Obama warns more sanctions await Moscow on Ukraine

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WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama warned Wednesday that additional sanctions would be in store if Russia does not move swiftly to reduce tensions in eastern Ukraine.

In a telephone call with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Obama also vowed to press Russia to persuade separatist groups to abide by a ceasefire agreement, the White House said.

The two leaders agreed to “coordinate measures to impose additional costs on Russia if it fails to take rapid action to deescalate the situation in eastern Ukraine,” where 400 people have died in unrest since April, it added in a statement.

Obama and Renzi “also stressed the need for Russia to use its influence over separatist groups to persuade them to abide by the cease-fire and for Russia to take immediate concrete steps to stop the flow of weapons and militants across the border,” the statement said.

The White House said the two leaders agreed that Ukraine and separatists should continue their talks to implement a peace plan backed by President Petro Poroshenko.

Ukraine´s new Western-backed leaders vowed earlier to stick by their unilateral ceasefire and pursue peace talks despite the downing by pro-Russian militia of an army helicopter in the strife-torn separatist east.

The death of nine servicemen outside the rebel bastion of Slavyansk and loss of two troops in sporadic attacks prompted Poroshenko to threaten to unleash a powerful new military campaign in the Russified rustbelt. (AFP)

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Bomb blast in Nigeria capital kills 21, wounds 17

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ABUJA: Nigerian authorities have arrested one suspect, and killed another, after a bomb claimed 21 lives in a shopping centre in the capital Abuja, a city gripped by fear of attacks by Boko Haram.

Wednesday´s blast shook the Emab Plaza at 4:00 pm (1500 GMT), the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) said, as shoppers were buying groceries ahead of the country´s World Cup match against Argentina, which kicked-off an hour later.

“The casualty figure for now is 21 persons dead, 17 injured,” national police spokesman Frank Mba said, adding that a suspect had been arrested.

Later the National Information Centre said a second suspect had been shot dead by troops as he tried to escape on a motorbike.

Senior government spokesman Mike Omeri confirmed that the blast was the result of “a bomb attack”.

Rescue teams were deployed to the scene and evacuated the victims from the area, NEMA spokesman Manzo Ezekiel told.

“The explosion struck at peak business time,” he said, adding that the area was busy at the time of the blast and that 40 cars had been destroyed.

The blast, at the entrance to the mall, was powerful enough to blow out windows in buildings on the opposite side of the street, an AFP correspondent on the scene in the immediate aftermath said.

The area, sandwiched between two other shopping centres and one of the busiest in central Abuja, was littered with the burnt out wreckages of cars and soaked in pools of congealed blood.

Rescue workers could be seen picking through what appeared to be the scorched body parts of victims.

An employee of the nearby Newcastle Hotel in the Wuse II area of the city, who did not want to be named, said she clearly heard the explosion.

Soldiers and police cordoned off the scene of the blast and firefighters were at the location, as thick smoke billowed into the sky, an AFP reporter said.

A soldier close to the scene but who demanded anonymity told reporters that two suspects who tried to flee the scene were caught.

One of them who was shot by soldiers as he was fleeing later died from his injuries.

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Couple, four children killed in Syria air raids: NGO

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A couple and their four children, the youngest just six months old, were killed Sunday in Syrian army air raids in the northern province of Aleppo, a monitoring group said.

“An entire family was killed in air raids in Tal Rifaat in the north of Aleppo province,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“The parents and their children, aged 10, six, two and six months, were all killed,” in the strikes targeting the rebel-held town.

“(President) Bashar al-Assad says he wants to kill terrorists. Is a six-month-old baby a terrorist?” asked Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

More than 2,000 civilians have been killed since January in a regime aerial campaign targeting Aleppo province, most of which is under rebel control.

Aleppo city, the country´s pre-war commercial capital, has been divided between rebel and regime control since shortly after fighting began there in mid-2012..

The campaign has included frequent attacks with explosives-packed barrel bombs dropped from helicopters, a tactic rights groups condemn as indiscriminate.

