Grenade attack kills 11 members of Afghan family

Eleven members of an Afghan family, including women and children, were killed in a grenade attack on their home in the country´s volatile east, officials said Monday.

The attack, which left three others wounded, occurred in Laghman province on Sunday but no militant group has so far claimed responsibility.

“Eleven people were martyred after two grenades were thrown at their house by unknown gunmen in Laghman´s Baad Pakh district,” the local governor´s spokesman Sarhadi Zwak told AFP.

“All the victims were civilians, women and children among them,” Zwak added.

One of them died of his wounds while being rushed to a hospital in neighbouring Nangarhar province, said health official Abdul Latif Qayyomi.

Afghan civilians are paying a high price for the escalating conflict. Civilian casualties in 2016 were the highest recorded by the UN since 2009, with nearly 11,500 non-combatants killed or wounded.

Twelve civilians, including eight children returning from school, were killed on Friday in a roadside bombing in the eastern province of Paktika.

The UN last week voiced alarm over the recent killing of 25 other civilians in the southern province of Helmand, most of them in US air strikes.

Source: Geo News

Pence tries to reverse damage after Trump?s NATO, EU comments

BRUSSELS: US Vice President Mike Pence sought to reassure nervous Europeans Monday of Donald Trump´s strong commitment to transatlantic ties as he met EU chiefs amid anti-Trump protests.

Capping a European trip aimed at allaying EU fears the new US president might abandon them, Pence said Washington´s support remained “steadfast and enduring”.

“Today it is my privilege on behalf of President Trump to express the strong commitment of the United States to continued cooperation and partnership with the European Union,” Pence said after talks with EU president Donald Tusk in Brussels.

Pence pledged the United States would keep working with Europe to boost the world´s two biggest economies, fight terrorism and defend eastern EU states against Russian encroachment.

Trump´s criticism of NATO as “obsolete”, his praise for Britain´s decision to leave the EU and prediction that others would follow, plus his apparent tilt to Russian President Vladimir Putin have all unnerved US allies.

Tusk, a former Polish premier, said that Europeans “truly needed” the meeting with Pence and that the 28-nation bloc counted on “wholehearted and unequivocal” US support.

“Too much has happened over the past month in your country and in the EU … for us to pretend that everything is as it used to be,” Tusk said.

Women Protest

Pence also met European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, a former Luxembourg premier, who stressed that the United States “needs a strong united Europe.”

Juncker also urged stronger EU unity, adding: “This is not a moment for Europe to divide itself in former national, provincial categories.”

Scores of protesters gathered outside EU headquarters during Pence´s visit, criticising the Trump administration´s attitude toward women, gays and climate change.

“We are here to protest against the visit of Pence because we are revolted by the decision of the US administration to undermine women´s rights worldwide,” Irene Donadio, who works for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, told AFP.

Tight security surrounded the EU quarter of the Belgian capital during his visit.

Pence´s visit comes two days after Trump referred during a rally in Florida to a non-existent Swedish terror incident and urged people to “look at what´s happening in Brussels” as he listed a series of European cities struck by deadly terror attacks.

Pence said the United States would remain “full partners” with the EU in fighting terrorism, a key Trump policy.

He also pledged the US “must stand strong in defence of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations in Europe” including in the Baltics, through recent NATO deployments of troop reinforcements to these countries.

As he did during the Munich Security Conference at the weekend, Pence said the Trump administration will “continue to hold Russia accountable” for the violence in eastern Ukraine and demand that Moscow honour the Minsk agreements for a ceasefire due to begin Monday.

´Unwavering´ support

Tusk meanwhile took a swipe at Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov´s call in Munich for an end to a world order dominated by the West.

“The reports of the death of the West have been greatly exaggerated,” Tusk said.

Pence also met EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, saying with her that he wanted to “explore ways we can deepen our relationship.”

He will later meet NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

During his trip to Munich, Pence said that the US commitment to the military alliance formed in the depths of the Cold War was “unwavering” despite Trump´s previous comments.

After the vice president´s arrival in Brussels on Sunday, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel urged Pence to support the EU´s preservation.

Pence, US Defence Secretary James Mattis and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have stuck close to established policy during their first foray into Europe despite Trump´s previous pronouncements.

Trump welcomed Brexit and appeared to voice hope that other EU states would follow suit.

In return, Juncker and Tusk have previously expressed concerns about Trump.

Juncker has called Trump´s campaign “absolutely disgusting” and told TIME magazine last week that Trump´s remarks on the EU were “highly unfriendly and not helpful at all.”

