Automakers struggle with the future

Automakers struggle with the future in Los Angeles

DETROIT: Car manufacturers’ attempts to square what US consumers want against the clean vehicles regulators and investors demand will be on display in Los Angeles this week at an auto show that has moved away from calling itself just an auto show.

Automakers on Monday will begin previewing new models for the media at an event called AutoMobility LA, reflecting an emphasis on digital technology and new ways to get around, such as self-driving cars. On Friday, the Los Angeles Auto Show will open to the public for 10 days, attracting visitors from one of the world’s most affluent and culturally influential metropolitan markets.

For now, self-driving cars are not ready for consumers, and sales of the battery-powered vehicles demanded by California regulators remain marginal and money-losing. Profits are generated by gasoline-fueled sport utility vehicles and trucks.

Automakers caught between the petroleum past and the digital future will send muddled messages.

Volkswagen AG will try to replace memories of the diesel emissions cheating scandal that tarnished its image with many California customers by promoting its US$40 billion waves of electric vehicles.

In the next breath, the German automaker will tout its gasoline-fuelled Audi A8 large luxury sedan, which can pilot itself under limited circumstances but is out of step with a market where buyers are switching to sport utility vehicles.

Rivals overshadowed by electric vehicle pioneer Tesla Inc are in a quandary, too. Despite a booming stock market, sales for luxury brands BMW, Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz and Toyota Motor Corp’s Lexus are down for the first 10 months of 2017.

BMW AG is expected to roll out new versions of its i8 plug-in hybrid sports car. But for those not interested in electrification, the company will use the show to promote a high-performance version of its 5 Series sedan.

Tata Motors unit Jaguar Land Rover will accompany its new gasoline-powered Range Rover SVAutobiography billed as the “pinnacle” of a lineup that already has models priced above US$100,000, with its first plug-in hybrid Range Rovers.

At AutoMobility LA, auto and technology industry executives will debate how ride-sharing, self-driving vehicles and electric cars will shape the future. At the auto show itself, the stars will be gasoline-burning SUVs, such as the Subaru Ascent, a large, three-row SUV from a brand known for compact, all-wheel-drive cars.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV will unveil a new Jeep Wrangler with styling that still harks back to the trusty vehicles that helped the United States win World War II.


Uber's data breach cover up

Uber's data breach cover-up could provide customers a significant push to shift to its competitors

Uber has managed to hold the title of world’s largest ride-hailing service despite its seemingly endless string of scandals.

Its latest misbehavior involving a data breach cover-up revealed this week could be the impetus for people to ride elsewhere - or keep looking the other way.

Hackers were able to steal data from 57 million riders and drivers, and Uber concealed it for a year after paying $100,000 in ransom for the stolen information to be destroyed.

Riders and business experts say that while Uber’s problems such as workplace sexual harassment, drivers with criminal records and other past infractions are serious, stolen data hits people directly and could make them mad enough to delete the app. Then again, riders have fled from the service before, but enough have stayed because of the Uber’s convenience so the latest scandal-of-the-week may not make much of a difference. The brand is so well-known for quickly responding to ride requests that it’s often used as a verb for such trips, no matter which service is summoned.

Michael Pachter, a technology analyst based in Los Angeles, said he uses Uber five to 10 times a month.

“I don’t blame the drivers for the company transgressions, and view Uber as the glue that facilitates drivers willing to drive me around,” he said.

But for Vermont resident Jay Furr, the breach was the “final straw.” He had stuck with Uber despite recent problems because of the service. But now he’ll use Lyft, Uber’s main competitor when he goes to the airport for frequent business trips.

“Why to reward crooked behavior?” he asked. “The only way they will learn is if they lose business.”

For much of the past year, Uber has been mired in well-publicized problems. A female former engineer blogged that her boss had propositioned her for sex, exposing widespread sexual harassment. A federal judge urged prosecutors to investigate allegations that Uber stole technology from Waymo, Google’s autonomous vehicle unit. The Justice Department is investigating whether Uber used a bogus app to deceive inspectors in several cities, and in London, authorities decided not to renew Uber’s operating license in part for failing to report crimes.

Earlier this week the state of Colorado fined Uber $8.9 million for allowing employees with serious criminal or motor vehicle offenses to drive for the company. Then came the stolen data, which has touched off more government inquiries.

The scandals have damaged Uber’s brand reputation over time, said Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys Inc., a New York-based customer research firm. The company’s polling has found that in 2015 Lyft passed Uber as the most trusted of ride-hailing brands, and trust in Uber has been eroding ever since. Consumers will give technology companies the benefit of the doubt for a long time. But with Uber, “That well of forgiveness isn’t bottomless,” Passikoff said.

Passikoff doesn’t measure the impact on ridership and Uber won’t discuss it. But Lyft says its share of the US market has risen 3 percentage points since August to 33 percent. It’s up from 12 percent two years ago as Lyft has expanded with more drivers in major US cities.

In the data breach, Uber has said that for riders, hackers got only names, email addresses, and telephone numbers. They did not get personal information such as trip details or credit card and Social Security numbers. For about 600,000 drivers in the US, hackers got driver’s license numbers, and the company has offered them free credit monitoring services.

While Uber drivers lost personal data and face uncertainty over identity theft, it appears they’ll stick with Uber. Many drives for Lyft as well.

Nate Tepp, who drives Uber in Seattle, said he doesn’t plan to leave, nor does he think other drivers will.

“All they are doing is cutting out 60 to 65 percent of their income,” Tepp said of drivers who might consider leaving. That estimate is based on his own split between Uber and Lyft fares.

Tepp also thinks the last three to four months at Uber have been different and things have “started to go in drivers’ favor.” This includes adding an option for riders to tip.

He is also somewhat forgiving about the hacking - and the subsequent cover-up. After all, companies are hacked often, he said.

“Does it make me happy? No. Does it (make me angry) to the point that I am going to stop making money through that company? No,” he said.

New Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi could do little but admit the problem and promises ethical behavior in the future. “We are changing the way we do business, putting integrity at the core of every decision we make and working hard to earn the trust of our customers,” he wrote in a blog post.

Marlene Towns, a professor at Georgetown University’s business school who studies brand values, said Uber is testing the boundaries of how many scandals people will endure. While data breaches are personal to people, she still thinks Uber will get through this scandal as well.

“We have a short memory as consumers,” she said. “We tend to be if not forgiving, forgetful.”


Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will marry in May 2018

Royal wedding date: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will marry in May 2018

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding will take place at Windsor Chapel

PRINCE Harry and Meghan Markle will wed at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle in May.
Kensington Palace has confirmed the pair will not hold their nuptials at Westminster Abbey, as Prince William and Catherine Middleton did.
Instead, they have opted for the lower-key choice of St George’s Chapel at the Windsor Castle royal estate west of London.

Prince Harry was christened there, and his father Prince Charles held a blessing there after his civil wedding to his second wife, Camilla Parker-Bowles, in 2005.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle appeared on British TV to discuss their engagement.