Yemen says 500 Qaeda militants killed in 5-week offensive

Yemeni forces have killed 500 suspected Al-Qaeda militants in an all-out offensive against them in their southern strongholds that began on April 29, the army spokesman said Thursday.

Forty soldiers were killed and another 100 wounded in the operation in the provinces of Shabwa and Abyan, in which 39 militants were captured, Colonel Saeed al-Fakeih told reporters. “We will press on with our war against Al-Qaeda, especially in the regions that (militants) fled to,” he said.

The army launched the offensive against Al-Qaeda in Shabwa and neighbouring Abyan in a bid to expel its forces from smaller towns and villages that escaped a previous sweep in 2012.Troops and militia have entered a series of towns, but analysts say their advances could be the result of a tactical retreat by the militants in coordination with local tribes.

Taking advantage of a collapse of central authority during a 2011 uprising that forced veteran strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh from power, Al-Qaeda seized large swathes of the south and east.

They remain deeply entrenched in Hadramawt province further east, where they have carried out a series of spectacular attacks in recent months.

Syria’s Assad sweeps ‘non-election’ US says changes nothing

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has won a new seven-year term with nearly 90 percent of the vote but Washington said the “non-election” changed nothing and activists said it would spell only more war.

Tens of thousands took to the streets in government-held areas even before the results were announced on Wednesday evening, waving portraits of Assad and the official Syrian flag.

Celebratory gunfire erupted in the capital and in loyalist areas across Syria. At least 10 people were killed as the bullets fell back to earth, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In opposition-held areas where no election was held on Tuesday, activists reacted with the Arab Spring slogan of 2011 that has been the rally cry of their uprising — “The people want the fall of the regime.”

Pro-government newspapers all carried front-page photographs of the re-elected president. Images of Assad in suit and tie, or more rarely military uniform, filled the programming of state television.

The ruling Baath party´s newspaper vowed that Syrians would show the same steadfastness against rebel attack in rebuilding their country that they displayed on polling day.

“After the historic vote, Syrians will accomplish a military, political and social mission, as well as the reconstruction of the country, by defying the mortars that are launched every day by the terrorists,” Al-Baath said in an editorial.

Some 11.6 million of the 15.8 million eligible voters turned out in government-held areas, according to official figures, despite attacks that killed 24 people on polling day, according to the Observatory.

Critics charged that many of those who voted did so more out of fear than commitment to Assad, whose family has ruled Syria with a rod of iron for four decades.

MQM Houston chapter expresses solidarity with Altaf

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HOUSTON: Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) Houston supporters and workers expressed solidarity with the party chief Altaf Hussain, after his arrest over charges of money laundering.

The supporters and workers of MQM gathered at hill craft centor at Houston holding placards and chanting slogans in support Mr Hussain.

MQM Houston Unit in charge Imtiaz Ahsan said the supporters and workers would not be satisfied until they hear Altaf Hussain’s voice.

He said Hussain was the only leader who guaranteed Pakistan’s strength, and that the unseen hands tried to stop Altaf Hussain to unite the country and put it to the path of prosperity.

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India newly sworn in minister killed in car accident

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NEW DELHI: A new Indian minister was killed Tuesday in a car accident in the capital just days after being sworn into government, officials said.

Gopinath Munde, rural development and water and sanitation minister, died in hospital after his car was involved in an accident en route to New Delhi´s airport early Tuesday.

“His car was hit by another car which gave him a shock and Munde himself asked his driver to rush him to the hospital,” fellow minister Nitin Gadkari told reporters outside the AIIMS hospital.

Munde, 64, was among ministers sworn in on Monday last week after their right-wing party´s landslide victory over the left-wing Congress party at the general election. A veteran politician and a senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Munde hailed from western Maharashtra where he was a former deputy chief minister of the state between 1995 and 1999.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among those to pay tribute to Munde, saying his death was a “major loss” for the country. “Extremely saddened & shocked by the demise of my friend & colleague Gopinath Munde ji,” Modi said in a tweet on his official account. “His demise is a major loss for the Nation & the Govt,” the premier said.

