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Update February 2018


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Update February 21, 2018

Luxury property ad blitz heralds Trump son's visit to India

The eldest son of U.S. President Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr., second from right, poses with promoters of Trump Towers Pankaj Bansal, left, Basant Bansal of M3M developers and Kalpesh Mehta, right, of Tribeca developers at a photocall in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. Trump Jr. is in India to help sell luxury apartments and lavish attention on wealthy Indians who have already bought units in a string of Trump-branded developments. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

In this Aug. 8, 2017 photo, a man looks at under construction building named Trump Tower in Mumbai, India. The eldest son of President Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr.is expected to be in India's business capital, on Thursday to quaff champagne with the city's elite at a reception hosted by the Lodha Group, the real estate company that is building the golden-hued Trump Tower. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

The eldest son of US President Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr's Trump Towers ads are seen in major newspapers in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. "Trump has arrived. Have you?" shout the barrage of glossy front-page advertisements in almost every major Indian newspaper. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

By Muneeza Naqvi, Associated Press

New Delhi (AP) "Trump has arrived. Have you?" shout the barrage of glossy front-page advertisements in almost every major Indian newspaper.

The ads, which have run repeatedly in the past few days, herald the arrival not of the American president but of his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., who is in New Delhi to sell luxury apartments and lavish attention on wealthy Indians who have already bought units in a Trump-branded development outside the Indian capital.

The newspaper ads promise that buyers who order apartments in the development by Thursday will get "a conversation and dinner" with Trump Jr. a day later.

President Trump has pledged to avoid any new foreign business deals during his term in office to avoid potential ethical conflicts. While the projects that Trump Jr. is promoting in India were inked before his father was elected, ethics experts have long seen the use of the Trump name to promote even existing business ventures as tricky territory.

The distinction between old and new projects can be hazy, they note, and new deals can be shoehorned into old.

Several foreign deals touted over the past year by the Trump sons have "stretched the definition of what ventures were previously in the works," said Scott H. Amey, general counsel for the non-partisan Project on Government Oversight in Washington.

"The president should be putting the public's interest before his business interests. That can't happen if his son is flying around the world trying to trade on the fact that his father is sitting in the Oval Office."

This isn't the first time that President Trump's sons have raised ethical concerns as they promote their eponymous brand across the world.

Early last year Trump Jr. and his brother Eric opened a Trump-branded golf club in Dubai.

The brothers, who now lead the Trump Organization, watched as fireworks lit the sky over the Trump International Golf Club to mark the event.

On Tuesday morning, Donald Trump Jr. posed for photos in New Delhi with Indian developers building complexes in four cities. Among the business partners accompanying him was Kalpesh Mehta who heads Tribeca, the firm described as the main Indian partner for Trump-brand real estate projects.

Mehta came to notice soon after President Trump's November election victory, when pictures of him and two other Trump Indian real estate partners with the president-elect in New York made a big splash in Indian and American media.

Later in the week, Trump Jr. is scheduled to give a speech about Indo-Pacific relations at a New Delhi business summit, sharing the stage with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Trump Jr. may be raising another set of ethics concerns by offering his thoughts on international relations, said Lawrence Noble, senior director of the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center in Washington.

"The assumption is he has his father's ear," Noble said. "By talking about international relations and sharing the stage with government officials, he's acting as an informal ambassador for the U.S. at the same time he's selling properties in India. It just blurs the lines even more."

Trump Jr. is on a private visit and the State Department has not interacted with him regarding his meetings or his speech, spokesman Heather Nauert said from Washington. "Mr. Trump's comments during the trip reflect his personal views and not necessarily those of the U.S. government."

In Gurgaon, the sprawling and ever-growing New Delhi satellite city where a new Trump Towers will eventually rise, the construction site is just mountains of dirt and unruly shrubbery, one of many residential projects yet to be built. Buyers can hope to move into their swanky homes sometime in 2023.

For miles upon miles, the landscape is little more than tin-roofed huts for construction laborers and tiny makeshift food shacks to keep them fed.

And while there's almost nothing at the Trump construction site, a handful of burly guards enthusiastically insisted on keeping journalists out of the area.

The Trump Organization has licensing agreements with all its Indian business partners, who build the properties and acquire the Trump name in exchange for a fee. The organization has five projects in India, making it the brand's largest market outside the United States. A luxury complex is already open in the central city of Pune, with other developments in varying stages of construction in the coastal cities of Mumbai and Kolkata, and two in Gurgaon.

The apartments are expensive, though not outrageously so in the overheated real estate world of the Indian rich. Still, in a country of 1.3 billion, where many people can barely afford $100 a month to rent a shack in a crowded shantytown, apartments in the Trump Towers complex in Gurgaon run between $775,000 and $1.5 million.

The rest of the details of Donald Trump Jr.'s itinerary are hazy despite repeated emails to the Trump Organization and its Indian partner Tribeca. However, local media have reported that he is slated to visit other Trump projects across India.

On Wednesday he is expected to be in the eastern city of Kolkata to promote luxury housing bearing his family name there. On Thursday he is reported to be in India's business capital, Mumbai, where he is to quaff champagne with the city's elite at a reception hosted by the Lodha Group, the real estate company that is building the golden-hued Trump Tower there.

Trump Jr.'s visit so far has been very different from his sister Ivanka Trump's high-visibility visit to India in November, when she led the U.S. contingent at a global business conference. The city of Hyderabad filled up potholes and cleared away beggars ahead of her visit. Modi flew to Hyderabad for the conference and hosted her for dinner at a historic palace turned hotel. Television stations broadcast her speech live.

In contrast, Trump Jr.'s visit seems all about keeping the spotlight on business.

AP Writers Stephen Braun and Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.


Maduro: Digital currency puts Venezuela on tech vanguard

 

In this Oct. 17, 2017 file photo, Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gives a press conference at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)

By Scott Smith and Christine Armario, Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Cash-strapped Venezuela on Tuesday became the first country to launch its own version of bitcoin, a move President Nicolas Maduro celebrated as putting his country on the world's technological forefront.

In its first hours on the market, the so-called petro racked in $735 million worth in purchases, Maduro said without providing details.

The petro is backed by Venezuela's crude oil reserves, the largest in the world, yet it hit the market as the socialist country sinks deeper into an economic crisis marked by soaring inflation and food shortages that put residents in lines for hours to buy common products.

"We have taken a giant step into the 21st Century," Maduro said in a nationally broadcast show. "We are on the world's technological vanguard."

The petro's unveiling played out before a live studio audience inside the presidential palace Miraflores, complete with red carpets and a splashy set prominently displaying a crafted marketing symbol "P," for petro.

Maduro received a brief demonstration on the sophisticated computer technology needed to support the digital currency, and he heard from a Russian executive of a company that will run the platform.

The president also authorized payments in cryptocurrency for Venezuela's consulate services and fuel on the border, saying it is just the "kryptonite" Venezuela needs to take on Superman — code for the imperialist United States.

Venezuelan officials, however, have released few of the nitty-gritty details of how it will work, ensuring investors that it is safe. Venezuela watchers offered potential investors fair warning.

"My advice would be to tread very carefully with this — especially considering the track record of the Venezuelan government," said Federico Bond, co-founder of Signatura, a digital startup based in Argentina.

Maduro late last year announced he was creating the digital currency to outmaneuver U.S. sanctions preventing cash-strapped Venezuela from issuing new debt. The government said it will release 100 million digital petro coins during the first year, with the initial 38.4 million expected to go on sale Tuesday at a value of $60 per token.

If all the initial coins offered for sale are grabbed by investors, it could potentially bring several billion dollars into a government mired by cash shortfalls and skyrocketing inflation. The government has promised that Venezuelans will be able to use the coins to pay taxes and public services. But with the Venezuelan minimum wage hovering around $3 a month, it's unlikely citizens will buy in large amounts.

The U.S. Treasury Department has warned U.S. citizens and companies that buying the petro would mean violating sanctions, putting another damper on the release.

Cryptocurrency experts are looking at Venezuela's foray into digital currencies with a mix of intrigue and suspicion, excited by the prospect of a government willing to accept cryptocurrency for payments like taxes but also concerned about the potential lack of oversight.

Maduro has touted the petro as fulfilling the late Hugo Chavez's dream of upending global capitalism away from the dominance of the U.S. dollar and Wall Street.

Raising further doubts, Maduro has said that the undeveloped Orinoco oilfield will back the digital currency, creating no tangible barrels of oil that investors can cash in, said Jean Paul Leidenz, a senior economist at Caracas-based EcoAnalitica.

Bitcoin and other digital tokens are already widely used in Venezuela as a hedge against hyperinflation and an easy-to-use mechanism for paying for everything from doctor visits to honeymoons in a country where obtaining hard currency requires transactions in the illegal black market.

The use of computers for bitcoin mining has also taken off, spurred by some of the world's cheapest electricity rates and widespread desperation prompted by a recession deeper than the U.S. Great Depression.

Cryptocurrencies by design are decentralized financial systems, so one created by a government runs contrary to that spirit and creates an opportunity for manipulation, said Leidenz.

And Venezuela's inflation rises faster in a day than it does in stable countries in a year, he said, adding that dreaming up a new currency alone isn't the answer.

"You cannot stop hyperinflation by creating a new currency and doing nothing else," Leidenz said. "The government has no plans of undertaking structural reform."

Armario contributed to this report from Bogota, Colombia. AP writer Jorge Rueda also contributed to this report.


US: North Korea canceled meeting with Pence at last minute

In this Feb. 9, 2018, file photo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, sits alongside Vice President Mike Pence, center, and second lady Karen Pence at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

By Josh Lederman, Associated Press

Washington (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence was all set to hold a history-making meeting with North Korean officials during the Winter Olympics in South Korea, but Kim Jong Un's government canceled at the last minute, the Trump administration said Tuesday.

A potential meeting between Pence and the North Koreans had been the most highly anticipated moment of the vice president's visit to Pyeongchang, South Korea, where he led the U.S delegation to the opening ceremonies. Ahead of Pence's visit, Trump officials had insisted they'd requested no meeting with North Korea, but notably left open the possibility one could occur.

There was no indication that a meeting had indeed been planned — and then canceled on short notice — until Tuesday, more than a week after Pence returned to the United States. The State Department said that Pence had been "ready to take this opportunity" but would have used it to insist Pyongyang abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

"At the last minute, DPRK officials decided not to go forward with the meeting," said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, using an acronym for the North's formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "We regret their failure to seize this opportunity."

That seemed to contradict North Korea's own claim that it had no interest in meeting with Pence while he was in Pyeongchang.

"We have no intention to meet with the U.S. side during the stay in South Korea," a Foreign Ministry official was quoted as saying by the North's official news agency on Feb. 8, the day Pence arrived in South Korea. "We are not going to use such a sports festival as the Winter Olympics as a political lever. There is no need to do so."

A Trump administration official said the U.S. had expected the meeting to occur Feb. 10, the last day of Pence's three-day visit to the Olympic Games. The administration did not say exactly how much notice it received from North Korea that the meeting had been called off, nor where the meeting would have taken place or under what conditions.

Nor was it immediately clear whether North Korea scheduled the meeting before the vice president arrived in South Korea or after he had already arrived. The day before landing in Pyeonchang, Pence told reporters that "we haven't requested a meeting with North Korea."

"But if I have any contact with them — in any context — over the next two days, my message will be the same as it was here today: North Korea needs to once and for all abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions," Pence said.

A potential high-level interaction between the U.S. and North Korea, which would have broken years of estrangement between the two countries, loomed prominently over the Winter Games, where North Korea made a last-minute move to send its athletes to compete on a combined team with South Korea, the host of the games.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has been working to increase economic pressure on the North to abandon its nuclear programs while also threatening military action, insisting at the same time that a diplomatic solution would be preferable for all sides. Yet for months the Trump administration had offered inconsistent messages about what conditions would be needed for a tete-a-tete — such as whether North Korea would have to agree that its nuclear program was on the table before the United States would be willing to sit down.

Pence's office, acknowledging the scrapped meeting on Tuesday, said North Korea had "dangled a meeting" in hopes that doing so would entice the vice president to ease up on the North. Pence's office suggested that North Korea later bailed because it became clear he would hold firm on the U.S. stance if a meeting did occur.

Pence's chief of staff, Nick Ayers, said that the planned meeting — first reported by The Washington Post — would have included an "uncompromising message" delivered by Pence about the "maximum pressure campaign" the Trump administration is waging to try to deter North Korea from proceeding with its nuclear program.

"Perhaps that's why they walked away from a meeting, or perhaps they were never sincere about sitting down," Ayers said.

Pyongyang sent its nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam, the highest-level visitor to the South from the North in recent memory. It also sent Kim Jong Un's sister, Kim Yo Jong. Ostensibly, Pence would have met with one or both of those significant North Korean figures.

Pence's guest for the Olympic Opening Ceremonies was Fred Warmbier, the father of Otto Warmbier, the U.S. student who died in 2017 shortly after he was released from North Korean detention. Pence also announced in the run-up to his visit that the Trump administration was preparing to unveil a particularly tough round of sanctions punishing the North for its nuclear weapons program.

Pence's trip came after President Donald Trump days earlier hosted a group of North Korean defectors in the Oval Office, including Ji Seong-ho, whom the president had referenced in his State of the Union address. The White House cast that meeting as part of the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign to counter the North Korean nuclear program. The plan centers around rallying the international community to further isolate North Korea both diplomatically and economically.

Associated Press writer Zeke Miller and AP Pyongyang bureau chief Eric Talmadge, on assignment in Pyeongchang, contributed to this report.


Trump urges ban on gun devices like bump stocks

Demonstrators participate in a "lie-in" during a protest in favor of gun control reform in front of the White House, Monday, Feb. 19, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

 Anna Hurley, 15, of Washington, top, and other demonstrators participate in a "lie-in" during a protest in favor of gun control reform in front of the White House, Monday, Feb. 19, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump speaks during the Public Safety Medal of Valor awards ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

By Catherine Lucey and Matthew Daly, Associated Press

Washington (AP) — As a grieving Florida community demanded action on guns, President Donald Trump on Tuesday directed the Justice Department to move to ban devices like the rapid-fire bump stocks used in last year's Las Vegas massacre. It was a small sign of movement on the gun violence issue that has long tied Washington in knots.

