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Updated: 18 min 41 sec ago

Report: N. Korea Replaces Border Guards After Defection

27 min 37 sec ago
North Korea appears to have replaced all of its guards at a jointly patrolled border area where a North Korean soldier defected last week under a hail of gunfire, South Korean media said Friday. Military officials said they could not confirm the report. Yonhap news agency cited an unnamed intelligence source saying there were signs the North had replaced its entire security force of 35 to 40 men at the Joint Security Area. South Korea's Defense Ministry and the U.S.-led United Nations Command said Friday they couldn’t confirm it.  WATCH: Dramatic Defection of North Korea Soldier The source also told Yonhap the North seems to have temporarily closed a bridge over which the defector drove a military jeep to reach the border before his dramatic escape on foot last Monday. A photo posted on the Twitter account of the acting U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Marc Knapper, showed North Korean workers using shovels to dig what Knapper said was a trench at the spot where the defector crossed the border.  According to South Korea’s military, four North Korean soldiers using handguns and AK-47 assault rifles fired about 40 rounds at the defector, who rushed across the line that divides the Koreas  after getting his vehicle stuck in a ditch. He was shot five times and is now recovering at a hospital near Seoul where he was operated on twice to repair internal organ damage and other injuries. After investigating the incident, the U.N. Command said Wednesday it concluded that North Korea violated the armistice agreement ending the 1950-53 Korean War because its soldiers fired across and physically crossed the border in pursuit of the defector. It said officials notified the North's military of these violations and requested a meeting to discuss the investigation results and measures to prevent such violations.  The JSA is jointly overseen by the American-led U.N. Command and by North Korea, with South Korean and North Korean border guards facing each other only meters (feet) apart. It is located inside the 4-kilometer (2½-mile) -wide Demilitarized Zone, which forms the de facto border between the Koreas since the Korean War.

Alleged Mastermind of 2008 Mumbai Attacks Released  

42 min 46 sec ago
Pakistani authorities have released a U.S.-wanted militant cleric who allegedly masterminded the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, that killed 168 people. On Wednesday, a court in Pakistan rejected the government’s plea to extend the house arrest of Hafiz Saeed for three months and ordered his release, saying the government had failed to substantiate the charges of terrorism. Saeed was designated a terrorist by the U.S. Justice Department, which has a $10 million reward for his capture or killing. He was released from house arrest before dawn Friday. Saeed ran the Jamaat-ud-Dawa organization, believed to be a front for the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group that was behind the attack in Mumbai, India. Pakistan put Saeed and four of his aides under house arrest in Lahore in January following increased U.S. pressure on Islamabad to rein in militant groups. Saeed’s aides were released earlier. On Thursday, India condemned the decision of the Pakistani court to release Saeed from house arrest.

Suicide Blast Kills Senior Pakistan Police Officer

4 hours 9 min ago
A suicide bomb attack on a police convoy in northwestern Pakistan on Friday killed a senior officer and wounded six others. The early morning blast occurred in Peshawar, capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The slain officer, Additional Inspector General Ashraf Noor, of the provincial police department, was on his way to work when a suicide bomber on a motorbike hit his vehicle. Peshawar police chief Tahir Khan said body parts of the suspected bomber have been retrieved from the site and an investigation is underway. There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the violence. Attacks on police Separate bomb and gun attacks on police convoys this month in Pakistan have killed several top police officers. Most of the incidents have taken place in and around the southwestern city of Quetta. The outlawed Pakistani Taliban and its allied groups have claimed responsibility for the previous violence against Pakistani security forces. For years, Peshawar has been in the grip of militant violence mainly because it is close to Pakistan’s volatile semi-autonomous tribal areas border Afghanistan. But authorities say sustained counter-militancy operations have cleared most of the tribal belt, leading to a 70 percent decline in terrorist attacks in Peshawar and surrounding areas in the past two years. 

