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►  U.S. general in Afghanistan suggests Russia arming the Taliban

The United States must confront Russia for providing weapons to the Taliban for use against American-backed forces in Afghanistan, top U.S. military officials said Monday.

At a news conference with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at his side, Gen. John Nicholson, the American commander in Afghanistan, wouldn’t provide specifics about Russia’s role in Afghanistan. But said he would “not refute” that Moscow’s involvement includes giving weapons to the Taliban.

Earlier Monday, a senior U.S. military official told reporters in Kabul that Russia was giving machine guns and other medium-weight weapons. The Taliban are using the weapons in the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan, according to the official, who briefed journalists on intelligence information on condition of anonymity.

Russia denies that it provides any such support to the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Russia says contacts are limited to safeguarding security and getting the hard-line religious fundamentalists to reconcile with the government — which Washington has failed for years to advance. Russia also has promoted easing global sanctions on Taliban leaders who prove cooperative.

Asked about Russia’s activity in Afghanistan, where it fought a bloody war in the 1980s and withdrew in defeat, Mattis alluded to the increasing U.S. concerns.

“We’ll engage with Russia diplomatically,“ Mattis said. “We’ll do so where we can, but we’re going to have to confront Russia where what they’re doing is contrary to international law or denying the sovereignty of other countries.“

“For example,“ Mattis told reporters in the Afghan capital, “any weapons being funneled here from a foreign country would be a violation of international law.“

Mattis met with President Ashraf Ghani and other senior government officials just hours after the nation’s defense minister and Army chief resigned over a massacre of more than 140 Afghan troops at a military base last Friday.

The insurgent assault was the biggest ever on a military base in Afghanistan, involving multiple gunmen and suicide bombers in army uniforms who penetrated the compound of the 209th Corps of the Afghan National Army in northern Balkh province on Friday, killing and wounding scores. The death toll was likely to rise further.

Referring to the Russians again, Nicholson said “anyone who arms belligerents who perpetuate attacks like the one we saw” isn’t focused on “the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation.“

Given the sophisticated planning behind the attack, he also said “it’s quite possible” that the Pakistan-based Haqqani network was responsible. The Taliban claimed it carried out the attack.

Nicholson recently told Congress that he needs a few thousand more troops to keep Afghan security forces on track to eventually handling the Taliban insurgency on their own. The Trump administration is still reviewing possible troop decisions.

Mattis on Monday offered a grim assessment for Afghan forces fighting the Taliban.

“2017 is going to be another tough year,“ he said.

Kabul was the final stop on Mattis’ six-nation, weeklong tour. He is the first member of Donald Trump’s Cabinet to visit Afghanistan. As part of the administration’s review of Afghan policy, Trump’s national security adviser, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, visited Kabul last week to consult with Nicholson and Afghan officials.

The war began in October 2001. The U.S. has about 9,800 troops in Afghanistan. They ended their combat mission against the Taliban in 2014 but are increasingly involved in backing up Afghan forces on the battlefield.


►  Old-guard rallies around newcomer Macron for French runoff

France’s established parties are rallying around the man who helped shut them out of the presidential runoff, maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron — an alliance of convenience aimed at keeping far-right Marine Le Pen out of the Elysee Palace.

Support for Macron also poured in Monday from the seat of the European Union, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Jewish and Muslim groups troubled by Le Pen’s nationalist vision.

European stock markets surged, and France’s main index hit its highest level since early 2008, as investors gambled that the rise of populism around the world — and its associated unpredictability in policymaking — may have peaked.

For all the paeans to Macron’s unifying vision in divided times, it is now up to French voters to decide whether to entrust him with this nuclear-armed nation in the May 7 presidential runoff. Polls consider him the front-runner but that’s no guarantee that the French will come together to stop Le Pen the way they stopped her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, from reaching the presidency in 2002.

France’s divided political mainstream, rejected by an angry electorate, united Monday to urge voters to back Macron and reject Le Pen’s far-right agenda.

Politicians on the moderate left and right, including French President Francois Hollande and the losing Socialist and Republican party candidates in Sunday’s first-round vote, maneuvered to block Le Pen’s path to power.

In a solemn address from the Elysee palace, Hollande said he would vote for Macron, his former economy minister, because Le Pen represents “both the danger of the isolation of France and of rupture with the European Union.“

Hollande said the far-right would “deeply divide France” at a time when the terror threat requires solidarity. “Faced with such a risk, it is not possible to remain silent or to take refuge in indifference,“ he said.

Voters narrowed the French presidential field from 11 to two in Sunday’s first-round vote, and losers from across the spectrum called on their supporters to choose Macron in round two. Only the defeated far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, pointedly refused to back Macron.

The contest is widely seen as a litmus test for the populist wave that last year prompted Britain to vote to leave the European Union and U.S. voters to elect Donald Trump president.

Le Pen, meanwhile, is hoping to peel away voters historically opposed to her National Front Party, long tainted by racism and anti-Semitism

On Monday, she took a step in that direction, announcing she was temporarily stepping down as party leader, a move that appeared to be aimed at drawing a wider range of potential voters and was in keeping with her efforts in recent years to garner broader support from the left and right.

“Tonight, I am no longer the president of the National Front. I am the presidential candidate,“ she said on French public television news, adding that she wanted to be “above partisan considerations.“

National Front party officials also joined the chorus, noting that a vote for Le Pen would be a natural move for those fed up with the status quo.

“The voters who voted for Mr. Melenchon are angry voters. They can be in agreement with us,“ Steeve Brios, the mayor of Le Pen’s northern bastion of Henin-Beaumont, told The Associated Press, adding that those far-left voters sought choices “outside the system.“

Choosing from inside the system is no longer an option. Voters rejected the two mainstream parties that have alternated power for decades in favor of Le Pen and the untested Macron, who has never held elected office and who founded his own political movement just last year.

Macron’s optimistic vision of a tolerant France and a united Europe with open borders is a stark contrast with Le Pen’s darker, inward-looking “French-first” platform that calls for closed borders, tougher security, less immigration and dropping the shared euro currency to return to the French franc.

Le Pen went on the offensive against Macron in her first public comments Monday. “He is a hysterical, radical ‘Europeanist.‘ He is for total open borders. He says there is no such thing as French culture,“ she said.

Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, made it into a presidential runoff against Jacques Chirac in 2002 and was crushed. Many commentators expect the same fate for his daughter, but she has already drawn far more support than he ever did and she has transformed the party’s once-pariah image.

Louis Aliot, a National Front vice president and Le Pen’s companion, insisted that Le Pen offers an alternative for anyone skeptical of the EU and France’s role in it.

“I’m not convinced that the French are willing to sign a blank check to Mr. Macron,“ he said.

But Macron’s party spokesman, Benjamin Griveaux, scoffed at the idea of Le Pen as an agent of change.

“She’s been in the political system for 30 years. She inherited her father’s party and we will undoubtedly have Le Pens running for the next 20 years, because after we had the father, we have the daughter and we will doubtless have the niece,“ he said, referring to Marion Marechal-Le Pen. “So she is in a truly bad position to be talking about the elites.“

Merkel wished Macron “all the best for the next two weeks.“ And the German chancellor’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, tweeted that “the result for Emmanuel Macron shows: France AND Europe can win together! The center is stronger than the populists think!“

Macron came in first in Sunday’s vote, with just over 24 percent while Le Pen had 21.3 percent. Francois Fillon, the scandal-plagued conservative Republican party candidate, came in third with just shy of 20 percent of the vote, just ahead of Melenchon. Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon, whose party holds a majority in the legislature, got just 6 percent of the vote. Turnout was 78 percent, down slightly from 79 percent in the first round of presidential voting in 2012.

Protesters angry over the results burned cars, danced around bonfires and dodged riot police overnight at the Place de la Bastille and Republique in Paris. Twenty-nine people were detained at the Bastille, where protesters waved red flags and sang “No Marine and No Macron!“


►  Japan’s North Korea Warning Would Be 10 Minutes, Max

If the Japanese ever receive word that North Korea has launched a missile toward them, they better find shelter quickly—because the government estimates any warning will be 10 minutes at most, the Japan Times reports. The Japanese seem to be on edge in the wake of chatter that Pyongyang may be prepping for another nuclear test, despite warnings from the US and other countries, Time notes. This nervousness has led to a drastic uptick in people checking Japan’s Cabinet Secretariat Civil Protection Portal Site, which offers info on what to do in case an attack: While the site saw just 450,000 views in March, it has hit 2.6 million views this month.

Under the national warning system, news of an impending strike would first be spread to local officials via phone, satellite, and the internet, followed by public warnings issued via cellphone alerts, PA systems, and emergency radio and TV broadcasts. Osaka’s mayor notes that detection of a missile launch may be delayed, meaning residents may not have 10 minutes to find shelter, but more like four or five. North Korea, meanwhile, upped its saber rattling Tuesday with long-range artillery drills along its east coast, the New York Times reports. The event marked the founding of the nation’s military 85 years ago, with the US and South Korea also carrying out military maneuvers. A North Korean state paper says the entire Korean Peninsula is being brought to the “verge of explosion.“


►  Ivanka Greeted With Boos at Women’s Summit

Media access to the first family may be somewhat controlled in the US, but Ivanka Trump found such a buffer doesn’t exist in Germany. Trump took the stage in Berlin on Tuesday at the W20 summit on women’s entrepreneurship, at Chancellor Angela Merkel’s invite, and she was quickly met with a hard-hitting question from the editor of a German business magazine about her simultaneous role as first daughter and assistant to her dad, as well as where her true loyalties are, Politico reports. “Who are you representing, your father as president of the [US], the American people, or your business?“ Miriam Meckel asked, adding Germans aren’t in tune with what a “first daughter” does. “Certainly not the latter,“ Trump noted in reference to her business priorities, admitting she’s also “rather unfamiliar” with her new role and that she’s currently in “listening” and “learning” mode.

When she praised her father’s “advocacy” for women, however, specifically via paid-leave policies, the audience did more than raise a collective eyebrow: Some booed and hissed, and Meckel pushed Trump to address that reaction, considering “some attitudes” the president has exhibited. “I’ve certainly heard the criticism from the media, that’s been perpetuated,“ Trump replied, adding that her father never held her back personally and hired plenty of women for important jobs in his own companies and administration. When asked after the panel about the heckling, Trump said “politics is politics” and she’s “used to it,“ per CNN. What’s more important, she noted, is that there’s continued dialogue and everyone can “feel comfortable candidly expressing ourselves without fear of being labeled and ostracized.“


►  In ‘Robbery of the Century,‘ 50 Men Allegedly Attack

It’s like a mix of The Italian Job and Ocean’s Eleven, just with an alleged cast of 50 criminals. Paraguayan officials are calling it the robbery of the century: the theft of millions from private security firm Prosegur in Ciudad del Este that is said to have involved explosives, fiery diversions, and getaway boats. The BBC reports the gang allegedly blew off the building’s facade early Monday while creating diversions. “The criminals used snipers to guarantee the escape and torched more than 10 vehicles to distract the police,“ an official tells the AP. While initial reports suggested they made off with $40 million, Fox News reports they got only one of three vaults open, leaving them with a much smaller haul.

After a multi-hour gun battle that killed a cop, they fled the scene, reportedly in the security company’s own armored trucks. They’re said to have then boarded boats at the Parana river and traveled 30 miles to Brazil. (CNN notes Ciudad del Este is the country’s second-biggest city and hugs the country’s border with Brazil and Argentina.) Brazilian media reports that federal police confronted a dozen men who managed to escape after another gun battle. Authorities believe the men may be part of Brazil’s criminal Primer Comando de la Capital, a conclusion that may be based on their alleged use of Portuguese. They were said to be incredibly well armed, with not just AK 47s and C4 explosives, but anti-aircraft guns and a helicopter. It’s unclear if any of them have been apprehended.


►  U.S. Nuclear Sub Arrives in South Korea

A US guided-missile submarine arrived in South Korea on Tuesday and envoys from the US, Japan, and South Korea met in Tokyo, as North Korea marked the anniversary of the founding of its military. Though experts thought a nuclear test or ballistic missile launch might happen, the morning came and went without either, the AP reports. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing a South Korean government source, reported that North Korea instead appeared to have held a major live-fire drill in the Wonsan city area. The USS Michigan, a nuclear-powered submarine, arrived at the South Korean port of Busan in what was described as a routine visit to rest the crew and load supplies.

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday urged restraint in a call to Trump, as the Trump administration invited the entire 100-member Senate for a briefing Wednesday on the escalating crisis. Adding to the atmosphere of animosity, officials said North Korea has detained a third US citizen. Trump told ambassadors from UN Security Council members that the status quo in North Korea is “unacceptable” and the council must be prepared to impose additional and stronger sanctions. The US, Japan, and South Korea agreed Tuesday to put maximum pressure on North Korea, the South’s envoy for North Korea said after meeting his American and Japanese counterparts in Tokyo.


►  New Sanctions on Syria Among Biggest Ever by U.S.

The White House accuses Syrian leaders of gassing their own civilians, and it’s looking to punish anyone in the nation connected to the weapons. On Monday, the Treasury Department announced sanctions against 271 employees of a Syrian agency believed to have developed and produced chemical weapons, reports USA Today. The department characterized the move against chemists and researchers at the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center as one of its largest sanctions actions ever. The penalties mean that those individuals can’t conduct any business with the US, and any assets they have in this country would be frozen, notes the Los Angeles Times.

“These sweeping sanctions target the scientific support center for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s horrific chemical weapons attack on innocent civilian men, women and children,“ said the department in a statement. Also Monday, Trump met with a group of UN ambassadors at the White House, and he criticized the Security Council for failing to impose new sanctions of its own on Assad. “The United Nations doesn’t like taking on certain problems,“ he said.

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►  Results of Election Are a First in Modern French History

The polls closed at 7pm local time, meaning the first round of the French presidential election is officially in the books. While the official percentages are not yet known, the AP reports centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen will advance to the runoff after major opponent Francois Fillon conceded. The Guardian reports polling agency projections had put Macron and Le Pen in the one and two slots, with roughly 23.7% and 22% of the vote, respectively, though those numbers could change. Of the four candidates who had a shot, “French Bernie Sanders” Jean-Luc Melenchon and establishment candidate Fillon trailed at just below 20%, per those projections.

In conceding defeat, Fillon loudly threw his support behind Macron, saying, “There is no other choice than to vote against the far right. I will vote for Emmanuel Macron. I consider it my duty to tell you this frankly.“ The results set up a duel between a young candidate with no electoral experience and the woman who remade the image of a party tainted by racism and anti-Semitism. It marks the first time in modern French history that no major-party candidate has advanced. The runoff is scheduled for May 07.


►  Thorn in the Side of 9 U.S. Presidents: The Assads

The Assad family has been in power in Syria since a successful coup in 1970, the last of dozens that occurred after the country, which is wedged between Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq, had declared sovereignty from France in 1946. Since then, each of nine American presidents has tried in his own way to deal with the Assad family—namely its founder, Hafez al-Assad, and more recently his son, current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It’s been largely an exercise in futility for all, reports the New Yorker in a piece detailing the tumultuous history between the two countries since the 1970 coup.

As veteran reporter Robin Wright writes, the elder Assad not only no-showed all sorts of meetings and summits that hinged on his participation, but didn’t hesitate to resort to violence and terror. Tensions have only further mounted as his son, who was brought up in palaces and “pampered by privilege,“ has “killed, injured, or displaced millions more Syrians than his father did, and in a far shorter time,“ Wright writes. Now Trump, who like his predecessors first expressed a willingness to negotiate with Assad, seems to have discovered within his first 100 days that Assad, per the New Yorker, “may be his nemesis, too.“ (Press Secretary Sean Spicer even suggested that Assad is worse than Hitler in remarks that went viral and for which he later apologized.) Read the entire piece HERE .


