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S. Korea Opposes US Tariff Hikes, But Military Alliance Remains United

Tue, 20 Feb 2018 05:29:32 -0500

A looming trade dispute could cause friction in the U.S-South Korea military alliance, but leaders in Washington and Seoul maintain their economic disagreements will not impact their continued security cooperation to deal with the North Korean nuclear threat.  Trade dispute South Korean President Moon Jae-in promised on Monday to retaliate against U.S. protectionist trade polices, after the U.S. Commerce Department recommended to impose a sharp rise in steel import tariffs on 12 countries, including China, Brazil and South Korea, and also in response to a recent U.S. imposed tariff increase on South Korean washing machines of up to 50 percent. "I ask the government to act firmly and sternly to unreasonable protectionist measures, such as lodging complaints to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and checking for violations of the U.S.-South Korea free-trade agreement," said Moon. In a report issued on Friday, the U.S. Commerce Department cited the flood of cheaper steel and aluminum imports as a threat to U.S. national security by weakening an essential U.S. industry, and recommended that U.S. President Donald Trump take one of the following measures on steel imports: * Impose a global tariff of 24 percent on all steel imports. * Target 12 major steel exporting countries, including China and South Korea with new tariffs of 53 percent or higher. * Set a quota on all steel imports, up to 63 percent of import 2017 levels. The Commerce report also recommended similar restrictions on aluminum imports. Trump must respond to the Commerce Department recommendations by early April and can selectively decide which countries to target or exempt based on national security needs. Job killing deal Trump’s "America First" economic nationalism agenda advocates more fair and reciprocal trade between the United States and its allies. The president has also singled out the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement, known as KORUS, as an American "job killing deal," that is responsible for doubling the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea from $13 billion to $27 billion since it took effect in 2012. Washington and Seoul are currently in the process of renegotiating terms of the bilateral trade deal. Nearly 80 percent of the KORUS trade deficit is in the automobile industry, with Korean carmakers Hyundai and Kia prospering, while the U.S.-based General Motors recently announced plans to close a major automotive plant in South Korea due to declining sales. The GM plant closure has raised concerns that without government subsidies of some sort, the company might pull out of Korea entirely, putting over 16,000 employees, plus thousands of subcontractors, out of work.  The recent move by the United States to impose steep tariffs as high as 50 percent on South Korean washing machines and solar panels was also made to protect American manufacturers. Trump has said that South Korea, China and Japan have “gotten away with murder for 25 years” by taking unfair advantage of U.S. free trade policies and his administration would seek a reciprocal tax to compensate.  South Korea and China protested the tariffs as unfair protectionism and said it would seek a dispute settlement at the WTO. However it could be difficult to refute the claim of a national security exemption. The dispute process could also take years to resolve, and it is unclear if the Trump administration would follow a ruling from the WTO. "The United States is a powerful country in the world, so even if Korea files a complaint with the World Trade Organization, gets it accepted and even if the WTO makes recommendations to the U.S., I am skeptical about how much of a powerful influence it would have," said Jae Yoon Lee, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade (KIET.) As the seventh-largest export market for the United States, South Korea could also retaliate by targeting American agricultural products and financial sectors, two areas where U.S. imports have been growing. But taking such action would risk getting into a trad[...]

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Ex-Peruvian President Ordered to Stand Trial for 1992 Killings

Tue, 20 Feb 2018 04:34:34 -0500

Just weeks after he was pardoned from a 25-year prison sentence, former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori has been ordered to stand trial again on a separate case of involving human rights abuses. The country's National Criminal Court ruled Monday that the 79-year-old Fujimori could be prosecuted for the 1992 murders of six peasant farmers by a paramilitary group.  The ailing former president was granted a medical pardon in December by President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski after a review found Fujimori, who served from 1990 to 2000, was suffering from a "degenerative, incurable disease." Fujimori was convicted in 2009 for human rights abuses committed during his presidency, including authorizing killings carried out by death squads. The court said the pardon does not shield Fujimori from being prosecuted in this case.  President Kuczynski's pardon of Fujimori set off angry street protests in Peru and was roundly condemned by human rights activists around the globe. Some Peruvians believe the pardon was part of a backroom deal struck to protect Kuczynski from impeachment on corruption charges.

