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Update October 2017


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Update October 27 - 31 , 2017

Explosion, inferno at Indonesia fireworks factory kills 47

 

Residents watch as thick black smoke billows from the site of an explosion at a firecracker factory in Tangerang, on the outskirt of Jakarta, Indonesia, Thursday, Oct. 26. (AP Photo)

Tatan Syuflana

Tangerang, Indonesia (AP) — An explosion and inferno at a fireworks factory near the Indonesian capital on Thursday killed at least 47 people, most of them female workers who were apparently locked inside, and injured dozens.

Witnesses said a huge explosion was heard from the factory at about 10 a.m. and then smaller blasts echoed across the neighborhood as orange flames jumped from the building and columns of black smoke billowed from it.

The death toll could rise as many of those who escaped suffered extensive burns, said Nico Afinta, general crimes director at Jakarta police. He said bodies were found piled at the rear of the building.

Police said 103 people were working at the factory and 10 are still unaccounted for. It's possible some or all of those 10 had not come to work or suffered only minor injuries and didn't seek medical attention, said Jakarta police spokesman Argo Yuwono.

A local resident told Indonesia's MetroTV he saw police and residents smash through a wall of the factory so trapped workers could escape. Some of the victims were burning as they ran out, he said.

"The fire began with a strong explosion like a bomb," Benny, who goes by one name, told the TV channel.

A worker who escaped the fire said the factory's staff was mostly women employed on a casual basis.

Mumum, who goes by one name, told Indonesia's TVOne she started working at the factory a few weeks ago and was paid 40,000 rupiah ($3) a day.

"I lost so many friends. I couldn't help. Everybody just ran for safety," she said, weeping.

The factory is located next to a residential area in Tangerang, a city in Banten province on the western outskirts of Jakarta. A police report said the fire spread after an explosion that caused the roof to collapse.

Video showed flames shooting meters above the structure and billowing clouds of black smoke spreading across the neighborhood as residents looked on in horror.

Tangerang police chief Hary Kurniawan said 46 injured people were being treated at three hospitals.

The factory had been operating for less than two months, he said.

"We are still investigating the cause of the fire and questioning witnesses," Kurniawan told reporters. "Factory owners or anyone who neglects and violates safety rules should be held legally responsible."

Minister of Manpower Hanif Dhakiri said his department would investigate the factory for allegedly employing underaged workers.

MetroTV, quoting a local official, said although the factory had a permit, its proximity to a residential area was against regulations.

Safety laws are inconsistently enforced or even completely ignored in Indonesia, a poor and sprawling archipelago nation where worker rights are often treated as a lower priority than economic growth and jobs.


New screenings begin for passengers on US-bound flights

Long-haul carrier Emirates is one of many airlines starting new screening procedures for U.S.-bound passengers following "new security guidelines" from American authorities. (AP Photo/Adam Schreck)

Jon Gambrell

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (AP) — New security screenings for all passengers on U.S.-bound flights began on Thursday, with airlines worldwide questioning flyers about their trip and their luggage in the latest Trump administration decision affecting global travel.

However, confusion still remains about the new regulations, which come at the end of a 120-day period following the United States lifting a ban on laptops in airplane cabins affecting 10 Mideast cities. The new regulations cover all the 2,100 flights from around the world entering the U.S. on any given day.

Some airlines said they had received permission to delay implementing the new rules until January.

At Dubai International Airport, the world's busiest for international travel, long-haul carrier Emirates began questioning passengers about their luggage, liquids they were carrying and where they were coming from. Passengers also had to have their carry-on bags searched, along with their electronics.

Emirates declined to discuss the new procedures in detail on Thursday. On Wednesday, it said it would conduct "passenger pre-screening interviews" for those traveling on U.S.-bound flights in concert with other checks on electronics.

Elsewhere, things did not appear to be going so smoothly. In China, an official in the Xiamen Airlines press office, who would only give his surname as Qiu, said that the airlines received a "demand" about the new U.S. regulations and planned "to take some security measures, including security safety interviews from today on."

"We're not going to interview all passengers, but focus on those with a certain degree of risk when checking the passengers' documents on the ground," he said, without elaborating.

An official with the Eastern Airlines publicity department said that she saw media reports about security safety interviews but didn't have immediate details on what her company was doing. An official at the Beijing Airport press center would only say: "We always strictly follow relevant regulations of the Civil Aviation Administration when conducting security checks." Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity under regulations.

At Air China, the country's flag carrier, an official who only gave his surname, Zhang, said it would comply.

"We will meet the demands from the U.S. side, but as for the detailed measures (we will take), it is inconvenient for us to release," he said.

South Korea's Transport Ministry said that the United States agreed to delay implementing the new screening for the country's two biggest carriers, Korean Air Lines Co. and Asiana Airlines Inc., until next year on condition they deploy staff at boarding gates to monitor travelers.

Royal Jordanian, based in Amman, also has said it would introduce the new procedures in mid-January.

Other airlines with U.S.-bound flights at Seoul's Incheon International Airport brought in as many as seven extra staff Thursday to question passengers under the new rules but there were no major delays, airport spokesman Lee Jung-hoon said.

Singapore Airlines passengers may be required to "undergo enhanced security measures" including inspection of personal electronic devices "as well as security questioning during check-in and boarding," the carrier said on its website.

Other carriers who announced the new regulations on Wednesday included Air France, Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., the airlines of Germany's Lufthansa Group and EgyptAir.

In Hong Kong, passengers described some of the questions they were asked.

"They asked me if I packed my own bag, where I packed it from, where I came from, they looked at my itinerary, verify where I was, who I was, from where I came from," said Fran Young, who was travelling to Los Angeles.

Some showed displeasure.

"It's a little inconvenient, I kind of just want to get my printed ticket and then just go inside," passenger Gavin Lai said. "I don't want to wait on people to interview me like that. So it's a little annoying."

U.S. carriers also will be affected by the new rules. Delta Air Lines said it was telling passengers traveling to the U.S. to arrive at the airport at least three hours before their flight and allow extra time to get through security. United declined to comment, while American did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In March, U.S. officials introduced the laptop ban in the cabins of some Mideast airlines over concerns Islamic State fighters and other extremists could hide bombs inside of them. The ban was lifted after those airlines began using devices like CT scanners to examine electronics before passengers boarded planes heading to the U.S. Some also increasingly swab passengers' hands to check for explosive residue.

The laptop ban as well as travel bans affecting predominantly Muslim countries have hurt Mideast airlines. Emirates, the region's biggest, said it slashed 20 percent of its flights to the U.S. in the wake of the restrictions.


Malaysia airport video shows 4 men accused in Kim's killing

Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, center, is escorted by police as she arrives for court hearing at Shah Alam court house in Shah Alam, outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Thursday, Oct. 26. (AP Photo/Sadiq Asyraf)

Eileen Ng and Eric Talmadge

Shah Alam, Malaysia (AP) — Prosecutors showed a Malaysian court airport security videos on Thursday that detail the movements of four North Korean suspects who allegedly planned and helped two women — now facing possible death sentences — kill Kim Jong Un's estranged half brother.

Police chief investigating officer Wan Azirul Nizam Che Wan Aziz told the court that one of the suspects, known only as "Hanamori," was believed to be the mastermind of Kim Jong Nam's death. He said security footage from the Kuala Lumpur airport showed the four men before and after the Feb. 13 attack.

Vietnamese suspect Doan Thi Huong and Indonesian defendant Siti Aisyah are the only two people in custody. They pleaded not guilty to murder charges when their trial began Oct. 2.

Wan Azirul testified earlier that the four male suspects at large were known only by pseudonyms. Prosecutors have said outside court that the four are believe to be North Koreans.

"My investigation showed that Hanamori played the role as the mastermind of this incident," he said. Hanamori was also known as "Grandpa" or "Uncle."

Wan Azirul said Hanamori arrived at the airport in the same vehicle with two others known as "Mr. Chang" and "Mr. Y" about 90 minutes before the attack. Security videos then showed Hanamori meeting separately with each of the men as well as a third person known only as "James" at an airport cafe before the attack on Kim.

Chang later met up with Aisyah at the same cafe, while Mr. Y was seen walking around the airport with Huong near the area where Kim was attacked. The two men wore baseball caps and had backpacks. Mr. Y was seen holding a water bottle, while Chang was also carrying a white plastic bag.

After the two women rubbed Kim's face with a liquid later identified as VX nerve agent, video footage showed that Chang and Mr. Y had changed their shirts and ditched their caps and backpacks. Wan Azirul said Hanamori also changed his shirt and Chang shaved off his goatee.

He said the two men then left the budget terminal in the same vehicle with Hanamori heading to the main airport terminal.

Meanwhile, James was seen heading to the Sama-Sama airport hotel after the attack. The police official said security videos showed James entering the hotel room before checking out and he later was seen at the departure hall of the main airport terminal together with the other three men.

Wan Azirul previously testified Mr. Y and Chang were believed to have put liquid on the women's hands before they smeared it on Kim's face, and that James was the recruiter of Aisyah. Defense attorneys have said the women believed they were participating in a prank for a TV show but prosecutors have said the women knew they were handling poison.

The trial was cut short after the judge said he wanted to review the videos and will resume on Nov. 6.

Aisyah's lawyer, Gooi Soon Seng, told reporters before the trial that she was recruited in early January by a North Korean man known to her only as James to star in what he said were video prank shows. The lawyer said James and Aisyah went to malls, hotels and airports, where she would rub oil or pepper sauce on strangers' faces. James recorded the encounters on his phone and paid Aisyah between $100 and $200 for each prank.

James later introduced Aisyah to a man he allegedly called Chang, who introduced himself as a producer of Chinese video prank shows, Gooi said. On the day of Kim's death, Chang had pointed Kim out to Aisyah as the next target and put the substance in her hand, Gooi said.

Malaysia has never directly accused North Korea, but South Korea's spy agency has claimed the attack was part of a plot by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to kill a brother he reportedly never met. Kim Jong Nam was a virtual exile not known to have actively been seeking influence over his younger brother, but had years earlier spoken out publicly against his family's dynastic rule.
 


Jacinda Ardern is sworn in as New Zealand prime minister

New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to several hundred well-wishers in front of the parliament on Thursday, Oct. 26, in Wellington, New Zealand. (AP Photo/Nick Perry)

Nick Perry

Wellington, New Zealand (AP) — Jacinda Ardern was sworn in as New Zealand prime minister on Thursday and said she will lead a government that's active, focused, empathetic and strong.

Ardern and other senior lawmakers attended the ceremony in Wellington and took their oaths before Patsy Reddy, the governor-general. They then greeted several hundred well-wishers in front of the parliament.

"I want to start by saying it is an enormous privilege and an honor to stand with these wonderful people here in front of you today, in front of your house with your government," Ardern told the crowd. "I want to put emphasis on the word 'your' government."

At 37 years old, Ardern is the South Pacific nation's youngest leader in more than 150 years. She is the nation's third female prime minister and 40th leader overall.

Her liberal Labour Party did not win the most votes in the September election but managed to find enough common ground with two smaller parties to form a government.

The conservative National Party won the previous three elections and finished with the most votes but now finds itself on the opposition benches.

Ardern told the crowd she understood that not everyone voted for her but vowed to be a leader for everyone.

"This will be a government for all New Zealanders," she said.

Ardern has promised to make significant changes in the nation of nearly 5 million people, including banning foreign buyers from purchasing homes, holding a referendum to legalize recreational marijuana, and reducing immigration.

She has also outlined an ambitious environmental agenda. It includes planting 100 million trees each year, ensuring the electricity grid runs entirely from renewable energy, and reducing net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by the year 2050.

Ardern's Labour Party formed a coalition with the small, nationalist New Zealand First party. New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, 72, will serve as deputy prime minister and foreign minister. The coalition will also get support from the liberal Green Party.

Ardern has been compared to other young, charismatic leaders such as President Emmanuel Macron in France and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Canada.


Kenya police, protesters clash during election as 3 killed

 

Riot police stand guard as opposition supporters throw rocks during demonstrations in Nairobi, Kenya, Thursday, Oct. 26. (AP Photo)

Christopher Torchia and Tom Odula

Nairobi, Kenya (AP) — Kenyan police on Thursday fired bullets and tear gas at stone-throwing protesters in some opposition areas during the repeat of the disputed presidential election, reflecting bitter divisions in a country whose main opposition leader urged followers to boycott the vote.

Three people were killed in protests, a police source said: one in the opposition stronghold of Kisumu County, another in Homa Bay in the west and the third in Athi River town outside the capital, Nairobi. The police source spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.

Protesters set fires and blocked roads in Kisumu, where 25 were injured during clashes with police, said Aloyce Kidiwa, a county medical officer. The injuries included many gunshot wounds, Kidiwa said. Violence also erupted in Nairobi's Kibera slum.

Not a single ballot box was delivered to central Kisumu's 190 polling stations, said a senior election official, John Ngutai Muyekho. He sat with the uncollected boxes in a school guarded by security forces.

"If anyone comes to collect, I'm ready. But so far no one has," Muyekho said.

One Kisumu school that saw huge lines of voters in the Aug. 8 election was closed, its gates locked.

"We are not going to vote and we are not going to allow it," said Olga Onyanga, an opposition supporter.

Voting proceeded in areas where President Uhuru Kenyatta has support, but fewer voters were turning out in comparison to the August election that the Supreme Court nullified because it found illegalities and irregularities in the election process.

Kenyatta said 90 percent of the country was calm and said Kenya must remove ethnic loyalties from its politics in order to succeed. The president, who was declared the winner in August with 54 percent of the vote, had said security forces would be deployed nationwide to ensure order on Thursday, and he urged Kenyans to vote while respecting the rights of those who didn't.

Voters lined up before dawn at a polling station in Kenyatta's hometown of Gatundu and electoral workers prepared ballot papers by flashlight after heavy rains knocked out power to the site.

"Our hope for the country is that whoever emerges the winner will be able to unite the country, which is already torn apart by politicians and politics of the day," said Simon Wambirio, a Gatundu resident.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga, who got nearly 45 percent of the vote in August, has said the new election won't be credible because of a lack of electoral reform and accused Kenyatta of moving a country known for relative stability and openness toward authoritarian rule.

Odinga's call for a boycott resonated strongly in Kisumu, Kenya's third-largest city. He has urged followers to stay away from polling stations because of concerns about a crackdown by security forces. Human rights groups said police killed at least 67 people during protests after the August vote; authorities confirmed a smaller number of deaths and said they had to take action against rioters.

