Portugal’s Interior Minister Resigns Over Wildfires Criticism

Smoke and flames from a forest fire are seen near Lousa, Portugal, October 16, 2017. (REUTERS)

Portugal’s government minister in charge of emergency services resigned Wednesday after more than a hundred people were killed in wildfires in the past months.

Interior Minister Constanca Urbano de Sousa tendered her resignation and Prime Minister Antonio Costa said in a statement he accepted it, the government announced on its website.

The Interior Ministry is in charge of firefighters, the police and civil protection agency, which have all faced criticism after the fires.

Urbano de Sousa said in her resignation letter published on the website that she wanted to quit after 64 people were killed in a wildfire four months ago, but Costa asked her to stay. She repeated her request after 42 people died in another spate of wildfires last weekend.

She wrote that after last weekend, “though the tragedy was caused by multiple factors, I came to the conclusion that I could not continue for political and personal reasons.”

Hundreds of fires have raged across northern and central Portugal since Sunday after the driest summer in nearly 90 years, overwhelming firefighting and rescue services.

Meanwhile, overnight rain and calmer winds have helped firefighters tame the deadly wildfires that broke out over the weekend, devouring homes and killing 41 people in Portugal and another four in northern Spain.

Portugal’s civil protection agency said Tuesday that the 15 biggest fires, which had raged through the center and the north of the country, had been brought under control, but that the death toll had risen.

“We’ve gone from 37 dead to 41,” civil protection agency spokeswoman Patricia Gaspar told AFP.

As the country began three days of mourning for the victims, the agency said 71 people had been injured in the fires, 16 of them seriously. And one person was still missing.

Among the dead was a one-month-old baby.

“Most of the victims were killed in their cars, but we also found them inside their houses,” said Jose Carlos Alexandrino, mayor of Oliveira do Hospital near Coimbra, speaking to broadcaster RTP.

“The whole city looked like a ball of fire, surrounded by flames on all sides.”

Portugal’s conservative President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa called on the socialist government to “bear all the consequences of this tragedy”.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa on Monday reaffirmed his pledge to prevent new tragedies by carrying out “fundamental reforms” in forest management and firefighting.

Since the start of the year, more than 350,000 hectares (865,000 acres) of vegetation have been consumed across Portugal — four times the annual average over the past decade — according to an estimate from the European Forest Fire Information System.

Portugal is covered with fast-burning eucalyptus trees which are used to supply the country’s paper industry, and it is also vulnerable to strong winds coming off the Atlantic.

Deaths and Injuries in Attacks on Pakistan Police

A car bomb attack struck a Pakistani security force truck in the restive southwestern city of Quetta during the morning rush hour on Wednesday, killing at least six people. In a separate attack in Quetta, a police officer was gunned down by assailants riding on a motorcycle, authorities said.

The car bombing took place in the Saryab Road area of Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan. Abdur Razzaq Cheema, the police chief in Quetta, said 24 people were also wounded, several critically.

A probe was launched to determine whether it was a suicide bombing or whether the explosives-laden vehicle was detonated remotely when the truck, which was carrying police recruits, was passing by, he said.

The death toll could rise, he added.

Television broadcast pictures of the burned-out wreckage of the vehicle.

Home Minister for Baluchistan Sarfaraz Bugti, who visited the site of explosion, said such attacks would not bring down the morale of the security forces.

“We are at war and our security forces are being targeted as they are crushing the enemies,” Bugti said.

“We will continue the war against these terrorists and we will defeat them.”

In the drive-by shooting, two men on a motorcycle shot and killed police inspector Abdus Salam as he was on his way to work. Cheema, the police chief, said the gunmen fired multiple shots on him before fleeing.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the two attacks.

Baluchistan has been the scene of a low-level insurgency by Baluch separatist groups demanding a greater share of the province’s resources but militant groups also operate in the region.