"We must do more to protect our children," Trump said, adding that his administration was working hard to respond to the shooting in Parkland that left 17 dead.

After past mass killings yielded little action on tighter gun controls, the White House is trying to demonstrate that it is taking the issue seriously. The president, a strong and vocal supporter of gun rights, has not endorsed more robust changes sought by gun control activists. But the White House cast the president in recent days as having been swayed by the school shooting in Florida and willing to listen to proposals.

In a tweet Tuesday night, Trump indicated he wants to strengthen the background check system, but offered no specifics.

Trump said: "Whether we are Republican or Democrat, we must now focus on strengthening Background Checks!"

Asked at a press briefing Tuesday if Trump was open to reinstating a ban on assault-type weapons, spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said White House officials "haven't closed the door on any front." She also said that the idea of raising the age limit to buy an AR-15 was "on the table for us to discuss."

Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat and leading advocate for tighter gun controls, said Trump's directive suggested the president was aware of fresh energy on the issue and called it a sign that "for the first time" politicians are "scared of the political consequences of inaction on guns."

A bipartisan legislative effort to ban bump stocks last year fizzled out. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives announced in December that it was reviewing whether weapons using bump stocks should be considered illegal machine guns under federal law.

Under the Obama administration, the ATF had concluded that bump stocks did not violate federal law. But the acting director of the ATF told lawmakers in December that the ATF and Justice Department would not have initiated the review if a ban "wasn't a possibility at the end."

The Justice Department had not made any announcement regarding its review when Trump on Tuesday signed a memorandum directing the agency to complete the review as soon as possible and propose a rule "banning all devices that turn legal weapons into machine guns."

Reacting to Trump's memo, the department said in a statement that it "understands this is a priority for the president and has acted quickly to move through the rulemaking process. We look forward to the results of that process as soon as it is duly completed."

A day earlier, Trump sent another signal he had been swayed by the Parkland shooting and the dramatic calls for action in its aftermath. A White House statement said Trump was looking at a bill that would strengthen federal gun background checks. On Wednesday, he will host parents, teachers and students at the White House for a "listening session" that will include people impacted by mass shootings in Parkland, Columbine, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut.

The president was moved by a visit Friday with Florida victims in the hospital and is trying to work on solutions, said a person familiar with his thinking who sought anonymity to discuss internal conversations.

Among the steps sought by gun control advocates: closing loopholes that permit loose private sales on the internet and at gun shows, banning assault-type weapons and to passing laws to enable family members, guardians or police to ask judges to strip gun rights temporarily from people who show warning signs of violence.

The Parkland shooting also has prompted the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature to take a fresh look at gun control legislation, although so far GOP leaders are refusing to endorse calls to ban assault rifles. Still, the discussion of some types of gun control legislation is a dramatic turnaround for Florida, which has earned the nickname the "Gunshine State" for its gun policies.

The federal background check bill was developed in response to a mass shooting last November in which a gunman slaughtered more than two dozen people at a Texas church. It would penalize federal agencies that don't properly report required records and reward states that comply by providing them with federal grant preferences. The measure, which is pending in the Senate, was drafted after the Air Force acknowledged that it failed to report the Texas gunman's domestic violence conviction to the National Criminal Information Center database.

The GOP-controlled House paired the background checks bill with a measure making it easier for gun owners to legally carry concealed weapons across state lines. The concealed carry measure, a top priority of the National Rifle Association, would allow gun owners with a state-issued concealed-carry permit to carry a handgun in any state that allows concealed weapons.

Murphy said any attempt to combine background checks with concealed-carry provisions would significantly jeopardize the chances of passing bipartisan reform of the background checks system.

Associated Press writer Gary Fineout contributed from Tallahassee, Florida


Update February 20, 2018

Indonesia's Sinabung volcano unleashes towering ash column

School children walk as Mount Sinabung erupts in Karo, North Sumatra, Indonesia, Monday, Feb. 19. (AP Photo/Sarianto)

Jakarta, Indonesia (AP) — Rumbling Mount Sinabung on the Indonesian island of Sumatra shot billowing columns of ash more than 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) into the atmosphere and hot clouds down its slopes on Monday.

There were no fatalities or injuries from the morning eruption, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency said.

The volcano, one of three currently erupting in Indonesia, was dormant for four centuries before exploding in 2010, killing two people. Another eruption in 2014 killed 16 people, while seven died in a 2016 eruption.

Disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said hot ash clouds traveled as far as 4,900 meters southward.

The regional volcanic ash advisory center in Darwin, Australia, issued a "red notice" to airlines.

Some 30,000 people have been forced to leave homes around the mountain in the past few years.

Mount Sinabung is among more than 120 active volcanoes in Indonesia, which is prone to seismic upheaval due to its location on the Pacific "Ring of Fire," an arc of volcanoes and fault lines encircling the Pacific Basin.


Philippines: Risks rising with China challenging US at sea

Philippine Ambassador to Beijing, Chito Sta. Romana, talks at a forum on the South China Sea Monday, Feb. 19, in Manila, Philippines. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Jim Gomez

Manila, Philippines (AP) — The risks of a "miscalculation" and armed conflict have risen in the disputed South China Sea with a militarily stronger China now able to challenge the United States, which used to be the dominant power in the strategic waterway, the Philippine envoy to Beijing said Monday.

Ambassador Chito Sta. Romana said the balance of power was shifting with the two global powers vying for control of the waters, adding the Philippines should not get entangled in the increasingly tense maritime rivalry.

China claims virtually the entire South China Sea, where the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims, and it has built seven mostly submerged reefs into islands that reportedly could be used as forward air naval bases and have been installed with a missile defense system.

The U.S. Navy has sailed warships on "freedom of navigation" operations near the artificial islands, actions China has protested as U.S. intervention in an Asian conflict.

"Whereas before the South China Sea was dominated by the U.S. 7th Fleet, now the Chinese navy is starting to challenge the dominance," Sta. Romana told a news forum in Manila. "I think we will see a shift in the balance of power."

"It is not the case, that the South China Sea is now a Chinese lake, not at all," Sto. Romana said. "Look at the U.S. aircraft carrier, it's still going through the South China Sea," he added, referring to the USS Carl Vinson that recently patrolled the disputed waters and is currently on a visit to the Philippines.

He compared the two powers to elephants fighting and trampling on the grass and said: "What we don't want is for us to be the grass."

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's policy of befriending China has worked, Sto. Romana said, citing Beijing's decision to lift its blockade around the Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal, where the Philippine military could now freely send new supplies to Filipino marines guarding the disputed area.

China has also allowed Filipino fishermen into another disputed area, the Scarborough Shoal, after Duterte visited Beijing and raised the issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi reportedly told Duterte: "Give me a few days, I'll take care of this," Sto. Romana quoted Duterte as saying about the meeting with his Chinese counterpart a few months after he won the Philippine presidency in 2016.

China took control of the uninhabited atoll off the northwestern Philipppines after a tense standoff in 2012.

In January, China accused the U.S. of trespassing when the guided missile destroyer USS Hopper sailed near Scarborough.

President Donald Trump's administration has outlined a security strategy that emphasized countering China's rise and reinforcing the U.S. presence in the Indo-Pacific region, where Beijing and Washington have accused each other of stoking a dangerous military buildup and fought for wider influence.

Washington has no claim in the South China Sea but has declared a peaceful resolution and freedom of navigation are in its national interest.

U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tim Hawkins told The Associated Press on board the USS Carl Vinson on Saturday that the Navy has carried out routine patrols at sea and in the air in the region for 70 years to promote security and guarantee the unimpeded flow of trade and would continue to do so.

"International law allows us to operate here, allows us to fly here, allows us to train here, allows us to sail here, and that's what we're doing and we're going to continue to do that," Hawkins said on the flight deck of the 95,000-ton warship brimming with F18 fighter jets and other combat aircraft.


Facebook to verify ads with postcards after Russian meddling

In this June 4, 2012 file photo, a girl looks at Facebook on her computer in Palo Alto, Calif. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

Menlo Park, Calif. (AP) — Facebook will soon rely on centuries-old technology to try to prevent foreign meddling in U.S. elections: the post office.

Baffled in 2016 by Russian agents who bought ads to sway the U.S. presidential campaign, Facebook's global politics and government outreach director, Katie Harbath, told a meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State in Washington on Saturday that the company would send postcards to potential buyers of political ads to confirm they reside in the U.S.

The recipient would then have to enter a code in Facebook to continue buying the ad. The method will first apply to ads that name candidates ahead of the midterm elections in November, said Facebook spokesman Andy Stone.

The plan was unveiled a day after special counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 Russians with interfering in the presidential election. Mueller's indictment described how Russian agents stole social security numbers and other information from real Americans and used them to create bank and PayPal accounts in order to buy online ads. Agents also recruited Americans to do things such as hold up signs at rallies organized to create content for Russian-created social media posts.

Facebook uncovered some 3,000 Russian-linked ads on Facebook and Instagram bought before and after the November 2016 election that it says may have been seen by as many as 150 million users. But ads were only part of the problem, as the Mueller indictments say that Russian agents also set up fake pages with names such as "Secured Borders," ''Blacktivist" and "United Muslims of America" that had hundreds of thousands of followers.

Facebook did not say how the new postcard method of verification would prevent foreign agents from setting up local mailing addresses and hiring people in the U.S. to check them. But Stone said the method was "one piece of a much larger effort to address foreign electoral influence on our platform."

Facebook's efforts largely center around verifying people on the platform are who they say they are. To catch duplicitous ad-buyers, for instance, it is now testing out in Canada a system that allows people to see which ads are being bought by a Facebook page — say, a candidate's — even if the person checking the ad is not in the group to whom the ad was intended to be shown.

Stone said Facebook was also able to detect and remove "tens of thousands" of fake Facebook pages in advance of French, German and British elections last year using improved machine learning techniques.

The company has said it would double the number of people working on its safety and security team to 20,000 this year and add 1,000 people to review advertising content.


Hungarian leader calls Christianity 'Europe's last hope'

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers his annual "State of Hungary" speech in Budapest, Hungary, in Budapest, Hungary, Sunday, Feb. 18. (Zoltan Mathe/MTI via AP)

Budapest, Hungary (AP) — Hungary's prime minister says that "Christianity is Europe's last hope" and that politicians in Brussels, Berlin and Paris favoring migration have "opened the way to the decline of Christian culture and the advance of Islam."

Viktor Orban said Sunday during his 20th annual state of the nation speech that his government will oppose efforts by the United Nations or the European Union to make migration acceptable to the world.

He conjured the image of a Western Europe overtaken by Muslims, saying that "born Germans are being forced back from most large German cities, as migrants always occupy big cities first."

Orban claimed that Islam would soon "knock on Central Europe's door" from the west as well as the south.

Orban will seek a third consecutive term in an April election.


Update February 19, 2018

All 65 aboard plane feared dead in crash in southern Iran

Family members of victims of a plane crash weep in the village of Bideh, at the area that the plane came down, southern Iran, Sunday, Feb. 18. (Ali Khodaei/Tasnim News Agency via AP)

Nasser Karimi and Jon Gambrell

Tehran, Iran (AP) — An Iranian airplane brought back into service only months ago after being grounded for seven years crashed Sunday in a foggy, mountainous region of southern Iran, and officials feared all 65 people on board were killed.

The crash of the Aseman Airlines ATR-72 was yet another fatal aviation disaster for Iran, which for years was barred from buying necessary airplane parts due to Western sanctions over its contested nuclear program.

Its nuclear accord with world powers allows it to get those parts and the country has made deals worth tens of billions of dollars for new aircraft. However, President Donald Trump's refusal to recertify the deal has injected uncertainty into those sales while Iranians still fly in aging aircraft.

The ATR-72, a twin-engine turboprop used for short-distance regional flying, went down near its destination of the southern city of Yasuj, some 780 kilometers (485 miles) south of the capital, Tehran, where it took off.

It wasn't immediately clear what caused the crash, although weather was severe. Dense fog, high winds and heavy snow in the Zagros Mountains made it impossible for rescue crews in helicopters to reach the site, state television reported.

Aseman Airlines spokesman Mohammad Taghi Tabatabai told state TV that all on board Flight EP3704 were killed. It had 59 passengers and six crew members, the state-run IRNA news agency reported Sunday night, lowering the toll to 65 from an initially reported 66.

"After searching the area, we learned that unfortunately ... our dear passengers had lost their lives," Tabatabai said.

Both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani offered their condolences.

Tabatabai said the plane crashed into Mount Dena, which is about 4,400 meters (14,435 feet) tall. The plane's last signal, at 0555 GMT (12:35 a.m. EST), showed it at 16,975 feet and descending, according to airplane-tracking website FlightRadar24. The pilot was in contact with the tower 14 miles from the airport, state TV said.

One previous passenger on the route posted a video Sunday showing that the flight typically comes in just over the mountain peaks. Aeronautical charts for the airport warn pilots to keep an altitude of 15,000 feet in the area. The airport itself is at nearly 6,000 feet.

The Iranian Red Crescent said it has deployed to the area. Locals described hearing the crash, but no one has reached the crash site due to weather.

Aseman Airlines, owned by Iran's civil service pension foundation, is a semi-private air carrier headquartered in Tehran and is Iran's third-largest airline by fleet size, behind state carrier Iran Air and Mahan Air. It specializes in flights to remote airfields across the country but also flies internationally, although it is banned in the European Union over safety concerns.

The carrier has a fleet of 29 aircraft, including six ATR aircraft, according to FlightRadar24. The ATR-72 that crashed Sunday, with the tail number EP-ATS, had been built in 1993, Aseman Airlines CEO Ali Abedzadeh told state TV.

On Instagram, Aseman Airlines highlighted the doomed aircraft in October, saying it had been "grounded" for seven years but would be "repaired and will be operational after checking and testing." It wasn't clear what led to the grounding, though Iran only recently regained access to the airplane parts market after the nuclear deal.

European airplane manufacturer ATR, a Toulouse, France-based partnership of Airbus and Italy's Leonardo SpA., said it had no immediate information about the crash.

Aseman Airlines has had other major crashes. In October 1994, a twin-propeller Fokker F-28 1000 commuter plane operated by the airline crashed near Natanz, 290 kilometers (180 miles) south of Tehran, killing 66 people. An Aseman Airlines-chartered flight in August 2008, flown by an Itek Air Boeing 737, crashed in Kyrgyzstan, killing 74 people.

