TPM World News

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia’s civil aviation chief said Tuesday he has resigned to take responsibility after an independent investigative report highlighted shortcomings in the air traffic control center during Flight 370’s disappearance four years ago.

The report released Monday raised the possibility that the jet may have been hijacked even though there was no conclusive evidence of why the plane went off course and flew for over seven hours after severing communications.

Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said the report didn’t blame the civil aviation department for the plane’s loss but found that the Kuala Lumpur air traffic control center failed to comply with operating procedures.

“Therefore, it is with regret and after much thought and contemplation that I have decided to resign as Chairman of Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia,” he said in his statement, adding he has served his resignation and will step down in two weeks.

The jet carrying 239 people from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing vanished March 8, 2014, and is presumed to have crashed in the far southern Indian Ocean. The investigative report, prepared by a 19-member international team, said the cause of the disappearance cannot be determined until the wreckage and the plane’s black boxes are found.

However, the report said the investigation showed lapses by air traffic control, including a failure to swiftly initiate an emergency response and monitor radar continuously, relying too much on information from Malaysia Airlines and not getting in touch with the military for help.

New Malaysian Transport Minister Anthony Loke said Tuesday the government has formed a committee to investigate and take action against any misconduct based on the report findings.

The report said there was insufficient information to determine if the aircraft broke up in the air or during impact with the ocean.

Scattered pieces of debris that washed ashore on African beaches and Indian Ocean islands indicated a distant remote stretch of the ocean where the plane likely crashed.

But a government search by Australia, Malaysia and China failed to pinpoint a location. And a second, private search by U.S. company Ocean Infinity that finished at the end of May also found no sign of a possible crash site.

Malaysia’s government has said it will resume search if credible evidence on the plane’s location emerges.

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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s currency has dropped to a record low ahead of the imposition of renewed American sanctions, with many fearing prolonged economic suffering or possible civil unrest.

The rial dropped to 122,000 to the dollar on the thriving black market exchange Monday, from the previous low set the day before of 116,000.

Already last month, protesters clashed with police outside parliament in Tehran amid three days of demonstrations sparked by the currency’s plunge, and worries are growing about what might happen once the new sanctions kick in Aug 6.

The central bank on Monday blamed the currency’s free fall on “the enemies’ conspiracies.”

President Donald Trump’s administration announced the restoration of sanctions after he withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal in May.

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VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis on Monday accepted the resignation of an Australian archbishop convicted in criminal court of covering up the sexual abuse of children by a priest, taking action after coming under mounting pressure from ordinary Catholics, priests and even the Australian prime minister.

It was the second major announcement of a sex abuse-related resignation in as many days, after Francis’ dramatic sanctioning this weekend of a U.S. cardinal, suggesting he is keen to clean house before he heads to Dublin next month for a big Catholic family rally. The sex abuse scandal is likely to dominate the trip given Ireland’s devastating history with predator priests and the bishops who covered for them.

In Australia, Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson was convicted in May of failing to report to police the repeated abuse of two altar boys by a pedophile priest in the Hunter Valley region north of Sydney during the 1970s. He became the highest-ranking Catholic cleric ever convicted in a criminal court of abuse cover-up.

Wilson, who denied the accusations, had immediately stepped aside after he was convicted but refused to resign pending an appeal. Francis had appointed a temporary administrator to run the diocese in the meantime.

As recently as last week, though, Wilson acknowledged that calls for his sacking were increasing, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull added his voice to the chorus July 19 in urging Francis to fire him.

In a one-line statement Monday, the Vatican said Francis had accepted Wilson’s resignation. At 67, he is well under the normal retirement age for bishops of 75.

In a statement issued by the archdiocese, Wilson said he had submitted his resignation to Francis of his own will on July 20 — a day after Turnbull’s call — and said he hoped his decision would help abuse victims and the rest of the Catholic community heal.

“I had hoped to defer this decision until after the appeal process had been completed,” Wilson said. “However, there is just too much pain and distress being caused by my maintaining the office of archbishop.”

Wilson was sentenced by the Newcastle court to 12 months in detention.

Francis’ decision to accept the resignation is significant given he has previously refrained from taking action against accused bishops that might be perceived as prejudicing outcomes in civil or criminal cases.