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Trump Again Blames Obama for Russia Meddling Response

Tue, 20 Feb 2018 00:58:42 -0500

U.S. President Donald Trump is again blaming former President Barack Obama for mishandling Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. "Obama was President up to, and beyond, the 2016 Election. So why didn’t he do something about Russian meddling?" Trump said on Twitter Monday. The attack on his predecessor was the latest in a series of presidential tweets. It's been a common complaint from Trump, who has alternately downplayed the extent of Russian interference and blamed his predecessor for failing to stop it. In December 2016, Obama issued sanctions against nine Russian individuals and entities for election meddling and harassing U.S. diplomats in Moscow, including Russia's GRU and FSB intelligence services. Obama also ordered 35 Russian government officials in Washington and San Francisco to leave the country for "acting in a manner inconsistent with their diplomatic status and consular activities" and ordered the closure of two waterfront compounds the administration said were used for Russian intelligence activities. Earlier Monday, the Kremlin denied involvement in election meddling. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters the allegations are baseless.  The comments come days after U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities with conducting an illegal "information warfare" campaign to disrupt the election to benefit Trump. Mueller's indictment of the Russian interests contended that the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based social media company with Kremlin ties, 12 of its employees, and its financial backer orchestrated the effort. The 37-page charging document alleges the Russian conspirators sought to coordinate their effort with Trump campaign associates, but it does not accuse anyone on the Trump campaign of colluding with the Russians. Trump has long insisted his campaign did not collude with Russia, even as the U.S. intelligence community, and now Mueller, have concluded that Russia conducted a wide campaign to meddle in the election to help Trump win. The indictment marks the first time Mueller’s office has brought charges against Russians and Russian entities.  Mueller’s sprawling investigation has led to the indictments of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and associate Rick Gates on money laundering charges in connection with their lobbying efforts in Ukraine that predates Trump's 2016 campaign. Former National Security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about their contacts with Russian officials and are cooperating with Mueller's probe. In addition to investigating Russian meddling in the election, Mueller is probing whether Trump has in several ways obstructed justice to undermine the investigation, including his firing of former FBI director James Comey, who was leading the agency's Russia probe at the time Trump ousted him. Mueller, over Trump's objections, was then appointed to take over the Russia probe.

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Monitor: Syrian Military Bombardment of Damascus Suburb Kills 100, 500 Wounded

Tue, 20 Feb 2018 00:20:33 -0500

Heavy Syrian military airstrikes and rocket attacks on a Damascus suburb have killed nearly 100 people and wounded close to 500 since Sunday, a Syrian monitoring group says. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says a large number of civilians, including children, are among the victims in eastern Ghouta. The Syrian military has launched an all-out operation to retake eastern Ghouta. It is one of the last areas near Damascus still in the hands of rebels and Islamic militants looking to topple the Assad government. The observatory says the air operation is aimed at paving the way for a ground offensive. The fighting in eastern Ghouta was supposed to have de-escalated under a ceasefire brokered between Russia, Turkey and Syria.  Instead, the region is seeing what U.N. official Panos Moumtzis calls an "extreme escalation of hostilities." "The humanitarian situation of civilians in east Ghouta is spiraling out of control. Many residents have little choice but to take shelter in basements and underground bunkers with their children." Residents and aid workers say almost no food and relief is getting through.

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Haiti Vows Abuse Review of All Charities After Oxfam 'Hid Crimes'

Mon, 19 Feb 2018 22:45:20 -0500

Oxfam hid information about sexual misconduct from authorities in Haiti, a senior official in the Caribbean nation said on Monday, and he vowed to launch a wide-reaching investigation into charities operating there. Oxfam officials met Haiti's planning and external cooperation minister, Aviol Fleurant, in Port-au-Prince on Monday to hand over a copy of a 2011 internal report which states that the British charity's former Haiti country director had admitted to using prostitutes during a relief mission following a devastating earthquake that hit the Caribbean island nation in early 2010. It was the first meeting between Oxfam, one of the world's biggest disaster relief charities, and the government in Haiti since a recent Times of London report that said some of Oxfam's staff paid for sex, triggering a scandal that has seriously damaged the charity's reputation in the U.K. and abroad. "What hurt me at the end of the meeting is that they admitted that Haitian authorities had, at no time, been informed by Oxfam about the commission of such crimes," Fleurant told Reuters in an interview. "According to the law, someone who is aware of the perpetration of a crime is obliged to alert the nearest authorities," the minister said. Prostitution is illegal in Haiti. The minister also said he was looking into reports, denied by Oxfam, that one of the women was under age. Former Judge Claudy Gassant said that under Haitian law it could be considered illegal to not report a crime to relevant authorities. After the meeting, Simon Ticehurst, Oxfam International's director general for Latin America and the Caribbean, said he apologized to Haiti's government and people for what happened, and said the organization was willing to collaborate "as much as we can" in further investigations. Wide investigation  Oxfam earlier on Monday released the 2011 internal report documenting accusations against Roland Van Hauwermeiren, who ran the charity's operation in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and resigned in 2011. Hauwermeiren has denied paying for sex with prostitutes or abusing minors. "We have taken a lot of measures to improve our internal safeguarding measures. We have given, as best as we can, explanations as to what happened in 2011," Ticehurst said. Fleurant said the government wanted all charities operating in Haiti to reveal more about sexual misconduct by their missions in the country. "An investigation has been launched into the functioning of all non-governmental organizations, regarding sexual crimes and abuses," he said, without giving more details. Last week, Haitian President Jovenel Moise said sexual misconduct by staff of Oxfam was only the tip of an "iceberg" and called for investigations into Doctors Without Borders and other aid organizations which came to the country after the earthquake. On Monday, Doctors Without Borders said it was unclear from Moise's remarks what specific cases he was referring to, and said it was seeking to gain a better understanding of the Haitian's government's concerns.