Under decades of international sanctions, Iran's commercial passenger aircraft fleet has aged, with air accidents occurring regularly in recent years.

Following the 2015 landmark nuclear deal with world powers, Iran signed deals with both Airbus and Boeing to buy scores of passenger planes worth tens of billions of dollars.

In April 2017, ATR sealed a $536 million sale with Iran Air for at least 20 aircraft. Chicago-based Boeing also signed a $3 billion deal that month to sell 30 737 MAX aircraft to Aseman Airlines.

Home to 80 million people, Iran is one of the world's last untapped aviation markets. However, Western analysts are skeptical there is demand for so many jets or available financing for deals worth billions of dollars.

Iran has suffered a series of major aviation disasters in recent decades. Its last major crash happened in January 2011, when an Iran Air Boeing 727 broke to pieces on impact while trying an emergency landing in a snowstorm in northwestern Iran, killing at least 77 people.

In July 2009, a Russian-made jetliner crashed shortly after taking off from Tehran, killing all 168 on board. A Russian-made Ilyushin 76 carrying members of the Revolutionary Guard crashed in southeastern Iran in February 2003, killing 302 people.

In February 1993, an Iranian airliner with 132 people aboard collided with an air force jet after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing everyone on the two aircraft. And in July 1988, the USS Vincennes in the Strait of Hormuz mistook an Iran Air flight heading to Dubai for an attacking fighter jet, shooting down the plane and killing all 290 people aboard.


Bolivia blames both Carnival blasts on dynamite

Police stand guard at the site of an explosion in Oruro, Bolivia, Thursday, Feb. 15. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

La Paz, Bolivia (AP) — Bolivian authorities said Sunday that both of the explosions that killed 12 people during recent Carnival celebrations were caused by dynamite, not exploding gas canisters as initially thought.

Interior Minister Carlos Romero said officials are still trying to determine who planted the explosives in the southern city of Oruro, and why.

He said both the Feb. 10 and Feb. 13 explosions were caused by 3 kilograms (6.5 pounds) of dynamite.

The first, he said, was planted near the gas canister on the cart of a street food vendor, who was killed along with four members of her family and three other people.

The second explosion occurred only a few yards (meters) away three days later, killing four people.

Together, the explosions injured about 60 people.

Romero said that police also have found a small piece of dynamite in a hotel bathroom in the city, which is about 120 miles (190 kilometers) south of the capital, La Paz. It's a mining area where dynamite is widely available.


Israeli PM Netanyahu to Iran: Don't test Israel's resolve

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during the International Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Sunday, Feb. 18. (Sven Hoppe/dpa via AP)

David Rising and Geir Moulson

Munich (AP) — The international nuclear deal with Iran has emboldened Tehran to become increasingly aggressive in the region, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday, warning that Iran should "not test Israel's resolve."

Netanyahu said if the U.S. decides to scrap the 2015 nuclear deal, which he has long opposed, "I think they'll do nothing."

But Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, appearing two hours later at the same Munich Security Conference, fired back that Netanyahu's comment was "delusional thinking."

"I can assure that if Iran's interests are not secured, Iran will respond, will respond seriously. And I believe it would be a response that means people would be sorry for taking the erroneous action they did," he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed deep skepticism about the Iran nuclear deal that lifted sanctions against the country. He extended sanctions waivers in January but said he would not do so again when they come up for renewal in May unless his concerns are addressed.

Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, a main architect of the nuclear deal, said it was "absolutely critical" to ensure it survives.

"We know what the world looks like without the Iran nuclear agreement," he said Sunday, speaking at the same conference. "It's not a better place."

If the U.S. abandons the current nuclear deal it's unlikely Iran would consider a new one, Kerry said.

"The problem is the waters have been muddied because of this credibility issue about America's willingness to live up to any deal," he said.

Kerry dismissed Netanyahu's contention that Iran would be on its way to having a nuclear arsenal in 10 years, saying "that's fundamentally not accurate."

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir weighed in, saying the Iran nuclear deal "has flaws that need to be fixed." He said that, among other things, the inspection system needs to be more intrusive.

"The world has to extract a price from Iran for its aggressive behavior," he added.

Netanyahu told world leaders, diplomats and defense officials at the conference that the deal was similar to the infamous 1938 "Munich Agreement" that Western powers signed with Adolf Hitler in an attempt to stave off war in Europe, which became synonymous with appeasement.

"The concessions to Hitler only emboldened the Nazi regime," he said. "Rather than choosing a path that might have prevented war... those well-intentioned leaders made a wider war inevitable and far more costly."

Similarly, he said, the Iranian nuclear agreement has "unleashed a dangerous Iranian tiger in our region and beyond."

Declaring that Iran's "brazenness hit new highs," he theatrically held up a fragment of what he said was an Iranian drone shot down last week by Israel in Israeli airspace and challenged Zarif.

"Mr. Zarif, do you recognize this? You should, it's yours," Netanyahu said. "You can take back with you a message to the tyrants of Tehran — do not test Israel's resolve!"

Tehran has denied that the drone belonged to Iran. Zarif on Sunday dismissed Netanyahu's stunt as "a cartoonish circus... which does not even deserve the dignity of a response."

Netanyahu has been projecting a business-as-usual approach on his visit to Germany amid uproar at home after police on Tuesday said was sufficient evidence to indict him for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two cases.  The Israeli leader has angrily rejected the accusations and denounced what he describes as an overzealous police investigation. He has also dismissed the accusations as a witch hunt orchestrated by a hostile media.

Zarif suggested the Israeli leader might be escalating tensions with Iran simply to distract from his domestic problems.

Denouncing what he said were Israel's "almost daily illegal incursions into Syrian airspace," Zarif said Israel was trying "to create these cartoonish images to blame others for its own strategic blunders, or maybe to evade the domestic crisis they're facing."

Netanyahu told the audience that destroying the drone was a demonstration of Israel's resolve.

"Israel will not allow Iran's regime to put a noose of terror around our neck," he said. "We will act if necessary, not just against Iran's proxies that are attacking us but against Iran itself."

Lebanese Defense Minister Yaacoub Sarraf accused Israel of being hypocritical, saying that he'd had "an Israeli drone above my head for the past 15 years" and warning about any aggression from its neighbor.

"Lebanon has no belligerent intent on anybody, but watch out, we will defend ourselves," he said. "We also have partners, we also have friends, we also have people willing to die for their country. We are for peace, yet we will not stand for any threat and we will not accept any aggression. "


Calls for gun control grow louder after Florida shooting

 

Protestors hug on a street corner as they hold up anti gun signs in Parkland, Fla., on Saturday, Feb. 17. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Jason Dearen, Allen G. Breed and Tamara Lush

Parkland, Fla. (AP) — Pressure is growing for tougher gun-control laws in America after a mass shooting at a Florida high school, with thousands of angry protesters at state rallies demanding immediate action from lawmakers, and more demonstrations planned across the country in the weeks ahead.

Organizers behind the Women's March, an anti-Trump and female empowerment protest, called for a 17-minute, nationwide walkout by teachers and students on March 14. The Network for Public Education, an advocacy organization for public schools, announced a day of walkouts, sit-ins and other events on school campuses on April 20, the anniversary of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado that left 12 students and one teacher dead.

Plans for the protests circulated widely on social media on Saturday, as students, parents, teachers and neighbors gathered to express their grief over the fatal shooting of 14 students and three staff members at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Hundreds showed up at rallies in Fort Lauderdale, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away, and in St. Petersburg, 250 miles (400 kilometers) northwest, to demand action on gun-control legislation.

"The fact that we can't go to school and feel safe every day, when we're supposed to feel safe, is a problem," said Fabiana Corsa, a Florida high school student who attended the Fort Lauderdale gathering.

Corsa said legislators were "sacrificing students" in order to get money from the National Rifle Association.

The crowd at the rally chanted: "Vote them out!" and held signs calling for action. Some read: "#Never Again," ''#Do something now" and "Don't Let My Friends Die."

The rallies were held as new details emerged about the suspect, Nikolas Cruz. Authorities say Cruz, 19, was a former student at Stoneman Douglas who had been expelled, had mental health issues and had been reported to law enforcement before he used a legally purchased semiautomatic rifle to take the lives of 17 people on Wednesday.

From a mosaic of public records, interviews with friends and family and online interactions, it appears Cruz was unstable and violent to himself and those around him — and that when notified about his threatening behavior, law enforcement did little to stop it.

Cruz's mother died in November and his father died years ago. He reportedly left a suburban Palm Beach County mobile home where he had been staying after his mother's death because his benefactor gave him an ultimatum: you or the gun.

The Sun-Sentinel reported that Florida's Department of Children and Families investigated when Cruz posted a video on the social media network Snapchat showing him cutting his arms in 2016. "Mr. Cruz has fresh cuts on both his arms," the Florida DCF abuse hotline was told in August 2016, the paper reported. "Mr. Cruz stated he plans to go out and buy a gun. It is unknown what he is buying the gun for."

According to the paper, DCF's investigation was completed that Nov. 12. The agency concluded Cruz had not been mistreated by his mother, was receiving adequate care from a mental health counselor and was attending school.

At school, Cruz routinely fought with teachers, was accused of swearing at staff and was referred for a "threat assessment" in January 2017, two months after the DCF investigation concluded, The New York Times reported Saturday, citing school disciplinary records it obtained.

The records show he was suspended several times in the 2016-17 school year and was frequently absent. They also show Cruz attended at least six schools, including a school for students with emotional problems, the newspaper said.

Cruz had been diagnosed with autism, a neurological disorder that often leads to social awkwardness and isolation, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

The FBI said a person close to Cruz called the FBI's tip line and provided information about Cruz's weapons and his erratic behavior. The caller was concerned Cruz could attack a school. The agency acknowledged the tip should have been shared with the FBI's Miami office and investigated, but it was not.


Avalanches kill 2 skiers in France, injure 2 in Switzerland

A helicopter leaves from the location where an avalanche left two people injured, at the Fenestral Pass, in Finhaut, Switzerland, Sunday, Feb. 18. (Valentin Flauraud/Keystone via AP)

Paris (AP) — Authorities say two skiers were killed by an avalanche in the French Alps, and two more people were injured by an avalanche in Switzerland near the border with France.

The prefecture in France's Savoie region said the fatal avalanche occurred Sunday at the Val-d'Isere ski resort, close to the Italian border.

Local newspaper Le Dauphine said on its website that the two victims were a 44-year-old man and his 11-year-old daughter from the Paris region.

Le Dauphine reported the two were skiing on a run that was closed due to the avalanche risk.

Swiss media initially reported that 10 people were buried by the other avalanche, in the southern canton (state) of Valais.

But Valais police spokesman Stefan Leger says only two people pulled from the snow Sunday were hospitalized.


Update February 17-18, 2018

Magnitude-7.2 earthquake slams south, central Mexico

People walk down the center of a street in the Roma neighborhood after an earthquake shook Mexico City, Friday, Feb. 16. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Peter Orsi and Christopher Sherman

Mexico City (AP) — A powerful magnitude-7.2 earthquake shook south and central Mexico Friday, causing people to flee swaying buildings and office towers in the country's capital, where residents were still jittery after a deadly quake five months ago.

Crowds of people gathered on Mexico City's central Reforma Avenue as well as on streets in Oaxaca state's capital, nearer the quake's epicenter.

"It was awful," said Mercedes Rojas Huerta, 57, who was sitting on a bench outside her home in Mexico City's trendy Condesa district, too frightened to go back inside. "It started to shake; the cars were going here and there. What do I do?"

She said she was still scared thinking of the Sept. 19 earthquake that left 228 people dead in the capital and 369 across the region. Many buildings in Mexico City are still damaged from that quake.

Mexican Civil Protection chief Luis Felipe Fuente tweeted that there were no immediate reports of major damages from Friday's quake.

The Red Cross reported the facade from a building in the Condesa neighborhood, which was hit hard on Sept. 19, collapsed. And at least one strong aftershock shook building again in Mexico City.

In Oaxaca, Gov. Alejandro Murat said via Twitter that damage was being evaluated, but there were so far no reports of deaths.

The U.S. Geological Survey put the quake's preliminary magnitude at 7.2 and said its epicenter was 33 miles (53 kilometers) northeast of Pinotepa in Oaxaca state. It had a depth of 15 miles (24 kilometers).

The epicenter is a rural area of western Oaxaca state near the Pacific coast and the border with Guerrero state.

In the Condesa, frightened residents flooded into the streets, including one woman wrapped in just a towel, but there were no immediate signs of damage.

"I'm scared," Rojas Huerta said. "The house is old."


Bangladesh gives names to begin Rohingya repatriation

Bangladesh's Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan, second right, receives Myanmar's Home Minister Kyaw Swe, second left, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, Feb.16. (AP Photo)

Julhas Alam

Dhaka, Bangladesh (AP) — A Bangladesh Cabinet minister gave a list of 8,032 Rohingya refugees to his Myanmar counterpart to begin repatriations of the Muslim minority under a November agreement between the two countries.

Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said Friday the list contained the members of 1,673 Rohingya families. He did not explain how the names had been chosen.

About 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled army-led violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar since last August and are living in refugee camps in Bangladesh. The two countries originally agreed to begin the repatriations last month, but they were delayed by concerns among aid workers and Rohingya that they would be forced to return and face unsafe conditions in Myanmar.

Hundreds of Rohingya were reportedly killed in the violence, and many houses and villages burned to the ground.

U.N. refugee chief Filippo Grandi told the Security Council on Tuesday that conditions aren't right for Rohingya to voluntarily return because Myanmar hasn't addressed their exclusion and denial of rights. Grandi also said Rohingya are still fleeing Myanmar and thousands more are expected to leave.

Khan said he presented the list to Myanmar Home Minister Lt. Gen. Kyaw Swe, who is visiting Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, to discuss the repatriations and other border issues.

"The Myanmar side cordially accepted the list, and they sought our help to make it happen," Khan told reporters. Kyaw Swe did not speak to the reporters.

Khan said officials in Myanmar would choose 6,500 people next Tuesday to be sent back in an initial phase. He would not say exactly when the repatriation would start.

"They said they will take them all in three phases," he said. "No specific timeframe has been decided yet when they will start returning."

