International News

BEIJING: China’s ruling Communist Party said yesterday that it punished nearly 300,000 officials for corruption last year. The party’s official watchdog body said that 200,000 of those were given light punishments and 82,000 handed severe penalties, including demotions within the bureaucracy.

The body known as the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection rarely explains its methodology or what evidence it considers, and no other details were given in the brief statement posted on its website. President Xi Jinping has pressed a massive nationwide probe of corruption among officials of all ranks, including those in the party, government, military and staterun industries. Hundreds of thousands of officials have been interviewed in the campaign, but only a small number have been identified.

An independent database lists 1,567 as having been investigated, expelled from the party or sentenced. Among the highest-level targets of the campaign was Zhou Yongkang, the head of a rival power network and former member of the party’s inner sanctum, the Politburo Standing Committee, who was sentenced last year to life in prison for corruption. —AP

ABU DHABI: US Vice President Joe Biden said yesterday Washington was going to have to “squeeze the heart of” the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq to wipe it out. “We have to squeeze the heart of Daesh in Iraq and Syria so they can’t continue to pump the poison in the region and the rest of the world,” he said, using an Arab acronym for IS. Biden was speaking to hundreds of American and allied forces inside a hangar at a military base in the United Arab Emirates. “This fight is going to take time, but we are committed to seeing it through until we wipe out this evil – and we will wipe out this evil,” Biden said.

Earlier, he ruled out a military solution to end Syria’s conflict, and called for a political transition. “That should be clear to everyone,” Biden told Abu Dhabi newspaper The National at the start of his visit to the UAE ahead of travelling to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. “So as hard as it is, we have to keep trying to reach a political settlement,” he said. Saudi Arabia, which backs the Syrian opposition, and ally the UAE have said they are willing to send ground troops to Syria under US command to battle IS.

Biden’s comments come as President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime and its opponents are due this week to resume UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva as a fragile ceasefire holds in Syria. The talks are aimed at ending the five-year Syria war that has killed more than 270,000 people, displaced millions and devastated the country.

Sticking Point: Assad’s Fate

The fate of Assad, who is refusing to step down, has been one of the main sticking points in talks. “A political solution between the parties is the only way to end the violence and give the Syrian people the chance they deserve to rebuild their country. To create a credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian system, a new constitution and free and fair elections,” Biden said. He said the truce that went into effect in Syria on Feb 27 “seems to be holding” but was “not perfect”.

But he also noted that “levels of violence have dropped significantly across the country”, and said this opened the way for the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid. Biden also praised US relations with the UAE and its partners in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which also includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. He acknowledged the “challenges” posed by the historic nuclear deal struck last year between Iran and world powers and also the concerns it raised in GCC countries which are wary of Tehran.

“That’s why we worked so hard to achieve a nuclear agreement with Iran, because as dangerous as Iran’s actions are, they would be exponentially greater if Iran possessed a nuclear weapon.” He said steps were being taken to bolster the security of the GCC monarchies to be able to “deal with Iran diplomatically from a position of strength”. Biden held talks later yesterday with UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and today will meet Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum.

Earlier in the day, Biden visited Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, pausing outside to remove his black dress shoes in keeping with Islamic custom. He examined a wall in the ornate mosque bearing the 99 names of God written in Arabic before stepping outside to wave at visiting tourists kept a short distance away. Accompanying Biden on the mosque tour was its director-general, Yousif Abdallah Alobaidli, and Minister of State Reem Al-Hashimi.

Biden later visited Masdar City, a government-backed clean energy campus on the capital’s outskirts, taking a few moments to talk to Shefaa Mansour, a student from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, studying at the affiliated Masdar Institute. He later looked at a model of a desalination plant, something crucial to the Emirates, which experts warn may run out of groundwater in the next 15 years. Emirati Minister of State Sultan Al-Jaber handed him a bottle of water made at the plant. The vice president looked at it, then smiled. “Now make sure I’m still standing,” he said. “Watch what happens when I take the first sip. I’m more energized.” Biden then paused for a moment and added: “Do you need a partner? I’m out of a job soon.” – Agencies

 

TUNIS: Kuwait’s Interior Minister affirmed yesterday that combating terrorism and drying up its sources constitute the greatest challenge facing Arab security apparatuses. Addressing the 33rd session of the Arab Interior Council, Sheikh Mohammad Al-Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah, also the Deputy Premier, said hard circumstances prevailing in a number of Arab states led to insecurity and instability. “It is our duty to sense these circumstances and we should seek maximum cooperation and coordination” to deal with these challenges, he said.

