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Update April 2018


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Update April 17, 2018

Chemical weapons team in Syria kept from alleged attack site

A man rides past destroyed buildings in the town of Douma, the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack, near Damascus, Syria, Monday, April 16. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Bassem Mroue

Douma, Syria (AP) — Syrian and Russian authorities prevented independent investigators from going to the scene of a suspected chemical attack, the head of the chemical watchdog group said Monday, blocking international efforts to establish what happened and who was to blame.

The U.S. and France say they have evidence that poison gas was used in the April 7 attack in the opposition-held town of Douma, killing dozens of people, and that Syrian President Bashar Assad's military was behind it.

But they have made none of that evidence public, even after they, along with Britain, bombarded sites they said were linked to Syria's chemical weapons program.

Syria and its ally Russia deny any chemical attack took place, and Russian officials went even further, accusing Britain of staging a "fake" chemical attack. British Prime Minister Theresa May accused the two countries — whose forces now control the town east of Damascus — of trying to cover up evidence.

The lack of access to Douma by inspectors from the watchdog group, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has left unanswered questions about the attack.

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said Syrian and Russian officials cited "pending security issues" in keeping its inspectors from reaching Douma.

"The team has not yet deployed to Douma," Uzumcu told an executive council meeting of the OPCW in The Hague.

Instead, Syrian authorities offered them 22 people to interview as witnesses, he said, adding that he hoped "all necessary arrangements will be made ... to allow the team to deploy to Douma as soon as possible."

Russian military police were ready to help protect the OPCW experts on their visit to Douma, said Maj. Gen. Yuri Yevtushenko of the Russian military's Reconciliation Center in Syria. Igor Kirillov, a Russian chemical weapons protection expert in The Hague, said the team is set to visit the site Wednesday.

Earlier Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the inspectors could not go to the site because they needed approval from the U.N. Department for Safety and Security. He denied that Russia was hampering the mission and suggested the approval was held up because of the Western airstrikes.

"As far as I understand, what is hampering a speedy resolution of this problem is the consequences of the illegal, unlawful military action that Great Britain and other countries conducted on Saturday," he said.

However, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the United Nations has "provided the necessary clearances for the OPCW team to go about its work in Douma. We have not denied the team any request for it to go to Douma."

Early Tuesday, the government-run Central Military media reported a missile attack on the Shayrat air base in Homs province. It said Syrian air defenses shot down most of the six missiles fired at the base. It also reported a separate airstrike on the Dumayr air base near Damascus.

It did not elaborate or say who carried out the airstrikes. A Pentagon spokeswoman said there was no U.S. military activity in the area.

Earlier this month, four Iranian military personnel were killed in an airstrike on Syria's T4 air base in Homs. Syria and its allies blamed Israel for that attack. Israel did not confirm or deny mounting the raid.

In Douma, at least 40 people are believed to have died in the suspected chemical attack on April 7. Until Saturday, the city was the last rebel-held town near the capital and the target of a government offensive in February and March that killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands. Hours after the alleged chemical attack, the rebel faction that controlled the town, the Army of Islam, relented and was evacuated along with thousands of residents.

The Associated Press, during a government-organized visit Monday to Douma, spoke to survivors and witnesses who described being hit by gas. Several said a strange smell started spreading and people screamed, "It's chlorine! It's chlorine!"

The AP visited a two-room underground shelter where Khaled Mahmoud Nuseir said 47 people were killed, including his pregnant wife and two daughters, 18-month-old Qamar and 2 1/2-year-old Nour. A strange smell lingered, nine days after the attack.

Nuseir, 25, said he ran from the shelter to a nearby clinic and fainted. After he was revived, he returned to the shelter and found his wife and daughters dead, with foam coming from their mouths.

He and two other residents accused the rebel Army of Islam of carrying out the attack. As they spoke, government troops were not far away but out of earshot. Nuseir said a gas cylinder was found leaking the poison gas, adding that he didn't think it was dropped from the air because it still looked intact.

Separately, the AP spoke to a medic who was among those who later were evacuated to northern Syria. Ahmed Abed al-Nafaa said helicopters were flying before the attack and when he reached the site, people were screaming "chlorine." He said he tried to enter the shelter but was overcome by a strong smell of chlorine and his comrades pulled him out.

The accounts contradict what the Syrian government and Russia have reported: that there was no gas attack in Douma.

On Sunday, Syria's state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV broadcast interviews with nearly a dozen doctors and medics who said they found no trace of poison gas in Douma. One medic said he heard someone scream "Chemical!" but saw no patients with symptoms. Others said that dust can seep into underground shelters, causing choking and other symptoms associated with chemical attacks.

The Russian military said last week its officers in Douma found no evidence to support reports of a gas attack. The Russian military taskforce in Syria said it visited the hospital in Douma and talked to staff who said they did not confirm reports of such an assault.

Both Russia and the Syrian government have welcomed the OPCW mission. The team arrived in Syria on Saturday. The OPCW team does not have a mandate to assign blame for the attack.

Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad has said his country is "fully ready" to cooperate with the OPCW mission. He said government officials met with the delegation several times to discuss cooperation.

Government forces and Russian troops have been deployed in Douma, which is now controlled by the Syrian government. Opposition activists have said the troops might have removed any evidence of chemical weapons' use.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denied that Russia interfered with any evidence.

"I can guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site," Lavrov told the BBC on Monday.

Alexander Shulgin, the Russian envoy at the OPCW in The Hague, said allegations that Russia might destroy evidence reflected Washington's effort to justify Saturday's strikes.

"It's a clumsy effort to find an explanation if the claim of the chemical weapons use in Syria fails to get confirmation," Shulgin said at a briefing. "Our American partners are clearly getting nervous. They are frantically looking for some justification if their claims that served as the reason for the strike don't receive confirmation."

In London, British Prime Minister Theresa May accused Syria and Russia of trying to cover up evidence. She said Syrian officials have been searching evacuees from Douma to ensure samples are not smuggled out.

"A wider operation to conceal the facts of the attack is underway, supported by the Russians," she told lawmakers.

The weekend's airstrikes have increased international tension, as the U.S. and Russia exchanged threats of retaliation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday warned that if the strikes continue, "it will inevitably entail chaos in international relations."

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the strikes were a "clear message" to Assad, Russia and Iran that chemical weapons use is not acceptable and that the allies would not stand idle. He spoke in an interview with Turkey's NTV television.


Canadian alleged serial killer facing 8th murder charge

In this April 11, 2018 file photo, Toronto police Detective Sgt. Hank Idsinga speaks to the media regarding the Bruce McArthur case during a press conference at the Toronto Police Headquarters in Toronto. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press via AP)

Rob Gillies

Toronto (AP) — Canadian alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur is now facing an eighth murder charge — the death of a Sri Lankan man who had not been reported missing.

Toronto police Detective Sgt. Hank Idsinga said Monday the 66-year-old landscaper has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam.