Another Australian prelate, Cardinal George Pell, for example, has been on leave as the Vatican’s finance czar while he faces criminal trial on accusations of sexual abuse. But Pell, who denies the charges, remains a cardinal, head of the Vatican’s economy secretariat and a member of Francis’ core group of nine cardinal advisers.

Francis, though, is under increasing pressure to sanction bishops who have abused, botched handling abuse cases or otherwise covered them up. There are calls for a full-fledged church investigation in the United States, and criminal probes underway in Chile as the next phase of the abuse scandal — accountability for bishops who failed to protect their flocks from abusive priests — is gaining momentum.

In the United States, bishops and cardinals are coming under fire for failing to reveal what they knew and when about the abuse of adult seminarians and minors allegedly committed by Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington.

Francis on Saturday accepted McCarrick’s resignation as cardinal, and imposed on him unprecedented penalties for a cardinal even before his canonical trial is completed, including living a lifetime of penance and prayer and living isolated from others.

McCarrick, who had been one of the most prominent American cardinals involved in responding to the U.S. sex abuse crisis in 2002, was initially ordered by the Vatican to cease all public ministry last month after the New York archdiocese determined that an accusation that he fondled a teenage altar server in the 1970s was “credible and substantiated.”

Since then, several male seminarians have come forward alleging misconduct and harassment, while another victim identified only as James has alleged McCarrick engaged in a sexually abusive relationship with him for years, starting when he was 11.

It was apparently a little-kept secret that McCarrick, 88, invited seminarians to his beach house and into his bed, suggesting that some in the U.S. hierarchy knew of his misconduct but turned a blind eye. In addition, a group of concerned American Catholics travelled to the Vatican in 2000 to warn officials of McCarrick’s penchant for young men, but he was appointed Washington archbishop and made a cardinal in 2001 regardless.

In Chile, meanwhile, prosecutors recently summoned the archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, to appear in court and testify about his role in the alleged cover-up of years of abuse by his top deputy, the Rev. Oscar Munoz.

Munoz has admitted to abusing at least one minor, and confessed to church authorities in December. Prosecutors, however, uncovered reports of at least four more victims abused by Munoz that were documented by the Santiago archdiocese, including some of his young relatives.

Ezzati has said he knew nothing of the abuse before Munoz came forward. He is due to testify Aug. 21.

Ezzati had already offered his resignation when he turned 75 last year, and was among the active Chilean bishops who offered to resign en masse in May when they were summoned by Francis for a collective dressing down for their disastrous handling of abuse allegations.

But Francis hasn’t moved on Ezzati’s resignation yet, presumably waiting to find the right candidate to take over the leadership of Chile’s most important archdiocese.

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AP writer Rod McGuirk contributed from Canberra, Australia.

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ISLAMABAD (AP) — A suicide bomber on a motorcycle rammed into people waiting outside a busy polling station in the Pakistani city of Quetta on Wednesday, killing at least 31 and casting a dark shadow on what was to be a historic day for the country as Pakistanis cast ballots to elect their thirds consecutive civilian government.

The attack in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, underscored the difficulties this majority Muslim nation faces on its wobbly journey toward sustained democracy.

The bombing also wounded 35 people, with several reported to be in critical condition, raising concerns the death toll could rise further, said hospital official Jaffar Kakar, a doctor.

Wednesday’s voting for a National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, and four provincial assemblies followed a rancorous campaign marked by widespread allegations of manipulation. Analysts and rights groups have warned of post-election instability and predicted losing parties would cry foul.

The uncertainty of the outcome of the vote — no single party appeared assured of a simple majority win — could also lead to prolonged post-election jockeying that would hamper the forming of the next government.

“Whatever way elections run, I see a lot of instability,” said defense analyst Ayesha Siddiqua, who authored Military Inc., a look at the extensive financial holdings of Pakistan’s army.

A witness to the attack in Quetta, Abdul Haleem, who was waiting to cast his ballot, said he saw a motorcycle drive into the crowd of voters just seconds before the explosion. Haleem’s uncle was killed in the blast.

“There was a deafening bang followed by thick cloud of smoke and dust and so much crying from the wounded people,” he told The Associated Press.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing but local officials were quick to blame the Islamic State group.

Baluchistan also saw the worst violence during election campaigning earlier this month, when a suicide bomber blew himself up at a political rally, killing 149 people, including the candidate Siraj Raisani. Another 400 were wounded. Voting in that constituency has been suspended.