Khan said Bangladesh expressed its desire for safe and secure conditions and a proper infrastructure for the refugees' return. Impoverished Bangladesh has been overwhelmed by the refugee onslaught and is eager for them to return to Myanmar.

On Thursday, Kyaw Swe told Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid that Myanmar is ready to take back displaced people, presidential spokesman Joynal Abedin said Friday.

Abedin also quoted Kyaw Swe as saying that Myanmar will implement the recommendations of a commission led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to improve conditions in Rakhine state, where the refugees previously lived.

The recent violence erupted after an underground insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, attacked security outposts in Rakhine in late August. The military and Buddhist mobs launched retaliatory attacks on Rohingya that were termed "clearance operations."

Myanmar's security forces have been accused of atrocities against the Rohingya, including killing, rape and arson. The United Nations and the U.S. have described the army crackdown as "ethnic cleansing."

The Rohingya have long been treated as outsiders in Myanmar, even though their families have lived in the country for generations. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless. They are denied freedom of movement and other basic rights.


Family grieves Philippine maid found dead in Kuwait freezer

Jessica Demafelis, the sister of Joanna Demafelis who was found dead in a freezer in Kuwait, cries as the wooden casket of her remains arrives at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, Philippines, Friday, Feb. 16. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Jim Gomez

Manila, Philippines (AP) — The body of a Filipino housemaid found stuffed in a freezer in an abandoned apartment in Kuwait was flown home to her grieving family Friday, as attention focused on the plight of millions of mostly poor Filipinos toiling abroad.

As Joanna Daniela Demafelis' remains were wheeled to the Manila airport's cargo bay, her sister broke into tears and embraced the casket before being pulled back and consoled. A brother wept quietly, speechless and overwhelmed by emotion.

"I hope my sister will be given justice," Demafelis' brother, Jojit Demafelis, later told reporters.

Demafelis' body was found recently in a Kuwait City apartment that had reportedly been abandoned for more than a year. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said her body bore torture marks and there were indications she was strangled.

Her death is the latest overseas tragedy to befall a worker from the Philippines, a major labor exporter with about a tenth of its 100 million people working abroad. The workers have been called the country's heroes because the income they send home has propped up the Southeast Asian nation's economy for decades, accounting for about 10 percent of annual gross domestic product.

Philippine officials are under increasing pressure to do more to monitor the safety of its worldwide diaspora of mostly house maids, construction workers and laborers. There are also calls for the government to boost employment and living standards at home, where nearly one in four people live in poverty, so that fewer people need to find work abroad.

Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano stood with the Demafelis family at the airport Friday and said a prayer.

"Her death is very tragic but will also be a rallying point for all of the government agencies to be more aggressive abroad in helping our OFWs be protected," Cayetano told reporters, using the acronym for overseas foreign workers.

Duterte has ordered a ban on the deployment of new Filipino workers to Kuwait, where he said some Filipina workers have committed suicide due to abuses.

Cayetano said Kuwait had expressed outrage over Demafelis' death and promised do everything it could to render justice. He said the Philippines lodged a protest over the case and at least six other recent deaths mostly of Filipino housemaids in Kuwait and asked that the Philippine Embassy be given access to investigations by Kuwaiti authorities.

Demafelis' family told The Associated Press on Friday that Joanna was 29-years-old and the sixth of nine children born into a poor farming family in the central province of Iloilo. She left for Kuwait in 2014 to be employed by a Syrian and Lebanese husband and wife and had never told anyone back home that she was being mistreated.

Philippine officials say they are re-examining how to better detect and stop abuse of its workers abroad. A Filipino labor officer in Kuwait has been recalled after reportedly failing to adequately help Demafelis' family when they reported that she was missing.

"If there is a complaint already, even if we can help them, it's still too late like when they're already dead," Cayetano said at a news conference. "They should have been helped when we found out that there was abuse or as soon as they lost contact with their family."

Still the sheer number of Filipino workers abroad makes monitoring their wellbeing an overwhelming task. That is often complicated by the workers not having proper travel and work documents, such as in Kuwait where nearly 11,000 of the more than 252,000 Filipino workers are in the country illegally or not properly authorized.

The Philippines has banned the deployment of its workers some countries, but many desperate Filipinos chose to stay, even in war-torn Iraq and Syria.

"Despite the offer to repatriate, to pay for their tickets, many chose to stay because there is no employment or less employment possibilities or they'll earn much less money in the Philippines," Cayetano said.

He said the long-term solution was for the Philippines to strengthen its economy so Filipinos won't be forced to look for greener meadows.


Borneo's orangutan population plunged by 100,000 since 1999

In this Friday, Jan. 7, 2016 file photo, conservationists of Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation hold a baby orangutan rescued along with its mother in Sungai Mangkutub, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Jakarta, Indonesia (AP) — The most comprehensive study of Borneo's orangutans estimates their numbers have plummeted by more than 100,000 since 1999, as the palm oil and paper industries shrink their jungle habitat and fatal conflicts with people increase.

The finding, which is to be published in the journal Current Biology, is in line with the International Union for Conservation of Nature's 2016 designation of Borneo's orangutans as critically endangered.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and other institutions said the original population of the gentle ginger-haired great apes is larger than previously estimated but so is the rate of decline.

The most dramatic declines were found in areas where tropical forests were cut down and converted to plantations for palm oil, which is used in a vast array of consumer products, and for timber.

But significant population declines occurred in selectively logged forests.

"In these forest areas human pressures, such as conflict killing, poaching, and the collection of baby orangutans for the pet trade have probably been the major drivers of decline," the authors of the study said.

Earlier this month, an orangutan on the Indonesian part of Borneo island died after being shot at least 130 times with an air gun, stabbed and clubbed, the second known killing of an orangutan in the Indonesian part of Borneo this year.

Erik Meijaard, a conservationist involved in the study, said current estimates of the orangutan population on Borneo range from 75,000 to 100,000.

He said the estimates vary because of uncertainty about how many animals are living in alien habitats such as plantations and burnt forests.

According to the IUCN, their numbers could drop to 47,000 by 2025 from their 2016 population estimate of about 105,000.

Sumatra's orangutan, a separate species, is even more endangered, with a population estimated at about 12,000 animals.

In a positive twist, the new study found Bornean orangutans are more resilient and adaptable than thought. They walk on the ground more often than previously known and can feed on plants that have not been part of their natural diet.

The authors said this may allow them to survive in smaller forests and in landscapes where the forest is fragmented.

"The one thing they cannot cope with, however, is the high killing rates seen currently," said Serge Wich of Liverpool John Moores University, one of the researchers.

"Orangutans are a very slow breeding species," he said in a statement. "If only one in 100 adult orangutans is removed from a population per year, this population has a high likeliness to go extinct."


Update February 16, 2018

Cyril Ramaphosa sworn in as South Africa's new president

Cyril Ramaphosa is sworn in as South African President by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, left, in Cape Town, South Africa Thursday Feb. 15. (Mike Hutchings / Pool via AP)

Christopher Torchia

Johannesburg (AP) — Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday was sworn in as South Africa's new president after the resignation of Jacob Zuma, whose scandals brought the storied African National Congress to its weakest point since taking power at the end of apartheid.

"I will try very hard not to disappoint the people of South Africa," Ramaphosa said in ending his speech to parliament shortly after ruling party lawmakers elected him. He said the issue of corruption is on "our radar screen."

Ramaphosa was the only candidate nominated for election after two opposition parties said they would not participate. The two parties instead unsuccessfully called for the dissolution of the National Assembly and early elections.

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng presided over the parliamentary election and congratulated Ramaphosa, who had been Zuma's deputy and in December was narrowly elected leader of the ruling party over Zuma's ex-wife.

Zuma resigned after years of scandals that damaged the reputation of the ruling ANC, which had instructed him this week to step down or face a parliamentary motion of no confidence that he would almost certainly lose. Zuma denies any wrongdoing.

Ramaphosa is South Africa's fifth president since the end of the apartheid system of white minority rule in 1994. On Friday evening, he is expected to deliver the state of the nation address that had been postponed during the ruling party's days of closed-door negotiations to persuade Zuma to resign.

As some South Africans cheered the end to Zuma's era, the rand currency strengthened against the dollar in early trading Thursday.

The country's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, will cooperate with Ramaphosa if he acts in the interests of the South African people, said party leader Mmusi Maimane.

"We will hold you accountable and I will see you in 2019 on the ballot box," Maimane said.

Members of a smaller opposition party walked out of parliament before the election, saying the ANC plan to choose a new president was "illegitimate."

Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters party, said ANC lawmakers had failed to hold former Zuma to account for alleged corruption and had therefore violated the constitution.

Ramaphosa now is challenged with reviving the reputation of the ANC, Africa's most prominent liberation movement, which fought apartheid and has been in power since the first all-race elections in 1994. The party's popularity fell as anger over corruption allegations grew and it suffered its worst showing at the polls in municipal elections in 2016.

The prospect of facing a possible coalition government for the first time helped push some ANC leaders to decide that Zuma had to go.

On Thursday the foundation of Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president, welcomed Zuma's departure but said the state must act against "networks of criminality" that have hurt the country's democracy.

As the country marks the centenary of Mandela's 1918 birth, "there is a need to reckon with the failures of the democratic era," the foundation said. "We believe that we are at a critical moment in our history, one which offers us the unique opportunity to reflect, to rebuild, and to transform."


Sheriff's report: Suspect confessed to Florida school attack

A video monitor shows school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz, left, making an appearance before Judge Kim Theresa Mollica in Broward County Court, Thursday, Feb. 15, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Susan Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, Pool)

Terry Spencer, Kelli Kennedy and Tamara Lush

Parkland, Fla. (AP) — The teenager accused of using a semi-automatic rifle to kill 17 people at a Florida high school confessed to carrying out one of the nation's deadliest school shootings and concealing extra ammunition in his backpack, according to a sheriff's department report released Thursday.

Nikolas Cruz told investigators that he shot students in the hallways and on the grounds of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, north of Miami, the report from the Broward County Sheriff's Office said.

Cruz told officers he brought more loaded magazines to the school and kept them hidden in the backpack until he got on campus.

The gunman fired into five classrooms — four on the first floor of the school and one on the second floor, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said.

When he was done shooting, the assailant dropped his AR-15 rifle and the backpack containing the ammunition and ran out of the building, attempting to blend in with fleeing students, Israel said.

After the rampage, the suspect headed to a Wal-Mart and bought a drink at a Subway restaurant before walking to a McDonald's. He was taken into custody about 40 minutes after leaving the McDonald's, the sheriff said.

A day after the attack, a fuller portrait emerged of the shooter, a loner who had worked at a dollar store, joined the school's ROTC program and posted photos of weapons on Instagram. At least one student said classmates joked that Cruz would "be the one to shoot up the school."

Cruz, a 19-year-old orphan whose mother died last year, was charged with murder Thursday in the assault that devastated this sleepy community on the edge of the Everglades. It was the nation's deadliest school attack since a gunman assaulted an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, more than five years ago.

Meanwhile, students struggled to describe the violence that ripped through their classrooms just before the school day ended.

Catarina Linden, a 16-year-old sophomore, said she was in an advanced math class Wednesday when the gunfire began.

"He shot the girl next to me," she said, adding that when she finally was able to leave the classroom, the air was foggy with gun smoke. "I stepped on so many shell casings. There were bodies on the ground, and there was blood everywhere."

Among the dead were a football coach who also worked as a security guard, a senior who planned to attend Lynn University and an athletic director who was active in his Roman Catholic church.

Some bodies remained inside the high school Thursday as authorities analyzed the crime scene. Thirteen wounded survivors were still hospitalized, including two in critical condition.

Authorities have not described any specific motive, except to say that Cruz had been kicked out of the high school, which has about 3,000 students and serves an affluent suburb where the median home price is nearly $600,000. Students who knew him described a volatile teenager whose strange behavior had caused others to end friendships with him.

Cruz was ordered held without bond at a brief court hearing. He wore an orange jumpsuit with his hands cuffed at his waist. His attorney did not contest the order and had her arm around Cruz during the short appearance. Afterward, she called him a "broken human being."

He was being held under a suicide watch, Executive Chief Public Defender Gordon Weekes told reporters.

Wednesday's shooting was the 17th incident of gunfire at an American school this year. Of the 17 incidents, one involved a suicide, two involved active shooters who killed students, two involved people killed in arguments and three involved people who were shot but survived. Nine involved no injuries at all.

As the criminal case began to take shape, President Donald Trump, in an address to the nation, promised to "tackle the difficult issue of mental health," but avoided any mention of guns. Trump, who owns a private club in Palm Beach, about 40 miles from Parkland, said he planned to visit the grieving community.

He did not answer shouted questions about guns as he left the room.

Trump, who did not speak publicly immediately after the shooting, weighed in on Twitter early Thursday, calling the suspect "mentally disturbed" and stressing that it was important to "report such instances to authorities, again and again!"

In the case of Cruz, at least one person did report him.

FBI agent Rob Lasky said the FBI investigated a 2017 YouTube comment that said "I'm going to be a professional school shooter." But the agency could not identify the person who made the comment, which was from an account using the name Nikolas Cruz. It was left on a YouTube video of a vlogger and bail bondsman from Louisiana named Ben Bennight.

In a Buzzfeed article , Bennight said he called the FBI, and agents came out to talk with him. They called him again Wednesday.

Officials were also investigating whether authorities missed other warning signs about Cruz' potentially violent nature.

He had been expelled from the school for "disciplinary reasons," said Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, who said he did not know the specifics.

One student said Cruz had been abusive to his ex-girlfriend and that his expulsion was over a fight with her new boyfriend.

Math teacher Jim Gard told the Miami Herald that Cruz may have been identified as a potential threat before Wednesday's attack. Gard believes the school had sent out an email warning teachers that Cruz should not be allowed on campus with a backpack.

The leader of a white nationalist militia called the Republic of Florida said Cruz was a member of his group and had participated in exercises in Tallahassee. Jordan Jereb said he had only a brief interaction a few years ago with Cruz. The group wants Florida to become its own white ethno-state.

Neither the Leon County Sheriff's Office in Tallahassee nor the Southern Poverty Law Center could confirm any link between Cruz and the militia.

Cruz's mother, Lynda Cruz, died of pneumonia Nov. 1, and his father died previously, according to the arrest affidavit.

Two federal law enforcement officials said the Smith & Wesson M&P15 .223 was purchased legally last year at Sunrise Tactical Gear in Florida.