Xi Pledges ‘New Era’ for China, Vows to Counter Taiwan Independence Drive

Xi

President Xi Jinping made a pledge on Wednesday to transform China into a modern socialist country, vowing to counter challenges, ranging from corruption, climate change and Taiwan’s separatist drive.

During the opening of the twice-a-decade Communist Party Congress, he painted a vision of a “new era” that will be proudly Chinese, steadfastly ruled by the party but open to the world.

“Through a long period of hard work, socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era, this is a new historical direction in our country’s development,” Xi said, using the term “new era” 36 times.

In his nearly three-and-a-half hours speech, Xi envisioned China developing into a “basically” modernized socialist country by 2035, becoming one of the world’s most innovative countries with the income gap between urban and rural residents significantly reduced, and its environmental woes fundamentally eliminated.

By 2050, Xi said, China would become a modern socialist “strong power” with leading influence on the world stage.

But he signaled there would be no political reforms.

The Communist Party Congress is a week-long, mostly closed-door conclave that will culminate with the selection of a new Politburo Standing Committee that will rule China’s 1.4 billion people for the next five years, with Xi expected to consolidate his grasp on power.

He addressed more than 2,000 delegates in Beijing’s cavernous Great Hall of the People, including 91-year-old former President Jiang Zemin, under tight security on a rainy, smoggy morning.

China’s political system was the broadest, most genuine, and most effective way to safeguard the fundamental interests of the people, said Xi, who has overseen a sweeping crackdown on civil society, locking up rights lawyers and dissidents.

“We should not just mechanically copy the political systems of other countries,” he said. “We must unwaveringly uphold and improve party leadership and make the party still stronger.”

Xi praised the party’s successes, particularly his high-profile anti-graft campaign, which has seen more than a million officials punished and dozens of former senior officials jailed, and warned the campaign would never end as corruption was the “gravest threat” the party faces.

“We must remain as firm as a rock in our resolve to build on the overwhelming momentum and secure a sweeping victory,” Xi said.

On Taiwan’s separatist drive, he stressed that Beijing has the will and power to thwart any attempts at independence.

Beijing claims Taiwan as its own.

Xi warned that China has “the resolve, the confidence, and the ability to defeat separatist attempts for Taiwan independence in any form”.

“We will never allow anyone, any organization, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China,” he said.

Taiwan’s mainland affairs council called the Communist Party congress’ comments “regrettable”, saying “China cannot win over the people” through its “one China” policy.

Ties between Taiwan and China have turned increasingly frosty since the election of Tsai Ing-wen as president last year.

Beijing cut off official communication with her government shortly after it took office due to her refusal to publicly accept the “one China” concept.

The two sides split after a civil war in 1949, and while Taiwan sees itself as a sovereign nation, it has never formally declared independence.

Xi made no mention of independence movements in China’s semi-autonomous city Hong Kong.

Beijing has tightened control over the city’s affairs in response to high-profile calls for democracy that have increasingly turned to calls for self-determination or even full independence.

On the economic front, Xi said China would relax market access for foreign investment, expand access to its services sector and deepen market-oriented reform of its exchange rate and financial system, while at the same time strengthening state firms, he said.

As expected, the speech was heavy on aspiration and short on specific measures, but during Xi’s first term, China disappointed many expecting it to usher in more market-oriented reforms.

Xi promised, in what was likely an indirect reference to US President Donald Trump’s “America first” policy, that China would be fully engaged with the world, and reiterated pledges to tackle climate change.

Army Sgt. Held Captive in Afghanistan Faces Life in Prison

Washington- Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who vanished in Afghanistan and spent five years in brutal captivity before the United States recovered him in a controversial prisoner swap, pleaded guilty Monday to two crimes in connection with his disappearance.

Bergdahl, now 31, was a private first class when he went missing in 2009. Appearing in an Army courtroom at Fort Bragg, N.C., he entered guilty pleas to charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.