8 Men Found in Japan, Claim to be North Korean Fishermen

5 hours 45 min ago
Police in northern Japan have found eight men near a boat at a seaside marina who said they were from North Korea. They appear to be fishermen whose vessel ran into trouble, rather than defectors, a police official said Friday. The incident comes at a time of rising tension over North Korea’s nuclear arms and missile programs after President Donald Trump redesignated the isolated nation a state sponsor of terrorism, allowing the United States to levy further sanctions. Japanese police took the men into custody after a resident of Yurihonjo, a city in the prefecture of Akita, told police of the presence of individuals of unknown nationality, the official, Yoshinobu Ito, told Reuters. The men, who said they were North Koreans, appear to be fishermen whose wooden boat, found nearby, had trouble and went adrift, Ito said. Police and authorities were now dealing with the matter, he added. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, asked if the possibility the men were spies had been ruled out, told a news conference authorities were handling the matter carefully. Japan is studying plans to cope with a possible influx of tens of thousands of North Korean evacuees should a military or other crisis break out on the peninsula, as well as how to weed out spies and terrorists among them, a domestic newspaper said. Last week, the Japan Coast Guard rescued three North Korean men on a capsized boat in the Sea of Japan, off central Japan. The men said they were fishermen and were later sent home aboard a North Korean vessel. Twelve more crew went missing. Last week a North Korean soldier dramatically defected to the South after being shot and wounded by his country’s military as he made his getaway across the border in the heavily guarded Demilitarized Zone between the two countries.

Philippines’ Duterte Ends Peace Talks with Maoist-led Rebels

6 hours 6 min ago
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has terminated the on-again, off-again peace talks with Maoist-led rebels as hostilities have continued despite the negotiations, the president’s spokesman said Friday. Ending the nearly half-century-long conflict, in which more than 40,000 people have been killed, was among Duterte’s priorities since he took office in June last year. “We find it unfortunate that their members have failed to show their sincerity and commitment in pursuing genuine and meaningful peaceful negotiations,” Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said in a statement late Thursday. “The president, as we all know, has always wanted to leave a legacy of peace under his administration. He has, in fact, walked the extra mile for peace,” Roque added. The president Thursday signed the proclamation terminating the peace talks, which were being brokered by Norway. In May, government peace negotiators canceled the fresh round of formal talks with the Maoist-led rebels in the Netherlands as guerrillas stepped up offensives in the countryside. Revolutionary forces now have no choice but to intensify guerrilla warfare in rural areas, the Jose Maria Sison, chief political consultant of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDF), said in a statement. NDF, the political arm of the Maoist guerrillas, said it regrets the unilateral cancellation of talks on such vital social and economic reforms.

Search Ends for US Sailors Missing in Navy Plane Crash

7 hours 3 min ago
The search has ended for three sailors missing in the Philippine Sea since a U.S. Navy aircraft crashed Wednesday, the Navy said Friday.  The C-2A “Greyhound” transport aircraft was traveling to the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier when it crashed. Eight people were rescued quickly and are in good condition, but Japanese and U.S. ships and aircraft had continued searching for the others.  The Navy’s 7th Fleet said details of the three missing sailors were being withheld pending the notification of next of kin.   The Navy is investigating the crash.  The twin-propeller plane crashed about 500 nautical miles (925 kilometers) southeast of Okinawa while bringing passengers and cargo from Japan to the aircraft carrier.  ​Naval exercises with Japan The Reagan was participating in a joint exercise with Japan’s navy when the plane crashed. It was leading the search and rescue efforts along with Japan’s naval forces.   The Navy describes the Nov. 16-26 joint exercise in waters off Okinawa as the “premier training event” between the U.S. and Japanese navies, designed to increase defensive readiness and interoperability in air and sea operations.  7th Fleet fatalities The Navy’s Japan-based 7th Fleet has had two fatal naval accidents in Asian waters this year, leaving 17 sailors dead and prompting the removal of eight top Navy officers from their posts, including the 7th Fleet commander.  The USS John S. McCain and an oil tanker collided near Singapore in August, leaving 10 U.S. sailors dead. Seven sailors died in June when the USS Fitzgerald and a container ship collided off Japan. The Navy has concluded the collisions were avoidable and recommended changes including improved training and increasing sleep and stress management for sailors.