“As with all members of the Royal family, Windsor is a very special place for Prince Harry and he and Ms. Markle have regularly spent time there over the last year and a half,’’ Prince Harry’s communications secretary Jason Knauf said.
“They are grateful to the Queen for granting permission for the use of the chapel.’’

The royal family would pay for all the core elements of the wedding including the service, flowers, and music.
No final date has been announced, and Kensington Palace is yet to reveal who will conduct the service, although it is likely it will be conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

The happy couple officially announced
their engagement on Monday in London
A Kensington Palace spokesman also confirmed that Ms. Markle, a Protestant, would be baptized and confirmed into the Church of England prior to the wedding. The Queen is the head of the Church of England.

While much smaller and less grand that Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s Cathedral, which are both in the historic center of London, St George’s Chapel can still seat 800 guests.

However, it is on the Windsor Castle estate and will be more difficult for members of the public to access.

Mr. Knauf said the day would be a “fun and joyful’’ occasion for family and friends, and Prince Harry and Ms. Markle “want the day to be shaped so as to allow members of the public to feel part of the celebrations too.’’
It is not yet know how the public might be able to view either the wedding or the potential arrival of the bridal party at the chapel. The service will be televised.
Ms. Markle, 36, and Prince Harry, 33, formally announced their engagement at Kensington Palace, their home, on Monday.

Mr. Knauf revealed Ms. Markle would begin formal royal duties almost immediately and would join Prince Harry at a series of public appearances in Nottingham, a midlands city three hours north of London, on Friday.
She will conduct a street walk to meet the public, visit the National Justice Museum, and join a celebration for World AIDS Day.
The spokesman confirmed the American Ms. Markle would begin the process of gaining UK citizenship, which was likely to take several years.

Prince William and Kate Middleton were married at Westminster Abbey in 2010

It was also confirmed one of Ms. Markle’s dogs, a beagle called Guy, was now living with the couple in Nottingham Cottage in Kensington Palace in central London, while her second dog, a mixed-breed called
Bogart, had been rehomed with friends at an undisclosed location - presumably in Canada or the United States.

“It is a permanent arrangement,’’ the spokesman confirmed, leading the British press to joke about headlines of “Bogart Dumped.’’

“Prince Harry and Ms. Markle are extremely grateful for the warm public response following yesterday’s announcement of their engagement,’’ Mr. Knauf said.
“In a happy moment in their lives, it means a great deal that so many people throughout the UK, the Commonwealth and around the world are celebrating with them.’’

Prince Charles and Camilla held a blessing at St George’s Chapel
 after their civil wedding in 2005

The date of the wedding and details on the service will be released in coming weeks.
A May date will avoid a clash with the arrival of Prince William and Catherine’s third child, which is due in April.
Prince Charles will also be in Australia in early April to open the Commonwealth Games.


Challenge to Trump as North Korea tests ICBM

With N.Korea missile reach global, focus falls on defenses

North Korea test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile on Wednesday, in a major challenge to US President Donald Trump after he slapped fresh sanctions on Pyongyang and declared it a state sponsor of terrorism.

It was the nuclear-armed North's first ballistic test in more than two months and an initial Pentagon assessment said the ICBM flew about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) before splashing down within Japan's maritime Economic Exclusion Zone.

At least one expert said its lofted trajectory suggested an actual range of 13,000 kilometers that would bring every city in the continental United States within range.

Trump, who has previously threatened North Korea with "fire and fury," was guarded in his immediate response, as the UN Security Council agreed to convene an emergency session to discuss the latest provocation.

"I will only tell you that we will take care of it," Trump said at the White House. "It is a situation that we will handle," he added, without elaborating.

North Korea's immediate neighbors were less restrained, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calling the test an intolerable, "violent" act and South Korean President Moon Jae-In condemning Pyongyang's "reckless" behavior.

The South Korean military responded by staging a precision-strike missile exercise as it has done following previous North Korean tests.

Prior to Wednesday's launch, the North's last missile test was on September 15 and the subsequent pause had prompted some to speculate whether the North might be willing to embrace a negotiated solution to the nuclear standoff.

- Diplomatic options -

Trump insisted there would be no change to his administration's "maximum pressure campaign" which has sought to curb Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme with tightened sanctions backed by dire warnings of massive retaliation in the event of an attack.

But his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, also stressed that diplomatic options remained "viable and open."

It was the North's third successful ICBM test and David Wright, a co-director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the flight parameters pointed to a "significantly longer" range than previous launches.

"Such a missile would have more than enough range to reach Washington DC, and in fact any part of the continental United States," he said.

While Pyongyang has yet to prove its mastery of the re-entry technology required to bring a warhead back through the Earth's atmosphere, experts say it is on the threshold of developing a working nuclear strike capability against US cities.

Tensions over the North's weapons programme peaked after Pyongyang conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test in September and then fired an intermediate-range missile over Japan.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Wednesday's test went higher than ever before and was a step toward North Korea building missiles that can "threaten everywhere in the world, basically."

There was no immediate reaction from China, the North's sole ally and economic lifeline, which has come under repeated US pressure to do more to rein in Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

China has pushed for a "dual-track approach" to the crisis which would see the United States freeze its military drills in South Korea while North Korea would halt its weapons programmes.

Washington has rejected that approach, and last week unveiled new sanctions targeting North Korean shipping, as well a number of Chinese companies doing business with the pariah state.

- Terror sponsor -

President Trump also declared North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism, a spot on a US blacklist the country had shed nearly a decade ago.

But the North remained defiant, vowing to continue building up its nuclear force and warning that sanctions would never succeed.

Drumming up support for a tough stance against North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions was the main focus of a marathon Asian tour undertaken by Trump earlier this month.

Trump and Abe, who enjoy a close relationship, spoke by phone after Wednesday's ICBM test and, according to a White House statement, agreed that repeated provocations by leader Kim Jong-Un's regime were "undermining" North Korea's own security and "further isolating it from the international community".

Trump's relations with his South Korean counterpart Moon, whom he has accused of appeasing Pyongyang, are far cooler, and there are concerns in Seoul that the US president might be considering military action against the North that could trigger a full-scale war.

"The situation could get out of control," Moon warned during a hastily convened meeting with national security officials on Wednesday.

"We have to prevent such a scenario where the North may miscalculate the situation and threaten us with nuclear weapons, or the US may consider a pre-emptive strike," Moon said.

Seoul is home to 10 million people and only about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the border -- well within a range of Pyongyang's artillery.

One study by the Nautilus think-tank in California estimated around 65,000 civilians would die in Seoul alone on the first day of a conventional North Korean attack.


Amazon and Netflix hailed

Amazon and Netflix hailed as new gatekeepers of video content by director Shekhar Kapur

After film studios and producers, popular online video content platforms Amazon and Netflix are the new 'gatekeepers' of cinema, says ace director Shekhar Kapur, who envisions that in the future technology will ensure that the masses and not 'gatekeepers' will dictate the video content trends.

