Archive for July, 2018

North Korea leader has committed to denuclearize: U.S. spokeswoman

July 31, 2018

The United States is holding North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un to the commitment he made during a June summit with U.S. President Donald Trump to denuclearize, a State Department spokeswoman said on Tuesday after U.S. spy satellite material showed renewed activity at a North Korean missile factory.

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“What we are going on is the commitment that Chairman Kim made to our president, and that is the commitment to denuclearize and that is something we anticipate he will hold up his end of the bargain,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a briefing for reporters.

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Heather Nauert

She also left open the possibility of follow-up denuclearization talks between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean officials on the sidelines of southeast Asian meetings in Singapore at the weekend.

Reuters
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Dozens of fake pages part of ‘coordinated’ effort ahead of midterms, Facebook says

July 31, 2018

Facebook Inc has identified a new coordinated political influence campaign to mislead users and organize rallies ahead of November’s U.S. congressional elections, taking down dozens of fake accounts on its site, the company said on Tuesday.

A Russian propaganda arm tried to tamper in the 2016 U.S. election by posting and buying ads on Facebook, according to the company and U.S. intelligence agencies. Moscow has denied involvement.

Facebook on Tuesday said it had removed 32 pages and accounts from Facebook and Instagram, part of an effort to combat foreign meddling in U.S. elections, attempts that lawmakers have called dangerous for democracy.

>> Statement from Facebook: Removing Bad Actors

The company said it was still in the early stages of its investigation and did not yet know who may be behind the influence campaign for 2018 elections that will determine whether or not the Republican Party keeps control of Congress.

Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said on a call with reporters that the attempts to manipulate public opinion would likely become more sophisticated to evade Facebook’s scrutiny, calling it an “arms race.”

“This kind of behavior is not allowed on Facebook because we don’t want people or organizations creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they are, or what they’re doing,” the company said in a blogpost.

More than 290,000 accounts followed at least one of the pages and that about $11,000 had been spent on about 150 ads, Facebook said. The pages had created about 30 events since May 2017.

Facebook for months has been on the defensive about influence activity on its site and concerns over user privacy tied to longstanding agreements with developers that allowed them access to private user data.

Divisive issues

Facebook identified influence activity around at least two issues, including a counter-protest to a “Unite the Right II” rally set next week in Washington. The other was the #AbolishICE social media campaign aimed at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

In the blogpost, Facebook said it was revealing the influence effort now in part because of the rally. A previous event last year in Charlottesville, South Carolina, led to violence by white supremacists.

Facebook said it would tell users who had expressed interest in the counter-protest what action it had taken and why.

Facebook officials on a call with reporters said that one known account from Russia’s Internet Research Agency was a co-administrator of one of the fake pages for seven minutes, but the company did not believe that was enough evidence to attribute the campaign to the Russian government.

The company previously had said 126 million Americans may have seen Russian-backed political content on Facebook over a two-year period, and that 16 million may have been exposed to Russian information on Instagram.

Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, in a statement urged Facebook to move against foreign groups trying to sway American voters and to warn legitimate users that such activity, as seen in 2016, is recurring this year.

“Today’s announcement from Facebook demonstrates what we’ve long feared: that malicious foreign actors bearing the hallmarks of previously-identified Russian influence campaigns continue to abuse and weaponize social media platforms to influence the U.S. electorate,” Schiff said.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican, said in a statement there would be a hearing on Wednesday about the online threat to U.S. election security.

Burr said the goal of influence operations “is to sow discord, distrust, and division in an attempt to undermine public faith in our institutions and our political system. The Russians want a weak America.”

Washington imposed punitive sanctions on Russia following U.S. intelligence agency conclusions that Moscow interfered to undermine the 2016 U.S. elections, one of the reasons U.S.-Russian relations are at a post-Cold War low. Both U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have said, however, that they want to improve ties between the two nuclear powers.

Facebook disclosed in September that Russians under fake names had used the social network to try to influence U.S. voters in the months before and after the 2016 election, writing about divisive issues, setting up events and buying ads.

