90 houses destroyed by Australia wildfires

Canberra: At least 90 houses and properties were destroyed by wildfires raging in various parts of southeastern Australia over the weekend, officials said on Monday. Some 70 houses were burnt down by a fire in the town of Tathra, which has been blazing since early Sunday morning, reports Efe news.

A volunteer firefighter was injured and four civilians were treated for smoke inhalation, but no one has been reported missing so far, according to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. The wildfire, fuelled by strong winds and high temperatures, spread rapidly over an area of 1,070 hectares but the fire service finally managed to control it due to change in weather conditions.

The fires have destroyed 18 houses, killed livestock and razed farms in areas some 200 km southwest of Melbourne. Firefighters are working Monday to contain a fire in Cobden and Penshurst, where some 1,700 homes are left without power as electrical poles and infrastructure has been damaged. Experts had warned authorities in recent reports about the worsening of extreme heat waves and wildfires due to increased carbon dioxide emissions.

The fire season in Australia varies according to the area and weather conditions. Australia’s worst wildfire in the last decades occurred in February 2009 in the state of Victoria, when an area of 4, area was burnt down, killing 173 people and injuring 414 others.

Vladimir Putin storms to landslide election win, to lead Russia for another six years

Moscow: Vladimir Putin stormed to victory in Russia’s presidential election, giving him another six years in power as Moscow’s relations with the West plunge to new Cold War lows.

Putin, who has ruled Russia for almost two decades, won more than 75 per cent of the vote according to preliminary results, but the opposition cried foul.  It reported ballot stuffing and other cases of alleged fraud as the Kremlin pushed for high turnout to give greater legitimacy to Putin’s historic fourth term. The Russian strongman ran against seven other candidates, but his most vocal critic Alexei Navalny was barred from the ballot for legal reasons and the final outcome was never in doubt.

“I see in this (result) the confidence and hope of our people,” Putin said in an address to crowds of supporters on a square next to the Kremlin after exit polls put him on track for a resounding victory. “Our thoughts will turn to the future of our great country and the future of our children,” said the man who is already Russia’s longest-serving leader since Stalin.

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About 107 million Russians were eligible to cast ballots and the central election commission said turnout was 60 per cent three hours before polls closed in Moscow, after the authorities used both the carrot and the stick to boost participation. Selfie competitions, giveaways, food festivals and children’s entertainers were laid on at polling booths in a bid to create a festive atmosphere around the election.

But employees of state and private companies reported coming under pressure to vote, while students were threatened with problems in their exams or even expulsion if they did not take part, according to the opposition-leaning Novaya Gazeta newspaper. According to central election commission data with half of votes counted, Putin took 75 percent of the vote, well ahead of his nearest competitor Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin at 13.2 per cent.

Results for all other candidates, including former reality TV host Ksenia Sobchak and ultra-nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky were forecast to be in single figures. The election came with Russia facing increasing isolation on the world stage over a spy poisoning in Britain and a fresh round of US sanctions. Navalny — who called on his supporters to boycott the “fake” vote and sent over 33,000 observers across the country to see how official turnout figures differed from those of monitors — said there had been “unprecedented violations”.

His lawyer Ivan Zhdanov said the actual national turnout at 1700 GMT, when polls closed in Moscow, was 55 per cent, according to data collected by monitors. Navalny’s opposition movement and the non-governmental election monitor Golos reported ballot stuffing, repeat voting and Putin supporters being bussed into polling stations en masse.

One election commission worker in the republic of Dagestan, which traditionally registers extremely high official turnout figures, told AFP around 50 men entered the station where he was working and physically assaulted an observer before stuffing a ballot box. But the electoral commission dismissed most concerns, saying monitors sometimes misinterpret what they see.

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Since first being elected president in 2000, Putin has stamped his total authority on the world’s biggest country, muzzling opposition, putting television under state control and reasserting Moscow’s standing abroad. The 65-year-old former KGB officer used an otherwise lacklustre presidential campaign to emphasise Russia’s role as a major world power, boasting of its “invincible” new nuclear weapons in a pre-election speech.

Most people who spoke to AFP said they voted for Putin, praising him for restoring stability and national pride after the humiliating collapse of the USSR. “Of course I’m for Putin, he’s a leader,” said Olga Matyunina, a 65-year-old retired economist. “After he brought Crimea back, he became a hero to me.” Sunday marked four years since Putin signed a treaty declaring Crimea to be part of Russia in a move that triggered a pro-Kremlin insurgency in east Ukraine, a conflict that has claimed over 10,000 lives.