►  Duterte on Terrorists: ‘Give Me Salt, Vinegar, I’ll Eat His Liver’

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte warned Sunday that he could be “50 times” more brutal than Muslim militants who stage beheadings and said he could even “eat” the extremists if they’re captured alive by troops. Duterte raised his shock rhetoric to a new level as president when he said in a speech what he would do to terrorists who have staged beheadings and other gruesome attacks, reports the AP. Duterte ordered troops to kill fleeing Muslim militants behind a foiled attack in the central resort province of Bohol and not bring them to him alive, calling the extremists “animals.“ “If you want me to be an animal, I’m also used to that. We’re just the same,“ Duterte said. “I can dish out, go down what you can 50 times over.“ The foul-mouthed president said that if a terrorist was presented to him when he’s in a foul mood, “give me salt and vinegar and I’ll eat his liver.“

The crowd broke into laughter, but Duterte cut in, “It’s true, if you make me angry.“ Duterte, a longtime city mayor who built an image as a deadly crime-buster, won the presidency in May last year on a promise to battle illegal drugs, corruption and terrorism. Thousands have died under his anti-drug crackdown, which has alarmed Western governments and human rights groups. He has warned he may place the southern Philippines, scene of a decades-long Muslim separatist rebellion, under martial rule if terrorism threats spin out of control. He recently offered a reward for information leading to the capture of Abu Sayyaf and other militants behind a foiled attack in the central province of Bohol. Eight militants, three soldiers, a policeman, and two villagers have died in clashes in Bohol, which lies far from the southern jungle bases of the militants.


►  Latest Salvo: N. Korea Detains a 3rd American

North Korea has detained a US citizen, officials said Sunday, bringing to three the number of Americans now being held there, reports the AP. Tony Kim, who also goes by his Korean name Kim Sang-duk, was detained Saturday as he was trying to leave the country from Pyongyang’s international airport, according to Park Chan-mo, the chancellor of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. Park said Kim, who is in his 50s, taught accounting at the university for about a month. The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which minds consular affairs there for the United States, said it was aware of a Korean-American citizen being detained. Park said he was informed that the detention had “nothing to do” with Kim’s work at the university but did not know further details. As of Sunday night, North Korea’s official media had not reported on the detention.

South Korea could not confirm the detention, reports the New York Times, though South Korean media did report it. The detention comes at a time of unusually heightened tensions between the US and North Korea. Both countries have recently been trading threats of war and having another American in jail will likely up the ante even further. Last year, Otto Warmbier, then a 21-year-old University of Virginia student from suburban Cincinnati, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in prison after he confessed to trying to steal a propaganda banner. Kim Dong Chul, who was born in South Korea but is also believed to have US citizenship, is serving a sentence of 10 years for espionage.


►  Sunday’s Vote ‘Humiliated’ French Party Politics

The election results in France are now final, confirming the political earthquake that has just taken place: Centrist Emmanuel Macron took 23.8% of votes in the first round, with 21.5% for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, the BBC reports. The two candidates will compete for the presidency in a runoff election May 7—and for the first time, neither contender is from one of the country’s main parties. Conservative Francois Fillon will miss the runoff after getting 19.9%. Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon got 19.6%, while Benoit Hamon from the ruling Socialist party got just 6.4%. A roundup of coverage:

  • Reuters reports that Macron’s pro-business, pro-European Union positions made him the favored candidate of financial markets, and they reacted with sharp gains early Monday, sending the euro to its highest point against the dollar this year.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that polls suggest that Macron will easily win the second-round vote—but it could be complicated by the fact that almost 50% of voters supported anti-EU candidates.
  • The Guardian describes the result as “a humiliation for modern French party politics of left and right,“ with Macron’s first-place finish a sign of hope that he will prevail over Le Pen’s National Front party, which represents “bigotry, hatred, and nationalism of the worst kind.“
  • The BBC reports that Macron, who stepped down as the ruling party’s economics minister to form his own En Marche party, has promised to cut corporation tax and step up the move to renewable energy. Le Pen has promised to hold a referendum on the EU, cut immigration, and close “extremist” mosques. Unlike her rival, she has promised to protect the 35-hour work week.
  • The AP reports that mainstream parties are urging voters to support Macron, though Mélenchon has yet to do so, and the National Front says it believes it can win the support of some of his voters. “The voters who voted for Mr. Mélenchon are angry voters. They can be in agreement with us,“ says a party official.
  • Don’t expect a Brexit or Trump-style surprise in France, Nate Silver writes at FiveThirtyEight. He notes that polls give Macron a 26-point lead, much bigger than anything seen before the Brexit and Trump votes. “She could beat her polls by as much as Trump and Brexit combined and still lose to Macron by almost 20 points,“ he writes.
  • Vanity Fair predicts “two weeks of hell” ahead during campaigning in France as Le Pen tries to “stoke fear and division” to boost her chances.


►  Boy’s Insane Quest to Drive Across Australia Gets Shockingly Far

The journey from Australia’s eastern New South Wales coast to Perth on its west measures about 2,500 miles. A 12-year-old boy set off to drive it alone, and got ridiculously far. The Australian Associated Press reports the boy was stopped about 800 miles into the drive around 11am Saturday, having essentially traversed the entirety of New South Wales from his starting point in Kendall, near Port Macquarie, over the course of 24 hours. The New York Times gives some American perspective, saying the distance covered “is about the equivalent of making the long and annoying” round-trip drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco, “with a few dozen more miles thrown in for rest stops and food.“

The child was stopped in Broken Hill due to a dislodged bumper, which was dragging on the ground. Police tell the AAP the damage suggests he was involved in some sort of accident along the way. “He’d taken the family car,“ police said Monday. “His parents reported him missing immediately after he left home” shortly after 11am Friday. The child is in the custody of his parents, but will likely face charges including driving without a license and not paying for gas; Sky News reports he fueled up around 6am in Cobar. As for how he managed to not raise suspicions for such a long period, Sky News reports the 6-foot-tall boy looks much older than 12. Indeed, the manager of the gas station the child stopped at thought he looked “19 or 20.“


►  Icelandic Language’s Problem: Computers Don’t Get It

When an Icelander arrives at an office building and sees “Solarfri” posted, they need no further explanation for the empty premises: The word means “when staff get an unexpected afternoon off to enjoy good weather.“ But the revered Icelandic language, seen by many as a source of identity and pride, is being undermined by the widespread use of English, both for mass tourism and in the voice-controlled artificial intelligence devices coming into vogue. Linguistics experts, studying the future of a language spoken by fewer than 400,000 people, wonder if this is the beginning of the end for the Icelandic tongue. Former President Vigdis Finnbogadottir tells the AP unless Iceland takes steps to protect its language, “Icelandic will end in the Latin bin.“ A number of factors combine to make the future of the language uncertain.

Tourism has exploded in recent years, becoming the country’s single biggest employer, and analysts at Arion Bank say one in two new jobs is being filled by foreign labor. That is increasing the use of English as a universal communicator and diminishing the role of Icelandic. The problem is compounded because many new computer devices are designed to recognize English but they do not understand Icelandic. It ranks among the weakest and least-supported languages in terms of digital technology—along with Irish Gaelic, Latvian, Maltese, and Lithuanian—according to a report by the Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance assessing 30 European languages. Iceland’s Ministry of Education estimates about $8.8 million is needed for seed funding for an open-access database to help tech developers adapt Icelandic as a language option.

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►  Global finance leaders grapple with globalization fears

Global finance leaders on Saturday dropped a sharp condemnation of trade protectionism and references to climate change from a closing statement that wrapped up the spring meetings of the 189-nation International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

This year’s meetings were dominated by a debate over how to respond to a rising tide of anti-globalization sentiment evidenced in the United States by the election of Donald Trump, who pledged during last year’s campaign that he would reduce America’s huge trade deficits which he blamed for the loss of millions of good-paying factory jobs.

In its communique, the IMF urged nations to avoid “inward-looking policies,“ but it did not include tougher language the IMF had used in an October statement in which it had called on all countries to “resist all forms of protectionism.“ The new statement also dropped any mention of the threat of climate change.

Trump has threatened to impose punitive tariffs of up to 45 percent against Mexico, China and other nations he believes are competing unfairly with American workers. During his presidential campaign he called climate change a hoax.

At a closing news conference, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde and Agustin Carstens, head of the Bank of Mexico and chair of the IMF’s policy committee, sought to downplay the changes. Lagarde noted that strong language condemning protectionism and promoting efforts to combat climate change, while taken out of the communique, remained in a separate document setting out the IMF’s policy agenda.

Carstens said that it was important on the issue of trade to recognize the viewpoints of different countries.

“We all want free and fair trade and that is what is reflected in the communique,“ he told reporters when asked why the language on protectionism had been dropped.

A similar change on the issue of protectionism was made in a communique that the Group of 20 major economies issued last month in Baden-Baden, Germany. Steven Mnuchin, attending his first international gathering as Trump’s Treasury secretary, had defended the change in the G-20 communique by saying, “The historical language was not really relevant.“

Eswar Prasad, a trade economist at Cornell University, said the changes in the IMF and G-20 communiques showed the Trump administration’s desire to signal that U.S. policy will be different under a new president.

“The G-20 consensus on issues such as free trade and combating climate change is crumbling in the face of the Trump administration’s hostility to those positions,“ Prasad said. “The notion of allowing for freer trade has run up against the Trump administration’s conviction that its major trading partners are manipulating trade and currency policies to their own benefit.“

At a joint appearance with Lagade on Saturday, Mnuchin said that the internal debate over the wording of the IMF communique had taken much less time than the debate over the wording of the G-20 communique last month. He said that the administration’s goal was to make trade more fair and was not aimed at erecting protectionist barriers.

“The United States is probably the most open trading market there is,“ Mnuchin said.

Mnuchin was also asked about the administration’s tax plan, which Trump said Friday would be unveiled next Wednesday. Mnuchin said the administration’s goal was to simplify the tax system for both individuals and businesses.

“We want to create a system where the average American can do their taxes on a postcard, not a book,“ Mnuchin said. “Maybe a big postcard, but you can still stick it in the mail.“

Mnuchin did not provide details of the tax plan, which Trump has said would provide a “massive” tax cut for Americans.

Throughout the presidential campaign last year, Trump pointed to closed factories around America and said they represented a failure of past presidents to be tough enough in negotiating trade agreements to protect U.S. jobs. Since taking office, Trump has pulled the United States out of a 12-nation Pacific trade agreement negotiated by the Obama administration and just this week ordered the Commerce Department to speed up an investigation into whether steel imports posed a national security threat. His action could lead to higher tariffs on steel imports.

The spring IMF and World Bank meetings took place against the backdrop of an improving global economy, helped by better performances in the United States and China, the world’s two biggest economies, and in a rise in commodity prices which has helped many developing nations. The IMF’s latest economic forecast projects global growth of 3.5 percent this year, which would be the fastest pace in five years and up from 3.1 percent last year.

Despite the brighter outlook, the IMF’s closing communique warned of a number of risks ranging from weak productivity growth to high debt levels and “heightened political and policy uncertainties.“

The world economy has struggled to regain millions of jobs lost after a devastating financial crisis hit in 2008 and the finance leaders acknowledged the adverse effects the deep-downturn, playing a major role in the rising pressures against free trade and immigration.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said that if more was not done to deal with growing income inequality “we will see more protectionism and countries retreating from globalization.“

Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso sought to downplay concerns about rising protectionism, saying that he believed free trade, which has fueled global growth since the end of World War II, would be upheld but perhaps with some changes.

In his remarks to the IMF’s policy committee, Mnuchin repeated a call for the IMF to police the currency markets and call out countries that undervalue their currencies to gain an unfair price advantage for their exporters.


►  Pyongyang drivers scramble as gas stations limit services

Car users in Pyongyang are scrambling to fill up their tanks as gas stations begin limiting services or even closing amid concerns of a spreading shortage.

A sign outside one station in the North Korean capital said Friday that sales were being restricted to diplomats or vehicles used by international organizations, while others were closed or turning away local residents. Lines at other stations were much longer than usual and prices appeared to be rising significantly.

The cause of the restrictions or how long they might last were not immediately known.

North Korea relies heavily on China for its fuel supply and Beijing has reportedly been tightening its enforcement of international sanctions aimed at getting Pyongyang to abandon its development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

The issue was raised at a regular Chinese Foreign Ministry news conference in Beijing on Friday after a Chinese media outlet, Global Times, reported gas stations were restricting service and charging higher prices.

But spokesman Lu Kang gave an ambiguous response when asked if China was restricting fuel deliveries.

“As for what kind of policy China is taking, I think you should listen to the authoritative remarks or statements of the Chinese government,“ he said, without elaborating on what those remarks or statements are. “For the remarks made by certain people or circulated online, it is up to you if you want to take them as references.“

One of China’s top North Korea scholars, Kim Dong-jil, director of the Center for Korean Peninsula Studies of Peking University, said he had not heard of new restrictions on fuel to pressure Pyongyang, but said they are considered to be an option.

China’s Ministry of Commerce had no immediate comment.

Gasoline was selling at $1.25 per kilogram at one station, up from the previous 70-80 cents. According to a sign outside a station where ordinary North Korean vehicles were being turned away, the restrictions took effect on Wednesday.

Gasoline is sold in North Korea by the kilogram, roughly equivalent to a liter (0.26 gallon).

When buying gas in North Korea, customers usually first purchase coupons at a cashier’s booth for the amount of fuel they want. After filling up the tank, leftover coupons can be used on later visits until their expiration date. A common amount for the coupons is 15 kilograms (19.65 liters or 5.2 U.S. gallons).

Supply is controlled by the state.

The military, state ministries and priority projects have the best access. Several chains of gas stations are operated under different state-run enterprises — for example, Air Koryo, the national flagship airline, operates gas stations as well.

Prices can vary from one station to another.

Traffic in Pyongyang has gotten heavier than in past years, when visitors were often struck by the lack of cars on the capital’s broad avenues.

The greater number of cars, including swelling fleets of taxis, has been an indication of greater economic activity, as many are used for business purposes, such as transporting people or goods.


►  Dog Escapes After Being Flown to Wrong Airport

Relieved dog owner Terri Pittman has been reunited with her labradoodle after what was supposed to be a short flight turned into a nightmare that lasted days. On Wednesday, she sent Cooper to stay with relatives while she went to a wedding in Jamaica—but instead of putting the dog on its flight from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Deer Lake, Newfoundland, WestJet put the dog on the wrong flight and it ended up in Hamilton, Ontario, more than 1,000 miles away in the wrong direction, the CBC reports. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, Cooper slipped his leash and ran away after airport workers in Hamilton took him outside to pee.

Pittman flew to Hamilton when she found out about the mix-up and searched the fields around the airport for Cooper, joined by many local volunteers who had heard about the search on social media. After a night of torrential rains, residents spotted Cooper around a mile away from the airport, Friday morning, the Hamilton Spectator reports. In a Facebook post, Pittman says it was a “wonderful feeling” to be reunited with Cooper after two terrible days. She says she was overwhelmed by the response. “The fact that strangers I did not know or had even met ... were out looking for him at night through morning, or messaging me to see how they could help is simply amazing,“ she says.


►  Newly Found Copy of Declaration of Independence Is Unlike All the Others

An amazing find by Harvard researchers has brought the number of known parchment copies of the Declaration of Independence to two: One in DC’s National Archives, and one in a tiny records office in the place the US declared independence from. Researchers Emily Sneff and Danielle Allen believe the copy they uncovered in the archives of the town of Chichester, England, once belonged to Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond, known as the “radical Duke” for his support of the American colonists, the Boston Globe reports. They made the find after spotting a catalog entry online while doing research for the Declaration Resources Project, which is collecting data on different versions, the New York Times reports.

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Allen and Sneff believe the parchment was commissioned in the 1780s by James Wilson, a Pennsylvania lawyer known as a strong nationalist. Allen tells the Harvard Gazette that the copy is unlike any others they have found—and most other documents of the era—because it scrambles the order of the signatories instead of grouping them by state. “This is really a symbolic way of saying we are all one people, or ‘one community,‘ to quote James Wilson,“ she says. Allen, a professor of government, says the document addresses a “key riddle” of the American system: whether the country was founded by its people, or by a collection of states. The researchers are now looking into how the copy ended up in England.

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►  Marches for Science Hit Cities Around the World

Tens of thousands of scientists, students, and research advocates rallied from the Brandenburg Gate to the Washington Monument on Earth Day, conveying a global message of scientific freedom without political interference and spending necessary to make future breakthroughs possible, the AP reports. “We didn’t choose to be in this battle, but it has come to the point where we have to fight because the stakes are too great,“ said climate scientist Michael Mann. Thousands of marchers rallied in Washington DC. They were joined by hundreds in places like Gainesville and Nashville. Rallies and marches were set for more than 500 cities.