A doctor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) said Munde was declared dead shortly after being brought to the emergency department. “When he was brought to the hospital there was no spontaneous breathing, pulse and cardiac activity,” AIIMS spokesman Amit Gupta told reporters. “We tried to resuscitate him but despite all efforts Munde couldn´t be revived and was declared dead at 7:30am,” he said.

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Taliban release video of Bowe Bergdahl’s handover

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KABUL: The Taliban on Wednesday released dramatic footage of their handover of army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl to US forces after five years in captivity.

“Don´t come to Afghanistan again. Next time, nobody will release you,” one of the gun-toting militants is heard telling Bergdahl in the 17-minute video.

It shows a US military helicopter landing in a valley, kicking up small clouds of dust as a jittery-looking Bergdahl waits just a few feet away flanked by militants clutching a white flag.

After a brief exchange of handshakes between insurgents and US soldiers, Bergdahl moves unsteadily towards the helicopter. Bergdahl — the only US soldier held by the Taliban after being captured in Afghanistan — was freed on Saturday in exchange for five senior Taliban militants detained at Guantanamo Bay in a deal brokered by Qatar.

His release has evoked sharp criticism from some US politicians, who fear they could return to the battlefield and pose a threat to Americans abroad.

The Taliban video, entitled “Ceremony of the American soldier exchange”, at one point also displays the words “Don´t Come Back to Afghanistan” superimposed over footage of Bergdahl. A male voiceover in the video –laced with religious music and chants of “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) — said the exchange occurred in the eastern Afghan province of Khost.

“The Americans contacted us and asked us where was a good place to meet. We contacted tribal elders to come and join us, because we do not trust them (Americans),” the voiceover said. “I congratulate all the mujahideen for this victory. “The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified by AFP.

US defence officials have said dozens of US special forces troops backed up by helicopters were sent for the handover. “Fortunately, no shots were fired,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Sunday. “There was no violence. It went as well as we not only had expected and planned, but I think as well as it could have.

“Bergdahl is now being treated at a US military facility in Germany. The US military´s top officer General Martin Dempsey said Tuesday that Bergdahl may be disciplined if the army holds him guilty of misconduct, after claims from members of his unit that he had been captured in 2009 after abandoning his post.

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Sisi named Egypt president-elect with 96.9pc of vote

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CAIRO: Ex-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was declared Egypt´s president-elect Tuesday, winning 96.9 percent of the vote in an election nearly a year after he toppled president Mohamed Morsi, whose allies boycotted the polls.

Voting last week was extended to three days amid fears of low turnout, which election commission head Anwar Rashad al-Asi said was 47.45 percent at a press conference announcing the results.

Sisi´s lopsided victory had been certain, with many lauding the retired field marshal as a hero for ending Morsi´s divisive rule in July.

Sisi´s only rival, Hamdeen Sabbahi, won just three percent of the vote.

With an economy hammered by years of unrest, Sisi urged Egyptians to “work to return security to this nation,” in a television address after the final results were declared.

“The future is a blank page, and it is in our hands to fill with what we want … bread, freedom, human dignity, social justice,” he said.

Sisi´s appeal mirrored the slogan of the 2011 uprising that overthrew dictator Hosni Mubarak, as his critics warned the retired field marshal could impose an even more repressive government.

Morsi´s Brotherhood, crushed by a massive crackdown following his overthrow and detention, had boycotted the vote.

At least 1,400 people, mostly pro-Morsi, have been killed in street clashes with police, and more than 15,000 people have been arrested.

The crackdown has extended to secular dissidents who spearheaded the uprising against Mubarak, with several of their leaders imprisoned for holding protests against the army-installed government after Morsi´s ouster.

The lower-than-expected turnout in the election — Sisi himself had urged more voters to come out — signalled a wide segment of the population was apathetic or boycotted the election. (AFP)

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