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Paris attack suspect eludes police, complicating probe | Reuters

BRUSSELS/PARIS French police had three opportunities to catch a Belgian suspect in the Paris attacks and each time let him go, a defence lawyer said on Tuesday, adding to the missed signals complicating efforts to track down those behind an onslaught in which 129 people were killed.

Friday night’s attacks, claimed by Islamic State militants, raised security concerns around the world. Bomb fears prompted Hanover, Germany, police to call off a soccer match between Germany and the Netherlands two hours before game time on Tuesday. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been due to attend.

In Syria, France and Russia bombed targets to punish Islamic State for the coordinated Paris massacre and the downing of a Russian airliner over Sinai on Oct. 31. In Moscow, the Kremlin acknowledged that a bomb had destroyed the jet last month, killing 224 people.

On the night of the attack in Paris, French police failed to capture Belgian Salah Abdeslam, believed to have played a central role in both planning and executing the Paris attacks, despite having stopped the car in which he was riding three times during a massive manhunt, Xavier Carette, the driver’s lawyer, said.

Police apparently had no idea the passenger in the car would later be identified as having been linked to the attacks.

Speaking to Belgian broadcaster RTBF, Carette said his client, Mohammed Amri, suspected nothing when his friend Abdeslam, 26, called two hours after the attacks for a ride to Brussels and said his car had broken down. Amri is in police custody; Abdeslam remains at large.

“You know, when you’re on a car journey, you can talk about everything and nothing, listen to music, even smoke a joint, but at no time, no, they didn’t talk about that,” Carette said of the massacre. He said young Arab men are used to police stops.

French prosecutors have identified five of the seven dead assailants from Friday – four Frenchmen and a fifth man who was fingerprinted in Greece among refugees last month. Abdeslam is one of two men police believe were directly involved and who subsequently escaped, not one as previously said.

Islamic State said they carried out the attacks in retaliation for French and Russian air raids in Iraq and Syria. Investigators said the Paris plot was hatched in Syria and nurtured in Belgium.

ISLAMIC STATE STRONGHOLD HIT

Syrian targets hit by Russian long-range bombers and cruise missiles on Tuesday included the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa. French warplanes also targeted Raqqa on Tuesday evening in the third such bombing raid within 48 hours.

Paris and Moscow are not coordinating their operations, but French President Francois Hollande has called for a global campaign against the radicals in the wake of the Paris attacks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to hunt down those responsible and intensify air strikes against Islamists in Syria.

The Kremlin said Putin spoke to Hollande by telephone and had ordered the Russian navy to establish contact with a French naval force heading to the eastern Mediterranean, led by an aircraft carrier, and to treat them as allies.

“We need to work out a plan with them of joint sea and air actions,” Putin told military chiefs.

“Maybe today this grand coalition with Russia is possible,” French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told TF1 television channel on Tuesday evening.

Hollande will visit Putin in Moscow on Nov. 26, two days after the French leader is due to meet U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington to push for a concerted drive against Islamic State, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.

A French presidential source said Hollande also spoke by phone to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who backed calls for a united front against the militants.

In Brussels, Le Drian invoked the EU’s mutual assistance clause for the first time since the 2009 Lisbon Treaty introduced the possibility, saying he expected help with French operations in Syria, Iraq and Africa.

The 28 EU member states accepted the French request, but it was not immediately clear what assistance would be forthcoming.

A TALE OF TWO GAMES

Police in Hanover, Germany, said bomb fears prompted them to call off the soccer match between Germany and the Netherlands, but no arrests were made and no explosives were found.

“We had received specific indications that an attack with explosives was planned,” Hanover Police President Volker Kluwe told NDR state broadcaster. “We took them seriously, and that is why we took the measures.”

One of the Friday night targets was outside a Paris stadium where France was playing Germany in a friendly soccer match.

At London’s Wembley Stadium, lit up in the blue, white and red of the French flag, English soccer fans saluted their French opponents at a friendly soccer match on Tuesday by roaring out an emotional rendition of the “Marseillaise” national anthem.

England won the match, 2-0.

REFUGEES AN ISSUE

The discovery that at least one of the Paris gunmen was believed to have slipped into Europe among migrants registered in Greece prompted several Western countries to begin to question their willingness to take in refugees.

Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives, worried about Islamist militant attacks, threatened to suspend President Barack Obama’s efforts to allow 10,000 more Syrian refugees into the United States.