Last Refugees Removed From Papua New Guinea Camp

7 hours 36 min ago
Papua New Guinea authorities said Friday they had relocated the last asylum seekers who had refused for three weeks to leave a closed immigration camp for fear they would face violence in the alternative accommodations. Police Chief Superintendent Dominic Kakas said police and immigration officials removed all 378 men from the male-only camp on Manus Island over two days and took them by bus to residences in the nearby town of Lorengau. “Everybody’s gone. Everybody got on the buses, they packed their bags and they moved over,” Kakas said. Refugee advocates say officials used force and destroyed asylum seekers’ belongings to make them leave Manus. Water, power and food supplies ended when the Manus camp ended officially closed Oct. 31, based on the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court’s ruling last year that Australia’s policy of housing asylum seekers there was unconstitutional. But asylum seekers fear for their safety in Lorengau because of threats from local residents. ​Australia pleased Australia pays Papua New Guinea, its nearest neighbor, and the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru to hold thousands of asylum seekers from Africa, the Middle East and Asia who have attempted to reach Australian shores by boat since mid-2013. Before confirmation that Manus Island had been emptied, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull welcomed news that asylum seekers were leaving. “I’m pleased to say in terms of Manus, that the reports we have are that busloads of the people at Manus are leaving, they’re complying with the lawful directions of the PNG authorities and moving to the alternative facilities available to them and that’s as they should,” Turnbull told reporters. “That is precisely what you should do, if you’re in a foreign country. You should comply with the laws of that other country,” he added. Activist protests Shen Narayanasamy, activist group GetUp’s rights campaigner said in a statement: “I awoke this morning to frantic phone calls from refugees on Manus screaming: ‘Help, help, they are killing us.’ It is astounding that refugees being beaten and dragged out to buses has the support of the Australian government.” Police maintain no force was used. Australia will not settle any refugees who try to arrive by boat, a policy that the government says dissuades them from attempting the dangerous ocean crossing from Indonesia. The navy has also been turning back boats to keep them from reaching Australia since July 2014. The United States has agreed to resettle up to 1,250 of the refugees under a deal struck by former President Barack Obama’s administration that President Donald Trump has reluctantly decided to honor. So far, only 54 have been accepted by the United States.

Suicide Bomber Kills 8 in Eastern Afghanistan

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 21:55
A suicide blast in eastern Afghanistan killed at least 8 people Thursday and wounded 16 others. Officials said the explosion in Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province, ripped through a crowd outside the residence of a former district police commander. A provincial government spokesman, Attaullah Khogyani, said the victims were supporters of the commander and demanded his reinstatement. There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the bombing. The attack came hours after Khogyani confirmed to VOA that self-proclaimed Islamic State members had beheaded 15 of their own fighters in Nangarhar’s volatile Achin district. He said the slaying took place overnight in the remote Momand Dara area and the decapitated corpses could still be seen lying there. Khogyani suggested the incident was the outcome of “internal rifts.” Afghan media reports said the men were murdered for intending to quit IS and join a government peace process.  IS militants have their strongholds in Achin and adjoining Afghan districts, and the terrorist locations have come under routine attacks by Afghan security forces backed by U.S. airpower. The terrorist group has not yet offered any comments about the incident. Meanwhile, Afghan officials and Georgia’s Defense Ministry have confirmed three Georgian soldiers were wounded when their convoy was hit by a suicide bomber near the Bagram airfield north of Kabul. The bombing of a convoy of NATO-led Resolute Support mission took place Wednesday evening in the Qarabagh district just 20 kilometers from Bagram, the largest U.S.-run military base in the country. The soldiers were receiving medical treatment at the base, and their condition was “stable and their life is not under threat,” according to the Georgian ministry. The Afghan government in a statement expressed its “deepest sympathy to the government and family members” of Georgia’s security personnel. With 885 troops, Georgia is the largest non-NATO contributor to the military mission tasked to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces. Georgia has lost 32 soldiers, and about 280 others have been wounded in conflict-related incidents in Afghanistan since joining the U.S.-led military mission in 2001.

