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A view shows the nuclear-powered icebreaker
A view shows the nuclear-powered icebreaker “Ural” during the float out ceremony at the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg, Russia May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov

May 25, 2019

ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) – Russia launched a nuclear-powered icebreaker on Saturday, part of an ambitious program to renew and expand its fleet of the vessels in order to improve its ability to tap the Arctic’s commercial potential.

The ship, dubbed the Ural and which was floated out from a dockyard in St Petersburg, is one of a trio that when completed will be the largest and most powerful icebreakers in the world.

Russia is building new infrastructure and overhauling its ports as, amid warmer climate cycles, it readies for more traffic via what it calls the Northern Sea Route (NSR) which it envisages being navigable year-round.

The Ural is due to be handed over to Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy corporation Rosatom in 2022 after the two other icebreakers in the same series, Arktika (Arctic) and Sibir (Siberia), enter service.

“The Ural together with its sisters are central to our strategic project of opening the NSR to all-year activity,” Alexey Likhachev, Rosatom’s chief executive, was quoted saying.

President Vladimir Putin said in April Russia was stepping up construction of icebreakers with the aim of significantly boosting freight traffic along its Arctic coast.

The drive is part of a push to strengthen Moscow’s hand in the High North as it vies for dominance with traditional rivals Canada, the United States and Norway, as well as newcomer China.

By 2035, Putin said Russia’s Arctic fleet would operate at least 13 heavy-duty icebreakers, nine of which would be powered by nuclear reactors.

The Arctic holds oil and gas reserves equivalent to 412 billion barrels of oil, about 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates.

Moscow hopes the route which runs from Murmansk to the Bering Strait near Alaska could take off as it cuts sea transport times from Asia to Europe.

Designed to be crewed by 75 people, the Ural will be able to slice through ice up to around 3 meters thick.

(Reporting by Dmitry Vasilyev; Writing by Andrew Osborn and Polina Devitt; Editing by David Holmes)

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A leader of localist group Hong Kong Indigenous Ray Wong leaves a court in Hong Kong
Ray Wong, one of the leaders of localist group Hong Kong Indigenous, leaves a court in Hong Kong, China, September 23, 2016, with nine other defendants after pleading not quilty on charges relating to Mongkok riots during Lunar New Year. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

May 25, 2019

BEIJING (Reuters) – China has made “solemn representations” to Germany after it granted refugee status to two Hong Kong activists facing rioting charges in the Chinese-ruled city, demanding it correct its “mistakes”, state news agency Xinhua reported on Saturday.

Xinhua said the Hong Kong office of China’s foreign ministry summoned Germany’s Acting Consul General to Hong Kong David Schmidt for an emergency meeting on Friday, where a representative expressed “strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition”.

The two Hong Kong activists – Ray Wong, 25, and Alan Li, 27 – were former members of Hong Kong Indigenous, a group advocating Hong Kong’s independence from China. They were charged for rioting linked to a protest that turned violent in February 2016.

The pair, who later skipped bail and fled to Germany in 2017 via Taiwan, told Reuters this week they were granted refugee asylum status in Germany in May 2018.

“(China) urges the German side to recognize its mistakes and change its course, and not to accept and condone criminals, and interfere in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs,” Xinhua said.

The German consulate said this week it was aware that the two Hong Kong residents were staying in Germany, although it could not provide details on individual cases.

Hong Kong activists have become increasingly defiant in recent years, concerned about creeping interference from Beijing despite a promise of special autonomy for the city, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Scores of activists have been jailed on various charges including contempt of court and public nuisance. Critics said Hong Kong authorities have brought such charges to stifle freedom of expression and assembly.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam has also expressed “deep regrets and strong objections” to the German authorities.

Hong Kong authorities deny persecuting activists.

(Reporting by Yawen Chen and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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Russian jet fighters fly over a bridge connecting the Russian mainland with the Crimean Peninsula with a cargo ship beneath it after three Ukrainian navy vessels were stopped by Russia from entering the Sea of Azov via the Kerch Strait in the Black Sea
Russian jet fighters fly over a bridge connecting the Russian mainland with the Crimean Peninsula with a cargo ship beneath it after three Ukrainian navy vessels were stopped by Russia from entering the Sea of Azov via the Kerch Strait in the Black Sea, Crimea November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov

May 25, 2019

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Moscow must release 24 sailors who were aboard three Ukrainian vessels it intercepted in November as they crossed a strait between Russian-annexed Crimea and southern Russia, an international maritime tribunal said on Saturday.