The desertion charge could yield up to five years’ confinement. The misbehavior charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Rarely used, it’s applied when service members run away, surrender or otherwise endanger fellow troops’ safety through disobedience, neglect or intentional misconduct.

“I understand that leaving was against the law,” he told the judge, according to the Associated Press, adding later, “I believed they would notice me missing, but I didn’t believe they would have reason to search for one private.”

Bergdahl walked away from his combat outpost just before midnight June 29, 2009, in what an Army investigation determined was an attempt to cause a crisis and draw attention to concerns that Bergdahl had about his leaders. The soldier was captured within hours by  armed Taliban fighters on motorcycles and turned over to the Haqqani network, a group in Pakistan that tortured him on and off for years.

A US Special Forces team recovered Bergdahl in May 2014 as part of a deal in which the Obama administration released five Taliban operatives held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The move was bitterly protested by some critics, including Donald Trump, who declared during his bid for the White House that Bergdahl was a traitor. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office concluded that the Obama administration violated the law by failing to provide Congress with sufficient notice about its plans.

Obama administration officials defended the prisoner swap, saying the United States does not leave soldiers behind on the battlefield.

Bergdahl was charged in March 2015. It is not clear what punishment he will receive from the case’s judge, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance. He is expected to be sentenced at Fort Bragg in an Oct. 23 hearing that could include testimony from several US service members and veterans who Nance ruled this year were injured while searching for Bergdahl.

Thousands of US troops were involved in that effort over Bergdahl’s five years in captivity.

Nance also could take into account Bergdahl’s treatment in Pakistan. An Army physician who testified in the case found that Bergdahl, who was at times kept in a cage, suffered muscular nerve damage in his lower legs, degenerative back damage and a loss of range in motion in his left shoulder that prevents him from lifting heavy objects. In addition to confinement, Bergdahl could receive a dishonorable discharge and lose his medical benefits.

Bergdahl’s defense team has said he was unable to receive a fair trial due to Trump’s repeated attacks. One attorney, Eugene Fidell, accused Trump of treating Bergdahl as “a political chew toy,” but Nance rejected a request to dismiss the case on grounds that Trump had unlawfully altered the course of the case.

In an interview published by ABC News on Monday, Bergdahl complained bitterly about his prospect of a fair trial due to Trump, and said it was “insulting” that some critics accuse him of sympathizing with the Taliban.

“We may as well go back to kangaroo courts and lynch mobs that got what they wanted,” Bergdahl said. “The people who want to hang me — you’re never going to convince those people.”

Lt. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, a senior Army officer who interviewed Bergdahl, testified in 2015 that he found Bergdahl “unrealistically idealistic” and believed a jail sentence would be inappropriate, given the circumstances of the case. A military doctor determined that Bergdahl, who had previously washed out of the Coast Guard, exhibited symptoms of a mental disorder known as schizotypal personality disorder, which is considered a variant of schizophrenia that has less frequent or intense psychotic episodes.

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who briefly served as Trump’s national security adviser, said in the ABC News report published Monday that he also does not think that Bergdahl deserves jail time.

“So the guy deserted his men, his soldiers, his squad — no doubt,” Flynn said. “[But] I don’t think he should serve another day in any sort of confinement or jail or anything like that, because frankly, even though he put himself into this situation to a degree, we — the United States government and the United States military — put him in Afghanistan.”

The Washington Post

Libya’s Mitiga Airport Closed as Rival Factions Clash

As clashes intensified between Libyan rival factions, the country’s Mitiga airport, located in the capital, was evacuated.

According to officials flights were suspended repeatedly, leading up to a full shutdown.

Reuters wrote that flights had restarted around midday on Tuesday after being suspended for several hours during the morning and the previous evening, Mitiga spokesman Khaled Abukhrais said. But by late afternoon heavy gunfire resumed and the airport was shut.

“Unfortunately the air space has closed again and the airport has been evacuated for the safety and security of passengers and workers, due to renewed clashes,” an airport statement said.