Bollywood Film about Legendary Hindu Queen Embroiled in Controversy

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 21:48
The Bollywood film Padmavati, a period epic depicting the story of a 14th century Hindu queen and a Muslim ruler, was one of the year’s most awaited movies. But the film’s producers have indefinitely delayed its release amid fierce protests and violent threats by right-wing Hindu groups who charge the movie distorts history and depicts a romantic scene between Muslim king Alauddin Khilji and Padmavati, the Hindu queen, who historians say is fictional. A regional legislator of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has announced a $1.5 million reward to behead the heroine, actress Deepika Padukone, and acclaimed Bollywood filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The group spearheading the protests, Rajput Karni Sena, has attacked a cinema that showed the film's trailer, threatened to cut off the heroine’s nose and vowed to block the film. The violent protests have raised questions about an assault on the right of artistic and creative expression and concerns that Hindu fringe groups have been emboldened with the Hindu nationalist BJP in power.   The filmmakers have repeatedly said the protesters should watch the movie before concluding that it hurts Hindu sentiment and denied that it depicts a romantic scene between the Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji and Padmavati – the rumor that fanned the protests.   Those arguments have cut no ice: the opponents insist that the film will hurt the honor of Rajputs, a warrior caste of North India for whom Padmavati is a symbol of pride and honor.   While the BJP government in New Delhi has distanced itself from the controversy, several leaders of BJP-ruled states have joined the chorus of protest with three chief ministers announcing the movie will not be screened in their states. “We believe in freedom of speech and expression, but any foul play with our great culture is not tolerated," said the chief minister of Gujarat state, Vijay Rupani. Political analyst Satish Misra with the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi questions why authorities have not acted against those threatening violence. “It is the government’s responsibility to keep the environment secure so that people can be creative, whether it is poetry or filmaking,” he said. Historians have been taken aback by claims that the film distorts history and point out that there is no clear evidence that Padmavati existed. They say she became the stuff of folklore after she was extolled in a 16th century Sufi epic poem, “Padmavat,” as a beautiful queen who committed “Jauhar,” a medieval practice in which women of royal households walked into funeral pyres to avoid being taken captive. But their repeated assertions have made no impact on the Karni Sena, whose members belong to the caste claiming its lineage from queen Padmavati. “Am I a ghost? I'm a descendant. Then how can anyone even question the existence of our family?” said the group's head, Lokendra Singh Kalvi. Earlier this year the group vandalized the sets during the film's shooting and assaulted the director. Puzzled by the outcry over the movie, historian Rana Safvi said people have stopped investigating. “They just like to believe whatever they have heard. Venting their anger at a filmmaker or maybe a story teller, or a writer, these are very easy targets, soft targets,” she said. Protests over books, films and writings which Hindu or Muslim groups find offensive are not new in India. American Indologist Wendy Doniger’s book, “The Hindus: An Alternative History,” was pulled off the shelves in 2014 by a publishing house after protests by a Hindu right-wing group. Salman Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses" is banned in India since many Muslims consider it blasphemous. Political analysts say the controversy has assumed larger-than-life proportions because it erupted ahead of a string of crucial state elections, when caste and identity politics always come into sharper focus. But Misra said the raging debate over the Bollywood film has reinforced perceptions that fringe Hindu groups have gained a bigger voice with the BJP in power both in New Delhi and in as many as 18 states. “Today India is speaking in voices of caste and narrow political interests because this controversy had nothing to do with historical facts. It [such controversies] has been happening in the past also, but it is growing,” he said.

Myanmar, Bangladesh Sign Agreement on Rohingya Return

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 20:50
Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed an agreement for the return home of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh to escape violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state, according to officials from both countries. Myint Kyaing, a permanent secretary with Myanmar's ministry of labor, immigration and population, is quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying, "We are ready to take them back as soon as possible after Bangladesh sends the forms back to us," referring to registration forms the Rohingya must complete ahead of repatriation. More than 600,000 people have fled across the border to camps in Bangladesh. The development comes one day after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said violence in Rakhine state targeting the Muslim Rohingya qualifies as ethnic cleansing. Wednesday's announcement marked the first time the State Department had designated the violence as ethnic cleansing. Officials briefing reporters called the designation a descriptive term. In a written statement, Tillerson said, "After a careful and thorough analysis of available facts, it is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya." Tillerson also noted in his statement he had visited Myanmar November 15 and met separately with Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. In referring to Myanmar as Burma, Tillerson said he "reaffirmed the United States’ strong commitment to Burma’s successful democratic transition as the elected government strives to implement reforms, bring peace and reconciliation to the nation, and resolve a devastating crisis in Rakhine State." Tillerson went on to say those responsible for the atrocities must be held accountable. Myanmar's military repeatedly has rejected accusations that atrocities, including rape and extrajudicial killings, are occurring in northern Rakhine, the epicenter of violence the U.N. has qualified as "textbook ethnic cleansing." The Myanmar government does not recognize the Rohingya, referring to them as "Bengali" to imply origins in Bangladesh. Officials in Bangladesh say the Rohingya are "Myanmar nationals" and that it is a mistake to refer to them as Bangladeshis. Aung San Suu Kyi has faced criticism for her response to the crisis. She initially maintained there had been "a huge iceberg of misinformation" about the plight of the Rohingya. Human rights group Amnesty International said earlier this week that discrimination against the Rohingya has worsened considerably in the last five years, and it amounts to "dehumanizing apartheid."