The White House said it was looking for ways to tighten screening, noting that people escaping war-torn Syria already undergo rigorous vetting.

Both Republicans and Democrats have voiced fears that housing refugees from a conflict zone in the Middle East could eventually leave the United States open to attacks like those staged by al Qaeda in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.

(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, Matthias Blamont, Andrew Callus, Marine Pennetier, Emmanuel Jarry, Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Jean-Baptiste Vey in Paris and Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels; Writing by Howard Goller; Editing by Ken Wills)

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World leaders laud Myanmar election as Suu Kyi secures majority | Reuters

YANGON Myanmar democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party on Friday clinched enough seats in parliament to elect a president and form a government when incoming lawmakers convene next year.

Results from the country’s election commission confirmed the thumping victory that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) had claimed after the first free nationwide election in 25 years on Sunday.

The confirmation came five years to the day since the junta released Suu Kyi from house arrest. She had been confined for the best part of two decades.

The triumph of the charismatic Nobel peace prize laureate sweeps out the old guard of former generals that has run Myanmar, also known as Burma, since President Thein Sein ushered in a raft of democratic and economic reforms four years ago.

Despite the landslide, Suu Kyi cannot become president herself under a constitution drafted by the military before the end of nearly 50 years of rule. She has said she will run the country anyway, through a proxy chosen by her party.

Results have trickled in since the weekend, and on Friday the election commission announced the latest batch of seats that pushed the NLD over the threshold to secure an absolute majority in parliament.

PRAISE FROM OBAMA

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. President Barack Obama had already congratulated her on the victory.

In a call with Suu Kyi, Obama “commended her for her tireless efforts and sacrifice over so many years to promote a more inclusive, peaceful and democratic Burma”, the White House said.

Obama and Ban also praised Thein Sein for successfully staging the historic poll, with the UN chief acknowledging his “courage and vision” to organise an election in which the ruling camp was trounced.

Obama has visited Myanmar twice over the past three years, hoping to make its transition to democracy a foreign policy legacy of his presidency. He will meet with Thein Sein, among other regional leaders, during a trip to Asia this month.

Thein Sein, whose semi-civilian government took power when the junta stepped aside in 2011, and powerful army chief Min Aung Hlaing, have said they would respect the result and hold reconciliation talks with Suu Kyi soon.

Such unambiguous endorsements of Suu Kyi’s victory couldsmooth the lengthy post-election transition ahead of the last session of the old parliament, which reconvenes on Monday.

“We need to prepare to hand over duties systematically and cleanly to the government that will emerge in accord with the desire of the people,” Information Minister Ye Htut said in a Facebook post on Friday, a day after a cabinet meeting.

The NLD will make national reconciliation its priority, as well as putting an end to decades of conflict between the army and rebel ethnic groups in the country, said Win Htein, a senior NLD leader.

MUCH HARD WORK

While the election and two months of campaigning in the run-up were largely peaceful, global leaders stressed that a large number of people, estimated by some rights activists at around 4 million, were unable to cast their ballots.

“He is regretfully aware that a large number of voters from minority communities, in particular the Rohingya, were denied the right to vote and some were disqualified as candidates,” Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said in a statement.

“There is much hard work that remains ahead on Myanmar’s democratic journey and towards making future elections truly inclusive.”

Myanmar’s government has denied Rohingya Muslims citizenship, and hundreds died in clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012. Some 140,000 Rohingya live in squalid camps, while thousands more have fled by boat, leading to a regional migration crisis.

Suu Kyi has been criticized for not speaking out against abuses faced by the Muslim minority. The Rohingya situation is one of the most contentious issues the new government will face.

With Suu Kyi’s victory confirmed, the focus is shifting to the NLD’s presidential candidate and its plans for government.

Myanmar’s president runs the executive, with the exception of the powerful ministries of interior, defence and border security, which are controlled by the military.

Under the indirect electoral system, the upper house, lower house, and military bloc in parliament each put forward a presidential candidate. The combined houses then vote on the three candidates, who do not have to be elected members of parliament.

The winner becomes president and forms a government, while the losers become vice presidents with largely ceremonial responsibilities. The NLD has won enough seats to have an overall majority in the joint chambers and ensure its candidate becomes president.

The vote for the presidency will take place after the new members take their seats in both houses in February. The president will assume power by the end of March.