Participating at a panel discussion on 'Digital Space - The Future Ahead' on the sidelines of the ongoing 48th International Film Festival of India, he also said the technology-enabled film distribution on mobile phones and other gadgets, will make going to a cinema hall a once-in-a-while social experience.

"So now Amazon and Netflix are the new gatekeepers because now they are going to decide who they are going to pick. Before that, there were the studios, before that they were the big producers... We are now heading towards a world where the crowd will decide what is good or not and gatekeepers will go," Kapur said.

"One of the things that digital is constantly doing now, is undercutting the idea of iconism... What's happening is, inertia is being sucked out of the system. Amazon and Netflix and Facebook are people that actually rebelled against iconism, who then became icons themselves," he said.

Kapur claimed that in the future, constantly evolving technology will result in failure of conventional organizations, who would not be able to keep pace with the developments.

"Organisations won't be able to sustain because, by the time they have created an organization, the technology will change. The future lies in individuality. The future lies with democracy. That's where it is going.

"It is going to a point where, if anyone of you believes you can tell a story, you can tell a story. If you believe you can give the story to the world, you can give it to the world. You have the means, you have the technology, you can upload the video," he said.

He also said that the concept of an outing at the cinema hall would be minimal in the future, but may not be eliminated all the same.

"It is becoming difficult to go out in Mumbai. You cannot go out to eat (often), but you still go out to eat as a social occasion. Cinema will be a social occasion... There are various reasons why you go to films. It is a darkened theatre. You'll have a social experience," he said.


Germany on road to political stability

Germany on road to political stability as coalition talks between Conservatives, SPD gain momentum

Momentum in Germany is building up for a new ‘grand coalition’ between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc as well as the Social Democrats (SPD) to stop the political imbalances caused by the failure of her coalition talks with some other parties.

The conservatives and SPD have ruled collectively during the last 4 years and many ministers are retaining their posts in an interim government until a fresh coalition or minority government is formed.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier hosts an initial meeting of Merkel, the head of Bavaria’s CSU conservatives, Horst Seehofer, and SPD leader Martin Schulz on Thursday.

Below are a few of the overlaps and differences in policy areas probably going to be discussed in every coalition talks.


Merkel has stressed she would like to sustain Germany’s solid finances. Germany has operated a budget surplus since 2014 under the stewardship of her hardline conservative finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble.

She has also said she wants some tax cuts, mostly for low and medium earners.

The SPD is actually devoted to boosting spending and has in the past couple of days said it wishes to increase investment in education and homes as well as on infrastructure. The SPD hopes to increase inheritance tax, some in the party want to demand to raise the minimum wage and it fought the election on a pledge of keeping pensions stable.

The conservatives and SPD both want to increase spending to expand broadband.

Migration and Security

An area of possible conflict.

Since the election, Merkel has bowed to pressure from her Bavarian allies to put a cap on the number of people Germany will accept on humanitarian grounds. Merkel recurrent on Saturday that she desired to limit the number to about 200,000 a year. The SPD opposes this, arguing it breaches the constitution’s guarantee of asylum to people who are persecuted for political reasons. Some leading party members have said they will not agree to a cap.


The SPD is more positive than Merkel’s cautious stance towards French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposals for a eurozone budget and a eurozone finance minister. The SPD also backs the concept of turning the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) bailout fund into a European Monetary Fund along with the lines of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

There is little change on the strategy to Brexit talks.

Foreign Policy

Broad agreement on many areas of foreign policy, including with the United States and Turkey. The SPD puts greater concentrate on mending ties with Russia that happen to be hurt by the conflict in Ukraine, however, this is more an issue of nuance than a deep policy rift.

Also, agreement on armed forces missions abroad, although the SPD is more skeptical on NATO, demands to advance towards increasing defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2014.

Social Justice

The SPD fought its election on the platform of social justice and wants to improve a lot of the less affluent.

A long-standing commitment which several senior SPD members have repeated lately is the idea of making health insurance fairer for everybody by introducing a ‘citizen’s insurance’. The SPD also wants to ensure both women and men have equal pay and working conditions.


India Police gets rid of beggars from city streets as Ivanka Trump visits

 India Authorities takes no chances for Ivanka Trump visit

HYDERABAD: Indian authorities have removed beggars away from the streets and introduced 10,000 extra security forces for Ivanka Trump’s most significant foreign mission since her father became president.

President Donald Trump’s eldest daughter is planned to be the main speaker Tuesday during the launching of a three-day Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad together with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The southern city is the location of the India operations of Google, Facebook and Amazon.

The 36-year-old, who will be an official White House advisor, will attempt to press women’s empowerment in business corporations.

She will also highlight the expanding friendship between the United States and India - therefore the host country is taking no chances.

Trump will probably be welcomed in Hyderabad by Modi who is going to host an event dinner at the Falaknuma Palace, a luxury hotel once owned by one of the Nizams who ruled the city before India’s independence.

The authorities have spruced up an open-air market around Charminar, a 16th-century mosque which is among the many city’s icons. Media reports have recommended that Trump could visit the market.

Police have cleared scores of beggars off the streets, saying they cause nuisance and block traffic.

Approximately 10,000 security personnel including anti-terrorist forces and dog squads is going to be deployed, and Trump will travel around Hyderabad in her own special bulletproof vehicle with US Secret Service handling close security.

The visit has long been clouded by US media reports questioning Trump’s clothing line along with its supply chain plus a snub by Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, who has reportedly turned down to send out senior staff with Trump to India.

“They won’t send someone senior for the reason that doesn't wish to bolster Ivanka,” CNN quoted a senior State Department official as saying.

But US business front-runners are typically in the Trump delegation working with around 1,200 entrepreneurs from 150 countries at the meeting.

“Entrepreneurship… is really an important concern for this particular administration. The United States acknowledges innovation and entrepreneurship vital tools for job creation, economic growth, and stability…” Trump said ahead of the visit.

“Globally, between 2014 and 2016, entrepreneurship activity among women improved by 10 percent. One study estimates that closing the gender entrepreneurship gap worldwide could grow our global GDP by up to two percent.”

Trump’s Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative, or We-Fi, aims to improve having access to business capital for women in the developing world.

In keeping with Trump, women-owned businesses in the developing world suffer an annual credit deficit of $300 billion, either by being incapable of borrow or receiving only high-cost, short-term credit.

The We-Fi was initially projected at the G20 summit in Hamburg this year as well as being backed up by Germany, Russia, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and also other countries.


Islamist protests results Pakistan minister resignation

Pakistan minister resigns after violent Islamist protests: state media

Pakistan's law minister Zahid Hamid has resigned, state media reported Monday, meeting a vital demand of Islamist protesters that have clashed violently with security forces and blockaded the capital Islamabad for many days.

Hamid "has submitted his resignation to Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to assist the nation away from crisis," the state-run news agency Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) said in a report citing unnamed official sources, without giving further details.

State television station PTV also reported the minister's resignation, without citing any sources.

There wasn't any quick confirmation or comment from government officials.

Hamid's resignation was a key demand of the little known Islamist group that has virtually paralyzed Islamabad since it began a sit-in on a major highway into the capital on November 6.

The Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah Pakistan (TLY) have been calling for Hamid's ousting for weeks over a hastily-abandoned amendment to the oath that election candidates must swear.

The protesters have linked it to blasphemy -- a highly contentious issue in Muslim Pakistan that has often fuelled violence.

On Saturday security forces attempted to clear the roughly 2,000 demonstrators at the sit-in in a botched operation that devolved into violence, with at least seven people killed and hundreds wounded before they were ordered to retreat.

The clashes fuelled more protests in other cities, including Pakistan's two largest Karachi and Lahore, and saw thousands of more demonstrators arrive on the streets of Islamabad.

The government called on the army to intervene to restore order late Saturday. By Monday morning there still had been no official response from the military.

The reports of Hamid's resignation raised hopes that the protest leaders would end the sit-in, which has enraged commuters with hours-long traffic snarls, caused the death of at least one child whose ambulance could not reach the hospital in time, and infuriated the judiciary.

Numbers were dwindling at the Islamabad protest site early Monday, with AFP reporters saying around 2,500 demonstrators remained. Leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi had not yet arrived as Hamid's resignation was reported.

The minister's ousting is the latest in a series of heavy blows to the beleaguered Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) government as general elections approach in 2018.

In July, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was deposed by the courts over graft allegations, while finance minister Ishaq Dar -- also accused of corruption -- has taken indefinite medical leave.


Pope Francis arrives in Myanmar

Pope arrives in Myanmar on high-stakes visit

Pope Francis visited mainly Buddhist Myanmar Monday with a highly fragile trip to a nation facing sharp global criticism for the presumed ethnic cleansing of its Rohingya Muslim minority.

Catholics in vibrant ethnic traditional dress waved flags and danced at Yangon's airport in a joyful welcome for the pope, making the first visit to the country by a pontiff.

The visit has come about as Myanmar's military stands charged with waging an ethnic cleansing campaign up against the Rohingya Muslims. More than 620,000 have fled a crackdown in northern Rakhine state for neighboring Bangladesh over the past three months.

The pope's four-day visit intensifies pressure on Myanmar over its treatment of the stateless minority, a group he has called his "brothers and sisters" in repeated entreaties to ease their plight.

His messages are going to be scrutinized by Buddhist hardliners of any reference to the word "Rohingya", an incendiary term in a country in which the Muslim group is reviled and branded "Bengalis" -- alleged illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Francis will meet civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose luster has faded as a result of her failure to speak up extensively for the Rohingya.

He will probably also hold discussions with army chief Min Aung Hlaing -- a session between a religious leader who has championed the rights of refugees and the man accused of supervising the brutal strategy to push out the Rohingya.

Speaking to a large group of 30,000 people today St Peter's Square, briefly before he left Rome, the pontiff said: "I ask you to be with me in prayer so that, for these peoples, my presence is a sign of affinity and hope."

His visit is a historic chance for Myanmar's flock to get close to the head of their church.

Myanmar's approximated 700,000 Catholics constitute about one percent of the country's 51 million people and are generally spread in far-flung corners of the nation, most of them roiled by conflict.

About 200,000 Catholics are coming into Yangon, Myanmar's commercial capital, by airplane, train and car ahead of a tremendous open-air mass on Wednesday.

"We are prepared to welcome the Pope cheerfully... with pure hearts," a woman from the northernmost state of Kachin told AFP, one of the hundreds waiting near the archbishop's residence in Yangon.

- Prayers for peace -

But the Rohingya crisis frames the pope's visit.

The army, which ran the country with an iron fist for nearly half a century, insists its Rakhine operation was a proportionate response to Rohingya "terrorists" who raided police posts in late August, killing at least a dozen officers.

But rights groups, the UN and the US have accused the army of using its operation as cover to drive out a minority it has oppressed for decades.

That is at odds with views inside the country.

"The vast majority of people in Myanmar don't believe the international narrative of abuse against the Rohingya and the refugee numbers that we're seeing in Bangladesh," said Myanmar-based political analyst Richard Horsey.

"If the pope did come and weigh in heavily on this issue, it would inflame tensions and it would inflame public sentiment," he added.

Days before the pope's visit, Myanmar and Bangladesh inked a deal vowing to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees in two months.

But details of the agreement -- including the use of temporary shelters for returnees, many of whose homes have been burned to the ground -- raise questions for Rohingya fearful of coming back without guarantees of basic rights.

Nur Mohammad, a 45-year-old Rohingya imam at the Nayapara refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, said he hoped the pope would tell the Myanmar government to accept Rohingya, "give citizenship to them and end all discriminations against them."


Qatari central banker: Efforts to hurt Qatar’s riyal may backfire

Efforts to hurt Qatar’s riyal may backfire on region, central banker says

DUBAI: Some Arab states making the effort to destabilize Qatar’s riyal but efforts to push down its value could backfire by damaging other dollar-linked currencies in the market, a Qatari central banker said.

Khalid Alkhater, currently in the united kingdom on leave out from the central bank, was commenting on moves by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to target Qatar. Doha’s rivals say it facilitates terrorism, this Qatar denies.

“It’s strategic economic warfare, a technique to cause fear or panic and anxiety amongst the public and investors to destabilize the economy,” Alkhater told Reuters in a phone interview, saying he was giving his personal thoughts.

Saudi Arabia, the United Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar in June. A good number of independent analysts think its economy, with huge gas and financial reserves, can weather the storm and you should not see any serious probability of a devaluation on the riyal, whose dollar peg of 3.64 riyals has long been enshrined in law since 2001.

Alkhater, architect of Qatar’s monetary policy during the 2008 global financial crisis, said some of the strategies to undermine the riyal involved trading Qatar government bonds at artificially low prices to point out the economy is in trouble.

This was unsuccessful considering that the market in Qatari bonds was illiquid so trading high amounts were difficult and since Qatar got precautionary steps, said Alkhater, on sabbatical leave doing research at the Britain’s University of Cambridge. He decided not to identify the methods.

Alkhater ascribed low quotes for Qatar’s riyal in the offshore market on a few banks - that he said were from countries boycotting Qatar, without naming the institutions - trying to manipulate the market by exchanging the currency at weaker levels than on the onshore market. He still did not present proof.

The riyal exchanged onshore a week ago not far from its official peg of 3.64 to the US dollar, however, it traded at only 3.8950 offshore on the Reuters conversational dealing platform.

Equity index compiler MSCI cited this gap a couple weeks ago when it said it would use offshore forex trading rates to value Qatar’s stock market, essentially changing the weighting of Qatari equities in MSCI’s growing market index.

Qatar’s central bank reacted by saying it may well provide currency would need to all investors and be working together with banks to make sure that transactions can be conducted normally.

Central bank governor Sheikh Abdullah bin Saud al-Thani, in office since 2006, said last month that the government and the central bank could provide the banking system with state reserves and the holdings of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund.

Alkhater said Qatar, the world’s top liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter, could in future consider other steps to bolster the riyal if needed, such as taking payments for LNG exports in riyals instead of dollars, that would create global interest in its currency.

