43 Afghan soldiers killed in suicide attack on military base


KABUL, Afghanistan (AFP) – At least 43 Afghan soldiers were killed in a Taliban-claimed suicide attack on a military base in southern Afghanistan on Thursday, officials said, the third assault on a security installation this week.

Just two soldiers are known to have survived unscathed after the attack on the base in the Chashmo area of Maiwand district in Kandahar province, the defence ministry said in a statement, adding that nine soldiers were wounded and six unaccounted for.

Defence ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri told AFP the attackers detonated at least one explosive-packed Humvee vehicle and razed the compound in the early morning assault.

“We think the militants used an explosive-packed Humvee vehicle to detonate the gate of the base and we are looking to see if there was more than one,” Waziri said.

“Unfortunately there is nothing left inside the camp. They have burned down everything they found inside.”

The Taliban claimed the ambush in a message to journalists which said all 60 security personnel on the base were killed. Ten insurgents died, the ministry said.

“We have sent a delegation to assess the situation. The base is under ANA (Afghan National Army) control,” Waziri added.

It was the third suicide and gun attack on a security installation this week and takes the total death toll to more than 120, including soldiers, police and civilians.

In each assault the Taliban used a Humvee vehicle as a bomb to blast their way into their targets.

On Tuesday two attacks in southeast Afghanistan killed 80 people and wounded nearly 300 in the bloodiest day in the war-torn country in almost five months.

The deadliest of Tuesday’s assaults was on a police compound in the city of Gardez in Paktia province where Taliban militants disguised as police detonated three explosive-packed vehicles — including a truck and a Humvee — that cleared the way for 11 gunmen to enter.

At least 60 people, including Paktia police chief Toryalai Abdyani and civilians waiting to collect documents, were killed in the blasts and ensuing battle that lasted around five hours, health officials said, with more than 230 wounded.

In the second attack in the neighbouring province of Ghazni, some 100 kilometres west of Gardez, 20 people, including 15 members of the security forces and five civilians died and 46 were wounded, officials said.

Migrants, women inspire at London design award show


(AFP) – From a refugee flag to a puzzle campaign highlighting gender bias in the workforce, migrants and women inspired some of the innovative international designs on show in London starting on Wednesday.

“Design is real life, it is not something safe in a gallery,” said Glenn Adamson, curator of the Design Museum exhibition which showcases 60 projects nominated for the Beazley Designs of the Year awards.

The aim was to “show what design could do both symbolically and practically,” Adamson told AFP.

One of the pieces shortlisted for the prize is a pink “Pussyhat” placed on a mannequin.

The knitted hat became a symbol in January after featuring at the Women s March in Washington, DC, and was replicated around the world to protest against the presidency of Donald Trump.

The “Pussyhat Project” was created by four young women in California and it quickly spread through social media, aided by having the pattern made freely available online.

It became “the most visually effective and internationally recognised symbol of protest this century,” according to Libby Sellers, a gallery owner who nominated the project.

Krista Suh, one of the women behind the hat, told AFP that the broader influence of the Pussyhat was more important than the possibility of winning the Beazley prize.

“It s not so much about an award as it is spreading awareness and creating impact,” she said.

Empowering young women

Women s rights have a prominent place in the exhibition. The projects include the “Finding Her” campaign, created for UN Women Egypt to highlight gender inequality in politics, technology and science.

Adopting the same approach as the puzzle book series “Where s Wally?”, the Japanese illustrators IC4 Design asked people to find the only woman in an industry scene.

The aim was to draw attention to women s low participation in the labour force, currently at 23 percent according to UN Women.

The theme continues with “Professional Women Emoji”, which aimed to rid the images used in electronic messages of inequality.

The Google team created 13 new symbols to represent women in different professions, including a doctor, an engineer and a professor.

“We believe this will empower young women (the heaviest emoji users), and better reflect the pivotal roles women play in the world,” the team said in a statement.

A refugee national flag

Another key issue addressed by the exhibition is migration, with a large orange flag with a black line across it hanging on the wall.

The “Refugee National flag” was created for Amnesty International by Yara Said, a refugee who fled the Syrian capital Damascus.

The refugee flag for the Rio Olympics. Photo: Yara Said

“She came across the Mediterranean Sea and when she arrived, she saw these piles of life jackets everywhere. It impressed her and this is what she came up with this,” Adamson said.