IS claimed responsibility for that attack, though Baluchistan has seen relentless attacks, both by the province’s secessionists and Sunni militants who have killed hundreds of Shiites living there. In recent years, the IS affiliate in the region has emerged as a major force behind violence, often using local Sunni radicals from the outlawed Lashkar-e-Jhangvi to carry out its attacks.

Citing security concerns, Pakistan’s election commission announced that internet and cellphone services in several Baluchistan districts were suspended. Election commission secretary Babar Yaqub told reporters there were also threats against polling stations, staff and even candidates.

Militants on Tuesday lobbed grenades and opened fire at a military convoy escorting election staffers and voting material in Baluchistan’s district of Turbat, killing four troops. Pakistan’s military deployed 350,000 troops countrywide at polling stations.

Also Wednesday, shooting between supporters of two opposing political parties killed one person and wounded two in a village near the northwestern city of Swabi. Later, more clashes between rival political parties killed another person and wounded 15 elsewhere in the country.

Early voting was heavy at some polling stations in Islamabad, the capital, and also in the Punjab provincial capital, with several political party leaders standing in line to cast their ballots. Local television reported scattered incidences of police arresting people with pre-marked ballots.

Another concern is the unprecedented participation in these elections of radical religious groups, including those banned for terror links but resurrected and renamed, has also raised concerns — especially for minorities and women — ahead of the voting.

Jibran Nasir, an independent candidate from Pakistan’s financial hub of Karachi, said he received death threats and even had a fatwa, or religious edict, issued against him after he refused to condemn Ahmadis, reviled by mainstream Muslims as heretics because they believe the messiah promised in Islam arrived over a century ago. Pakistan in 1974 declared Ahmadis non-Muslims.

The leading contenders in Wednesday’s polling are former cricket star Imran Khan and his right-of-center Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party, and the right-of-center Pakistan Muslim League, the party of disgraced Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is in jail serving 10 years on corruption charges. His younger brother Shahbaz Sharif took control of the party.

Khan’s supporters showered his vehicle with rose petals as he arrived to vote at a polling station near his home suburb in. Islamabad. After voting, he appealed on Pakistanis to come out and vote in huge numbers “to save future generations.”

The third-largest party in the running is the left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party, headed by Bilawal Bhutto, the son of late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, assassinated by the Pakistani Taliban, whom she had vowed to eradicate.

Election officials say more than 11,000 candidates are vying for 270 seats in Pakistan’s law-making Lower House of Parliament and 577 seats in four provincial assemblies.

The 85,307 polling stations opened at 8 a.m. and will continue for 10 hours, an hour longer than in the 2013 polls. Voting for two parliamentary seats and six seats in provincial assemblies has been postponed due to attacks on candidates or disqualifications. First results are expected early Thursday.

There are more than 105 million eligible voters in Pakistan, 59 million men and 46 million women.

Pakistan’s election commission reminded candidates their elections will be nullified if the female voter turnout didn’t reach 10 percent. The requirement was imposed after the 2013 elections, when several areas banned voting by women, mostly in Pakistan’s religiously conservative northwest. Some candidates were elected without a single woman marking a ballot.

Veteran rights activist Tahira Abdullah warned on Tuesday that local jirgas, or councils of elders, from 60 areas of the country representing 16 different constituencies, had signed agreements banning women from voting despite the new ruling. While some areas have refused to relent, others allowed women to cast ballots.

In Pakistan’s deeply tribal and religiously conservative North Waziristan, where Taliban insurgents have found safe havens, women voted for the first time on Wednesday, said Mohamad Ayaz Khan, a government administrator.

“We made history today,” said Khan. “It is the first time that women have come out of their homes to cast their vote.”

Voting is segregated throughout Pakistan with every single polling station divided into sections for men and women, including separate election officials.
Results will trickle in after polling ends, with the outcome expected early Thursday, according to election officials.

International and domestic election observers will monitor the voting. The European Union Election Observation Mission has 120 monitors at polling stations in major centers across Pakistan, with the exception of Baluchistan.

Under Pakistani law, separate seats are reserved for women and for non-Muslim minorities, which comprise 4 percent of the population.

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Associated Press writer Zarar Khan in Islamabad, Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Baluchistan, Zaheer Babar, in Lahore Adil Jawad in Karachi, Pakistan and Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea appears to have started dismantling key facilities at its main satellite launch site in a step toward fulfilling a commitment made by leader Kim Jong Un at his summit with President Donald Trump in June.