Sheikh Mohammad Al-Khaled sounded the alarm bell due to the terrorist incidents, warning that no country “would be immune from the terrorist operations.” He called for serious action to cutt off “arteries of terrorism and drying up financing resources and protecting our sons from its perils.”

“Intellectual security is the mightiest arm in facing and conquering terrorism,” he said, praising in particular role at this level by the Saudi Naif University for Security Sciences. Tremendous development in the social media means rendered the electronic realms a fertile entity for terrorist organizations, threatening the intellectual security by large, and this warrants unification of efforts and activation of pacts for combating cybercrimes and establishing bridges of cooperation with the operating companies for sake of preserving peoples’ security, the Kuwaiti Interior Minister stated at the Arab conference.

Extraordinary security conditions in the Arab world have resulted in arms proliferation, in addition to drugs’ spread, he said, warning against an approach to amend some anti-narcotics international conventions, including the notion to cancel execution and allowing deals in some drugs.

Such ideas are expected to be put forward at the 59th session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs due in Vienna next month and the extraordinary UN General Assembly session for discussing drugs in April, Sheikh Mohammad Al-Khaled added. Arab states should unify their stances and take a joint attitude to “abort this scheme and confront notions that compromise our basic principles and doctrine,” he said.

Broad strategy
Arab interior ministers agreed to enhance cooperation and information exchange, as part of a broad strategy to stifle terrorism. Speaking at the session, Crown Prince, First Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Interior of Saudi Arabia Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud underscored the need to boost cooperation amongst Arab security apparatuses, saying that “combating crime is a joint obligation.”

The Arab world faces growing challenges that threaten peace and security, “which calls for increased efforts to generate awareness on the need to uphold peace in society,” Prince Mohammad said. Moreover, Arab League Secretary General Nabil Al-Araby underlined the fact that the session takes place amidst trying times, saying that cooperation is necessary to wipe out terrorism.

Araby also said that eradicating terrorism is the Arab world’s biggest challenge, calling for plans to hold similar meetings of Arab defense, justice and foreign ministers in attempt to consolidate efforts against terrorism.
Secretary General of the Arab Interior Minister Council Dr Mohammad bin Ali Koman pointed to “the atrocities committed by terrorist groups in Yemen and Syria. Koman also said that the Arab Interior Minister Council encapsulates Arab cooperation, and is evident of successful, joint Arab work.

Security cooperation
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi had called on Arab nations to ramp up security cooperation to combat terrorism, “which has sparked disarray and threatened peace.” Speaking at the session, Essebsi said that the Arab region is faced with perilous challenges, “as sectarian tensions and internal strife is plaguing the region.” He also singled out the so-called Islamic State (IS) as “a major threat to Arab security, by virtue of the group’s ability to attract sympathizers.”

Moreover, Essebsi warned that Arab nations are on the cusp of collapse, in light of rampant conflict that pervades the region. “The fight against terrorism necessities a united front to uphold security and peace in the Arab world,” he noted.

On security conditions in his country, Essebsi said that Tunisia is facing an unprecedented level of danger that threatens security in the country. “Deterioration of security in Libya is detrimental to security in Tunis, as Tunisia is most vulnerable to the ill effects of the conflict in Tripoli,” the Tunisian President said. “These obstacles behoove us to constantly reshape our strategies of fighting terrorism,” he said.”

Earlier yesterday, the 33rd session of the Arab Interior Minister Council kicked off, with participation of Arab interior ministers, security delegations and representatives of the United Nations (UN), Arab League (AL) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). – KUNA

WASHINGTON: Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton moved closer to winning their parties' nominations with a series of victories in the Super Tuesday elections, the biggest day of the primary campaign.

Clinton and Trump each won seven of 11 state races as they distanced themselves from party rivals and looked ahead to a November presidential election showdown.

Clinton's opponent, Bernie Sanders, won the Oklahoma primary and caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado, as well as the primary in his home state of Vermont, but he failed to broaden his appeal with minority voters who are crucial to the party in presidential elections.