U.S. intelligence agencies said Russian state operators ran the campaign combining fake social media posts and hacking into Democratic Party networks, eventually becoming an effort to help Republican candidate Trump, who scored a surprise victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Over the past several months, the company has taken steps meant to reassure U.S. and European lawmakers that further regulation is unnecessary. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg says the company has 20,000 people working to police and protect the site.

Costs associated with that effort are part of the reason Facebook said last week that it expects its profit margins to decline, a warning that sent shares tumbling about 25 percent, the biggest one-day loss of market cap in U.S. stock market history. Shares of Facebook were up about 1.5 percent in Tuesday’s midafternoon trading, part of a broader tech rebound.

(REUTERS)

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to Stay With Trump Through 2020

July 31, 2018

Kelly Agrees to Remain Chief of Staff Through 2020 at Trump’s Request

The chief of staff had been widely expected to leave the White House some time this summer

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White House chief of staff John Kelly, who on Monday marked his one-year anniversary as chief of staff, had been widely expected to leave the White House some time this summer.
White House chief of staff John Kelly, who on Monday marked his one-year anniversary as chief of staff, had been widely expected to leave the White House some time this summer. PHOTO: BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS
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WASHINGTON—White House chief of staff John Kelly told staff on Monday that President Trump had asked him to remain in his post through the 2020 election, White House officials said, a request that comes as tensions between the two men have eased in recent months.

Mr. Kelly told staff he agreed to the president’s request, one of the officials said.

Mr. Kelly, who on Monday marked his one-year anniversary as chief of staff, had been widely expected to leave the White House some time this summer.

Mr. Trump in recent months has consulted with advisers about whom he should tap as his next chief of staff, considering as possible successors Nick Ayers, who serves as chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, and Mick Mulvaney, who heads the Office of Management and Budget and serves as acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

If Mr. Kelly stays in his post through 2020, he would be among the longest-serving White House chiefs of staff in U.S. history. Andy Card, chief of staff under former President George W. Bush, remained in his post for a little over five years. The longest serving chief of staff in U.S. history is John Steelman, who spent six years in the post under President Harry Truman.

A White House official cautioned that while the plan is for Mr. Kelly to remain in his post through 2020, unforeseen circumstances could cause the plan to change.

The president has offered conflicting views in recent months on how long he sees Mr. Kelly staying on the job. After The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Mr. Trump was consulting with advisers on successors to Mr. Kelly, a White House spokeswoman called the report “fake news” and said Mr. Kelly said “this was news to him.”

Mr. Trump, asked later that same day whether Mr. Kelly was leaving the White House, replied: “That I don’t know.”

Mr. Kelly, a 68-year-old retired Marine general, came into the job with a mandate to impose discipline in a West Wing where many aides had easy access to the president and felt free to pursue policy initiatives that hadn’t been fully vetted. But in recent months, Mr. Kelly’s grip on West Wing operations has loosened. Some senior aides now report directly to the president, a departure from earlier practice in which Mr. Kelly was the principal gatekeeper to the Oval Office.

Mr. Kelly had told colleagues in recent months that he didn’t intend to stay in the role beyond his one-year mark.

View image on Twitter

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

Congratulations to General John Kelly. Today we celebrate his first full year as @WhiteHouse Chief of Staff!

Tensions between the president and Mr. Kelly appear to have eased in recent months since a rough patch earlier this year, when Mr. Trump privately criticized his chief of staff for the handling of accusations of domestic assault against former staff secretary Rob Porter, who resigned in February after graphic photos emerged of the alleged abuse.

Mr. Kelly had initially defended Mr. Porter, vouching for his integrity publicly and privately. In his own public comments on the matter, Mr. Trump emphasized Mr. Porter’s denial of abuse without addressing his staff’s handling of the matter.

Mr. Trump on Monday tweeted a photo of himself with Mr. Kelly and wrote: “Congratulations to General John Kelly. Today we celebrate his first full year as @WhiteHouse Chief of Staff!”