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Trump Endorses Romney in Run for US Senate Seat in Utah

Mon, 19 Feb 2018 22:30:27 -0500

President Donald Trump on Monday endorsed former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's run for a U.S. Senate seat in Utah, despite Romney often being critical of Trump. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Romney excoriated Trump as a "fraud" who was "playing the American public for suckers." Trump responded that Romney had "choked like a dog" in his 2012 campaign against President Barack Obama. Trump said on Twitter that Romney "will make a great Senator and worthy successor to @OrrinHatch, and has my full support and endorsement!" Romney announced Friday he would run to replace retiring Senator Orrin Hatch. Romney thanked Trump for the endorsement in a Tweet posted soon after the president's statement. "I hope that over the course of the campaign I also earn the support and endorsement of the people of Utah," Romney said. Despite Romney's prior criticism, after Trump won the presidency in November 2016, he briefly considered picking Romney as secretary of state. Republicans hold 51 of the Senate's 100 seats but many legislative issues require getting the support of 60 senators. Trump has repeatedly said that he needs more Republicans elected during the 2018 congressional elections to win approval of more of his agenda. Romney said last week he generally approved of Trump's agenda, but would not hesitate to call out the president if needed. "I'm with the president's domestic policy agenda of low taxes, low regulation, smaller government, pushing back against the bureaucrats," Romney said. "I'm not always with the president on what he might say or do, and if that happens I'll call'em like I see'em, the way I have in the past." Trump had lobbied Hatch to run for re-election in 2018, in what was viewed as an effort to prevent Romney from getting into the Senate. Trump and Romney spoke in January after Hatch announced his retirement, a White House official said. Romney, the son of former Michigan Governor George Romney, helped found the buyout firm Bain Capital and gained prominence after stepping in to lead the organizing committee for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics after a bribery scandal. He served as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007. Romney first sought the presidency in 2008 but lost the Republican nomination to Arizona Senator John McCain. Four years later, Romney won the party's nomination but was defeated by incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama.

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Flights to New Zealand Capital Grounded as Former Cyclone Gita Hits

Mon, 19 Feb 2018 21:50:57 -0500

Air New Zealand on Tuesday cancelled all flights in and out of New Zealand's capital, Wellington as the remnants of tropical cyclone Gita pummeled the country. The national carrier said all flights to the capital would be grounded from 2.45 p.m. (0145 GMT) as weather authorities issued warnings of severe weather and heavy rain and gusts of up to 150 kph (93 mph). Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters at Parliament that military had been deployed to areas likely to be worst hit and the country's national Civil Defense office in Wellington was on standby to help local authorities. "My message still to people is please look out for your local warnings and expect disruption to travel and please just be careful," she said. Cyclone Gita hit the Pacific island nations of Fiji and Tonga last week, packing winds up to 275 kph (171 mph) and causing widespread destruction and flooding. It had earlier caused extensive damage in Samoa and American Samoa. The cyclone had since been downgraded to a storm, but forecasters warned it was still likely to wreak havoc as it traversed the center of New Zealand, parts of which were still reeling from a huge storm that prompted authorities to declare of states of emergency at the start of February. More than 40 schools and preschools were closed in the upper South Island, while local mayors urged people not to leave their homes. Transport authorities shut a stretch of highway along the east coast of the South Island and the Department of Conservation was closing picturesque seaside hiking tracks and campsites along the West Coast and ushering tourists away from low-lying areas, media said.