Cleric behind bombing in Indonesian capital goes on trial

Indonesian militant Oman Rohman, center, popularly known as Aman Abdurrahman, is escorted by police officers prior to the beginning of his trial at a district court in Jakarta, Indonesia, Thursday, Feb. 15. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

Niniek Karmini

Jakarta, Indonesia (AP) — A key ideologue for Islamic State militants in Indonesia went on trial Thursday for ordering acts of terror including a 2016 suicide bombing and gun attack in Jakarta that killed eight people including four attackers.

The radical cleric, Oman Rohman, popularly known as Aman Abdurrahman, was guarded by counterterrorism police as he waited in a holding cell for the trial to begin. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

Police have described Adburrahman as the main Indonesian translator for IS propaganda and the spiritual leader of Jemaah Anshorut Daulah, a network of almost two dozen Indonesian extremist groups that formed in 2015.

In the indictment, prosecutors told the court that from prison in late 2015, Abdurrahman urged all members of Jemaah Anshorut Daulah to immediately carry out jihad and fulfil an order from IS leadership in Syria to attack foreigners and emulate deadly IS attacks in European cities. His cellmate, Iwan Dharmawan alias Rois, facilitated funding, prosecutors said.

Reflecting a dire lack of supervision of militants in Indonesia's overcrowded prisons, Abdurrahman was able to spread radicalism and communicate with his supporters on the outside through visitors and video calls.

Prosecutors said Abdurrahman's instructions resulted in several attacks in Indonesia, including the January 2016 attack on a Starbucks in Jakarta, an attack on a bus terminal in the capital that killed three police officers and an attack on a church in Kalimantan that killed a 2-year-old girl.

The five-judge panel appointed a lawyer for Adburrahman after he refused to do so himself.

After the indictment was read, Adburrahman, 46, did not use his right to respond, apparently showing his rejection of the secular legal system.

In a bizarre twist, Abdurrahman was among more than 90,000 inmates granted an early release for Indonesia's Aug. 17 Independence Day holiday last year. He was arrested for ordering the Jakarta and other attacks before he could be released.

Indonesia still faces a significant risk of attacks despite a sustained crackdown on militants following the 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people. The crackdown reduced the Jemaah Islamiyah network behind the Bali bombings to remnants but a new generation of would-be jihadis has coalesced behind the IS banner. Though their capacity to launch large-scale attacks is limited, experts say it could be enhanced if Indonesians who fought with IS in Syria and Iraq return home.

Earlier this week, a Jakarta court sentenced Zainal Anshori, the operational leader of Jemaah Anshorut Daulah, to seven years in prison for involvement in smuggling guns from the southern Philippines.

Adburrahman's trial resumes on Feb. 23 with witness testimony.


Huge sinkhole on Rome street swallows half-dozen cars

This Wednesday Feb. 14 photo shows a large sinkhole that opened in a street of a residential area in Rome and engulfed parked vehicles. (Massimo Percossi/ANSA via AP)

Rome (AP) — Prosecutors have opened an investigation into a 10-meter (30-foot) -wide sinkhole that swallowed up a half-dozen cars on a residential street in Rome.

No one was injured in Wednesday evening's collapse in the Balduina neighborhood, but families in nearby buildings were evacuated as a precaution.

The ANSA news agency said prosecutors had placed a property owner and the company handling construction along the road under investigation Thursday.

Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi visited the site and stressed that the sinkhole, which appeared to shave off the entire side of the road, occurred at an active construction site, and that the situation is under control.


Amnesty International slams anti-migration bill in Hungary

In this photo taken Feb. 1, 2018 a poster is photographed in Budapest reading: Soros would settle millions from Africa and the Middle East. Stop Soros! (AP Photo/Pablo Gorondi)

Brussels (AP) — A bill that would impose new regulations on organizations that work with migrants would allow the Hungarian government to target any immigrant rights groups it doesn't like, Amnesty International said Wednesday.

Amnesty International said the bill could empower the government to suspend, disband and fine NGOs working on migration. The human rights group called the legislation a "deeply disturbing and unjustified assault on civil society."

The draft legislation, which was submitted to parliament late Tuesday, would impose new operating requirements on civic groups that organize, support or finance migration.

Such groups would need permission from the interior minister for their activities and would have to pay a 25 percent levy on funding received from abroad, among other provisions.

"These proposals have nothing to do with protecting national security or borders, and everything (to do) with muzzling those who work to assist people in need and dare to raise their voices," Amnesty International Europe director Gauri van Gulik said.

The draft legislation is part of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's anti-migration campaign. Orban has blamed Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros for wanting to bring millions of migrants into Europe — though Soros has substantially revised his position since saying that a few years ago — and for funding organizations that work with immigrants.

The government has dubbed the bill "Stop Soros."

Leaders of the body that represents international civic groups in the Council of Europe and its advisory group joined in the criticism, saying the effects of the legislation could spread beyond the migration issue.

"Those NGOs targeted do not focus only on migration and refugees. They also provide services to the public affected by other vulnerabilities," said a statement from the Conference of INGOs and its Expert Council on NGO Law. "The draft laws could have the consequence of decreasing the services available for all vulnerable people in Hungary."

Some of the targeted NGOs, such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, provide legal aid to needy Hungarians as well as asylum-seekers, and advocate for democracy and the rule of law.

The Helsinki Committee described the government's proposed legislation as "not a bill, but a bulldozer."

"The government wants to arbitrarily label, malign and separate from society certain NGOs it dislikes and, eventually, force them to cease their operations."


Update February 15, 2018

Former student opens fire at Florida high school, killing 17

Medical personnel tend to a victim following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, USA, on Wednesday, Feb. 14. (John McCall/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

Parkland, Fla. (AP) — A former student opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle at a Florida high school Wednesday, killing at least 17 people and sending hundreds of students fleeing into the streets in the nation’s deadliest school shooting since a gunman attacked an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

The shooter, who was equipped with a gas mask and smoke grenades, set off a fire alarm to draw students out of classrooms shortly before the day ended at one of the state’s largest schools, officials said.

Authorities offered no immediate details on the 19-year-old suspect or any possible motive, except to say that he had been kicked out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which has about 3,000 students.

Students who knew the shooter, identified as Nikolas Cruz, described a volatile teenager whose strange behavior had caused others to end friendships with him, particularly after the fight that led to his expulsion.

Frantic parents rushed to the school to find SWAT team members and ambulances surrounding the huge campus. Live television footage showed emergency workers who appeared to be treating the wounded on sidewalks.

“It is a horrific situation,” said Robert Runcie, superintendent of the school district in Parkland, about an hour’s drive north of Miami. “It is a horrible day for us.”

The suspect was taken into custody without a fight about an hour later in a residential neighborhood about a mile away. He had multiple magazines of ammunition, authorities said.

“It’s catastrophic. There really are no words,” Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel told reporters.

The attacker used the fire alarm “so the kids would come pouring out of the classrooms into the hall,” Sen. Bill Nelson told CNN.

“And there the carnage began,” said Nelson, who said he was briefed by the FBI.

The Florida Democrat said he did not know if the gunman used the smoke grenades, but he assumed that’s why he had a gas mask on.

Most of the fatalities were inside the building, though some victims were found fatally shot outside, the sheriff said.

Victoria Olvera, a junior at the school, said Cruz was expelled last school year because he got into a fight with his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. She said he had been abusive to his girlfriend.

“I think everyone had in their minds if anybody was going to do it, it was going to be him,” she said.

Dakota Mentcher, another junior, said he used to be friends with Cruz. But he cut off the friendship as Cruz’s behavior “started progressively getting a little more weird.” Cruz posted on Instagram about killing animals and threatened one of Mentcher’s friends, he said.

He remembered that Cruz had a pellet gun and did target practice in his backyard.

Student Daniel Huerfano said he recognized Cruz from an Instagram photo in which Cruz had posed with a gun in front of his face.

Cruz “was that weird kid that you see ... like a loner,” he said.

Freshman Max Charles was in class when he heard five gunshots.

“We were in the corner, away from the windows,” he said. “The teacher locked the door and turned off the light. I thought maybe I could die or something.”

As he was leaving the building, he saw four dead students and one dead teacher. He said he was relieved when he finally found his mother.

“I was happy that I was alive,” Max said. “She was crying when she saw me.”

Not long after the attack, Michael Nembhard was sitting in his garage on a cul-de-sac when he saw a young man in a burgundy shirt walking down the street. In an instant, a police cruiser pulled up, and officers jumped out with guns drawn.

“All I heard was ’Get on the ground! Get on the ground!’” Nembhard said. He said he could not see the suspect’s face, but the man did as he was told.

The day started normally at the school, which had a morning fire drill. Students were in class around 2:30 p.m. when another alarm sounded.

Noah Parness, a 17-year-old junior, said he and the other students calmly went outside to their fire-drill areas when he suddenly heard popping sounds.

“We saw a bunch of teachers running down the stairway, and then everybody shifted and broke into a sprint,” Parness said. “I hopped a fence.”

Beth Feingold said her daughter, Brittani, sent a text that said, “We’re on code red. I’m fine,” but sent another text shortly afterward saying, “Mom, I’m so scared.” She was later able to escape.

Students heard loud bangs as the shooter fired. Many of them hid under desks or in closets and barricaded doors.

Television footage showed students leaving in a single-file line with their hands over their heads as officers urged them to evacuate quickly.

The scene was reminiscent of the Newtown attack, which shocked even a country numbed by the regularity of school shootings. The Dec. 14, 2012, assault at Sandy Hook Elementary School killed 26 people — 20 first-graders and six staff members.

The 20-year-old gunman, who also fatally shot his mother in her bed, then killed himself.

When Caesar Figueroa got to the Florida school to check on his 16-year-old daughter, he saw helicopters and police officers wielding guns.

“It was crazy and my daughter wasn’t answering her phone.” She finally texted him that she was inside a closet with friends.

Len Murray’s 17-year-old son, a junior at the school, sent his parents a chilling text: “Mom and Dad, there have been shots fired on campus at school. There are police sirens outside. I’m in the auditorium and the doors are locked.”

A few minutes later, he texted again, “I’m fine.”

Murray said he raced to the school only to be stopped by authorities under a highway overpass within view of the school buildings. He said he told his son to save his battery and stop texting. The boy’s mother told him to turn off his ringer.

Murray said he’s had just one thought running through his mind since his son’s text: “All I keep thinking about is when I dropped him off this morning. I usually say, ‘I love you,’ and I didn’t this morning. He’s 17, he’s at that age, and I didn’t say it this morning, and I’m just kicking myself right now over and over and over.”

The school was to be closed for the rest of the week.


South African President Zuma succumbs to pressure, resigns

South African President Jacob Zuma addresses the nation and press at the government's Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, Wednesday, Feb. 14. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Christopher Torchia

Johannesburg (AP) — South African President Jacob Zuma resigned on Wednesday in a televised address to the nation, ending a turbulent tenure marred by corruption scandals that sapped the popularity of the ruling African National Congress and hurt one of Africa's biggest economies.

The resignation signaled an imminent end to a leadership crisis in South Africa and set the stage for Zuma to be replaced by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has promised a robust campaign against corruption but will quickly face pressure to produce results in a country struggling with unemployment, economic inequity and other problems. Ahead of 2019 elections, Ramaphosa also has the tough task of rebuilding a ruling party whose moral stature has diminished since it took power at the end of white minority rule in 1994.

"I have therefore come to the decision to resign as president of the republic with immediate effect," said Zuma, who added that he took the decision even though he disagreed with the ruling party's demand that he quit immediately or face a motion of no confidence in the parliament on Thursday. Zuma, 75, had said he was willing to resign early from his second five-year term but wanted to stay in office for several more months.

"Of course, I must accept that if my party and my compatriots wish that I be removed from office, they must exercise that right and do so in the manner prescribed by the constitution," Zuma said.

The African National Congress welcomed the resignation, expressing gratitude for Zuma's "loyal service" during his nearly 10 years as president and encouraging party members to support Ramaphosa, now the country's acting president. By the end of the week, Ramaphosa is likely to be elected president by the ANC-dominated parliament and to give a state of the nation address that had been postponed during the political turmoil.

South Africa's biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said the ruling party must act against associates of Zuma who are also suspected of wrongdoing and mismanagement.

"Zuma built a deep system of corruption that has penetrated every part of the government and the criminal prosecution system," Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane said.

"Now the country looks to Cyril Ramaphosa to save us from a man that he and the ANC protected and supported. We must never allow this to happen again," said Maimane, who wants parliament to be dissolved so that early elections can be held.

Ramaphosa, a union leader during apartheid, was a key negotiator of the transition from white minority rule to democracy in the 1990s and later became a wealthy businessman. He replaced Zuma as leader of the ANC in December and has been consolidating his control, while also raising his international profile with a visit last month to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

On Wednesday morning, South African police raided the home of prominent business associates of Zuma who are accused of being at the center of corruption scandals that have infuriated the country. An elite police unit entered the compound of the Gupta family, which has been accused of using its connections to the president to influence Cabinet appointments and win state contracts.

Several people were arrested during police operations, South African media reported.

Both Zuma and the Guptas deny any wrongdoing, though legal challenges are looming. As the Gupta-linked investigation proceeds, Zuma also could face corruption charges tied to an arms deal two decades ago. South Africa's chief prosecutor is expected to make a decision on whether to prosecute Zuma on the old charges, which were reinstated last year after being thrown out in 2009.

In another scandal, South Africa's top court ruled in 2016 that Zuma violated the constitution following an investigation of multi-million-dollar upgrades to his private home using state funds. He paid back some of the money.

Still, Zuma, a former anti-apartheid activist who spent a decade at the Robben Island prison where Nelson Mandela was held, was popular among some South Africans for his personal warmth and populist policies.

In 2006, while being tried on charges of raping an HIV-positive family friend, Zuma was widely criticized after testifying he took a shower after extramarital sex to lower the risk of AIDS. He was acquitted of rape. But during his tenure, he called for earlier and expanded treatment for HIV-positive South Africans that helped to curb the death rate and urged his countrymen to get tested for HIV.

He presided over a South African triumph, the staging of the World Cup soccer tournament in 2010. He was also leader during the fatal shooting by police of several dozen protesters during labor unrest at a platinum mine in Marikana in 2012.