Mitiga is a military air base near the centre of Tripoli that has also hosted civilian flights since the international airport was largely destroyed by fighting in 2014.

The clashes began when the Special Deterrence Force (Rada), a group that controls Mitiga and operates as an anti-crime unit aligned with the UN-backed government, conducted raids in the nearby neighborhood of Ghrarat.

Rada spokesman Ahmed Bin Salem said the group targeted in the raids had tried to attack the airport area after a wanted drug dealer had been killed when he fired on a Rada patrol.

“The area of Ghrarat is now under the control of our forces and it’s being treated as military zone so we can clear any resistance,” Bin Salem said.

One member of Rada had been killed and two wounded, and there were several casualties among their opponents, he said.

Tripoli is split among various armed groups that have built local power bases since Libya’s 2011 revolution.

There have been fewer heavy confrontations in the capital since groups linked to a previous, self-declared government were pushed out of the city earlier this year, but armed skirmishes, kidnapping and other criminal activity are still common.

IRGC Says No to Abandoning Ballistic Missile Program, Military Base Inspection

Commander of the Revolutionary Guards Aerospace Division says Brig.Gen Amir Ali Hajizadeh, confirms the refusal of his forces to give up the development of the ballistic program in Qom Monday speech

London- Iran’s Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani vowed on Monday that Tehran will end its nuclear obligations should the United States withdraw from the nuclear deal, while the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards refused to halt the cleric-led nation’s development of its ballistic program.

Commander of the Revolutionary Guards Aerospace Division says Brig.Gen Amir Ali Hajizadeh said that Tehran will not stop boosting its missile capabilities under any circumstances, shrugging off US President Donald Trump’s call for constraints on Iran’s ballistic missile program.

Speaking at a cultural ceremony in the city of Qom on Monday, Brig.Gen.Hajizadeh said that “[even] if a wall is constructed all around the country, the production of missiles will not be halted because this is a completely indigenous and domestic industry,” he said.

The Iranian official’s remarks were made as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Washington will be working with allies to face threats posed by Tehran.

“We’re going to work with our European partners and allies to see if we can’t address these concerns,” said Tillerson.

On the other hand, Brig.Gen.Hajizadeh pointed to Washington’s hostile approaches to Tehran and added that “the US enmity is an unchangeable issue and strategy. [Therefore,] its tactics may change but the strategy itself never changes.”

The IRGC commander was also cited as playing down concerns about a possible war against Iran, saying “this is the enemy’s psychological warfare and our country is so strong that no one will dare attack or confront the Islamic Republic.”

He emphasized that US statesmen were under the influence of Zionists blasting US policy as “dictated by the Zionists.”

US President Donald Trump on October 13 refused to formally certify that Iran was complying with the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and warned that he might ultimately terminate the agreement.

While Trump did not pull Washington out of the nuclear deal, he gave the US Congress 60 days to decide whether to re-impose economic sanctions against Tehran that were lifted under the pact. Re-imposing sanctions would put the US at odds with other signatories to the accord and the European Union.

Trump also said his goal was to ensure Iran would never obtain a nuclear weapon, adding: “We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror and the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout.”

Philippine President: Marawi Liberated from Pro-ISIS Extremists

Marawi

The Philippine army succeeded in liberating the southern city of Marawi from the clutches of pro-ISIS terrorists that had been waging battles with the military for months, announced President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday.

“I hereby declare Marawi City liberated from terrorist influence that marks the beginning of rehabilitation,” Duterte told soldiers in Marawi.

Speaking to soldiers a day after the killing of two leaders of the rebel alliance, he said the fight was over and it was time to heal the wounded and rebuild the city of 200,000 people on the island of Mindanao.

Military chief General Eduardo Ano told The Associated Press that Duterte’s statement means the threat from the extremists, who have occupied parts of the lakeside city for five months, is substantially over.

“They’re leaderless and they have no more organization,” he said. “There are still skirmishes.”