The Russian navy had captured the Ukrainian sailors and their vessels in the Kerch Strait, which links the Black and Azov seas, on Nov. 25, 2018 after opening fire on them.

The Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) said Russia had to release the sailors and vessels immediately and both nations should refrain from taking any action which might aggravate the dispute.

“The Tribunal notes that any action affecting the immunity of warships is capable of causing serious harm to the dignity and sovereignty of a state and has the potential to undermine its national security,” ITLOS President Jin-Hyun Paik said.

Ukraine has already demanded the sailors’ release and the return of the impounded vessels, yet Moscow has not heeded the request or similar calls by the EU.

Russia’s foreign ministry said on Saturday it had not participated in the hearings, adding it intends to defend its point of view that the arbitration lacked the jurisdiction to consider the Kerch incident.

The ITLOS was established to settle maritime disputes by the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, of which both Ukraine and Russia are signatories. But it has no means of enforcing its decisions.

A bilateral treaty gives both Russia and Ukraine the right to use the Sea of Azov, which lies between them and is linked by the narrow Kerch Strait to the Black Sea. Yet tension has risen since Russia annexed Crimea, with both countries complaining about shipping delays and harassment.

Russia, which annexed Crimea in 2014 and built a road bridge linking it to southern Russia straddling the Kerch Strait, has vowed never to give Crimea back to Ukraine. It accuses Kiev of staging a provocation in the Kerch Strait and its sailors of crossing illegally into Russian waters.

Russia’s FSB security service said it had been forced to act in November because the ships – two small Ukrainian armored artillery vessels and a tug boat – had illegally entered its territorial waters.

“The Tribunal’s order is a clear signal to Russia that it cannot violate international law with impunity,” Ukraine Deputy Foreign Minister Olena Zerkal said on Facebook, adding she expected Russia to comply with the order quickly.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said if Russia releases the Ukrainian sailors and ships it could be the first signal from the Russian leadership of its readiness to end the conflict with Ukraine.

(Reporting by Christoph Steitz in Frankfurt; Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kiev and Polina Devitt in Moscow; Editing by David Holmes)

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Rahul Gandhi, President of Congress party, his mother and leader of the party Sonia Gandhi and India's former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attend a CWC meeting in New Delhi
Rahul Gandhi, President of Congress party, his mother and leader of the party Sonia Gandhi and India’s former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attend a Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting in New Delhi, India, May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Altaf Hussain

May 25, 2019

By Zeba Siddiqui and Devjyot Ghoshal

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – The head of India’s main opposition Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, offered to quit on Saturday after a crushing election defeat but senior party officials rejected his offer and called instead for a major internal shake-up.

Gandhi, 48 and the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, had been under intense pressure since results released on May 23 showed Congress won only 52 of the 542 seats up for grabs in the country’s general election.

While that marked a marginal improvement on the party’s showing in the 2014 general election, it did not stop Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from winning a landslide mandate with 303 seats.

A second successive drubbing from Modi prompted calls for Gandhi to quit.

The result has been particularly embarrassing for Gandhi, who lost his own parliamentary seat in his home borough of Amethi in northern India, which his family has held almost continuously for the last four decades.

He did, however, win the other seat he contested in southern Kerala state.

At a meeting of top Congress leaders at the party’s headquarters in New Delhi on Saturday, Gandhi offered to step down as party chief, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) said in a statement.

But the committee “unanimously and with one voice rejected the same and requested the Congress President for his leadership and guidance in these challenging times,” it said.

“The CWC recommends a thorough introspection and requested the Congress President for a complete overhaul and a detailed restructuring at every level of the party,” the committee said.

In the run-up to the election, Gandhi sought to challenge Modi directly but critics said Congress’s campaign was weakened by a lack of focus and botched communications, as well as being out-spent by the BJP.

Building political capital from escalating tensions with arch-rival Pakistan ahead of the polls, the BJP concentrated on Modi’s national security record, effectively countering the opposition’s criticism of the government’s work on creating jobs and alleviating farmers’ woes.

Gandhi’s inability to replace the party’s old guard, responsible for its worst-ever electoral result in 2014, with younger leaders also proved an error, Congress officials said.

The party’s performance in this year’s election has drawn stinging criticism from political commentators such as prominent historian Ramachandra Guha, who called for Gandhi to go.

“Both self-respect, as well as political pragmatism, demand that the Congress elect a new leader,” Guha said on Twitter.