Lara Stephens-Brown joined thousands marching in St. Paul, the AP reports. They chanted “hey hey, ho ho, we won’t let this planet go.“ There are cancer survivors and doctors with signs that say “science saves lives,“ she said. “Science is not a partisan issue,“ she said. “Science is for everyone, and should be supported by everyone in our government.“ Kathryn Oakes Hall pinned a sign to the back of her T-shirt as she made her way to the march in Santa Fe, New Mexico: “Nine months pregnant, so mad I’m here.“ “I’d rather be sitting on the couch,“ she said. But she marched anyway because she worried about her baby’s future in a world that seems to consider science disposable.


►  More Than 100 Killed, Injured as Taliban Storms Army Base

The Taliban has dealt Afghanistan’s army what appears to be a very heavy blow inside one of its own bases. Officials say more than 100 Afghan soldiers were killed or injured when Taliban militants attacked a base outside the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif on Friday, the BBC reports. Some military sources put the death toll as high as 134. Military officials say 10 attackers, including two suicide bombers, entered the base driving army vehicles and wearing military uniforms before attacking soldiers inside a mosque during Friday prayers. Officials say the ensuing firefight lasted for hours, with troops struggling to distinguish soldiers on their side from attackers.

The base is home to the 209th Corps of the Afghan National Army, which is tasked with providing security across a large area of northern Afghanistan, the AP reports. “The attack on the 209 Corps today shows the barbaric nature of the Taliban,“ Gen. John Nicholson, commander of the NATO-led force in the country, said in a statement, per the Washington Post. “They killed soldiers at prayer in a mosque and others in a dining facility.“ The Taliban said four of the attackers were soldiers who knew the base well and had changed sides. The group denied attacking the mosque, saying soldiers were targeted in their barracks.


►  What Happens to ISIS Babies When Their Parents Die

Hundreds of children fathered by the Islamic State’s foreign fighters or brought to the self-proclaimed caliphate by their parents are now imprisoned or in limbo with nowhere to go, collateral victims as the militant group retreats and home countries hesitate to take them back. One young Tunisian orphan, Tamim Jaboudi, has been in a prison in Tripoli, Libya, for well over a year, the AP reports. He passed his second birthday behind bars and is nearing another, turning 3 on April 30. His parents, both Tunisians who left home to join ISIS, died in American airstrikes in Libya in February 2016, according to the child’s grandfather, who is trying to win the child’s return. “What is this young child’s sin that he is in jail with criminals?“ he asks.

Tamim now lives among two dozen Tunisian women and their children in Tripoli’s Mitiga prison, raised by a woman who herself willingly joined ISIS. Last week, an unofficial Tunisian delegation went to negotiate for the children, only to be turned back by the Libyans because it did not get permission prior to the visit; a Wednesday visit was cancelled, too. Although ISIS says women have no role as fighters, France in particular has detained women returnees and some adolescent boys who it believes pose a danger. Young children often go into foster care. While it is unclear how many children were born in ISIS territory in Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere, a snapshot of the group at its height showed as many as 31,000 women were pregnant at any given moment.


►  Divers Made Decision That Prevented Certain ‘Suicide’

A wise decision by two expert divers saved both of their lives, though one of them had to hold tight for 60 hours, 130 feet below the surface, experiencing hopelessness and hallucinations. The BBC reports on the extraordinary ordeal of Xisco Gracia, who was diving with a partner Saturday off of Spain’s island of Mallorca when an equipment malfunction left the two with just enough air for one person to make it back up top. Instead of sharing what oxygen was left—what a member of the local underwater police tells the National Post would’ve been “suicide”—Gracia, in his 50s, and Guillem Mascaro decided Mascaro would take what was left in Gracia’s tank and venture for help. Gracia remained behind in a cave’s air pocket they found (the Post describes it as a sizable one, measuring about 40,000 square feet) with only “brackish” water to drink.

The air heavy with carbon dioxide, Gracia started imagining “lights or bubbles”; his oxygen-deprived brain made him think at one point five days had passed (it hadn’t even been two) and Mascaro hadn’t made it. Rescuers did actually get near Gracia fairly quickly on Sunday, but visibility was so bad (the water dark like “cocoa”) they had to briefly pull back so they wouldn’t get lost underwater. They even tried to drill a hole through the rocks so they could get food and water to him, but that effort was unsuccessful. Eventually, however, they found Gracia about half a mile from the cave’s entrance, and the Weather Network shows a video of him emerging onto land Monday night around midnight on his own two feet, assisted by rescuers. He says he still plans on diving again.

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►  Leaders of IMF and World Bank defend globalization

World finance leaders on Thursday defended globalization against an assault from Donald Trump and European populists. They argued that blocking free trade would hobble economic growth instead of saving jobs from foreign competition.

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim told journalists that freer trade and more openness were “critical for the future of the world.“
Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said that the answer to the wave of populism gaining support in many countries was to work for “more growth and better growth” in the world economy.

Lagarde and Kim spoke at the opening of three days of discussions among global finance leaders representing the 189 countries that are members of the IMF and its sister lending organization, the World Bank.

The spring meetings, which will also include discussions Friday among finance ministers and central bank leaders from the Group of 20 major economic powers, were likely to be dominated by talk over the Trump administration’s efforts to reduce America’s huge trade deficits, which Trump during the presidential campaign blamed for the loss of millions of good-paying factory jobs.

The United States will be represented at the meetings by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen.

Trump tapped into a rising backlash against free trade during the campaign, pledging that he would impose punitive tariffs of up to 45 percent on countries such as China and Mexico which he blamed for pursuing unfair trade practices that were hurting American workers. While he had said that he would brand China a currency manipulator immediately on taking office, the administration sent Congress a report last week that found China was not manipulating its currency.

The Treasury report did put China and five other nations including Japan and Germany on a “monitoring list” which will subject them to increased consultations aimed at lowering their large trade surpluses with the United States.

The anti-globalization backlash has also shown up in Europe, playing a factor in last summer’s vote in Britain to exit the European Union, and also in the election campaigns in other countries including this Sunday’s vote for president in France.

Mnuchin spoke Thursday at a conference sponsored by the Institute of International Finance, an organization representing the world’s biggest banks. He said that the Trump administration’s view was that “what is good for the U.S. economy is good for the global economy” because stronger growth in the United States will have a spillover effect for other nations.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, speaking to a different Washington audience on Thursday, conceded that free trade was currently under attack in ways that could end up being harmful such as Britain’s move to leave the 28-nation European Union, a process that has been dubbed Brexit.

“For both sides this is not a good situation. It’s something like a lose-lose situation, not a win-win situation,“ Schaeuble said. “It must be clear that the rest of Europe stands together.“

To lift the U.S. economy to growth of 3 percent or higher, up from the 2 percent rates seen in recent years, Mnuchin said the administration was focused on getting tax reform through Congress and also getting rid of unnecessary regulations.

Mnuchin said the administration’s tax plan would be released “very soon.“ While Mnuchin had set a goal of getting it passed by the August recess of Congress, that goal has slipped. But he said that the administration still hoped to get a measure through Congress well before the end of the year.

Mnuchin is also working on proposals to overhaul the regulations put in place by the Dodd-Frank Act passed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. He said he would have a report with recommendations to present to the president by June that would address “the major issues” in the drive to revamp the Dodd-Frank law.

Trump has backed away from some of his campaign threats on trade. But on Thursday, he ordered the Commerce Department to speed up an investigation into whether steel imports jeopardize U.S. national security — a move that could lead to tariffs on imported steel from countries such as Canada, Brazil and South Korea.

Lagarde said that the IMF and its member nations needed to “protect free, fair and global trade.“ In an interview Thursday with CNBC, Lagarde said that the goal of all nations should be to promote a level playing field in trade.

In his World Bank news conference, Kim said a recent study showed that of all the job losses that have hit industrial countries in recent years, at most only 20 percent could be blamed on increased trade competition. He said the biggest factor in the job losses was increased automation.

“My message is you’re not going to bring these old jobs back,“ Kim said. “Every country in the world has to think about how it’s going to compete in the economy of the future.“


►  This Man Will Be One of Central Europe’s Last Hermits

“When I read about the Saalfelden hermitage, I thought to myself: that’s the place for me,“ says Stan Vanuytrecht. The mayor of the Austrian town, perched in the Alps, thought it was just the spot for Vanuytrecht, too. Vanuytrecht, a bearded, pipe-smoking Catholic deacon from Belgium, beat out 49 other applicants to nab the unpaid post as part-time hermit of the 350-year-old cliffside dwelling, which is without running water, heat, and internet, reports the Guardian. But Vanuytrecht couldn’t care less about the lack of amenities. The 58-year-old divorcee and former artillery officer says he’s previously lived in poverty and is looking forward to a life of solitary peace when he takes up his new post on April 30.

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But Vanuytrecht won’t be too isolated during his seasons at the hermitage, open from April to November, as visitors are known to hike up for a chat and some counseling, per the BBC. Vanuytrecht, who speaks fluent German, says his experience working with the homeless, addicts, prisoners, and psychiatric patients will help him deliver meaningful advice. “It’s important just to listen without talking oneself and without judging,“ he says, per the Telegraph. Though Vanuytrecht adds he thought he “didn’t have a chance,“ Saalfelden’s mayor says he “radiates calm and comes across as well-anchored.“ Outside reports the job listing called Saalfelden home to one of the last “tenanted hermitages” in Central Europe.


►  Freak Wave Turns Family Vacation Into Nightmare

A family in England is in mourning after a vacation turned into a horrifying fight for life that both the father and a toddler daughter ultimately lost. The Bruynius family had traveled from London to a resort in Cornwall and were fishing on rocks on the beach when conditions changed rapidly for the worse, reports Cornwall Live. As the mother, Lisinda, described it at an inquest this week, a wave hit them “out of nowhere” and sent them scrambling for safety up the rocks. But then a second wave struck, sending Lisinda, husband Rudy, and their 2-year-old daughter McKayla, still in her stroller, into the choppy waters below. Their two older boys made it to safety.

“Rudy had managed to get McKayla from the buggy and she was in his arms,“ recounts Lisinda. “I could hear Rudy screaming for help and I could hear the boys screaming for help.“ Rudy lost his grasp on their daughter, and when Lisinda managed to swim to him, he was unconscious and McKayla was nowhere in sight. All were pulled from the water by rescuers within 15 minutes, but Rudy died that night and McKayla four days later, reports the Guardian. A detective says waves went from 6 feet to 13 feet in a half-hour. Six people in total drowned around the coast that tragic weekend, reports the BBC. More than 1,800 people have donated about $64,000 to the Bruynius family on JustGiving.com.


►  Germany: Bus Bomber Plotted to Tank Stock, Blame Muslims

A 28-year-old German-Russian citizen was arrested Friday in Germany on suspicion of bombing the bus carrying the Borussia Dortmund soccer team in an attack last week that prosecutors alleged was motivated by financial greed. A Dortmund player and a policeman were injured in the triple blasts last week as the bus was heading to the team’s stadium for a Champions League match against AS Monaco. Investigators found notes at the scene claiming responsibility in the name of Islamic extremists, but quickly doubted their authenticity, the AP reports. Prosecutors say the suspect, identified only as Sergej W., faces charges of attempted murder, causing an explosion, and serious bodily harm.

Prosecutors revealed that the suspect had bought a large number of so-called put options for shares of Borussia Dortmund. These would have entitled him to sell the 15,000 shares at a pre-determined price, which could have resulted in a substantial profit if their value had fallen in the meantime. “A significant share price drop could have been expected if a player had been seriously injured or even killed as a result of the attack,“ prosecutors said. The suspect had booked into the team’s hotel in Dortmund and placed three explosives, packed with shrapnel, along the route the bus would take to reach the stadium, prosecutors said.


►  Russia Bans Jehovah’s Witnesses

Russia’s Supreme Court on Thursday banned Jehovah’s Witnesses from operating anywhere in the country, accepting a request from the justice ministry that the religious organization be considered an extremist group, the AP reports. The court ordered the closure of the group’s Russian headquarters and its 395 local chapters, as well as the seizure of its property. The Interfax news agency quoted Justice Ministry attorney Svetlana Borisova in court as saying that Jehovah’s Witnesses pose a threat to Russians. “They pose a threat to the rights of citizens, public order, and public security,“ she told the court. Borisova also said Jehovah’s Witnesses’ opposition to blood transfusions violates Russian health care laws.

Yaroslav Sivulsky, a spokesperson for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, said they are “greatly disappointed by this development and deeply concerned about how this will affect our religious activity.“ Jehovah’s Witnesses said they would appeal the ruling. Jehovah’s Witnesses claim more than 170,000 adherents in Russia. The group has come under increasing pressure over the past year, including a ban on distributing literature deemed to violate Russia’s anti-extremism laws. Human Rights Watch criticized Thursday’s decision as an impediment to religious freedom in Russia. The rights group also expressed concern that if the ruling takes effect, Jehovah’s Witnesses could face criminal prosecution and punishment ranging from fines to prison time.


►  Only One Way to ‘Stave Off Disaster’ in French Election

France votes Sunday in a presidential election further roiled by the fatal shooting of a police officer in an attack claimed by ISIS. On Friday, Trump tweeted that the shooting would “have a big effect” on the vote, without offering specifics. But the Washington Post points out that far-right candidate Marine Le Pen has espoused anti-immigration sentiments similar to Trump’s, and she doubled down Friday by calling for the reinstatement of border checks and the deportation of foreigners being monitored by intelligence agencies. A look at election coverage:

  • Eleven candidates are running, but four are neck-and-neck: Le Pen; Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker who says he’s neither left nor right; the scandal-plagued Francois Fillon, the only establishment candidate in the running; and Jean-Luc Melenchon, known as the “French Bernie Sanders.“ See NPR for quick bios on each.
  • Assuming no candidate gets 50%, the top two finishers go to a runoff on May 7, explains a primer at the Globe and Mail.
  • The Guardian has a profile of Le Pen, who has tried to distance herself from her Holocaust-denying father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the National Front Party she now leads.  Their relationship imploded when she kicked him out of the party; he disowned her and they no longer speak. An analysis at the Atlantic says she specializes in demonizing Jews and Muslims while pitting them against each other.
  • At 39, the centrist Macron would be France’s youngest leader since Napoleon, per a profile at RTE. In its own profile, the BBC notes an unusual aspect of his life that has made headlines: His wife, 24 years his senior and married with kids when they met, was his drama teacher when he was a teenager.
  • Former President Obama, popular in France, made a point to call Macron on Thursday, notes Time.
  • There’s much talk of a “Frexit,“ meaning the exit of France from the European Union. Le Pen and Melenchon in particular have raised the prospect. The New York Times has a look at that and other factors at play.
  • John Oliver thinks the stakes are huge for Europe and the world, and he explains why HERE .
  • One person likely to be happy with the outcome? Vladimir Putin. That’s because Melenchon, Le Pen, and Fillon are “unabashed pro-Putin populists,“ per Quartz.
  • At Slate, Yascha Mounk makes the case that a victory by Macron “is the only realistic way to stave off disaster,“ given the alternatives.


►  Election Security ‘Fully Mobilized’ After Paris Attack

Police say the gunman shot dead after killing a policeman and wounding two others in Paris Thursday was a 39-year-old man already known to authorities as a potential Islamist radical, the BBC reports. Three of his family members have been taken into custody and another man suspected of having links to the attack has surrendered to police in Belgium. Official sources tell the AP that the gunman was detained in February for threatening police then freed. He was convicted in 2003 of attempted homicide in the shooting of two other police officers, say the sources, speaking on condition of anonymity because authorities have not publicly disclosed the man’s identity.

France began picking itself up Friday from the attack, which was claimed by ISIS, with President Francois Hollande calling together the government’s security council and his would-be successors in the presidential election campaign treading carefully before voting this weekend. Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve says the government has reviewed its already extensive election security measures and it is “fully mobilized” in the wake of the attack. He says “nothing must hamper this democratic moment, essential for our country.“ Candidates, who are banned from campaigning after Friday at midnight, canceled or rescheduled final campaign events ahead of Sunday’s first-round vote.