In the Republican race, Ted Cruz, a firebrand conservative senator, won his home state of Texas and Oklahoma and Marco Rubio, a favorite of the Republican establishment, won in Minnesota for his first victory. Both are seeking to break out as Trump's main rival.

Cruz desperately needed the Texas win in order to stay in the race.

Still, Trump's wins in the South were a blow to Cruz, who once saw the region as his opportunity to put himself on a path to the nomination.

Instead, he's watched Trump, a brash New York real estate mogul, display surprising strength with the region's evangelical Christians and social conservatives.

Rubio's win in Minnesota gave him a boost on an otherwise disappointing night. His long-shot hopes now rest with his home state, Florida, which votes on March 15, but polls show him trailing Trump there.

Trump won in Virginia, Arkansas, Alabama, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Vermont and Georgia. The race in Alaska has not been called.

Trump has stunned the Republican political establishment by emerging as the clear front-runner, winning three of the four contests preceding Super Tuesday.

He has seized on the anxieties of voters angry at Washington and worried about terrorism, immigration and an uncertain economy. Using simple terms, and often coarse language, he has soared to the top of polls with his pledge to “make America great again".

Clinton, once seen as the all-but-inevitable Democratic nominee, has contended with an unexpectedly strong challenge from Sanders, a senator and self-described democratic socialist. But Clinton, like Trump, had also won three of the first four races.

Clinton, the former secretary of state and senator, won in Massachusetts, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia. The wins reflected her strength in the South, where black voters are an important part of the Democratic base and overwhelmingly support her.

Signaling her confidence, Clinton set her sights on Trump as she addressed supporters during a victory rally in Miami.

“It's clear tonight that the stakes in this election have never been higher and the rhetoric we're hearing on the other side has never been lower,” said Clinton, who is seeking to become America's first female president.

Trump, too, had his eye on a general election match-up with Clinton, casting her as part of a political establishment that has failed Americans.

“She's been there for so long,” Trump told a news conference at his swanky Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

“If she hasn't straightened it out by now, she's not going to straighten it out in the next four years.”

Candidates are trying to win delegates who will vote for them at the parties' national conventions in July.

For Republicans, 595 delegates were at stake, nearly half of the 1,237 needed for the nomination.

Democrats were allocating 865 delegates, more than one-third of the 2,383 needed to become the nominee.

Clinton has now won at least 421 of the 865 delegates at stake, and Sanders at least 232. Including superdelegates - party leaders who get to vote for candidates of their choice at the convention - Clinton now has at least 969 delegates. Sanders has at least 319. It takes 2,382 delegates to win.

 

Trump has won at least 175 of the delegates at stake in Tuesday's contests.

Cruz collected at least 89 and Rubio picked up at least 51. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has won at least 17 delegates and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has won at least three.

Overall, Trump leads with 257 delegates. Cruz has 106, Rubio has 67, Kasich has 23 and Carson has eight.

Both Cruz and Rubio have launched furious verbal attacks on Trump in recent days, but some in the party establishment fear the anti-Trump campaign has come too late.

Republicans spent months largely letting Trump go unchallenged, wrongly assuming that his populist appeal with voters would fizzle. Instead, he's appeared to only grow stronger, winning states and drawing support for some of his most controversial proposals.

In six of the states voting Tuesday, large majorities of Republican voters said they supported a proposal to temporarily ban all non-citizen Muslims from entering the United States, an idea championed by Trump.

The exit polls were conducted by Edison Research for The Associated Press and television networks.

Republicans fear Trump will damage their prospects of recapturing the White House after Barack Obama's two terms.

The worries appeared to grow after Trump briefly refused to disavow the apparent support of a former Ku Klux Klan leader, David Duke, during a television interview. Trump later said he had not understood the TV interviewer and he did repudiate Duke.

In addition to her state victories, Clinton won in American Samoa, picking up four of six delegates in the South Pacific island chain.

DOHA: Top global producers Saudi Arabia and Russia agreed yesterday to freeze oil output in a bid to shore up prices after a 70 percent drop due to chronic oversupply. Saudi Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi said the move – which is conditional on other major producers joining in – was designed to stabilize the market following the dramatic price fall since mid-2014. Further talks involving Iran and Iraq are due in Tehran today. “We don’t want significant gyrations in prices. We don’t want a reduction in supply. We want to meet demand and we want a stable oil price,” Naimi said.