(Editing by Helen Popper)

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Ramaphosa takes the oath of office at his inauguation as South African president, at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria
Cyril Ramaphosa takes the oath of office at his inauguation as South African president, at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

May 25, 2019

By Nqobile Dludla

PRETORIA (Reuters) – Trade unionist-turned-businessman Cyril Ramaphosa was sworn in as South Africa’s president on Saturday, vowing to create jobs and tackle deep-rooted corruption that has strangled economic growth.

Ramaphosa, who becomes the country’s fourth democratically elected president since the end of apartheid, took the presidential oath before a crowd of about 32,000 people in a rugby stadium in the capital, Pretoria.

“Today our nation enters a new era of hope and renewal,” said Ramaphosa, 66, wearing a dark suit and flanked by foreign leaders including Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

“Let us forge a compact for growth and economic opportunities, for productive land and wider opportunities … A compact of an efficient, capable and ethical state. A state that is free from corruption,” said Ramaphosa, a former anti-apartheid activist and trade union leader who has wide-ranging business interests.

Ramaphosa’s African National Congress (ANC) clinched a 57.5% majority in a general election earlier in May, down from 62% in 2014 as voters turned against the ruling party due to revelations about government corruption and record unemployment.

Ramaphosa narrowly won the ANC leadership race in late 2017 and replaced scandal-plagued predecessor Jacob Zuma as state president in February 2018, a year before the latter’s term was due to expire.

Since then he has struggled to mend factions in the party opposed to his reform plans, especially at cash-strapped state power supplier Eskom. His promises to punish party members accused of corruption have also stuttered.

The challenges facing Ramaphosa were highlighted on Friday by the resignation of Eskom’s chief executive, who quit only a year since he was appointed to stabilize the utility and keep the lights on after nationwide blackouts.

Also on Friday, S&P Global Ratings kept South Africa’s credit rating unchanged one notch below investment grade.

The economy is set for a first quarter contraction after mining and manufacturing weakened, prompting the central bank to cut its 2019 growth forecast to 1%, well below the rate of at least 3% needed to bring down debt, budget deficits and joblessness.

“The challenges our country faces are huge and are real but they are not insurmountable. They can be solved and I stand here to say they are going to be solved,” Ramaphosa said in his speech on Saturday.

Many in the crowd at Pretoria’s packed Loftus stadium were optimistic.

“I love my president Cyril Ramaphosa. I know that as long as we have him here he is going to give us jobs and change many things,” said Patience Shabangu, 45, a volunteer at a local clinic.

Political analysts say a key test of Ramaphosa’s ability to deliver reforms will be his announcement of new cabinet, which is expected to take place next week.

“The speech was an honest and brutal reflection of South Africa’s recent problems. But it was also optimistic,” said Daniel Silke, director of the Political Futures Consultancy.

“He will be judged on a very high bar and the next step is the cabinet. If it contains any semblance of the dead wood from the past he will be severely critiqued,” Silke added.

(Writing by Mfuneko Toyana; Editing by Helen Popper)

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Ramaphosa takes the oath of office at his inauguation as South African president, at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria
Cyril Ramaphosa takes the oath of office at his inauguation as South African president, at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

May 25, 2019

By Nqobile Dludla

PRETORIA (Reuters) – Trade unionist-turned-businessman Cyril Ramaphosa was sworn in as South Africa’s president on Saturday, vowing to create jobs and tackle deep-rooted corruption that has strangled economic growth.

Ramaphosa, who becomes the country’s fourth democratically elected president since the end of apartheid, took the presidential oath before a crowd of about 32,000 people in a rugby stadium in the capital, Pretoria.

“Today our nation enters a new era of hope and renewal,” said Ramaphosa, 66, wearing a dark suit and flanked by foreign leaders including Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

“Let us forge a compact for growth and economic opportunities, for productive land and wider opportunities … A compact of an efficient, capable and ethical state. A state that is free from corruption,” said Ramaphosa, a former anti-apartheid activist and trade union leader who has wide-ranging business interests.

Ramaphosa’s African National Congress (ANC) clinched a 57.5% majority in a general election earlier in May, down from 62% in 2014 as voters turned against the ruling party due to revelations about government corruption and record unemployment.

Ramaphosa narrowly won the ANC leadership race in late 2017 and replaced scandal-plagued predecessor Jacob Zuma as state president in February 2018, a year before the latter’s term was due to expire.