While Pyongyang could be trying to build trust with Washington as they engage in talks to resolve the nuclear standoff, analysts say dismantling a few facilities at the site alone wouldn’t realistically reduce North Korea’s military capability or represent a material step toward denuclearization. And they expressed concern that the work is being done without verification.

The North Korea-focused 38 North website said commercial satellite images from July 20 to 22 indicate the North began dismantling key facilities at the Sohae launch site. The facilities being razed or disassembled include a rocket engine test stand used to develop liquid-fuel engines for ballistic missiles and space-launch vehicles and a rail-mounted processing building where space launch vehicles were assembled before being moved to the launch pad, according to the report.

“Since these facilities are believed to have played an important role in the development of technologies for the North’s intercontinental ballistic missile program, these efforts represent a significant confidence building measure on the part of North Korea,” analyst Joseph Bermudez wrote in the report.

An official from South Korea’s presidential office said Tuesday that Seoul has also been detecting dismantlement activities at the Sohae launch site but did not specify what the North was supposedly taking apart.

Other analysts said North Korea is giving up little in dismantling the rocket engine test site when it’s clear the country is satisfied with its current design of long-range weapons and could easily build other similar facilities if needed in the future.

Adam Mount, a senior defense analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, said it’s also troubling that the North has been apparently allowed to duck verification by unilaterally dismantling parts of its nuclear and missile facilities without the presence of international inspectors. In May, North Korea invited foreign journalists to observe the destruction of tunnels at its nuclear testing ground, but did not invite outside experts capable of certifying what had been destroyed.

“The actions at Sohae are a helpful signal that Pyongyang wants to continue negotiations, but do not in themselves advance nuclear disarmament,” Mount said in an email. “North Korea still has not disclosed or offered to dismantle facilities that produce or store nuclear or missile systems, or the means to transport the missiles. So far, the facilities dismantled have been peripheral to these core functions.”

Lee Choon Geun, a missile expert at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute, said the North’s supposed move to dismantle the rail-mounted processing building was the more meaningful development as it potentially indicated to broader dismantlement activities at the site.

“If North Korea goes further and dismantles the entire Sohae site, that would meaningfully reduce the country’s long-range missile capability by eliminating a facility where it could fire multiple ICBMs in succession,” Lee said. “The North can also fire ICBMs from transporter erector launchers, but their technology with these vehicles isn’t stable.”

However, Mount said the military consequences of a broader dismantlement would be “marginal.” North Korea has invested a great deal of effort in ensuring its missiles can be fired from austere locations and doesn’t require a site like Sohae, he said.

“Dismantling a test site does not seriously constrain the existing arsenal or even future designs,” said Mount. “While it would be a significant step for the regime to shut down its space launch programs, it has always argued that these programs are distinct from military ones. Easing the missile threat would require restrictions on the number, types, or capabilities of missiles or the vehicles that transport and fire them.”

After his summit with Kim in Singapore on June 12, Trump said he was told by Kim that the North was “already destroying a major missile engine testing site” without identifying which site. The leaders concluded their summit by declaring their vague aspirational goal of moving toward a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, but there’s lingering doubts on whether Kim would ever agree to fully give up the nuclear weapons that he may see as a stronger guarantee of his survival than whatever security assurances the United States can provide.

In late 2017, Kim declared his nuclear weapons and missile program was complete, following a torrent of nuclear and missile tests that included the detonation of a purported thermonuclear warhead and flight tests of three developmental ICBMs potentially capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. Kim announced the mission of his nuclear testing site as finished weeks before inviting foreign journalists to observe the destruction of the tunnels.

The South Korean presidential official, who didn’t want to be named, citing office rules, said the supposed dismantlement activities shows the North is moving gradually.

“We need further analysis to figure out why the North didn’t turn the dismantlement activities into an event and whether the country is trying to control the speed of the process to maintain a pace it wants,” he said.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s explosive Twitter threat to Iran’s leader comes as his administration is ratcheting up a pressure campaign on the Islamic republic that many suspect is aimed at regime change.

No one is predicting imminent war. But Trump’s bellicose, all-caps challenge addressed to President Hassan Rouhani followed a speech by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in which he accused Iran’s leadership of massive corruption and widespread rights abuses and urged Iranians to rise up in protest.