Odinga has said the opposition coalition, National Super Alliance, will become a resistance movement. On Thursday, he said the movement will constitute a "People's Assembly to guide the country to a fresh free and fair presidential election" as part of a peaceful resistance that will include boycotting goods and services by those who have supported Kenyatta's "lawless grab of the presidency."

Odinga and Kenyatta, who seeks a second term, also faced off in a 2013 election similarly marred by opposition allegations of vote-rigging. The opposition leader also ran unsuccessfully in 2007 — ethnic-fueled animosity after that vote killed more than 1,000 people and forced 600,000 from their homes.

Many observers say Kenya's ethnic-based politics overshadow the promise of its democracy. Kenyatta is a Kikuyu, while Odinga is a Luo.


Update October 25 - 26 , 2017

Bangladesh, Myanmar agree to halt the outflow of Rohingya

 

Bangladesh Home Secretary Mostafa Kamal Uddin, right, and Tin Myint, permanent secretary of Myanmar's Ministry of Home Affairs, left, talk to journalists during their press conference at a hotel in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Tuesday, Oct. 24. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo)

Naypyitaw, Myanmar (AP) — Government officials from Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed Tuesday to halt the outflow of Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh and enable the refugees to return home.

The two sides met in Myanmar's capital, Naypyitaw, to discuss a crisis that has seen hundreds of thousands of Rohingya flee to Bangladesh over the past two months to escape violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

"Myanmar affirms its commitment to immediately halt the outflow of Myanmar residents to Bangladesh, to restore normalcy in Rakhine to enable displaced Myanmar residents to return from Bangladesh at the earliest" possible time, the sides said in a joint statement.

More than 600,000 Rohingya from northern Rakhine have fled to Bangladesh since Aug. 25, when Myanmar security forces began a scorched-earth campaign against Rohingya villages. Myanmar's government has said it was responding to attacks on police outposts by insurgents from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, but the United Nations and others have said the response was disproportionate.

Tuesday's joint statement said that Myanmar declared ARSA "a terrorist organization" after Aug. 25 and asked Bangladesh to hand over any suspects who may have fled there. Bangladesh said it would "continue to cooperate with Myanmar against insurgents, militants and terrorists."

Earlier this month, the two sides agreed to set up a working group on the repatriation process.

Myanmar's Buddhist majority denies that Rohingya Muslims are a separate ethnic group and regards them as having migrated illegally from Bangladesh, although many families have lived in Myanmar for generations.

The exodus of the Rohingya has become a major humanitarian crisis and sparked international condemnation of Buddhist-majority Myanmar.


Indonesia parliament endorses draconian law on groups

Muslim men shout slogans during a rally outside the parliament in Jakarta, Indonesia, Tuesday, Oct. 24. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

Jakarta, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesia's parliament on Tuesday endorsed a presidential decree that gives officials sweeping powers to ban organizations deemed as threats to national unity.

The decree, signed in July by President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, has already been used to ban Hizbut Tahrir, an Islamic organization that advocates for a global caliphate. It required parliamentary approval to become permanent law.

Lawmakers from 10 parties, including Widodo's governing coalition, voted 314-131 to amend a law regulating mass organizations in line with the decree. More than three quarters of lawmakers in the 560-seat legislature were present for the vote.

Rights activists have condemned the decree, which is supported by moderate groups such as Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's largest Muslim organization. They called it a "troubling violation" of the rights to freedom of association and expression.

Minister of Home Affairs Tjahjo Kumolo said the government was open to criticism of the law and revision if needed.

The decree allows officials to sidestep the courts when banning organizations it deems contrary to the country's constitution.

It was issued following months of sectarian tensions in the world's most populous Muslim nation that shook the government and undermined its reputation for practicing a moderate form of Islam.

Several thousand people from Muslim groups including the banned Hizbut Tahrir, a group that campaigned for Indonesia to adopt Shariah law and become a caliphate, protested outside parliament.


Teen kayaker says shark attack was like everything in 'Jaws'

Sarah Williams, 15, stands over a kayak in Mount Compass, Australia, on Monday, Oct. 23, after she was attacked by a great white shark off the coast near Normanville, in South Australia. (Channel 9 via AP)

Adelaide, Australia (AP) — A massive great white shark was thrashing in the water on top of an upended kayak. But an Australian dad couldn't see his daughter.

In a matter of seconds, 15-year-old Sarah Williams surfaced and was rescued by her father and brother from the shark attack she says was "everything you picture in the 'Jaws' movie."

The 4.5-meter (15-foot) shark struck from beneath the kayak, tossing Sarah into the water Sunday off the coast near Normanville in South Australia state.

"I saw it when I was in the water with it. I saw what it was and I saw its fin," she told Nine Network television on Monday.

She survived the ordeal with scratches and bruises.

Her father Chris Williams said on Tuesday he powered toward her in a 14-foot motor boat as she clambered back on to the kayak.

The shark was between the boat and the kayak thrashing, he said.

Williams said his son Mitch dragged his sister across the shark's back somewhere between its nose and dorsal fin to get her into the boat.

"I am having trouble coming to terms with how my son and I were able to get her off that kayak and over the shark and into the boat without her getting seriously hurt," Williams said.

"I have this vision all the time of this massive shark that was just thrashing in the water and ripping into this kayak which my daughter had been knocked off but was back on — I just don't know how we got her off," he said.

Williams said the boat was about 25 meters from the kayak when the shark attacked. He estimated his daughter was rescued 30 seconds later, and doubted she would have survived for another 10 seconds in the water.

"This thing came in and hit the kayak from underneath, catapulted my daughter and the kayak into the air and when I turned around ... all I could see was the shark had launched itself on top of the kayak and thrashing its tail around and it was all white water and no daughter," Williams said.

"Then she popped up out of the water and climbed back on to the kayak and just screamed like you don't ever, ever want to hear," he added.

State Premier Jay Weatherill said the question of a shark cull in response to the attack was complex and the government would take advice from experts on the issue.


Italy anti-mafia panel asks Malta's help, cites car bombing

The president of the Italian Anti Mafia Commission Rosy Bindi, right, attends a commemorative mass for murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in the small chapel of Bidnija, Malta, Monday, Oct. 23. (AP Photo/Rene Rossignaud)

Valletta, Malta (AP) — The head of Italy's anti-mafia parliamentary commission called Tuesday for greater cooperation from Malta in the fight against organized crime, which she said has found a "hospitable" home on the Mediterranean island thanks to its shady financial regulations.

Rosy Bindi led an Italian parliamentary visit to Malta this week that was planned before the Oct. 16 car bomb slaying of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose reports on organized crime and suspicious activities of Malta's political leaders made her a leading anti-corruption campaigner.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Bindi urged Malta to use Caruana Galizia's killing as an impetus to reform the laws that allowed organized crime to proliferate.

"The fact that they hit a woman who did investigative journalism is proof that sometimes they're more afraid of a pen than a pistol," Bindi said.

Recalling the popular movement that arose against mob violence in Italy, she said Malta could be at a similar crossroads:

"We believe this is an extraordinary opportunity to come to grips with how dangerous this criminal phenomenon is, where they kill people when they are prevented from doing business and making money," Bindi said.

Police haven't given any clues about the leads they are pursuing in the 53-year-old Caruana Galizia's slaying. Her investigations targeted some of Malta's leading politicians, as well as Maltese links to foreigners as far afield as Azerbaijan.

Bindi said Italian representatives are visiting Malta to encourage greater cooperation from Maltese police and prosecutors in fighting the mafia. She said there was evidence that Italy's major organized crime syndicates — Cosa Nostra, the 'ndrangheta and the the Camorra — had found fertile ground to base operations in Malta.

Bindi cited drug trafficking, petroleum trafficking, immigration and online gambling as sectors where organized crime already had insinuated itself. Online gambling accounts for an estimated one-third of Malta's GDP, she estimated.

"Those who run this sector often base their organizations in Malta, taking advantage of the Maltese fiscal system and the opacity in the registration of businesses," she said.

The Italians met with Malta Archbishop Charles Scicluna, a well-known figure to them from his years of service as a prosecutor in the Vatican's sex crimes office. Bindi said he urged them to be courageous in pressing for greater cooperation in the fight against organized crime, and to not abandon Malta.

"If we join forces to fight the mafia, we're all a bit less alone and a bit stronger," Bindi said.


Mystery attacks chopping women's hair raise panic in Kashmir

In this Sept. 18, 2017 photo, Tasleema Bilal, right, and her teenage niece Kousain Ajaz, show their chopped braids inside their home in Srinagar, India. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)

Aijaz Hussain

Srinagar, India (AP) — Hundreds of young men — armed with knives, cricket bats and iron rods — patrol the nighttime streets of India-controlled Kashmir these days, hoping their ad-hoc vigilante groups will deter the mysterious bandits reportedly chopping off women's long, woven hair.

In more than 100 cases confounding police over the past month, women said they were attacked by masked men who sliced off their braids.

The attacks — most reportedly occurring inside people's homes — are so strange that police initially suggested women were suffering from hallucinations, until the government-run Women's Commission warned them against making dismissive comments.

The region's top elected official, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, tweeted recently that the braid-chopping was an attempt "to create mass hysteria and undermine the dignity of the women in the state."

Still, police have no suspects and no leads, and no clue about the motives for the attacks.

"We're frightened," said Tasleema Bilal, a 40-year-old woman whose hair was hacked off last week while she was in her home in Srinagar, the region's main city. She said she tried to remove the man's mask, but "he was very strong, and like a commando almost snapped my neck" before escaping, leaving her hair behind.

Just days earlier, Bilal's 16-year-old niece had also been knocked out by a blow to the head with a brick, only to wake up later in a hospital to find her hair also gone. Other women have said they were knocked unconscious with a mysterious chemical spray that authorities have yet to identify.

The mysterious braid thefts have spread fear and panic in the heavily militarized and disputed Himalayan region, where many among the mostly Muslim population already feel traumatized after decades of conflict between separatist rebels and India soldiers.

Similar incidents of hair banditry were reported earlier this year elsewhere in India, including in the northern states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. But nowhere have the attacks sparked such panic and vigilantism as in Kashmir.

While Kashmiri Muslim women traditionally wear their hair long like women in other parts of India, most cover it with headscarves out of cultural modesty.

Separatist leaders, angry at the initial reactions by police, said the attacks were the "handiwork of Indian agencies" trying to cower Kashmir's rebellious population, which is widely opposed to Indian rule.

Residents are also suspicious of the Indian authorities, and some have accused soldiers and police of staging the attacks or protecting those responsible.

"We want to know who the culprit is: police, army or civilians?" Bilal said.

Police Inspector-General Muneer Ahmed Khan said it was ludicrous to think authorities were involved. Authorities said they would pay about $9,000 for clues leading to any of the culprits.

"It's important to first know the motive behind such acts rather than who the culprit is," Khan said. "Once the motive is established, it would be easy for us to solve such cases."

This is not the first time bizarre reports have spread fear in Kashmir, which has known little else but conflict since India and Pakistan gained independence in 1947 and each claimed the region as its own. The rival countries have since fought two wars over the mountain territory, and each administers a part of it. On the Indian side, an ongoing rebellion has left at least 70,000 people dead in rebel attacks and subsequent Indian military crackdowns since 1989.

Amid massive anti-India demonstrations in the early 1990s, some began reporting ghosts haunting neighborhoods across the region at night. Eventually, many blamed Indian paramilitary commandos for dressing up as ghosts to spook the local population.

When the braid-hacking incidents were first reported in July across northern India, officials brought psychiatrists into the investigation to determine whether the women reporting the cases were suffering mental illness.

The suspicion that women could be imagining the attacks grew stronger once the attacks spread to Kashmir, where the territorial conflict had caused widespread psychological trauma and other issues such as suicidal tendencies. Patient numbers at Srinagar's lone psychiatric hospital jumped from 1,700 a year to more than 100,000 annually after the conflict heated up in 1989.

One-third of Kashmiris questioned in a 2006 Doctors Without Borders survey said they had thought of killing themselves in the previous month.

While health experts dismissed the idea that women were imagining the attacks, pending scientific verification, they warned that the braid banditry could push an already edgy population further to the brink.

"These instances will further complicate psychiatric problems present here," said Dr. Mohammed Maqbool, who heads the psychiatry department at Srinagar's Government Medical College.

Another scholar who studied psychiatric issues in Kashmir said it was not hard to believe women's bodies would be targeted in this way.

"Hair has historically symbolized sexuality and a certain excessive feminine energy, which is a direct threat, not just a target of militarized masculine forces," said Saiba Varma of the University of California, San Diego. "The braid-chopping seems to be a clear example of someone trying to curtail these feminine energies."

With the mystery unsolved, many Kashmiris have stopped traveling outside their neighborhoods after dusk, dealing a blow to local businesses.

"Our business has shrunk to 10 percent of what we had before this braid-chopping started," cafe owner Syed Mukhtar said in Srinagar.

Meanwhile, men take turns on nighttime vigilante patrols, and some have beaten up so-called suspects only to find later that they were innocent, police said. One 70-year-old man died after vigilantes in a southern village mistook him for a suspect and smashed his head with a brick.

Several soldiers and police officials also have been thrashed by vigilantes. Police have arrested nearly two dozen people so far on charges of spreading rumors and beating people.

The hair-chopping attackers "are behaving like a typical Bollywood film villain who tries to harm female family members of the hero after failing to pin him down," said Srinagar university student Basharat Ahmed. "And through these (braid) choppers, the government is trying to convey to us that we can't protect our women. But they'll fail in this scheme, too, God willing."


Russian presidential hopeful says Crimea belongs to Ukraine

Russian celebrity Ksenia Sobchak, who announced her presidential bid last week, gestures while speaking to the media in Moscow, Russia, on Tuesday, Oct. 24. (Sergey Vedyashkin/ Moscow News Agency photo via AP)

Vladimir Isachenkov

Moscow (AP) — A 35-year-old Russian celebrity TV host who aspires to run for president in next March's election said Tuesday that Crimea belongs to Ukraine despite its 2014 annexation by Moscow — a bold statement that has drawn angry responses from Russian officials and lawmakers.

Ksenia Sobchak also emphasized her critical stance by issuing a call for the release of the nation's political prisoners and denouncing official corruption at her first news conference since declaring her presidential ambitions.

Sobchak, who first became known as a fashionable socialite before launching her successful TV hosting career, denied getting the Kremlin's blessing for her bid. Still, she acknowledged that she had warned President Vladimir Putin before publicly declaring it.

Putin hasn't yet said whether he will seek re-election in the March 18 presidential vote, but he's widely expected to run. His approval ratings — now topping 80 percent — guarantee a landslide victory against a pack of stolid veterans of past campaigns, but the government has been worried about growing voter apathy.