Source: Geo News

Turkey puts 47 on trial for 'coup plot to kill Erdogan'

Mugla: Almost 50 suspects went on trial on Monday accused of plotting to assassinate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a luxury Aegean hotel on the night of the botched July 15 coup.

Forty-four suspects, mainly soldiers, are under arrest, while three others still on the run are being tried in absentia at the court in the southern city of Mugla.

The suspects, several smartly dressed in suits and ties, were led into the court by security forces in front of television cameras, AFP correspondents said.

Onlookers heckled the accused as they stepped out of the buses that took them from prison, shouting “we want the death penalty!” and “Allahu Akbar” (“God is Greatest”).

The trial was taking place under the highest security with snipers posted on rooftops and helicopters circling overhead.

Erdogan, who was holidaying at a hotel in the upmarket Aegean resort of Marmaris with his family on the night of the coup, has said the plot left him 15 minutes from death.

Prosecutors have sought multiple life sentences for each of the 47 suspects, who include an alleged “hit squad” of 37 soldiers.

Many were detained hiding in the mountains above Marmaris, even in caves, in the days after the coup bid that left 248 dead not including the plotters.

´Game over!´

Turkish officials say the plot to kill Erdogan was a key part of the plan to depose the elected government they allege was masterminded by the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and his so-called Fethullah Terror Organisation (FETO).

The plan was to “neutralise the president,” Erdogan´s lawyer Huseyin Aydin told AFP outside the court.

“If our president was neutralised as planned, the course of the coup would have been different. We would have been faced with a different Turkey,” he said.

Ankara has repeatedly demanded that the United States extradite Gulen, who lives in a secluded compound in the US state of Pennsylvania.

The preacher, who is on trial in several cases in Turkey, is one of the three suspects still at large in the assassination plot trial.

Onlookers waving Turkish flags chanted slogans against the accused and Gulen, including “Execution!” and “Game Over, FETO”.

After the coup, there have been calls to reimpose the death penalty in Turkey, which was abolished in 2004. Its reinstatement would spell the end of Turkey´s embattled bid to join the European Union.

Despite this, Erdogan has repeatedly told crowds at rallies he would approve legislation reimposing the death penalty if it was approved by parliament.

´15 minutes from death´

The trial was being held in a conference centre rather than a standard courtroom to accommodate the high number of suspects.

Inside the tense court, suspects were placed at the centre surrounded by dozens of soldiers with batons. The initial phase should last until March 15.

One of the most senior soldiers on trial, former brigadier general Gokhan Sahin Sonmezates, denied any link to Gulen, describing his organisation as a “perversion”.

Sonmezates claimed he believed he was part of an action by the Turkish army. “My motivation was to protect my country,” he said.

Turkey has hit out at claims that the plotters´ failure to eliminate Erdogan raises questions about the seriousness of the plot, insisting that the president was targeted by a potentially lethal conspiracy.

Accompanied by close family members including his son-in-law, Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, Erdogan had managed to flee Marmaris and fly to Istanbul where he oversaw the suppression of the coup.

“If I had stayed 10 or 15 additional minutes there, I would have been killed or I would have been taken,” Erdogan told CNN in an interview on July 18.

Two Turkish policemen who were helping to guard Erdogan at the hotel were killed, according to the indictment.

Some 43,000 people have been arrested following the coup attempt in a massive crackdown on followers of Gulen that has raised international concerns.

Gulen vehemently denies being behind the plot.

The Mugla trial is one of many now getting under way across the country to judge the coup suspects, the biggest legal process in the country´s modern history.

Source: Geo News

Netanyahu held secret peace meeting with Arab leaders: report

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met secretly with Arab rulers last year to hear then US secretary of state John Kerry pitch a regional peace plan, an Israeli newspaper reported Sunday.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi also attended the February 2016 talks hosted by King Abdullah II in the Jordanian city of Aqaba, Haaretz said, citing former senior officials in the Obama administration who asked to remain anonymous.

It said Kerry wanted the sides to endorse six principles, which he laid out publicly in a December speech.

They included a call for Israel to vacate territory it occupied during the 1967 Six-Day War, subject to land swaps agreed between the two sides.

A former Obama administration official, who asked not to be identified, confirmed to AFP that the meeting was held but would not comment on the substance of Kerry´s proposal.

Since 1967, Israel has pulled out of Egypt´s Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip but annexed east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

It continues to occupy the West Bank, where hundreds of thousands of Israelis live in settlements seen as illegal by the international community.

Kerry´s parameters envisioned a Palestinian state, with Palestinians recognising Israel as a “Jewish state”.

Both would share Jerusalem as the “internationally recognised capital of the two states”.