Since then he has struggled to mend factions in the party opposed to his reform plans, especially at cash-strapped state power supplier Eskom. His promises to punish party members accused of corruption have also stuttered.

The challenges facing Ramaphosa were highlighted on Friday by the resignation of Eskom’s chief executive, who quit only a year since he was appointed to stabilize the utility and keep the lights on after nationwide blackouts.

Also on Friday, S&P Global Ratings kept South Africa’s credit rating unchanged one notch below investment grade.

The economy is set for a first quarter contraction after mining and manufacturing weakened, prompting the central bank to cut its 2019 growth forecast to 1%, well below the rate of at least 3% needed to bring down debt, budget deficits and joblessness.

“The challenges our country faces are huge and are real but they are not insurmountable. They can be solved and I stand here to say they are going to be solved,” Ramaphosa said in his speech on Saturday.

Many in the crowd at Pretoria’s packed Loftus stadium were optimistic.

“I love my president Cyril Ramaphosa. I know that as long as we have him here he is going to give us jobs and change many things,” said Patience Shabangu, 45, a volunteer at a local clinic.

Political analysts say a key test of Ramaphosa’s ability to deliver reforms will be his announcement of new cabinet, which is expected to take place next week.

“The speech was an honest and brutal reflection of South Africa’s recent problems. But it was also optimistic,” said Daniel Silke, director of the Political Futures Consultancy.

“He will be judged on a very high bar and the next step is the cabinet. If it contains any semblance of the dead wood from the past he will be severely critiqued,” Silke added.

(Writing by Mfuneko Toyana; Editing by Helen Popper)

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U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump visit Japan
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive aboard Air Force One at Tokyo Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Japan May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Issei Kato

May 25, 2019

By Jeff Mason

TOKYO (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump urged Japanese business leaders on Saturday to increase their investment in the United States while he chided Japan for having a “substantial edge” on trade that negotiators were trying to even out in a bilateral deal.

Trump arrived in Japan on Saturday for a largely ceremonial state visit meant to showcase strong ties even though trade relations are problematical. In the evening, the Tokyo Sky Tree tower was lit up red, white and blue in Trump’s honor.

Shortly after arriving at the airport to a red-carpet welcome, Trump attended a reception at the residence of U.S. Ambassador William Hagerty that the White House said included Japanese business executives from Toyota, Nissan, Honda, SoftBank and Rakuten.

Trump told the company officials there had never been a better time to invest in the United States and repeated a complaint that the Federal Reserve’s policies had kept U.S. economic growth from reaching its full potential.

With trade talks ongoing, Trump also got in a dig at Japan and said he wanted a deal to address the trade imbalance between the two countries.

“Japan has had a substantial edge for many, many years, but that’s OK, maybe that’s why you like us so much,” he said.

“With this deal we hope to address the trade imbalance, removing barriers to United States exports and ensure fairness and reciprocity in our relationship,” Trump said.

Trade is one of Trump’s signature issues, and encouraging foreign investment in the United States is a hallmark of his trips abroad.

Trump will meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sunday for a round of golf, a sumo tournament and a private dinner.

The two men share a warm relationship, which the Japanese leader aims to emphasize as Washington considers tariffs on Japanese auto exports that the Trump administration views as a potential national security threat.

The United States is in the middle of an expensive trade war with China in protest against Beijing’s treatment of U.S. companies, and tensions with Japan and the European Union over trade are simmering.

Trump and Abe are expected to address trade during more formal talks on Monday, but officials have played down the possibility of a deal during the visit. North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are also likely to be on the agenda.

The trip is largely ceremonial in nature. The president will become the first foreign leader to be received by new Japanese Emperor Naruhito since he inherited the throne earlier this month; he and Harvard-educated Empress Masako will host an elaborate dinner for the Trumps on Monday night.

A medium-strength earthquake hit eastern Japan, causing buildings to shake in Tokyo, hours before Trump’s arrival.

The epicenter was southern Chiba, southeast of the capital, the prefecture where Trump is due to play golf on Sunday.

No tsunami warning was issued and there were no immediate reports of damage.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Writing by Jeff Mason and Malcolm Foster; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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Police and army patrol the streets during the manhunt of a suspected suitcase bomber in central Lyon
Police and army patrol the streets during the manhunt of a suspected suitcase bomber in central Lyon, France, May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot

May 25, 2019

PARIS (Reuters) – No claim of responsibility has so far been made for a bomb attack in Lyon on Friday which injured 13 people, French anti-terrorism prosecutor Remy Heitz said on Saturday.