To make Putin's victory as impressive as ever, the Kremlin needs to boost the voter turnout. Pundits said Sobchak's involvement in the race could help draw young voters to the polls without really challenging Putin's lead.

Some opposition figures say, by joining the presidential race, Sobchak will further fragment the Russian opposition.

Sobchak is the daughter of former reformist mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, who was Putin's boss in the 1990s. Her mother is a member of the upper house of the Russian parliament.

Sobchak angrily rejected the claims of collusion with the Kremlin. She said she had recently met with Putin to interview him about a documentary about her late father and informed him about her intention to become a presidential candidate.

"I haven't asked for any sort of permission, I don't need it," she said. "I'm an independent person."

Sobchak joined anti-Kremlin protests in Moscow in the winter of 2011-2012, and has been often critical of the government, but she has avoided criticizing Putin.

She noted Tuesday that she remains grateful to the president for helping her father, but emphasized that Russia needs political change.

"I'm against a corrupt system that has been built in our country," she said. "I'm against any person, including Vladimir Putin, staying at the helm for 18 years."

She spoke strongly against Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, emphasizing that it should be a top goal for Russia to normalize relations with Ukraine.

"From the point of view of international law, Crimea belongs to Ukraine," she said.

Sobchak has cast herself as a "candidate against all," appealing to those who have grown tired of Russia's tightly-controlled political system and want new names on the ballot. She promised that she would push for the release of Russia's political prisoners.

Speaking to a packed hall, Sobchak also reaffirmed her readiness to withdraw her candidacy in favor of Alexei Navalny, Russia's most popular opposition leader, in case he gets registered for the race. Her campaign chief quickly contradicted that, however, saying he sees no point in doing so.

Navalny has declared his intention to run for president, even though a criminal conviction that he calls politically motivated bars him from joining the race. The 41-year-old anti-corruption crusader has organized a grassroots campaign in support of his presidential bid and staged waves of protests this year in the hope of forcing the Kremlin to let him join the campaign.

Navalny had warned Sobchak earlier on YouTube that she would only serve the Kremlin's goals by running for president. He later toned down his rhetoric, avoiding direct criticism of her bid.

Sobchak has named Igor Malashenko, the man behind the 1996 re-election of President Boris Yeltsin, as her campaign chief. Sobchak would not say how much she expects the campaign to cost, saying only that she planned to receive funding help from anonymous businessmen.


Update October 24 , 2017

Philippines declares end to 5-month militant siege in Marawi

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, left, together with Armed Forces Chief Gen. Eduardo Ano, right, reads a statement announcing that Philippine troops had successfully captured a building where pro-Islamic State group militants made their final stand in southern Marawi city, Monday, Oct. 23. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Jim Gomez

Clark, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine government declared the end Monday to the militant siege of a southern city that lasted five months, left more than 1,100 people dead and sparked fears of the Islamic State group gaining a foothold in Southeast Asia.

Speaking at an annual meeting of the region's defense ministers, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters that combat operations in Marawi were ending after troops recovered 42 bodies of the last group of militants.

"Those are the last group of stragglers of Mautes and they were caught in one building so there was a firefight, so they were finished," he said. "There are no more militants inside Marawi City."

The siege had sparked fears the Islamic State group would influence, fund and strengthen local militant groups as it was losing ground in Syria and Iraq. The defeat of the IS-linked uprising and the deaths of its leaders have been a relief to the region.

Still, the length of the siege and the difficulty the military had in stamping it out has raised questions about the preparedness of the Philippines armed forces at a time when President Rodrigo Duterte has been suggesting his country could ditch its longtime ally the United States.

The timing of the uprising was also disastrous, coming as the Philippines plays host this year to the annual summit meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, along with the 10-nation bloc's Asian and Western counterparts, including the United States and Australia. The two governments deployed surveillance aircraft and drones to help Filipino troops rout the Marawi militants.

Lorenzana focused on the final success in his comments Monday.

"The Philippine security forces, aided by its government and the massive support of the Filipino people, have nipped the budding infrastructure and defeated terrorism in the Philippines," Lorenzana said.

He said the achievement shows how regional cooperation can contain the spread of terrorism. "In crushing thus far the most serious attempt to export violent extremism and radicalism in the Philippines and the region, we have contributed to preventing its spread in Asia."

Fighting terrorism is high on the agenda of the Southeast Asian defense ministers' meeting at the Clark freeport north of Manila. As the meetings opened, the head of the Brunei delegation expressed condolences for the loss of lives in Marawi but congratulated the Philippines for being able to liberate the city.

Malaysia's minister said the siege was a wakeup call for the region. "We have to be very careful. What happened in Marawi can happen anywhere," Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said.

Hundreds of militants, many waving Islamic State group-style black flags, launched the siege on May 23 in Marawi, a bastion of Islamic faith in the south of the largely Roman Catholic Philippines, by seizing the lakeside city's central business district and outlying communities. They ransacked banks and shops, including gun stores, looted houses and smashed statues in a Roman Catholic cathedral, according to the military.

The fighting has left at least 1,131 people dead, including 919 militants and 165 soldiers and police, and displaced hundreds of thousands of Marawi residents. At least 1,780 of the hostages seized by the militants, including a Roman Catholic priest, were rescued. The final group of 20 captives were freed over the weekend, Army Col. Romeo Brawner said at a news conference Sunday. That left the gunmen with none of the hostages they had used as human shields to slow the military advance for months.

Last week, troops killed the final two surviving leaders of the siege, including Isnilon Hapilon, who is listed among the FBI's most-wanted terror suspects in the world, and Omarkhayam Maute. Following their deaths, Duterte traveled near the main scene of battle and declared Marawi had been essentially liberated.

DNA tests done in the United States requested by the Philippine military have confirmed the death of Hapilon, according to the U.S. Embassy in Manila. Washington has offered a bounty of up to $5 million for Hapilon, who had been blamed for kidnappings for ransom of American nationals and other terrorist attacks.

Among the foreign militants believed to be with the remaining gunmen in Marawi were Malaysian militant Amin Baco and an Indonesian known only as Qayyim. Both have plotted attacks and provided combat training to local militants for years but have eluded capture in the south.

Lorenzana said Monday the identities of the final 42 bodies had not been determined and some were beyond recognition.


Japanese defense minister sounds alarm on North Korea

 

Japan's Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera.
 (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

Robert Burns

Clark, Philippines (AP) — Japan's defense minister asserted Monday that North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities have grown to an "unprecedented, critical and imminent" level, requiring "different responses" to the threat.

The minister, Itsunori Odonera, said that this rising threat compels his country to endorse the U.S. view that "all options" must be considered, which President Donald Trump says includes possible military action. Japan was alarmed by North Korea twice launching missiles over Japanese territory, in August and in September.

Odonera's comments, made through an interpreter, came at the outset of a so-called trilateral meeting in the Philippines with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and South Korea's defense minister, Song Young-moo. Each made statements about North Korea before a group of reporters and news cameras, but none took questions.

Mattis was in the Philippines to attend portions of a two-day meeting of defense ministers from the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He used the occasion to hold a three-way meeting with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea. He is scheduled later in the week to travel to Seoul to attend annual consultative talks with the South Korean government, which is expected to focus mostly on North Korea.

In remarks that were notably explicit about the North Korean threat, Odonera said North Korea's most recent underground nuclear test could have been a hydrogen bomb, which is vastly more powerful than an atomic bomb.

"The country has steadfastly improved it nuclear and missiles capability," said Onodera. He added: "The threat posed by North Korea has grown to the unprecedented, critical and imminent level."

"Therefore, we have to take calibrated and different responses to meet that level of threat," he said, without elaborating on what "different" responses Japan favors.

Trump has said he will resolve the North Korea problem alone if necessary, to prevent the North from gaining the capability to attack the United States with a nuclear-armed missile.

Mattis was somewhat more reserved in his remarks than Onodera, although he did slam Pyongyang for defying U.N. Security Council resolutions against its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But the U.S. defense secretary did not mention any potential military action. Mattis instead emphasized a unified U.S.-Japan-South Korea position in pressuring the North to give up its nuclear program.

"North Korea's provocations threaten regional and global security," he said.

Earlier in the day, Mattis used the opportunity to personally apologize to his Indonesia counterpart for an unexplained move by the U.S. government to prevent the top Indonesian general traveling to Washington over the weekend.

Erin McKee, the deputy U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, did not explain why Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo was prevented from boarding a flight to the U.S. to attend a conference of military chiefs but said the matter had been resolved.

South Korea's defense minister, Song, said that North Korea's behavior is "becoming worse and worse."

Earlier Monday, in brief remarks to reporters, Song was asked about the risk of war against North Korea. He said defense ministers bring a special perspective that cautions against an early use of force.

"I want to emphasize that war is not as easy as the journalists make it sound in the press and the media," he said. "As defense ministers who are in charge of national defense and other high tech weapons such as ballistic missiles, we understand the very weight of engaging in a war and as such we will make all the efforts necessary to resolve the issue in a diplomatic and economic way as possible."

He added: "However, if we are attacked then we will have to take firm actions."


UK's May says Brexit talks making progress; EU denies leak

British Prime Minister Theresa May waits for the arrival of European Council President Donald Tusk prior to a bilateral meeting during an EU summit in Brussels on Friday, Oct. 20. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert, Pool)

Jill Lawless and Raf Casert

London (AP) — Giving an upbeat verdict on an inconclusive European Union summit, British Prime Minister Theresa May said Monday she has "a degree of confidence" that Brexit talks will be able to move to their decisive second phase by December.

She told lawmakers that the talks on Britain's divorce from the EU had made "important progress," despite a judgment by the 27 other EU leaders that more needs to be done before the two sides can discuss trade and their future relations.

May said she had "a degree of confidence we are going to get to a point of sufficient progress by December," allowing talks to move on.

With Britain's March 2019 departure from the EU moving closer, Britain is eager to start discussing trade and future relations with the bloc. But EU leaders say there has not yet been "sufficient progress" on divorce terms, including the size of the bill Britain must pay to settle its commitments to the bloc.

Britain's initial offer to cover its previous EU commitments of around 20 billion euros ($24 billion) falls far short of the EU estimate of 60 billion euros ($70 billion) or more.

May refused to commit to a figure, saying "we are going through our potential commitments line by line."

May has been in need of a boost from the 27 other EU leaders as she tries to hold together a government, a Conservative Party and a country deeply divided over Brexit. At the EU meeting in Brussels last week, she told fellow leaders that both sides needed "an outcome we can stand behind and defend to our people."

An EU official said, after last week's dinner, all the leaders were aware of the difficulties May is facing at home. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were confidential, said there was a sense among EU leaders that they didn't want to make life more difficult for May.

But May's life was not made any easier by a German newspaper report claiming that EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who dined with May last week, saw her as "despondent" and "begging" the EU to help her make progress.

Juncker denied saying any such thing, insisting that his dinner with May in Brussels had not gone nearly as badly as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung suggested.

"She was neither tired nor beaten. She did her thing, and I did mine too," Juncker said, speaking at the Institute of Political Studies in Strasbourg, France.

Juncker and his chief aide denied leaking the account of the meeting to the newspaper, and May's spokesman declined to comment on it.

Meanwhile, Britain's biggest business groups urged May's Conservative government to quickly agree to a transition period of at least two years after Brexit to provide certainty about trade as companies make critical decisions about jobs and investment.

The letter sent to U.K. Brexit Secretary David Davis said an "agreement (on a transition) is needed as soon as possible, as companies are preparing to make serious decisions at the start of 2018, which will have consequences for jobs and investment in the U.K."

May has requested a two-year transition period in which the two sides would trade on terms largely similar to current arrangements. But Britain and the EU have yet to discuss details of any such transition.


Britain to give Canada the shipwrecks of explorer Franklin

This image released by Parks Canada shows a side-scan sonar image of a ship from the Franklin expedition on the seafloor in northern Canada. (Photo: AP)

Danica Kirka

London (AP) — Britain announced Monday it will give Canada the shipwrecks of British explorer John Franklin, who perished with his crew while trying to chart the Northwest Passage through the Arctic in the 1840s.

The HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror were found in 2014 and 2016 about 30 miles (48 kilometers) apart near King William Island in the Canadian Arctic, some 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) northwest of Toronto.

Under an agreement between the two countries, the wrecks were the property of Britain although Canada had custody and control of them. The U.K. Ministry of Defense said Monday it would transfer ownership to Parks Canada, but retain a small sample of artifacts.

British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said the arrangement "will ensure that these wrecks and artifacts are conserved for future generations."

Franklin and 128 hand-picked men set out in 1845 to find the passage — a shortcut to Asia that supposedly ran from the Atlantic to the Pacific by way of the Arctic. All of them died, making the voyage the worst tragedy in the history of Arctic exploration.

Historians believe the ships got trapped in thick ice in 1846, and Franklin and some other crew members died in the ensuing months. The survivors apparently abandoned the two ships in April 1848 in a hopeless bid to reach safety overland. Inuit lore tells of "white men who were starving" in the area as late as the winter of 1850.

Dozens of searches by the British and Americans in the 1800s failed to locate the wrecks, and some of those expeditions ended in tragedy, too. The ships were among the most sought-after prizes in marine archaeology.

Canada announced in 2008 that it would look for the ships and poured millions of dollars into the ultimately successful search.

The Terror was discovered in 24 meters of water in Terror Bay, west of the community of Gjoa Haven, right where an Inuit hunter said it was.

Canada's government said Monday it recognizes the invaluable contributions of Inuit in helping find the wrecks. Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said the ships would be co-owned with the local indigenous. There are no plans to raise the ships.

"We will continue to work with our Inuit partners on the protection and presentation of the two wreck sites and artifacts for generations to come," McKenna said in a statement.


Kenya president says polls must be this week, despite doubts

Supporters of Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta ride around and cheer as they await his arrival in Githurai on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya Monday, Oct. 23. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

Christopher Torchia

Nairobi, Kenya (AP) — Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said the re-run of the presidential election must go ahead as planned on Thursday, despite the chief electoral officer's recent statement that he cannot guarantee that the polls would be credible.

Kenyatta met Monday with electoral commission chief Wafula Chebukati and said the commission has a responsibility to conduct the election, Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper reported.

"We have made funds available for the IEBC (the electoral commission) to do its job. Now they really should deliver," Kenyatta said following the meeting, according to the newspaper. Kenyatta also addressed campaign supporters, saying that the elections must go ahead despite a boycott by the main opposition candidate, divisions within the country and disagreements within the electoral commission.

Kenyatta's firm insistence the elections must be held Thursday added to a crisis atmosphere in Kenya, which is embarking on one of the most perilous weeks in its political history, with the criticisms of the elections a blow to a country once heralded as a beacon of regional stability.