Write to Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com, Byron Tau at byron.tau@wsj.com and Peter Nicholas at peter.nicholas@wsj.com

https://www.wsj.com/articles/john-kelly-has-told-white-house-staff-trump-asked-him-to-stay-in-post-through-2020-1533053182

Facebook has detected attempts to interfere in midterm elections

July 31, 2018

  • Facebook confirmed it has identified a coordinated political influence campaign believed to be working ahead of November’s midterm elections.
  • In Washington D.C. this week, the social media company told lawmakers that it detected dozens of fake accounts and pages, people briefed on the matter told the New York Times.

Facebook identifies political influence campaign, not conclusively tied to Russia: NYT

Facebook identifies political influence campaign, not conclusively tied to Russia: NYT  

Facebook confirmed it has identified a coordinated political influence campaign believed to be working ahead of November’s midterm elections.

The social media company announced on Tuesday it had detected and removed 32 fake accounts and pages from both Facebook and Instagram, after idetifying “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

Facebook said it has not been able to confirm Russia’s involvement. During the 2016 election, the Russian troll farm Internet Research Agency (IRA) was accused in an indictment of election interference. In its announcement, Facebook admitted it did not have all the facts on who was responsible for the effort, but said it was disclosing the fake accounts now ahead of planned protests in Washington, D.C. next week.

“It’s clear that whoever set up these accounts went to much greater lengths to obscure their true identities than the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) has in the past,” Facebook wrote in a statement.

Just like during the 2016 elections, the fake accounts and pages seem to be focusing in on divisive issues. Facebook has found fake accounts that posted about hot-button social issues like abolishing ICE and an attempt to organize a second “Unite the Right” rally, according to the New York Times. Facebook said the fake accounts spend about $11,000 in ads promoting those divisive posts.

The fake accounts used more advanced techniques to avoid detection, such as hiring third parties to run ads for them, Facebook said. Still, Facebook said it was not able to link the fake accounts to the IRA, even though the fake accounts used similar tactics.

–CNBC’s Julia Boorstin contributed to this report.

This is a breaking news story. Please check back for updates.

https://www.cnbc.com/2018/07/31/facebook-has-detected-attempts-to-interfere-in-mid-terms.html?__source=sharebar|facebook&par=sharebar
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South China Sea: ASEAN, China hopeful for ‘substantially completed Code of Conduct in 2018

July 31, 2018

The Philippines, alongside China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), expressed optimism that the negotiations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) will be “substantially completed” within 2018.

“The hope is that by November, when our leaders meet, we will have it,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told reporters before leaving for the 51st ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Singapore.

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“In terms of attitude as soon as possible, in terms of actual as we aspire for a deadline as soon as possible for this year, but if we have to make an educated guess, it could be anytime towards the end of the year or next year until we actually have a COC that I think will satisfy everyone,” the official added.

He said, however, that Singapore, the 2018 ASEAN chairman, already asked Beijing and the regional bloc to mitigate their expectations because a COC approved by all parties “is not that easy to come out.”

While he called the ongoing discussions as a “sign of progress”, Cayetano admitted that the negotiation process is slow since talks are held multilaterally.

“Even the framework itself just the framework, the negotiation was exhaustive but then if you look at what the framework is to many people, they may say, “that’s all?,” he said.

He called on the public to understand that the negotiation takes time.

In the past meetings, he said the parties agreed to start drafting a document which contains points that the ASEAN and China could agree on.

“The problem with the negotiation of the COC (is) anyone can throw in a deal breaker then we don’t have an agreement. We have to take advantage of the fact that in the past, there were regional players and claimants, etc. who were not bullish about the COC, now everyone is,” he said, but did not go into details about the ongoing negotiations.

For more than a decade, China and ASEAN have reaffirmed their commitment to work towards the early adoption of the COC. But it was only during the 20th ASEAN-China Summit in the Philippines in November last year that development on the document began to move forward.

