel, Volgo Balt 214, the governor's office said.

Samsun Gov. Osman Kaymak told reporters after visiting the survivors in hospital that six crew members, including the captain, died before rescuers could reach the area. He quoted one of the survivors as saying that the hull split into two after being hit by a powerful wave.

The vessel, which was carrying coal, was heading to Samsun from the Russian port of Azov, the coast guard said. It was located about 80 nautical miles from Samsun when it sent a distress signal at 8:10 a.m. (0510 GMT; 12:10 a.m. EST).

The crew included 11 Ukrainians and two Azerbaijan nationals, Kaymak said.

The Turkish Coast Guard said a plane, three helicopters and two boats took part in the rescue operation.


Malaysia's king abdicates in unexpected and rare move

In this July 17, 2018, file photo, Malaysian King Sultan Muhammad V salutes during the national anthem at the opening of the 14th parliament session at the Parliament house in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (AP Photo/Yam G-Jun)

Kuala Lumpur (AP) — Malaysian King Sultan Muhammad V abdicated on Sunday in an unexpected move, after just two years on the throne.

The palace said in a statement that the 49-year-old ruler had resigned as Malaysia's 15th king with immediate effect, cutting short his five-year term. No reason was given in the statement.

It marked the first abdication in the nation's history.

Sultan Muhammad V, ruler of northeast Kelantan state, took his oath of office in December 2016, becoming one of Malaysia's youngest constitutional monarchs.

He is said to have married a 25-year-old former Russian beauty queen in November while on a two-month medical leave. Reports in Russian and British media and on social media featured pictures of the wedding, which reportedly took place in Moscow. Neither the sultan, the palace nor the government had officially confirmed the wedding.

Speculation that Sultan Muhammad V would step down emerged this past week, shortly after he returned from his leave, but Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Friday that he was unaware of any abdication plans.

Under a unique system maintained since Malaysia's independence from Britain in 1957, nine hereditary state rulers take turns as the country's king for five-year terms.

The Council of Rulers is expected to meet soon to pick the next king.

The monarch's role is largely ceremonial, since administrative power is vested in the prime minister and parliament. But the monarch is highly regarded, particularly among the ethnic Malay Muslim majority, as the supreme upholder of Malay tradition.


High avalanche risk in Alps amid heavy snow; 1 dead

An aircraft is de-iced at the airport of Munich, Germany, Sunday, Jan.6. (Stefan Puchner/dpa via AP)

Berlin (AP) — Authorities warned Sunday of a high risk of avalanches on the northern side of the Alps, after heavy snowfall in recent days created dangerous conditions in parts of southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

A 20-year-old skier died in an avalanche Saturday on Mount Teisen, near the Austrian border, German police said. The woman's five companions were unharmed.

Authorities have closed some roads and train lines due to avalanche risks, while airports in the region have seen delays as they struggled to clear the large amount of fresh snow and de-ice planes.

Hundreds of passengers were stuck for hours on a train early Sunday after a snow-laden tree crashed onto the tracks near Kitzbuehel, Austria. Some 14,000 households were temporarily left without electricity in northern Austria because of damages to power lines.

Austrian public broadcaster ORF reported that some 600 residents and tourists were still stuck in the Austrian village of Soelktal following a road closure. It said an Austrian army helicopter managed to drop some supplies there on Sunday.

Officials in the nearby Salzburg region described the situation as "very precarious," noting that large avalanches could be triggered spontaneously.

The German weather service DWD forecast a further 40 centimeters of snowfall in some areas by Monday.


Poland shuts down 13 escape game sites due to safety flaws

 

Forensic and other police experts examine the site of a fire in an Escape Room, in Koszalin, northern Poland, on Saturday, Jan. 5. (AP Photo)

Monika Scislowska

Warsaw, Poland (AP) — Polish officials have shut down 13 escape room entertainment sites for safety flaws and the prime minister asked people Sunday to report such lapses to firefighters and police after five teenage girls were killed in a fire.

Players in escape room games are locked inside a room or building and must solve puzzles and find clues that lead them to the key that will unlock the door. Regarded as an intellectual challenge, the games are highly popular among teenagers in Poland.

Fire chief Leszek Suski said the escape room at a private house in the city of Koszalin, where the 15-year-old girls died Friday locked inside a room celebrating a birthday, had no emergency evacuation route. They were the first known deaths in an escape room, a form of entertainment that has been growing in Poland over the past five years.

Firefighters found the victims' bodies after they extinguished a fire next to the locked room. Autopsies showed that the girls, who were friends from school, died of carbon monoxide inhalation. A young man employed there was hospitalized with burns.

Prosecutors say a leaky gas container inside a heater is the most likely cause of the blaze.

Police chief Jaroslaw Szymczyk said other people had previously posted critical remarks online about the safety of that escape room site, but local officials weren't notified.

The 28-year-old who designed and runs the site has been detained and will be questioned, Szymczyk said. His injured employee is also going to be questioned.

During a memorial Catholic Mass at Koszalin Cathedral, Bishop Edward Dajczak identified the girls by their first names as Julia, Amelia, Gosia, Karolina and Wiktoria.

Public prayers were planned later Sunday in front of the house where they died.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, along with Suski and Szymczyk, spoke after holding a meeting in which they discussed with other officials ways of improving safety at entertainment venues. Morawiecki called the girls' deaths an "immense tragedy."

Since Friday, more than 200 of Poland's 1,100 escape rooms have been checked, revealing a number of safety flaws that needed to be immediately fixed. Authorities ordered the closure of 13 of them.