But he said there seemed to be a threat that efforts to undermine the riyal could shake confidence in dollar-linked currencies of other oil-reliant Gulf Arab states.

“It could spark contagion across a region that is absolutely linked to the US by means of dollar pegs, and that is presently struggling with financial troubles and economic challenges simply because of low oil prices,” he said, calling attacks on Qatar’s riyal “a weapon of mutual destruction”.

Any kind of increase of pressure on the currency of Bahrain, whose debts are rated junk, could potentially cause Manama to search for support from Saudi Arabia, whose own economy is struggling a giant state budget deficit caused by few years of poor oil prices, Alkhater said.

He added that the boycott was forcing Qatar to always be more self-sufficient in agriculture, food processing, and light manufacturing, accelerating a long-term goal to diversify the economy. “Now Qatar has to expedite it out of necessity.”


Malaysia-based romance scammers who duped Hongkongers out of HK$30 million arrested

Two men and two women said to have swindled cash after striking up relationships online, held after raid on alleged operation centre

Local and Malaysian police have busted a Kuala Lumpur-based syndicate that they say duped 48 Hong Kong women and one elderly man out of HK$29.5 million since January in online romance scams.

One victim lost HK$6 million to a con artist pretending to be a British engineer.
The alleged ringleader of the transnational racket was among two Nigerian men, a Nigerian woman and an Indian woman picked up during a raid on their operational centre in the Malaysian capital on October 24.

And in Hong Kong, police arrested five local women whose bank accounts were suspected to have been used to transfer the scammed cash to accounts in Malaysia and Taiwan. They were arrested for money laundering and obtaining property by deception and released on bail pending further investigation.

Sources said the women were initially scam targets themselves. But when the con artists failed to get money from them, they used their accounts to filter the cash instead. Police were looking into whether the women knew the money was criminal proceeds.
Two men were also arrested in the city in connection with the swindle.

Romance scams involve criminals striking up online relationships with people under false pretences, often over several months. Once they have gained their victim’s trust, they make up a false reason to ask them for money.

Scams of this kind snared 142 people in the city in the first nine months of this year, netting HK$78 million, according to police figures. That is almost 100 percent up on the 72 cases in the same period last year, which netted HK$57 million.

A lawyer, teacher and doctors were understood to have been among the Kuala Lumpur syndicate’s victims, who were mostly aged between 40 and 50.
The biggest loser was a senior executive at a local company, who was conned out of HK$6 million in nearly 20 transactions over six months.

“The scammer, disguised as an engineer from the UK, befriended her via an online dating platform in January,” one police source said. “He claimed he ran into financial problems and needed money urgently and then borrowed money from the victim.”

The victim realised it was a scam after she lost contact with him in June.
A 77-year-old man lost HK$4,500 to a similar scam.

After weeks of exchanging messages with what he thought was an American woman, the victim was lured into sending her HK$4,500 to buy a gift, according to police. He too realised it was a scam when the messages dried up. Officers said he was the oldest known victim of a romance scam.

According to police, the gang was headed by one of the arrested Nigerian men, 33, working with his two compatriots, 29 and 38, and the Indian woman. They ran the scams out of a flat in Kuala Lumpur.
During the raid on the flat, officers found love messages on computers and mobile phones.
Officers from Hong Kong’s cybersecurity and technology crime bureau sought help from Malaysian police to investigate the syndicate earlier this year after signs that some of the scammed cash was transferred to bank accounts in the country.

“The three core members found targets through online dating platforms and used emails and instant phone messages to contact victims,” another source said.
He said scammers usually pretended to be men from the UK or America, claiming to be professionals, businessmen, soldiers or retired.

“They used different excuses to cheat, but they never met their victims in person,” the source said, adding that the gang targeted more than 100 women in Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea.

Police believed the gang had been in operation since January.

That would be soon after Hong Kong, Malaysian and Nigerian police jointly smashed another syndicate based in Malaysia in December 2016. That group, headed by a Nigerian man and his Malaysian girlfriend, duped 73 Hong Kong women out of HK$58 million from 2014.

Chief Inspector Hui Yee-wai of the cybersecurity and technology crime bureau said the prevalence of social media and the increasing number of online dating platforms were partly behind the surge in the number of romance scams on the web.

She warned online love-seekers that “people you meet online might not be who you think they are,” and urged them to make sure to keep an eye on their privacy settings.


Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal arrested: Billionaire tycoon knows as proponent of Saudi modernisation, critic of Donald Trump

Billionaire prince with stakes in Twitter, Apple among those arrested in Saudi sweep

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal

Saudi Arabia has arrested dozens of princes and former government ministers, including a well-known billionaire with extensive holdings in Western companies, as part of a sweeping anti-corruption probe, further cementing King Salman and his crown prince son’s control of the kingdom.

A high-level employee at Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s Kingdom Holding Company told The Associated Press that the royal was among those detained overnight on Saturday. The employee said he received calls from several security bodies notifying him of the arrest. The employee spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of repercussions.

The Associated Press reached out overnight to Kingdom Holding for comment. There was no response as of Sunday morning.

Prince Alwaleed is one of the Middle East’s richest people, with investments in Twitter, Apple, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., Citigroup, and the Four Seasons, Fairmont and Movenpick hotel chains. He is also an investor in ride-sharing services Lyft and Careem, both competitors to Uber in the U.S. and the Middle East, respectively.

The prince, often pictured on his multimillion-dollar 85.65-metre (281 foot) superyacht in the Mediterranean, is also known for being among the most outspoken Saudi royals, long advocating for women’s rights. He is also the majority owner of the popular Rotana Group of Arabic channels.

Official state media have not reported on the arrests, but the kingdom’s top council of clerics issued a statement saying it is an Islamic duty to fight corruption essentially giving religious backing to the high-level arrests being reported.

The Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya satellite news channel reported that at least 11 princes and dozens of former ministers had been detained in the probe launched by a new anti-corruption committee. The committee is led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Saudi Twitter accounts released names of several high-ranking princes, including a prominent and powerful son of the late King Abdullah, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, who was removed from his post as head of the National Guard overnight.

The arrests came as Lebanon’s Prime Minister, a close Saudi ally, announced his own resignation from the Saudi capital. Yemeni rebels, the target of a 2-year Saudi-led military campaign, meanwhile fired a ballistic missile toward Riyadh’s international airport on Saturday night that was intercepted by Saudi air defence before it could cause any damage.

Al-Arabiya reported that the anti-graft committee is looking into deadly floods that overwhelmed parts of the city of Jiddah in 2009 and the government’s response to the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus that has killed several hundred people in the past few years.

Reports also suggested those detained were being held in the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, which only days earlier hosted a major investment conference. The phone number for the hotel had been disconnected by Sunday morning and a Dubai-based spokeswoman for the hotel chain did not respond to a request for comment.