Cuba, North Korea Reject 'Unilateral and Arbitrary' US Demands

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 20:13
Cuba said its foreign minister met with his North Korean counterpart in Havana on Wednesday and both rejected the United States' "unilateral and arbitrary" demands while expressing concern about escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula. North Korea is searching for support amid unprecedented pressure from the United States and the international community to cease its nuclear weapons and missile programs. The country, which has made no secret of its plans to develop a missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, has maintained warm political relations with the island just 90 miles (145 km) south since 1960, despite Cuba's opposition to nuclear weapons. Some diplomats said Cuba was also one of the few countries that might be able to convince North Korea to move away from the current showdown with the United States that threatens war. The ministers called for "respect for people’s sovereignty" and "the peaceful settlement of disputes," according to a statement released by the Cuban foreign ministry. "They strongly rejected the unilateral and arbitrary lists and designations established by the U.S. government which serve as a basis for the implementation of coercive measures which are contrary to international law," the statement said. U.S. President Donald Trump has also increased pressure on Cuba since taking office, rolling back a fragile detente begun by predecessor Barack Obama and returning to the hostile rhetoric of the Cold War. The U.S. State Department was not immediately available for comment. "On the situation on the Korean Peninsula, they expressed concern about the escalation of tensions," the statement read. "The ministers discussed the respective efforts carried out in the construction of socialism according to the realities inherent to their respective countries." The two Communist-run countries are the last in the world to maintain Soviet-style command economies, though under President Raul Castro, the Caribbean nation has taken some small steps toward the more market-oriented communism of China and Vietnam. Cuba maintains an embassy in North Korea, but publicly trades almost exclusively with the South. Last year, trade with the latter was $67 million and with the North just $9 million, according to the Cuban government.

Afghan Village Looks to Life Beyond Daesh in Recently Cleared Areas

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 17:34
Two years ago, VOA's team visited the Achin district in the Nangarhar province of eastern Afghanistan when it was a stronghold if the Islamic State in Afghanistan. They found evidence of human rights abuses that forced many in the local population to flee. Since then, Afghan security forces, helped by the United States and NATO, have cleared much of the area. VOA Correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem went back to see what life after IS is like. Here's what she found.

Fall of China’s Former Internet Censor Highlights Frustrations Over Controls

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 17:22
The former face of China’s “Great Firewall,” Lu Wei, has become the first “tiger” to come under the Communist Party’s corruption investigation since President Xi Jinping began his second term last month. Analysts say the graft probe into Lu’s corruption practices is widely believed to be legitimate and long overdue. But Lu’s downfall has highlighted the simmering discontent among the country’s netizens, many of whom have been frustrated with tougher internet regulations imposed by him. It has also made a mockery of so-called Xi Praise, a flattery culture centering on the building of the Xi cult, analysts add. ​Graft probe Late Tuesday, China’s top anti-corruption agency announced on its website that 57-year-old Lu, who formerly served as deputy chief of the party propaganda department, has been detained in an internal graft probe. Along with six of his colleagues and family members, Lu was reportedly taken away by investigators late last week. Lu, who served as the head of China’s cyberspace administration between 2013 and 2016, was the key person in implementing Xi’s cyberspace policies. In that role, he wielded great power over what the country’s 730 million internet users could access and acted as the gatekeeper for foreign technology companies seeking to enter the Chinese market. Because of that, Time magazine named him one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2015. ​Just a cat But his political career ended when he was stripped of the title as China’s internet censor and was replaced by Xu Lin, a Xi protégé, in June 2016. “Actually, he ceased to be a tiger long ago. He’s not a fly, but he’s now just a cat instead of a tiger because he already lost his power in June 2016,” Hong Kong-based China watcher Willy Lam told VOA. In one of its two other statements, China’s anti-graft body Wednesday explained why Lu became the first tiger under graft investigation after the party’s 19th National Congress. The cyberspace administration with Lu at the helm was found to have not been staunch enough in executing Xi’s instructions, lacked political responsibility and integrity while being operated by a network of small circles, the statement said. ‘Offenses of bygone’ The other statement warned not to “expect [criminal] offenses of bygone will be bygone today, lessons learned from the fall of Lu Wei.” No details about Lu’s corruption offenses were revealed. Chinese media reported that investigators would be mainly looking into corruption charges against Lu during the period when he worked for state-run Xinhua News Agency from 1991 and 2011. Media speculation is also rife that Lu had angered Xi when the top leader discovered that the former internet censor had hired foreigners to masquerade as CEOs of multinational tech companies attending the World Internet Conference held in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, in 2014. ​Xi praise But Lam said that Xi, who he said is a “macromania,” has no one but himself to blame for the trend of Xi Praise, a flattery culture in Chinese politics. “This is the art of survival in the Chinese empire, so to speak. The officials have to be seen as bending forward and backward to please Xi Jinping,” Lam said. But Li Datong, managing director of Freezing Point, a weekly that reported on all aspects of contemporary life in China, said Xi Praise is an act of self-deception. “If Xi Jinping knows how to surf on the Internet, he will see from a bevy of [online] chat rooms that many [netizens] not only made fun of him, but also lashed out at Xi Cult. It’s a game for government officials themselves to play,” Li said. Discontent with internet controls Chinese internet users, however, are happy to see Lu go, venting their frustrations over Internet controls. But on Wednesday, a report in the state-run Global Times pointed out, “while news of Lu’s removal has made a buzz on the internet, his corruption investigation isn’t aimed at addressing dissatisfaction expressed by a minority of people over tighter internet controls. Neither is it a signal that internet controls will be re-evaluated as some have expected.” Li said netizens are aware of the fact that the country’s internet controls won’t be eased following Lu’s downfall. “Everybody knows that there won’t be a change of policy. But they are still happy to see the executioner [Lu], who has done all evils, being taken down. [Internet] policies are national policies, which won’t be easily revised as a result of personnel reshuffle,” Li said. On Thursday, Lu Wei was the top-trending topic on freeweibo.com, a website that captures censored social media posts. On SINA Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, online comments posted by users in response to news reports were mostly erased.