Idsinga said Kanagaratnam's remains were found at a home McArthur used as storage for his landscaping business.  The remains of seven others have also been found in large planters at the home.

Idsinga said Kanagaratnam, 37, arrived from Sri Lanka in 2010 and was not on file as missing. He lived in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough and had no direct family in Canada.

Investigators said he was identified after they took the rare step of releasing photographs of his corpse and appealed to the public for help. Police received more than 500 tips. Idsinga said identification was confirmed with assistance of an international government agency.

Police said there are currently no known links between Kanagaratnam and the "Gay Village" of Toronto which other victims are known to have visited.

The alleged victims fit a pattern: Most were of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent and lived on the margins of Canadian society, their disappearances attracting little attention.

One alleged victim hid the fact that he was gay from his Muslim family. Another was a recent immigrant with a drug problem.  Another alleged victim was homeless, smoked crack cocaine and worked as a prostitute.

"There's enough information on the backgrounds of these people that people can draw their own conclusions on that," Idsinga said.

Police say McArthur targeted men he encountered through dating apps that cater to gay men, meeting them at bars in the "Gay Village" area of Toronto.

Police believe Kanagaratnam was killed between Sept. 3 and Dec. 14, 2015. Idsinga said he had some cousins that lived in the greater Toronto area.

Idsinga more remains might be found in the planters at the home McArthur used as storage and that 75 properties linked to the landscaper are under investigation. Police plan to search them once the weather warms in early May.

"We have a lot of searches still to do," he said.

Idsinga said investigators are looking into 15 other cold cases dating back to the 1975, but have not found a connection.

McArthur made a brief video court appearance on Monday to hear the new murder charge. He has not entered a plea. His lawyer has previously declined to comment on the case and didn't immediately respond to messages for comment on Monday.


Surfer mauled by shark swims to shore despite leg injuries

A rescue helicopter and other emergency vehicles are seen at the scene of the shark attack in Gracetown, Australia, Monday, April 16. (Anthony Pancia/Australian Broadcasting Corp via AP)

Perth, Australia (AP) — A surfer mauled by a shark Monday off southwestern Australia managed to swim to shore despite serious injuries to both of his legs, an official and a witness said.

Alejandro Travaglini was surfing at Gracetown around 8 a.m. when he was attacked, St. John Ambulance spokesman Dennis Bertoldo said. The Argentinian-born 37-year-old was treated on the beach by paramedics before he was flown by helicopter 250 kilometers to a hospital in the city of Perth, Bertoldo said.

The hospital described the victim's condition as stable.

The attack prompted the World Surf League to postpone the nearby Margaret River Pro international surfing contest for about an hour.

Organizers had deployed additional shark-spotting drones and jet skis when the competition resumed to ensure competitors' safety, league deputy commissioner Jessi Miley-Dyer said.

"We wanted to reconvene and make sure we had everything possible in the water to look after those surfers," Miley-Dyer said in a statement on the league's website.

Surf photographer Peter Jovic watched the attack from the beach and likened it to the live broadcast of a shark attack in South Africa in 2015. Former champion surfer Mick Fanning escaped unscathed when a great white attacked his board as he waited to catch a wave.

"If anyone is familiar with the Mick Fanning moment ... it was very similar to that, where a shark pretty much popped up and ended up knocking a surfer off his board," Jovic told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

"The surfer who was being attacked ended up miraculously body surfing into a little wave and getting pushed in by a local at the same time, who was out there with him, and making it to shore before everyone came to his aid," Jovic said.

Lifeguards said a 4-meter (13-foot) shark was spotted off a nearby beach two hours after the attack.

Nine Network television news reported a 41-year-old surfer sustained a large gash to his right thigh from a shark later Monday at a beach near where the attack occurred.

"Happy to be alive," the unnamed man told bystanders who asked if he was OK. The man insisted he could drive himself to a hospital.

A surfer was killed by a shark at Gracetown in 2013.


UK court rules against parents who want treatment for son

Protestors gather outside Alder Hey Children's Hospital where a terminally-ill 23-month-old toddler Alfie Evans is hospitalized, in Liverpool, England, Monday, April 16. (John Stillwell/PA via AP)

Danica Kirka

London (AP) — Britain's Court of Appeal ruled Monday against the parents of a terminally ill toddler who sought permission to take him to Italy for medical treatment that lower U.K. courts blocked in favor of suspending life support.

The parents of 23-month-old Alfie Evans have been engaged in a protracted legal fight with Alder Hey Children's Hospital over his care. They asked the Court of Appeal to overturn earlier rulings that blocked further medical treatment for their son.

Instead, justices upheld a lower court's conclusion that flying Alfie to a hospital in Rome would be wrong and pointless.

Some protesters gathered outside the hospital in Liverpool wept at the news of the appeals court's decision. Some chanted "Save Alfie Evans!" 

Alfie is in a "semi-vegetative state" as the result of a degenerative neurological condition that doctors have been unable to definitively identify. Lower courts have ordered the boy's life support to be withdrawn.

Pope Francis prayed Sunday for Alfie and others who are suffering from serious infirmities. The pope's comments marked the second case in less than a year in which he expressed his views on the treatment of a terminally ill British child.

Last July, Francis spoke out on behalf of Charlie Gard, who died from a rare genetic disease after his parents waged a protracted court fight to obtain treatment for him outside of Britain.

In appealing the lower court rulings, Alfie's parents, Tom Evans, 21, and Kate James, 20, argued their son had shown improvement in recent weeks. But doctors said his brain was eroded and his condition was irreversible.


Update April 16, 2018

Indian protesters seek end to sexual violence against women

Lawyers participate in a protest against the rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl, in Jammu, India, Saturday, April 14, 2018. The girl was grazing her family's ponies in the forests of the Himalayan foothills when she was kidnapped and her mutilated body found in the woods a week later. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)

NEW DELHI (AP) — Thousands of people protested across India on Sunday to seek an end to sexual violence against women, which has been on the rise in the country.

Carrying banners and placards, protesters marched in New Delhi, Mumbai and other cities, demanding that India's government quickly prosecute rape suspects. Candlelight vigils were also held in some places.

The outrage was triggered by the rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir and the abduction and rape of a teenage girl in India's northern Uttar Pradesh state.

Many protesters expressed particular anger at India's ruling Hindu nationalist party for initially siding with the accused in the Kashmir case. The young victim was a Muslim and the accused are Hindus.

A total of at least nine suspects, including a lawmaker from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and four police officials, have been arrested in the two cases.

Violent crime against women has been on the rise in India despite tough laws enacted in 2013. In 2012, the fatal gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi triggered massive protests by hundreds of thousands to demand stricter rape laws in the country.

The outrage over the New Delhi attack spurred quick action on legislation doubling prison terms for rapists to 20 years and criminalizing voyeurism, stalking and the trafficking of women. Indian lawmakers also voted to lower to 16 from 18 the age at which a person can be tried as an adult for heinous crimes.