Equally striking is the “Calais Builds Project” by Irish architect Grainne Hassett, who sought to build community infrastructure for the “Jungle” migrant camp in the French port city.

The designs were put together with the help of students and the migrants themselves, including a youth centre and a women and children s centre which were destroyed by the French authorities when the camp was cleared in 2016.

The concept follows in the footsteps of the Ikea Foundation s “Better Shelter”, in collaboration with the UN refugee agency, which won last year s Beazley prize for its innovative emergency and temporary homes.

This year s exhibition runs until January 28, 2018, three days after the winners of the six categories — architecture, transport, fashion, digital, product, graphics — are announced.

Canada’s Quebec province to ban face coverings in public sector


QUEBEC CITY, Quebec (Reuters) – Quebec will ban face coverings for people giving or receiving provincial government services under a law passed on Wednesday that rights groups have criticized as marginalizing Muslim women in the mainly French-speaking Canadian province.

While the law, which takes effect by July 1, 2018, does not specify which face coverings are prohibited, the debate has largely focused on the niqab worn by some Muslim women, which covers everything but the eyes.

People affected by the law would include public-sector employees such as teachers, police officers, hospital and daycare workers.

Like France, which passed a ban on veils, crosses and other religious symbols in schools in 2004, Quebec has struggled to reconcile its secular identity with a growing Muslim population, many of them North African emigrants.

“We are just saying that for reasons linked to communication, identification and safety, public services should be given and received with an open face,” Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard told reporters in the province’s National Assembly.

“We are in a free and democratic society. You speak to me, I should see your face, and you should see mine. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims said it was deeply concerned by the law’s passage and was looking at its legal options.

“This legislation is an unjustified infringement of religious freedoms,” said executive director Ihsaan Gardee.

The law allows for exemptions under certain circumstances, although it did not provide details. Regulations setting out how the new law will be enforced are yet to come.

Asked in the federal parliament whether he would challenge the law, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who represents a Montreal district, said he would continue to ensure all Canadians are protected by the country’s charter of rights and freedoms, “while respecting the choices that different legislative assemblies can make.”

France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and the German state of Bavaria have imposed restrictions on the wearing of full-face veils in public places, with Denmark on track to set its own ban.

Right-wing extremist groups and some local French-speaking media in recent years have targeted Quebec’s Muslims as part of a broader debate on the accommodation of religious and cultural minorities in the province.

Incidents of Islamophobia have increased in Quebec in recent years. In January, six people were killed in a shooting at a Quebec City mosque. A French-Canadian university student has been charged as the sole suspect.

Saudi Arabia to vet use of hadiths to counter extremism


(Reuters) – Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, is to monitor interpretations of the Prophet Mohammad’s (P.B.U.H.) teachings to prevent them being used to justify violence or terrorism, the Culture and Information Ministry has said.

In a decree, King Salman ordered the establishment of an authority to scrutinize uses of the “hadith” – accounts of the sayings, actions or habits of the Prophet (P.B.U.H.) that are used by preachers and jurists to support teachings and edicts on all aspects of life.

The ministry said late on Tuesday that the body’s aim would be to “eliminate fake and extremist texts and any texts that contradict the teachings of Islam and justify the committing of crimes, murders and terrorist acts”.

The body will be based in Medina and overseen by a council of senior Islamic scholars from around the world, according to the decree. The ministry offered no specific details of how it would work in practice.

Islamist groups such as Islamic State and al Qaeda have used interpretations of hadiths – numbered in the thousands and pored over by scholars for centuries – to justify violence and to urge supporters to carry out attacks.

Saudi Arabia’s approach to religious doctrine is important because of its symbolic position as the birthplace of Islam, while its oil exports allow it to fund mosques abroad.

Its ultra-conservative Wahhabi clergy have been close to the Al Saud dynasty since the mid-18th century, offering it Islamic legitimacy in return for control over mosques and universities.

The traditional Wahhabi doctrine favors a strict version of Islamic law and a return to early Muslim practices, and views Shi‘ites as heretics.

But senior clergy have denounced militant Islamist doctrines such as those of al Qaeda or Islamic State, while the government, which vets clerics in Saudi Arabia’s 70,000 mosques, has sacked many for encouraging violence or sedition.

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said last month that thousands of extremist clerics had been dismissed, although he gave no timeframe.

The government has begun to promote an alternative narrative of Saudi identity that keeps Wahhabism as a central focus, but still allows secular themes such as nationalism and cultural heritage that predates Islam to shine through.