Australia Calls on US to Build Asia Presence

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 16:54
Australia on Thursday called on the United States to build a strong presence in Asia and bolster ties with “like-minded” partners while warning against China’s rising influence. A more insular United States would be detrimental to the liberal nature of the world’s “rules-based order,” the government said in a 115-page foreign policy white paper. “Australia believes that international challenges can only be tackled effectively when the world’s wealthiest, most innovative and most powerful country is engaged in solving them,” the government said. Roadmap to future The white paper is a guide for Australian diplomacy and provides a roadmap for advancing its interests. The election of President Donald Trump represented a step toward a more isolationist world, which could be negative for Australia’s export-dependent economy, commentators have said. Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership regional trade agreement in January, shortly after he took office. “Strong and sustained U.S. engagement in the international system remains fundamental to international stability and prosperity,” the government said in the paper. “Without such engagement, the effectiveness and liberal character of the international order would erode.” Australia is one of the staunchest U.S. allies, and troops from the two countries have fought alongside each other in all major conflicts for generations. But the economic growth and power that the United States has enjoyed since the end of the World War II is now being challenged by China, Australia said. Australia and China have close economic ties, but China is suspicious of Australia’s close military relationship with the United States. ‘Tensions, benefits’ Australia warned in the paper of risks it faces, particularly in the “Indo-Pacific region” because of a shift in the balance of power. While the government recognized the economic benefits from China’s rise, it was also trying to “wish China away,” said Jane Golley, deputy director at the Australian Centre on China in the World, Australian National University. “To actually drop the word ‘Asia’ from ‘Asia-Pacific’ undoes three decades of diplomatic effort,” Golley said, referring to the use of the phrase “Indo-Pacific” which came up 120 times in the paper. “Asia-Pacific” was not used once. The United States and some of its allies have recently been talking up their vision of the “Indo-Pacific,” instead of the “Asia-Pacific,” in a play on words aimed at undermining the influence of China. “There is a small reference to China’s geo-economic strategy in the paper, but the emphasis is on the tensions that could create, rather than the economic benefits,” Golley said. “We’ll have to see how China reacts to this but they’re not going to like this policy.” Australia-China relations low Relations between Australia and China sank to a low point this year after Australia rejected high-profile Chinese investments, citing “national interest.” Australia has also shown little enthusiasm for China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative, which aims to connect China to Europe and beyond with infrastructure projects. The initiative was mentioned just once in the paper. “We are not embracing the future,” Golley said. “We are holding on to the past and reaching on to the life jacket rather than thinking of building a whole new ship.”

Search Continues for Missing Sailors After US Navy Plane Crashes in Western Pacific

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 15:27
Search and rescue operations continued Thursday for three sailors still missing after a U.S. Navy transport plane crashed Wednesday into the western Pacific Ocean. The Navy said the twin-propeller C2-A Greyhound aircraft plummeted into the sea about 925 kilometers (575 miles) southeast of Okinawa while it was on a routine mission taking passengers and cargo from a U.S. base in Japan to the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier. It said eight of the 11 people aboard were rescued about 40 minutes later and taken to the Reagan where they were reported in good condition. The Navy said several U.S. and Japanese naval ships and aircraft have, so far, covered more than 320 nautical miles in their search for the missing. There was no immediate explanation for the crash, and the Navy said the incident is being investigated. Military exercises U.S. President Donald Trump, at his oceanfront Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida for the Thanksgiving weekend holiday, said via Twitter that he is monitoring the situation. “Prayers for all involved,” he said. The Reagan was operating in the Philippine Sea as part of joint exercises with Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, part of 10 days of training designed to increase defensive readiness and interoperability in air and sea maneuvers between the two countries. More than 14,000 U.S. personnel are participating in the drills, which also include the guided-missile destroyers USS Stethem, USS Chafee and USS Mustin, and a maritime patrol and reconnaissance squadron. Fifth Navy incident this year Wednesday’s crash was the fifth major Navy incident in Asian waters this year. Two fatal accidents left 17 sailors dead and prompted the Defense Department to remove of eight top Navy officers from their posts, including the 7th Fleet commander. The destroyer USS John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker in August off Singapore, leaving 10 U.S. sailors dead and five injured. The USS Fitzgerald, another destroyer, collided with a container ship in waters off Japan in June, killing seven sailors. After investigations, the Navy concluded the collisions were avoidable, resulting from widespread failures by commanders and crew members, who did not recognize and respond quickly to the emergencies as they unfolded. The Navy has called for improved training, and increasing sleep and stress management for sailors.  Separately, in January, the USS Antietam ran aground near Yosuka, Japan, and the USS Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing vessel in May. Carla Babb contributed to this report.