In addition to the electoral chairman's doubt that free and fair elections can be held this week, another electoral commissioner, Roselyn Akombe, resigned, saying credible elections are not possible. She fled to the United States, saying she feared for her safety.

Shortly before the Aug. 8 vote, Christopher Msando, an election official who was in charge of the electronic voting system and technology to prevent voter fraud, was murdered in an unsolved case that fueled theories about alleged attempts to tamper with the electoral process.

The tension building ahead of the planned vote on Thursday has alarmed world leaders who are appealing for calm in Kenya, a linchpin of East African economic development that has played a key role in the fight against the al-Shabab Islamic extremist group in neighboring Somalia, where a massive truck bombing killed at least 358 people on Oct. 14.

Pope Francis, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Moussa Faki Mahamat, chair of the African Union Commission, have called for restraint in a nation that endured deadly ethnic-based violence after a disputed 2007 election as well as the killing of dozens of protesters, some of whom were rioting, by security forces after an August vote. Kenyatta was declared the winner of the recent election, but in a surprise ruling, the Supreme Court nullified the vote because of what it said were illegalities and irregularities and ordered a new one within 60 days.

"Unfortunately, the deteriorating political environment is undermining preparations for the new presidential election.  Inflammatory rhetoric, attacks on institutions, and growing insecurity all make holding a credible and fair poll more difficult," U.S. Ambassador Robert F. Godec said in a statement that he read out on Monday on behalf of a group of top diplomatic envoys to Kenya.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga's group, the National Super Alliance, said its leadership met the diplomats and reiterated its belief that Kenya's electoral commission is not ready "to conduct free, fair and credible elections."

The opposition group said it won't participate in the new vote "because it doesn't serve the country's interest."

Odinga has said his concerns about the transparency of the electoral process have not been adequately addressed and wants his supporters to protest in the days ahead, raising the prospect of more clashes with police as well as the disruption of polling stations.

Also Monday, Kenyan prosecutors asked police to charge Ruth Odinga, a sister of the opposition leader, and opposition legislator Fred Outa for allegedly disrupting the preparations of electoral officials ahead of this week's planned election. Mobs attacked electoral commission centers in parts of western Kenya last week, disrupting training for electoral officials.


Older vehicles in London to be charged more for polluting

A cyclist wears an anti-pollution mask in central London, Monday, Oct. 23. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

London (AP) — Drivers of older, more polluting cars will face an additional charge when entering central London as the city battles air pollution blamed for thousands of premature deaths each year.

Starting Monday, cars registered before vehicles were forced to meet new European emissions standards now face a toxicity charge of 10 pounds ($13.50) a day in addition to the congestion charge of 11.50 pounds every time they enter central London. The new rules apply primarily to cars registered before 2006 and may include some registered before 2008.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan says he plans to clean up the capital's air and the so-called T-Charge will "encourage motorists to ditch polluting, harmful vehicles."

The city says almost 95 percent of Londoners live in areas where particulate pollution exceeds World Health Organization standards.


Update October 23 , 2017

India says Myanmar must take back Rohingya Muslims

A Rohingya Muslim woman hangs clothes outside her shelter in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh, Sunday, Oct. 22. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

Julhas Alam

Dhaka, Bangladesh (AP) — India's foreign minister told Bangladesh's government that Myanmar must take back Rohingya Muslims to resolve one of Asia's largest refugee crises in decades, the government said.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj conveyed her message Sunday during a meeting with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who ordered border guards and her administration to allow the Rohingya to cross the border and shelter in makeshift camps in the coastal district of Cox's Bazar.

Nearly 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar's Rakhine state since Aug. 25 to escape persecution that the United Nations has called ethnic cleansing.

The United News of Bangladesh agency reported that Swaraj said, "Myanmar must take back their nationals ... this is a big burden for Bangladesh. How long will Bangladesh bear it? There should be a permanent solution to this crisis."

She met earlier with her Bangladeshi counterpart A.H. Mahmood Ali and said India was worried about the violence. Human rights groups have interviewed refugees who said Myanmar security forces killed indiscriminately, committed rapes and burned villages to force Rohingya to leave.

"We've urged the situation be handled with restraint, keeping in mind the welfare of the population," Swaraj said in a statement.

Swaraj also said India supported the implementation of recommendations suggesting recognition of the Rohingya ethnic group within Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship and are effectively stateless.

In the statement, she also said creating economic opportunity in the troubled Rakhine state could help resolve the situation.

"In our view, the only long-term solution to the  situation in Rakhine State is rapid socio-economic and infrastructure development that would have a positive impact on all the communities living in the state," she was quoted as saying in the statement.

Bangladeshi Foreign Minister urged India to play a greater role by "exerting sustained pressure" on Myanmar to find a peaceful solution to the Rohingya crisis.

India's shift toward resolving the Rohinga crisis would mean a lot to China's policy to support Myanmar.

An official with China's ruling Communist Party said Saturday the country supports Myanmar in "safeguarding peace and stability" and won't join other nations in condemning the government's actions. Beijing condemns "violence and terror acts" and backs measures to restore order, said the vice minister of the party's International Department, Guo Yezhou, apparently referring to attacks by Rohingya rebels on Myanmar security forces.


Japanese Prime Minister Abe heads to impressive election win

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, answers a question during a TV interview at the party headquarters in Tokyo, Sunday, Oct. 22. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

Ken Moritsugu

Tokyo (AP) — Japan's ruling coalition appeared headed to an impressive win in national elections in what would represent an endorsement for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's nearly five-year leadership.

A victory would boost Abe's chances of winning another three-year term next September as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party. That could extend his premiership to 2021, giving him more time to try to win a reluctant public over to his longtime goal of revising Japan's pacifist constitution.

In the immediate term, a victory likely means a continuation of the policies Abe has pursued since he took office in December 2012 — a hard line on North Korea, close ties with Washington, including defense, as well as a super-loose monetary policy and push for nuclear energy.

Japanese media projected shortly after polls closed Sunday that Abe's LDP and its junior partner Komeito might even retain their two-thirds majority in the lower house of parliament.

In unofficial results in the early hours of Monday, the ruling coalition had won 312 seats in the 465-seat lower house, exceeding a two-thirds majority at 310, and other parties had 143 seats, Japanese public broadcaster NHK said. Final results may not be tallied until Monday.

Abe's ruling coalition already has a two-thirds majority in the less powerful upper house. Having the supermajority in both houses virtually gives them a free hand in pushing even divisive policies and legislation.

Abe said the results indicate that voters support his policies and want to see his political leadership continue.

"I think the results reflected the voters' preference for a solid political foundation and their expectations for us to push polices forward and achieve results," Abe told NHK.

Abe's support ratings had fallen to around 30 percent in the summer after accusations of government favoritism to people connected to him, sparking talk that he might be vulnerable as leader of his party and prime minister.

"I will humbly face the victory and continue to work humbly and sincerely," he told NHK, noting lingering public distrust over the scandals.

Abe dissolved the lower house less than a month ago, forcing the snap election. The lower house chooses the prime minister and is the more powerful of the two chambers of parliament.

Analysts saw Abe's move as an attempt to solidify his political standing at a time when the opposition was in disarray and his support ratings had improved somewhat.

His plan was briefly upstaged by the launch of a new opposition party by populist Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike. But initial excitement faded and Koike herself decided not to run for parliament.

NHK projected that her Party of Hope so far has won just 49 seats.

Koike called the results "very severe" in a televised interview from Paris, where she is attending a conference of mayors. She said some of her remarks might have been taken negatively by voters, and that she would take the blame.

Projections indicated that another new party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, could outpoll the Party of Hope and become the biggest opposition grouping. The Constitutional Democrats are liberal-leaning, while both the Party of Hope and Abe's Liberal Democratic Party are more conservative.

Abe's party and its nationalist supporters have advocated constitutional revisions for years. They view the 1947 constitution as the legacy of Japan's defeat in World War II and an imposition of the victor's world order and values. The charter renounces the use of force in international conflicts and limits Japan's troops to self-defense, although Japan has a well-equipped modern military that works closely with the U.S.

Any change to Japan's constitution, which has never been amended, requires approval first by two-thirds of parliament, and then in a public referendum. Polls indicate that the Japanese public remains opposed to amendment.
 


Egypt's el-Sissi vows to quash terrorism after police ambush

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, center, chairs a meeting attended by the country’s top security officials, Sunday, Oct. 22, in Cairo, Egypt. (MENA via AP)

Maggie Michael

Cairo (AP) — In his first remarks after a deadly attack on the country's police force, Egypt's president vowed on Sunday to press ahead with the country's war against terrorism, secure its borders and hunt down militants.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi El-Sissi's remarks came nearly 48 hours after authorities officially announced that at least 16 policemen were killed in a brazen ambush by militants southwest of Cairo. Security officials told The Associated Press and other media outlets that the death toll reached 54, making it one of the worst attacks against Egypt's police in years. However, it wasn't immediately possible to reconcile the conflicting reports.

Chairing a meeting attended by the country's top security officials, including defense and interior ministry representatives, el-Sissi said: "Egypt will continue its confrontation against terrorism and those financing and standing behind it, with strength, decisiveness and efficiency, until it's curbed."

His comments come as a cloud of ambiguity still hovers over the police raid gone wrong; a lack of information, charges of incompetence and conflicting accounts by officials to media outlets mark the incident.

The ambush began when security forces acting on intelligence moved against a purported militant hideout some 135 kilometers outside Cairo. Backed by armored personnel carriers and led by senior counterterrorism officers, the police contingent drew fire and rocket-propelled grenades, according to the security officials. What happened next has not been clarified, but many officers were killed and others injured.

The confusion around the incident sparked a debate on social media, with Egyptians divided over who to blame. Many suggested that the police force had been infiltrated by Islamists given that some security officials said the ambush was carefully planned.

Along with conflicting reports of the death toll, authorities have also denied the authenticity of audio recordings, aired by pro-government media outlets, allegedly of policemen who took part in the operation. The speakers on the recordings can be heard pleading for help.

In a statement, the Interior Ministry said that the sources of the audio recordings are not known and that they carried "unrealistic details that have nothing to do with the reality." It also warned against circulating such recordings and sowing confusion.

No militant group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack which took place near Egypt's vast western desert, where a previous series of attacks were blamed on Islamic militants pouring in from Libya. Meanwhile, a local affiliate of the Islamic State group is spearheading an insurgency across the country and in the Sinai Peninsula.

Rights advocates argue that the authorities' heavy crackdown on Islamists in the aftermath of the 2013 military ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi has fueled an insurgency. Hundreds of Islamists were killed in mass demonstrations demanding Morsi's return after his ouster, while thousands were jailed.

In one of the latest trials involving Islamists, an Egyptian criminal court on Sunday confirmed death sentences for 11 men and handed down life sentences to 14 others over charges including the attempted murder of policemen. The court ruling by Judge Mohammed Nagi Shehata — known for his severity — can be appealed. Five of those sentenced to death were tried in absentia.

The suspects were referred to court in 2015, more than a year after the ouster of Morsi, whose group, the Muslim Brotherhood, was outlawed and thousands of its members referred to courts over numerous charges.


Teen attacks, wounds several people with ax in Switzerland

Police stand near the scene where several people were injured in an ax attack in Flums, Switzerland, Sunday, Oct. 22. (Eddy Risch/Keystone via AP)

Berlin (AP) — A 17-year-old boy apparently attacked and wounded several people with an ax in a small town in northeastern Switzerland on Sunday evening, police said.

The teenager, a Latvian national who lived locally, was arrested by officers who used firearms and injured him in the process, St. Gallen canton (state) police said.

The incident in the town of Flums started shortly after 8 p.m. Police believe the suspect attacked several people in a town square, then fled with a stolen car, which later was involved in an accident. The suspect continued on foot before attacking more people at a gas station shop, where he was arrested, police said.

Police didn't specify exactly how many people were hurt and said they were working to determine how serious the injuries were.

The suspect appeared to have been a lone assailant and there was no indication of any terrorist background, police said.

There was no other information on a possible motive.


Letter penned a day before Titanic sank sold at UK auction

This undated photo shows a letter by Titanic passenger Alexander Holversson, written a day before the ship sank. (Henry Aldridge and Son Actioneers via AP)

London (AP) — A letter written by one of the Titanic's passengers a day before the ocean liner sank has sold for 126,000 pounds (US$166,000) at an auction in England.

The handwritten note, on embossed Titanic stationery, was penned by first-class passenger Alexander Oskar Holverson on April 13, 1912 — the day before the ship hit an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic, killing more than 1,500 onboard.

Holverson, a salesman, was on the Titanic with his wife, Mary. He had intended to post it to his mother when they arrived in New York.

Auction house Henry Aldridge & Son, which specializes in Titanic memorabilia, said Saturday the letter was "the most important Titanic letter we have ever auctioned" because of its content, historical context and rarity.

In the letter, addressed to "My dear Mother" and stained with saltwater marks, Holverson described the Titanic as "a giant in size and fitted up like a palatial hotel." He added: "The food and drink is excellent."

In a poignant line, he also wrote: "If all goes well we will arrive in New York Wednesday AM."

The letter, one of the last known to have been written on board by the disaster's victims, was found in Holverson's pocket notebook when his body was recovered. It was later sent to his family.

His wife survived the disaster, Aldridge said.


Italy's 2 richest regions claim victory in autonomy votes

Lombardy Region President Roberto Maroni, center, answers reporter's questions at the Lombardy Region headquarters in Milan, Italy, Sunday, Oct. 22. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

Colleen Barry

Milan (AP) — The presidents of Italy's wealthy northern regions of Veneto and Lombardy on Sunday claimed victory in autonomy referendums that seek to grab additional powers and tax revenue from Rome, riding a global tide of self-determination that has swamped Spain's Catalonia region.

The votes were nonbinding, but the leaders of the neighboring regions hope to leverage strong turnout in talks with Italy's center-left government. As leading members of the anti-migrant, anti-EU Northern League, they want to keep more tax revenue and have autonomy over such policy areas as immigration, security, education and environment.

"This is the big bang of institutional reform," Veneto President Luca Zaia said in Venice. "We are convinced, and I hope Rome understands, that this is not the wish of a political party. These are the wishes of the people."

In Milan, his counterpart in Lombardy, Roberto Maroni, said that with the votes, the two regions "can unify our forces so we can do the battle of the century."

The two leaders say they will meet with their regional councils to finalize their requests before going to Rome to meet with Premier Paolo Gentiloni.