Both the tweet and the speech landed less than two weeks before the administration will begin re-imposing sanctions on Iran that had been lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal. In the meantime, the U.S. is stepping up Farsi-language outreach that is intended to support Iranians demonstrating against the policies of their government.

Trump’s tweet doesn’t appear to have been prompted by any notable shift in rhetoric from Iran.

It could have been an impulsive reaction to reports from Tehran quoting Rouhani as giving the U.S. an oft-repeated reminder that conflict with Iran would be “the mother of all wars.” Yet animosity directed at the Iranian leadership is an established part of the administration’s broader foreign policy.

Iran publicly shrugged off Trump’s late Sunday message — “NEVER EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”

Tweeted Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Monday: “COLOR US UNIMPRESSED: The world heard even harsher bluster a few months ago. And Iranians have heard them — albeit more civilized ones — for 40 yrs. We’ve been around for millennia & seen fall of empires, incl our own, which lasted more than the life of some countries. BE CAUTIOUS!”

Asked at the White House if he had concerns about provoking Iran, Trump said simply, “None at all.”

Tehran is already aware of what is coming from the administration as consequences of Trump’s May withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord take shape.

As Pompeo noted in his speech to Iranian-Americans and others in California on Sunday, the centerpiece will be the re-imposition of U.S. economic sanctions; the first batch will go back into force Aug. 4, targeting the Iranian automotive sector and trade in gold and other metals. A more significant set of sanctions that will hit Iran’s oil industry and central bank by punishing countries and companies that do business with them will resume Nov. 4.

“Right now, the United States is undertaking a diplomatic and financial pressure campaign to cut off the funds that the regime uses to enrich itself and support death and destruction,” Pompeo said in his speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley.

Pompeo also slammed Iran’s political, judicial and military officials, accusing several by name of participating in rampant corruption, and called its religious leaders “hypocritical holy men” who amassed wealth while allowing their people to suffer. He said the government has “heartlessly repressed its own people’s human rights, dignity and fundamental freedoms,” and he hailed the “proud Iranian people (for) not staying silent about their government’s many abuses.”

“The United States under President Trump will not stay silent either,” he said.

He was right. True to form, Trump did not stay silent. But the White House blamed Rouhani for inciting the war of words with his comment that “America must understand well that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.”

“WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!,” Trump wrote.

Reaction from Congress, particularly Democrats, was swift and critical.

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, acknowledged that Iran’s terrorist activities in the Middle East pose a threat but suggested it wouldn’t be solved through a tweet from Trump.

“Sadly, after pulling us out of the nuclear deal with Europe and Iran, there doesn’t seem to be strategy for how to move forward to fight Iran’s activities,” she said.

And Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, the 2016 Democratic vice presidential candidate, called the Twitter blast from the White House “another warning sign that Trump is blundering toward war with Iran.”

Trump’s National Security Council pushed back with a statement saying: “Our differences are with the Iranian regime’s actions and, in particular, with the actions of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, not the Iranian people. The Trump administration’s Iran policy seeks to address the totality of these threats and malign activities and to bring about a change in the Iranian regime’s behavior.”

“If anybody’s inciting anything, look no further than to Iran,” said White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said. She added that Trump has been “very clear about what he’s not going to allow to take place.”

Trump has a history of firing off heated tweets that seem to quickly escalate long-standing disputes with leaders of nations at odds with the U.S.

In the case of North Korea, the verbal war cooled quickly and gradually led to the high-profile summit and denuclearization talks. Still, there has been little tangible progress in a global push to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons program since the historic Trump-Kim Jong Un summit on June 12.

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Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, David Rising in Dubai, Aron Heller in Jerusalem, Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul and Michael Casey in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed.

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MEXICO CITY (AP) — President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Sunday released a seven-page letter he sent to U.S. President Donald Trump detailing how he plans to improve Mexico’s economy and security when he takes office in December so that Mexicans do not feel the need to migrate.

“There will be many changes,” he promised in the letter. “And in this new atmosphere of progress with well-being, I’m sure we can reach agreements to confront together the migration phenomenon as well as the problem of border insecurity.”

Lopez Obrador also suggested the two countries draft a development plan backed by public funds and invite Central American countries to join, with the aim of making it “economically unnecessary” for Central Americans to migrate.

Marcelo Ebrard, who is slated to become Mexico’s foreign minister, read the letter aloud to reporters gathered at Lopez Obrador’s political party headquarters. Ebrard said Trump had received the letter.