Israel claims the city as its “undivided” capital. Netanyahu´s coalition government, the most right-wing in Israel´s history, rejects talk of ceding any part of it to Palestinian sovereignty.

“Netanyahu did not accept Kerry´s proposal and said he would have difficulty getting it approved by his governing coalition,” Haaretz wrote on Sunday.

Netanyahu´s spokesman and Jordanian officials refused to comment on the report.

Meeting on Wednesday at the White House, Netanyahu and President Donald Trump each spoke of prospects of a regional Middle East understanding to end the stalemated Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“For the first time in the life of my country, Arab countries in the region do not see Israel as an enemy, but increasingly as an ally,” Netanyahu told Trump.

“We think the larger issue today is how do we create the broader conditions for broad peace in the Middle East between Israel and the Arab countries,” Netanyahu said the following day on MSNBC.

Trump said Netanyahu´s proposal for a regional alliance was something that “hasn´t been discussed before”, adding that it would take in “many, many countries and it would cover a very large territory”.

Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab states to have formal peace treaties with Israel.

Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar do not have diplomatic relations with the Jewish State, but they share informal links.

Source: Geo News

Daily doze of cannabis not a far off reality for senior citizens

Under a new program at a nursing home in New York City, medical marijuana will be used to help treat residents for various illnesses.

The alternative to prescription drugs will be available at Hebrew Home’s dispensary for residents to buy and consume on their own.

Ruth Brunn, 98 has accepted cannabis as a solution to the excruciating pain caused by neuropathy. She has cut down on her prescribed pain medication, morphine because marijuana pills have worked well for her.

“I don’t feel high or stoned,” she said while talking to the New York Times. “All I know is I feel better when I take this.”

American senior citizens are increasingly turning to marijuana for relief from pains and aches. Nursing homes and retirement communities have rapidly started embracing the alternative to prescription drugs.

Pro-medical marijuana groups have rationalized the move by saying marijuana is comparatively less addictive than drugs such as morphine. Marijuana for many is proving to be the miracle substance that is the last resort for the chronically ill.

29 of the 50 states in the US allow the medical use of marijuana, which is banned by federal law.

According to some reports, the drug has proved effective for treating people diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other types of dementia.

Increasing scientific evidence indicates how marijuana is useful in treating certain medical conditions such as vomiting and nausea from chemotherapy, severe muscle spasms associated with multiple sclerosis, and neuropathic pain among others.

The article originally appeared in the New York Times

Source: Geo Health

One in four Canadians support temporary refugee ban: poll

One in four Canadians says Ottawa should have adopted a temporary halt on Syrian refugees in response to the United States’ controversial travel ban, though the majority supported the government’s current immigration plan, an Angus Reid Institute poll showed on Monday.

Sixty percent of those surveyed in an online poll said the Canadian government had done a good job of resettling Syrian refugees since the Liberals came to power in 2015.

The Syrian crisis became an issue during the election campaign after photos of a drowned Syrian toddler in Turkey whose family had wanted to emigrate to Canada made front page news. The Liberals made bringing in more Syrian refugees part of their platform.

The government plans to bring in 40,000 refugees from Syria and elsewhere this year. Forty-seven percent of those polled said Canada is taking in the right amount, though 41 percent said the number was too high. Just 11 percent said Canada should open its doors to more refugees.

“Public opinion in this country is onside with its government’s approach and response on domestic refugee policy, but is showing signs Ottawa may be testing the limits of how many migrants Canadians are willing to accept,” the report said.

After US President Donald Trump issued an executive order last month suspending travel to the United States by citizens of seven mostly Muslim countries, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that Canada welcomes those fleeing the war and persecution.

Fifty-seven percent of people in the poll said the government had made the right decision in standing pat, but 25 percent said Canada should have put its own ban in place. Eighteen percent said Canada should have responded by taking in more refugees.

While Canada often prides itself on being a tolerant, ethnically diverse country, 54 percent doubted refugees would make what they considered enough effort to fit into Canadian society.

The survey of 1,508 Canadians was conducted earlier this month.

Source: Geo News

Iraqi forces battle their way toward Mosul airport

U.S.-backed Iraqi forces fought Islamic State fighters on Monday to clear the way to Mosul’s airport, on the second day of a ground offensive on the jihadists’ remaining stronghold in the western side of the city.

Federal police and elite interior ministry units known as Rapid Response are leading the charge toward the airport, located on the southern limit of the Mosul, trying to dislodge the militants from a nearby hill known as Albu Saif.

The Iraqi forces plan is to turn the airport into a close support base for the onslaught into western Mosul itself.