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►  ‘Mother of All Marches’ Leaves 3 Dead in Venezuela

What anti-government activists in Venezuela called the “mother of all marches” turned bloody on Wednesday, with at least three people killed and dozens more injured during rallies and marches across the country. The Guardian reports that at least one opposition lawmaker was hospitalized after taking part in the demonstrations, and photos shared online showed opposition leader Henrique Capriles choking on teargas during a protest in Caracas. Thousands of people clashed with soldiers and riot police in the capital, with protesters building barricades and throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at security forces.

The AP reports that one of the people shot dead during the protest in Caracas was Carlos Romero, who was three days away from his 18th birthday. Family members say he was on his way to play soccer when he found himself between protesters and pro-government militias. Another victim was a 23-year-old woman shot dead by militia members as she was on her way home from a protest, according to the mayor of the city of San Cristobal. A third victim, a National Guardsman, was reportedly shot dead by a sniper. Protesters, including Catholic clergy members, are seeking to oust President Nicolas Maduro. The opposition has called for another mass protest on Thursday.


►  Images of North Korea Nuclear Test Site Show ... Volleyball

What are North Korean workers doing when not preparing for a nuclear test? Letting loose on the volleyball court, apparently. “Unusual” satellite images of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, snapped on Sunday and described in a 38 North report, reveal not the expected preparations for the country’s sixth nuclear test but rather three concurrent games of volleyball, reports the New York Times. Since North Korea knows when satellites zip overhead, analysts say the games at the main administrative area, guard barracks, and support area of the command center—plus an apparently unused volleyball net at the command center—were likely meant to convey some sort of message, though they aren’t exactly sure what.

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“They’re either sending us a message that they’ve put the facility on standby, or they’re trying to deceive us,“ according to one expert. “We really don’t know.“ The games could also signal a “tactical pause,“ per CNN. Analysts still believe the site is ready for another nuclear test at any time. But they say much of the activity seen at the site over the last eight weeks appears to have ended. Vehicles and trailers have disappeared from roads. And though there are minor signs of tunneling, “the pumping of water out of the tunnel to maintain an optimal environment for instrumentation and stemming seems to have ceased,“ the report states. Still, the games aren’t new: Per the 38 North report, “Personnel playing volleyball at the Punggye-ri nuclear test facility have also been identified on a number of occasions as far back as 2006 prior to the first nuclear test and more recently in February.“


►  As Venezuela Seizes Plant, GM Calls Out ‘Total Disregard’

As demonstrators march across Venezuela to protest President Nicolas Maduro’s administration, General Motors is dealing with its own problems in Valencia. The automaker said in a statement Wednesday that its plant there was illegally snatched by public officials and that “other assets,“ including vehicles, had been swiped from the factory, Reuters reports. The company has nearly 80 dealers in the country, as well as about 2,700 workers, and it says those who are affected by the seizure will now receive “separation payments,“ per the Detroit Free Press. GM’s statement calls the takeover a “total disregard” of its legal rights and says it will battle to defend those rights both “within and outside of Venezuela,“ CNNMoney reports. Reuters notes it’s not the first time Venezuela has appropriated factories located there.


►  The Land Where the Dead Never Die

In most parts of the world, wakes and funerals are the main form of ceremonial closure people have when a loved one passes away. Things are a little different in Indonesia’s Toraja region in Sulawesi, where Sahar Zand headed for the BBC to reveal a ritual most may find macabre: keeping dead bodies at home for months, even years. The families here, based partly on superstition that the departed person’s spirit will haunt them otherwise, preserve the corpses of loved ones with a special chemical made of formaldehyde and methanol, then position them right in the middle of the household’s activities, bringing the bodies food and water, bathing them, and even leaving the lights on all night as they keep referring to them in the present tense. This all takes place until family members have completed the mourning process in their own time and accepted that the deceased person is really dead.

This unusual transition eventually culminates with the body’s “grand procession” around town and an “unimaginably lavish funeral,“ which Torajans often save up their whole lives for so they can afford the best final send-off possible, with guests from around the globe invited to bear witness. One elaborate funeral Zand attended was a four-day event that cost the man’s family more than $50,000 and included the slaughter of hundreds of pigs and two dozen buffaloes (among the locals, buffaloes are thought to be the creatures that transport the dead to the afterlife, where their souls are then reincarnated). But as Zand explains, “Even interment doesn’t mean goodbye,“ with a reunion of sorts between the living and the dead every couple of years. More on the fascinating, if somewhat morbid, practice HERE .


►  Town Suddenly Dwarfed by Massive Iceberg

A small town on the coast of Newfoundland is—in the words of one local—suddenly “swarming with people” after a huge iceberg recently set up shop there, the CBC reports. The iceberg—150 feet above the water at its tallest point—got stuck in the shallow waters off Ferryland, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to move anytime soon. The iceberg is so big it dwarfed a helicopter that recently appeared to land on it. According to Quartz, unusually strong winds and rising Arctic temperatures could be responsible for an increase in icebergs in the area, including the one stuck in Ferryland.

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Hundreds of people are causing unprecedented traffic jams in the small town, trying to get photos of the iceberg, which are proliferating on social media. Ferryland Mayor Adrian Kavanagh tells VOCM the iceberg is a great way to start the tourist season—though a little early, as the town’s two restaurants don’t open until later in May. “We just gotta find a way to keep that iceberg there,“ he says. Kavanagh says the iceberg is the biggest he’s ever seen in Ferryland and people are interested “in that kind of stuff.“

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►  10 Vehicles Most Likely to Hit 200K Miles

Hoping your car makes it to 200,000 miles? An analysis at iSeeCars.com finds that the odds are steep. Any vehicle can make it with proper maintenance, notes the site, but it looked at all the models on the road and found that the industry average is just 1.3%. Here’s a look at the top performers, along with the percentage of those models to reach the milestone:

  1. Ford Expedition 5.7%
  2. Toyota Sequoia 5.6%
  3. Chevrolet Suburban 4.8%
  4. Toyota 4Runner 4.7%
  5. GMC Yukon XL 4.2%
  6. Chevrolet Tahoe 3.5%
  7. GMC Yukon 3.0%
  8. Toyota Avalon 2.6%
  9. Toyota Tacoma 2.5%
  10. Honda Accord 2.3% (tie)
  11. Honda Odyssey 2.3% (tie)

And the top 10, not counting SUVs or trucks:

  1. Toyota Avalon 2.6%
  2. Honda Accord 2.3% (tie)
  3. Honda Odyssey 2.3% (tie)
  4. Ford Taurus 1.9%
  5. Chevrolet Impala 1.5% (tie)
  6. Toyota Camry 1.5% (tie)
  7. Nissan Maxima 1.5% (tie)
  8. Toyota Sienna 1.4%
  9. Honda Civic 1.3% (tie)
  10. Dodge Grand Caravan 1.3% (tie)
  11. Subaru Legacy 1.3% (tie)

Click for the FULL RANKINGS.


►  Russian Bombers ‘Show Their Teeth’ in Alaska Fly-By

“Nothing to see here,“ was US military officials’ reaction to an incident this week involving Russia off the coast of Alaska—even though the Air Force sent two F-22 fighter jets and an early-warning plane to address the situation. A spokeswoman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command tells the New York Times that two Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers zipped within 100 miles of Kodiak Island Monday evening, within a few hundred miles of the airspace around the US and Canada known as the Air Defense Identification Zone. Fox News first reported on the incident after US officials confirmed that the bombers, which are said to be capable of carrying nuclear weapons, flew about 280 miles southwest of Elmendorf Air Force Base, causing the US to scramble the F-22s and an E-3 early-warning plane to intercept them.

Lt. Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, head of Alaska’s NORAD region, tells the Alaska Dispatch News Monday’s incident, from detection to interception, took place over about two hours, between 6pm and 8pm. He noted there was no communication between the US and Russian pilots during the “extremely proficient” maneuvers, though they “waved at one other.“ But even though GOP Representative Adam Kinzinger told Wolf Blitzer on CNN the Russians were “trying to show their teeth,“ US military officials said the incident was “nothing out of the ordinary” and “not dissimilar from what we’ve seen in the past with respect to Russian long-range aviation.“ Fox notes that July 4, 2015, was the last time Russian bombers hovered so close to the US, when two bombers flew near Alaska and California, coming within 40 miles of Mendocino.

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►  Found in Vacant Nigerian Apartment: $43M

Apparently not a Nigerian scam: the $43 million discovered in an empty apartment in Lagos. CTV News cites a Facebook post last week from the country’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, which revealed the “humongous find” after a whistleblower clued the authorities in that morning on the suspicious movements of a “haggard” woman with filthy clothes who was carrying “Ghana Must Go” bags in and out of the apartment.

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EFCC was told by guards that no one lived there, so officials got a warrant and forced entry, unearthing the money (which also included more than $37,000 in British pounds and upward of $75,000 in Nigerian currency) in two of the bedrooms, with some stashed in fireproof cabinets hidden behind panels in a wardrobe. Nigerian officials are still investigating where the money came from. Meanwhile, Mashable notes that basically the entire internet made the same exact “wish I’d responded to that Nigerian prince email” joke.


►  Secret UN Holocaust Files Contain ‘New Evidence’

In late 1944, the UN War Crimes Commission indicted Adolf Hitler in secret, and it’s far from the only clandestine thing related to the commission, which was commissioned before the actual United Nations was in 1945. As the Guardian reports, the secret material held in the UNWCC’s archive for decades is now being made public. Previously, only researchers with government and the UN secretary general’s approval could read the documents, many of which were smuggled out of Eastern Europe and used in subsequent Nazi trials. They’ll be accessible online through the London-based Wiener Library, which describes itself as the “world’s oldest Holocaust library.“ Its archivist says “it may well be that people will be able to rewrite crucial chapters of history using the new evidence.“ Among some of the details already making press:

  • The Jewish News hails the “extraordinary detail” collected about Adolf Hitler’s concentration camps, flagging an April 1944 description of how “the terracotta floors in the chambers… became very slippery when wet.“
  • Haaretz reports the material was removed from Eastern Europe beginning in 1943, which it interprets thusly: “the West knew of Nazi war crimes before discovering concentration camps.“ (Per the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the first major camp was found in 1944, with Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen liberated in 1945.)
  • The Independent alters that date a hair and makes a more forceful assertion, writing, “The Allied Powers were aware of the scale of the Jewish Holocaust two-and-a-half years earlier than is generally assumed ... as early as December 1942, the US, UK and Soviet governments were aware that at least 2 million Jews had been murdered” and another 5 million were threatened.
  • Another surprise from the archive, per the Guardian: Its documents show war crime tribunals were taking on crimes of rape and forced prostitution in the late 1940s, though it’s popularly been thought the “legal innovation” arose after the 1990s Bosnian conflict.


►  Theresa May Drops Political Bombshell

British Prime Minister Theresa May dropped what’s seen as a political bombshell Tuesday with a surprise call for an early election in June. The next election had been scheduled for 2020, and May had repeatedly ruled out a snap election before then, but the fallout over Brexit has changed things, reports the Guardian. “I have concluded the only way to guarantee certainty and security for years ahead is to hold this election,“ said May, per the BBC. Last month, May formally set things in motion for Britain to exit the European Union in two years, and she complained Tuesday that opposition parties, including Labour, were threatening to hold up the process.

“The country is coming together but Westminster is not,“ she said. Essentially, May is betting that voters will give her ruling Conservative Party a mandate as the complex EU negotiations continue, explains the New York Times. The flip side, of course, is that a loss would cast “deep uncertainty” over the talks, notes the Washington Post. May’s party currently holds 330 seats of the 650-seat House of Commons. She wants the election held on June 8, but it’s not a certainty: May will formally propose the idea to the House of Commons on Wednesday, where it must be approved by a two-thirds majority. May could also try to repeal the 2011 law requiring that two-thirds majority, notes the Times.


►  Missing Olympic Rower Surrenders After 18 Months

Missing Olympian rower Harold Backer walked into a police station in Canada last week, ending a 528-day mystery—but the remaining mysteries include his whereabouts during all that time, and the whereabouts of the millions of dollars that clients of his investment business say he stole from them. Backer, who was 53 when he disappeared, was charged with two counts of fraud after he surrendered himself to authorities in Victoria, BC, the CBC reports. The last confirmed sighting of him had been November 3, 2015, when he told his wife he was going for a bike ride. Surveillance footage revealed that he had taken a ferry from Canada to Port Angeles in Washington state.

The disappearance of Backer, who rowed for Canada in the 1984, 1988, and 1992 Olympics, became a criminal investigation within days after 15 investment clients—including friends, his brother, and his former coach, who lost $800,000—received letters confessing that his business was a pyramid scheme. He said he had lost their money in the dot-com crash 15 years earlier and couldn’t get it back. Police haven’t commented on where they think Backer spent the last 18 months. Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith says his name would have been flagged if he had tried to cross the border. “The question is: If he turned himself in in Victoria, how did he get back into Canada?“ he tells the Victoria Times Colonist.


►  Baby Hauled Into U.S. Embassy on Terrorism Suspicions

Whether Harvey Kenyon-Cairns was nervous at the US Embassy in London as he was questioned about possible terrorist activities is unclear, but his grandfather tells the Guardian Harvey was “good as gold” and didn’t cry once. Which is surprising, as Harvey is a 3-month-old British infant, caught up in what grandpa Paul Kenyon calls a “genuine mistake” that led to more than $3,700 in extra costs to make a Florida vacation happen after Harvey’s travel papers didn’t show up in time. It all started when the elder Kenyon was preparing for his extended family’s trip from the UK to Orlando and filling out Electronic System for Travel Authorization forms, which the Telegraph explains are necessary if one is traveling to the US under a visa waiver program.

But after filling out five forms for himself and other family members, Kenyon mistakenly checked “yes” for the question on Harvey’s form that asked: “Do you seek to engage in or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities, espionage, sabotage, or genocide?“ The family had to cart Harvey on a 10-hour round trip from his home in Cheshire to the London Embassy, where he was apparently cleared of all terrorist ties—though “he has sabotaged quite a few [diapers] in his time,“ his grandpa notes. Kenyon, who’d considered dressing baby Harvey up in an orange prison suit for his interview, decided against it because the Embassy “didn’t appear to have a sense of humor over it.“ Kenyon also points out that “if you were a terrorist, I suspect you’d not be ticking yes on the ESTA form anyway.“


►  Karzai: Ghani a ‘Traitor’ for Allowing MOAB

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai is mincing no words in assessing the United States’ bombing of an ISIS stronghold with its second-largest non-nuclear device, reports the New York Times: “Shame, shame,“ he says of current President Ashraf Ghani’s admission that his government coordinated the bombing with the Trump administration. “No Afghan with self-respect would do that. He is a traitor, a traitor.“ Karzai further said he will work toward “ousting the US,“ and the Times notes that he has grown more vocal in his anti-American sentiment since leaving office—despite having largely come to power on the back of the American military. Karzai is denouncing the bomb to anyone who will listen, telling al Jazeera that “This was an inhuman act, a brutal act against an innocent country, against innocent people, against our land, against our sovereignty, against our soil and against our future.“

Ghani’s office wouldn’t respond directly, but said only in a statement that “Every Afghan has the right to speak their mind. This is a country of free speech.“ The Times finds dissent on the bombing within Afghanistan, with one conservative Islamist party rep dismissing the use of the so-called “Mother of all Bombs” as nothing more than a show of American power for the benefit of the likes of North Korea. A powerful governor, meanwhile, said he was in favor of the MOAB, as well as any “crackdown on insurgents and fundamentalists.“ But most Afghans will consider the messenger in evaluating Karzai’s anti-American comments, a journalist tells al Jazeera: “At least for a decade, he was using US bodyguards to protect himself. Now he is talking about pushing the US to leave Afghanistan. This is something people will not believe.“


►  Fugitive Mexican Gov Busted in Tourist Town

The former governor of Mexico’s Veracruz state who is accused of running a corruption ring that allegedly pilfered millions of dollars from state coffers was detained in Guatemala after six months as a fugitive and high-profile symbol of government graft in his country. Javier Duarte, pale and visibly tired, was brought Sunday to a prison at a military base in the Guatemalan capital, reports the AP. A statement from Mexico’s federal Attorney General’s Office said Duarte was detained Saturday with the cooperation of Guatemalan police and the country’s Interpol office in Panajachel, a picturesque tourist town. He is wanted on suspicion of money laundering and organized crime, and prosecutors directed the Foreign Relations Department to request Duarte’s extradition via its Guatemalan counterpart.