Unlike in Catalonia, the referendums do not seek independence and were approved by Italy's constitutional court. Still, the autonomy drive is a powerful threat to Rome's authority. Together, Veneto and Lombardy account for 30 percent of Italy's GDP and nearly one-quarter of the nation's electorate.

Maroni said an overwhelming 95 percent of his region's vote went to "yes," with turnout above 40 percent of Lombardy's 8 million voters. That far exceeded the bar for success that he set at 34 percent, which was the turnout for a national referendum on constitutional reform in 2001.

Independence-minded Veneto easily met a turnout threshold to validate the vote set by Zaia, with some 60 percent of the region's 4 million voters casting ballots. According to early returns, 98 percent voted "yes."

The Democratic Party, which leads the national government in Rome, had criticized the referendums, saying the non-binding votes carried no legal weight, were not needed to trigger autonomy negotiations and were a costly waste of resources.

Such arguments played into the hands of the "yes" campaigners, who consider those put-downs to be part of the anti-democratic, centrist decision-making in Rome. Those sentiments have been echoed in the Catalan independence drive in Spain, in the U.S. election of Donald Trump as president and in Britain's vote to leave the 28-nation European Union.

The victory raises the Northern League's profile ahead of national elections next year. But it also has the power to create a wedge between the rich north and the poor south just as Northern League leader Matteo Salvini, who supports autonomy, has pushed for a more national profile for the once-northern party.

The referendum campaign drove hard on the theme that too much northern tax revenues were going to the less-efficient southern regions.

The Northern League was founded with the goal of secession for the wealthier, more productive northern regions, but it gave that up when it joined the national government under then-Premier Silvio Berlusconi in the 1990s. During that period, it pushed for federalism, which lost steam during Italy's long economic crisis. Autonomy has become the new expression of the party's identity politics.

Also supporting the referendums were the populist 5-Star Party and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia.

The referendum victory is just the first step as the regions seek greater autonomy. Some of the policy issues they are seeking can be won with a new law. But many of the more emotional issues — including greater fiscal control, immigration and security issues — would requiring difficult-to-achieve constitutional changes.

"I don't think this is possible," said Paolo Natale, a political scientist at Milan's state university. "It will be difficult for the state to accept that they take over education and security policy. The management of immigration policy has to be done at a national level."

The Italian constitution already grants varying levels of autonomy to five regions in recognition of their special status: the largely German-speaking Trentino-Alto Adige, French-speaking Aosta, the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, and the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region for its position on the border with then-Yugoslavia as a Cold War hedge.


Today in History, Monday, Oct. 23, 2017

The Associated Press

Today is Monday, Oct. 23 the 296th day of 2017. There are 69 days left in the year.

Today's Highlight in History:

On Oct. 23, 1942, during World War II, Britain launched a major offensive against the Axis forces at El Alamein in Egypt, resulting in an Allied victory.

On this date:

In 425, Valentinian III is elevated as Roman emperor at the age of six.

In 1086, at the Battle of Sagrajas, the army of Yusuf ibn Tashfin defeats the forces of Castilian King Alfonso VI.

In 1295, the first treaty forming the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France against England is signed in Paris.

In 1642, the Battle of Edgehill signals the first major engagement of the English Civil War.

In 1812, Claude François de Malet, a French general, begins a conspiracy to overthrow Napoleon Bonaparte, claiming that the Emperor died in Russia and that he is now the commandant of Paris.

In 1906, Alberto Santos-Dumont flies an airplane in the first heavier-than-air flight in Europe at Champs de Bagatelle, Paris, France.

In 1915, tens of thousands of women paraded up Fifth Avenue in New York City, demanding the right to vote.

In 1917, Lenin calls for the October Revolution in Russia.

In 1929, the Wall Street Crash begins after a steady decline in stock market prices since a peak in September.

In 1941, the Walt Disney animated feature "Dumbo," about a young circus elephant who learns how to fly, premiered in New York.

In 1944, the World War II Battle of Leyte Gulf began, resulting in a major Allied victory against Japanese forces.

In 1946, the United Nations General Assembly convened in New York for the first time, at an auditorium in Flushing Meadow.

In 1956, a student-sparked revolt against Hungary's Communist rule began; as the revolution spread, Soviet forces started entering the country, and the uprising was put down within weeks.

In 1973, President Richard Nixon agreed to turn over White House tape recordings subpoenaed by the Watergate special prosecutor to Judge John J. Sirica.

In 1983, 241 U.S. service members, most of them Marines, were killed in a suicide truck-bombing at Beirut International Airport in Lebanon; a near-simultaneous attack on French forces killed 58 paratroopers.

In 1991, Cambodia's warring factions and representatives of 18 other nations signed a peace treaty in Paris.

In 2001, the nation's anthrax scare hit the White House with the discovery of a small concentration of spores at an offsite mail processing center.

Today's Birthdays:

Movie director Philip Kaufman is 81. Soccer great Pele is 77. Movie director Ang Lee is 63. Jazz singer Dianne Reeves is 61. Community activist Martin Luther King III is 60. Movie director Sam Raimi is 58. Parodist "Weird Al" Yankovic is 58. Rock musician Robert Trujillo (Metallica) is 53. TV personality and host Cat Deeley is 41. Actor Ryan Reynolds is 41. Rock singer Matthew Shultz (Cage the Elephant) is 34. Rhythm-and-blues singer Miguel is 32. Actress Emilia Clarke is 31. Actress Briana Evigan is 31. Actress Jessica Stroup is 31.

Thought for Today:

"You can fool too many of the people too much of the time." — James Thurber, American humorist (1894-1961).


Update October 21-22 , 2017

Drone video shows devastation in Raqqa, Syria

This Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017 frame grab made from drone video shows damaged buildings in Raqqa, Syria, two days after Syrian Democratic Forces ousted Islamic State fighters and took full control of the city. (AP Photo/ Gabriel Chaim)

Raqqa, Syria (AP) — Drone footage from the northern Syrian city of Raqqa shows the extent of devastation caused by weeks of fighting between Kurdish-led forces and the Islamic State group and thousands of bombs dropped by the U.S.-led coalition.

Footage from Thursday shows the bombed-out shells of buildings and heaps of concrete slabs lay piled on streets littered with destroyed cars. Entire neighborhoods are seen turned to rubble, with little sign of civilian life.

The video shows entire blocks in the city as uninhabitable with knocked-out walls and blown-out windows and doors, while some buildings had several stories turned to piles of debris. The stadium that was used as an arms depot and prison by the extremists appears to have suffered less damage compared with surrounding buildings.

Long before the ground offensive by the Syrian Democratic Forces began in Raqqa in early June, warplanes pounded the city for months.

The U.S.-backed Kurdish-led SDF announced Tuesday they have driven IS militants out of the city after weeks of fighting.

The SDF is scheduled to hold a news conference in Raqqa on Friday during which the city will be declared free of extremists for the first time in nearly four years. The SDF will likely hand over authority in the city to the Raqqa Civil Council, which is made up of local officials and tribal leaders and will be in charge of returning life to normal in the city.

Omar Alloush, a senior member of the Raqqa Civil Council, said the body has a quick-response plan that will begin with removing mines left behind by IS then move to removing debris and opening roads before fixing water and power stations.

An SDF commander, Brig. Gen. Talal Sillo, said residents will be allowed to start returning to the city once the mines and explosives are removed. In other cities that the extremists lost earlier, experts worked for weeks to remove booby traps and explosives that kept maiming and killing people long after IS left.

The U.N. and aid organizations estimate about 80 percent of the city is destroyed or uninhabitable.

The top U.S. envoy for the anti-IS coalition, Brett McGurk, tweeted this week that IS fighters placed 150 explosive devices in and around a water treatment plant near Raqqa, but said it has been cleared and is being restored.

The fall of Raqqa marks a major defeat for IS, which has seen its territory steadily shrink since last year. The group took over Raqqa, located on the Euphrates River, in January 2014 and transformed it into the epicenter of its brutal rule.

Coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon, tweeted Thursday that the SDF has cleared 98 percent of the city, adding that some militants remain holed up in a small pocket east of the stadium.


Catalan crisis looms large at Spanish prize-giving event

From left, President of the European Commission Jean Claude Juncker, President of the European Council Donald Tusk and President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani are congratulated after receiving awards presented by Spain's King Felipe and Queen Letizia during the Princess of Asturias awards ceremony, in Oviedo, northern Spain, Friday Oct. 20. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

Oviedo, Spain (AP) — The Catalonia region's controversial bid for independence was an unavoidable topic Friday at the prize-giving ceremony for Spain's prestigious Princess of Asturias awards.

Spain's King Felipe VI received a standing ovation after saying in his speech that Catalonia "is and will be an essential part" of Spain.

European leaders also made indirect comments about the independence issue, which has brought a tense confrontation between Catalan secessionists and the Spanish government.

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker were in the northern Spanish city of Oviedo to receive a prize on behalf of the European Union. They made clear their support for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's efforts to keep Spain united, receiving loud applause at the Campoamor theater in the Asturias region.

Other winners picking up their prize included Argentine comedians, the Hispanic Society of America museum and library, astrophysicists, South African artist William Kentridge and British scholar Karen Armstrong. The winners were announced earlier this year.

Four representatives of the New Zealand national rugby team, which won the sports prize in recognition of its success and racial and cultural integration, brought some light relief when they performed the haka — a traditional tribal dance — on stage after picking up their award.


Spacewalking astronaut copes with frayed tether, bad jetpack

Astronaut Joe Acaba performs a spacewalk outside the International Space Station on Friday, Oct. 20. (NASA via AP)

Marcia Dunn

Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP) — A spacewalking astronaut successfully replaced a blurry camera outside the International Space Station on Friday, but had to contend with a balky jetpack and a frayed safety tether.

Both jetpacks and safety ties are crucial for saving a flyaway astronaut.

NASA said Joe Acaba was always securely attached to the orbiting outpost and never in any danger during the nearly seven-hour spacewalk.

But one of his tethers had to be replaced shortly after he and station commander Randy Bresnik floated outside. Mission Control noticed the red lifeline was frayed and worn. Bresnik went back to the air lock to get Acaba a spare.

Then five hours into the spacewalk, Mission Control saw that the right handle on Acaba's emergency jetpack was popped open — again. Bresnik once more went to his crewmate's assistance, even offering some tape to keep it down.

After consulting for several minutes in Houston, flight controllers declared the jetpack unreliable and ordered Acaba back inside, once he was done greasing the new robot arm on the space station's big robot arm. He finished the lube job, then headed in.

Bresnik acknowledged things didn't go as planned, "with all the stuff that happened today and the challenges we had." But he thanked everyone for their hard work and diligence.

In the end, only a couple minor chores were left undone.

"Great work today," Mission Control radioed as the spacewalk came to a close.

It was the third spacewalk in two weeks for U.S. astronauts. Bresnik went out on all three; he was accompanied by Mark Vande Hei to install the new robotic hand on Oct. 5 and lubricate it on Oct. 10.

Each spacewalker wears a jetpack for use in an emergency. It's available in case an astronaut's multiple tethers fail and allows the spacewalker to fly back to the station. It's been tested by orbiting astronauts — years ago — but never called into urgent action.

Earlier, Acaba provided necessary focus to the space station's robot arm.

He unbolted a blurry camera from the new robotic hand installed two weeks ago. He then popped in a spare, which flight controllers quickly tested from Houston. The replacement provided crisp, clear views.

Sharp focus is essential when the space station's robot hand grabs an arriving supply ship and anchors it. The next delivery is a few weeks away, prompting the quick camera swap-out.

Orbital ATK, one of NASA's commercial shippers, plans to launch a cargo ship from Virginia on Nov. 11.

Acaba and the station's commander, Randy Bresnik, were supposed to go spacewalking earlier this week. But NASA needed extra time to add the camera repair to their chores.

Friday's spacewalk — expected to be the last one for the year — also saw the astronauts installing a high-definition camera, replacing a fuse and removing thermal insulation from spare electronics. Early next year, astronauts will replace the hand on the opposite side of the 58-foot robot arm, Canada's main contribution to the space station. The original latching mechanisms are showing wear and tear since the arm's launch in 2001.

The 250-mile-high complex is currently home to three Americans, two Russians and one Italian.

A one-time high school and middle school teacher, Acaba is the first astronaut of Puerto Rican heritage; his parents were born there. He ventured out on Friday's spacewalk as the station soared above the hurricane-ravaged island, where much of his extended family lives.

"There's a whole line of people looking up and smiling today as you get ready to head out the door," Bresnik told him.


Wild boars rampage through German town, injure at least 4

Hunter Uwe Ingwersen, left, and Horst Allwardt right look at a wild boar that was shot in the center of Heide, northern Germany on Friday, Oct. 20. (Helge Holmson/dpa via AP)

Berlin (AP) — Police say a pair of wild boars have gone on the rampage and injured at least four people in the northern German town of Heide.

Authorities warned people to stay indoors after the adult boars appeared early Friday and aggressively attacked pedestrians. Public broadcaster NDR reported that a man had a finger partially bitten off.

Police said one of the boars was shot and killed outside a bank, but the other is still on the run.

Heide is 100 kilometers (62 miles) northwest of Hamburg, near Germany's North Sea coast and the border with Denmark.


140 arrested in Malawi after mob attacks on 'vampires'

Malawi President, Peter Mutharika. (AP Photo/File)

Gregory Gondwe

Lilongwe, Malawi (AP) — Deadly mob attacks on people suspected to be "vampires" have led to 140 arrests in Malawi, police said Friday.

The situation had spun out of control, the inspector general of police, Lexon Kachama, told The Associated Press. More arrests were expected.

Nine people have been killed in the attacks that began last month after rumors of "blood-suckers" spread. In the latest case, a man with epilepsy was burned to death in Blantyre, the southern African nation's second-largest city, Kachama said. Another person there was stoned to death.

President Peter Mutharika has appealed for calm in the four districts where the mob attacks have taken place, saying this week that "my government will offer protection from these alleged blood-suckers."

The United Nations and U.S. Embassy have blacklisted some of the areas as dangerous zones for staffers.

"The biggest challenge is that thieves and robbers have now taken advantage of the situation and are mounting illegal roadblocks at night in order to harass people," Kachama said.

Government officials have said the attacks were harming the deeply impoverished country's image. Residents including health officials, teachers and traditional leaders have said their homes were destroyed after rumors spread that they were harboring "vampires."


Family believes body is that of missing Argentine protester

Demonstrators hold up posters of missing activist Santiago Maldonado, during a protest at Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Luis Andres Henao

Buenos Aires, Argentina (AP) — The brother of an Argentine protester whose disappearance prompted nationwide demonstrations said Friday that the family believes a body found in a river is that of activist Santiago Maldonado.