The former president was defiant in a television interview earlier Wednesday, saying he had done nothing wrong despite the ANC's demand for his resignation.

"I'm being victimized here," Zuma told state broadcaster SABC. He complained that Ramaphosa and other ANC leaders had not given him clear reasons about why he should go.

However, Zuma was affable when he arrived hours later at government offices to give his resignation speech.

"Why do you look serious? You can't even say, 'Good evening,'" a beaming Zuma said to weary journalists. "What's happening ... you are tired. We are working, aren't we?"


Millions in China journey home for Lunar New Year

Women unpack their luggage outside the main railway station in Beijing, China, Wednesday, Feb. 14. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Beijing (AP) - Millions in China were boarding trains, planes and automobiles Wednesday as the Lunar New Year travel rush, the world's largest seasonal human migration, reached its climax.

China's most important festival falls on Friday and people were traveling to either return to their hometowns or flock to vacation destinations. For many migrant workers in the country's industrialized east, the holiday may be the only time of year they return home to see family and friends.

Weeks before the rush, many travelers had used smartphone apps to snatch up tickets that later sold out. Some train journeys between cities and rural areas last more than 20 hours, with passengers crowded into cabins that are standing room only.

The state railway operator reported Monday that 98.8 million people rode trains countrywide during the first 12 days of February. China's official Xinhua news agency said more than 1.1 million were expected to pass through railway stations in Beijing on Tuesday and Wednesday alone.

Increasing numbers of Chinese have also been traveling abroad in recent years, reflecting rising prosperity among the urban middle class.

More than 6.5 million are expected to head overseas this year, according to a joint report from travel agency Ctrip and the China Tourism Academy.

Travelers have booked voyages to more than 68 nations and regions, the report said, with Thailand, Japan, the United Arab Emirates and Nordic countries among the top destinations. The average Chinese tourist spends about 9,500 yuan ($1,500) on a Lunar New Year trip, the report said.

Domestic travel is also popular: the National Tourism Administration predicted earlier this month that this year's holiday period will bring in 476 billion yuan ($75 billion) in tourism revenue.


European officials: Virtual currencies are no way to pay

In this Feb. 13, 2018 photo the lights of the skyline of the Frankfurt, Germany, banking district are reflected in the river main after the sun set. (Boris Roessle/dpa via AP)

David McHugh

Frankfurt, Germany (AP) — Several of Europe's top finance officials are skeptical about virtual currencies like bitcoin, saying they are risky for investors and inefficient as a way to pay for things.

Germany's top monetary official, Jens Weidmann, said in a speech Wednesday that virtual currencies such as bitcoin are not good means of payment because their values fluctuate so rapidly. The value of bitcoin jumped last year from below $1,000 to almost $20,000 in December before falling back to around $9,000 currently.

Weidmann, who heads Germany's national central bank and sits on the governing council of the European Central Bank, the issuer of the euro, added that virtual currencies are no substitute for conventional money.

"For a stable monetary and financial system we need no crypto-tokens, but rather central banks obligated to price stability and effective banking regulation, and we have both in the eurozone," he said.

He said that central banks did not need to issue such currencies themselves, which he said could heighten the risk of bank runs. If people were able to transfer bank deposits with the click of a computer mouse to an account at the central bank, the threshold for fleeing the private banking system would be lowered, he said.

Weidmann's remarks follow a series of statements from top European officials warning banks and consumers about virtual currencies. The three European supervisory authorities for banking, securities, and insurance and pensions have warned consumers of the risks of buying such currencies, saying they are "highly risky and unregulated products and unsuitable as investment, savings or retirement products."

Last week, top European Central Bank official Yves Mersch said that central banks were concerned about the social and psychological effects the currencies seem to have. "There's so much money flowing in that it's like a gold rush — but there's no gold," he said in an interview with the Bloomberg news service.

Mersch is a member of the bank's six-person executive board that runs the institution day to day at its headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany. He said that if banks started loaning money to finance such activities, "it would obviously be of concern for us." The ECB is the top banking supervisor in the eurozone.

The skeptical stance by eurozone officials contrasts with the effort by Sweden's central bank to study the possible introduction of an e-krona, an electronic currency linked to the country's central bank. Sweden is not a member of the eurozone and controls its own currency, the krona. The central bank says no decision has been made and laws would have to be changed to implement such a proposal. The use of cash has dwindled in Sweden to about 15 percent of retail transactions in 2016, according to the bank.

On Wednesday Mersch defended the continuing use of physical notes and coins, in the face of occasional proposals to limit or do away with cash entirely in favor of electronic payments. Mersch said that cash enabled people to exercise their rights to privacy and independent action without monitoring or interference by others.

Mersch and Weidmann said that the Group of 20 is looking into how to ensure that virtual currencies do not disrupt financial stability. They said a global forum such as the G-20 is a good place for the discussion since some of the virtual currencies have no national base. The G-20 is made up of 19 countries with 85 percent of annual global economic output plus the European Union. The group presidency is held this year by Argentina, which will host a meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors March 19-20 in Buenos Aires.


Tongans face long wait for services to return after cyclone

This image made from a video, shows inside of a house damaged by Cyclone Gita in Nuku’alofa, Tonga Wednesday, Feb. 14. (TVNZ via AP)

Nick Perry

Wellington, New Zealand (AP) — Thousands of Tonga residents face a long wait for power and other services to be restored after a cyclone tore through the Pacific nation this week.

More details emerged Wednesday about the damage caused by Cyclone Gita after it hit the main island Monday night just south of the capital, Nuku'alofa. The cyclone destroyed homes, churches and even the nation's historic Parliament House.

There have been no confirmed deaths from the storm. Tongan police said three people suffered major injuries and 30 had minor injuries. Police said an officer was injured while trying to help a family evacuate and was in stable condition in a local hospital.

Most of the main island remains without power and many phone lines aren't working.

Publisher Pesi Fonua said he's using a small generator, but that many people with refrigerators will have to toss out food. He said he'd heard it would likely be next week at the earliest before his power is restored.

"Yesterday, nothing happening. Everyone was in shock," he said. "But slowly, slowly things are happening. The telephones are slowly working. They're restoring the power lines."

Kuenili Ka'afi told Newshub that she took shelter in a van when the cyclone hit, having time to grab only a family photo as the winds tore her home apart. She said the cyclone started shaking and lifting the van, and that she felt lucky to be alive.

Some 5,000 people stayed in evacuation centers during Cyclone Gita, according to officials. Tonga, which is home to about 106,000 people, has declared an emergency.

New Zealand has pledged 2.25 million New Zealand dollars (US$1.65 million) in aid to help with the cleanup from the cyclone in several island nations, while Australia is deploying equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The cyclone caused some damage in Fiji on Tuesday night, although its path was south of the major population centers.

Anare Leweniqila, the director of Fiji's National Disaster Management Office, said six homes were destroyed and another 27 damaged on two of the nation's southern islands. He said there were no reports of deaths or serious injuries in Fiji.

"It came down to good preparedness," he said. "People heeded the advice from officials and took shelter early in the day before the cyclone hit."

He said about 150 people had moved into evacuation centers.

The storm hit Samoa and American Samoa last week, where it caused damage to buildings, widespread power outages and flooding.

President Donald Trump on Sunday declared an emergency in American Samoa, a U.S. territory. The declaration allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide equipment and resources to help the 50,000 residents recover.


Update February 14, 2018

Kuwait calms Philippines after dead worker found in freezer

Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sabah Khalid Al Sabah walks toward a news conference in Kuwait City, Kuwait, Tuesday, Feb. 13. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

Jon Gambrell

Kuwait City (AP) — Kuwait's foreign minister tried to calm anger in the Philippines on Tuesday after a Filipina worker was found dead in a freezer, hoping to defuse an ordered "total ban" on workers coming to the small, oil-rich nation.

It's the latest case to draw the anger of populist Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who in January complained that cases of abuse reported by Filipina domestic workers "always" seem to be coming from Kuwait.

There have been prominent cases of abuse in the past, including an incident in December 2014 where a Kuwaiti's pet lions fatally mauled a Filipina maid.

But what pushed the Philippines over the edge appears to the killing of a domestic worker whose body was left in a freezer in a Kuwait City apartment reportedly abandoned since November 2016.

On Monday, the Philippines' Department of Labor and Employment issued an order calling for "a total ban on deployment of all overseas Filipino workers to Kuwait." It's unclear how widely the order is being enforced as many Filipinos are still working across industries in Kuwait.

Speaking to journalists Tuesday, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sabah Khalid Al Sabah said "this escalation will not benefit the relationship between Kuwait and the Philippines." He also said Kuwait warmly welcomed Filipino workers.

"We have 170,000 Filipino nationals living a decent life here," the minister said. "They have one of the least number of problems out of all expatriate communities. Isolated incidents unfortunately happen. We share all of our findings and investigations with the Philippine authorities."

His comments also came as the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group announced the Philippines had joined it.

The Philippines' ambassador to Kuwait, Renato Villa, told The Associated Press on Tuesday he welcomed the Kuwaiti foreign minister's comments.

Kuwait has declared an amnesty for Filipino workers who overstayed their visas and are working to help some 500 workers stuck in the country after a company refused to pay their salaries, Villa said. Kuwaiti police also are offering details on Filipino killings to his diplomats.

Villa offered a much higher number of Filipino workers in Kuwait — 250,000 — and said 65 percent were domestic workers.

"They are the most vulnerable, the domestic workers," he said.


South Africa's ruling party finally turns against Zuma

Secretary General of the African National Congress, (ANC) Ace Magashule, makes a statement at a briefing at the ANC headquarters in downtoan Johannesburg, Tuesday, Feb. 13. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Christopher Torchia

Johannesburg (AP) — South Africa's ruling party on Tuesday disowned President Jacob Zuma after sticking with him through years of scandals, ordering him to resign in an attempt to resolve a leadership crisis that has disrupted government business in one of Africa's biggest economies.

The announcement by the African National Congress did not immediately end the protracted turmoil in a party that was the main movement against white minority rule and has led South Africa since apartheid ended in 1994. If the politically isolated president defies the party's order, the matter could go to parliament for a motion of no confidence that would further embarrass the party once led by Nelson Mandela.

Ace Magashule, the ANC's secretary-general, said he expected Zuma to reply to the directive on Wednesday. Another senior party official suggested that Zuma would be unwise to flout the edict of the party, which is eager to recover from internal disarray ahead of 2019 elections.

"A disciplined cadre of the ANC, you are given a chance to resign on your own, but if you lack discipline you will resist," party chairman Gwede Mantashe said at a provincial rally, according to South African media.

"Once you resist, we are going to let you be thrown out through the vote of no confidence because you disrespect the organization and you disobey it, therefore we are going to let you be devoured by the vultures," Mantashe said.

Business leaders welcomed the ANC's decision to recall Zuma, saying the country needs to focus on economic growth and address social problems such as unemployment.

ANC leaders must act "swiftly, but constitutionally" to remove Zuma so the "work of recovering our future, which was imperiled by his ruinous regime — characterized by incompetence, corruption, state capture and low economic growth — can begin in earnest," said Bonang Mohale, CEO of Business Leadership South Africa, a group that promotes development.

"State capture" is a term used in South Africa to describe the alleged looting of state enterprises by associates of Zuma, who denies any wrongdoing.

A judicial commission is about to start a probe of those allegations. Separately, Zuma could face corruption charges tied to an arms deal two decades ago.

The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said Tuesday that it had been informed by the chief prosecutor that his team will provide its recommendation on Feb. 23 about whether to prosecute Zuma on the old charges. The charges had been thrown out but the opposition fought successfully to get them reinstated.

In another scandal, South Africa's top court ruled in 2016 that Zuma violated the constitution following an investigation of multi-million-dollar upgrades to his private home using state money.

"We are determined to restore the integrity of the public institutions, create political stability and urgent economic recovery," said Magashule, once a staunch supporter of Zuma.

The ANC secretary-general spoke respectfully of Zuma, saying he had "not been found guilty by any court of law" and that the decision to recall him was not taken because he had done "anything wrong."

Zuma had agreed to resign and wanted to stay in office for several more months, but the national executive committee decided at a 13-hour meeting that he had to leave at once, Magashule said.

The ANC said it wants Zuma to be replaced by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was elected party leader in December and has vowed to fight corruption.

Zuma, who took office in 2009 and is in his second five-year term, has not made any public appearances in recent days.

Government leaders hope the standoff can be resolved ahead of the unveiling of the national budget in parliament on Feb. 21, which would go some way toward reassuring investors that the country is getting back on track. Zuma did not give the state of the nation address last week because of the political crisis, and a regular Cabinet meeting scheduled for Wednesday has been postponed.

A motion of no confidence sponsored by an opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, has been scheduled for Feb. 22 in parliament. Opposition parties want the vote moved up to this week and then want parliament to be dissolved so that early elections can be held.

Zuma has survived similar motions in the past, but ruling party members now see him as a political liability ahead of next year's elections and likely would vote against him on the orders of the party leadership.


UK judge upholds arrest warrant for WikiLeaks founder

Police motorcyclists briefly stop outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Tuesday, Feb. 13. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Jill Lawless

London (AP) — A judge upheld a British arrest warrant for Julian Assange on Tuesday, saying the WikiLeaks founder should have the courage to come to court and face justice after more than five years inside Ecuador's London embassy.

Judge Emma Arbuthnot rejected arguments by Assange's lawyers that it is no longer in the public interest to arrest him for jumping bail in 2012 and seeking shelter in the embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden. Prosecutors there were investigating allegations of sexual assault and rape made by two women, which Assange has denied.

Arbuthnot did not mince words in her ruling at London's Westminster Magistrates' Court, saying that by jumping bail Assange had made "a determined attempt to avoid the order of the court."

She said Assange appeared to be "a man who wants to impose his terms on the course of justice."

"He appears to consider himself above the normal rules of law and wants justice only if it goes in his favor," the judge said, drawing exclamations of dismay from Assange supporters in the public gallery.

Assange can seek to appeal, though his lawyers did not immediately say whether he would.

Swedish prosecutors dropped their investigation last year, saying there was no prospect of bringing Assange to Sweden in the foreseeable future. But the British warrant for violating bail conditions still stands, and Assange faces arrest if he leaves the embassy.

Assange's lawyers had asked for the U.K warrant to be withdrawn since Sweden no longer wants him extradited, but the judge rejected their request last week.