Manuel Noriega, deputy director of Interpol in Guatemala, said Duarte was located at a hotel with his wife. He was asked to leave his room, did so voluntarily, and then was arrested without incident in the lobby. Noriega said Duarte would be presented before a judge to consider his extradition. “I have no comment, thank you,“ Duarte told the AP. Duarte, 43, was governor of Veracruz from 2010 until he left office October 12, 2016, two months before the end of his term, saying he was doing so in order to face the allegations against him. Duarte promptly disappeared and had been sought by Mexican authorities since. Earlier this year, Interpol issued a notice for his capture. The Mexican government has found millions of dollars purportedly linked to Duarte, frozen more than 100 bank accounts and also seized property and businesses tied to him. A reward of $730,000 had been offered for his capture.


►  Father-Daughter Surf Outing Turns Tragic

A teen surfing off the southern coast of Australia died Monday after she was attacked by a shark, the AP reports. ABC Australia says the 17-year-old was surfing with her dad near the Kelp Beds surfing break, off of Esperance, at the same beach where a surfer suffered serious injuries from a shark attack in 2014. The girl was attacked around 4pm while her mom and sisters watched from the shore, PerthNow notes. Paramedics tried to help her on the beach, but she was soon taken to a local hospital in critical condition, and died of her injuries, per local cops. Although police haven’t said what kind of shark may have killed the teen, PerthNow says a local shark-watch site flagged two sightings nearby of great white sharks (perhaps the same one) in the week before the attack.


►  North Korea Warns of Possible Nuclear War

North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador accused the United States on Monday of turning the Korean Peninsula into “the world’s biggest hotspot” and creating “a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment.“ Kim In Ryong told a news conference that “if the US dares opt for a military action,“ North Korea “is ready to react to any mode of war desired by the US,“ the AP reports. He said the Trump administration’s deployment of the Carl Vinson nuclear carrier task group to waters off the Korean Peninsula again “proves the US’ reckless moves for invading the DPRK have reached a serious phase of its scenario.“ Kim stressed that US-South Korean military exercises being staged now are the largest-ever “aggressive war drill” aimed at his country, formally the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“The prevailing grave situation proves once again that the DPRK was entirely just when it increased in every way its military capabilities for self-defense and pre-emptive attack with a nuclear force as a pivot,“ he said. Tensions have escalated over North Korean moves to accelerate its weapons development. The North conducted two nuclear tests and 24 ballistic missile tests last year, defying six Security Council sanctions resolutions banning any testing, and it has conducted additional missile tests this year including one this past weekend that failed. Kim spoke on a day that US Vice President Mike Pence traveled to the tense zone dividing North and South Korea and warned Pyongyang that after years of testing the US and South Korea with its nuclear ambitions, “the era of strategic patience is over.“

In The World….

The Free Press WV

►  10 Worst Product Flops of All Time

Remember Google Glass? Google would likely rather forget it. The wearable technology tops the worst product flops of all time, according to 24/7 Wall St, which outlines the top 50 (though it doesn’t share its methodology in compiling the list). While Google Glass faced privacy concerns and public bans, other products on the list suffered from flaws, overpricing, and bad advertising. The 10 worst product flops:

  1. Google Glass (2013)
  2. Apple’s Newton personal digital assistant (1993)
  3. Atari’s ET the Extra-Terrestrial video game (1982)
  4. Burger King’s Satisfries (2013)
  5. RJ Reynolds’ smokeless cigarettes (1988)
  6. Frito-Lay’s Cheetos Lip Balm (2005)
  7. Fox’s Terra Nova TV show (2011)
  8. Clairol’s Touch of Yogurt shampoo (1979)
  9. Coca-Cola’s New Coke (1985)
  10. Microsoft’s Windows Vista (2007)

Click for the FULL LIST.


►  Explosion Hits Buses Carrying Evacuating Syrian Families

Syrian TV says at least 39 people were killed Saturday in an explosion that hit near buses carrying people evacuated from a besieged area of government loyalists. A war monitor puts the death toll at 24 in the area controlled by opposition fighters, the AP reports. The explosion Saturday was caused by a car bomb, according to Syrian TV and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, causing massive destruction.

In footage aired on Syrian TV, bodies were strewn outside buses, including fighters. Some buses were charred and other gutted from the explosion as belongings hanged out of windows. The explosion hit an area where buses were carrying nearly 5,000 people from Foua and Kfraya, villages in northern Syria that have been besieged by rebels. They were evacuated Friday, along with more than 2,000 from Madaya, a town outside of Damascus which was besieged by government forces.


►  North Korea Warns of ‘All-Out War’

North Korea paraded its intercontinental ballistic missiles in a massive military display in central Pyongyang on Saturday, with ruler Kim Jong Un looking on with delight as his nation flaunted its increasingly sophisticated military hardware amid rising regional tensions. Kim did not speak during the annual parade, which celebrates the birthday of his late grandfather Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founding ruler, but a top official warned that the North would stand up to any threat posed by the United States, the AP reports. Choe Ryong Hae said Trump was guilty of “creating a war situation” on the Korean Peninsula by dispatching US forces to the region.

“We will respond to an all-out war with an all-out war and a nuclear war with our style of a nuclear attack,“ said Choe, widely seen by analysts as North Korea’s No. 2 official. The parade, the annual highlight of North Korea’s most important holiday, came amid growing international worries that North Korea may be preparing for its sixth nuclear test or a major missile launch, such as its first flight test of an ICBM capable of reaching US shores. The military hardware on display included tanks, rocket launchers, what may have been a new type of ICBM, powerful midrange missiles, and a solid-fuel missile designed to be launched from submarines. “You can feel the ground shake,“ says the BBC‘s John Sudworth.


►  Turkish opposition urges board to cancel referendum result

Turkey’s main opposition party on Monday urged the country’s electoral board to cancel the results of a landmark referendum that granted sweeping new powers to the nation’s president, citing what it called substantial voting irregularities.

International observers who monitored the voting also found irregularities, saying the conduct of Sunday’s referendum “fell short” of international standards. It specifically criticized a decision Sunday by Turkey’s electoral board to accept ballots that did not have official stamps, saying that undermined safeguards against fraud.

Turkey’s electoral board confirmed the “yes” victory in the referendum and said the final results would be declared in 11-12 days. The state-run Anadolu Agency said the “yes” side stood at 51.4 percent of the vote, while the “no” vote saw 48.6 percent support.

The margin could cement President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hold on power in Turkey for a decade and is expected to have a huge effect on the country’s long-term political future and its international relations. Opponents had argued the constitutional changes give too much power to a man they say has shown increasingly autocratic tendencies.

“I suspect the result was narrower than what Erdogan expected,“ said Howard Eissenstat, associate professor of Middle East History at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. However, he added, “Erdogan has ruled with a narrow victory before. He does not see a narrow victory as anything less than a mandate. His tendency has been not to co-opt the opposition but to crush it.“

On Monday, Erdogan slammed his critics at home and abroad.

“We have put up a fight against the powerful nations of the world,“ he told supporters greeting him at Ankara airport after arriving from Istanbul. “The crusader mentality attacked us abroad, inside their lackeys attacked us. We did not succumb; as a nation we stood strong.“

Opposition parties, however, cried foul on the vote. Bulent Tezcan, deputy chairman of the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, cited numerous problems in the conduct of the vote.

“This is not a text of social consensus but one of social division,“ Tezcan said. “There is a serious and solid problem of legitimacy that will forever be debated.“

An unprecedented electoral board decision to accept as valid ballots that didn’t bear the official stamp has led to outrage.

Normally for a ballot to be considered valid, it must bear the official stamp on the back, be put into an envelope that also bears an official stamp and be handed to the voter by an electoral official at a polling station. The system is designed to ensure that only one vote is cast per registered person and to avoid the possibility of ballot box-stuffing.

The board announced, however, that it would accept unstamped envelopes as valid after many voters complained about being handed blank envelopes that did not bear the official stamp. The board said the ballot papers would be considered invalid only if it was proven they were fraudulently cast.

“There is only one way to end the discussions about the vote’s legitimacy and to put the people at ease, and that is for the Supreme Electoral Board to cancel the vote,“ Tezcan said.

He said it was not possible for authorities to determine how many ballot papers may have been irregularly cast.

Tana de Zulueta, head of the observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the ballot decision undermined important safeguards against fraud and contradicted Turkey’s own laws.

The monitoring group described a series of irregularities in the referendum, including a skewed pre-vote campaign in favor of the “yes” vote, the intimidation of the “no” campaign and the fact that the referendum question was not listed on the ballot.

De Zulueta said overall, the procedures “fell short of full adherence” to the standards Turkey had signed up for. The OSCE cannot sanction Turkey for its conduct of the vote but it can suggest recommendations.

Electoral board head Sadi Guven rejected opposition claims of foul play, saying none of the ballot papers declared valid was “fake” or fraudulently cast. Guven said the decision was made so that voters who were by mistake given unstamped ballot papers would not be “victimized.“

“The ballot papers are not fake, there is no (reason) for doubt,“ Guven said.

The referendum approves 18 constitutional amendments that will replace Turkey’s parliamentary system of governance with a presidential one.

The changes allow the president to appoint ministers, senior government officials and half the members of Turkey’s highest judicial body, as well as to issue decrees and declare states of emergency. They set a limit of two five-year terms for presidents.

The new presidential system takes effect at the next election, currently slated for 2019. Other changes will take effect sooner, including scrapping a clause requiring the president to be impartial, allowing Erdogan to regain membership of the ruling party he founded — or even to lead it.

The referendum campaign was highly divisive and heavily one-sided, with the “yes” side dominating the airwaves and billboards. Supporters of the “no” vote complained of intimidation, including beatings, detentions and threats.

CHP legislator Utku Cakirozer told The Associated Press his party would file official objections Monday to results at local electoral board branches, before taking their case to the Supreme Electoral Board.

“At the moment, this is a dubious vote,“ he said.

The country’s pro-Kurdish party said it may take the case to the European Court of Human Rights if the electoral board does not reverse its decision and nullify the ballots lacking official stamps.

Ismail Calisan, an Ankara resident, accepted the result with grace.

“Even though I choose “no” and the results came out “yes,“ I wish the best to our country,“ he said.

Yet in Istanbul, accountant Mete Cetinkaya was worried about his country’s future.

“I don’t see the country is going down a good path,“ he said, sitting by the Bosporus. “Tayyip Erdogan may have done more good than the other big players (of Turkish politics) ... but I think of Tayyip Erdogan as just the best of the worst.“


►  Leftist Who Uses Holograms Rising Sharply in French Polls

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and independent Emmanuel Macron have been drawing the lion’s share of attention as the French presidential election nears (the first round is April 23), but a leftist candidate who has used a hologram of himself to stump at campaign rallies is now gaining some traction. In what the Washington Post calls a “truly unprecedented campaign,“ Jean-Luc Melenchon has seemingly emerged out of thin air as the Unbowed France candidate, with added support from the French Communist Party—and he “gives shivers to banks, businesspeople, and the bourgeoisie,“ per the New York Times. Melenchon, once considered a fringe candidate no one really paid mind to, is running on an anti-capitalism platform, with a mission to dismantle the monarchy-styled governmental system implemented by Charles de Gaulle in the late ‘50s.

Melenchon is now ahead of mainstream conservative Francois Fillon in the polls and only a couple of points behind Macron and Le Pen. He’s been speaking to the younger set with videos on YouTube and a video game in which players go after bankers and the head of the IMF. What makes this year’s election in France notable is that the slightly left-leaning Socialists and slightly right-leaning Republicans aren’t the ones duking it out for the country’s top seat. And the showdown between Le Pen and Melenchon, whom the Times says is sometimes depicted as a “French Bernie Sanders,“ even sounds strikingly like the one witnessed between Sanders and Donald Trump, with both candidates vying for voters who want to decimate the status quo, though with different tactics: Le Pen is tapping into nationalism, while Melenchon is pushing help for the poor.


►  Erdogan’s Narrow Win Could Be ‘Pyrrhic Victory’

A very narrow win for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been declared in Sunday’s referendum—so narrow that some analysts believe the vote to expand his powers and allow him to stay in office until 2029 could end up weakening him. The Wall Street Journal notes that after a long drive to stifle dissent, Erdogan’s team had been predicting a Yes vote of more than 60%, but the result certified by election authorities late Sunday was only just over 51%. This could end up being a “Pyrrhic victory” that will harden opposition to Erdogan in the months and years to come as he transforms Turkey from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential republic, warns Henri Barkey at the Woodrow Wilson Center. In other coverage:

  • European leaders are calling for Erdogan to respect the narrow result, which opposition groups have vowed to challenge, by trying to build consensus, the BBC reports. “The tight referendum result shows how deeply divided Turkish society is and that means a big responsibility for the Turkish leadership and for President Erdogan personally,“ German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a statement.
  • Amid widespread allegations of fraud, the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, says it will challenge 37% of the ballot, with the chief Kurdish party promising to challenge even more, the Guardian reports.
  • In a signal that he is once and for all ending Turkey’s attempts to join the European Union, a victorious Erdogan declared Sunday that he plans to hold a referendum to abolish the death penalty, Reuters reports. He also plans to chair a Cabinet meeting Monday, which is something traditionally done by the prime minister, whose post is being abolished.
  • Analysts tell the Washington Post that there are worrying signs for Erdogan in the strength of the opposition vote, with Kurds in the east voting the same way as secular Turks in the west of the country, and Erdogan losing Istanbul for the first time since 1994.
  • In an op-ed at the Guardian, journalist Yavuz Baydar predicts the result will bring about the “end of Turkey as we know it.“ “Journalists—such as me, abroad, or at home—will find themselves challenged even more after the referendum,“ he writes. “Coverage of corruption will be a daredevil act, severe measures against critical journalism will continue, and the remaining resistance of media proprietors will vanish.“


►  S. Korea’s Humiliated Former President Faces a New Ordeal

South Korean prosecutors on Monday indicted ex-President Park Geun-hye on bribery, extortion, abuse of power, and other high-profile corruption charges that could potentially send her to jail for life, reports the AP. It is the latest in a series of humiliations for Park, who was impeached in December, stripped of power in March, and has been in a detention facility since being arrested last month. Park will remain jailed and be escorted from the detention center to a Seoul court for a trial that is to start in coming weeks and could take as long as six months. It is unclear if the trial will start before a May 9 special election that will determine her successor.

Park, 65, was elected South Korea’s first female president in late 2012. The country will now watch as she is forced to stand in court while handcuffed, bound with rope, and possibly dressed in prison garb. If convicted, her bribery charge carries the biggest punishment, ranging from 10 years in prison to life imprisonment. While deeply unpopular among many South Koreans, Park still has supporters, and some conservative politicians and media outlets are already demanding that authorities pardon her if she’s convicted. Prosecutors also indicted Shin Dong-bin, the chairman of Lotte, South Korea’s fifth-largest business conglomerate, on a charge of offering a bribe of $6 million to Park and her friend Choi Soon-sil in exchange for a lucrative government license.


►  Turkey’s Erdogan Calling a Win; Opposition to Challenge

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is declaring victory in the contentious national referendum that could keep him in power until 2029 with vastly expanded powers, reports the Washington Post. The apparent victory isn’t exactly clear cut, with the opposition not even waiting for the ballot count to finish before declaring they would contest at least 37% of the vote, citing “problematic votes.“ But with 98% of the vote counted, Erdogan had 51.3% in his “yes” camp, reports the BBC, with about 48.7% voting against. Erdogan supporters are setting off celebratory fireworks in Istanbul, reports the AP, while the president himself is reportedly calling allies to congratulate them on the victory.

In The World….

The Free Press WV

►  Over 100 killed during Syria’s troubled population transfer

A stalled population transfer resumed Saturday after a deadly explosion killed at least 100, including children, government supporters and opposition fighters, at an evacuation point – adding new urgency to the widely criticized operation.