The announcement followed a closed-door meeting in Doha between Saudi Arabia – the de facto leader of OPEC – Venezuela, Qatar and Russia, which does not belong to the oil cartel. “Following the meeting, all four countries are ready to freeze oil production at January levels, if other major producers do the same,” said Russia’s energy minister, Alexander Novak. The announcement marked the first move between OPEC and non-cartel producers to stem the price fall since the slide began nearly 19 months ago.

Kuwait said it is committed to the agreement to freeze output provided other producers back it, Kuwait’s acting Oil Minister Anas Al-Saleh said yesterday. “Kuwait welcomes the Doha deal … and confirms its commitment to what was agreed – to freeze production according to January 2016 levels – … provided that the main producers from OPEC and outside OPEC are committed to it,” he said in a statement. He said he hoped the agreement would provide a positive atmosphere to support oil prices and balance the oil market.

Saudi Arabia and other OPEC producers have been refusing to reduce output in an attempt to drive less competitive players, in particular US shale oil producers, out of the market. Riyadh has said it would consider output cuts only if other producers agree to follow suit, and pressure has been building as drops in oil revenues hit government coffers. Russia in particular has seen its recession-hit economy damaged by the slump, though even Saudi Arabia has announced a record budget deficit. Naimi said yesterday’s decision was “the beginning of a process which we will assess in the next few months and decide whether we need other steps to stabilize… the market”.

Qatar’s Energy Minister Mohammed bin Saleh Al-Sada said “intensive communications” would start immediately with other OPEC and non-OPEC producers, including Iraq and Iran, to win their support. Iran said it would host talks with Iraq and Venezuela in Tehran on today, and left the door open to joining efforts to stabilize the market. “There’s room for discussion and examination of this issue,” Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said.

But he insisted Iran intends to maintain its share of the market. “What is important first of all is that right now the oil market faces an output surplus and, secondly, Iran won’t relinquish its share,” Zanganeh said. Prices have come under renewed pressure by the return of Iran to world markets after the lifting of international sanctions linked to its nuclear program.

The fact that output from OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia and non-OPEC Russia – the world’s two top producers and exporters – is near record highs complicates any agreement since Iran is producing at least 1 million barrels per day below its capacity and pre-sanctions levels. However, two non-Iranian sources close to OPEC discussions told Reuters that Iran may be offered special terms as part of the output freeze deal. “Iran is returning to the market and needs to be given a special chance but it also needs to make some calculations,” said one source.

The effort to bring other producers on board may prove complicated and the market response was muted. Prices had risen after news of yesterday’s meeting broke on hopes that a production cut would be unveiled, but there was disappointment after only a conditional freeze was announced. In early afternoon London deals, Brent North Sea crude for delivery in April was up 50 cents at $33.89 per barrel. US benchmark West Texas Intermediate for March delivery added 41 cents to $29.85 a barrel from Monday’s closing level.

“The news has actually disappointed the market slightly because some people had hoped to see a cut rather than a production freeze,” said City Index analyst Fawad Razaqzada. In a research note, Danske Bank said the move would have little impact on reducing oversupply as “recent estimates suggest that both Russia and Saudi Arabia produced at levels close to a record high in January”. “The two leading oil producers have basically committed not to take any imminent action to reduce the current global overproduction,” it said.

And Natixis analyst Abhishek Deshpande told AFP there was a “low probability” that Iran and Iraq would quickly agree to a freeze. “That essentially is a production cut for them” as both were planning to boost output this year, he said.

OPEC has been quarrelling for decades over output levels and Russia, which last agreed to cooperate with OPEC back in 2001, never followed through on its pledge and raised exports instead. Also complicating any potential agreement is the geo-political rivalry in the Middle East between Sunni Muslim power Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are fighting proxy conflicts with Russia and Iran in the region, including in Syria and Yemen. In Syria’s five-year-old civil war, Riyadh politically and financially backs some rebel groups battling President Bashar Al-Assad’s government, which has gained the upper hand with the help of Russian warplanes and Iranian-backed Shiite militias. – Agencies

 
 

ALTIMORE: US President Barack Obama on Wednesday slammed what he called “inexcusable” anti-Muslim rhetoric in the political sphere — a veiled jibe at Republican White House hopeful Donald Trump and others.