Heitz added that the man thought to have planted the device, who was spotted on CCTV footage, was on the run.

Police investigators said they have not been able to identify the suspect as he was wearing sunglasses and a cap.

(Reporting by Inti Landauro; Editing by Alexander Smith)

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FILE PHOTO: Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sits for an interview with Reuters in New York
FILE PHOTO: Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sits for an interview with Reuters in New York, New York, U.S. April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

May 25, 2019

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Saturday that the U.S. decision to deploy more troops to the Middle East in response to the perceived threat from Iran was “extremely dangerous” for peace.

The United States said it was sending 1,500 troops to region in what it called an effort to bolster defenses against Tehran, and it accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guards of direct responsibility for attacks on tankers this month.

“The Americans have made such allegations to justify their hostile policies and to raise tensions in the Persian Gulf,” Zarif told state news agency IRNA.

“Increased U.S. presence in our region is extremely dangerous and it threatens international peace and security, and this should be addressed,” he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump also invoked the threat from Iran to declare a national security-related emergency that would clear the sale of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries without congressional approval.

It follows decisions to speed up the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group as well as to send bombers and additional Patriot missiles to the Middle East.

Separately, a Revolutionary Guards commander said the security of the Strait of Hormuz, an oil shipping route, was linked to Iran being able to export its oil, the semi-official news agency Fars reported.

“Major General Gholamali Rashid said that talking about security and stability in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz is not possible without considering the interests of the Iranian nation, including the export of oil,” Fars said.

Iran has threatened to disrupt oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz if the United States tries to strangle Tehran’s economy by halting its oil exports through increased sanctions.

Separately, an Iranian military official said Iran could sink U.S. warships in the Gulf, while another said it was unlikely for a war to start in the region.

“America…is sending two warships to the region. If they commit the slightest stupidity, we will send these ships to the bottom of the sea along with their crew and planes using two missiles or two new secret weapons,” General Morteza Qorbani, an adviser to Iran’s military command, told the Mizan news agency.

Western experts say Iran often exaggerates its weapons capabilities, although there are concerns about its missile program and particularly its long-range ballistic missiles.

“We believe rational Americans and their experienced commanders will not let their radical elements lead them into a situation from which it would be very difficult to get out, and that is why they will not enter a war,” Brigadier General Hassan Seifi, an assistant to Iran’s army chief, told Mehr news agency.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Sam Holmes and Angus MacSwan)

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FILE PHOTO: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan delivers a speech at the opening ceremony for the second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing
FILE PHOTO: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan delivers a speech at the opening ceremony for the second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China, April 26, 2019. REUTERS/Florence Lo/File Photo

May 25, 2019

By Drazen Jorgic

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan warned against the risk of conflict in the region, following a visit to Islamabad by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif as tensions between Washington and Tehran escalated.

Strains have increased between Iran and the United States, which is a firm backer of Tehran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, in the wake of this month’s attack on oil tankers in the Gulf region that Washington has blamed on Iran.

Tehran has distanced itself from the bombings, but the United States has sent a aircraft carrier and an extra 1,500 troops to the Gulf, sparking concerns about the risks of conflict in a volatile region.

Khan, who has been seeking to improve Pakistan’s strained relations with neighbor Iran, said he was concerned about the “rising tensions in the Gulf”, but did not specifically name the United States or Saudi Arabia.

“He underscored that war was not a solution to any problem,” Khan’s office said in a statement late on Friday, citing the premier.

“Further escalation in tensions in the already volatile region was not in anyone’s interest. All sides needed to exercise maximum restraint in the current situation.”

Washington has been seeking to increasingly tighten sanctions against Iran, as relations continue to worsen under President Donald Trump.

At the end of the two-day visit to Pakistan, Zarif told Iranian state-run newswire IRNA that U.S. allegations against Tehran were increasing tensions.

“These actions are also a threat to global peace and stability,” he said.

Earlier this month, four tankers, including two belonging to Saudi Arabia, were bombed near the United Arab Emirates’ Fujairah emirate, one of the world’s largest bunkering hubs, located just outside the Strait of Hormuz.

Washington has accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guards of carrying out the attacks, and the Trump administration has declared a national security-related emergency that would clear the sale of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries, bypassing congressional approval.

Pakistan’s relations with Iran have also been strained in recent months, with both sides accusing each other of not doing enough to stamp out militants allegedly sheltering across the border.

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Sam Holmes)

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