The incoming Mexican president plans to cut government salaries, perks and jobs. Savings from those cuts, he says, will be directed toward social programs and infrastructure. He also plans to reduce taxes for the private sector in the hopes of spurring investment and job creation.

Lopez Obrador said Sunday that some of his future collaborators in government posts have offered to work for free during his six-year term. Several of his proposed Cabinet members are independently wealthy.

“It’s an enormous privilege to participate in a process of transformation. There’s no price on this,” the president-elect said.

He said he will publish salaries of government employees, from high-ranking ministers to police officers. He also said his political party, Morena, will turn down the extra public financing it is supposed to receive next year because it won additional seats in Congress.

Lopez Obrador said Morena could collect up to 1.4 billion pesos ($73.5 million) and more than double what it was allocated for 2018. Mexican electoral authorities assigned the party 650 million pesos for this year.

“That’s too much in an atmosphere of austerity,” Lopez Obrador said.

He said he doesn’t want Morena to turn into an economic power with career politicians who forget that their mission is to serve the people.

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MOSCOW (AP) — Moscow is ready to discuss a possible visit by President Vladimir Putin to Washington after a surprise invitation from President Donald Trump, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. said Friday.

With confusion still swirling around what the two men discussed behind closed doors in Helsinki earlier this week, Ambassador Anatoly Antonov said it’s important to “deal with the results” of their first summit before jumping too fast into a new one.

He said he hadn’t seen Trump’s invitation himself, but that “Russia was always open to such proposals. We are ready for discussions on this subject.”

The Kremlin has the final say, but hasn’t responded yet to the proposal Trump made Thursday.

Antonov gave a few more details of what Trump and Putin talked about in Helsinki, but insisted that diplomatic discussions should remain discreet in order to be effective.

He notably acknowledged that the two men discussed a possible referendum in eastern Ukraine.

“This issue was discussed,” he said, adding without elaborating that Putin made “concrete proposals” to Trump on solutions for the Ukraine conflict.

Trump tweeted that the two men discussed Ukraine but has not mentioned a referendum or revealed specifics of the Ukraine discussions. The U.S. and Russia have been on opposing sides of the conflict in Ukraine, unleashed after a popular uprising against a pro-Russian president and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Ukraine and European powers are unlikely to support a referendum in the Donbass region, where pro-Russian separatists hold sway.

The Russian ambassador to Washington also denounced “anti-Russian anger” in the United States and reiterated denials of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election — interrupting a questioner to say “We didn’t interfere!”

He also reiterated denials of Russian involvement in the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Britain.

Antonov called Monday’s summit in Helsinki a “key event” in international politics and laughed off suggestions that the two men made any “secret deals.”

Antonov gave details of their discussions on arms control, but said the U.S. has been reluctant to back Russia’s proposals so far. He said the summit notably made progress on U.S.-Russian cooperation on Syria’s future.

Meanwhile, Antonov also pushed for the release of a gun rights activist accused of being a covert agent in the U.S., calling her arrest a “farce.”

U.S. federal prosecutors accused Maria Butina this week of being a covert Russian agent and working to infiltrate U.S. political organizations, including the National Rifle Association, before and after Donald Trump’s election as president.

Butina, 29, denies wrongdoing, and the Russian Foreign Ministry started an online campaign for her release.

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — An Islamic State suicide bomber killed 20 people in northern Afghanistan on Tuesday, including a Taliban commander, while in southern Helmand province a government commando unit freed 54 people from a Taliban jail, according to officials.

The stepped up activity in Afghanistan comes as Washington considers a Taliban demand for direct talks in hopes of jump-starting a negotiated end to what is now the longest military engagement by U.S. forces.

A Taliban official in the Middle Eastern State of Qatar where the Islamic insurgency maintains an unofficial office told The Associated Press they wanted direct talks and were ready to put troop withdrawal as well as any outstanding concerns the U.S. might have on the table but so far no official request to open negotiations has come from Washington.

Speaking on condition he not be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media, he said de-listing Taliban leaders from U.S and U.N. watch lists and recognizing their office in Doha, the Qatar capital, would aid progress in talks should they begin.

