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The White House budget director confirmed Saturday that the Trump administration will propose "fairly dramatic reductions" in the US foreign aid budget later this month.

Reuters and other news outlets reported earlier this week that the administration plans to propose to Congress cuts in the budgets for the US State Department and Agency for International Development by about one third.

"We are going to propose to reduce foreign aid and we are going to propose to spend that money here," White House Office of Management Budget director Mick Mulvaney told Fox News on Saturday, adding the proposed cuts would include "fairly dramatic reductions in foreign aid."

Mulvaney said the cuts in foreign aid would help the administration fund a proposed $54 billion expansion of the US military budget.

"The overriding message is fairly straightforward: less money spent overseas means more money spent here," said Mulvaney, a former South Carolina Representative.

The United States spends just over $50 billion annually on the State Department and USAID, compared with $600bn or more each year on the Pentagon.

Several Republicans this week on Capitol Hill raised concerns about the planned cuts to the State Department.

"I am very concerned by reports of deep cuts that could damage efforts to combat terrorism, save lives and create opportunities for American workers," said US Representative Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.

A US government website said 20 government agencies plan to award $36.5bn in foreign assistance programs in more than 100 countries around the world during the current budget year.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, tweeted earlier this week: "Foreign Aid is not charity. We must make sure it is well spent, but it is less than 1 per cent of budget & critical to our national security."

Mulvaney said the Trump administration will release its budget proposal on March 16. Reuters has reported the administration plans significant proposed cuts in many other domestic programs.

MUNICH, Feb 19, (RTRS): A new version of a Trump administration travel ban will not stop green card residency holders or travellers already on planes from entering the United States, US Secretary for Homeland Security John Kelly said on Saturday. US President Donald Trump’s initial attempt to clamp down for security reasons on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and on refugees snarled to a halt amid a judicial backlash and chaos at airports.

“The president is contemplating releasing a tighter, more streamlined version of the fi rst (order). And I will have opportunity to work (on) a rollout plan, in particular to make sure that there’s no one in a sense caught in the system of moving from overseas to our airports,” Kelly said at the Munich Security Conference. Asked whether green card residency permit holders would be allowed in, Kelly said: “It’s a good assumption and, as far as the visas go, … if they’re in motion from some distant land to the United States, when they arrive they will be allowed in.” He promised “a short phasein period to make sure that people on the other end don’t get on airplanes. But if they’re on an airplane and inbound, they’ll be allowed to enter the country.”

A draft of the replacement executive order shows that the administration aims to put restrictions on citizens of the same seven Muslim-majority countries covered by the initial order, according to the Wall Street Journal, which cites an internal State Department memo. The replacement order could be issued as early as Tuesday, the Journal reported, citing a US government offi cial.

The administration would seek to implement the new order a week to two weeks after it is signed, and covers citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, the Journal said. Trump’s original order, which he said was meant to head off attacks by Islamist militants, barred people from those same countries from entering for 90 days and excluded all refugees for 120 days, except those from Syria, who were banned indefinitely. The abrupt implementation of the order last month plunged the immigration system into chaos, sparking a wave of criticism from the countries affected, and from Western allies and some of America’s leading corporations, especially technology firms.

Six people were killed and eight wounded when gunmen opened fire at a Quebec mosque during Sunday night prayers, in what Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a “terrorist attack on Muslims”.

 

“We condemn this terrorist attack on Muslims in a center of worship and refuge,” Trudeau said in a statement.

 

Six people were killed after gunmen opened fire in a Quebec City mosque, the mosque’s president told reporters on Sunday. A witness told Reuters that up to three gunmen fired on about 40 people inside the Quebec City Islamic Cultural Center.

“Why is this happening here? This is barbaric,” said the mosque’s president, Mohamed Yangui.

Quebec police said there were many victims and deaths, but did not confirm the death toll. They said two people had been arrested, but there were no immediate details on the suspects.

A witness said a heavily armed police tactical squad was seen entering the three-storey mosque. Police declined to say whether there was a gunman inside the mosque at the time.

 

Police tweeted later that the situation was under control and that the mosque had been secured and occupants evacuated.

Yangui, who was not inside the mosque when the shooting occurred, said he got frantic calls from people at evening prayers. He did not know how many were injured, saying they had been taken to different hospitals across Quebec City.

“Tonight, Canadians grieve for those killed in a cowardly attack on a mosque in Quebec City. My thoughts are with victims & their families,” Trudeau tweeted earlier in the night.

The shooting came on the weekend that Trudeau said Canada would welcome refugees, after US President Donald Trump suspended the US refugee programme and temporarily barred citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States on national security grounds.

 

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said police were providing additional protection for mosques in that city following the Quebec shooting. “All New Yorkers should be vigilant. If you see something, say something,” he tweeted.