Pakistan must do more against terror groups: US

Six months after the announcement of the South Asia Policy, Pak is yet to take the kind of decisive actions that the US is seeking, says report

Washington : The US has told Pakistan that it “must do more” against Taliban and other terror groups operating in the country, warning that the Trump administration is ready to take unilateral measures if Islamabad failed to stop cross-border attacks from its soil.

 The warning, given at a news briefing on Saturday, followed the meeting between US Vice President Mike Pence and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Pakistani daily Dawn reported. Abbasi, who was on a personal trip to see his ailing sister in the US, met Pence at the US Naval Observatory, the vice president’s official residence. The meeting was held on Saturday at the request of Abbasi.

  The White House in a statement about the meeting said, “Vice President Pence reiterated President Trump’s request that the Government of Pakistan must do more to address the continued presence of the Taliban, Haqqani Network, and other terrorist groups operating in their country.”

 “The Vice President stated that US efforts to eliminate terrorist groups who threaten US security and the stability of the region will continue and noted that Pakistan could and should work closer with the US,” the White House said.

During the 30-minute meeting, Pence emphasised the need for immediate action from Pakistan to stop cross-border attacks, reports PTI.

The Dawn reported that hours after Pence-Abbasi meeting, senior Trump administration officials held a special briefing for Washington-based journalists to convey their dissatisfaction with Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy.

“Six months after the announcement of the South Asia Policy, Pakistan is yet to take the kind of decisive actions that the US is seeking,” one of the officials was quoted as saying by the Dawn.

“We are continuing to look for real actions and not word on the Taliban and the Haqqani sanctuaries,” the official added.                 The official demanded cooperative action against terrorists from Pakistan but warned that the US was prepared to take its own measures to protect its personnel in Afghanistan if Islamabad did not take action, the daily said.

The official said that President Donald Trump was constantly monitoring progress on the South Asia policy and wanted Pakistan to do more than “the bare minimum” it’s doing now. In his new South Asia Policy unveiled in August, Trump had called for tougher measure against Pakistan if it did not cooperates the US in its fight against terrorism.                 In his first tweet of the new year, Trump had accused Pakistan of basing its relationship with the US on “nothing but lies and deceit”.

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US military helicopter crashes in western Iraq

Washington: A US military helicopter has crashed in western Iraq with seven service members on board, US officials said today. The officials said that so far there is no indication that the Pave Hawk helicopter was shot down.

The helicopter is used by the Air Force for combat search and rescue, and was in transit from one location to another when it went down yesterday near the town of Qaim in Anbar Province Officials said that rescuers were responding to the location, but other details were not yet available. It’s not clear if there were any survivors.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the crash before it was made public. In a short statement, US Central Command said that “rescue teams are responding to the scene of the downed aircraft at this time,” adding that an investigation will be started to determine the cause of the incident.

The US-led coalition battling Islamic State insurgents in Iraq and Syria have an outpost in Qaim, which is located near the Syrian border. The anti-IS campaign accelerated through much of last year, as coalition and Iraq forces battled to take back a string of cities and towns.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over IS in Mosul in July. In the following months Iraqi forces retook a handful of other IS-held towns including Tal Afar in August, Hawija in September and Qaim in October. In November, Iraqi forces retook the last Iraqi town held by IS — Rawah, near the border with Syria. The US-led coalition has continued to work with Iraq and Syrian Democratic Forces to shore up the border region to make sure that foreign fighters and insurgents can’t move freely across the region.

ISI still providing covert support to Taliban: US media report

Washington: Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI continues to covertly support the Taliban in the border region, a US media report today claimed. The Washington Times’ investigate story also provided specific mohallas and neighbourhoods on the Pakistani side that are being used as safe havens by Taliban terrorists.

The report alleged that Taliban terrorists from Afghanistan travel freely to a Pakistani army garrison in Quetta where they meet with military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officials. “We believe top Taliban leadership are operating from Pashtunabad, Gulistan and surrounding areas,” an unnamed intelligence source was quoted as saying by the daily.

Killa Abdullah, a small border district about 44 miles from Quetta, is another area where the Taliban is working with the ISI. Within that district, an area known as Chaman that borders Afghanistan is a Taliban hub, where terrorists operate openly and are known to local residents as Talibs, it said.

Taliban fighters have been spotted here along the road from and to Kuchlak “with automatic weapons either in motorbikes, or in four-by-four vehicles along with two to five companions,” the source said. The Washington Times said that the ISI also conducts security patrols in facilitating Taliban transit along the main highway to Kuchlak, using a Toyota SUV that is owned by the ISI.

Claiming that the ISI security is an open secret in the region, the daily said local police are not permitted to stop the Taliban from travelling from Afghanistan to Pakistan and the fighters refuse requests at checkpoints for identification by simply stating they are Talibs.