UN rejects Russian attempt to condemn US aggression in Syria

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vassily Nebenzia, left, Swedish Ambassador to the United Nations Olof Skoog, second from left, British Ambassador to the United Nations Karen Pierce, second from right, and American Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley vote on a resolution during a Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria, Saturday, April 14, 2018 at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

By Edith M. Lederer

United Nations (AP) - The U.N. Security Council overwhelmingly rejected a Russian resolution calling for condemnation of "aggression" by the United States, United Kingdom and France against Syria on Saturday, a vote reflecting support for the allied airstrikes on Syrian chemical sites.

But the vote at the end of an emergency meeting called by Russia also demonstrated again the paralysis of the U.N.'s most powerful body in dealing with Syria's seven-year conflict.

Russia's demand for condemnation and an immediate halt to "aggression" and "any further use of force" by the three Western allies got support from only two other countries on the 15-member Security Council — China and Bolivia.

By contrast, eight countries voted against the Russian draft — the U.S., U.K., France, Netherlands, Sweden, Kuwait, Poland and Ivory Coast. Four countries abstained — Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Equatorial Guinea and Peru.

At the meeting, the fifth in a week on chemical weapons in Syria, Russia and its supporters again clashed with the U.S. and its allies over a suspected poison gas attack on April 7 in the Damascus suburb of Douma.

The U.S., U.K. and France said they launched airstrikes against Syrian chemical sites after obtaining evidence that a chemical weapon was used by President Bashar Assad's government. Russia and its ally Syria called the attack fabricated and said no evidence of chemical weapons use exists in Douma.

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told the council "there is clear information demonstrating Assad's culpability."

And she said President Donald Trump told her Saturday morning that if the Syrian regime uses poisonous gas again "the United States is locked and loaded" to strike again.

"When our president draws a red line, our president enforces the red line," Haley stressed. "The United States of America will not allow the Assad regime to continue using chemical weapons."

France's U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre said the result of the vote sends "a clear message" that Security Council members recognized the need for the airstrikes, and "their proportional and targeted nature."

"And what's most important is no one contests that the use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated and must be deterred," he said. "That is essential."

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the meeting confirmed that the U.S. and its allies "continue to put international politics and diplomacy in the realm of myth-making — myths invented in London, Paris and Washington."

"We put facts contrary to your myths," he said. "If we continue on this path, we will soon reach the diplomacy of the absurd."

Russia and Syria also clashed with the three Western allies over the legality of the airstrikes and responsibility for the Security Council's paralysis.

Britain's U.N. Ambassador Karen Pierce blamed Russia for repeatedly vetoing resolutions on the use of chemical weapons in Syria and said the U.K. took military action "to save lives," on the legal basis of "humanitarian intervention."

Britain believes "that is wholly within the principles and practices of the United Nations," she said.

Russia's Nebenzia called it "a very sad day for the world, for the U.N., for its Charter which was blatantly, blatantly violated, and for the Security Council which has shirked its responsibilities."

"I would like to believe that we will not see a day that is worse than today," he said.

Looking ahead, Delattre said France, Britain and the United States will soon be presenting the Security Council with a new draft resolution aimed at achieving a lasting solution to the Syrian conflict that addresses political, chemical and humanitarian issues.

A draft resolution circulated by the three countries and obtained late Saturday by The Associated Press would condemn all use of chemical weapons, especially the April 7 attack in Douma.

It seeks answers from Syria on gaps in its chemical weapons declaration to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. And it would establish a new body to determine responsibility for chemical attacks, call for a cease-fire in Syria, unimpeded access for all humanitarian aid, and an urgent resumption of negotiations on a political settlement.

Nebenzia responded saying the environment is "not very conducive for any rapprochement" and "the political and dangerous military situation we are in now" must be sorted out first.

"Once again, we demand an immediate stop to aggression and refrain from the illegal use of force in the future," he said.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who briefed the council before the vote, stressed again "the need to avoid the situation from spiraling out of control" and for a political solution.

Guterres said he has asked Syrian special envoy Staffan de Mistura to come to New York as soon as possible to consult "on the most effective way to accelerate the political process."


Iran deal's fate may rest on late European interventions

In this March 23, 2018, file photo, French President Emmanuel Macron, right, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel speak at a news conference in Brussels. The future of the landmark Iran nuclear deal hangs in the balance and its survival may depend on the unlikely success of last-minute European interventions with President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert, File)

By Matthew Lee

Washington (AP) - The future of the landmark Iran nuclear deal hangs in the balance and its survival may depend on the unlikely success of last-minute European interventions with President Donald Trump.

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are to visit Washington separately later this month and, barring a sudden trip by British Prime Minister Theresa May, will likely be the last foreign leaders invested in the deal to see Trump ahead of his mid-May deadline for the accord to be strengthened. Trump has vowed to withdraw from the 2015 agreement by May 12 unless U.S., British, French and German negotiators can agree to fix what he sees as its serious flaws.

Iran has said U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions would destroy the agreement and has threatened a range of responses, including immediately restarting nuclear activities currently barred under the deal.

Negotiators met for a fourth time last week and made some progress but were unable to reach agreement on all points, according to U.S. officials and outside advisers to the Trump administration familiar with the status of the talks. That potentially leaves the Iran deal's fate to Macron, who will make a state visit to Washington on April 24, and Merkel, who pays a working visit to the U.S. capital on April 27, these people said.

"It's important to them and I know they'll raise their hopes and concerns when they travel here to the United States in the coming days," Mike Pompeo, the CIA chief and secretary of state-designate, told lawmakers on Thursday.

Pompeo's testimony at his Senate confirmation hearing came a day after the negotiators met at the State Department to go over the four issues that Trump says must be addressed if he is to once again renew sanctions relief for Iran, officials said.

Those are: Iran's ballistic missile testing and destabilizing behavior in the region, which are not covered by the deal, along with inspections of suspected nuclear sites and so-called "sunset provisions" that gradually allow Iran to resume advanced nuclear work after several years, which are part of the agreement.

Two senior U.S. officials said the sides are "close to agreement" on missiles and inspections but "not there yet" on the sunset provisions.

"Malign" Iranian activities, including its support for Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, Syrian President Bashar Assad and Houthi Shiite rebels in Yemen, were dealt with in a separate session that ended inconclusively, according to the officials, who like the outside advisers were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The two officials and two outside advisers said the missile and inspections issues are essentially settled, but would not detail exactly what had been agreed or predict whether it would pass muster with Trump, let alone his new national security adviser John Bolton and Pompeo. Both men are Iran hawks and share the president's disdain for the deal, which was a signature foreign policy achievement of former President Barack Obama.

Bolton and Pompeo's voices on Iran could be heard as senior U.S. officials discussed Trump's decision to launch airstrikes against Syria on Friday. In addition to punishing Syria for its apparent use of chemical weapons, the strikes were meant to send a message to Iran about its role in the country, the officials told reporters on Saturday.

The officials and advisers said the main sticking point on the Iran deal remains the sunset provisions, with the Europeans balking at U.S. demands for the automatic re-imposition of sanctions should Iran engage in advanced nuclear activity that would be permitted by the agreement once the restrictions expire.