China, Taiwan and some ASEAN member states including the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea.

During the ASEAN Foreign Minister’s Retreat in February 2018, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan admitted that the COC negotiation will be “very complicated” and will require all parties to “ultimately exercise political will” to resolve sensitive issues, adding that territorial claims will not be resolved with the COC alone. (PNA)

http://www.pna.gov.ph/articles/1043250

Italian boat returning migrants to Libya may have broken law, UN agency says

July 31, 2018

A UN agency has said Libya is not a secure port and returning migrants to the country might have violated international law. According to Italy, the Libyan coast guard coordinated the rescue in its own waters.

    
Migrants rescued near Libya aboard the Open Arms aid boat react as the ship approaches the port of Barcelona in Spain.

The UN refugee agency was looking into possible violations of international law by an Italian-flagged mercantile ship, which rescued more than 100 migrants and returned them to Libya earlier this week.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said on Twitter that Libya is not safe and the operation “could represent a violation of international law.”

Spanish charity Proactiva Open Arms said their boat had heard radio communications between the Italian ship and the Libyan authorities that confirmed that the 108 migrants were rescued from international waters on Monday and taken back to Libya, their country of departure.

The UN agency is investigating whether the rescue operation took place in international waters or in Libyan waters, as claimed by the Italian coast guard.

Read moreBy refusing entry to migrant rescue ship, Italy and Malta reveal legal shortcomings

International law states that migrants rescued in international waters cannot be returned to a place where their lives are put in danger. Libya is classified as unsafe by both the United Nations and European Union.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said on Facebook on Tuesday that the Italian coast guard was not involved in the rescue and that it was coordinated by the Libyan coast guard.

Salvini, who heads Italy’s far-right League party, has vowed to stop migrants from arriving on Italian coasts. He has refused permission to NGO and charity rescue boats operating in the Mediterranean to dock in Italy, accusing them of aiding human traffickers.

ap/kms (AP, Reuters)

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Afghanistan: At least 15 people were killed in Jalaladad attack

July 31, 2018

At least 15 people were killed on Tuesday in Afghanistan’s eastern city of Jalalabad when gunmen stormed a government building, trapping dozens inside after a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance gate, officials and witnesses said.

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Smoke rises from a building after a deadly attack including a suspected suicide car bombing and gunbattles, in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Tuesday, July 31, 2018. An Afghan provincial official said a coordinated attack was underway by the Taliban in the city of Jalalabad, the capital of eastern Nangarhar province. (AP Photo) AP

The attack underlines the country’s dire security situation after 17 years of war, with Islamic State increasingly claiming attacks on civilian targets even as pressure builds for peace talks between the Western-backed government and the Taliban.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, though the Taliban issued a statement denying involvement.

After several hours during which intermittent gunfire and explosions could be heard, provincial government spokesman Attaullah Khogyani said the incident appeared to be over with two gunmen killed and much of the building destroyed.

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An Afghan policeman inspects the site of an attack in Jalalabad, Afghanistan July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Parwiz

He said at least 15 people had been killed and 15 wounded although the total may rise as rescue workers search the site. Sohrab Qaderi, a member of the local provincial council, said eight had been killed and as many as 30 wounded.

One witness, a passerby named Obaidullah, said the attack began when a black car with three occupants pulled up at the entrance to a building used by the department of refugee affairs and a gunman emerged, firing around him.

One attacker blew himself up at the gate and two gunmen entered the building, in an area close to shops and government offices, he added.

Minutes later, the car blew up, wounding people in the street, Obaidullah said.

“We saw several people wounded and helped to carry them away,” he added.

As security forces cordoned off the area, gunshots and what appeared to be hand grenade explosions could be heard as a cloud of black smoke drifted into the sky.

Sohrab Qaderi, a member of the local provincial council, said about 40 people appeared to have been caught inside the building, which caught fire early in the attack.

As the attack concluded, it was not immediately clear what had happened to them. Islamic State has claimed a number of recent attacks in the city.