The ministry said the body would serve Islam by creating “a solid scientific reference to vet and verify the authenticity of hadiths”, which are second in importance only to the Koran in Islam. It did not say what form the reference would take.

The decree issued by the king, whose official title is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques – Islam’s most revered places in Mecca and Medina – said the body would be chaired by Sheikh Mohammed bin Hassan al-Sheikh, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, which serves as Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body.

Of bookworms: Palestinian schoolgirl wins $150,000 prize money in reading competition


(AFP) – A Palestinian high school student on Wednesday won $150,000 (125,000 euros) in an Arabic-language reading competition organised by the Dubai government.

Seventeen-year-old Afaf Raed Sharif, from Ramallah, beat 16 finalists from across the Arab world to land the top prize in the second annual Arab Reading Challenge.

Palestinian high school student Afaf Raed Sharif poses for a photo at the second annual Arab Reading Challenge in Dubai. Photo: AFP

Participants had to read at least 50 books to qualify.

“This is a victory over all the challenges that we face. We refuse to be any less than any other people in the world,” Sharif told AFP.

“It s a message to all students: don t you ever give up. Don t you ever break. When you set a goal, you can reach it. It won t be easy … but you have to be persistent.”

The all-girl Al-Iman school, in Bahrain, won a $1 million prize for the best reading initiatives for students.

The principal of the winning school takes home $100,000 of the prize money, with the school s reading supervisor taking another $100,000 and the remaining $800,000 going to school funds.

Qatar emir says open to dialogue to resolve Gulf crisis


(Reuters) – Qatar is “open to dialogue” in resolving a dispute that has seen the Gulf state isolated from its Arab neighbors, its emir said during a visit to Indonesia on Wednesday.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain cut diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar on June 5, accusing it of financing terrorism and maintaining too close of ties to their arch-rival Iran. Doha denies the charges.

Indonesia s President Joko Widodo talks with Qatar s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad-al-Thani before a tree planting ceremony at the presidential palace in Bogor, in Indonesia. Photo: Reuters

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani said he discussed the issue with President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, which has the world’s largest population of Muslims and has close ties to the Arab world.

“We conveyed…that Qatar is ready to conduct a dialogue to solve the problem as we already know that no one will win,” Thani told reporters after meeting with Widodo at the state palace in Bogor, outside the capital of Jakarta.

Indonesia s President Joko Widodo talks with Qatar s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad-al-Thani planting a tree at the presidential palace in Bogor, Indonesia. Photo: Reuters

“We are all brothers and suffering because of this crisis,” he added.

President Widodo did not publicly address the dispute.

The leader of the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas also visited Malaysia – another Muslim-majority nation – and Singapore this week.

Saudi and other Arab nations have made a list of 13 wide-ranging demands of Qatar, including closing down the Al Jazeera television network and curbing ties with Iran.

Indonesia s President Joko Widodo talks with Qatar s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad-al-Thani at the presidential palace in Bogor, Indonesia. Photo: Reuters

Kuwait and top United States officials have attempted to mediate between the parties, but there is little sign that the crisis will be resolved soon.

Forces comb ghost city Raqa after IS ouster


RAQA (AFP) – US-backed forces combed the ruins of Raqa for survivors and bombs on Wednesday after retaking the Syrian city from Islamic State group jihadists and dealing their dreams of statehood a fatal blow.

A lightning final assault by the Syrian Democratic Forces on Tuesday saw jihadist defences collapse faster than expected as the SDF claimed a landmark victory in the three-year fight against IS.

SDF fighters flushed jihadist holdouts from Raqa s main hospital and municipal stadium, wrapping up more than four months of fighting to seize what used to be the inner sanctum of IS s self-proclaimed “caliphate”.

On Wednesday, SDF forces fired into the air and danced the traditional Middle Eastern dabke line dance to blaring music amid the otherwise eerie silence of the city.

Inside the stadium, the militia s flag was raised as bulldozers worked to clear the ground of explosives that IS had strewn throughout the city.

Many roads were still closed off, and access to the hospital was blocked while fighters worked to clear it.

Teams of SDF fighters were deployed across the rubble-strewn streets to look for unexploded ordnance and booby traps left by the jihadists.

“They are making sure there are no more sleeper cells” in Raqa, SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali told AFP.