Canada’s federal Liberal legislator Greg Fergus tweeted: “This is an act of terrorism — the result of years of demonising Muslims. Words matter and hateful speeches have consequences!”

‘Not safe here’

Like France, Quebec has struggled at times to reconcile its secular identity with a rising Muslim population, many of them North African emigrants. In June 2016, a pig’s head was left on the doorstep of the cultural center.

“We are not safe here,” said Mohammed Oudghiri, who normally attends prayers at the mosque in the middle-class, residential area, but not on Sunday.

 

Oudghiri said he had lived in Quebec for 42 years but was now “very worried” and thinking of moving back to Morocco.

Mass shootings are rare in Canada, which has stricter gun laws than the United States, and news of the shooting sent a shockwave through mosques and community centers throughout the mostly French-language province.

“It’s a sad day for all Quebecers and Canadians to see a terrorist attack happen in peaceful Quebec City,” said Mohamed Yacoub, co-chairman of an Islamic community center in a Montreal suburb. “I hope it’s an isolated incident.”

Incidents of Islamophobia have increased in Quebec in recent years. The face-covering, or niqab, became a big issue in the 2015 Canadian federal election, especially in Quebec, where the vast majority of the population supported a ban on it at citizenship ceremonies.

In 2013, police investigated after a mosque in the Saguenay region of the province was splattered with what was believed to be pig blood. In the neighboring province of Ontario, a mosque was set on fire in 2015, a day after an attack by gunmen and suicide bombers in Paris.

Zebida Bendjeddou, who left the mosque earlier on Sunday evening, said the center had received threats.

 

“In June, they’d put a pig’s head in front of the mosque. But we thought: ‘Oh, they’re isolated events.’ We didn’t take it seriously. But tonight, those isolated events, they take on a different scope,” she said.

Bendjeddou said she had not yet confirmed the names of those killed, but added: “They’re people we know, for sure. People we knew since they were little kids.”

India and Afghanistan are likely to announce an air cargo service on Saturday to help increase trade that both say is stymied because of their tense political relations with Pakistan.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi were meeting in the northern Indian city of Amritsar, a short distance from the Pakistan border, for the Heart of Asia conference aimed at stabilising Afghanistan.

Officials say the focus of the air cargo service is to improve landlocked Afghanistan's connectivity to key markets abroad and boost the growth prospects of its fruit and carpet industries while it battles a deadly Taliban insurgency.

Afghanistan depends on the Karachi port for its foreign trade. It is allowed to send a limited amount of goods overland through Pakistan into India, but imports from India are not allowed along this route.

Afghan director general for macro fiscal policies Khalid Payenda said the potential for trade with India, the largest market in the region, was far greater than allowed by land and so the two countries had decided to use the air route.

“That would be air cargo between Afghanistan and India. We have a lot of potential for trade on both sides. On our side, it's mostly fruit and dried fruit and potentially through India to other places for products like carpets and others.”

He said that a joint venture involving an Afghan and an Indian cargo firm would be set up and that the two governments were working to set up infrastructure at airports in Kabul and Delhi.

An Indian government source attending the meeting in Amritsar said air cargo route details were still being worked out and could include Kandahar as a point of origin for shipping fruit directly to India.

Indian foreign ministry official Gopal Baglay, who oversees Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, said several proposals were being discussed to improve Afghanistan's trade and transport links.

“There have been very many ideas on how to enhance connectivity, overcome current challenges and also expand the trade basket,” he said.

Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz will be attending the conference on Sunday.

Pakistan's ties with India have deteriorated further in recent months after a series of attacks on Indian military bases in the disputed region of Kashmir, which New Delhi says have either been carried out by militants sneaking in from Pakistan or orchestrated by groups based there.

Pakistan denies stoking violence in Kashmir and says India must open talks on the future of the revolt-torn Muslim majority region.

Indian officials said no talks with Pakistan were scheduled on the sidelines of the Amritsar conference.

Afghanistan's ties with Pakistan have also become strained after a series of violent attacks, several of them in the capital Kabul, that it said showed Pakistan had failed to rein in the militant groups operating from its soil.

“Unless we take a collective measure to fight terrorism, to fight the breeding ground for terrorism, the safe sanctuary, we will not be able to bring peace and stability either to Afghanistan or to anywhere else in the region, including India,” said Afghan ambassador to India Shaida M. Abdali.

Pakistan says it is itself a victim of terrorism and says India is using its close ties with Afghanistan to stir trouble in Balochistan.

RIYADH (AFP): With pumping hip hop beats and electrifying dancers, Saudi Arabia has launched what’s being hailed as an entertainment revolution for the ultra-conservative kingdom, which usually tightly restricts music, dance and theatre.