(Additional reporting by Aubrey Belford and Aung Hla Tun; Writing by Antoni Slodkowski and Simon Webb; Editing by Alex Richardson and Mike Collett-White)

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Taliban encourage Afghan quake relief as toll rises past 300 | Reuters

KABUL/ISLAMABAD The Taliban encouraged aid groups to help victims of the massive earthquake in northern Afghanistan and Pakistan as rescuers struggled to form a clear picture of the damage caused by the disaster as the death toll passed 300.

With large mountainous areas of Afghanistan hit and icy weather closing in, the unstable security situation has posed a major challenge to international aid groups that have been repeatedly targeted by insurgents.

But the Taliban, which have driven their Islamist campaign against the Western-backed government in Kabul across the country this year, indicated they would not stand in the way of aid efforts and ordered fighters to help victims.

“The Islamic Emirate calls on our good-willed countrymen and charitable organizations to not hold back in providing shelter, food and medical supplies to the victims,” the group said in a message of condolence to quake victims, using its formal name.

“And it similarly orders its mujahideen in the affected areas to lend their complete help.”

Authorities confirmed 228 deaths in Pakistan while in Afghanistan, the death toll reached at least 115, Sayed Zafar Hashemi, President Ashraf Ghani’s deputy spokesman, said. At least 4,000 houses and compounds had been destroyed or damaged, Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said.

The toll could climb as road and communications links are restored to isolated villages and as winter sets in across the rugged Hindu Kush mountains where the earthquake struck, the plight of thousands left homeless is becoming more serious.

“We have insufficient food and other aid,” said Abdul Habib Sayed Khil, chief of police in Kunar, one of the worst-hit provinces, where 42 people were confirmed dead. “It has been raining for four days and the weather is very cold.”

The worst impact was reported in Faizabad, capital of Badakhshan province but there was also significant damage in the provinces of Kunar, Nuristan, Laghman, Takhar, Baghlan and Nangarhar.

In Kabul, the capital, NATO officials said they were helping Afghan security forces plan relief operations but aid groups were still assessing how to reach the areas and how to operate once they were there given the danger to their teams.

“Security is of course a large factor,” said Kjersti Haraldseide, acting Country Director for the Norwegian Refugee Council. “There is a limitation to humanitarian actors’ access to some of the areas,” she said.

In Pakistan, where landslides and heavy rain and snow over the weekend had already left thousands of tourists stranded in mountainous areas of the north, the well-equipped military was heavily involved in relief efforts.

By Tuesday evening, troops had managed to clear and reopen the region’s main road, the Karakoram highway linking Pakistan to China, after it was blocked by landslides. Two army helicopters joined the relief mission.

The earthquake struck almost exactly six months after Nepal suffered its worst quake on record, on April 25. Including the toll from a major aftershock in May, 9,000 people lost their lives there and 900,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.

Monday’s initial quake of magnitude 7.5 was followed by seven aftershocks, of intensity ranging as high as 4.8, the U.S. Geological Survey said. The latest aftershock came just before dawn on Tuesday.

The quake was 213 km (132 miles) deep and centred 254 km (158 miles) northeast of Kabul.

The United States and Iran were among countries that offered humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, which already depends heavily on foreign aid after decades of war wrecked its economy and infrastructure.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said a relief package would be announced after damage had been assessed.

(Additional reporting by Mehreen Zahra-Malik in Islamabad and Krista Mahr in Kabul; Writing by Kay Johnson and James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Macfie, Clarence Fernandez and Richard Balmforth)

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Hungarian riot police fire tear gas at migrants | Reuters

SID, Serbia/ROSZKE, Hungary Riot police fired water cannon and tear gas on Wednesday at migrants demanding to be let through Hungary’s newly shut EU frontier, while refugees at other Balkan frontiers clambered through cornfields in search of new routes.

Hungary’s decision this week to shut the European Union’s external border with Serbia was the most forceful attempt yet by a European country to reduce the flow of refugees and economic migrants overwhelming the bloc.

The move has left thousands of migrants scattered across the Balkan peninsula seeking alternative ways to reach the EU, and Hungary’s prime minister said his country planned to erect a fence along parts of its border with Croatia as well as on the frontier with Romania to stem the flow.