“Mine-clearing operations and the re-opening of the city are under way,” he said, adding that his organisation would only formally announce the liberation of the city once they are completed.

“We urge our people… who fled IS rule not to return to the city for their own security until it is rid of terrorist explosives,” the Kurdish internal security services said in a statement.

But some SDF fighters are themselves from Raqa.

Under the stadium, SDF member Ahmad al-Hassan returned to an oval hallway lined with makeshift cells where IS locked up civilians accused of breaking its ultra-conservative rules.

“This is where they humiliated us,” he said, near the room where he was kept for seven days with 35 other men after he tried to prevent his wife s arrest for briefly showing her face in public.

The loss of Raqa left IS ruling over a rump “caliphate” straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border and covering a fraction of the territory it held when it declared its “state” in July 2014.

The US-led coalition supporting anti-IS forces in Iraq and Syria said on Tuesday that the jihadists had lost 87 percent of the territory they held three years ago.

Brett McGurk, the White House s envoy to the multinational coalition, said on social media that IS had lost 6,000 fighters in Raqa.

He described the organisation as “pathetic and a lost cause”.

Raqa was one of the most emblematic IS bastions, at the heart of both its military operations and its propaganda.

Several of the most high-profile attacks IS claimed in the West, including the 2015 massacres in Paris, are believed to have been at least partly planned in Raqa, earning the city the nickname of “terror central”.

Raqa also featured heavily in the propaganda videos, from public beheadings to trainings, that IS used to instill fear among the caliphate s residents and appeal to new recruits globally.

Clara Raqqa, a top SDF commander, smiled and squinted into the sun as she stood at the iconic Al-Naim roundabout where IS carried out some of its most gruesome atrocities.

“Today, after all these years, we are here,” she said. “I remember my childhood here, my teenager years… I m so happy that we ve reached the days of freedom.”

Jamila Hami, a volunteer with the Kurdish Red Crescent, said she remembered the dead and wounded people she had seen throughout the months-long operation to take the city.

The 45-year-old said rebuilding the city s medical infrastructure would pose major challenges.

“Yes, Raqa is now liberated, but the next phase for us will be even harder than the one that has passed,” she said.

The breakthrough in the operation to retake Raqa came last week when a local deal was struck for the safe exit of several thousand civilians who had been used as human shields by IS, while Syrian jihadists surrendered.

Up to 400 mostly foreign IS fighters had been believed to remain in the city, prepared for a bloody last stand.

Yet events since the Sunday announcement of the operation s final phase gives few clues as to their fate.

“Some surrendered, others died,” Talal Sello, another SDF spokesman said, without providing further details.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor relying on a network of sources across Syria, said most of the foreign fighters surrendered and were being held by Western intelligence services.

It was not immediately possible to corroborate his claim.

Colonel Ryan Dillon, the US-led coalition s spokesman, only spoke of four confirmed cases of foreign IS fighters surrendering and stressed that they were in SDF custody.

“We as the coalition do not hold or control any of these detainees,” he said, adding the SDF may make separate arrangements with the detained jihadists countries of origin for some of them to be handed over and prosecuted.

Myanmar has failed to protect Rohingya from atrocities: UN


UNITED NATIONS (AFP) – Myanmar s government has failed to meet its international obligations and protect Rohingya Muslims from the atrocities taking place in Rakhine state, two UN special advisers said Wednesday.

The statement from the UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng, and the special adviser on the responsibility to protect, Ivan Simonovic, added the international response to the crisis was a failure.

“Despite warnings issued by us and by many other officials, the government of Myanmar has failed to meet its obligations under international law and primary responsibility to protect the Rohingya population from atrocity crimes,” said a joint statement.

“The international community has equally failed its responsibilities in this regard,” they added.

Since late August more than 500,000 Rohingya have fled an army campaign in Myanmar s Rakhine state that the United Nations has denounced as ethnic cleansing.

The UN Security Council has called on Myanmar to end military operations in Rakhine, grant access to aid workers and allow the safe return of the Rohingya refugees.

The council however has not followed up its appeal with action such as imposing sanctions, a move diplomats said is opposed by China, a supporter of the Myanmar s former junta, and Russia.

“Once again, our failure to stop atrocity crimes makes us complicit. When will we live up to our countless promises of never again ?” the advisers asked.

Myanmar authorities argue the military operations in Rakhine are to root out militants following attacks on police posts in late August.