The blast ripped through a bus depot in the al-Rashideen area where thousands of government loyalists evacuated the day before waited restlessly for hours, as opposition fighters guarded the area while negotiators bickered over the completion of the transfer deal. Only meters away, hundreds of evacuees from pro-rebels areas also loitered in a walled-off parking lot, guarded by government troops.

Footage from the scene showed bodies, including those of fighters, lying alongside buses, some of which were charred and others gutted from the blast. Personal belongings could be seen dangling out of the windows. Fires raged from a number of vehicles as rescuers struggled to put them out.

The scenes were the last in the unyielding bloodshed Syrians are living through. Earlier this month, at least 89 people were killed in a chemical attack as children foaming at the mouth and adults gasping for last breath were also caught on camera.

The bloody mayhem that followed the Saturday attack only deepened the resentment of the transfer criticized as population engineering. It also reflected the chaos surrounding negotiations between the warring parties. The United Nations did not oversee the transfer deal of the villages of Foua and Kfraya, besieged by the rebels, and Madaya and Zabadani, encircled by the government.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack but pro-government media and the opposition exchanged accusations, each pointing to foreign interference or conspiracies undermining the deal.

State TV al-Ikhbariya said the attack was the result of a car bomb carrying food aid to be delivered to the evacuees in the rebel-held area – ostensibly crisps for the children – and accused rebel groups of carrying it out. A TV broadcaster from the area said: “There can be no life with the terrorist groups.“

“I know nothing of my family. I can’t find them,“ said a woman who appeared on al-Ikhbariya, weeping outside the state hospital in Aleppo where the wounded were transported.

Ahrar al-Sham, the rebel group that negotiated the deal, denounced the “cowardly” attack, saying a number of opposition fighters as well as government supporters were killed in the attack. The group said the attack only serves to deflect the attention from government “crimes” and said it was ready to cooperate with an international probe to determine who did it.

Yasser Abdelatif, a media official for Ahrar al-Sham, said about 30 rebel gunmen were killed in the blast. He accused the government or extremist rebel groups of orchestrating the attack to discredit the opposition.

The Syrian Civil Defense in Aleppo province, also known as the White Helmets, said their volunteers pulled at least 100 bodies from the site of the explosion. White Helmets member Ibrahim Alhaj said the 100 fatalities documented by the rescuers included many children and women, as well as fighters.

Syrian state media said at least 39 were killed, including children. The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at 43, adding that it would likely rise because of the extensive damage. A Facebook page belonging to the pro-government Foua and Kfraya villages said all those in three buses were killed or are still missing while a rebel official said at least 30 opposition fighters who were guarding the evacuees were killed in the blast.

According to Abdul Hakim Baghdadi, an interlocutor who helped the government negotiate the evacuations, 140 were killed in the attack. He added it was not clear how many rebels were killed because they were evacuated to their areas.

Hours after the explosion, the transfer resumed – as dozens of buses, starting with the wounded, left to their respective destinations. Before midnight Saturday, 100 of some 120 buses from both sides had already arrived.

The explosion hit the al-Rashideen area, a rebel-controlled district outside Aleppo city where evacuation buses carrying nearly 5,000 people from the northern rebel-besieged villages of Foua and Kfraya were stuck. Residents from the two villages had been evacuated Friday, along with more than 2,000 from Madaya, an opposition-held town outside of Damascus besieged by government forces.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the attack Saturday in a statement from his spokesman Stephane Dujarric, and called on all parties “to ensure the safety and security of those waiting to be evacuated.“

“Those responsible for today’s attack must be brought to justice,“ the statement added.

The coordinated evacuations delivered war-weary fighters and residents from two years of siege and hunger, but moved Syria closer to a division of its national population by loyalty and sect.

Madaya and Zabadani, once summer resorts to Damascus, have been shattered under the cruelty of a government siege. The two towns rebelled against Damascus’ authority in 2011 when demonstrations swept through the country demanding the end of President Bashar Assad’s rule.

Residents were reduced to hunting rodents and eating tree leaves. Photos of children gaunt with hunger shocked the world and gave new urgency to U.N. relief operations in Syria.

Foua and Kfraya, besieged by the rebels, lived under a steady hail of rockets and mortars. They were supplied with food and medical supplies through military airdrops.

Critics say the string of evacuations, which could see some 30,000 people moved across battle lines over the next 60 days, amounts to forced displacement along political and sectarian lines.

The explosion came as frustration was already mounting over the stalling evacuation process.

“The situation is disastrous,“ said Ahmed Afandar, a resident evacuated from the opposition area near Madaya. “All these thousands of people are stuck in less than half a kilometer (500 yards).“ He said the area was walled off from all sides and there were no restrooms.

Afandar said people were not allowed to leave the buses for a while before they were let out. Food was distributed after several hours and by early afternoon the evacuees from rebel-held areas were “pressured” to sit back on their buses, Afandar said.

The evacuees from Madaya headed to rebel-held Idlib, west of Aleppo. After the blast, evacuees from opposition areas pleaded for protection fearing revenge attacks.

Syrian state TV blamed the rebels for obstructing the deal.

An opposition representative, Ali Diab, accused the government side of violating the terms of the agreement, by evacuating fewer armed men than agreed to from the pro-government areas.


►  Italy plucks 2,000 migrants from the Mediterranean Sea

Italian rescue ships have plucked some 2,000 migrants from unseaworthy smugglers’ boats off the coast of Libya, with hundreds of them arriving Saturday in southern Italian ports.

One rescue ship brought 504 migrants and one corpse to Pozzallo, Sicily, and another boat brought about 500 other migrants to Augusta, Sicily.

In all, Italy’s coast guard coordinated about 20 separate rescues on Friday. The rest of the migrants were due to reach Calabria on the Italian mainland on Sunday.

Separately, authorities said Saturday that 40 Algerians in three small boats had reached Sardinia’s coast.

So far this year, some 29,000 migrants, most of them fleeing poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, have arrived in Italy after being rescued by European military ships or private charity organizations. Their numbers are expected to rise with spring’s good weather.

In Spain, the country’s maritime rescue said Saturday it had rescued 125 migrants in three small boats trying to make nighttime crossings from Africa in three smuggling boats.

The first boat, carrying 41 men and 11 women of sub-Saharan origin, was located by rescue teams shortly after midnight in the Alboran Sea east of the Strait of Gibraltar. A second group of 62 North African males, including 11 minors, was packed into a wooden boat when rescued just west of the Strait in the Atlantic Ocean.

Eleven more migrants were pulled from a small vessel in the Mediterranean Sea after a NATO aircraft alerted the rescue service.


►  U.S. Preparing for Preemptive Strike on North Korea: Report

The US is preparing to launch a preemptive strike on North Korea should the country appear ready to conduct a nuclear weapons test—something it may be considering doing as soon as this weekend. The information comes from “multiple senior US intelligence officials” speaking to NBC News. North Korea has been warning of a “big event” in the near future, and officials believe it to be a nuclear weapons test.

To prepare, the US has positioned two US destroyers, as well as heavy bombers, in the area. And an aircraft carrier strike group is on the way. Officials say the preemptive strike could be a combination of missiles, bombs, special operations forces on the ground, and cyber warfare. It would reportedly not involve nuclear weapons. One senior intelligence officer acknowledges the “high stakes” of the situation, as well as the chance that US preparations could provoke action by North Korea. For its part, North Korea has promised a “merciless retaliatory strike,“ including nuclear weapons, if the US attacks first. Read the full story HERE .


►  Le Pen, National Front Closer Than Ever to Ruling France

For the first time since her father founded the party in 1972, Marine Le Pen has an actual shot at delivering the French presidency to the National Front, the Guardian reports in a profile of the far-right candidate. The profile touches on Le Pen expelling her Holocaust-denying father from the party, her political awakening at a young age, and the manor house above Paris where her family lives “watched over by dobermans.“ The Guardian says Le Pen is the “closest she has ever been to the French presidency,“ thanks in part to her efforts to move the party past its racist and anti-Semetic past.

But those efforts may be just for show, the New York Times reports. Court documents and interviews with close associates of Le Pen accuse two of her closest friends and members of her inner circle of anti-Semitism and “Hitler nostalgia.“ Le Pen’s former top foreign adviser says the men “are real Nazis” and “are at the heart of everything” for her campaign. Meanwhile, France’s far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, may help the far-right candidate secure the presidency. According to Politico, 42% of Melenchon’s supporters say they won’t vote in the second round of the presidential election if Melenchon doesn’t make it. That would be a huge boost to Le Pen. France’s presidential election starts in less than two weeks.


►  Sylvia Plath Letters Make Dark Allegation About Ted Hughes

It’s long been known that American poet Sylvia Plath, who was married to the English poet Ted Hughes, suffered a miscarriage with their second child in 1961, a year before the poets separated. But now, unpublished letters Plath wrote to her former therapist and friend Dr. Ruth Barnhouse between February 1960 and February 1963 allege a dark detail: Plath wrote that Hughes beat her two days before the miscarriage and also told her that he wished she were dead, reports the Guardian. The Ted Hughes estate has responded on behalf of Carol Hughes, his widow, that Plath’s unpublished claims are “as absurd as they are shocking to anyone who knew Ted well.“ Plath was treated by Barnhouse after a 1953 suicide attempt. She would eventually kill herself in 1963 at the age of 30.

Plath met Hughes as a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge in 1956, and they married within months and had a daughter and son. In the letters, Plath also wrote about the pain of Hughes’ infidelity with their friend Assia Wevill in 1962. (A few years after that, Wevill killed herself and the 4-year-old daughter she had with Hughes after another Hughes affair, notes the Monitor. Like Plath, she used a gas oven.) Plath penned several poems about her miscarriage, including the line, “Already your doll grip lets go.“ Smith College, her alma mater, claims ownership of the letters in a lawsuit, which will keep the collection under wraps until settled.


►  Death Toll From ‘Mother of All Bombs’ Now Almost 100

The US commander in Afghanistan who ordered use of the “mother of all bombs” to attack an ISIS stronghold near the Pakistani border didn’t need and didn’t request Donald Trump’s approval, Pentagon officials say. The officials—who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and requested anonymity—tell the AP that even before Trump took office in January, Gen. John Nicholson had standing authority to use the bomb, which is officially called the Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, or MOAB. The bomb’s use has attracted enormous attention, but its aim in Thursday’s attack was relatively mundane by military standards: destroy a tunnel and cave complex used by ISIS fighters in a mountainous area.

Nicholson had a secondary goal in mind, however, according to a Pentagon official who says the general wanted to demonstrate to leaders of the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan the seriousness of his determination to eliminate the group as a military threat. An Afghan official said Saturday that the death toll from the bomb, the largest non-nuclear weapon ever used in combat by the US, has risen to 94. The official says the death toll could rise further, but there is no sign of civilians having been killed. Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai on Saturday criticized both the Afghan and US governments for the attack, saying allowing the US to carry out the bombing was “a national treason” and an insult to Afghanistan.


►  Last Person Born in 19th Century Dies

Emma Morano lived across three centuries, two world wars, and more than 90 Italian governments. And on Saturday, friends and family of Morano, believed to be the oldest women alive, reported her death at home in Italy, Reuters reports. She was 117. According to the BBC, Morano was born on November 29, 1899 and was believed to be the only person born in the 19th century still alive.

Morano credited her long life to genetics—a number of her sisters lived to 100—and her diet. For more than 90 years—after being diagnosed with anemia—Morano had eaten three eggs per day. Her longtime doctor says Morano subsisted on two raw eggs in the morning, an omelette for lunch, and chicken for dinner—almost never consuming fruits or vegetables.

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►  Afghanistan says massive U.S. bomb killed 36 militants

The biggest non-nuclear bomb ever dropped in combat by the U.S. military killed 36 militants in eastern Afghanistan, officials said Friday, and villagers in the remote, mountainous area described being terrified by the “earsplitting blast.“

The strike using the Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, or MOAB, was carried out Thursday morning against an Islamic State group tunnel complex carved in the mountains that Afghan forces have tried to assault repeatedly in recent weeks in fierce fighting in Nangarhar province, Afghan officials said.

U.S. and Afghan forces have been battling the Taliban insurgency for more than 15 years. But the U.S. military brought out the biggest conventional bomb in its arsenal for the first time to hit the Islamic State, which has a far smaller but growing presence in Afghanistan. That apparently reflects Donald Trump’s vow for a more aggressive campaign against the group.

The bomb — known officially as a GBU-43B but nicknamed the “mother of all bombs” — unleashes 11 tons of explosives. Pentagon video showed the bomb striking a mountainside overlooking a river valley with a giant blast that overwhelms the landscape and sent up a massive column of black smoke. Agricultural terraces are visible in the footage, but no population centers.

The Afghan Defense Ministry said in a statement that the bomb destroyed several IS caves and ammunition caches.

General Daulat Waziri, a ministry spokesman, said 36 IS fighters were killed, and that the death toll could likely rise. He said Afghan forces were at the tunnel complex assessing the damage.

The Islamic State group’s Aamaq news agency denied that any of its fighters were killed or wounded, citing a source within the group.

Waziri said the bombing was necessary because the complex was extremely hard to penetrate, with some tunnels as deep as 40 meters (over 130 feet). He called it a “strong position,“ with troops attacking it four times without advancing, adding that the complex “was full of mines.“

“This was the right weapon for the right target,“ said U.S. General John W. Nicholson, NATO commander in Afghanistan, at a news conference. He added that there were no reports of civilian casualties.

Nicholson said the bomb was intended to eliminate the militants’ sanctuary in southern Nangarhar, “and this weapon was very effective in that use.“

The office of President Ashraf Ghani said there was “close coordination” between the U.S. military and the Afghan government over the operation, and they were careful to prevent any civilian casualties.

But the massive blast still terrified villagers 20 miles away across the border in Pakistan.

Pakistani villagers living near the frontier said the explosion was so loud they thought a bomb had been dropped in their village by U.S. warplanes targeting militants in Pakistan.

“I was sleeping when we heard a loud explosion. It was an earsplitting blast,“ said Shah Wali, 46, who lives in the village of Goor Gari, 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the border with Nangarhar. “I jumped from my bed and came out of my home to see what has gone wrong in our village.“

Dozens of other villagers also came out of their homes, Wali said. He later went near the border, where he met with other residents. He said he could see smoke in the sky.

“The whole house was shaking,“ said Mufti Khan of Achin district in Nangarhar. “When I came out of my house, I saw a large fire and the whole area was burning.“

Another Achin resident, Mohammad Hakim, approved of the strike.

“We are very happy, and these kinds of bombs should be used in future as well, so Daesh is rooted out from here,“ he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

“They killed our women, youths and elders, sitting them on mines,“ Hakim added. “We also ask the Kabul government to use even stronger weapons against them.“

The U.S. estimates 600-800 IS fighters are in Afghanistan, mostly in Nangarhar. The U.S. has concentrated on fighting them while also supporting Afghan forces against the Taliban.

Trump called Thursday’s operation a “very, very successful mission.“

“I want a hundred times more bombings on this group,“ said Hakim Khan, a 50-year-old a resident of Achin.

Inamullah Meyakhil, spokesman for the central hospital in eastern Nangarhar province, said no dead or wounded had been brought to the facility from the attack.

District Governor Ismail Shinwari added that there was no civilian property near the location of the airstrike.

The Site Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist organizations, reported Friday on a statement from the Afghan Taliban that condemned the U.S. for its “terrorist” attack.

The statement said it is the responsibility of Afghans, not the U.S., to remove the Islamic State group from the country. The two militant movements are rivals.

The U.S. has more than 8,000 troops in Afghanistan, training local forces and conducting counterterrorism operations. In the past year, they have largely concentrated on thwarting a surge of attacks by the Taliban, who have captured key districts, such as Helmand province, which U.S. and British troops had fought bitterly to return to the government.