To clear the impasse, one official and one outside adviser said a compromise is being considered under which sanctions would be re-imposed if Iran did enough work to reduce the time it would need to develop a nuclear weapon to less than a year. The current deal aims to keep Iran's so-called "breakout time" to a year. But the expiration of the sunset provisions, the first of which is in 2024, means that the breakout time could eventually drop.

The Europeans, who along with the Iranians, have said they will not re-open the deal for negotiation, are reluctant to automatically re-impose sanctions for permitted activity, but have agreed in principle that Iran dropping below a one-year breakout time should be cause to at least consider new sanctions, according to the official and the adviser. How that breakout time is determined is still being discussed, they said.

Given the remaining differences, U.S. national security officials are stepping up planning for various "day after" scenarios, including how to sell a pullout as the correct step for national security, how aggressively to reimpose U.S. sanctions on Iran that had been lifted under the agreement and how to deal with Iranian and European fallout from such a step.


Martin Sorrell steps down as CEO of advertising giant WPP

In this Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017 file photo, Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, visits the New York Stock Exchange in New York. Martin Sorrell is stepping down as chief executive of WPP, the world's largest advertising agency, following allegations of personal misconduct. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, file)

By Danica Kirka

London (AP) — Martin Sorrell is stepping down as chief executive of WPP, the world's largest advertising agency, following allegations of personal misconduct.

Sorrell, who built WPP into a global brand during his 33 years at the helm, had been accused of misusing company assets. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Sorrell resigned Saturday night as WPP announced that an investigation into the matter had concluded, with the firm saying only that "the allegation did not involve amounts that are material."

"As I look ahead, I see that the current disruption is simply putting too much unnecessary pressure on the business," Sorrell said in a statement to WPP staff. "That is why I have decided that, in your interest, in the interest of our clients, in the interest of all shareowners both big and small, and in the interest of all our other stakeholders, it is best for me to step aside."

Chairman Roberto Quarta will lead the company until a new chief executive has been chosen.

Sorrell is a titan of British business who was named the world's second-best performing CEO in 2017 by the Harvard Business Review. He took a U.K. manufacturer of wire baskets and built it into a worldwide provider of advertising, public relations and marketing services through a series of takeovers.

The acquisitions included the J. Walter Thompson Group, the Young & Rubicam Group and the Ogilvy Group.

He was richly compensated for his efforts.

Sorrell was the highest-paid CEO among FTSE 100 companies in both 2015 and 2016, according to a study released last year by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and the High Pay Centre. He received 70.4 million pounds ($100.3 million) in salary, bonuses, incentive rewards, pension payments and other benefits in 2015, and 48.1 million pounds in 2016, the study found.

"If WPP does well, I do well," he told the Press Association in April 2016. "Most of my wealth, if not all of it, is and has been for the last 31 years tied up in the success of WPP. So if WPP does well, I do well, and others in the company do well. If we do badly, we suffer."


Defiant Syrians say West hasn't shaken their resolve

 

A Syrian girl holds up a Syrian national flag with a picture of President Bashar Assad as government supporters chant slogans against U.S. President Trump during demonstrations following a wave of U.S., British and French military strikes to punish Assad for suspected chemical attack against civilians, in Damascus, Syria, Saturday, April 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

By Bassem Mroue, Bassam Hatoum and Albert Aji

Damascus, Syria (AP) - Hundreds of Syrians poured into the streets of Damascus on Saturday, dancing and chanting in defiance of what they called the West's "failure" to shake their nation's resolve with airstrikes that jolted the capital only hours earlier.

The demonstrations in support of President Bashar Assad were carried live on state TV, which also reported that Syrian air defenses had intercepted most of the missiles fired by the United States, Britain and France to punish Syria's purported use of chemical weapons. The broadcaster also urged people not to believe media reports that exaggerated the results of the airstrikes.

"We are not scared of America's missiles. We humiliated their missiles," said Mahmoud Ibrahim, who waved a Syrian flag as he hung out of his car window.

As car horns blared, the crowd moved toward nearby Damascus University where pro-government fighters danced and waved their automatic rifles over their heads. Many denounced U.S. President Donald Trump and also waved flags of Syria's allies, Iran and Russia, as they cheered Assad.

The display of national fervor later mixed with celebrations over the news that the Syrian army declared the eastern suburbs of Damascus "fully liberated" after the last group of rebels left the town of Douma. Its recapture marks the biggest victory for Assad's forces since the capture of the eastern half of the city of Aleppo in 2016.

The fall of Douma came after a punishing government offensive and a surrender deal struck with rebel groups. It also followed the purported use of chemical weapons there on April 7, which activists say killed over 40 people in the town and led to Saturday's airstrikes by the West.

"Trump failed in his aggression," said 51-year-old civil servant Mohammed Hammad. "Trump's failure came with the victory of our army in Douma, which marks the biggest victory for the Syrian Arab Army."

The bombardment began at 4 a.m., with loud explosions thundering in Damascus and the sky turning orange as fires raged in the distance.

Associated Press reporters saw smoke rising above eastern Damascus and spotted fiery streaks of surface-to-air missiles. The call to morning prayers at dawn mixed with the whoosh of missiles.

Shortly after the one-hour attack ended, vehicles with loudspeakers blared nationalist songs.

"Good souls will not be humiliated," Syria's presidential account tweeted after the airstrikes began.

Later, a video showing Assad walking into his office carrying a briefcase was posted on the same account. "Good morning, steadfastness," the caption read.

As the sun rose, hundreds had gathered in Damascus' landmark Omayyad Square, celebrating what they said was the army's success in foiling the U.S-led military action.

The widely broadcast celebrations and the hastily organized police deployment in Douma appeared to be the government's response to the airstrikes.

The limited airstrikes came at a time when the Assad government is feeling empowered after having secured the region near the capital following other military victories backed by Russia and Iran in seven years of civil war.

Trump announced the airstrikes Friday night to attack Syria's chemical weapons program. He said Washington is prepared to keep pressure on Assad until he ends a "criminal pattern of killing his own people" with the internationally banned weapons.

On Saturday, Trump tweeted "Mission Accomplished," and the Pentagon said the strikes hit the "heart" of Syria's chemical program.

The U.S. had fired Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield in April 2017 in retaliation for Assad's use of sarin gas against civilians.

Syria has repeatedly denied using banned weapons. Inspectors from the international chemical weapons watchdog group were in Damascus and had been expected to head to Douma on Saturday.

The limited strikes were deplored by the Syrian opposition, which saw the West as lacking an international strategy for dealing with the civil war.

Nasr al-Hariri, a senior opposition leader, said the international community must take responsibility for any retaliation by the Syrian government against civilians in opposition areas. He called for a strategy that leads to a political solution to "save it from the brutality of the Syrian regime."

Mohammad Alloush, spokesman for the Army of Islam rebel group that was expelled from Douma, tweeted that the airstrikes were a "farce."