The family is now "convinced that the body is Santiago," Maldonado's brother, Sergio Maldonado, told reporters, before he walked into a morgue in Buenos Aires where the autopsy was going to be performed.

The body was found Tuesday near the site of a protest on Aug. 1, when Maldonado was last seen alive. Protesters were demanding the release of a jailed Mapuche indigenous leader and the return of lands belonging to Italian clothing company Benetton that are claimed by the Mapuche as their ancestral territory.

People at the protest said they saw police beat and detain Maldonado after he and others blocked a road in Chubut province, about 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) southwest of the Argentine capital.

Police never confirmed the arrest and denied wrongdoing.

But some rights groups accused President Mauricio Macri's government of being part a cover-up.

The case hit a raw nerve in Argentina, where thousands of forced disappearances and other human rights abuses committed during the bloody 1976-1983 military dictatorship still haunt many four decades after the end of state-sponsored violence.

Tens of thousands of people demonstrated, while soccer players and celebrities joined rights activists in a social media campaign under the slogan: "Where is Santiago Maldonado?"

Last week, U2's lead singer and social activist Bono asked Macri about Maldonado during a meeting in Buenos Aires and said he glad that Macri was taking the case seriously.

Politicians from opposing political parties had demanded Macri's government find the 28-year-old artisan and tattoo artist alive. Some analysts say the latest development in the case could turn problematic for Macri's coalition ahead of Sunday's midterm legislative elections. The body's discovery had led political parties earlier this week to suspend campaigning ahead of the vote.

Coast Guard divers discovered the body in a river in southern Argentina. Officials said there were reasons to believe it was Maldonado. They said Maldonado's national identity card and a jacket that a witness said he was wearing when he went missing were found with the body.

Members of Maldonado's family blame border police for his disappearance and question how the body could have been found in an area of the river that they say had been scoured three times before.

"The uncertainty over his whereabouts has ended," Maldonado's family said a statement on Friday. "The agony that our family began suffering the very day that we found out about his disappearance will not end until we get justice."


Today in History, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017

The Associated Press

Today is Saturday, Oct. 21, the 294th day of 2017. There are 71 days left in the year.

Today's Highlight in History:

In 1805, a British fleet commanded by Adm. Horatio Nelson defeated a French-Spanish fleet in the Battle of Trafalgar; Nelson, however, was killed.

On this date:

In 1097, Crusaders led by Godfrey of Bouillon, Bohemund of Taranto, and Raymond IV, Count of Toulouse, begin the Siege of Antioch.

In 1209, Otto IV is crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by Pope Innocent III.

In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan discovers a strait now known as Strait of Magellan.

In 1854, Florence Nightingale and a staff of 38 nurses are sent to the Crimean War.

In 1931, The Sakurakai, a secret society in the Imperial Japanese Army, launches an abortive coup d'état attempt.

In 1940, the first edition of the Ernest Hemingway novel For Whom the Bell Tolls is published.

In 1941, superheroine Wonder Woman made her debut in All-Star Comics issue No. 8.

In 1942, the MGM musical "For Me and My Gal," starring Judy Garland and featuring the film debut of Gene Kelly, premiered in New York.

In 1966, 144 people, 116 of them children, were killed when a coal waste landslide engulfed a school and some 20 houses in Aberfan, Wales.

In 1967, the Israeli destroyer INS Eilat was sunk by Egyptian missile boats near Port Said; 47 Israeli crew members were lost.

In 1986, pro-Iranian kidnappers in Lebanon abducted American Edward Tracy (he was released in Aug. 1991).

In 1994, in Seoul, 32 people are killed when the Seongsu Bridge collapses.

Today's Birthdays:

Actress Joyce Randolph is 93. Rock singer Manfred Mann is 77. Musician Steve Cropper (Booker T. & the MG's) is 76. TV's Judge Judy Sheindlin is 75. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is 68. Actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson is 68. Singer Julian Cope is 60. Actor Ken Watanabe is 58. Actor Will Estes is 39. Reality TV star Kim Kardashian West is 37. Actress Charlotte Sullivan is 34.

Thought for Today:

"A man is what he thinks about all day long." — Ralph Waldo Emerson, American essayist, poet and philosopher (1803-1882).


Update October 20 , 2017

Fire rips through luxury Myanmar hotel, 1 body recovered

A firefighter walks through the burned-out Kandawgyi Palace Hotel, Thursday, Oct. 19, in Yangon, Myanmar. (AP Photo/Thein Zaw)

Yangon (AP) — A fire gutted a luxury teakwood hotel popular with foreigners in Myanmar's biggest city of Yangon before dawn Thursday, causing one death.

Firefighters who carried a body out of the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel said the victim was male. Local media reported a woman from Macau was hospitalized in critical condition.

Photos and video posted online show the spectacular blaze racing through the traditional Burmese-style building.

Smoke was still rising from the remains of the lakeside hotel hours after daybreak and dozens of firefighters were at the site.

"I'll never forget looking up and seeing the night sky turned red," said American David Powers, who escaped the blaze with his wife, 4-year-old daughter and their passports, phones and wallets.

"The embers floating through the sky looked like hellish snowflakes," he said. "Once we got across the street we could really see how bad the fire was."

Powers, who works in Bangkok and is from South Carolina, said there was no alarm and he initially thought the sounds of shouting and footsteps outside the family's room were drunken hotel guests.

Firefighter Kyaw Kyaw said the blaze started about 3 a.m. and may have been caused by an electrical fault. Exploding gas cylinders hastened its spread, he said.

Kyaw Kyaw said one firefighter suffered from smoke inhalation.

The teak upper floors of the hotel were destroyed and the blaze also appeared to have swept through the cement bottom two floors.

The hotel was built in the early 1990s, incorporating a colonial era British rowing club. It is currently owned by the Htoo Group, a conglomerate controlled by Tay Za, a businessman who prospered under Myanmar's former military government.

Adrienne Frilot, a tourist from California, told local news site Frontier that she initially thought the hotel staff who knocked on her door for minutes were drunken guests.

"We realized that something was wrong and opened the door and we smelled the smoke and then evacuated immediately," she told the publication.

"The staff were so helpful," she said.


Study: World pollution deadlier than wars, disasters, hunger

In this June 5, 2017, file photo, toxic froth from industrial pollution floats on Bellundur Lake on World Environment Day, in Bangalore, India. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

Katy Daigle

New Delhi (AP) — Environmental pollution — from filthy air to contaminated water — is killing more people every year than all war and violence in the world. More than smoking, hunger or natural disasters. More than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.

One out of every six premature deaths in the world in 2015 — about 9 million — could be attributed to disease from toxic exposure, according to a major study released Thursday in The Lancet medical journal. The financial cost from pollution-related death, sickness and welfare is equally massive, the report says, costing some $4.6 trillion in annual losses — or about 6.2 percent of the global economy.

"There's been a lot of study of pollution, but it's never received the resources or level of attention as, say, AIDS or climate change," said epidemiologist Philip Landrigan, dean of global health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, and the lead author on the report.

The report marks the first attempt to pull together data on disease and death caused by all forms of pollution combined.

"Pollution is a massive problem that people aren't seeing because they're looking at scattered bits of it," Landrigan said.

Experts say the 9 million premature deaths the study found was just a partial estimate, and the number of people killed by pollution is undoubtedly higher and will be quantified once more research is done and new methods of assessing harmful impacts are developed.

Areas like Sub-Saharan Africa have yet to even set up air pollution monitoring systems. Soil pollution has received scant attention. And there are still plenty of potential toxins still being ignored, with less than half of the 5,000 new chemicals widely dispersed throughout the environment since 1950 having been tested for safety or toxicity.

Asia and Africa are the regions putting the most people at risk, the study found, while India tops the list of individual countries.

One out of every four premature deaths in India in 2015, or some 2.5 million, was attributed to pollution, the study found. China's environment was the second deadliest, with more than 1.8 million premature deaths, or one in five, blamed on pollution-related illness.

Several other countries such Bangladesh, Pakistan, North Korea, South Sudan and Haiti also see nearly a fifth of their premature deaths caused by pollution.

To reach its figures, the study's authors used methods outlined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for assessing field data from soil tests, as well as with air and water pollution data from the Global Burden of Disease, an ongoing study run by institutions including the World Health Organization and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

Even the conservative estimate of 9 million pollution-related deaths is one-and-a-half times higher than the number of people killed by smoking, three times the number killed by AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, more than six times the number killed in road accidents, and 15 times the number killed in war or other forms of violence, according to GBD tallies.

It is most often the world's poorest who suffer. The vast majority of pollution-related deaths — 92 percent — occur in low- or middle-income developing countries, where policy makers are chiefly concerned with developing their economies, lifting people out of poverty and building basic infrastructure, the study found. Environmental regulations in those countries tend to be weaker, and industries lean on outdated technologies and dirtier fuels.

In wealthier countries where overall pollution is not as rampant, it is still the poorest communities that are more often exposed, the report says.

"What people don't realize is that pollution does damage to economies. People who are sick or dead cannot contribute to the economy. They need to be looked after," said Richard Fuller, head of the global toxic watchdog Pure Earth and one of the 47 scientists, policy makers and public health experts who contributed to the 51-page report.

"There is this myth that finance ministers still live by, that you have to let industry pollute or else you won't develop, he said. "It just isn't true."

The report cites EPA research showing that the U.S. has gained some $30 in benefits for every dollar spent on controlling air pollution since 1970, when Congress enacted the Clean Air Act, one of the world's most ambitious environmental laws. Removing lead from gasoline has earned the U.S. economy another $6 trillion cumulatively since 1980, according to studies by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some experts cautioned, however, that the report's economic message was murky. Reducing the pollution quantified in the report might impact production, and so would not likely translate into gains equal to the $4.6 trillion in economic losses.

The report "highlights the social and economic justice of this issue," said Marc Jeuland, associate professor with the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Duke Global Health Institute at Duke University, who was not involved in the study.

Without more concrete evidence for how specific policies might lead to economic gains, "policy makers will often find it difficult to take action, and this report thus only goes part way in making the case for action," he said.

Jeuland also noted that, while the report counts mortality by each pollutant, there are possible overlaps — for example, someone exposed to both air pollution and water contamination — and actions to address one pollutant may not reduce mortality.

"People should be careful not to extrapolate from the U.S. numbers on net (economic) benefits, because the net effects of pollution control will not be equivalent across locations," he said.

The study's conclusions on the economic cost of pollution measure lost productivity and health care costs, while also considering studies measuring people's "willingness to pay" to reduce the probability of dying. While these types of studies yield estimates at best, they are used by many governments and economists trying to understand how societies value individual lives.

While there has never been an international declaration on pollution, the topic is gaining traction.

The World Bank in April declared that reducing pollution, in all forms, would now be a global priority. And in December, the United Nations will host its first-ever conference on the topic of pollution.

"The relationship between pollution and poverty is very clear," said Ernesto Sanchez-Triana, lead environmental specialist at the World Bank. "And controlling pollution would help us address many other problems, from climate change to malnutrition. The linkages can't be ignored."


A few militants fight on in Philippine city ripped to shreds

A mosque with its dome blasted out with holes is seen at the battle-scarred Marawi city in southern Philippines Thursday, Oct. 19. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Jim Gomez

Marawi, Philippines (AP) — Smoke wafted from the smoldering carcasses of buildings and houses, with the dome of a mosque blasted out with holes, as Philippine troops battled Thursday to defeat a final stand by the last dozens of pro-Islamic State group militants in a southern city.

The desolate war scene, witnessed by Associated Press journalists on board a navy patrol gunboat in Lake Lanao, could herald what the government hopes will be the end of a nearly five-month siege by the militants in Marawi city.

Filipino troops killed 13 more suspected militants Wednesday night, including one believed to be a top Malaysian terror suspect although his body hasn't been recovered yet, military officials said.

"Our troops are continuing their assault," army Col. Romeo Brawner said after his news conference in Marawi was disrupted by loud explosions reverberating from the final area of battle, about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away. About 20 to 30 militants continue to fight back, he said.

While troops pressed their assault with artillery and gunfire, officers used loudspeakers to ask the militants, many of them positioned in a bullet-pocked two-story building, to surrender. The building stands on a pier by the lake near a huge gunfire-scarred welcome sign that says "I (love) Marawi."

Sporadic fighting continued even after President Rodrigo Duterte visited the Islamic city on Tuesday and announced its liberation, sparking hopes that hundreds of thousands of residents could begin returning home. The speed of their return, however, will depend on how quickly the city is declared safe of militants and rebuilt.

Volunteers and displaced residents have begun a government-led cleanup in neighborhoods that were declared safe. Power has been restored in more than half of the lakeside city, along with water supply, officials said.

On Monday, the defense secretary and military chief of staff announced that two of the last leaders of the siege — Isnilon Hapilon, who is one of the FBI's most-wanted terror suspects, and Omarkhayam Maute — were killed in a gunbattle.

Their deaths were the turning point that partly convinced the president he could declare Marawi liberated from the gunmen, Brawner told the AP.

Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla said Malaysian Mahmud bin Ahmad was believed among 13 militants killed overnight and another seven in the morning. Six soldiers were slightly wounded in the fighting.

Two civilian hostages — a mother and her teenage daughter — were also rescued, Padilla said.

The information about Mahmud was based on what the rescued mother and daughter told the military, Padilla said.

Mahmud, who uses nom de guerre Abu Handzalah, is a close associate of Hapilon. Military officials said he had linked up Hapilon with the Islamic State group and provided funding to bankroll the siege of Marawi.

Padilla said troops discovered that there may be more militant fighters remaining in a small battle area than earlier estimated.

Marawi, a mosque-studded center of Islamic faith in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, has been devastated by the siege by the militants who waved IS-style black flags and hung them on buildings they had occupied in Marawi's business district and outlying areas, according to the military.

The insurrection prompted the military to launch a ground offensive and airstrikes, with the United States and Australia later backing the troops by deploying surveillance aircraft. Duterte declared martial law across the south, the homeland of minority Muslims and the scene of a decades-old separatist rebellion, to deal with the uprising and prevent other insurgents from waging attacks elsewhere and reinforcing the fighters in Marawi.

The surprise occupation of the city and the involvement of foreign fighters set off alarms in Southeast Asia. Analysts said parts of the southern Philippines were at risk of becoming a new base for IS as it lost territory to international forces in Iraq and Syria.

Some of the residents who returned to Marawi for the cleanup Thursday became emotional after seeing their devastated city and homes. Esnairah Macabunar saw weeds growing around her two-story house but became more stunned when she went inside and realized her home had been ransacked.

"Everything was stolen in my house," she said. "I am still shaken because I cannot accept what happened, my whole life savings are gone."