The government said the anti-corruption committee has the right to issue arrest warrants, impose travel restrictions and freeze bank accounts. It can also trace funds, prevent the transfer of funds or the liquidation of assets, and take other precautionary measures until cases are referred to the judiciary.

The royal order said the committee was established “due to the propensity of some people for abuse, putting their personal interest above public interest, and stealing public funds.”

Long-standing complaint of corruption

Saudi nationals have long complained of rampant corruption in government and of public funds being squandered or misused by people in power.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, said the scale of the arrests is designed to further smooth the young crown prince’s eventual succession to the throne.

“As a leader who is set to remain in power for decades, Mohammed bin Salman is remaking the kingdom in his own image and signalling a potentially significant move away from the consensual balancing of competing interests that characterized Saudi rule in the past,” Ulrichsen said.

Prince Miteb was replaced by a lesser known royal, Prince Khalid bin Ayyaf al-Muqrin, who had held a senior post with the National Guard.

Prince Miteb’s father the late King Abdullah also had led the National Guard and had transformed it into a powerful and prestigious force tasked with protecting the ruling Al Saud family, as well as important holy sites in Mecca and Medina, and oil and gas sites.

Prince Miteb was once considered a contender for the throne. His ouster essentially sidelines one of the most formidable rivals to the current crown prince, who is also defence minister. Just three months ago, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was ousted from the line of succession and from his post as interior minister, overseeing internal security.

Only hours earlier, Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri resigned from his post in a televised address from Riyadh, offering a vicious tirade against Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah group for what he said was their meddling in Arab affairs.

“Iran’s arms in the region will be cut off,” Hariri said.

Saudi Arabia then said its forces intercepted a ballistic missile fired by Iran-backed rebels in Yemen toward one of the kingdom’s major international airports on the outskirts of Riyadh. A Saudi-led coalition launched a war against the Houthi rebels and their allies in March 2015 that grinds on today, a campaign overseeing by Crown Prince Mohammed.

The missile fire drew an immediate rebuke from President Donald Trump, who blamed Iran in part for the attack.

“A shot was just taken by Iran, in my opinion, at Saudi Arabia. And our system knocked it down,” Trump said, referring to the Patriot missile batteries Saudi Arabia has purchased from the U.S. “That’s how good we are. Nobody makes what we make and now we’re selling it all over the world.”

It’s unclear if the U.S. had any advance word of the coming arrests. Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner and others made an unannounced trip recently to Riyadh. Trump earlier Saturday said he spoke to King Salman about listing the kingdom’s massive state-run oil company, Saudi Aramco, in the United States.


Paradise Papers: Leak unveils US commerce chief, UK queen's offshore investments

Leaks show US commerce chief, UK queen’s offshore investments 

Wilbur Ross

WASHINGTON: US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has business ties to a shipping firm linked to Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, according to a vast leak of financial documents that also revealed Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II’s investments in tax havens.

It was also revealed that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s top fundraiser and senior advisor Stephen Bronfman, heir to the Seagram fortune, moved some US$60 million to offshore tax havens with ex-senator Leo Kolber.

The findings have emerged as part of the Paradise Papers released by the US-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which was behind the Panama Papers made public last year.

There is no suggestion that Ross, Bronfman or the queen’s private estate acted illegally.

But Ross’s ties to Russian entities raise questions over potential conflicts of interest, and whether they undermine Washington’s sanctions on Moscow.

The revelations about Bronfman could spell trouble for Trudeau, who was elected two years ago riding on the coattails of promises to reduce economic inequality and tax avoidance.

In the case of Queen Elizabeth’s private estate, critics may question whether it is appropriate for the British head of state to invest in offshore tax havens.

Putin’s son-in-law

Ross, a billionaire investor, holds a 31% stake in Navigator Holdings through a complex web of offshore investments detailed in the documents examined by nearly 100 news organizations as part of an international collaboration.

The 79-year-old reduced his stake when he took public office, according to public filings.

Navigator Holdings runs a lucrative partnership with Russian energy giant Sibur, which is partially owned by Putin’s son-in-law Kirill Shamalov and Gennady Timchenko, the Russian president’s friend and business partner who is subject to US sanctions.

The US imposed sanctions on Russian entities and individuals following its annexation of Crimea and aggression in Ukraine.

Ross’s private equity firm has been the biggest shareholder in Navigator.

His personal share of the firm’s stake was reduced when he took office in February, but the commerce chief’s investment is still valued at between $2 million to $10 million, according to his security filings and government ethics disclosure.

The New York Times reported that Ross’s stake in Navigator has been held by companies in the Cayman Islands. His wealth, estimated to exceed $2 billion, is said to be tied to similar arrangements in various tax havens like the Cayman Islands.

“Secretary Ross was not involved with Navigator’s decision to engage in business with Sibur, a publicly traded company, which was not under sanction at the time and is not currently,” said James Rockas, a Commerce Department spokesman.

“Moreover, Secretary Ross has never met the Sibur shareholders referenced in this story and, until now, did not know of their relationship.”

Queen Elizabeth

Controversial businesses

The documents also show around £10 million ($13 million) of the Queen’s private money was placed in funds held in the Cayman Islands and Bermuda, first reported in Britain by the BBC and the Guardian newspaper.

They reported the funds reinvested the money in an array of businesses, including controversial rent-to-buy retailer BrightHouse, which has been accused of exploiting the poor, and a chain of alcohol stores that later went bankrupt.

A spokeswoman for the Duchy of Lancaster, which provides the monarch with an income and handles her investments, said: “All of our investments are fully audited and legitimate.”

“We operate a number of investments and a few of these are with overseas funds,” she added.

The spokeswoman added that one of the fund investments represents only 0.3% of the total value of the Duchy.

The Paradise Papers contain 13.4 million documents mainly from Appleby, an offshore law firm with offices in Bermuda and beyond.

The files were first obtained by the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, and shared with the ICIJ and partner media outlets.


At least 26 people killed after Texas church shooting

Texas shooting: Armed with assault rifle, man kills 26 in Sutherland Springs church; suspect Devin Kelley 'found dead' in vehicle

Law enforcement officials work the scene of a fatal shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. 

Sutherland Springs (Texas): A man dressed in black tactical-style gear and armed with an assault rifle opened fire inside a church in a small South Texas community on Sunday, killing 26 people and wounding about 20 others in what the governor called the deadliest mass shooting in the state's history.

Officials didn't identify the attacker during a news conference Sunday night, but two other officials - one a US official and one in law enforcement - who were briefed on the investigation identified him as Devin Kelley. They spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the investigation.

Kelley killed 26 people in what is the worst mass shooting in Texas history.

The US official said Kelley lived in a San Antonio suburb and doesn't appear to be linked to organized terrorist groups. The official said investigators are looking at social media posts Kelley may have made in the days before Sunday's attack, including one that appeared to show an AR-15 semiautomatic weapon.
Kelley posted this picture of a gun on Facebook recently.

At the news conference, Freeman Martin, the regional director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said the attacker was dressed all in black, wearing tactical gear and a ballistic vest, when he arrived at a gas station across from the First Baptist Church at around 11.20 am.