A Syrian military statement said 110 missiles were fired Saturday by the U.S., Britain and France and that it shot down most of them. Russia's military said Syrian air defense units downed 71 of the missiles.

Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, said no missiles were stopped. He added that Syria's air defenses were ineffective and that many of the more than 40 surface-to-air missiles fired by the Syrians were launched after the allied attack was over. He said the U.S. knew of no civilians killed by allied missiles.

The Syrian military said three civilians were wounded in one of the strikes in Homs.

A "number of missiles" targeted a scientific research center in Barzeh, near Damascus, and destroyed a building housing an education center and labs and caused other damage, the military said.

An AP reporter who went to the Center for Scientific Research on the northeastern edge of Damascus found the three-story building almost completely destroyed and still smoking hours after it was hit. An official there said the facility was used by the chemical and pharmaceutical industries and helped develop cancer drugs.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs also was targeted and was believed to be the main site of Syrian sarin production equipment. A chemical weapons equipment storage facility and an important command post, west of Homs, also were targeted, he said.

Russia and Iran called the use of force a "military crime" and "act of aggression." The U.N. Security Council met to debate the strikes, but rejected a Russian resolution calling for condemnation of the "aggression" by the three Western allies.


Update April 14-15, 2018

US, allies attack Syria to stop chemical weapons

Explosions and anti-aircraft fire light up the skies over Damascus, the Syrian capital, as the U.S. launches an attack on Syria, early Saturday, April 14. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Robert Burns, Zeke Miller and Jill Colvin

Washington (AP) — The United States, France and Britain launched military strikes in Syria to punish President Bashar Assad for a suspected chemical attack against civilians and to deter him from doing it again, President Donald Trump announced Friday. Explosions lit up the skies over Damascus, the Syrian capital, as Trump spoke from the White House.

Syrian television reported that Syria's air defenses, which are substantial, have responded to the attack.

Trump said the U.S. is prepared to sustain pressure on Assad until he ends what the president called a criminal pattern of killing his own people with internationally banned chemical weapons. It was not immediately clear whether Trump meant the allied military operation would extend beyond an initial nighttime round of missile strikes.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said in London that the West had tried "every possible" diplomatic means to stop Assad from using chemical weapons. "But our efforts have been repeatedly thwarted" by Syria and Russia, she said.

"So there is no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime," May said. "This is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change."

Trump did not provide details on the joint U.S.-British-French attack, but it was expected to include barrages of cruise missiles launched from outside Syrian airspace. He described the main aim as establishing "a strong deterrent" against chemical weapons use. The Syrian government has repeatedly denied any use of banned weapons.

The decision to strike, after days of deliberations, marked Trump's second order to attack Syria; he authorized a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles to hit a single Syrian airfield in April 2017 in retaliation for Assad's alleged use of sarin gas against civilians.

The air campaign could frustrate those in Trump's base who oppose military intervention and are wary of open-ended conflicts.

Trump chastised Syria's two main allies, Russia and Iran, for their roles in supporting "murderous dictators," and noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin had guaranteed a 2013 international agreement for Assad to get rid of all of his chemical weapons. He called on Moscow to change course and join the West in seeking a more responsible regime in Damascus.

"Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path, or if it will join with civilized nations as a force for stability and peace," Trump said. "Hopefully, someday we'll get along with Russia, and maybe even Iran — but maybe not."

The allied operation comes a year after the U.S. missile strike that Trump said was meant to deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons. Since that did not work, a more intense attack would aim to degrade his ability to carry out further such attacks, and would try to do this by hitting Syrian aircraft, military depots and chemical facilities, among other things.

The one-off missile strike in April 2017 targeted the airfield from which the Syrian aircraft had launched their gas attack.

A broader question is whether the allied attacks are part of a revamped, coherent political strategy to end the war on terms that do not leave Assad in power.

Friday's strikes appear to signal Trump's willingness to draw the United States more deeply into the Syrian conflict. Just weeks ago, Trump said he wanted to end U.S. involvement in Syria and bring American troops home to focus on the homeland. The participation of British and French forces enables Trump to assert a wider international commitment against the use of chemical weapons, but the multi-pronged attack carries the risk of Russian retaliation.

In his nationwide address, Trump stressed that he has no interest in a longtime fight with Syria.

"America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria under no circumstances," he said. "As other nations step up their contributions, we look forward to the day when we can bring our warriors home."

The U.S. has about 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria as advisers to a makeshift group of anti-Islamic State fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. They are in eastern Syria, far from Damascus. A U.S.-led coalition has been conducting airstrikes in Syria since September 2014 as part of a largely successful effort to break the IS grip on both Syria and Iraq.


1 Palestinian killed, 223 wounded by Israeli fire

Palestinian protesters run for cover from teargas fired by Israeli troops during a protest at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, Friday, April 13. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

Fares Akram and Mohammed Daraghmeh

Gaza City, Gaza Strip (AP) — Thousands of Palestinians, some burning Israeli flags and torching tires, staged a mass protest on Gaza's sealed border with Israel for a third consecutive Friday, as part of a pressure campaign to break a decade-old blockade of their territory.

Israeli live fire from across the border fence killed a 28-year-old Palestinian man and wounded at least 223, Gaza health officials said.

The death brought to 28 the number of protesters killed in two weeks, with more than 1,500 wounded by Israeli fire since March 30, they said.

The marches have been organized by Gaza's Hamas rulers, but large turnouts on two preceding Fridays were also driven by desperation among the territory's 2 million residents who have been enduring a crippling border closure by Israel and Egypt since 2007.

"We want to live like everyone else in the world," said 37-year-old construction worker Omar Hamada, an unemployed father of eight. "We came here so the world can see us and know that life here is miserable, and that there should be a solution."

On Friday, the turnout seemed to be significantly lower than on previous Fridays — some 10,000 protesters according to the Israeli military — raising questions about the organizers' goal of keeping the mass marches going until mid-May.

Gaza's Health Ministry said that 969 people were hurt Friday, including 223 by live fire and the rest by tear gas, rubber-coated steel pellets or shrapnel. Fifteen of the wounded were in serious conditions, including a Gaza journalist. The count also included 67 minors and 20 women, health officials said.

Rights groups have described the Israeli military's open-fire regulations as unlawful, saying they permit soldiers to use potentially lethal force against unarmed protesters.

Israel has accused Gaza's Islamic militant Hamas rulers of using the protests as a cover for attacks and says snipers only target the main "instigators."

On Friday, most of the demonstrators assembled at five tent camps located several hundred meters (yards) from the border fence.

Smaller groups moved closer to the fence, throwing stones, torching tires and burning large Israeli flags, U.S. flags, as well as posters of Israel's prime minister and defense minister. Large plumes of black smoke from burning tires rose into the sky.

Israeli forces fired tear gas, rubber-coated steel pellets and live rounds. Military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said that Palestinians repeatedly tried to damage the border fence, throwing several explosives and fire bombs at it.