“These people freely travel in Quetta, Chaman and all surrounding areas. Civilian [police] forces cannot intervene because they work under ISI and military apparatus. The police are also powerless and are afraid for their own security,” American intelligence sources told the US daily.

Guldara Baghicha, near Chaman city, which houses a Pakistani paramilitary garrison is said to be a major residence for families of the Taliban. The ISI has banned the local police and Pakistan’s Frontier Corps from entering or patrolling that area. Kili Jahangir, in its neighbourhood, includes restricted zones because Taliban families live nearby, the daily said. The intelligence source further described Jungle Piralizia, south of Chaman, as a Taliban “resting place after their campaigns in Afghanistan against Western forces”.

“The region has been scene of clashes between local police and Taliban fighters, who are known to retaliate against local police who try to arrest them, in one case blowing up a police vehicle and killing several policemen,” the daily said. “In such cases, the Taliban are arrested by local police, then the ISI intervenes immediately and promptly releases them,” the daily said.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon yesterday said the US wants Pakistan to take more steps against terrorism in the region. “The (Defense) Secretary has said there is more that Pakistan can do. And we look forward to them taking more steps to combat terrorism in the region,” chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White told reporters at her weekly news conference.

Donald Trump Jr’s wife Vanessa Trump files for divorce

New York: US President Donald Trump’s daughter-in-law has filed for divorce from her husband Donald Trump Jr after 12 years of marriage, according to a media report. Vanessa Haydon Trump, 40, the wife of President Trump’s oldest son, filed for divorce yesterday in a Manhattan court, a report in The New York Times said. It said Vanessa is seeking an uncontested divorce to end her 12-year marriage with the president’s son.

The couple has five children together. Trump Jr, 40, the eldest of five children from President Trump’s three marriages, met Vanessa, a former model, when his father introduced them at a 2003 fashion show. They married in 2005 at Mar-a-Lago, the family’s club in Florida. “After 12 years of marriage, we have decided to go our separate ways,” the couple said in a joint statement. “We will always have tremendous respect for each other and our families.

We have five beautiful children together and they remain our top priority. We ask for your privacy during this time.” The report added that last month, Vanessa and her mother had to be hospitalised as a precaution after opening an envelope containing a white powdery substance, which was later determined to be cornstarch, police officials said. A Massachusetts man was charged with sending the threatening letter. “No one should ever have to deal with this kind of sickening behavior,” Trump Jr had said about the episode. Trump Jr and his brother Eric, 34, took over the management of the Trump Organisation after their father was elected president.

The news of the divorce comes as the White House special counsel, Robert Mueller is examining a June 2016 meeting Trump Jr had with Russians offering information on Hillary Clinton and the president’s role in allegedly providing a misleading response to The New York Times last summer for an article about the meeting. Vanessa, a onetime model, was raised on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and once dated actor Leonardo DiCaprio, the NYT report said.

Vanessa and Trump Jr got married 10 months after Donald Trump married former model Melania Knauss. In an interview last year with The Times, Trump Jr said a romantic evening with his wife included dinner at home and a movie. The report said Vanessa frequently retweeted her husband’s posts pertaining to family life, many of which include photographs of their weekends in the Catskills region of New York state. However, her tweets about him appeared to stop in June 2017.

The last tweet referring to her husband was a family portrait in which she wished the president a happy birthday. Trump Jr, who is active on Instagram, has posted mostly photos of him and his children in recent months. The last photograph with his wife was a photo of the family in February, when they were in Palm Beach celebrating a son’s birthday, the NYT report said.

U.S-Bangla flight carrying 71 crashes near Kathmandu airport

Kathmandu: A US-Bangla Airlines passenger plane carrying 71 people crashed on Monday while coming in to land at the airport in the Nepali capital, Kathmandu, an airport official said.

Victims' bodies have been recovered from the wreckage, an official said. "We just pulled out dead bodies and injured from the debris," government spokesman Narayan Prasad Duwadi told AFP.

Plumes of black smoke could be seen rising from the football pitch where the plane crashed, to the east of the runway at Nepal's only international airport, in the capital Kathmandu. "There were 67 passengers and 4 crew members" aboard the plane, said airport spokesman Prem Nath Thakur. "So far 20 injured have been taken to the hospital. Police and army are trying to cut apart the plane to rescue others," he added.

Live footage posted on Facebook showed the towering columns of smoke rising behind the runway, where another plane stood waiting on the tarmac. The Nepal Army has been pressed into rescue operations and the airport has been closed.

Amanda Summers, an American who works in Nepal, watched the crash happen from the terrace of her home office.