Islamic State militants are essentially under siege in western Mosul, along with an estimated 650,000 civilians, after they were forced out of the eastern part of the city in the first phase of an offensive that concluded last month, after 100 days of fighting.

“They are striking and engaging our forces and pulling back toward Mosul,” Major Mortada Ali Abd of the Rapid Response units told a Reuters correspondent south of Mosul. “God willing Albu Saif will be fully liberated today.”

Helicopters were strafing the Albu Saif hill to clear it of snipers, while machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades could be heard. The advancing forces also disabled a car bomb – used by the militants to obstruct attacking forces.

The Iraqi forces have been advancing so far in sparsely populated areas. The fighting will get tougher as they get nearer to the city itself and the risk greater for the civilians.

Up to 400,000 civilians could be displaced by the offensive as residents of western Mosul suffer food and fuel shortages and markets are closed, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq Lise Grande told Reuters on Saturday.

Commanders expect the battle to be more difficult than in the east of the city, which Iraqi forces have took control of last month after three months of fighting, because tanks and armoured vehicles cannot pass through its narrow alleyways.

The militants have developed a network of passageways and tunnels to enable them to hide and fight among civilians, disappear after hit-and-run operations and track government troop movements, according to residents.Western Mosul contains the old city

Western Mosul contains the old city center, with its ancient souks, government administrative buildings, and the mosque from which Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his self-styled caliphate over parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014.

The city is the largest urban center captured by Islamic State in both countries.

Islamic State was thought to have up to 6,000 fighters in Mosul when the government’s offensive started in mid-October. Of those, more than 1,000 have been killed, according to Iraqi estimates.

The remainder now face a 100,000-strong force made up of Iraqi armed forces, including elite paratroopers and police, Kurdish forces and Iranian-trained Shi’ite paramilitary groups.

The westward road that links the city to Syria was cut in November by the Shi’ite paramilitary known as Popular Mobilization forces. The militants are in charge of the road that links Mosul to Tal Afar, a town they control 60 km (40 miles) to the west.

Civilian Lives

Coalition aircraft and artillery have continued to bombard targets in the west during the break that followed the taking of

eastern Mosul.

The United States, which has deployed more than 5,000 troops in the fighting, leads an international coalition providing key air and ground support, including artillery fire, to the Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who arrived in Baghdad on Monday on an unannounced visit, declined to offer details about U.S. battle plans when speaking to reporters on Sunday.

“The coalition forces are in support of this operation and we will continue … with the accelerated effort to destroy ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the militant group.

Mattis also said the U.S. military is not in Iraq to seize the country’s oil, distancing himself from remarks by President Donald Trump.

Islamic State imposed a radical version of Islam in Mosul, banning cigarettes, televisions and radios, and forcing men to grow beards and women to cover from head to toe. Citizens who failed to comply risked death.

Capturing Mosul would effectively end the Sunni group’s ambitions for territorial rule in Iraq. The militants are expected to continue to wage an insurgency, however, carrying out suicide bombings and inspiring lone-wolf actions abroad.

About 160,000 civilians have been displaced since the start of the offensive in October, U.N. officials say. Medical and humanitarian agencies estimate the total number of dead and wounded – both civilian and military – at several thousand.

“This is the grim choice for children in western Mosul right now: bombs, crossfire and hunger if they stay – or execution and snipers if they try to run,” Save the Children said, adding that children make up about half the population trapped in the city.

Source: Geo News

22 migrants flee US to seek asylum in Canada

OTTAWA: At least 22 migrants fled the United States for Canada over the weekend, sneaking across the border in Manitoba province to request asylum, authorities said Sunday.

Twenty-two people, mostly from Africa, crossed the border on foot overnight Saturday into Sunday, said Greg Janzen, a local official in the city of Emerson. Eight others had arrived on Friday.

Emerson, 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of Winnipeg and close to the US states of North Dakota and Minnesota, has seen the porous border — in many areas with no official crossings — drawing greater numbers of asylum seekers since US President Donald Trump´s travel ban.

The Republican took office in January and promptly signed an order to temporarily ban US entry for nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries, and for all refugees.

Under a bilateral agreement, asylum-seekers from the United States are usually turned back at Canada´s border crossings.

But this does not apply to those crossing the border illegally in other places.

Migrants who crossed into Canada in early February faced harsh, frigid conditions: two had their hands frozen and needed to have several fingers amputated.

But temperatures were much milder this past weekend.

Migrant arrivals, mostly people who are undocumented in the United States, are rising sharply in Manitoba. Ninety-nine people crossed the border since the beginning of the year to seek asylum, local authorities say.