Helmeted Hungarian riot police backed by armoured vehicles took up positions at the now-barricaded border crossing with Serbia, where male migrant youths pelted them with stones, demanding to be allowed through.

At least 20 policemen and two children were injured, a Hungarian security official said.

“It is getting very ugly there,” said Ahmad, 58, a shopkeeper from Baghdad who went to the official border crossing at Sid in Serbia but soon realised he may have a better chance of entering the EU via Serbia’s border with Croatia.

“As soon as we heard about a route to Croatia we did not wait long. I want to go to Sweden to meet the rest if my family. I hope we will be treated better in Croatia,” he told Reuters.

Serbia later said it would send additional police to the border with Hungary and try to distance migrants from the border fence, and three Hungarian military Humvees mounted with guns stepped up security on the other side of the frontier.

U.N. SHOCKED

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed shock and alarm at the treatment of refugees and migrants at Hungary’s border with Serbia. The Council of Europe human rights body said it had asked Hungary to explain its new legislation on the crisis.

Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, urged Hungarian authorities to ensure “unimpeded access” for people as they flee wars and persecution.

“UNHCR was especially shocked and saddened to witness Syrian refugees, including families with children who have already suffered so much, being prevented from entering the EU with water cannon and tear gas,” it said in a statement.

Serbia’s border with Hungary has until now been the main route for migrants, who mainly arrive first by dinghy in Greece and then trek across the Balkan peninsula to reach the EU’s frontier-free Schengen zone, most bound for Germany.

Migrants scattered through Balkan countries said they were searching for other routes, possibly through Croatia or Romania, both of which are in the EU though not in Schengen.

“If not Hungary, we will have to find another way. Most probably Croatia and from there we will see,” said 43-year-old Mehmed from Damascus, holding his three-year-old daughter after crossing the border north into Macedonia from Greece.

Croatia said it would send landmine experts to its Serbian border to identify minefields left on the frontier from the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the last time hundreds of thousands of displaced people marched across Europe.

The goal for most is Germany, which cut off trains from Austria on Wednesday to slow the flow of arrivals.

Tens of thousands of migrants have reached Austria in recent days, rushing to cross before Hungary shut the frontier. Austria said it would impose new border controls on its frontier with Slovenia, along the likely new route from Croatia.

“FENCES, DOGS”

Hungary has already thrown up a 3.5 metre (10 foot) high fence along nearly the whole of its border with Serbia, and engineers and soldiers were marking a path on Wednesday to extend the barrier along the border with Romania.

In response, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta evoked he continent’s darkest era.

“Fences, dogs, cops and guns, this looks like Europe in the 1930s. And did we solve the refugee problem with this? No, we didn’t,” he said. “Erecting a fence only throws the problem into Serbia, into Croatia, into Romania.”

At the Croatian border with Serbia, Reuters reporters saw hundreds of people, some of whom identified themselves as Iraqis, trek through fields near the Sid border crossing.

The biggest flow of immigrants into Western Europe since World War Two has sown discord across the continent, fuelling the rise of far-right political parties and jeopardising the 20-year-old achievement of Schengen’s border-free travel.

Hungary says it is simply enforcing EU rules by sealing the Schengen zone’s external border. It says Serbia is a safe country, so asylum seekers who reach the frontier there can be automatically turned back in a process that should take hours.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said in an interview with Austrian newspaper Die Presse that his former Communist country would erect fences “at certain locations on the Croatian border” as well as along the border with Romania.

The United Nations says Serbia lacks the capacity to receive refugees halted at the gates of Europe. Critics say Orban’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has crossed the line into xenophobia.

The crisis has pitted countries that are comparatively open, led by Germany, against those, many in former Communist eastern Europe, who say the welcoming approach has made the problem worse by encouraging people to make dangerous voyages.

Hungary blames Germany for exacerbating the crisis by announcing in August it would suspend normal EU asylum rules and take in Syrian refugees regardless of where they enter the EU. Thousands have since been trekking across the bloc, mainly through Hungary and Austria, to reach Germany, clogging railway stations and forcing trains to be cancelled.

An emergency meeting of EU ministers failed this week to reach agreement on a Berlin-backed plan to share out 160,000 refugees across the bloc.

A German cabinet minister said on Tuesday the EU should consider financial penalties against countries that refuse to take their share, drawing angry responses from countries which oppose quotas, such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff and Matt Robinson, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Alison Williams)

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