Meanwhile, in northern Afghanistan’s Sar-i-Pul province, Abdul Qayuom Baqizoi, provincial police chief, said Tuesday’s attack by IS took place as village elders met with Taliban officials. He said 15 of the 20 killed were local elders and five were Taliban, including a Taliban commander.

The Taliban and the Islamic State group have been waging bitter battles in recent days in northern Afghanistan. As many as 100 insurgents from both the Taliban and Islamic State group have perished in recent battles, said Baqizoi.

Provincial council chief Mohammed Noor Rahman, however, said the explosion occurred in a mosque as a funeral was taking place.

The area is remote and it was impossible to reconcile the differing accounts.
Elsewhere, in southern Helmand’s Musa Qala district, a commando unit stormed into a jail late Monday that Taliban insurgents had been operating. There they found 32 civilians, 16 police, four soldiers and two military doctors, said Omar Zwak, spokesman for the provincial governor.

The Taliban did not immediately comment on the raid, but the insurgents are in control of the majority of the districts in Helmand, where they have increased their attacks against provincial officials and security forces.

The Taliban have long refused direct talks with the Afghan government, demanding instead to negotiate with the U.S. The militants maintained that position despite Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s unilateral extension of a holiday cease-fire last month in hopes of encouraging the militants to come to the bargaining table. When the Taliban continued to mount deadly attacks, Ghani ordered government forces to resume military operations this month.

Trump administration officials said Monday for the first time that the U.S. would be open to holding direct talks with the Taliban to encourage negotiations between the militant group and the Afghan government to end 17 years of war. They said that Afghan-to-Afghan negotiations remain the goal of any engagement with the militants, however.

That marks a tactical shift by the administration, which previously only appeared willing to participate in discussions with the Taliban if those talks also involved the Afghan government. The officials were not authorized to speak to media and requested anonymity.

The unprecedented, three-day cease-fire by both sides had offered a rare glimpse of peace for Afghans during which militants fraternized with security force members.

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and ousted the Taliban government that had hosted al-Qaida. It still has about 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, mostly for training government forces.

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Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Pakistan and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.

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BEIRUT (AP) — Dozens of Syrians marched toward the frontier with the Israel-occupied Golan Heights on Tuesday fleeing the Syrian government offensive in southwestern Syria. The displaced waved white flags at the Israeli soldiers before they turned back, according to activists.

The brief protest on the frontier comes as Syrian and Russian airstrikes intensified in the Quneitra countryside and western Daraa province.

Earlier on Tuesday, at least 10 civilians were killed when a suspected Russian airstrike hit a school that serves as a shelter in the village of Ain el-Tineh in Quneitra countryside, about 7 kilometers (4 miles) from the Israeli frontier, according to a Syrian search and rescue team.

Moaz al-Assaad, a photographer in Quneitra, said by the time he made it to the frontier the protesters had dispersed. Israeli media reported that Israeli soldiers shouted through loudspeakers asking the crowd to turn back.

The International Rescue Committee said the government’s advance has trapped tens of thousands of displaced Syrians along the frontier with the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967. The aid group said there are urgent concerns for the safety of around 160,000 who fled to the area earlier this month and are now caught between the frontier and the advancing Syrian army.

The IRC estimated that around 5 percent of the displaced people are living out in the open with only trees to provide shelter.

“There really is nowhere else for these people to go and seek safety. They can hear the fighting getting closer and worry it’s only a matter of time before the front line reaches them,” said the IRC’s Mark Schnellbaecher.

The United Nations said last week that over 230,000 people have been displaced since June 17 in southwestern Syria, which borders Jordan and the Golan Heights. Jordan has said it will not open its borders to the newly displaced Syrians.

Since June, Syrian troops and allied forces have seized control of most of Daraa province, including the eponymous provincial capital which was the cradle of the uprising against President Bashar Assad seven years ago. Hundreds of fighters and their families were evacuated to northern Syria after a deal with the government.

With control Daraa in its hands, government forces have turned their focus to the area near the frontier with Israel to clear the last pockets of the opposition. A group affiliated with the Islamic State group holds a sliver of territory on the southern tip of the region.

On Tuesday, Khaled Solh of the Syrian Civil Defense said a school building in the village of Ain el-Tineh, used to shelter families who have been forced to flee their homes, was hit by a suspected Russian airstrike. Russia is supporting Assad’s forces in its military campaigns around Syria.

Al-Assaad, the photographer, said he counted at least 20 wounded at the scene of the strike, including children.

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LiveWire