He crossed the street and started firing a Ruger AR rifle at the church, and continued after entering the building. As he left, he was confronted by an armed resident who chased him. A short time later, the suspect was found dead in his vehicle at the county line, Martin said. There were several weapons inside.

Martin said it's unclear if the attacker died of a self-inflicted wound or if he was shot by the resident who confronted him. He said investigators weren't ready to discuss a possible motive for the attack. He said the dead ranged in age from 5 to 72 years old. Twenty-three were found dead in the church, two were found outside and one died after being taken to a hospital.

Federal law enforcement swarmed the small community 30 miles southeast of San Antonio after the attack to offer assistance, including ATF investigators and members of the FBI's evidence collection team.

Among those killed was the 14-year-old daughter of the church's pastor, Frank Pomeroy, and his wife, Sherri. Sherri Pomeroy wrote in a text message to the AP that she and her husband were out of town in two different states when the attack occurred.

"We lost our 14-year-old daughter today (Sunday) and many friends," she wrote. "Neither of us have made it back into town yet to personally see the devastation. I am at the Charlotte airport trying to get home as soon as I can."

The wounded were taken to hospitals. Video on KSAT television showed first responders taking a stretcher from the church to a waiting AirLife helicopter. Eight victims were taken by medical helicopter to the Brooke Army Medical Center, the military hospital said.

Megan Posey, a spokeswoman for Connally Memorial Medical Center, which is in Floresville and about 10 miles from the church, said "multiple" victims were being treated for gunshot wounds. She declined to give a specific number but said it was less than a dozen.

The scene outside First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, near San Antonio, Texas, where a mass shooting took place
Alena Berlanga, a Floresville resident who was monitoring the chaos on a police scanner and in Facebook community groups, said everyone knows everyone else in the sparsely populated county. Sutherland Springs has only a few hundred residents.

"This is horrific for our tiny little tight-knit town," said Alena Berlanga. "Everybody's going to be affected and everybody knows someone who's affected," she said.

Regina Rodriguez arrived at the church a couple of hours after the shooting and walked up to the police barricade. She hugged a person she was with. She had been at an amusement park with her children when she heard of the shooting.

She said her father, 51-year-old Richard Rodriguez, attends the church every Sunday, and she hadn't been able to reach him. She said she feared the worst.

Nick Uhlig, 34, is a church member who didn't go Sunday morning because he was out late Saturday night. He said his cousins were at the church and that his family was told at least one of them, a woman with three children and pregnant with another, is among the dead. He said he hadn't heard specific news about the other.

Texas church massacre victim Annabelle Pomeroy pictured with her father, Pastor of the church, Frank

"We just gathered to bury their grandfather on Thursday," he said. "This is the only church here. We have Bible study, men's Bible study, vacation Bible school."

"Somebody went in and started shooting," he said, shaking his head and taking a long drag of his cigarette.

President Donald Trump tweeted from Japan, where is his on an Asian trip, that he was monitoring the situation. Texas governor Greg Abbott called the shooting an "evil act."

Annabele Pomeroy, the 14-year-old daughter of First Baptist pastor Frank Pomeroy

Sutherland Springs is in a rural area where communities are small and tight-knit. The area is known for its annual peanut festival in Floresville, which was most recently held last month.

"We're shocked. Shocked and dismayed," said state Senator Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat whose district includes Sutherland Springs. "It's especially shocking when it's such a small, serene area. These rural areas, they are so beautiful and so loving."

Zaffirini said she had called several county and local officials but not been able to get through and didn't have any firm details.

The church is a white, wood-framed building with a double-door at the entrance and a Texas flag on a pole at the front area. A morning worship service was scheduled for 11 am. The first news reports of the shooting were between noon and 12.30 pm.

The church has posted videos of its Sunday services on a YouTube channel, raising the possibility that the shooting was captured on video.

In the most recent service, posted 29 October, Frank Pomeroy parked a motorcycle in front of his lectern and used it as a metaphor in his sermon for having faith in forces that can't be seen, whether it be gravity or God.

"I don't look at the moment, I look at where I'm going and look at what's out there ahead of me," Pomeroy said. "I'm choosing to trust in the centripetal forces and the things of God he's put around me."


Lebanon’s president will not accept the resignation of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri

Lebanese president won’t accept PM’s resignation until he returns

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s president will not accept the resignation of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri until he returns to Lebanon, palace sources said on Sunday, delaying for now politically difficult consultations on his successor.

Hariri left Lebanon for Saudi Arabia on Friday and resigned on Saturday in a televised statement that took the Lebanese political establishment by surprise.

He cited an assassination plot against him and criticised the regional role of Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, however, Lebanon’s army said on Sunday it had not uncovered any plot.
A resignation would thrust Lebanon back into the arena of regional rivalry between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, an ally of Hariri, and Shi‘ite Muslim Iran, which backs Hezbollah.

President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, will wait to accept or reject Hariri’s resignation until he returns to Lebanon to explain his reasons, sources at the presidential palace said.
Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat cited unnamed sources close to Hariri as speculating that he would probably remain outside Lebanon because of the security threat against him.

Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh sought to calm fears the political turmoil unleashed by Hariri’s bid to resign would hit Lebanon’s already fragile economy, issuing a statement to reaffirm the stability of its currency, which is pegged against the US dollar.

In Lebanon’s sectarian system the president must be a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shi‘ite. Hariri is Lebanon’s most influential Sunni politician.
His father, Rafik al-Hariri, was prime minister after Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war and was assassinated in a car bombing in 2005.

A UN-backed tribunal has indicted five Hezbollah members for the killing but the group denies any involvement.

Saudi media have published reports of a plot to assassinate Hariri in recent days, but all of Lebanon’s main security branches have said they have no information about such a plot.

A Saudi minister said on Saturday that Hariri’s personal security detail had “confirmed information” about the plot. Thamer al-Sabhan said in an interview with a Lebanese TV station on Saturday that there are “threats against the prime minister and the Kingdom is keen for his security


Catalonia Independence: Carles Puigdemont and 13 others summoned

In Belgium for 'safety', axed Catalan leader summoned to Spain court

Catalonia's dismissed leader Carles Puigdemont called on Spain's central government to respect the result if separatists win snap elections Madrid has called for the region in December

Spain's top criminal court on Tuesday summoned Catalonia's axed separatist leader for questioning, hours after he appeared in Brussels insisting he remained the "legitimate president" of a region now under direct rule from Madrid.

The National Audience in Madrid, which deals with major criminal cases, summoned Carles Puigdemont and 13 other former members of his administration, dismissed by Spain's central government last week, to appear Thursday and Friday.

They are then set to be placed under formal investigation.

On Monday, Spain's chief prosecutor said he was seeking charges of rebellion -- punishable by up to 30 years behind bars -- sedition and misuse of public funds.

But the 54-year-old Puigdemont is in Brussels, where he surfaced after reportedly driving to Marseille in France and taking a plane to the Belgian capital.