►  A Vote Sunday Could Dramatically Change Turkey

Voters in Turkey go to the polls Sunday, but this is no ordinary election. Technically, it’s about whether to shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system, reports CNBC. But the bigger issue is that it would result in sweeping new powers for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Supporters say that’s necessary to stabilize a nation in crisis, but critics fear what they say would be one-man rule devoid of checks on his power. More on what it means:

  • The Wall Street Journal lists some of the powers Erdogan would get, including the ability to appoint vice presidents and Cabinet ministers without parliament’s approval, and the authority to dissolve parliament on any grounds and issue decrees. He’d also appoint most top judges, and the prime minister’s post would disappear.
  • The changes would mean that Erdogan could theoretically remain president through 2029, reports US News & World Report.
  • The vote is expected to be close. Reuters estimates the “yes” camp has a slight edge at 51%.
  • USA Today sees “major ripple effects” of a yes vote for Europe, the Middle East, NATO, and the US. It notes that the US has a strategic military base in Turkey.
  • The Nationalist Movement Party is on the “yes” side. TRT World lists its arguments in favor of a presidential republic, including that it’s more in keeping with Turkish tradition and will benefit national security.
  • But the Economist argues that a new constitution could push Turkey “into Russia’s arms” while making Erdogan “an elected dictator.“ Given that Erdogan has shown “how cruelly power can be abused” since a failed coup, that does not bode well, the piece states.
  • Economist, mind your own business,“ responds Fahrettin Altun at Daily Sabah. He argues that the Economist and Western media in general are trying “to interfere in Turkey’s politics” to resurrect an ideal of a “dream-like ‘liberal Europe.‘“
  • The New York Times explores the question of whether Erdogan is using a refugee crisis and struggling economy “to shroud a power grab that would sound the death knell for Turkish democracy.“ Whatever the result, the short-term implications won’t be huge because Erdogan is already acting with increased authority amid the chaos. What it means for the longer term is a different story.
  • Yusef Kanli argues the referendum won’t solve Turkey’s problems, no matter the outcome. “A campaign might be over but the war still not,“ he writes at the Hurriyet Daily News.


►  For All the World to See: Video Shows Massive Bomb Strike

The “mother of all bombs” was unleashed Thursday on an ISIS target, and by Friday morning, the Defense Department had a short video up on Twitter showing the strike. The 30-second clip was embedded in a tweet that described the strike as hitting “#ISIS cave and tunnel systems in eastern #Afghanistan” and “designed to minimize risk to Afghan and US Forces.“ The falling bomb is briefly visible in the video, which shows the weapon detonating above the ground; Fox News reports the impact zone measured more than a mile in width.

The weapon, otherwise known as the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or MOAB, was so big it had to be dropped out the rear of an Air Force C-130 cargo plane. “We kicked it out the back door,“ a US official says.


►  What the ‘Mother of All Bombs’ Accomplished

The “mother of all bombs” dropped on the Islamic State in Afghanistan Thursday not only killed 36 militants but also destroyed their base within a 1,000-foot-long network of tunnels and a stockpile of weapons, says the Afghan defense ministry. A presidential spokesman tells the BBC that ISIS commander Siddiq Yar was among those killed as the GBU-43/B Massive Ordinance Air Blast bomb detonated in the Momand valley of Achin in Nangarhar province.

Officials say civilians had previously left the area and weren’t affected by the blast, which the district governor described as “the biggest I have ever seen.“ Trump says the strike was “another successful job,“ per CNN, which notes the US military had pegged the number of active ISIS militants in the area at up to 800. They had been launching attacks on Afghan troops from the tunnels. One person who was displeased by the move: former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who called it “an inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country.“


►  U.S. Has a ‘Nuke-Sniffer’ Ready to Go Near North Korea

All eyes are on North Korea this weekend for all the wrong reasons. Pyongyang celebrates the 105th anniversary of the birth of founder Kim Il Sung, and there’s fear it will mark the occasion with another nuclear test or some kind of missile launch. The US, meanwhile, is flexing its muscle with a buildup of military power in the region as the rhetoric between the two nations intensifies. Here’s a look at coverage:

  • The US has sent a plane known as a “nuke-sniffer” to an air base on Okinawa in Japan, reports Stars and Stripes. The Air Force WC-135 Constant Phoenix can detect radioactive debris in the atmosphere.
  • The Pentagon also has sent the USS Carl Vinson aircraft group to the region, though a US official calls reports of a possible preemptive strike on the North “flat wrong,“ per Reuters.
  • In Seoul, al-Jazeera sees concern that the US will strike the North without consulting South Korea. It cites an op-ed in the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper warning that “a preemptive strike could trigger a second Korean War.“ But the Wall Street Journal finds that people in the South are largely dismissive of the latest developments.
  • An analysis at the Los Angeles Times explores a range of possible actions and reactions from all the major players. It points out that US-China cooperation might yet stave off military action. And there’s also the possibility the US would negotiate directly with the North.
  • Kim might be aiming for another big payday from the South, suggests an op-ed at the Guardian: “It’s important to remember that ... cash goes a long way, especially in North Korea. That’s why Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson should keep South Korea in the loop.“
  • The birth anniversary of the nation’s founder, April 15, is known as the Day of the Sun and is the nation’s most important holiday. The pageantry “reinforces the cult of personality around the Kim family,“ observes Reuters. The Washington Post also has background on the day, noting that this “personality cult” has allowed the Kims to keep power.
  • A former acting CIA chief thinks Trump should reel it in, reports Politico. Mike Morell, who served under President Obama, says “bluster” is “raising the crisis.“
  • The North criticized Trump as “vicious and aggressive” on Friday and talked tough about retaliating in the event of any attack, while China tried to bring things down to a simmer.


►  Canada Is Legalizing Pot, but It Won’t Be a Free-for-All

Canada rolled out its big marijuana announcement a week before 4/20: The federal government has brought in legislation to make recreational marijuana legal across the country, ending a 94-year ban on the drug that the government described as an “abject failure,“ the Globe and Mail reports. But the government stresses that fulfilling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s campaign promise isn’t going to start a pot free-for-all: They say the main aim of legalization is to put criminals out of business and keep the drug out of the hands of young people. A roundup of coverage:

  • The law increases penalties for selling marijuana to young people and makes it easier to prosecute stoned drivers, who will face penalties of up to 10 years in jail, the BBC reports. The minimum age for buying or using marijuana will be 18, but provinces, which will have a lot of control over how the law is implemented, are free to raise the age limit. Adults will be allowed to grow up to four marijuana plants. Details on pricing and taxation have yet to be worked out.
  • Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says there will be an “orderly transition” while new regulations are drafted, and police will continue to enforce existing marijuana laws until legalization is introduced next summer.
  • The Cannabis Act is expected to start a wave of mergers among the 40 companies already licensed to produce medical marijuana, the Financial Post reports. The firms are expected to lobby for advertising regulations closer to those for beer than the very strict ones Canada has in place for tobacco. The act prohibits using celebrity endorsements in pot advertising.
  • In Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, Premier Kathleen Wynne says it makes a “lot of sense” to use the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which controls liquor sales and operates around 600 stores in the province, to control marijuana sales as well. She says the government-operated board already has the law’s “social responsibility” aspects covered.
  • Bill Blair, a former police chief who’s now an MP for the ruling Liberal Party, says while there’s “no guarantee” that the law will keep pot out of the hands of young people, licensing producers through Health Canada and having provincial governments control sales is a step in the right direction, the Globe and Mail reports. Today, the decision to sell or not to sell to that child is often being made by a gangster in a stairwell,“ he said Thursday. “That is completely unacceptable to us and that will be subject to serious criminal sanction.“
  • Canadian authorities say they worked closely with their American counterparts when they drafted the law, the Guardian reports. “It will be very important for people to understand that crossing the border with this product will be illegal,“ Goodale says.


►  N. Korea: U.S. Is ‘More Vicious’ Under Trump

North Korea’s vice foreign minister on Friday blamed Trump for escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula through his tweets and expansion of military exercises, saying the US was becoming “more vicious and more aggressive” under his leadership than it had been under President Obama. In an interview with the AP in Pyongyang, Vice Minister Han Song Ryol also warned the US against provoking North Korea militarily. “We will go to war if they choose,“ he said. “We’ve got a powerful nuclear deterrent already in our hands, and we certainly will not keep our arms crossed in the face of a US preemptive strike.“

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, meanwhile, says there would be no winners in an armed conflict between the US and North Korea over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. Wang told reporters Friday that all sides must stop provoking and threatening each other in their words and actions and take a flexible approach to resuming dialogue. “Once a war really happens, the result will be nothing but multiple [losses]. No one can become a winner,“ Wang says. Analysts say that while China doesn’t believe there’s an imminent risk of conflict, it will respond harshly if Pyongyang attempts another nuclear test.

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►  Aussie Cops Seek Family Who Saw Girl’s 1970 Abduction

Nearly 50 years after a 3-year-old girl was abducted from a changing room on an Australian beach—her body never found—police made an arrest in her murder. Now, police are asking for a family that witnessed Cheryl Grimmer’s abduction to come forward. Peter William Aubrey Goodyear, who was 37 at the time, made statements to police on the day the toddler disappeared in 1970, along with wife Mavis and their two daughters, 6-year-old Karen and 5-year-old Jannette. Police are trying to track them down again now, and are asking for the public’s help, the Guardian reports.

  According to the Illawarra Mercury, Goodyear told reporters at the time, “I saw a little, dark man carrying a limp, blond-haired girl to the car. My daughter said to me, ‘Daddy, why is that man carrying that little girl?‘“ Per Australia’s ABC, a detective says that at the time, Goodyear was standing outside the girls’ changing room from which Cheryl disappeared. “His wife and daughters were having a shower, [and] he was waiting outside the changing pavilion.“ The family is since believed to have moved to the UK.


►  Search Is On for Platypus Killer

Wildlife officials are calling it “a despicable act of cruelty to one of Australia’s most loved animals.“ Over the last five weeks, three platypuses have been killed and dumped in a botanical garden in New South Wales, despite the fact that the animal is protected across the country, the Guardian reports. All three, including two that were beheaded, were found in Albury Botanic Gardens, about a quarter-mile from a river where officials believe they may have been trapped. The first was found in early March by a gardener, while the others were found by visitors. A vet has confirmed the latest animal found last Wednesday had its head removed with a sharp object, ruling out an animal attack.

“We still don’t know what they’ve done with the heads” but “you can actually see where they’ve tried to cut into the vertebrae,“ a rep for the Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service tells the Border Mail. “We have no idea why anyone would do that, especially to something as gentle as a platypus,“ she adds. Anyone found to have killed a protected Australian species like a platypus, which happens to be the animal emblem of New South Wales, could face up to six months in jail and an $11,000 fine. WIRES, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and the Albury City Council are investigating, reports the Huffington Post.


►  UN votes to end Haiti peacekeeping mission in mid-October

The Security Council voted unanimously Thursday to end the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti in mid-October after 13 years, sending a strong signal that the international community believes the impoverished Caribbean nation is stabilizing after successful elections.

The peacekeepers helped normalize a country in chaos after political upheaval in 2004 and a devastating 2010 earthquake that killed as many as 300,000 people — including the head of the U.N. mission itself — as well as Hurricane Matthew, which caused widespread devastation in October.

But they also leave under a cloud. U.N. troops from Nepal are widely blamed for introducing cholera that has killed at least 9,500 people in Haiti since 2010. And some troops also have been implicated in sexual abuse, including of hungry young children, an issue reported on Wednesday by The Associated Press.

The resolution approved by the U.N.‘s most powerful body extends the mandate of the mission, known as MINUSTAH, for a final six months during which the 2,370 military personnel will gradually leave.

It creates a follow-on peacekeeping mission for an initial period of six months comprising 1,275 police who will continue training the national police force. The new mission will also assist the government in strengthening judicial and legal institutions “and engage in human rights monitoring, reporting and analysis.“

Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycrof said the resolution sends a signal that once peacekeepers aren’t needed, U.N. missions should close or transform to focus on other challenges.

“We are at the end of an important phase in Haiti,“ he said. “What we now need is a newly configured mission which is focused on rule of law and human rights.“

The United Nations has been involved in Haiti on and off since 1990. A 2004 rebellion had the country on the brink of collapse, leading to deployment of the U.N. force, and Haiti has been trying to get its shaky democracy on a firmer foundation ever since.

A political crisis and ensuing street protests stemming from a repeatedly derailed 2015 electoral cycle again threatened the stability of the country but an elected president and lawmakers are now in place.

The United States has launched a review of all 16 peacekeeping missions to assess costs and effectiveness, and U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told the Security Council that Haiti is “a success story when it comes to drawing down a peacekeeping mission.“

With the new mission, she said, “the Haitian people will be set on the path of independence and self-sufficiency.“

But citing the AP story, Haley said after the vote that while the departure of the peacekeepers “is seen as a success, unfortunately it’s a nightmare for many in Haiti who will never be able to forget and live with brutal scars.“

At least 134 Sri Lankan peacekeepers exploited nine Haitian children in a sex ring from 2004 to 2007, according to an internal U.N. report . It was part of a larger AP investigation of U.N. missions during the past 12 years that found an estimated 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers and U.N. personnel around the world.

“These peacekeepers are sent into vulnerable communities to protect the innocent, not to exploit or rape them,“ Haley said. “Countries that refuse to hold their soldiers accountable must recognize that this either stops or their troops will go home and their financial compensation will end.“

She said the United States and the international community are committed to Haiti’s “democratic development, independence and economic growth” and will also continue to push for accountability of U.N. peacekeeping missions accused of sexual abuse.

The Security Council resolution recognized the recent elections as a “major milestone towards stabilization.“ But it also said international support is needed to strengthen, professionalize and reform the police, promote economic development and face the “significant humanitarian challenges” following Hurricane Matthew, which struck in October.

The new mission authorized Thursday by the council, to be known as MINUJUSTH, is also authorized “to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence.“

The council’s decision was met with conflicting emotions in Haiti, where many fear that dark days of instability will return after the foreign soldiers depart.

“The reason why we don’t have a lot of trouble these days is because the U.N. people are still around. But once they take off, opportunities will open up for Haitians with guns to make things crazy again,“ said Gary Guerre, a 27-year-old bank clerk.

Some Haitians are anxious that the chronically dismal economy will get even worse.

“All I know is that having the U.N. people around helps Haiti’s economy a little bit. They buy stuff and it makes the foreigners feel like there’s order here,“ said Jivenson Arisme, a 24-year-old entrepreneur who set up a small roadside business selling kites and other items for the Easter holiday.

But many Haitian citizens have always seen the multinational peacekeepers as an occupying force and an affront to national sovereignty.

“They should have been out of here a long time ago. I don’t see how they’ve been helping Haiti at all. I just see them drive by here like they are on a holiday,“ said Jean Wilnive, who sells live poultry from a perch near a bustling Port-au-Prince intersection.

Aditi Gorur, who researches peacekeeping issues as a director of the Washington-based Stimson Center think tank, said that a 13-year year stabilization mission may seem like a long time, “but creating a stable peace with an inclusive government is a decades-long endeavor” in troubled countries.

“If missions don’t stay long enough to secure the gains they make and ensure that the host government is truly ready to manage security, U.N. member states will pay a much bigger price in the long-term,“ she said in an email.


►  U.S. says countries must punish UN troops for sexual abuse

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley is urging all countries that send troops to U.N. peacekeeping mission to hold soldiers accountable for sexual abuse and exploitation, an appeal that came after she cited an Associated Press investigation into a child sex ring in Haiti involving Sri Lankan peacekeepers.

Haley also warned that “countries that refuse to hold their soldiers accountable must recognize that this either stops or their troops will go home and their financial compensation will end.“

Former U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon recommended that U.N. peacekeepers accused of sexual abuse and exploitation be court martialed in countries where the alleged incidents took place. He said the U.N. would withhold payments to peacekeepers facing credible allegations.

Haley spoke after the U.N. voted to end the peacekeeping mission in Haiti in mid-October.

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►  Suspect Arrested After Soccer Team Bombed

German authorities arrested a suspected Islamic extremist Wednesday in their investigation into a bomb attack on a top German soccer team, while the team—missing a defender wounded in the blast—lost 3-2 to Monaco in a hastily rescheduled Champions League match. Amid heightened security, the defeat for Borussia Dortmund in Europe’s top club competition came less than 24 hours after three explosions shattered a window of the team’s bus and rattled nerves across the gritty city in western Germany, the AP reports. Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel said after the loss that he felt European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, had not taken the attack seriously enough as it swiftly rescheduled the match.