A military spokesman said that 20-30 rebels were still fighting it out and were holding about 20 hostages. As many as 80 buildings will need to be swept for explosives.

Restituto Padilla said that although the fight was not completely over, the remaining rebels were “stragglers” who no longer posed a threat.

“There is no way that they can get out anymore, there is no way for anyone to get in,” Padilla told news channel ANC.

“So choking them to death at this point will be very key for our troops to do since the area is very much contained and very much controlled.”

Isnilon Hapilon, ISIS’ “emir” in Southeast Asia, and Omarkhayam Maute, one of two “Khalifas” at the helm of the Dawla Islamiya militant alliance, were killed in a targeted operation on Monday and their bodies had been recovered and identified, authorities said.

The 148-day occupation by ISIS loyalists marked the country’s biggest internal security crisis in years.

Marawi has been devastated by the siege laid by the pro-ISIS group who overran the city on May 23. More than 1,000 people have been killed, including about 800 militants.

The surprise occupation of the city and the involvement of foreign fighters set off alarms in Southeast Asia and the West. Analysts said parts of the southern Philippines were at risk of becoming a new base for ISIS as it lost territory to international forces in Iraq and Syria.

At Least 10 Killed in Taliban Attacks in Afghanistan

Taliban

At least 12 people were killed on Tuesday in a suicide car bomb attack against a police headquarters in Afghanistan.

The attack targeted a police training center attached to the headquarters in Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, officials said.

Officials and militants said that 60 people were wounded in the assault.

At least two attackers were also killed, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

Three officials told Reuters that the provincial police chief was among the dead, but the ministry said it could only confirm that he had been wounded.

Both civilians and security forces were among the casualties, deputy public health director Hedayatullah Hameedi said.

“At the moment the area is sealed by the Crisis Response Unit and efforts are ongoing to eliminate the terrorists,” the ministry statement said.

In the western Farah province, police chief Abdul Maruf Fulad said the Taliban attacked a government compound in Shibkho district, killing three policemen.

In southern Ghazni province, the Taliban stormed a security compound, using a suicide car, and killed at least seven policemen.

Provincial chief police, Mohammad Zaman, stated that the attack in Andar district early on Tuesday morning triggered several hours of heavy fighting until the attackers were repelled.

The district compound has been destroyed, he added.

China Gears up for National Congress as Xi Seeks to Consolidate Power

Xi

China’s ruling Communist Party is preparing to hold its national congress on Wednesday where President Xi Jinping is expected to consolidate his power and head on a second five-year term in office.

Amid the stability he has achieved in China during his term in office, beyond the borders, the situation is not so calm.

There, he is at the mercy of two unpredictable men, US President Donald Trump and North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un – a predicament that points to the limits of China’s bid to project soft power, said an Agence France Presse report.

Some analysts say Kim could try to cause a stir by testing another missile or nuclear bomb in the middle of China’s most important political event, which is held every five years.

A new test could trigger another 140-character salvo by Trump, who has alternated between prodding and praising Xi’s response to North Korea.

Trump’s mercurial Twitter diplomacy has contrasted with Xi’s unemotional style. The US leader has also pointedly left Xi hanging over whether he will hit China with tariffs over trade grievances.

Despite the mixed messages, Xi has professed his friendship with Trump, confirming an invitation for the US president to come to Beijing next month, when they will discuss trade and North Korea face-to-face.

His relationship with Kim is also complicated.

The North Korean leader has already interfered with two international summits that the Chinese president has hosted this year, by staging headline-grabbing provocations.

In May, as Xi prepared to address world leaders gathered in Beijing on his signature Belt and Road initiative – a Chinese-led trade infrastructure program – the North successfully launched a new ballistic missile.

Then in September, it conducted its most powerful nuclear test to date, hours before Xi took the stage for a speech before leaders of the developing world at the annual BRICS summit.

The timing was seen as a slight towards Xi and an attempt by Kim to strongarm his Chinese neighbor into convincing Trump to sit down for talks.