At a packed and chaotic news conference Tuesday, Puigdemont said he was in Brussels "for safety purposes and freedom" and to "explain the Catalan problem in the institutional heart of Europe."

"We want to denounce the politicisation of the Spanish justice system, its lack of impartiality, its pursuing of ideas not crimes, and to explain to the world the Spanish state's serious democratic deficiencies," he said.

He denied that he intended to claim asylum but said he and several other former ministers who travelled with him would return only if they have guarantees that legal proceedings would be impartial.

But two former ministers flew back to Barcelona late on Tuesday where they were greeted by a small group of demonstrators who waved Spanish flags in their faces and shouted "traitors!" and "Viva Espana!" at them.

If Puigdemont fails to appear in court as requested, Spanish prosecutors could order his arrest.

His lawyer Jaume Alonso-Cuevillas complained in a Tweet that Puigdemont had not been "given time to prepare the defence."

The National Audience also gave Puigdemont and his former ministers three days to pay a combined deposit against potential penalties of 6.2 million euros ($7.2 million).

- Uncharted territory -

Puigdemont's departure and the court's announcement are the latest twists in the saga over semi-autonomous Catalonia's drive for independence, which has sparked Spain's biggest crisis in decades.

With its own language and distinct culture, Catalonia, which accounts for a fifth of Spain's economy and 16 percent of its population, is deeply divided over independence.

On October 1, the region held an unregulated referendum -- marked by a heavy-handed operation by Spanish police -- in which a large majority voted in favour of seceding from Spain.

But Spain's top court had ruled the plebiscite illegal, and turnout was just 43 percent.

Puigdemont insists nonetheless the referendum gave the Catalan parliament a mandate to declare independence on Friday, a decision relayed on large screens to cheering crowds in the regional capital Barcelona.

But the reaction from Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government was swift and emphatic.

Invoking a never-used article of the constitution, Madrid dismissed Catalonia's leaders and imposed direct rule.

On Tuesday Spain's top court ordered the suspension of the Catalan parliament's independence declaration.

Spain's Civil Guard police force meanwhile searched the headquarters of Catalonia's regional police in a probe centred on the independence referendum, a spokesman said.

Spain's Supreme Court also summoned the former speaker of the Catalan parliament to be put under formal investigation.

- 'Slow down' -

There had been speculation that Catalan leaders and civil servants might seek to disrupt Madrid's imposition of direct rule but it passed off without major incident.

"We haven't come across a single civil servant who isn't doing his or her duty," Enric Millo, a central government representative in Catalonia, said Tuesday.

But it appears that the crisis has converted more Catalans into independence supporters.

A regional government opinion poll carried out in October suggested more Catalans now favour independence than not.

The survey found that 48.7 percent said they wanted a separate state against 43.6 percent who did not.

The last such poll, conducted in July, found close to 50 percent against secession versus 41.1 percent in favour.

Still, a former Catalan minister, Santi Vila, told Catalan radio Rac1 on Tuesday that Puigdemont's government had been "under the illusion" that breaking away would be easy.

Rajoy has called snap elections for December 21 to replace the Catalan parliament in a drastic bid to stop the secessionist drive.

Puigdemont said that he accepted the "challenge" and that he would "respect" the result -- while calling on Madrid to do the same if separatists retain their majority.


Internet Giants :'We must do better,'

'We must do better,' social media giants tell Congress

(From left) Facebook's General Counsel Colin Stretch, accompanied by Twitter's Acting General Counsel Sean Edgett, and Google's Law Enforcement and Information Security Director Richard Salgado, speaks during a Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017, on more signs from tech companies of Russian election activity. 

American internet giants told Congress Tuesday they were committed to cracking down on fake news operations on their platforms like the ones Russians conducted to meddle in last year's US presidential elections.

A day after bombshell indictments in a US probe of Moscow's election interference and possible coordination between President Donald Trump's campaign and Russia, Facebook,Google and Twitter sought to assure concerned lawmakers that they were taking necessary steps to rid their platforms of disinformation, propaganda and provocation.

In their testimony, the social media companies revealed startling new data showing many more millions of Americans were exposed to the fake news than previously thought.

The new information gives the broadest picture yet of the Russian effort to spread discord across US society.

"We are deeply concerned about all of these threats," Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism.

"That foreign actors, hiding behind fake accounts, abused our platform and other internet services to try to sow division and discord -- and to try to undermine our election process -- is an assault on democracy, and it violates all of our values."

The closely-watched hearing comes as the first charges in a US probe into Russian meddling reverberated through Washington.

One of three unsealed indictments brought by US special prosecutor Robert Mueller revealed early contacts between Kremlin-linked figures and a former advisor of Trump's campaign.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted the US accusations of election-meddling were being made "without one piece of evidence."

- Staying ahead of threats -

Testimony by the three companies, whose executives face more congressional questioning Wednesday, shows that Russian activities were far greater than they had previously reported.

Twitter has found that nearly 37,000 automated "bot" accounts with Russian links generated 1.4 million tweets that were seen by a potential 288 million people in the three months before the November 8, 2016 presidential election, the company said.

Twitter's acting general counsel Sean Edgett acknowledged that despite improvements that have helped the company identify and suppress malicious automated and human-generated activity, "we will need to evolve to stay ahead of new tactics."

"We agree that we must do better to prevent it," he added.

Facebook testified that some 126 million US users, a potentially huge portion of the voting public, may have seen stories, posts or other content from Russian sources.

"Foreign governments like Russia -- in the 2016 election cycle -- were deeply involved in manipulating popular social media websites with misinformation to sow discord among Americans," Senator Lindsey Graham, the subcommittee's chairman, said in a statement.

He said social media manipulation by terror networks and foreign governments is "one of the greatest challenges to American democracy" and national security.

Analysts say Russia's social media interference was part of a broader effort to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Some lawmakers sounded exasperated about the extent of the meddling, conducted in part by "troll armies" like the Russia-based Internet Research Agency.

"What is really staggering, and hard to fully comprehend, is how easily and successfully they turned modern technologies to their advantage," Senator Dianne Feinstein said.

All three executives faced intense questioning about how they will counter such operations.

Google's information security director Richard Salgado said users next year will be able to learn the source of each political ad on YouTube with a single click on an icon above the ads.

"We are committed to doing our part," Salgado said.

- Twitter blocking Russian media -

But the social media firms face the difficult challenge of keeping their platforms open, in order to avoid accusations of censorship and bias, and not becoming the curators of truth in society.

The trio has already begun taking measures to try to screen out manipulative Russian content.

Researchers have identified efforts in the past year that aimed to make white Americans angry at blacks, to hurt the image of feminists, and other such targeting that may have hurt Clinton and helped Trump.

Twitter announced last week it would no longer accept advertising from Russia Today and Sputnik, two Russian government-backed media groups that allegedly hone their stories and news placement for political impact.

Facebook's Stretch said the threat was of a global magnitude.

Asked by Graham whether he believed countries like Iran or North Korea could launch similar social media campaigns of misinformation, Stretch noted it was "certainly" possible.

"The internet is borderless," he said.


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