Footage distributed by the military showed an area of the fence made up of several layers of barbed wire coils. Protesters stuck a Palestinian flag into the fence and affixed a rope, using it to tug at the coils. One man threw a burning tire into the fence, while another was seen walking nearby with the help of a crutch.

Gaza has endured a border blockade by Israel and Egypt since Hamas overran the territory in 2007, a year after winning Palestinian parliament elections.

The blockade has driven Gaza deeper into poverty, with unemployment approaching 50 percent and electricity available for less than five hours a day.

The marchers are protesting against the blockade, but are also asserting what they say is a "right of return" of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel.

Hamas leaders have sent mixed signals about whether they plan an eventual mass breach of the border fence. The protests are to culminate in a large rally on May 15, the 70th anniversary of Israel's creation. Palestinians mourn the event as their "nakba," or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands were uprooted in the 1948 war over Israel's creation.

Several thousand people gathered Friday at one of the tent camps, east of Gaza City. The camp was decked out in Palestinian flags. At the entrance, organizers had laid a large Israeli flag on the ground for protesters to step on.

Hamada, the construction worker, was critical of Hamas, saying the group has set back Gaza by decades, but added that "this is the reality and we have to deal with it."

Critics argue that Hamas' refusal to disarm is a key reason for the continued blockade. One path toward lifting the blockade would be to have Hamas' political rival, West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, take over the Gaza government, but recent Egypt-led talks on such a deal appear to have run aground.

The debate over Israel's open-fire regulations has intensified with a rising number of dead and wounded since the first protests on March 30.

In all, 35 Palestinians were killed in the past two weeks, 28 during protests. Seven were killed in other circumstances, including six militants engaged in apparent attempts to carry out attacks or infiltrate Israel.

The Israeli military has argued that Gaza militant groups are trying to turn the border area into a combat zone, and said it has a right to defend its sovereign border.

Conricus said Friday that the military is trying to minimize Palestinian casualties, but hadn't changed open-fire regulations.

Yair Lapid, the leader of Israel's centrist Yesh Atid party, called Hamas a "despicable terror organization" and accused it of exploiting civilians. He said the Israeli military is "operating against it (Hamas) with determination and according to international law."

Human rights groups have reiterated that soldiers can only use lethal force if they face an apparent imminent threat to their lives.

The Israeli rights group B'Tselem said Friday that open-fire policy must not be dictated by worst case scenarios, such as a feared mass breach of the border. "An order to open live fire at unarmed protesters is manifestly unlawful," it said.

Another Israeli group, Breaking The Silence, published a statement by five former snipers in the Israeli military who said they were "filled with shame and sorrow" over the recent incidents in Gaza.

"Instructing snipers to shoot to kill unarmed demonstrators who pose no danger to human life, is another product of the occupation and military rule over millions of Palestinian people, as well as of our country's callous leadership, and derailed moral path," said the statement.

The group has been criticized in Israel for publishing often anonymous testimony by current or former Israeli soldiers who have misgivings about their military service and treatment of Palestinians.

The five ex-snipers in Friday's statement were identified by name.


Taiwan leader inspects navy as China prepares drills

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen boards a KIDD class destroyer during a navy exercise in Suao naval station, Yilan County, northeast of Taiwan, Friday, April 13. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying)

Taipei, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen reviewed military drills Friday ahead of planned war games by China amid rising tensions between the rivals.

Tsai went aboard a U.S.-made destroyer in the port of Su'ao as the island's armed forces simulated breaking a blockade of the self-ruled island.

China, which claims Taiwan as its territory, has scheduled live-fire war games in the Taiwan Strait for next Wednesday. That follows Beijing's heated objections to U.S. moves to strengthen relations with Taiwan's democratic, independence-leaning government.

Despite a lack of formal ties, Washington is legally bound to respond to threats to Taiwan and is the island's main supplier of foreign military hardware.

Chinese officials have denounced the recent passage of a U.S. law encouraging more high-level government contacts with Taiwan, saying that violates U.S. commitments not to restore formal exchanges severed when Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.

An agreement to provide Taiwan with submarine manufacturing technology and the appointment of hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton have also hardened views among anti-America nationalists in China.

In a reiteration of China's military resolve, President Xi Jinping spoke about the importance of naval power while attending a massive fleet review on Thursday in the South China Sea.

"The mission of building a mighty people's navy has never been more urgent than it is today," Xi, dressed in army fatigues, said in remarks delivered on the helicopter deck of one of China's most advanced destroyers. "Strive to make the people's navy a first-rate world navy."


Indonesia's Aceh to take caning indoors after backlash

In this Tuesday, May 23, 2017 file photo, a Shariah law official whips a man convicted of gay sex during a public caning outside a mosque in Banda Aceh, Aceh province Indonesia. (AP Photo/Heri Juanda)

Banda Aceh, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesia's conservative Aceh province will no longer allow canings for violations of Shariah law to be carried out in public, its governor said Thursday, apparently in response to international condemnation of the caning last year of two men for gay sex that damaged Indonesia's moderate image.

A memorandum of understanding signed by Aceh Gov. Irwandi Yusuf and Yuspahruddin, head of the provincial Law and Human Rights office, stipulates that caning can only take place inside prisons or other places of detention.

It says adults can still witness the punishment but recording won't be allowed. The numbers of people will be much smaller than the hundreds who regularly cheered the outdoor proceedings.

"The aim of holding the caning inside prison is to prevent it from being watched by children, without cameras and hand phones," Yusuf said after signing the memorandum, witnessed by Indonesian Minister of Law and Human Rights Yasonna Laoly.

Aceh is the only province in Muslim-majority Indonesia that practices Shariah law, a concession made by the central government in 2001 as part of efforts to end a decades-long war for independence.

Human Rights Watch dismissed the change to indoor whipping as cosmetic and called for Aceh to abolish caning and the laws that allow it. It said caning remains a form of torture whether it is carried out in public or not.

"Torture is torture whether you do it in public, outside a mosque after Friday prayers, or inside a room, banning anyone from taking a picture," said the group's Indonesia researcher, Andreas Harsono. "It's still torture, it's still traumatizing."

Human Rights Watch also appealed for Aceh to release four people arrested in March for same-sex conduct, who each face up to 100 lashes under the province's Islamic criminal code.

Hundreds of people have been publicly caned since the punishment was introduced in Aceh in 2005.

The province's implementation of Shariah law has become increasingly harsh and now also applies to non-Muslims. Last May, the province for the first time caned two men for gay sex after vigilantes broke into their home and handed them over to religious police.

Footage of the men, both in their 20s, being caned dozens of times in front of a baying crowd galvanized international criticism of Shariah law in the province and was another blow to Indonesia's reputation for moderation following the imprisonment of the capital Jakarta's minority Christian governor for blaspheming Islam.

Making the canings private was proposed in July last year after Yusuf met with President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo amid concerns that tourism and investment could be affected.

The last canings were on Feb. 27, when five people including two Christians convicted of gambling were punished in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.