The trend has officials in Emerson fretting. They have asked federal and provincial authorities to increase resources to address the situation.

“Illegal crossings are dangerous and a burden on our local communities, and our laws must be enforced,” Tony Clement, a Conservative spokesman for public safety issues, said on Twitter.

Source: Geo News

US senators eye new sanctions on Iran

MUNICH: US Republican senators plan to introduce legislation to impose further sanctions on Iran, accusing it of violating UN Security Council resolutions by testing ballistic missiles and acting to “destabilise” the Middle East, a US senator says.

“I think it is now time for the Congress to take Iran on directly in terms of what they’ve done outside the nuclear program,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told the Munich Security Conference.

Graham said he and other Republicans would introduce measures to hold Iran accountable for its actions.

Tensions between Tehran and Washington have risen since an Iranian ballistic missile test that prompted US President Donald Trump’s administration to impose sanctions on individuals and entities linked to the country’s Revolutionary Guards.

“Iran is a bad actor in the greatest sense of the word when it comes to the region. To Iran, I say, if you want us to treat you differently then stop building missiles, test-firing them in defiance of UN resolution and writing ‘Death to Israel’ on the missile. That’s a mixed message,” Graham said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif told the conference earlier on Sunday that Iran did not respond well to sanctions or threats.

James Jones, a former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and President Barack Obama’s first national security adviser, told a separate event in Munich that he remained convinced that sanctions had persuaded Iran to negotiate the 2015 landmark deal with six world powers to curb its nuclear program.

“The sanctions did work. Iran would never have come to the negotiating table without sanctions,” Jones said. “This is a new form of response that if properly utilised can change behaviour and get people to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t do.”

Senator Christopher Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told the same panel there was nothing preventing Congress from imposing sanctions beyond those that were lifted as a result of the 2016 nuclear agreement with Iran.

Source: Geo News

Japanese men strip off for naked festival

JAPAN: With only a skimpy loincloth to protect their modesty, thousands of men brave freezing temperatures to fight for lucky charms thrown by a priest at Japan´s annual Naked Man Festival.

A writhing mass of sweaty worshippers wrestled for elbow-room inside Saidaiji Temple in Okayama, western Japan, late on Saturday night in the hope of catching the sacred batons.

Around 10,000 hardy souls celebrating the religious festival stepped under ice-cold fountains to purify their bodies before risking life and limb in a mysterious ceremony dating back some 500 years.

“It can get very rough,” 62-year-old auto mechanic Kazuhiko Nishigami told AFP, bare-chested and ready to rumble.

“You have to write down your blood type on a form and tuck it into your loincloth in case you get seriously hurt.”

Most who took on the ´Hadaka Matsuri,´ or Naked Festival, suffered no more than a few bumps and bruises after scrapping over a pair of wooden sticks, measuring 4cm (one and a half inches) in diameter and 20cm (eight inches) in length, believed to bring good fortune to whoever catches them.

But revellers have been crushed to death in the past in a melee that makes Tokyo´s infamous rush-hour trains look like a walk in the park.

And it´s easy to see how fatalities could occur when the lights suddenly go off and priests cast the mystical charms from the temple´s rafters into the heaving crowd below.

As holy water was splashed from above, camera flashes illuminated the sea of bodies like disco lights at a rave — before all hell broke loose.

Dante´s ´Inferno´ 

In a scene reminiscent of Dante´s “Inferno”, steam rises as thousands of groaning men, faces contorted with pain, thrust their arms upwards from the suffocating pit below, as if begging for forgiveness — or if not a pair of trousers and a shirt to keep warm.

Those who snaffle one of the holy talismans tossed from above have to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of it as they come under attack by rivals desperate for the juju it bestows.

Fuelled by beer and sake, many festival-goers came to blows.

“I was lucky to escape,” said firefighter Kosuke Yasuhara, clutching one of the talismans.

“It dropped right in the middle of our group,” added the 38-year-old. “I had to quickly slip it into my loincloth to hide it and then force my way out.”

High priest Zenko Tsuboi insisted the festival was not an orgy of violence, even if wailing ambulance sirens have provided an unwanted soundtrack in previous years.

“Those who catch the charms will prosper and receive a bumper harvest,” he said.

“We want to remind people this is a religious festival so we have become much stricter these days about alcohol and rough behaviour.”

As revellers and the hundreds of police and firemen on call made their way back through the rice fields to the city, father-to-be Yasuhara broke into a wide grin.

“This charm is a gift from the gods,” he said. “I believe it will deliver us a bouncing baby when it´s born in April.”

Source: Geo News