Assange's attorney had gone on to argue that arresting him is no longer proportionate or in the public interest. Lawyer Mark Summers argued the Australian was justified in seeking refuge in the embassy because he has a legitimate fear that U.S. authorities want to arrest him for WikiLeaks' publication of secret documents.

"I do not find that Mr. Assange's fears were reasonable," the judge said.

"If the United States initiates extradition proceedings, Mr. Assange would have the ability to raise any bars to the extradition and challenge the proceedings" in a British court, she said.

Arbuthnot dismissed another plank of Assange's case — a report from a U.N. working group which said the 46-year-old was being arbitrarily detained.

"I give little weight to the views of the working group," the judge said, noting that Assange had "restricted his own freedom for a number of years."

Assange's lawyer had argued that the 5 years Assange has spent inside the embassy were "adequate, if not severe" punishment for his actions, noting that he had health problems including a frozen shoulder and depression.

The judge accepted that Assange had depression and other conditions, but said he was overall in "fairly good physical health."

Arbuthnot also rejected an argument that Assange's actions had not stalled Sweden's legal case, because he had offered to be interviewed by Swedish prosecutors at the embassy.

Assange's legal team said emails recently released after a freedom of information request showed that a British state prosecutor had advised Sweden "that it would not be prudent for Sweden to try to interview Mr. Assange in the U.K."

The judge said she could not tell from the emails she had seen whether the lawyer who sent them had behaved inappropriately. But she said Assange's "failure to surrender has impeded the course of justice."

"Defendants on bail up and down the country, and requested persons facing extradition, come to court to face the consequences of their own choices," she said. "He should have the courage to do so too."

The ruling leaves the long legal impasse intact. Apart from the bail-jumping charge — for which the maximum sentence is one year in prison — Assange suspects there is a secret U.S. grand jury indictment against him for WikiLeaks' publication of classified documents, and that American authorities will seek his extradition.

Assange's lawyers say he is willing to face legal proceedings in Britain, but only if he receives a guarantee that he will not be sent to the U.S. to face prosecution. That is not an assurance Britain is likely to give.

Outside the courtroom, Assange lawyer Gareth Peirce gave little indication of what might come next in the twisting legal saga.

"The history of the case from start to finish is extraordinary," she said. "Each aspect of it becomes puzzling and troubling as it is scrutinized."


Police recommend corruption charges for Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is shown in this Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018 file photo. (Ronen Zvulun, Pool via AP)

Josef Federman

Jerusalem (AP) — Israeli police on Tuesday recommended that Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted on bribery and breach of trust charges in a pair of corruption cases, dealing an embarrassing blow to the embattled prime minister that is likely to fuel calls for him to step down.

Netanyahu angrily rejected the accusations, which included accepting nearly $300,000 in gifts from a pair of billionaires. He accused police of being on a witch hunt and vowed to remain in office and even seek re-election.

"I will continue to lead the state of Israel responsibly and loyally as long as you, the citizens of Israel, choose me to lead you," an ashen-faced Netanyahu said in a televised address. "I am sure that the truth will come to light. And I am sure that also in the next election that will take place on time I will win your trust again, with God's help."

The recommendations marked a dramatic ending to a more than yearlong investigation into allegations that Netanyahu accepted gifts from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer, and suspicions that he offered to give preferential treatment to a newspaper publisher in exchange for favorable coverage.

The recommendations now go to Attorney General Avihai Mendelblit, who will review the material before deciding whether to file charges. Netanyahu can remain in office during that process, which is expected to drag on for months.

But with a cloud hanging over his head, he could soon find himself facing calls to step aside. During similar circumstances a decade ago, Netanyahu, as opposition leader, urged then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign during a police investigation, saying a leader "sunk up to his neck in interrogations" could not govern properly.

In the immediate aftermath of the police announcement, reactions quickly fell along partisan lines.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a bitter rival of Netanyahu, called on him to suspend himself and for the coalition to appoint a replacement on Wednesday morning.

"The depth of corruption is horrifying," Barak said. "This does not look like nothing. This looks like bribery."

But key members of Netanyahu's Likud Party rallied behind him.  Cabinet Minister Miri Regev said she was "not excited" by the police recommendations and urged patience while the attorney general reviews the case.

She said the biggest surprise was that Yair Lapid, leader of the opposition Yesh Atid party, had been a witness. David Amsalem, another Netanyahu confidant, called Lapid a "snitch."

Lapid later issued a statement calling on Netanyahu to resign.

"Someone with such serious accusations against them, many of which he does not even deny, cannot continue to serve as prime minister with responsibility for the security and well-being of Israel's citizens," Lapid said.

In a statement, police said their investigation found sufficient evidence to indict Netanyahu in the first case, known as File 1000, for accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust.

It said Netanyahu had accepted gifts valued at 750,000 shekels ($214,000) from Milchan, and 250,000 shekels ($71,000) from Packer. The gifts from Milchan reportedly included expensive cigars and champagne.

Police said that in return, Netanyahu had operated on Milchan's behalf on U.S. visa matters, legislated a tax break and connected him with an Indian businessman. It said he also helped Milchan, an Israeli producer whose credits include "Pretty Woman," ''12 Years a Slave" and "JFK," in the Israeli media market.

In the second case, known as "File 2000," Netanyahu reportedly was recorded asking Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the Yediot Ahronot daily, for positive coverage in exchange for promoting legislation that would weaken a free newspaper that had cut into Yediot's business.

Police said there was sufficient evidence to charge both Milchan and Mozes with bribery.

Channel 10 TV read a statement that it said came from Milchan's "defense team" saying the bribery charge would not stand. It said his relationship with Netanyahu went back to the early 2000s, before he became prime minister, and that the men and their families were friends.

There was no immediate comment from Packer or Mozes.

Netanyahu is one of President Donald Trump's biggest supporters on the global stage, and the police recommendations threaten to weaken Netanyahu as the White House works to prepare a Mideast peace proposal.

In his TV address, Netanyahu said that his entire three-decade political career, which included serving as Israel's ambassador to the U.N., a previous stint as prime minister in the 1990s and a series of Cabinet posts, was meant only to serve the Israeli public.

He acknowledged aiding Milchan with his visa issues, but said Milchan had done much for Israel and noted that the late Shimon Peres had also been close with Milchan.

He also said that over the years he had taken decisions that hurt Milchan's business interests in Israel.

"How can allegations be taken seriously that in exchange for cigars I acted for Arnon Milchen's benefit?" he said.

He said all the allegations over the years against him had one goal: "to topple me from government."

He said past scandals had all "ended with nothing" and "this time as well they will end with nothing."

As the police investigation gained steam in recent months, Netanyahu has claimed to be a victim of an overaggressive police force and a media witch hunt.

Netanyahu, who has been prime minister for nine straight years, and his family have become embroiled in a series of scandals in recent months.

Recordings recently emerged of his wife, Sara, screaming at an aide, while separate recordings caught his eldest son, Yair, on a drunken night out at a series of Tel Aviv strip clubs while traveling around in a taxpayer-funded government car with a government-funded bodyguard. The younger Netanyahu ended up spending the night in a luxury Tel Aviv apartment owned by Packer.

Netanyahu has said the scandals are all the work of media out to get him.


Update February 13, 2018

Indonesian court begins trial of Australian man in drug case

Australia national Isaac Roberts, left, listens to an Indonesian interpreter during his first appearance in Denpasar district court in Bali, Indonesia, Monday, Feb. 12. (AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati

Bali, Indonesia (AP) — An Indonesian court on Monday began the trial of an Australian man who faces possible life imprisonment if convicted of possessing methamphetamine and ecstasy.

Isaac Emmanuel Roberts was arrested at Bali's Ngurah Rai airport on Dec. 4 after arriving from Bangkok. Customs officers seized 14.3 grams (0.5 ounce) of crystal methamphetamine and 14 ecstasy tablets from his luggage.

His trial began at the District Court in Denpasar, Bali's capital, where prosecutors said Roberts violated anti-narcotics laws. If found guilty, he could face from four years to life in prison and a fine of at least $4,400.

The 35-year-old accountant earlier confessed to being a drug user but denied being a dealer.

Media reports said Roberts ran as a Liberal Democrat candidate for the Higgins seat in Melbourne in 2009 but was unsuccessful.

His social media accounts show he is a gym fan who regularly visits Bali and Thailand.

Indonesia has very strict drug laws and convicted traffickers can be executed by a firing squad. More than 150 people are on death row, mostly for drug crimes, and about a third of them are foreigners.

Eighteen people convicted of drug-related offenses have been executed under current President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who took office in October 2014..


Tonga begins cleanup while Fiji prepares for Cyclone Gita

This Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018, photo shows electric and telephone wires downed by trees from Friday's Tropical Storm Gita in American Samoa. (AP Photo/Fili Sagapolutele)

Nick Perry

Wellington, New Zealand (AP) — Tonga began cleaning up Tuesday after a cyclone hit overnight, while some people in the nearby Pacific nation of Fiji began preparing for the storm to hit them.

Cyclone Gita destroyed homes and churches in Tonga and caused widespread power outages after it tore through the island nation just south of the capital, Nuku'alofa. There were no immediate reports of serious injuries or deaths.

The cyclone was packing winds of over 200 kilometers per hour (124 miles per hour) when it made landfall. The nation has declared a state of emergency.

The cyclone was continuing to intensify and was predicted to hit some southern Fiji islands Tuesday night. Experts predict the cyclone will miss Fiji's major population centers, including the capital, Suva.

About 2,500 people living on two of Fiji's islands were at risk, the nation's National Disaster Management Office told Radio New Zealand. Director Anare Leweniqila said emergency supplies of food and water were being gathered and urged elderly and disabled people to begin moving into evacuation centers.

The storm has strengthened since hitting Samoa and American Samoa last week, where it caused damage to buildings, widespread power outages and flooding.

President Donald Trump on Sunday declared an emergency in American Samoa, a U.S. territory. The declaration allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide equipment and resources to help the 50,000 residents recover.

Chris Brandolino, a scientist at New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, said flooding and coastal inundation would likely cause as many problems in Tonga as the damage from the winds.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her government was on standby and ready to help Tonga, which is home to about 105,000 people.

On Monday before the storm hit, publisher Pesi Fonua said people were busy nailing boards and roofing iron to their homes to try to limit the damage from coconuts, trees and other debris.


London City Airport shuts down due to unexploded WWII bomb

Planes sit on the apron at London City Airport which was closed Monday, Feb. 12, after the discovery of an unexploded Second World War bomb in the nearby River Thames. (Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP)

London (AP) — All flights in and out of London City Airport were canceled Monday after a 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) unexploded World War II-era bomb was found nearby in the River Thames.

The Metropolitan Police service cleared an area within 214 meters (700 feet) of the bomb, including several residential streets, as officers worked with specialists from the Royal Navy to remove the device.

Police said the bomb was discovered Sunday at the George V Dock during pre-planned work at City Airport. They described it as a 1.5-meter (5-foot) shell that was lying in a bed of dense silt.

"The first stage of the removal operation is to free the shell from the silt so that it can be floated for removal," police said in a statement.

Local officials offered emergency accommodations to residents and said work to remove the bomb would continue into Tuesday.

Airport CEO Robert Sinclair said he recognizes that passengers will be inconvenienced but said the airport is cooperating fully with authorities "to resolve the situation as quickly as possible."

London City, the smallest of London's international airports, handled 4.5 million passengers last year. Popular with business travelers, it's located in east London's docklands, an area that was heavily bombed during World War II.


Workers find both data recorders at Russian plane crash site

Personnel work at the scene of a AN-148 plane crash in Stepanovskoye village, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Domodedovo airport, Russia, Monday, Feb. 12. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Vladimir Isachenkov

Moscow (AP) — Tramping through snowy fields outside Moscow, emergency workers found both flight data recorders from a crashed Russian airliner on Monday as they searched for debris and the remains of the 71 passengers and crew who died.

The An-148 twin-engine regional jet bound for Orsk in the southern Urals went down minutes after taking off from Moscow's Domodedovo airport Sunday afternoon. All 65 passengers and 6 crew on board were killed.

Russian investigators quickly ruled out a terror attack but will not speculate on possible reasons for the crash.

Still the crash has re-ignited questions about the An-148, since the model's safety record is spotty, with one previous crash and a series of major incidents in which pilots struggled to land safely. Saratov Airlines, which operated the plane, has grounded several other An-148s in its fleet pending the crash probe.

The Investigative Committee, Russia's premier state investigative agency, said the plane was intact and there had been no fire on board before it hit the ground. The plane's fuel tanks exploded on impact, scattering debris across 30 hectares (74 acres) in deep snow, according to the Emergency Ministry, which used drones to direct the search.

Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich told a Cabinet meeting that emergency teams have found both flight data and cockpit conversation recorders, which are crucial for determining the crash's cause.

Officials said the search for victims' remains at the crash site will take a week.  The 65 passengers ranged in age from 5 to 79, according to a list posted by the Russian Emergencies Ministry. Most victims were from Orsk, where the authorities declared an official day of mourning on Monday.

President Vladimir Putin put off a planned trip to Sochi and stayed in Moscow to monitor the search operation and the crash probe.

Saratov Airlines said the plane had received proper maintenance and passed all the necessary checks before the flight. The plane was built in 2010 for a different airline that operated it for several years before putting it in storage. Saratov Airlines commissioned it last year.

The airline said the plane's captain had more than 5,000 hours of flying time, 2,800 of them in an An-148. The other pilot had 812 hours of experience, largely in that model.

Despite Saratov Airlines' move to ground its An-148s, another Russian operator of the plane, Angara, based in Irkutsk in eastern Siberia, said it will keep flying them. Russian government agencies that also operate the aircraft haven't grounded them either.

The An-148 once was touted as an example of Russian-Ukrainian cooperation, but it fell into trouble as relations between the two neighbors unraveled following Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

It was developed by Ukraine's Antonov company in the early 2000s. About 40 were built, most of them in Russia that manufactured the plane under license.

Along with several commercial carriers, the An-148 is operated by the Russian Defense Ministry and several other government agencies. Ukraine's president has used the plane for some of his trips.

But the plane's production in Russia was halted last year because of low demand and media reports indicated that some carriers, including the Saratov Airlines, were experiencing a shortage of spares. Some airlines reportedly had to cannibalize some of their planes to keep others airworthy.