UN says plague cases in Madagascar almost doubled in 5 days

Red Cross volunteers talk to villagers about the plague outbreak, 30 miles west of Antananarivo, Madagascar, Monday, Oct. 16. (AP Photo/Alexander Joe)

Edith M. Lederer

United Nations (AP) — The number of plague cases in Madagascar has almost doubled over the last five days and medical experts project the situation will worsen, with 1,000 cases expected every month if funds aren't rapidly provided, the United Nations said Thursday.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters that only 26 percent of the $9.5 million needed to combat the outbreak of the often deadly disease has been received.

Dujarric said U.N. humanitarian officials in the Indian Ocean island nation reported 1,032 cases as of Wednesday, 67 percent of which were pneumonic plague. He says that "is more serious than the bubonic plague and highly challenging to control."

So far, he said, 89 deaths have been counted, including 13 on Tuesday.

Dujarric said U.N. officials have strengthened systems to identify contacts of victims, monitor the number of patients at hospitals, transport medical samples, and address "the transmission risks of traditional burial practices."

Madagascar has about 400 plague cases per year, or more than half the world's total, according to a 2016 World Health Organization report. Usually, they are cases of bubonic plague in the rural highlands. Bubonic plague is carried by rats and spread to humans through flea bites. It is fatal about half the time if untreated.

For the first time, though, this outbreak is largely concentrated in the country's two largest cities, Antananarivo and Toamasina.

Most of the cases in the current outbreak are pneumonic plague, a more virulent form that spreads through coughing, sneezing or spitting and is almost always fatal if untreated. In some cases, it can kill within 24 hours. Like the bubonic form, it can be treated with common antibiotics if caught in time.

Global health officials have responded quickly.

The World Health Organization, criticized for its slow response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, has released $1.5 million and sent plague specialists and epidemiologists. The Red Cross is sending its first-ever plague treatment center to Madagascar.

But, Dujarric said, "Medical experts project that the situation will continue to deteriorate, with 1,000 cases per month expected if the response is not rapidly funded."


Pakistan's ex-premier Sharif indicted on corruption charges

 

Maryam Nawaz, daughter of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, right front passenger in vehicle, arrives at an accountability court in Islamabad, Pakistan, Thursday, Oct. 19. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)

Munir Ahmed

Islamabad (AP) — A Pakistani court on Thursday indicted former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as well as his daughter and son-in-law on corruption charges stemming from documents leaked from a Panama law firm.

A lawyer for the 67-year-old Sharif, who is currently in London, where his wife is receiving medical treatment, entered a plea of not guilty. The former premier's daughter, Maryam Sharif, and her husband, Mohammad Safdar, attended the hearing at the Accountability Court and also pleaded not guilty.

Sharif later on Thursday told reporters in London that he will go back to Pakistan to attend the next court hearing, scheduled for Oct. 26. In his televised comments, he said he was removed from office by judges on a trivial charge.

The charges stem from a trove of documents — known as the Panama Papers — that investigators say showed the family held unreported assets overseas. The family has denied any wrongdoing.

After leaving the courtroom, Maryam Sharif again denied the allegations as "baseless." She said her father would return to Pakistan and that they would "face these cases with courage."

The former prime minister is unlikely to be arrested on his return home as the court has already granted bail. Sharif's political future has been in doubt since July, when the Supreme Court disqualified him from office over corruption charges.

Rana Sanaullah, a senior leader of Sharif's party, the Pakistan Muslim League, said there were "hidden hands" behind his dismissal and the spate of corruption allegations, without elaborating.

Sharif was re-elected as party leader earlier this month after parliament approved a bill allowing officials disqualified by courts to hold party offices. The move angered opposition parties, which say Sharif is continuing to rule through a "puppet" prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.


Sons of slain journalist call for Malta leader's resignation

Candles, notes and paper cuttings lie next to the Love Monument in St. Julian, Malta, Tuesday Oct. 17, 2017, the day after the killing of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. (AP Photo/ Rene Rossignaud)

Valletta, Malta (AP) — The sons of slain investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia have called on the Maltese prime minister to resign.

In a Facebook post Thursday, they said Joseph Muscat should take political responsibility for "failing to uphold our fundamental freedoms."

The sons, Matthew, Andrew and Paul Caruana Galizia, said they weren't endorsing Muscat's call for a reward to lead to their mother's assassins, saying "we are not interested in justice without change."

"We are not interested in a criminal conviction, only for the people in government who stood to gain from our mother's murder to turn around and say that justice has been served," they said.

Caruana Galizia, a harsh critic of Muscat's and who reported extensively on corruption on Malta, was killed by a car bomb on Monday.

Her sons wrote that identifying their mother's assassins was not enough. Corruption on the Mediterranean island nation also needed to be rooted out, they said.

Muscat has denounced the assassination, and has proposed a reward to find her killers.

On Thursday, some 200 journalists held an event in support of the slain journalist.

A group representing journalist - the Institute of Maltese Journalists - has filed a court case seeking to ensure source confidentiality on all data that is lifted from Caruana Galizia's computers and mobile phones during the investigation.

Investigators, meanwhile, were looking at similarities with other car bombings in Malta over the last two years — six in all including Caruana Galizia's. None have been solved.

Former police commissioner John Rizzo told the Malta Independent that it appears that mobile detonated explosives were used in each of the six bombings since the start of 2016, which caused four deaths and two serious injuries.  The previous victims were all known to police, the paper said.

"Very few people could construct such a bomb. Instructions may be obtained online but building such a device would still require a certain degree of skill," Rizzo said.

Investigators haven't publicly identified which explosives were used in the journalist's murder, but experts say any military grade explosives, like Semtex, are not available in Malta and would have had to be brought in from abroad.

Muscat defended the failure to solve the rash of car bombings as he left parliament Wednesday evening. Including the last six, there have been over 30 in the last 15 years on the island.

"I will continue to defend the institutions and I am a firm believer in the institutions," he said.


Today in History, Friday, Oct. 20, 2017

The Associated Press

Today is Friday, Oct. 20, the 293rd day of 2017. There are 72 days left in the year.

Today's Highlight in History:

In 1944, American general Douglas MacArthur fulfills his promise to return to the Philippines when he commands an Allied assault on the islands, reclaiming them from the Japanese during the Second World War.

On this date:

In 1714, the coronation of Britain's King George I took place in Westminster Abbey.

In 1720, Caribbean pirate Calico Jack is captured by the British Royal Navy.

In 1818, a convention is signed between the United States and the United Kingdom, which settles the Canada–United States border on the 49th parallel for most of its length.

In 1827, in the Battle of Navarino, a combined Turkish and Egyptian fleet is defeated by British, French, and Russian naval forces in the last significant battle fought with wooden sailing ships.

In 1935, The Long March, a mammoth retreat undertaken by the armed forces of the Chinese Communist Party a year prior, ends.

In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee opened hearings into alleged Communist influence and infiltration in the U.S. motion picture industry.

In 1952, Governor Evelyn Baring declares a state of emergency in Kenya and begins arresting hundreds of suspected leaders of the Mau Mau Uprising, including Jomo Kenyatta, the future first President of Kenya.

In 1968, former U.S. first lady Jacqueline Kennedy married Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.

In 1973, the Sydney Opera House is opened by Queen Elizabeth II after 14 years of construction.

In 1977, three members of the rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd, including lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, were killed along with three others in the crash of a chartered plane near McComb, Mississippi.

In 1994, actor Burt Lancaster died in Los Angeles at age 80.

In 2011, Moammar Gadhafi, 69, Libya's dictator for 42 years, was killed as revolutionary fighters overwhelmed his hometown of Sirte and captured the last major bastion of resistance two months after his regime fell.

Today's Birthdays:

Japan's Empress Michiko is 83. Movie director Danny Boyle is 61. Actor Viggo Mortensen is 59. Rock musician Jim Sonefeld (Hootie & The Blowfish) is 53. Rock musician David Ryan is 53. Actor Kenneth Choi is 46. Rapper Snoop Dogg is 46. Singer Dannii Minogue is 46. Actor John Krasinski is 38. Actress Jennifer Nicole Freeman is 32.

Thought for Today:

"Everybody's private motto: It's better to be popular than right." — Mark Twain (1835-1910).


Update October 19 , 2017

Russian TV star Sobchak declares her presidential bid

Socialite and TV host Ksenia Sobchak says she has decided to run for president of Russia in next March's election. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Vladimir Isachenkov

Moscow (AP) — A Russian celebrity TV host shook up the country's political scene Wednesday by announcing her presidential bid, a move that would likely boost public interest in the race but could further fragment the nation's beleaguered opposition.

Ksenia Sobchak, 35, announced her intention to become a candidate in March's election in a YouTube video, arguing that Russia has grown tired of its current political elite and needs a change.

Sobchak, the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, the reformist St. Petersburg mayor in the early 1990s, first became known as a socialite and a fashion icon before she launched her successful TV career.

Sharp-tongued and witty, Sobchak has been often critical of the Russian government. She joined anti-Kremlin protests in Moscow in 2011-2012 but has largely avoided criticizing President Vladimir Putin, who once worked as her father's deputy.

Putin, 65, hasn't yet said whether he will seek re-election on March 18 but he's widely expected to run. With approval ratings topping 80 percent, Putin would win in a landslide against torpid veterans of past Russian presidential campaigns, like Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky or liberal Grigory Yavlinsky. They have all signaled their intentions to run again in 2018.

Sobchak told Dozhd TV that she had warned Putin that she planned to join the race while interviewing him recently for a documentary about her father.

"I had an impression he didn't like it," she said of Putin's reaction.

Some pundits, however, said Sobchak's candidacy should please the Kremlin, helping counter growing voter apathy without posing a threat to Putin. Andrei Kolesnikov, an expert with the Carnegie Moscow Center, warned that Sobchak's bid would further fragment and weaken Russia's opposition.

When rumors about Sobchak's intentions first appeared recently, Russia's most popular opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, warned her on YouTube that she would play into the Kremlin's hands if she enters the race. Navalny is currently serving a 20-day jail term for organizing an unsanctioned protest.

Navalny has also declared his intention to enter Russia's presidential race, even though a criminal conviction that he calls politically motivated bars him from running. The 41-year-old anti-corruption crusader has organized a grassroots campaign across Russia to support his nomination. It has organized waves of protests this year, putting pressure on the Kremlin.

"They need a cartoonish liberal candidate at a time when they don't want to allow me to enter the race," Navalny said in a warning to Sobchak.

Sobchak has rejected Navalny's criticism, saying that if he is allowed to run she would consider withdrawing her candidacy in his favor. She has cast herself as a "candidate against all," appealing to broad public dismay with Russia's tightly-controlled and corrupt political system.

Like other self-nominated candidates, Sobchak needs to gather 300,000 signatures to get registered for the race. Those nominated by parties represented in parliament don't need to do that.

The candidates haven't reached the formal registration stage so there is no exact count of their number yet.

Sobchak wouldn't discuss possible sources of funding for her campaign in a nation as vast as Russia, but her high-level connections in Russia's business world could help her bid.


4 dead as fighting continues in southern Philippine city

Smoke rises from the city as explosions continue to reverberate in Marawi, a day after President Rodrigo Duterte declared its liberation in the southern Philippines, Wednesday, Oct. 18. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Jim Gomez

Marawi, Philippines (AP) — Philippine troops killed four Islamic State group-linked militants in a clash and occasional blasts thundered across Marawi on Wednesday after the president declared the southern city liberated from "terrorist influence."

President Rodrigo Duterte visited the battle-scarred Islamic city on Tuesday and announced its liberation, sparking hopes that hundreds of thousands of residents could finally return home after being displaced for nearly five months by a bloody siege.

But as life and some traffic resumed in Marawi's outskirts, the sounds of fighting rattled some who returned.

"We still hear explosions," Sohayla Pacalna, a souvenir shop owner, told The Associated Press. "But we don't know what they are."

After Duterte's speech, troops pressed an offensive late Tuesday against 20 to 30 gunmen holding several hostages in buildings near the city's Lanao Lake and killed four militants, Col. Romeo Brawner said, adding that 10 soldiers were wounded.

He said 854 militants have now been killed in the fighting, which broke out on May 23, along with 163 soldiers and policemen and 47 civilians.

Occasional bursts of gunfire and explosions sent clouds of smoke rising from the one-hectare (2.5-acre) area where soldiers said the remaining militants were hiding. The hilly community of narrow streets is now a gray wasteland of disfigured buildings and ruined houses.

Troops used megaphones to urge the remaining militants to give up.

"The only way to get out alive is to surrender," military chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Ano said.

Marawi, a mosque-studded center of Islamic faith in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, has been devastated by the siege by the militants, who waved IS-style black flags and hung them on buildings they occupied in Marawi's business district and outlying areas, according to the military.

The insurrection prompted the military to launch a ground offensive and airstrikes, with the United States and Australia later backing the troops by deploying surveillance aircraft. Duterte declared martial law across the south, the homeland of minority Filipinos and the scene of decades-old Muslim separatist rebellions, to deal with the uprising and prevent other insurgents from waging attacks elsewhere and reinforcing the fighters in Marawi.

The surprise occupation of the city and the involvement of foreign fighters set off alarms in Southeast Asia and the West. Analysts said parts of the southern Philippines were at risk of becoming a new base for IS as it lost territory to international forces in Iraq and Syria.

Defense officials announced Monday that two of the last leaders of the siege — Isnilon Hapilon, who is one of the FBI's most-wanted terror suspects, and Omarkhayam Maute — were killed in a gunbattle.

A top Malaysian militant, Mahmud bin Ahmad, who uses the nom de guerre Abu Handzalah and is a close associate of Hapilon, has not been found and is among the remaining militants being hunted by troops.

The killings of the two sparked hopes among hundreds of thousands of displaced residents that they could now leave the squalor of overcrowded evacuation camps and return to Marawi. Many were uncertain, though, whether they had homes to return to and how they could rebuild their lives.

It may take more than three years to rebuild Marawi's ruined commercial and residential neighborhoods, officials said, and it remains unclear how the massive construction cost can be financed.


Thousands march over 'Somalia's 9/11;' attack details emerge

Protesters march near the scene of Saturday's massive truck bomb attack in Mogadishu, Somalia, Wednesday, Oct. 18. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

Abdi Guled

Mogadishu, Somalia (AP) — Somali intelligence officials shared a detailed account of the country's deadliest attack, while thousands marched Wednesday in Mogadishu in a show of defiance against the extremist group blamed for Saturday's truck bombing that left more than 300 dead.

Two people have been arrested in the attack that was meant to target Mogadishu's heavily fortified international airport, where several countries have their embassies, the officials said.