Update April 13, 2018

China plans Taiwan Strait live-fire exercises amid tensions

In this April 12, 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping, center in green military uniform, poses with soldiers on a navy ship after he reviewed the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy fleet in the South China Sea. (Li Gang/Xinhua via AP)

Christopher Bodeen

Beijing (AP) — China announced it will hold live-fire military exercises in the Taiwan Strait amid heightened tensions over increased American support for Taiwan's government.

The announcement coincided with President Xi Jinping speaking on the importance of Chinese naval power while attending a massive fleet review Thursday in the South China Sea off the coast of Hainan province.

"The mission of building a mighty people's navy has never been more urgent than it is today," Xi, dressed in army fatigues, said in remarks on the helicopter deck of one of China's most advanced destroyers. "Strive to make the people's navy a first-rate world navy."

State media said the fleet review included 48 ships, among them China's sole operating aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, along with 76 helicopters, fighter jets and bombers, and more than 10,000 personnel, making it the largest since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

The navy began three days of exercises off Hainan on Wednesday, but ended them a day early on Thursday, the provincial maritime safety administration said.

No explanation was given for the curtailment of the drills or the Taiwan Strait exercise, and the Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to questions. The maritime safety authority in the coastal province of Fujian said the one-day Taiwan Strait drill will be held next Wednesday.

Taiwan's defense ministry responded with a statement saying the exercises appeared to be part of scheduled annual drills, and that they were closely monitoring the situation and fully capable of responding. "Citizens please feel at ease," the statement said.

While Beijing responded mildly to President Donald Trump's early outreach to Taiwan's independence-leaning government, recent developments have prompted a tougher response. China claims Taiwan as its own territory and says the sides, which separated during the Chinese civil war in 1949, must eventually be united, by force if necessary.

Despite a lack of formal ties, Washington is legally bound to respond to threats to Taiwan and is the island's main supplier of foreign military hardware.

Chinese officials have denounced the recent passage of a U.S. law encouraging more high-level contacts with Taiwan. China says the Taiwan Travel Act violates U.S. commitments not to restore formal exchanges severed when Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.

An agreement to provide Taiwan with submarine manufacturing technology and the appointment of hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton have also hardened views among anti-American nationalists in China.

Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office on Wednesday warned against additional moves to strengthen relations with Taiwan.

"Any attempt to play the 'Taiwan card' would only be futile," spokesman Ma Xiaoguang said. China, Ma said, would "not hesitate to protect our core interests."

Last month, President Xi delivered a strongly nationalistic speech in which he vowed to protect "every inch" of China's territory. "All acts and tricks to split the motherland are doomed to failure and will be condemned by the people and punished by history!" Xi said.

China has also stepped up air force missions around Taiwan and has repeatedly sailed the Liaoning through the 160-kilometer (100-mile) -wide Taiwan Strait.

The just-completed naval drills off Hainan underscored China's growing capabilities in defending its maritime interests and territorial claims, particularly in the South China Sea, which it claims virtually in its entirety. An estimated $5 trillion in global trade passes through the waterway annually, and China has constructed airstrips and other installations on artificial islands to enlarge its military footprint.

The drills near Hainan follow recent ones in the sea that featured the Liaoning, amid deployments and drills by the rival U.S. Navy.

China is building new vessels at a rapid pace to equip its navy, coast guard and maritime law enforcement agencies, including its first entirely domestically built aircraft carrier.

Hainan is home to a major military presence, including naval air stations and the country's largest submarine base.

This week it also hosted a global business forum that included a smattering of world leaders, among them Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose country is a U.S. treaty ally and has overlapping claims with Beijing in the South China Sea.


Inspectors head to site of suspected gas attack in Syria

 

A man rides his bicycle past a banner showing Syrian President Bashar Assad in front the Ottoman-era Hijaz train station in the Syrian capital, Damascus, Syria, Thursday, April 12. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Bassem Mroue and Sarah el Deeb

Damascus, Syria (AP) — A team of inspectors from the international chemical weapons watchdog was on its way to Syria on Thursday to begin an investigation into a suspected chemical weapons attack near the capital that has brought the war-torn country to the brink of a wider conflict, amid Western threats of retaliation and Russian warnings of the potential for "a dangerous escalation."

The fact-finding mission from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was expected to head to Douma, where the suspected attack took place and where Russia said rebels had now capitulated to government control. The Syrian government said it would facilitate the mission's investigation, which was to begin Saturday.

Syria and its ally, Russia, deny any such attack, which activists say killed more than 43 people last weekend.

Speaking at the United Nations on Thursday, Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, said the top priority had to be to avert a wider war, and he didn't rule out the possibility of a U.S.-Russia conflict. Speaking to reporters after a closed emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, Nebenzia said Russia was very concerned with "the dangerous escalation" of the situation and "aggressive policies" and preparations that some governments were making — a clear reference to the Trump administration and its allies.

"We hope that there will be no point of no return — that the U.S. and their allies will refrain from military action against a sovereign state," Nebenzia said, adding that "the danger of escalation is higher than simply Syria."

The imminent arrival of the chemical weapons inspectors came as rebels in Douma surrendered their weapons and left the town for opposition-held areas in the north. Russia's military said Thursday that Douma was now under full control of the Syrian government after a Russian-mediated deal secured the evacuation of the rebels and thousands of civilians after it was recaptured by Syrian forces.

Douma and the sprawling eastern Ghouta region near the capital, Damascus, had been under rebel control since 2012 and was a thorn in the side of President Bashar Assad's government, threatening his seat of power with missiles and potential advances for years. The government's capture of Douma, the last town held by the rebels in eastern Ghouta, marked a major victory for Assad.

Residents in Damascus, who had lived on edge for years because of mortar shells lobbed from eastern Ghouta, celebrated the news. Vehicles carrying Syrian flags were seen driving from Damascus into Douma, chanting in support of the government.

"This is a victory for Syria and the allies of Syria," declared Abboud Mardini, a 38-year old merchant in Damascus. "Eastern Ghouta was the main source of ... terrorists who from there spread throughout Syria."

There was no official government announcement that Douma had been recaptured and no indication that Syrian forces had yet entered the town, where Russian military police were deployed to preserve the peace after an evacuation fraught with difficulties. A single government flag was raised, a war monitoring group said.

Hamza Bayraqdar, spokesman for Jaysh al-Islam, the main rebel group that once controlled Douma, said his fighters had all evacuated. They handed over their heavy and medium weapons, as well as maps of land mines and the tunnels they dug, according to Syrian state media.

Douma and the rest of eastern Ghouta had been a significant rebel stronghold throughout Syria's civil war and its surrender came after years of siege by Assad's troops and a months-long military offensive. It followed weeks of negotiations mediated by Russia that repeatedly were derailed. A truce collapsed last week and the Syrian government pressed ahead with its military offensive.

Then came the suspected chemical attack in Douma, followed by international condemnation and threats of military action.