US Secretary of State Calls Violence Against Rohingya in Myanmar 'Ethnic Cleansing'

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 13:39
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the violence against the Rohingya Muslim population in Myanmar is "ethnic cleansing." The written statement comes after weeks of pressure from U.S. lawmakers and international human rights groups for the Trump administration to make firm its position on the crisis that has led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar, also known as Burma. Jesusemen Oni has more.

Hindu Politician Offers $1.5M for Beheading of Bollywood Actress, Director

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 08:37
A leader of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has announced that he would pay a reward roughly equivalent to $1.5 million to anyone who would behead an Indian actress and a film director. Surajpal Singh Amu, a member of the BJP in northern Haryana state, is apparently upset about an upcoming movie, Padmavati, starring actress Deepika Padukone as the 16th-century Hindu queen Padmini. The movie is directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Amu alleged that the movie is misleading, not based on truth and offends Hindu sentiments in the country. "We will reward the ones beheading them, with 10 crore rupees, and also take care of their family's needs," Amu said in an interview with India's Asia's Premier News (ANI) earlier this week. Threats against movie Amu also vowed not to allow the release of the movie and warned movie theaters to avoid playing the movie or risk being torched. The movie was set to be released during the first week of December. Rights activists have reacted strongly to the threats and urged the government to take action. "This is pretty outrageous that you announce publicly and no action takes place at a time when people are being arrested for most trivial reasons in this country," Gotum Naulakha, an Indian-based civil liberties activist, told VOA. An official complaint has been registered against Amu, but many are criticizing the stance of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party — which controls the central government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi — on the matter. "I've not heard any official stance from the central government or the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting," Vinod Sharma, an Indian-based analyst, told VOA. Anil Jain, a local BJP spokesperson, told ANI that the law applies to everyone in the state of Haryana and no one can threaten others. The central government has yet to react, however. Bollywood actress Padukone stood her ground and said the movie would be released despite the threats. "Where have we reached as a nation? We have regressed. The only people we are answerable to is the censor board, and I know and I believe that nothing can stop the release of this film," Padukone told Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) last week.   Controversy Padmavati was controversial right from the start. Opponents of the movie stormed the filming of one scene and destroyed the film sets. They were upset that the director of the movie was distorting facts by alleging romance between the Hindu queen and the Muslim invader Alauddin Khilji. Film director Bhansali, however, denies the allegations and maintains the story is based on a Sufi and medieval-era poem written about the Hindu queen. In the poem, the Hindu queen chooses death before the Muslim conqueror could capture her. Some experts say the poem is centuries old and there is a possibility the Hindu queen might be purely a fictional character found only in folklore. "There's a lot of debate in India whether Padmavati was actually a living being many, many years ago or whether she was just an imagined person in a poem," analyst Sharma said. Rights activists maintain that if government fails to draw clear lines around the threat made by the politician, and discourage a growing sense of impunity for some, incidents like this will only increase and threaten the freedom of expression in the world's biggest democracy. "By letting loose and giving [a] sense of impunity to the goons of the ruling party or people who're connected or close to the ruling party, we're paving the ground for much bigger and [worse] things to happen in the near future," Naulakha told VOA. The movie is awaiting approval from India's Central Board of Film Certification.