"It was flying so low I thought it was going to run into the mountains," she said. She said it was unclear if it had reached the runway when it landed. "All of a sudden there was a blast and then another blast," she said.

Fire crews put out the flames very quickly, perhaps within a minute, she said, though clouds of thick, dark smoke rose into the sky above Kathmandu, the capital of the Himalayan nation.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of airport policy, said the flight was arriving from Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital. He said the plane appeared to have caught fire just before it landed and skidded to a stop in a field beside the runway.

An employee who answered the phone at the US-Bangla offices in Dhaka said no one was available to talk.

"I have no other details," said the employee, who refused to give his name. "But a bad incident has happened."

Emergency vehicles appeared to be heading into the smoke as people watched from a distance or filmed on their mobile phones.

Nepal has suffered a number of air disasters in recent years, dealing a blow to its tourist industry.

Its poor air safety record has been blamed largely on inadequate maintenance, inexperienced pilots, and substandard management.

In early 2016, a Twin Otter turboprop aircraft slammed into a mountainside in Nepal killing all 23 people on board. Two days later, two pilots were killed when a small passenger plane crash-landed in the country's hilly midwest.

US-Bangla Airlines is a unit of the US-Bangla Group, a U.S. Bangladeshi joint venture company. The Bangladeshi carrier launched operations in July 2014 and operates Bombardier Inc and Boeing aircraft.

(With agency inputs)

Ivanka Trump to attend Olympics Closing Ceremony with US delegation

Washington: Ivanka Trump, daughter of US President Donald Trump, will lead the US delegation to attend the closing ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games in South Korea on Sunday, the White House has said.

Ivanka, also Trump’s advisor, was scheduled to have dinner on Friday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at his office in Seoul during her weekend trip to South Korea, said senior White House officials at a background briefing in the day.

Ivanka did not plan to meet officials from North Korea, said the officials on Wednesday on the condition of anonymity, Xinhua news agency reported. North Korea sent its athletes and cheerleaders as well as a high-ranking delegation to PyeongChang, showing its willingness to improve inter-Korean relations and ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korean top leader Kim Jong Un, also delivered a letter of Kim Jong Un to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, inviting him to visit Pyongyang at a convenient time. The invitation was made during an informal meeting between Moon and North Korean Olympic delegation, including the younger Kim who serves as the first vice director of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. The PyeongChang Winter Olympics was slated between February 9-25.

US President Donald Trump meets Florida school shooting survivors, suggests arming teachers

Washington: US President Donald Trump met survivors and families of the victims that were killed in the Florida school shooting and suggested that teachers and staff members should be provided with arms to avert such massacres, the media reported.

Trump’s comment came during a White House “listening session” on Wednesday which was attended by families and students including six survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a 19-year-old man Nikolas Cruz armed with an assault rifle killed 17 people on February 14, reports CNN.

The event brought Trump face-to-face with students and parents who have demanded action on gun violence. “If you had a teacher who was adept with the firearm, they could end the attack very quickly,” he said, stating that schools could arm up to 20 per ent of their teachers to stop “maniacs” who may try and attack them.

“This would be obviously only for people who were very adept at handling a gun, and it would be, it’s called concealed carry, where a teacher would have a concealed gun on them. They’d go for special training and they would be there and you would no longer have a gun-free zone,” Trump said. “Gun-free zone to a maniac — because they’re all cowards — a gun-free zone is ‘let’s go in and let’s attack because bullets aren’t coming back at us’.”

Acknowledging that the idea was controversial, Trump said that his administration would give it serious study. The President also called for more mental institutions and hospitals in addition to the idea of arming teachers. Trump’s idea of arming teachers and school staff was met with support from many of the attendees, CNN reported.

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Fred Abt, father of Parkland shooting survivor Carson Abt, said he had discussed with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that rather than waiting for first responders to arrive, it would be more efficient to have firearms locked on school campuses.

“One possible solution, which may not be very popular, would be to have people in the school, teachers, administrators who have volunteered to have a firearm safely locked in the classroom who are given training throughout the year,” he said.

“There are plenty of teachers who are already licensed to carry firearms, have them raise their hands to volunteer for the training, and when something like this starts, the first responders are already on campus. Andrew Pollack, a father of one of the 17 victims who died in the Florida shooting, said he was speaking because his daughter couldn’t.

“We as a country failed our children… This shouldn’t happen.” The President, flanked by the students, went around the room and shook hands before commencing the session. Trump also later tweeted he would “always remember” the event, adding “we must keep our children safe”.

“I will always remember the time I spent today with courageous students, teachers and families,” he tweeted, along with a link to the full event. “So much love in the midst of so much pain. We must not let them down. We must keep our children safe!!”

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