Hundreds of men and women, side-by-side, hooted their appreciation and clapped to the beat as New York-based theatrical group iLuminate took to the stage in Riyadh on Thursday evening. Anywhere else, it would have been a normal night out. But in a country without public cinemas or theatres, iLuminate’s stage show was a rarity.

That is about to change, according to the kingdom’s General Authority for Entertainment, which has lined up WWE wrestling, Arabs Got Talent performances, a food festival, comedy, Monster Jam motor sports and other events in the coming weeks. It is the latest sign that the sands are shifting in the oil-flush desert kingdom, where a new generation of royals is gaining growing influence.

“This signals a new era in Saudi Arabia,” said Ahmed al-Hemedy, 27, who watched the iLuminate show with a group of friends. “I never expected to see something this magnificent in front of my eyes,” he said, questioning why this type of entertainment didn’t come sooner.

“The show was brilliant!” The iLuminate dancers performed on a darkened stage in electrified glow-in-the dark suits, telling the stories of urban America against the thumping backdrop of its beats. Wahhabi Islamic thought, on which Saudi Arabia is founded, frowns upon music and forbids paintings of the human form. The kingdom took a more conservative course, including the banning of cinemas, after fundamentalists in 1979 seized Islam’s holiest site, the Grand Mosque in Makkah, to oppose perceived Westernisation.

They were eventually dislodged in a deadly assault by security forces. Many Saudis spend their entertainment dollars in neighbouring Bahrain and Dubai. The kingdom outlaws alcohol, even in luxury hotels, and unrelated men and women are forbidden from mixing. That means “single” men eat in a separate section at restaurants. But in a sign of flexibility, there was no segregation at Thursday night’s show, where men and women sat together inside the “convention hall” at Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University, a campus exclusively for women.

The hall bore a striking resemblance to an impressive theatre, with red seats, balconies, and an atrium lobby where vendors sold nachos, popcorn and donuts. Saudi women lined up for their snacks dressed from head-to-toe in black abaya robes, according to local custom. Entertainment-starved expatriates were among the youthful audience who spent between 50 and 900 riyals ($13.33-$240) for tickets. Salman Ziauddin, 30, of India, said that in his eight years in Saudi Arabia he had never seen such a show and hopes there will be more like it.

The creator of iLuminate, Miral Kotb, told reporters it was an honour to bring “such a different type of theatre and art to this culture” where the audience was so receptive. “They’ve been some of our best that we’ve had, and we’ve performed these shows worldwide.

Because you can feel the love and the energy and excitement that they have” in Saudi Arabia. Since last year the younger generation has had one of its own at the heights of power in the kingdom where more than half the population is under 25. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a 31-year-old son of King Salman, is the driving force behind Vision 2030, an economic and social diversification plan which he released in April to wean the kingdom off oil. Among its wide-ranging goals is development of tourism and entertainment. “We are well aware that the cultural and entertainment opportunities currently available do not reflect the rising aspirations of our citizens and residents,” Vision 2030 admits. British ambassador Simon Collis, who attended the show, said the kingdom’s “new approach” to entertainment is “a very positive development for young people. It will generate income.

It will create jobs. People will be happier.” He said Britain has already exchanged ideas with the entertainment authority about how they might be able to work together. “There’s a lot of energy around. It’s a time of significant change,” he said. Hundreds of people each night attended six Riyadh performances of iLuminate which now moves to Jeddah. Ahmed al-Khateeb, who heads the entertainment authority, told reporters his agency wants to develop a one-year timetable of events, so that “instead of thinking where to go and having no options now you will have three, four” on a weekend. There are 14 different programmes for the remainder of this year. “Greater things will come, God willing,” he said.

Source: Arab Times

 

DUBAI (RTRS): An air strike on a funeral gathering, widely blamed on Saudi-led warplanes, poses more trouble for a Western-backed Arab campaign against Yemen’s Houthis that has long been criticised for civilian losses. The White House announced an immediate review of Washington’s support for the 18-month-old military push after planes hit mourners at a community hall in the capital Sanaa on Saturday, killing 140 people according to one UN estimate and 82 according to the Houthis.

The statement from Riyadh’s main ally, noting for the second time in as many months that US support was not “a blank check”, sets up an awkward test of a Saudi-US partnership already strained by differences over wars in other Arab lands.

The reproach also indirectly hands a propaganda win to Riyadh’s arch rival Tehran, a Houthi ally that has long seen the Sunni kingdom as a corrupt and domineering influence on its impoverished southern neighbour, diplomats say. Sources in the Saudi-led coalition denied any role in the attack, but Riyadh later promised an investigation of the “regrettable and painful” incident, with US expert advice. The move was apparently aimed at heading off further criticism of a military campaign already under fire for causing hundreds of civilian deaths in apparently indiscriminate attacks.