Papua New Guinea Police Move on Australia Refugee Camp on Manus

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 07:02
Papua New Guinea police moved into the shuttered Australian refugee camp on the country's Manus Island Thursday in the most aggressive push yet to force hundreds of detainees to leave, inmates reported. “Police have started to break the shelters, water tanks and are saying ‘move, move’,” tweeted Iranian Behrouz Boochani from inside the camp Thursday morning. “Navy soldiers are outside the prison camp. We are on high alert right now. We are under attack,” he said. Other refugees posted photos to social media sites showing police entering the camp, which Australia declared closed on Oct. 31, shutting off electricity and water supplies to the center. The Manus camp was closed after a PNG Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional, and some 600 refugees were told to relocate to three nearby transition centers. Around 400 of the asylum-seekers have refused to leave, saying they fear for their safety in a local population which opposes their presence on the island. Canberra sends asylum-seekers who try to reach Australia by boat to detention camps in Papua New Guinea's Manus Island and Nauru, and blocks them from resettling in Australia. The camps’ conditions have been slammed by human rights groups, which have also campaigned to have them shut amid reports of widespread abuse, self-harm and mental health problems. Canberra has strongly rejected calls to move the refugees to Australia and instead has tried to resettle them in third countries, including the United States.  

Pope to Meet Myanmar Military Chief, Rohingya Refugees

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 05:15
Pope Francis will meet this month with the military chief of Myanmar as well as the Rohingya Muslims who claim to be persecuted by the country's armed forces. During a trip to Myanmar, starting November 26, the pontiff will meet with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing shortly before leaving for neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar Cardinal Charles Bo persuaded the pope to add a meeting with the general to his schedule. Bo also advised the pope not to use the term "Rohingya" during his visit, for fear of inflaming tensions in the predominantly Buddhist country. Myanmar's military and government officials decline to use a term they see as giving the Muslims of the northern Rakhine state the status of an ethnic minority. The official line is that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Human rights groups and the United Nations accuse the Myanmar army of atrocities against the minority Muslim population. Visit to camps The United Nations estimates more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh, where they live in squalid refugee camps. The pope will meet some of those refugees when he visits Bangladesh starting December 1. "The pope's visit comes at a key moment for these two countries," said Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, adding that he expected a very interesting trip. Francis will also separately meet Myanmar's de facto civilian leader and Nobel peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi. International condemnation of Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya has mounted in recent days, with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying Wednesday that it amounted to ethnic cleansing. Bo, the top Catholic official in Myanmar, has defended Aung San Suu Kyi against what he termed "unfair'' international criticism leveled against her. He has said she has no constitutional right to speak out against the military operation and has maneuvered in the best possible way to negotiate improvements not only for Rohingya but also for Myanmar's other minorities, Catholics included.

Afghan Village Looks to Life Beyond IS in Recently Cleared Areas

Thu, 11/23/2017 - 00:45
The local police commander pointed toward a graveyard. Several of the graves lay partly open.   “We dug up the graves to show the locals these Daesh fighters were no martyrs. Their bodies were eaten by insects and smelled bad,” Bilal Bacha, the commander said, using an Arabic acronym to describe Islamic State. He was referring to a belief in Islamic thought that a martyr’s body never decomposes and always smells like musk.   Further down, a two-story building with thick mud walls that used to be an IS prison is now empty. Piles of rubble indicated houses where IS commanders once lived. NATO had bombed most of them. The area in the Pekha valley of Achin district, in eastern Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, was once a stronghold of the Islamic State group. Early in 2015, when it started gaining ground, its tactics were so brutal, locals considered the Taliban tame by comparison. Many fled the area. “Life was so difficult that we took our stuff and moved to another area. We’ve just returned around five months ago,” said a man, who, judging from his signature brimless white cotton cap, looked like he was from the Shinwari tribe. The Shinwaris, being one of the largest groups in the area, had suffered the most at the hands of IS. They were trying to pick up the pieces. In a small village called Lataband Tangi, children, including little girls, ran around, excited to see outsiders. Some tried to sneak up behind the VOA photographer to take a peek at his viewfinder. Such scenes would have been impossible a year ago.   Along the way, women confined to their houses under IS rule now could be seen working in vegetable gardens by the roadside, or walking their animals to the nearest stream. The local bazaar was a tiny row of dirty old brick rooms. Only half of them were open. A small pile of clear plastic bags full of vegetables and fruits lay on the floor next to an old man grinding an axe. He smiled as he looked up, his experienced hands continuing the work as he observed his surroundings.   People were beginning to think beyond survival to other issues. “Our biggest problems after the departure of the Islamic State are health and education,” said a man standing by the roadside. “Plus, the houses that were destroyed under IS rule are still in a rubble. We need help in rebuilding those.”   As if to remind him that life was not fully back to normal, fighter planes circled overhead. Every now and then, there was a distant thud followed by a cloud of smoke. While IS has been pushed back from a significant portion of the district, it has not been eliminated. According to General John Nicholson, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, it continues a “very aggressive” recruitment campaign. It also remains the top priority for the U.S. counterterrorism mission in the country. “We’re going to stay on Daesh over the winter until we have removed this threat from Afghanistan,” Nicholson told journalists in Kabul this week.

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