A new nuclear test during the party congress “would be more than a loss of face. It will harm the ruling party of China,” said Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “It will harm Xi Jinping at this crucial moment.”

On Wednesday, Xi will address the nation to lay out his political and economic vision for the world’s second-largest economy over the next five years.

Villages will broadcast news of the congress over loudspeakers, a security crackdown has been extended and monitoring of dissidents strengthened.

Xi, who is expected to get a second five-year term as party leader at the gathering, will kick off events with an address indicating whether his personal political theory will be entered into the party constitution alongside those of predecessors such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

Xi’s speech is also expected to recommit the party to achieving the goals of a “moderately well-off society” by 2021 — the 100th anniversary of the party’s founding — and even greater national power and prosperity by 2049 — the centenary of the founding of the Communist state.

Those achievements will depend on continued economic growth and the lifting of millions out of poverty, alongside the continued rapid expansion of Chinese military and political power, including its growing ability to dominate the Asia-Pacific region.

While the nation’s presidency is limited to two five-year terms, the office of party general secretary is bound by no such restrictions. Xi, 64, could step aside for a younger leader while maintaining ultimate control from behind the scenes.

Whatever the outcome, most analysts say Xi has largely completed the task of sidelining his competitors in other cliques, including those surrounding his immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao, and former leader Jiang Zemin.

“Xi has been extremely successful in purging political rivals,” said Feng Chongyi, an expert on Chinese politics at Sydney’s University of Technology. “There will be only one faction left after the 19th congress.”

The 2,287 carefully hand-picked delegates to the congress are drawn from 40 constituencies, including the 31 provincial-level administrative districts, the government, the military, state industries and grass-roots organizations representing most of the party’s 89 million members.

EU Calls on US Congress to Preserve Iran Nuclear Deal

EU foreign policy chief Mogherini addresses a news conference during a EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels

London- European Union foreign ministers, following a closed-door meeting on Monday, appealed to the United States Congress to maintain the nuclear deal with Iran and avoid a return to the sanctions option, stressing EU’s commitment to maintaining the agreement on the Iranian program after US President Donald Trump on Friday decided not to certify it.

Also on Monday, Britain and France said they were firmly committed to the 2005 nuclear deal with Iran and would work to ensure its implementation.

The British premier’s office said in a statement that during a telephone discussion, “the leaders expressed their firm commitment to a nuclear deal with Iran.”

“Prime Minister May and President Macron agreed to continue close cooperation to ensure proper compliance with the deal and to prevent Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, including its ballistic missile program,” the statement added.

The announcement follows a telephone call between May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who both underlined the need to maintain the Iranian nuclear deal.

EU’s Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini chaired the closed-door talks on Monday which discussed how the EU countries would deal with Trump’s threats to the nuclear agreement. The ministers are also scheduled to review the means to tackle Iran’s missile program and its regional role.

“This agreement is necessary for the security of the region,” Mogherini said, without elaborating on the role the EU could play in countering Iran’s regional activities.

“Clearly EU ministers are concerned that messages on JCPOA [Iran’s nuclear deal] might affect negatively opening negotiations or even the space [for] opening negotiations with DPRK,” Mogerhini said, using the abbreviation for the country’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “One of the key elements of multilateralism is the predictability of maintaining agreements.”

In a joint statement, Paris, London and Berlin expressed concern about the “repercussions on the security of the United States and its allies” that would result from the actions demanded by Trump.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the EU needed to put real pressure on the US Congress.

“We hope that Congress will not call this agreement into question because … non-proliferation [of nuclear weapons] is a major element of global security,” he said.

German Foreign Affairs Minister Sigmar Gabriel warned that threats from the US president to pull out from the Iran nuclear accord could provoke military confrontation.

“As Europeans together, we are very worried that the decision of the US President could lead us back into military confrontation with Iran,” Gabriel told reporters ahead of the meeting with his European counterparts.