“There will be pressure on the campaign,” said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst close to Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry. While the coalition followed very careful rules and understood human rights concerns, “there will now be pressure to end the whole operation, or to restrict the operation”. An estimated 10,000 people have been killed in the war and the United Nations blames coalition strikes for 60 percent of some 3,800 civilian deaths since they began in March 2015. The outcry over civilian casualties has led some lawmakers in the United States and Britain as well as rights activists to push for curbs on arms sales to Riyadh, so far without success.

The coalition denies deliberately targeting civilians and says it goes to great lengths to ensure its raids are precisely targeted, with explosive loads calibrated to limit the risk of causing damage beyond the immediate target area. Saudi officials said the kingdom did not want to fight a war in Yemen. “But we cannot stand by while insurgents overthrow a legitimate government in a neighbouring state by force, while Yemen becomes a lawless state and terrorist haven, and while we are attacked across our border,” one of the officials said. “Saudi Arabia will continue to provide military support to Yemen’s legitimate government while the insurgents continue their illegal campaign. … But we will also continue to support and promote a negotiated settlement.”

The coalition accuses the Houthis, who seized much of the north in a series of military advances since 2014, of placing military targets in civilian areas. The Houthis deny this. Fury in Sanaa at Saturday’s raid was echoed internationally. A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said any deliberate attack against civilians was utterly unacceptable. Ban called for “a prompt and impartial investigation of this incident.

Those responsible for the attack must be brought to justice”, the spokesman said. UN emergency relief coordinator Stephen O’Brien described the attack as obscene and heinous. France called it a “massacre” and said it wanted an independent inquiry. There was dismay, too, in the ranks of the internationally recognised Yemeni government that the coalition is defending. “It’s shocking to see that a target like this was hit,” said a senior official in the Saudibacked government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. “It’s the latest in a series of attacks by all sides on civilian targets like homes and public gatherings that are turning this into a dirty war.” “If anything positive can come from this, it would be increasing the will for a ceasefire that is needed. But incidents like these before have just fuelled a desire for revenge.”

Source: Arab Times

 

WASHINGTON: The United States is ready to send around 600 troops to Iraq to train local forces for an upcoming offensive on the Islamic State group stronghold of Mosul, US officials told AFP on Wednesday.

IS seized Mosul along with other areas in June 2014, but the country’s forces have since regained significant ground from the jihadists and are readying for a drive to retake Iraq’s second city.

Speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of a formal announcement, the officials said the troops would mainly be deployed to Qayyarah, a strategically vital air base south of Mosul that will help funnel supplies and troops toward the city.

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was due to make an announcement later Wednesday while on a work trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico. “In consultation with the government of Iraq, the United States is prepared to provide additional US military personnel to train and advise the Iraqis as the planning for the Mosul campaign intensifies,” another US official said, again speaking on condition of anonymity.

A US-led coalition is carrying out air strikes against IS in Iraq, and Washington has authorized the deployment of more than 4,600 military personnel to the country. Most are in advisory or training roles, working with Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces, but some American troops have fought IS on the ground, and three members of the US military have been killed by the jihadists in Iraq.

Earlier Wednesday, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office indicated it has requested “a final increase in the number of American trainers and advisers” to support Iraqi troops in the northern city. The statement from Abadi’s office noted that American forces are helping Iraq in its battle against the jihadists, but their presence remains extremely politically sensitive due to the nine-year war the United States fought in the country.

The statement said the number of trainers and advisers would start to be reduced as soon as Mosul is retaken from IS, and also asserted that no American troops had fought alongside Iraqi troops.

In reality, American special forces have fought IS alongside Iraqi Kurdish forces on several occasions that have been made public, and likely in other operations that have not come to light.

A million displaced?
Speaking in New Mexico on Tuesday, Carter said he expected the Mosul offensive to begin in the coming weeks, but stressed the decision was an Iraqi one. “The plan is quite elaborate,” he said. “All of this is under the command of Prime Minister Abadi.” The United Nations warned that military operations there could cause up to a million people to be displaced.

Last week, US President Barack Obama said US-backed Iraqi troops could be in a position “fairly rapidly” to liberate Mosul, though he warned “this is going to be hard, this is going to be challenging.”

Separately, the US military concluded Tuesday that a rocket fired earlier this month at the Qayyarah air base, which houses hundreds of US troops, contained no mustard agent, as initially suspected. In neighboring Syria, hundreds of US forces are deployed alongside Kurdish and rebel fighters to battle IS, which is also facing air raids by the international coalition.

The Pentagon has expressed concern IS fighters could use mustard gas to defend Mosul. Even after Mosul is retaken, the war against IS will be far from over. The jihadists are likely to revert to insurgent tactics, such as bombings of civilians and hit-and-run attacks on security forces, following the demise of their “state” in Iraq.-AFP

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