Amid conflicting tweets about the timing of any retaliation, President Donald Trump said Thursday that an attack on Syria could take place "very soon or not so soon at all." On Capitol Hill, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the National Security Council would be meeting later Thursday to present Trump with various options, adding that he could not talk about any military plans because an attack "is not yet in the offing."

Meanwhile, the British Cabinet on Thursday gave Prime Minister Theresa May the green light to work with the U.S. and France "to coordinate an international response," though it gave no indication of the timing or scale of any action.

President Emmanuel Macron said France had proof that the Syrian government had launched chlorine gas attacks in recent days, adding that his government would not tolerate "regimes that think everything is permitted," though he stopped short of saying whether France was planning military action.

In response to the threats, Assad said Thursday that a potential retaliation would be based on "lies" and would seek to undermine his forces' recent advances near Damascus. Western threats endanger international peace and security, Assad said, and military action would only contribute to the "further destabilization" of the region.

After the back-and-forth coming from Washington, Moscow and European Union capitals, residents in Damascus appeared to have brushed off the threat of an imminent attack.

The streets of Damascus were packed Thursday with people headed to the city's main market, cafes and restaurants. At Nabil Nafiseh, one of Damascus's most famous sweets shops, men, women and children sat outdoors enjoying the evening breeze and nibbling on Arab sweets.

Some residents were defiant. Real estate agent Ahmad Abdul-Rahman said he had brought his wife and three sons from his hometown of Aleppo, where there are no significant military targets, to Damascus to be together in case of an attack.

"I came here to defy the dogs who are threatening Syria," the 43-year-old said. "We don't care about America nor America's strike and we don't care about America's allies. We were not scared in Aleppo and we are not scared in Damascus."

Rafah al-Okda, a 21-year-old nursing student at Damascus University, said she had not changed her routine following the threats.

"Syria is a strong country, but our allies Russia and Iran make us stronger," she said.

Ahmad al-Issa, 46, ruled out a U.S. airstrike, saying Trump has in the past threatened to wipe North Korea off the map, then ended up calling for a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

"Even if he (Trump) fires what he calls smart bombs, at us they will be stupid bombs because they will backfire on him and Syrians will be stronger," al-Issa said.


Vietnam jails 2 more activists in stepped up crackdown

 

Activist Tran Thi Xuan stands trial in Ha Tinh province, Vietnam, Thursday, April 12. (Cong Tuong/Vietnam News Agency via AP)

Hanoi, Vietnam (AP) — Courts in central Vietnam on Thursday handed down lengthy prison terms against two activists as communist authorities stepped up their crackdown on dissent.

The two were given nine and seven years respectively for attempting to overthrow the government and spreading anti-state propaganda in two separate trials.

Nguyen Viet Dung, 32, was convicted of spreading anti-state propaganda by writing and posting on his Facebook page and blogs articles that the judges say distorted government policies and defamed the country's leaders. His lawyer Ngo Anh Tuan said he was also found guilty of flying the flag of former U.S.-backed South Vietnam and shooting video and photographs and posting them on Facebook.

The court also ordered Dung to serve five years of house arrest after completing his prison sentence.

Dung confessed his crimes during the proceedings, the lawyer said, adding that the court rejected his argument for lesser sentences.

Meanwhile, the People's Court in neighboring Ha Tinh province convicted Tran Thi Xuan of attempting to overthrow the government and sentenced her to nine years in prison and five years of house arrest, the official Vietnam News Agency reported.

Xuan, 42, was accused of affiliating with an outlawed group named Brotherhood for Democracy and instigating protests following pollution by Taiwanese-owned Formosa Plastic Group's steel complex that devastated the fishing industry and tourism in four central provinces two years ago, VNA reported.

Their sentences came just days after seven activists belonging to the same group, including prominent human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, were convicted and imprisoned to between seven to 15 years for subversion.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for Dung's release.

"Vietnamese authorities regularly claim to respect human rights but their actions suggest precisely the opposite," Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director said in a statement. "Vietnam's government wrongly believe that freedom of expression and association only translate into only saying and doing things approved by the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam."

Despite sweeping economic reforms launched in the mid-1980s that made the country one of fastest growing in the region, the communist government tolerates no challenge to its one-party rule.

International human rights groups and some Western governments often criticize Vietnam for jailing those who peacefully express their views, but Hanoi says only law breakers are punished.


New Zealand puts brakes on search for oil in bid to go green

New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is shown in this March 2, 2018 file photo. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

Nick Perry

Wellington, New Zealand (AP) — Signaling its commitment to a clean energy future, New Zealand's government announced Thursday it won't issue any more permits for offshore oil and gas exploration.

The move won't affect existing permits for exploration or extraction, meaning the industry is likely to continue in the South Pacific nation for several more decades.

Still, the move is a change in direction after voters last year elected the liberal government led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. That followed nine years of conservative leadership under a government that favored expanding the industry.

Ardern has pledged to go green by reducing the country's net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. Her government also plans to plant 100 million trees each year and ensure the electricity grid runs entirely from renewable energy.

The oil and gas industry is relatively small in New Zealand, employing about 11,000 people and accounting for about 1 percent of the overall economy. It is dwarfed in importance by farming and tourism.

But the industry is important to the Taranaki region, where most of the activity is centered.

New Plymouth Mayor Neil Holdom told Radio New Zealand the move was a "kick in the guts for the future of the Taranaki economy."

But Ardern said nobody would be losing their jobs as a result of the move.

"We're striking the right balance for New Zealand," Ardern said. "We're protecting existing industry, and protecting future generations from climate change."

Opposition lawmaker Jonathan Young described the move as "economic vandalism."

"This decision is devoid of any rationale. It certainly has nothing to do with climate change," Young said. "These changes will simply shift production elsewhere in the world, not reduce emissions."

The idea of an expansion in offshore drilling has proved contentious in New Zealand, particularly after problems elsewhere like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Environmental group Greenpeace hailed Ardern's move. Russel Norman, the group's executive director in New Zealand, said the country "has stood up to one of the most powerful industries in the world."

The announcement does not apply to onshore exploration permits. The government said those would continue for the next three years and be reviewed after that..
 


DAILY UPDATE

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Back to Main Page

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Chemical weapons team in Syria kept from alleged attack site

Canadian alleged serial killer facing 8th murder charge

Surfer mauled by shark swims to shore despite leg injuries

UK court rules against parents who want treatment for son


Indian protesters seek end to sexual violence against women

UN rejects Russian attempt to condemn US aggression in Syria

Iran deal's fate may rest on late European interventions

Martin Sorrell steps down as CEO of advertising giant WPP

Defiant Syrians say West hasn't shaken their resolve


US, allies attack Syria to stop chemical weapons

1 Palestinian killed, 223 wounded by Israeli fire

Taiwan leader inspects navy as China prepares drills

Indonesia's Aceh to take caning indoors after backlash


China plans Taiwan Strait live-fire exercises amid tensions

Inspectors head to site of suspected gas attack in Syria

Vietnam jails 2 more activists in stepped up crackdown

New Zealand puts brakes on search for oil in bid to go green

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