UK leader May: Brexit critics risk damaging UK democracy

 

British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves BBC Broadcasting House in London after appearing on the Andrew Marr show, Sunday, Jan. 6. (Yui Mok/PA via AP)

 London (AP) — British Prime Minister Theresa May said Sunday that a delayed vote in Parliament on her Brexit deal will "definitely" go ahead later this month, as she promised to set out measures to win over skeptical lawmakers.

May told the BBC that in the coming days she will give more details about measures addressing Northern Ireland and concern over the Irish border. She also promised a greater role for Parliament in negotiations over future trade relations with the European Union as a sweetener, and added that "we are still working on" getting extra assurances from Brussels to secure domestic support for her deal.

May struck a withdrawal agreement with the EU in November, but that deal needs Parliament's approval. In December, May decided to postpone a parliamentary vote intended to ratify the agreement at the last minute after it became clear that it would be overwhelmingly defeated in the House of Commons.

Lawmakers are resuming debate on the deal Wednesday, before a vote expected to be held around Jan. 15.

If the deal is voted down, Britain risks crashing out of the EU on March 29 with no agreement in place, a messy outcome that could plunge the country into its worst recession for decades.

May's Brexit deal is unpopular with British lawmakers across the spectrum, and the main sticking point is the insurance policy known as the "backstop" — a measure that would keep the U.K. tied to EU customs rules in order to guarantee there is no hard border between the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, and the U.K.'s Northern Ireland, which won't belong to the bloc after Brexit.

EU officials have insisted that the withdrawal agreement can't be renegotiated, although they also stressed that the backstop was meant only as a temporary measure of last resort.

As part of her efforts to win support for her deal, May on Sunday reiterated that the agreement she negotiated was the only one that respects the 2016 referendum result, protects jobs and provides certainty to people and businesses.

She warned in the Mail on Sunday newspaper that critics of her Brexit deal risk damaging Britain's democracy and its economy by opposing her plan.


Congo delays announcing results of presidential election

An exhausted electoral commission official rests as results are tallied for the presidential election, at a local results compilation center in Kinshasa, Congo, Sunday, Jan. 6. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Mathilde Boussion and Saleh Mwanamilongo

Kinshasa, Congo (AP) — Congo's government Sunday postponed the release of the results of last weekend's presidential election, fueling suspicions President Joseph Kabila's ruling party is maneuvering to cling to power.

No new date for announcing the winner of the Dec. 30 election was given. Electoral officials have compiled 53 percent of the votes and will not release any information until all the ballots have been tallied, said Corneille Nangaa, head of the electoral commission.

"We handle sensitive data and have to handle it responsibly," he said. He asked Congo's people to "remain patient."

"We are aware this process has always been surrounded by distrust," he said, referring to calls from the Catholic Church, the African Union, the U.S. and other diplomats for the government to announce accurate results.

Kabila, who is stepping down after 18 years in power, had delayed the election for two years. The postponement in announcing the winner was seen by some Congolese as part of an effort by Kabila's party to manipulate the results in order to claim victory.

The Catholic Church, an influential voice in this heavily Catholic nation, turned up the pressure by saying it already knows there is a clear victor, based on data compiled by the church's 40,000 election observers. Because Congo's regulations say only the electoral commission can announce election results, the church did not name the winner.

Congo's ruling party, which backs Kabila's preferred candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, called the church's statement "irresponsible and anarchist."

The leading opposition candidate is Martin Fayulu, a businessman and lawmaker.

This could be Congo's first democratic, peaceful transfer of power since independence from Belgium in 1960.

For the past week, the government cut off internet access across the vast Central African country to prevent any speculation on social media about who won. The government has also blocked transmissions from Radio France International, which was alleged to have speculated on the winner, and revoked the press credentials of RFI's correspondent.

Election observers and the opposition have raised concerns about voting irregularities, including the government's decision to bar 1 million voters in eastern Congo from casting ballots because of what it said was the Ebola outbreak in the region. Eastern Congo is known as a center of the opposition.

Western observers were not invited to watch the balloting, and the U.S. has threatened sanctions against those who undermine the democratic process.

While Congo was largely calm during and after the voting, President Donald Trump said about 80 military personnel and combat equipment had been deployed to neighboring Gabon to protect American citizens and diplomatic facilities in Congo. Ahead of the vote, the U.S. ordered non-emergency government employees and family members to leave the country.

At stake is a vast country rich in the minerals that power the world's mobile phones and laptops, yet desperately underdeveloped. Some 40 million people were registered to vote.

Kabila, who took office in 2001 after his father was assassinated, is constitutionally barred from serving three consecutive terms but has hinted he may run again in 2023. That has led many Congolese to suspect he will rule from the shadows if Shadary takes office..
 


DAILY UPDATE

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

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Search for 2-year-old Spanish toddler in narrow well

Russia tells Japan retaking Pacific islands not on horizon

Too much brine? Study highlights growing toxic brine problem


Kim looking to 'achieve results' in 2nd summit with Trump

Celebrations in Congo's capital as opposition candidate wins

Parts of Austria, southern Germany sink deeper into snow

Macedonian PM struggles to secure majority for name change

4 on trial over theft of huge gold coin from Berlin museum


North Korea confirms Kim's departure to China for summit

Gabon government thwarts coup attempt, 2 plotters dead

Britain testing 'no-deal' scenario as Brexit vote nears

Cargo ship sinks off Turkey's Black Sea coast; 6 dead


Malaysia's king abdicates in unexpected and rare move

High avalanche risk in Alps amid heavy snow; 1 dead

Poland shuts down 13 escape game sites due to safety flaws

UK leader May: Brexit critics risk damaging UK democracy

Congo delays announcing results of presidential election