Making his first visit to a mosque while in office, Obama praised American Muslims as upstanding citizens and thanked them for helping their community.

Obama talked about a 13-year-old Muslim girl from Ohio who wrote him to say she is scared.

Obama said that girl is like his own daughters. He says it's wrong that any child would be filled with doubt or question their place in society.

Before the speech, Obama met at the mosque with Muslim-American leaders from around the country.

Much of Obama's foreign policy agenda has focused on improving ties with Muslim nations, from making a nuclear deal with Iran to improving ties with Indonesia and ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the effort has been stymied by continued confrontation with militant groups and military strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

His latest effort to ease intra-faith relations comes as a shrill election debate has sullied America's image abroad and militant attacks in San Bernardino and Philadelphia threatened to shatter post-9/11 religious solidarity at home.

Six days after the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, then president George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington, declaring "Islam is peace".

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s attorney-general cleared Prime Minister Najib Razak of any criminal offences or corruption yesterday, closing investigations into a murky multi-million-dollar funding scandal that his opponents had hoped would bring him down. Najib was buffeted last year by allegations of graft and mismanagement at the debt-laden state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and by a revelation that about $681 million was deposited into his personal bank account. But Attorney-General Mohamed Apandi Ali said the transfer was a gift from Saudi Arabia’s royal family, adding that no further action needed to be taken on the matter.

Najib, who denied any wrongdoing and said he did not take any money for personal gain, welcomed the attorney general’s statement. “The findings followed a thorough investigation by the relevant institutions, and he has confirmed what I have maintained all along: that no crime was committed,” Najib said in a statement. Opposition party leaders denounced the finding, saying the appointment of the attorney-general by the prime minister in the midst of the crisis suggested a conflict of interest. But analysts said it was a victory for Najib that would allow him to focus on winning the next election in 2018.

“The AG’s statement today pretty much allows the government to move on … As far as things are legally concerned, the prime minister is in the clear,” said Ibrahim Suffian, director of independent opinion polling firm Merdeka Center. Although there were still a lot of people who would still be skeptical and critical of the government, he said. Apandi told a news conference no criminal offence had been committed by Najib in relation to three investigations submitted by Malaysia’s anti-graft agency. “I am satisfied with the findings that the funds were not a form of graft or bribery,” he said. “There was no reason given as to why the donation was made to PM Najib, that is between him and the Saudi family,” he said.
The involvement of the Saudi royal family is an unexpected twist in the saga over the funds transfer and the troubles of 1MDB, whose advisory board Najib chairs. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) had earlier said only that the funds were a political donation from an unidentified Middle Eastern benefactor. Apandi said $620 million was returned to the donor in August 2013, about five months after the transfer, because it had not been utilized. He did not clarify what happened to the remaining $61 million that was not returned or explain why it had taken so long for news of the return of the funds to be released.

‘Unite and move on’
Najib, the son of a former prime minister, enjoys the backing of most of the powerful division chiefs in the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party. Even his fiercest internal critics, such as influential former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, accept that he cannot be unseated. Najib, who needs to build support ahead of the 2018 election, after scraping to only a narrow victory in the last polls, said the scandal had been “an unnecessary distraction”. “Now that the matter has been comprehensively put to rest, it is time for us to unite and move on,” Najib said.

The scandal has shaken investors in Southeast Asia’s third-biggest economy and rocked confidence in the coalition led by UMNO, which has held power since independence in 1957. The ringgit slumped by more than 20 percent in 2015 and has continued its slide this year, weighed down by global oil prices and political uncertainty. “The attorney-general is satisfied with the findings, but it remains to be seen whether the public is satisfied and will put the 1MDB scandal to rest,” said Hak Bin Chua, ASEAN economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

After the scandal broke in mid-2015, then attorney-general Abdul Gani Patail – who had led investigations of 1MDB – was replaced by Apandi, a former judge with strong ties to UMNO. “The attorney-general should not have been involved in the decision affecting the PM because he was appointed by the PM,” said Lim Kit Siang, parliamentary leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party. Two of the anti-corruption commission papers that Apandi reviewed related to SRC International, a former 1MDB subsidiary that is being investigated for an alleged misappropriation of funds. 1MDB is under investigation by law enforcement agencies in Switzerland, Hong Kong and the United States, media and other sources have said.- Reuters

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