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UN Chief Warns of Nightmare Scenario if Israel, Hezbollah Clash

Mon, 19 Feb 2018 21:43:13 -0500

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday he was worried about the possibility of a direct confrontation between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah movement. Guterres said the latest signals from Israel and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah showed the will to not let this happen but "sometimes a spark is enough to unleash this kind of a conflict." Hezbollah said last week it could act against Israeli oil facilities if necessary in an Lebanon-Israel offshore energy dispute. U.S. diplomats have been mediating between the two countries after a rise in tensions also involving a dispute over a border wall and Hezbollah's growing arsenal. "I am deeply worried about hard-to-foresee escalations in the whole region," Guterres told reporters in his native Lisbon, also referring to Israel's concerns about various militia groups in Syria approaching its borders. "The worst nightmare would be if there is a direct confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah ... the level of destruction in Lebanon would be absolutely devastating, so there are major points of concern around this situation." The powerful Shiite movement is part of Lebanon's coalition government. Israel sees Hezbollah as the biggest security threat on its borders. Hezbollah was formed in the 1980s as a resistance movement against Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon. The two remain bitter enemies but there has been no major conflict between them since a monthlong war in 2006.

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Afghanistan's ArtLords Daub Walls With Messages of Defiance, Hope

Mon, 19 Feb 2018 21:30:40 -0500

Activists in Afghanistan are speaking out against corruption and spreading messages of peace and social justice with murals, many painted on concrete blast walls that have risen to ward off militant bombs. The activists call themselves the ArtLords, as opposed to the warlords and drug lords who have brought so much strife and misery to Afghanistan, and say their art is a tool for social change. "We're painting against corruption, we're painting against the injustices that are happening in society, for women's rights," said the group's co-founder, Omaid Sharifi. "We're encouraging people to come and join us, let's raise our voices against all this nonsense." Blast walls have gone up along Kabul's streets over the years, against a tide of violence as Taliban and other militants battle the government and U.S.-led forces, nearly 17 years after Afghanistan's latest phase of war began. Some city streets have been turned into concrete canyons, the walls shielding embassies, military camps, government offices and the homes of the rich. On many of these grey slabs, the ArtLords have their say. Watchful eyes peer from a wall protecting the headquarters of the main security agency. "I can't go to school because of your corruption. I can see you," is the message on a mural of a girl on blast walls near the interior ministry. Another mural, of a black SUV with its windows tinted, takes a dig at the powerful and privileged. "What are you carrying, that your windows are black?" reads the message. "You don't have a license plate and don't stop for searches." A painting of a shoeshine boy says: "Don't set off an explosion here, innocent people get killed." Other murals extol the city's street-sweeper "heroes," encourage anti-polio efforts, and call for women's rights. Sharifi says he always gets permission for his work, though it can be a struggle. The group gets commissions from Afghan and international groups for "awareness raising and advocacy" and sells smaller artworks. Recently, on a cold, grey morning, the ArtLords were at the American University of Afghanistan, working on a mural on the tightly guarded campus to highlight resilience against violence. A 2016 militant attack on the university killed 16 people and shattered its image as an island of liberalism and learning. Students came to help paint a picture of a young man and woman picking up their books, with a phoenix rising and the words: "I am back because education prevails." "Kabul has been surrounded with blast walls which infuriate people but this art has a message of hope," said student Faisal Imran, who took his turn with a brush.

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Experts: Underwater Archaeology Site Imperiled in Mexico

Mon, 19 Feb 2018 21:15:59 -0500

Pollution is threatening the recently mapped Sac Actun cave system in the Yucatan Peninsula, a vast underground network that experts in Mexico say could be the most important underwater archaeological site in the world.   Subaquatic archaeologist Guillermo de Anda said the cave system's historical span is likely unrivaled. Some of the oldest human remains on the continent have been found there, dating back more than 12,000 years, and now-extinct animal remains push the horizon back to 15,000 years.   He said researchers found a human skull that was already covered in rainwater limestone deposits long before the cave system flooded around 9,000 years ago.   De Anda said over 120 sites with Maya-era pottery and bones in the caves suggest water levels may have briefly dropped in the 216-mile (347-kilometer) -long system during a drought about 1,000 A.D. And some artifacts have been found dating to the 1847-1901 Maya uprising known as the War of the Castes.   Humans there probably didn't live in the caves, de Anda said, but rather went down to them "during periods of great climate stress, to look for water."   Sac Actun is "probably the most important underwater archaeological site in the world," he said.   But de Anda said pollution and development may threaten the caves' crystalline water. Some of the sinkhole lakes that today serve as entrances to the cave system are used by tourists to snorkel and swim. And the main highway in the Caribbean coast state of Quintana Roo runs right over some parts of cave network. That roadway has been known to collapse into sinkholes.   Also, the cave with the stone-encased skull has high acidity levels, suggesting acidic runoff from a nearby open-air dump could damage skeletal remains.   The world's other great underwater site, the sunken Egyptian city of Alexandria, is also threatened by pollution.

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