“Basically, we had the feeling that we were being treated as if a beer can had hit our bus,“ Tuchel said. Earlier in the day, Frauke Koehler, a spokeswoman for German federal prosecutors, said investigators are focusing on two suspected Islamic extremists in the bus attack and searched their homes, arresting one of them. But authorities said other motives are possible. Investigators found three copies of a note at the scene of the blasts, which demanded the withdrawal of German Tornado reconnaissance jets that are assisting the fight against the ISIS and the closure of the US Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Koehler said. But the region’s top security official raised the possibility the note could be “an attempt to lay a false trail.“


►  Misdirected U.S.-Led Strike Kills 18 Allied Fighters in Syria

A misdirected airstrike by the US-led coalition earlier this week killed 18 allied fighters battling the Islamic State in northern Syria, the US military said Thursday. US Central Command said coalition aircraft were given the wrong coordinates by their partner forces, the predominantly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, for a strike intended to target ISIS militants south of their Tabqa stronghold, near the extremists’ de facto capital, Raqqa. The strike hit an SDF position instead, killing 18. Central Command said the strike was launched Tuesday. Several nations have lent their air power to the US-led coalition to defeat the ISIS. It was not clear which air force was behind the strike.

  The SDF acknowledged the strike on Thursday, saying a number of its fighters were killed and wounded. The SDF-linked Hawar News Agency reported the group was holding funerals for 17 of its fighters in the border town of Tal al-Abyad, though it did not link them to the strike. An activist-run group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, says three days of mourning have been declared for the town. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 25 SDF fighters were killed in the last two days of battle. The SDF, meanwhile, announced the launch of a fourth phase of their campaign to capture Raqqa, a Euphrates River city that is home to 300,000 people.


►  Killer of U.S. Hiker on Pilgrimage Is Sentenced

A court has sentenced a Spanish man to 23 years in jail for the murder of an Arizona woman while she was walking a world-renowned pilgrimage route in Spain, the AP reports. The court Tuesday sentenced Miguel Angel Munoz, 41, to 20 years for killing 41-year-old Denise Pikka Thiem and three years for stealing some $1,100 dollars from her. A jury found Munoz guilty April 05.

Thiem, a Phoenix resident, went missing in April 2015 in a rural area of northwestern Spain while on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Munoz was arrested five months later and led investigators to Thiem’s buried body. Thiem was diverted from the pilgrimage trail by a fake marker Munoz put up to lead pilgrims near his house. She died from serious brain injuries caused by repeated beatings.


►  First Asian Country to Ban Dog, Cat Meat

A big win for animal rights activists—and a bigger win for dogs and cats—in Taiwan. With the legislature’s approval of an amendment to the country’s Animal Protection Act, Taiwan appears on track to become the first country in Asia to ban the possession, sale, purchase, and consumption of cat and dog meat, reports the Guardian. The amendment that passed Tuesday, which includes fines of up to $8,100 for offenders, still needs to be signed by the president, but Tsai Ing-wen is known to be an animal lover and is expected to do so by the end of the month. The measure also doubles the maximum penalty for animal cruelty to up to two years in prison and a $65,000 fine.

Though dog and cat meat were once popular in Taiwan, the animals are now most often viewed as pets and family members. Tsai even brought her two adopted cats along on the campaign trail prior to her election last year, while promising to do more to protect animals, reports the Telegraph. She also has three retired guide dogs, which she adopted. Animal activists hope China and South Korea, where the consumption of dog meat is more common, will follow Taiwan’s lead, per CNN. However, China’s infamous Yulin Dog Meat Festival, where 10,000 dogs are slaughtered and eaten each year, is expected to kick off without a hitch on June 21—even with 675,000 signatures on a petition calling for its end.


►  Syria population transfer begins with exchange of prisoners

Syria’s government and rebels have exchanged more than 30 prisoners and nine bodies, part of a larger agreement to evacuate thousands of residents from four besieged areas in different parts of the country, activists and officials said Wednesday.

The exchange came ahead of the planned evacuation of more than 10,000 residents from two pro-government Shiite villages in northern Syria, Foua and Kfarya, and the rebel-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus.

Critics say the transfer amounts to forced displacement. The four besieged areas have been linked through a series of agreements between government forces and rebels that the U.N. says have hindered aid access.

Hakim Baghdadi, a member of the relief committee for Foua and Kfarya, said the overnight release was overseen by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. He said gunfire erupted during the exchange, causing a pause in the process. He provided no further details. The Red Crescent had no immediate comment.

The military-run media said rebels released eight women, four children and eight bodies. Syrian TV later said 20 were released, including four children. Pro-government militias freed 19 gunmen and released one body.

Syrian al-Ikhbariya TV showed newly released women from Foua and Kfarya, sitting in a room as the TV broadcaster wished them well. A couple of children appeared in the footage drinking juice.

Videos released by rebel groups showed Red Crescent vans arriving in the rebel-held northern Idlib province overnight to chants of “God is Greatest.“ Men, some in military fatigues, embraced the released prisoners.

In a video released by Ahrar al-Sham, an ultra-Conservative rebel group, a former prisoner complained of maltreatment. As he finished speaking, a fighter handed him a loaf of bread.

A video from the military media showed the men before they were released as they sat on the floor, next to a pot of a boiling soup. A Facebook page that reports news from Foua and Kfarya showed the coffin of a Lebanese fighter who fought on the side the Syrian government, and whose body was released in the exchange.

Nearly 200 buses are to carry out the evacuation, according to the military media and Baghdadi. Abdul-Wahab Ahmad, a media activist from the rebel-held town of Madaya, said the first batch of 20 buses arrived and people are preparing to leave.

The U.N. says hundreds of thousands of Syrians face severe shortages in areas besieged by government forces or Islamic militants. U.N. officials say the sieges amount to a violation of international law, and that evacuation agreements must be voluntary.

Images of malnourished children from Madaya, 26 kilometers (16 miles) from the capital, caused an outcry last year but the siege has continued.

Muhammad Darwish, who was unable to complete a dentistry degree after the war broke out, has been serving as a field medic in Madaya. He plans to leave the town with his clothes and school papers.

“We have mixed feelings,“ he said. “Joy and sadness. We’ve been fighting for six years, and now we have to leave.“

Civilians are being given the option to stay, but he said it’s too dangerous for medical workers to do so. Since the beginning of the conflict, the government has targeted medical workers with detention, torture, and bombardment.

“It’s more dangerous for a doctor than it is for a fighter to stay,“ Darwish said.

Ahmad, the activist, will also leave because of security concerns, as will Wafiqa Hashem, a teacher in Madaya.

“Maybe it’s demographic engineering, but it’s better than a collective massacre,“ she said.

Some 2,000 people from Madaya and Zabadani have registered with the authorities to take green buses to the northern rebel-held Idlib province, according to residents.


►  U.S. hit IS with largest non-nuclear bomb ever used

U.S. forces in Afghanistan on Thursday struck an Islamic State tunnel complex in eastern Afghanistan with “the mother of all bombs,“ the largest non-nuclear weapon ever used in combat by the U.S. military, Pentagon officials said.

The bomb, known officially as a GBU-43B, or massive ordnance air blast weapon, unleashes 11 tons of explosives. When it was developed in the early 2000s, the Pentagon did a formal review of legal justification for its combat use.

The U.S. military headquarters in Kabul said in a statement that the bomb was dropped at 7:32 p.m. local time Thursday on a tunnel complex in Achin district of Nangarhar province, where the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State group has been operating. The target was close to the Pakistani border.

The U.S. estimates 600 to 800 IS fighters are present in Afghanistan, mostly in Nangarhar. The U.S. has concentrated heavily on combatting them while also supporting Afghan forces battling the Taliban. Just last week a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier, Staff Sgt. Mark R. De Alencar, 37, of Edgewood, Maryland, was killed in action in Nangarhar.

In its 2003 review of the legality of using the bomb, the Pentagon concluded that it could not be called an indiscriminate killer under the Law of Armed Conflict.

“Although the MOAB weapon leaves a large footprint, it is discriminate and requires a deliberate launching toward the target,“ the review said, using the acronym for the bomb.

Adam Stump, a Pentagon spokesman, said the bomb was dropped from a U.S. MC-130 special operations transport. He said the bomb had been brought to Afghanistan “some time ago” for potential use.

Army Gen. John W. Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in a written statement that the strike was designed to minimize the risk to Afghan and U.S. forces conducting clearing operations in the Achin area “while maximizing the destruction” of IS fighters and facilities. He said IS has been using improvised explosive devices, bunkers and tunnels to strengthen its defenses.

“This is the right munition to reduce these obstacles and maintain the momentum of our offensive against ISIS-K,“ he added, using the U.S. military’s acronym for the IS affiliate.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said IS fighters had used the tunnels and caves in Achin to maneuver freely.

“The United States takes the fight against ISIS very seriously and in order to defeat the group we must deny them operational space, which we did,“ Spicer said.


►  Assad: Chemical Weapons Attack 100% Fabricated by U.S.

In a new interview with AFP, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says the US, “hand-in-glove with the terrorists,“ “fabricated” the suspected chemical weapons attack that killed at least 87, including many children, in a rebel-held town. The reason for the “fabrication”? The US wanted “a pretext” for its airstrike on Syrian forces, Assad says. He insists the Syrian government had already given up all its chemical weapons in 2013, and says it’s “not clear” an attack even happened on April 4. “You have a lot of fake videos now,“ he says. “We don’t know whether those dead children were killed in Khan Sheikhun. Were they dead at all?“ CNN notes that Assad’s assertion is contradicted by not just eyewitnesses, but independent analysts. Reuters reports that the British delegation at the global chemical weapons watchdog OPCW said Thursday samples from Khan Sheikhun tested positive for sarin gas.

As for the US airstrike in response, Assad insists his forces are still as strong as ever: “Our firepower, our ability to attack the terrorists hasn’t been affected by this strike.“ CNN notes the restrictions placed on the AFP interview, most notably that it was filmed by the Syrian government, not AFP, and footage of only the first five questions was handed over to AFP. Meanwhile, Russia says the US broke international law with the strike, but Trump reaffirmed Wednesday that he has “absolutely no doubt we did the right thing.“ During an appearance in Washington with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump also said that he hopes Russia didn’t know about the alleged chemical weapons attack in advance, “but certainly they could have. They were there. So we’ll find out.“


►  Japan PM Issues Sarin-Gas Warning About North Korea

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned Thursday that North Korea may be capable of firing a missile loaded with sarin nerve gas toward Japan, as international concern mounted that a missile or nuclear test by the authoritarian state could be imminent. “There is a possibility that North Korea is already capable of shooting missiles with sarin as warheads,“ Abe told a parliamentary panel when asked about Japan’s readiness at a time of increased regional tension. A US navy aircraft carrier is heading toward the Korean Peninsula as Pyongyang prepares for the 105th anniversary of the birth of founder Kim Il Sung this weekend. The Guardian reports there is speculation the country could stage a missile test around the birthday celebration or on April 25, which marks the 85th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army.

North Korea has been producing chemical weapons since the 1980s and is now estimated to have as many as 5,000 tons, according to a South Korean defense white paper. Its stockpile reportedly has 25 types of agents, including sarin, reports the AP. Japan, under its postwar constitution, has limited the role of its military to self-defense only and relied on the US for offensive and nuclear capability. But recently, Abe’s ruling party has proposed that Japan should bolster its missile defense, including upgrading the capability to shoot down an enemy missile. China weighed in on the overall situation Thursday, per Reuters, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi saying, “Military force cannot resolve the issue. ... Amid tensions we will also find a kind of opportunity to return to talks.“

In The World….

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►  Philippines: Militant Who Ordered Beheadings Killed

Philippine troops battling militants in a central province killed a key Abu Sayyaf commander who’d been blamed for the beheadings of two Canadians and a German hostage and was apparently attempting another kidnapping mission, the country’s military chief says. Gen. Eduardo Ano, the military’s chief of staff, tells the AP that troops have recovered and identified the remains of Moammar Askali, who used the nom de guerre Abu Rami, at the scene of the battle in a far-flung coastal village on Bohol island, where five other Abu Sayyaf gunmen were killed in fighting Tuesday, along with four soldiers and policemen.

Ano says captured Abu Sayyaf militants identified the young militant leader after his death. “This is a major blow to the Abu Sayyaf,“ he says. “If they have further plans to kidnap innocent people somewhere, they will now have to think twice.“ The military chief says Askali led militants who traveled by speedboats from their jungle lairs in southern Sulu province to Bohol province in an apparent bid to carry out another kidnapping in a region that’s popular for its beach resorts and wildlife. Sporadic gunbattles between the remaining Abu Sayyaf militants and government forces continued Wednesday, military officials say.


►  Man, 85, Wants to Regain Everest Record

A Nepalese man who was once the oldest climber to scale Mount Everest is attempting to regain that title, at age 85, with hopes that the feat will help him spread a message of peace. Min Bahadur Sherchan plans to climb the 29,035-foot peak next month during a window of favorable weather on the summit, the AP reports. “I want to be the oldest person to scale Everest again to be an inspiration for humankind, a boost for the elderly people and an encouragement for youths,“ Sherchan says. “It will be a message for everyone that age is no obstacle to achieving their dreams.“ He first scaled Everest in May 2008, when he was 76, but his record was broken by then 80-year-old Japanese climber Yuichiro Miura in 2013.

Sherchan’s attempt to climb Everest in 2013 was cut short because of financial problems and delays in getting the climbing permit. Another try in 2015 was canceled because an avalanche swept the base camp, killing 19 people just a day before he reached the site. “I am confident that I will succeed this time. I have no problems that could stop me from climbing Everest and the only problem could be weather,“ says Sherchan, whose love of mountaineering began when the government assigned him as a liaison officer to a Swiss climbing team. He added that he has no respiratory problems and his blood pressure is normal. He says that if he regains his record, he plans to campaign for world peace by traveling to conflict areas like Syria.


►  White House: Russia Lying About Syrian Chemical Attack

Russia is running a “disinformation campaign” to confuse responsibility for last week’s chemical attack in Syria and protect the Syrian government, according to White House officials. In a declassified report released Tuesday, the US government concludes Syrian forces used sarin gas during the attack, the New York Times reports. According to the Wall Street Journal, Syria has denied using chemical weapons, and Russia says the Syrian airstrike hit chemical weapons used by rebels. Russia has also claimed the attack was a “prank” and no chemical weapons were involved. The report accuses Russia and Syria of spreading “false narratives.“ “It’s clear that the Russians are trying to cover up the attack,” a senior White House official says.

While US intelligence hasn’t found proof Russia knew about the chemical attack before it happened, officials say it would be strange if it didn’t. Officials say Russian military personnel were located at the same base where the Syrian military planned and executed the attack, CNN reports. The two countries have been closely cooperating militarily. Vladimir Putin has called such accusations “very tedious.“ Despite the use of chemical weapons, the US’ airstrike in retaliation, and Secretary of State Tillerson’s comments about the looming end of the Assad regime, Trump said Tuesday the US won’t be “going into Syria.“


►  German Soccer Player Hurt in Bus Explosions

A German soccer team says defender Marc Bartra was injured when three explosions went off near the team bus and is being treated at a hospital, the AP reports. Borussia Dortmund tweeted the news after its Champions League quarterfinal first leg game against Monaco was called off because of the explosions as the players were leaving their hotel for the match Tuesday. The team did not provide any details about Bartra’s condition. The chief executive of Borussia Dortmund says police informed him that the explosives that went off near the team bus were hidden by the exit of a hotel and detonated as the bus passed. Hans-Joachim Watzke said the team “is totally shocked” by the explosions.

Dortmund Police Chief Gregor Lange told reporters that police decided at an early stage that the soccer team was the target of the explosions and are not excluding any possible angles in their investigation. A prosecutor says a letter found outside the hotel the team bus was departing from when the explosions happened “takes responsibility for the act.“ Prosecutor Sandra Luecke says authorities won’t give details of the letter at this stage, citing the ongoing investigation. Police say investigators “are working on the assumption” that the explosions were caused by “serious explosive devices.“ Bartra was injured in the arm and hand.

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