Among the major problems, in March 2011 an An-148 crashed during a training flight in Russia, killing all six crew on board. Investigators blamed pilot error.

In 2010, another An-148 operated by a Russian carrier suffered a major failure of its control system but its crew managed to land safely.

Last September, a Saratov Airlines An-148 had one of its engines shut down minutes after takeoff, but landed safely. And in October, another An-148 that belonged to a different Russian carrier suffered an engine fire on takeoff but managed to land.

The last large airline crash in Russia occurred on Dec. 25, 2016, when a Tu-154 operated by the Russian Defense Ministry on its way to Syria crashed into the Black Sea minutes after takeoff from Sochi. All 92 people on board were killed.

The probe into that crash is still ongoing, but Russian officials have indicated that pilot error appeared to be the reason for it.


Update February 12, 2018

Russian airliner crashes moments after takeoff, killing 71

In this screen grab provided by the Life.ru, the wreckage of a AN-148 plane is seen in Stepanovskoye village, about 40 kilometers from the Domodedovo airport, Russia, Sunday, Feb. 11. (Life.ru via AP)

Jim Heintz

Moscow (AP) — A Russian airliner that had just taken off from the country's second-busiest airport crashed Sunday, killing all 71 people aboard and scattering jagged chunks of wreckage across a snowy field outside Moscow.

The pilots of the An-148 regional jet did not report any problems before the twin-engine aircraft plunged into the field about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Domodedovo Airport, authorities said.

The Saratov Airlines flight disappeared from radar just minutes after departure for the city of Orsk, some 1,500 kilometers (1,000 miles) to the southeast.

Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov confirmed that there were no survivors.

The 65 passengers ranged in age from 5 to 79, according to a list posted by the Russian Emergencies Ministry, which did not give their nationalities. Six crew members were also aboard.

Emergency workers combed through the field while investigators descended on the airport to search for clues to what brought the jet down. One of the flight recorders was recovered, Russian news reports said, but it was not immediately clear if it was the data or voice recorder.

The airport has been the focus of security concerns in the past. Security lapses came under sharp criticism in 2004, after Chechen suicide bombers destroyed two airliners that took off from the airport on the same evening, killing a total of 90 people. A 2011 bombing in the arrivals area killed 37 people.

Investigators also conducted a search at the airline's main office in Saratov, reports said.

Russia's Investigative Committee said all possible causes were being considered. Some reports suggested there were questions about whether the plane had been properly de-iced. Moderate snow was falling in much of Moscow at the time of the crash.

Airline spokeswoman Elena Voronova told the state news agency RIA Novosti that one of the pilots had more than 5,000 hours of flying time, 2,800 of them in an An-148. The other pilot had 812 hours of experience, largely in that model plane.

Tass said the plane entered service in 2010 for a different airline, but was held out of service for two years because of a parts shortage. It resumed flying in 2015 and joined Saratov's fleet a year ago.

TV footage from the crash site showed airplane fragments lying in the snow. Reports said the pieces were strewn over an area about a kilometer (0.6 miles) wide.

A plane can disappear from radar when it gets too close to the ground to reflect radar signals.

John Cox, a former airline pilot and now a US-based safety consultant, said the disappearance could also indicate that the jet's transponder lost power.

"That says potential of engine failure or a technical problem," Cox told The Associated Press.

President Vladimir Putin put off a planned trip to Sochi to monitor the investigation. Putin was to meet Monday with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at the Black Sea resort, where the president has an official residence.

Instead, Abbas will meet with Putin in Moscow in the latter part of Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies.

The An-148 was developed by Ukraine's Antonov company in the early 2000s and manufactured in both Ukraine and Russia.

Shabby equipment and poor supervision plagued Russian civil aviation for years after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, but its safety record has improved in recent years.

The last large-scale crash in Russia occurred on Dec. 25, 2016, when a Tu-154 operated by the Russian Defense Ministry on its way to Syria crashed into the Black Sea minutes after takeoff from Sochi. All 92 people on board were killed.

In March 2016, a Boeing 737-800 flown by FlyDubai crashed while landing at Rostov-on-Don, killing all 62 people aboard.

An onboard bomb destroyed a Russian Metrojet airliner in October 2015 soon after it took off from Egypt's Sharm al-Sheikh resort. The bombing killed 224 people.


Man with knife kills 1, injures 12 at Beijing mall

In this April 13, 2009, file photo, shoppers walk on a pedestrian bridge in the Xidan shopping district in Beijing. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Beijing (AP) — A 35-year-old man with a personal grievance attacked 13 people with a knife in a busy shopping mall in Beijing on Sunday, killing one, police said.

A woman died from her injuries after being sent to a hospital, the city's Public Security Bureau said in a brief statement on its official microblog page. The 12 other victims in the attack suffered injuries that were not life-threatening, it said.

Police provided only the alleged assailant's surname, Zhu, and said he confessed to the authorities that he carried out the attack at Joy City, a mall in Beijing's Xidan district, to "vent his personal discontent."

Video clips posted on Chinese social media sites showed mall patrons fleeing from what was described as a restaurant on the sixth story. One clip showed a man staggering out, apparently hurt from the attack, dripping blood on the floor as a security guard rushed to help him. Other clips showed people being rushed away on gurneys and a large number of uniformed police in the mall.

In one piece of footage that appeared to be surveillance video of a restaurant, a man could be seen lunging at someone seated at a table with what seemed to be a knife. People scrambled to get away, flipping tables and pushing chairs at the man. The video could not be independently verified.

Because Chinese law tightly restricts the sale and possession of firearms, mass attacks are generally carried out with knives or homemade explosives.

Perpetrators of similar attacks in the past have been described as mentally ill or bearing grudges against society.

Many of those incidents have occurred at schools, dating back to a series of attacks in 2010 in which nearly 20 children were killed, prompting a response from top government officials and leading many schools to beef up security.


Bishop declares nun's recovery as 70th Lourdes miracle

 

In this Sept. 12, 2008, file photo, pilgrims queue to visit the grotto at Lourdes, southwestern France. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)

Elaine Ganley

Paris (AP) — A French bishop declared Sunday that the recovery a long-debilitated nun made after she visited the shrine in Lourdes was a miracle, the 70th event to be recognized as an act of divine intervention at the world-famous Catholic pilgrimage site.

Beauvais Bishop Jacques Benoit-Gonin proclaimed the miracle nearly a decade after Bernadette Moriau attended a blessing of the sick ceremony at the Lourdes sanctuary in southern France. The bishop of Lourdes, Nicolas Brouwet announced the declaration during Mass at the shrine's basilica.

The shrine in southern France where apparitions of Mary, Jesus' mother, reportedly appeared 160 years ago to a 14-year-old girl is considered a site of miraculous cures. Water running from a spring in the sanctuary's Grotto of the Apparitions is purported to have curative powers and millions of pilgrims visit the sanctuary every year.

Moriau's experience underwent extensive studies and tests by the International Medical Committee of Lourdes. The bishop has the last word on whether to approve a reported cure as a miracle.

Moriau had four operations on her spinal column between 1968 and 1975 and was declared fully disabled in 1980. One foot was permanently twisted, requiring her to wear a brace and use a wheelchair. She took what she said were significant doses of morphine for pain.

"I never asked for a miracle," the nun, now 79, recounted of her July 2008 pilgrimage to Lourdes.

After returning to her home convent near Beauvais and praying in the chapel, "I felt a (surge of) well-being throughout my body, a relaxation, warmth....I returned to my room and, there, a voice told me to 'take off your braces,'" she said in a video posted on the Beauvais diocese web site.  "Surprise. I could move."

Moriau said she immediately did away with all her aids, from braces to morphine — and took a 5 kilometer hike a few days later.

The bishop said the nun's "sudden, instantaneous, complete and durable change" alerted him to a possible miracle. The Lourdes medical committee said the changes were unexplainable "in the current state of our scientific knowledge," he added.

A miracle at Lourdes last was declared in 2013. It involved an Italian woman who visited Lourdes in 1989, suffering severe high blood pressure and other problems.

Not all declared miracles pass through Lourdes. A French nun, Marie Simon-Pierre, was declared cured of her Parkinson's disease after praying to the late Pope John Paul II, who suffered from the same neuro-degenerative disorder. That helped fast-track the pope's canonization as one of the two miracles needed for him to become St. John Paul II in 2014.


South African ruling party leaders to meet amid Zuma limbo

 

South African Deputy President and African National Congress party President Cyril Ramaphosa, arrives at the St. Georges Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa, Sunday, Feb. 11. (AP Photo)

Christopher Torchia

Johannesburg (AP) — A key committee of South Africa's ruling ANC party will hold an emergency meeting Monday as an anxious nation awaits word on whether President Jacob Zuma will resign soon because of corruption allegations, South African media reported.

The announcement of a meeting of the national executive committee of the African National Congress came ahead of an expected speech on Sunday by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who says he has been negotiating a power transition with Zuma.

Many former supporters of the president want him to resign because a series of scandals have sapped support for the ruling party and hurt one of Africa's biggest economies, but there is a growing sense of unease over the lack of information about the confidential talks between Zuma and Ramaphosa, his expected successor.

Last week, Ramaphosa canceled a meeting of the ANC's national executive committee, which had been expected to push for the early removal of the president so that the party can try to win back disaffected voters ahead of elections in 2019. Such a meeting could have exacerbated divisions with the party that has led South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994, and Ramaphosa said his private discussions with Zuma were aimed at minimizing discord.

ANC spokesman Pule Mabe confirmed that a committee meeting was scheduled for Monday, but he did not comment on the agenda, the eNCA media organization reported.

Ramaphosa was expected to speak in Cape Town on Sunday, the 28th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison. Jailed for 27 years, the anti-apartheid leader addressed an ecstatic crowd from the balcony of Cape Town's City Hall on Feb. 11, 1990 and was elected as South Africa's first black president four years later. He died in 2013 at the age of 95.

Ramaphosa, an anti-apartheid activist who held the microphone for Mandela during the City Hall speech, was a key negotiator during the transition to democracy in the early 1990s.


Turkey slams Cyprus for gas search, blocks rig with warships

In this photo taken on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017, children play on a beach with a drilling platform seen in the background, on the outskirts of Larnaca port, in the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

Menelaos Hadjicostis and Zeynep Bilginsoy

Nicosia, Cyprus (AP) — Turkey's foreign ministry criticized Cyprus again Sunday for a "unilateral" offshore hydrocarbons search after Turkish warships prevented an Italian rig from reaching an area off the east Mediterranean island nation where it was to start exploratory drilling for gas.

Turkish warships on Friday stopped a rig belonging to the Italian energy firm ENI as it headed toward an area southeast of Cyprus.

Turkey, in a statement Sunday, said Greek Cypriots were disregarding the "inalienable rights on natural resources" of Turkish Cypriots and jeopardizing the region's stability.

Turkey's foreign ministry said the Cyprus government was acting like "the sole owner of the island" and warned it would be responsible for any consequences. It also urged foreign companies not to support the Cyprus' government's activities.

Cyprus was split into an internationally-recognized Greek Cypriot south and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Only Turkey recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence and keeps more than 35,000 troops in the north.

An ENI spokesman told The Associated Press that the Turkish warships told the rig not to continue because there would be military activities at its destination. The spokesman said the rig would remain where it stopped until the situation is resolved.

Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades said Sunday that Cypriot authorities are taking actions that will neither lead to an escalation of tensions nor overlook the fact that Turkey was violating international law.

The Cyprus government says a gas search is its sovereign right and that any potential hydrocarbon wealth generated will be equitably shared among all Cypriots after the island is reunified.

Italy's ENI, France's TOTAL and ExxonMobil of the U.S. are among the companies licensed to search for hydrocarbons off Cyprus' southern coast.

Last week, Cyprus announced that ENI and partner TOTAL had discovered a potentially sizeable gas field off its southwestern coast that's close to Egypt's Zohr deposit, which is the largest ever discovered in the Mediterranean.

In earlier drilling, Texas-based Noble Energy discovered a field off Cyprus estimated to hold more than 4 trillion cubic feet of gas.
 


DAILY UPDATE

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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Luxury property ad blitz heralds Trump son's visit to India

Maduro: Digital currency puts Venezuela on tech vanguard

US: North Korea canceled meeting with Pence at last minute

Trump urges ban on gun devices like bump stocks


Indonesia's Sinabung volcano unleashes towering ash column

Philippines: Risks rising with China challenging US at sea

Facebook to verify ads with postcards after Russian meddling

Hungarian leader calls Christianity 'Europe's last hope'


All 65 aboard plane feared dead in crash in southern Iran

Bolivia blames both Carnival blasts on dynamite

Israeli PM Netanyahu to Iran: Don't test Israel's resolve

Calls for gun control grow louder after Florida shooting

Avalanches kill 2 skiers in France, injure 2 in Switzerland


Magnitude-7.2 earthquake slams south, central Mexico

Bangladesh gives names to begin Rohingya repatriation

Family grieves Philippine maid found dead in Kuwait freezer

Borneo's orangutan population plunged by 100,000 since 1999


Cyril Ramaphosa sworn in as South Africa's new president

Sheriff's report: Suspect confessed to Florida school attack

Cleric behind bombing in Indonesian capital goes on trial

Huge sinkhole on Rome street swallows half-dozen cars

Amnesty International slams anti-migration bill in Hungary


Former student opens fire at Florida high school, killing 17

South African President Zuma succumbs to pressure, resigns

Millions in China journey home for Lunar New Year

European officials: Virtual currencies are no way to pay

Tongans face long wait for services to return after cyclone


Kuwait calms Philippines after dead worker found in freezer

South Africa's ruling party finally turns against Zuma

UK judge upholds arrest warrant for WikiLeaks founder

Police recommend corruption charges for Netanyahu


Indonesian court begins trial of Australian man in drug case

Tonga begins cleanup while Fiji prepares for Cyclone Gita

London City Airport shuts down due to unexploded WWII bomb

Workers find both data recorders at Russian plane crash site


Russian airliner crashes moments after takeoff, killing 71

Man with knife kills 1, injures 12 at Beijing mall

Bishop declares nun's recovery as 70th Lourdes miracle

South African ruling party leaders to meet amid Zuma limbo

Turkey slams Cyprus for gas search, blocks rig with warships

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