Somalia's president urged the long-fractured Horn of Africa nation to unite, and Mayor Thabit Abdi said the city was "awash in graves." Some desperate relatives still dug through the rubble with their bare hands in search of scores said to be missing.

Wearing red headbands, a crowd of mostly young men and women gathered at a Mogadishu stadium and shouted slogans against al-Shabab, which has long targeted the seaside city but has not commented on the attack.

Some in Somalia have called the bombing their "9/11," asking why one of the world's deadliest attacks in years hasn't drawn more global attention. Nearly 400 others were wounded.

"You can kill us, but not our spirit and desire for peace," said high school teacher Zainab Muse. "May Allah punish those who massacred our people," said university student Mohamed Salad.

It was not all peaceful. At least three people, including a pregnant woman, were injured after security forces opened fire while trying to disperse protesters marching toward the attack site, said police Capt. Mohammed Hussein.

Analysts have suggested that al-Shabab, an al-Qaida ally, may have avoided taking responsibility because it did not want to be blamed for the deaths of so many civilians.

A detailed description of the attack emerged. According to a Somali intelligence official investigating the blast, an overloaded truck covered with a tarpaulin approached a security checkpoint outside Mogadishu early Saturday.

The truck, covered in dust, aroused the suspicions of soldiers who ordered the driver to park and get out. The driver, a man who soldiers said behaved in a friendly manner, made a phone call to someone in the capital.

The driver passed the phone to the soldiers to speak to a well-known man who vouched for the truck and persuaded soldiers to allow it into the city, the Somali intelligence official told The Associated Press.

Once through the checkpoint, the truck began to speed along the sandy, potholed road and raced through another checkpoint where soldiers opened fire and flattened one of its tires.

The driver continued before stopping on a busy street and detonating. The blast leveled nearly all nearby buildings in one of Mogadishu's most crowded areas.

The man who vouched for the truck has been arrested and is being held in jail, the Somali intelligence official said.

The massive bomb, weighing between 600 kilograms and 800 kilograms (1,300 pounds and 1,700 pounds), was meant for Mogadishu's heavily fortified international airport, according to security officials. Several countries' embassies are located there.

The driver probably decided to detonate on the street instead because several checkpoints still lay ahead, the Somali intelligence official said.

"Another reason that he would not proceed further is the fact that security forces were coming after it," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

The truck bomber had an accomplice driving a smaller car, a Toyota Noah minivan packed with explosives that took another route, said another Somali intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. Security forces stopped the vehicle at a checkpoint near the airport, forcing the driver to park and get out.

As soldiers questioned the driver, the minivan detonated, the official said.

The minivan's driver is currently in a prison in Mogadishu, said a senior Somali police officer, Capt. Mohamed Hussein.

Somalia last year saw its highest-ever number of attacks from improvised explosives, at least 395, up from about 265 the year before, according to a threat assessment by the Nairobi-based Sahan research group. Since 2013, when there were 33 such attacks, the threat has grown quickly.

Al-Shabab's capacity to produce and transport ever-larger explosives is improving, the assessment said. Vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices have increased from between 100 and 200 kilograms in 2015 to between 800 and 1,000 kilograms in 2016.

In the ruins of the latest attack, Suban Hussein, the mother of a missing 19-year-old university student, pointed at a large chunk of debris.

"I have searched everywhere else," she declared. "I believe my son's body is under here." No one came to her assistance.


Al-Qaida set to gain as Islamic State disintegrates

 

This photo shows an IS fighter firing a weapon during clashes with Syrian government troops in the eastern Syrian province of Deir el-Zour. (Militant Photo via AP)

Bassem Mroue and Qassim Abdul-Zahra

Beirut (AP) — Over several nights in September, some 10,000 men, women and children fled areas under Islamic State control, hurrying through fields in northern Syria and risking fire from government troops to reach a province held by an al-Qaida-linked group.

For an untold number of battle-hardened jihadis fleeing with the civilians, the escape to Idlib province marked a homecoming of sorts, an opportunity to continue waging war alongside an extremist group that shares much of the Islamic State's ideology — and has benefited from its prolonged downfall.

While the U.S.-led coalition and Russian-backed Syrian troops have been focused on driving IS from the country's east, an al-Qaida-linked insurgent coalition known as the Levant Liberation Committee has consolidated its control over Idlib, and may be looking to return to Osama bin Laden's strategy of attacking the West.

Syrian activists with contacts in the area say members of the Levant Liberation Committee vouched for fleeing IS fighters they had known before the two groups split four years ago and allowed them to join, while others were sent to jail. The activists spoke on condition of anonymity because they still visit the area and fear reprisals from the jihadis.

IS has lost nearly all the territory it once controlled in Syria and Iraq, including the northern Iraqi city of Mosul — the largest it ever held — and the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, which once served as its de facto capital. Tens of thousands of its fighters have been killed on the battlefield, but an untold number have escaped. As it gradually disintegrates, theological splits have also emerged within the organization, including the rise of a faction that blames its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for the setbacks.

"Al-Qaida will welcome ISIS members with open arms, those are battled-hardened with potent field experience," said Fawaz Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics and the author of "ISIS: A History."

ISIS is an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group.

The two groups both sprang from al-Qaida in Iraq, which emerged in the years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, but split over ideology and leadership in 2013 and battled each other across northern Syria. Earlier this month, IS attacked the Levant Liberation Committee again, in what was seen as a revenge attack after the defections.

While IS went on to carve out a proto-state in  large parts of Syria and Iraq and declared an Islamic caliphate in 2014, the al-Qaida militants allied themselves with other Syrian insurgent groups and cultivated grass-roots support by providing aid and other services to civilians. They remained focused on the war against Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces, although they've also crushed several small U.S.-backed rebel factions.

But despite formally severing ties with al-Qaida last year and repeatedly changing its name, the group is still widely seen as a loyal affiliate of the global network that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks. Brett McGurk, the top U.S. envoy for the coalition battling the Islamic State group, has said Idlib is the largest al-Qaida haven since bin Laden's days in Afghanistan.

"I worry that al-Qaida has taken advantage of the past three or four years to very quietly rebuild while ISIS has preoccupied our attention," said Bruce Hoffman, head of Georgetown University's security studies program and author of "Inside Terrorism."

"This is in al-Qaida's DNA, to either absorb, wait out or forcibly deal with any of their rivals so that they're the last man standing." The growth of the Levant Liberation Committee in the past year "has really astonished me," he added.

Two Iraqi intelligence officials told The Associated Press in Baghdad that bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahri, sent an envoy to Syria to convince IS fighters to defect and join his group. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters, said this might have been the reason behind an audiotape released by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Sept. 28, in which he ordered his fighters not to "retreat, run away, negotiate or surrender."

While al-Qaida may yet regain the mantle of worldwide jihad, it could also come under increasing threat in its bastion in northwestern Syria, as the forces arrayed against IS shift their focus to a new potentially worldwide threat.

"The honeymoon period for al-Qaida, in which the so-called Islamic State absorbed most of the counterterrorism focus while al-Qaida's affiliates grew stronger, is coming to an end," according to an analysis by the Soufan Group security consultancy.

"It now appears Zawahiri is seeking to consolidate the terror network and return the group to its heyday as the vanguard of a global movement," it added. That could place the militants in the crosshairs of the international coalition.

Turkey launched a limited military operation in Idlib last week aimed at imposing a "de-escalation zone," one of several set up across Syria under an agreement between Turkey, Iran and Russia. The Turkish troops have yet to confront al-Qaida, but that could change if it comes to be seen as a regional or international threat.

Meanwhile, Assad's forces, fresh from victories against IS in eastern Syria, may switch their focus to Idlib, the largest remaining insurgent bastion in the country. Russia, which has been waging an air campaign in support of Assad since 2015, struck an al-Qaida gathering in Idlib earlier this month, and claimed to have killed several militant commanders.

The U.S.-led coalition has targeted al-Qaida militants on several occasions in recent years, aiming to disrupt what U.S. officials say is a secretive cell known as the Khorasan group that is planning external attacks. A U.S. airstrike killed al-Qaida's second in command, former bin Laden aide Abu al-Kheir al-Masri, in Syria earlier this year..


EU switches summit venue over fumes in new Europa building

 

The interior of the Europa building in Brussels is shown in this Dec. 9, 2016 file photo, (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

Raf Casert

Brussels (AP) — The European Union made a last-minute switch to the venue of a two-day summit opening Thursday because of noxious fumes in the recently-opened Europa building in Brussels.

The EU Council said in a statement Wednesday that the egg-shaped building encased in a glass box had to be evacuated because of technical issues affecting the ventilation in the kitchens, which produced fumes that led to several staff members falling ill.

The body initially said the summit would not be affected, but reversed that position late Wednesday. The 28 EU leaders will now meet for the summit Thursday and Friday at the adjacent Justus Lipsius building, which had long hosted summits before the switch to the Europa building early this year.

The EU summit will discuss a slew of issues including Brexit negotiations.

The Europa building was evacuated last Friday due to a similar incident.

The EU announced that the switch was "a precautionary measure" only. Still, it was a setback and embarrassment for a 320-million euro ($375 million) building opened amid great pomp only last year as the epitome of EU design and construction technology.

"Despite checks and precautions, a further technical incident occurred today in one of the Europa building kitchens," the council said in a statement. Firefighters and medical staff were brought in to investigate the cause of the fumes, but the problem couldn't be fixed in time to let the summit go ahead.

Compared to the Europa building, the Justus Lipsius is a drab, brown-marble and glass construction typical of 1990s architecture.


Today in History, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017

The Associated Press

Today is Thursday, Oct. 19, the 292nd day of 2017. There are 73 days left in the year.

Today's Highlight in History:

On Oct. 19, 1987, the stock market crashed as the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 508 points, or 22.6 percent in value (its biggest daily percentage loss), to close at 1,738.74 in what came to be known as "Black Monday."

On this date:

In 202 BC, at the Battle of Zama, Roman legions under Scipio Africanus defeat Hannibal Barca, leader of the army defending Carthage.

In 1216, John, King of England, died, just more than a year after affixing his royal seal to Magna Carta ("The Great Charter").

In 1469, Ferdinand II of Aragon marries Isabella I of Castile, a marriage that paves the way to the unification of Aragon and Castile into a single country, Spain.

In 1781, British troops under Gen. Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, as the American Revolution neared its end.

In 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte begins his retreat from Moscow.

In 1914, the First Battle of Ypres began during World War I.

In 1936, H.R. Ekins of the New York World-Telegram beat out Dorothy Kilgallen of the New York Journal and Leo Kieran of The New York Times in a round-the-world race on commercial flights that lasted 18 1/2 days.

In 1950, the People's Republic of China joins the Korean War by sending thousands of troops across the Yalu River to fight United Nations forces.

In 1953, the Ray Bradbury novel "Fahrenheit 451," set in a dystopian future where books are banned and burned by the government, was first published by Ballantine Books.

In 1967, the U.S. space probe Mariner 5 flew past Venus.

In 1977, the supersonic Concorde made its first landing in New York City. The body of West German industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer, who had been kidnapped by left-wing extremists, was found in Mulhouse, France.

In 1982, automaker John Z. DeLorean was arrested by federal agents in Los Angeles, accused of conspiring to sell $24 million of cocaine to salvage his business. (DeLorean was acquitted at trial on grounds of entrapment.)

In 1994, 22 people were killed as a terrorist bomb shattered a bus in the heart of Tel Aviv's shopping district.

In 2003, Mother Teresa is beatified by Pope John Paul II.

Today's Birthdays:

Author John le Carre is 86. Artist Peter Max is 80. Actor Michael Gambon is 77. Actor John Lithgow is 72. Rock singer-musician Patrick Simmons (The Doobie Brothers) is 69. Singer Jennifer Holliday is 57. Boxer Evander Holyfield is 55. "South Park" co-creator Trey Parker is 48. Rock singer Pras Michel (The Fugees) is 45. Actor Omar Gooding is 41. Actress Rebecca Ferguson is 34. Rock singer Zac Barnett (American Authors) is 31. Actress Hunter King is 24.

Thought for Today:

"It takes a clever man to turn cynic and a wise man to be clever enough not to." — Fannie Hurst, American author (both this date in 1885, died 1968).
 


DAILY UPDATE

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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Explosion, inferno at Indonesia fireworks factory kills 47

New screenings begin for passengers on US-bound flights

Malaysia airport video shows 4 men accused in Kim's killing

Jacinda Ardern is sworn in as New Zealand prime minister

Kenya police, protesters clash during election as 3 killed


Bangladesh, Myanmar agree to halt the outflow of Rohingya

Indonesia parliament endorses draconian law on groups

Teen kayaker says shark attack was like everything in 'Jaws'

Italy anti-mafia panel asks Malta's help, cites car bombing

Mystery attacks chopping women's hair raise panic in Kashmir

Russian presidential hopeful says Crimea belongs to Ukraine


Philippines declares end to 5-month militant siege in Marawi

Japanese defense minister sounds alarm on North Korea

UK's May says Brexit talks making progress; EU denies leak

Britain to give Canada the shipwrecks of explorer Franklin

Kenya president says polls must be this week, despite doubts

Older vehicles in London to be charged more for polluting


India says Myanmar must take back Rohingya Muslims

Japanese Prime Minister Abe heads to impressive election win

Egypt's el-Sissi vows to quash terrorism after police ambush

Teen attacks, wounds several people with ax in Switzerland

Letter penned a day before Titanic sank sold at UK auction

Italy's 2 richest regions claim victory in autonomy votes

Today in History, Monday, Oct. 23, 2017


Drone video shows devastation in Raqqa, Syria

Catalan crisis looms large at Spanish prize-giving event

Spacewalking astronaut copes with frayed tether, bad jetpack

Wild boars rampage through German town, injure at least 4

140 arrested in Malawi after mob attacks on 'vampires'

Family believes body is that of missing Argentine protester

Today in History, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017


Fire rips through luxury Myanmar hotel, 1 body recovered

Study: World pollution deadlier than wars, disasters, hunger

A few militants fight on in Philippine city ripped to shreds

UN says plague cases in Madagascar almost doubled in 5 days

Pakistan's ex-premier Sharif indicted on corruption charges

Sons of slain journalist call for Malta leader's resignation

Today in History, Friday, Oct. 20, 2017


Russian TV star Sobchak declares her presidential bid

4 dead as fighting continues in southern Philippine city

Thousands march over 'Somalia's 9/11;' attack details emerge

Al-Qaida set to gain as Islamic State disintegrates

EU switches summit venue over fumes in new Europa building

Today in History, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017

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