A recent report by the UN human rights office accused Myanmar of seeking to permanently expel the Rohingya, by planting land mines at the border with Bangladesh where the refugees are sheltering.

UN rights officials spoke to refugees who gave accounts of soldiers surrounding homes and firing indiscriminately as residents ran for their lives, and of uniformed men gang-raping women and girls, some as young as five.

“In some cases, before and during the attacks, megaphones were used to announce: You do not belong here — go to Bangladesh. If you do not leave, we will torch your houses and kill you ,” the report said.

The UN s top political affairs official, Jeffrey Feltman, returned on Tuesday from five days of talks in Myanmar that failed to yield a breakthrough.

Feltman is expected to report to the Security Council on his talks.

Abe eyes big win in snap Japan vote


TOKYO (AFP) – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears poised to secure a fresh term at the helm of the world s third-biggest economy Sunday, as he seeks a mandate for his nationalist agenda and hardline stance on North Korea.

Pyongyang has vowed to “sink” Japan into the sea and fired missiles over northern Japanese islands, providing a tense backdrop to an election campaign that has also revolved around how to pep up the country s once world-beating economy.

Surveys suggest Abe s conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is on track for a thumping victory over a weak and fractured opposition despite low popularity ratings for the prime minister and his government.

“No opposition in Japan has presented voters with alternative policies,” said Soichiro Tahara, a political commentator.

Abe has maintained an uncompromising policy on North Korea, seeking maximum pressure on the regime in Pyongyang, and also wants changes to the US-imposed constitution that effectively limits the military to a self-defence role.

He stunned Japan last month by calling a snap election — more than a year early — although critics said the premier was trying to divert attention from a series of scandals that had hammered his approval ratings.

The election call sparked a week that transformed Japan s sleepy political scene as popular Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike launched a new group that instantly swallowed up the main opposition party.

The media-savvy and telegenic Koike vowed to put an end to “old school” politics in Japan with her Party of Hope, also campaigning to phase out nuclear power in a country still scarred by the 2011 Fukushima meltdown.

But Koike s star appeared to wane after an initial burst of enthusiasm and blanket news coverage, mainly because she herself declined to run for a seat, concentrating on running Tokyo ahead of the 2020 Olympics.

Sceptics also attacked Koike, an ex-LDP minister, for not proposing a concrete alternative to the conservative party that has dominated post-war politics in Japan.

“For a moment, the Japanese people thought that Ms Koike may be a good choice, but after looking at how she dealt with various issues they soon noticed that she was not,” Naoto Nonaka, professor of politics at Gakushuin University, told AFP.

With voters not perceiving much difference between the two frontrunners, the Constitutional Democratic Party, a new centre-left party formed from opposition lawmakers who did not jump on the Koike bandwagon, has also gained some ground.

The key domestic battleground is the economy, once the envy of the world but now struggling to break out of a deflationary spiral and weighed down by debt and an ageing population.

Abe called the election as he said the country was facing a “national crisis” of a low birthrate and sluggish growth, insisting that his “Abenomics” scheme of ultra-loose monetary policy and big government spending is the answer.

The policy has helped big business — the stock exchange is at a 21-year high — and the economy is enjoying its longest period of growth in a decade with very low unemployment rates.

But critics say the boon has not trickled down to ordinary families, where wage growth is low and households are still putting off purchases in the hope of falling prices as “Abenomics” fails to spark inflation.

Abe has pledged to use part of a planned rise in sales tax to fund free childcare in a bid to encourage more young women into the workforce.

For her part, Koike — who coined the word “Yurinomics” for her policy — wants to shelve the planned tax hike (from eight percent to 10 percent), arguing it will smother the green shoots of growth.

Polls in the run-up to the election suggested Abe and his junior coalition party could retain a two-thirds majority of the powerful lower house that would allow him to reform the constitution.

Yu Uchiyama, professor of politics at the University of Tokyo, said that “as almost all parties are in favour of amending the constitution, it is likely that steps will be taken towards it”.

However, he warned there was a “serious gap” between politicians and voters on the issue.

Around 100 million Japanese are called to the polls on Sunday to elect 465 members of the lower house of parliament, reduced from 475 in the last election. The latest surveys show that Abe s LDP will secure as many as 300 seats.

Polls open at 7:00am local time (2200 GMT Saturday) and close at 8:00pm (1100 GMT). National broadcasters publish normally reliable exit polls immediately after ballot boxes close.

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