Khogyani said the attack happened during a meeting with NGOs working on refugee-related issues. The head of the department and several other people were taken to safety, he said.

Although it is unclear whether there is any direct connection, Islamic State attacks have picked up as hopes for peace talks between the government and the Taliban have grown in the wake of last month’s three-day ceasefire.

The attacks have been concentrated in Jalalabad, the main city of Nangarhar province, on the border with Pakistan where Islamic State fighters first appeared toward the end of 2014.

The casualties add to a mounting toll in Afghanistan. In the western province of Farah, 11 people were killed when their bus was hit by a roadside bomb, officials said.

Also on Tuesday, unknown attackers seized 22 people from vehicles on a highway linking Kabul and Gardez, a key city in the eastern province of Paktia.

Additional reporting by Rafiq Shirzad; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg

Reuters

Reuters:

 

Chinese Economy Starts to Feel Tariff Impact

July 31, 2018

The Chinese economy ’faces some new problems and new challenges,’ the Politburo said in a statement

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Workers build a bullet train at a factory of CRRC Tangshan Co., Ltd. in Tangshan, north China's Hebei province.
Workers build a bullet train at a factory of CRRC Tangshan Co., Ltd. in Tangshan, north China’s Hebei province. PHOTO: YANG SHIYAO/ZUMA PRESS
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BEIJING—China’s leadership pledged to ensure economic stability as its trade fight with the U.S. started to pinch growth, signaling that a bigger stimulus could be on the horizon.

A Tuesday meeting of the Politburo, whose members are China’s top arbiters of power, highlighted the external challenges faced by the world’s second-largest economy. Without specifically mentioning the trade conflict with the U.S., a statement issued after the meeting by state media made clear the brawl is a big threat to growth and stability, trumping issues such as debt control.

The Chinese economy “faces some new problems and new challenges,” the statement said. “There are obvious changes in the external environment.”

The meeting came as official data showed early Tuesday that China’s business activities faltered in July—the first official data to reflect the impact of U.S. tariffs—adding to signs that trade tensions have started to dent economic growth.

China’s economic growth has been on a controlled descent for most of this decade, propped up at times by shots of easy credit that have helped make debt a long-term threat for the Chinese economy. With growth still buoyantly above the government’s 6.5% target, Mr. Xi has taken aim at debt and other financial risks the past two years to put the economy on sounder footing.

Now that campaign is taking its toll. Signs are building that the economic expansion is losing steam—from weakening investment in factories to anemic household consumption and rising corporate defaults.

Here’s How China Can Escalate a Trade War With the U.S.

China has pledged to retaliate against U.S. tariffs in “equal scale and equal strength.” In addition to tariffs, here are three ways Beijing could hit back at Washington. Photo: Getty Images

The trade fight with the U.S. puts growth further at risk, making Mr. Xi’s campaign look unsustainable. In recent weeks, China’s central bank has been pumping funds into the country’s financial system. Local authorities are restarting projects that were halted due to the previous tightfisted policies.

With easing measures under way, the high-level meeting Tuesday paved the way for more to come. The statement called for pro-growth measures such as greater government spending on highways, rail lines and other infrastructure projects and keeping liquidity conditions “reasonable and adequate”—code for easier credit.

The official statement also sought to allay concerns that Beijing might retaliate against the Trump administration’s trade offensive by targeting U.S. businesses. “Legitimate rights of foreign companies in China will be protected,” it said.

In the past month, China’s Commerce Ministry, which oversees foreign investment, has instructed local officials to gauge how the biggest round of U.S. tariffs to date—25% duties on $34 billion of Chinese goods imposed in early July—is affecting American businesses operating in China, according to Chinese officials. In particular, officials are looking for signs of companies potentially moving facilities out of China. That would be a blow to Beijing’s effort to attract foreign capital and keep people employed at a time of gathering economic gloom.

Latest official surveys of factories and service providers pointed to sluggish domestic demand. Companies that had been frontloading shipments to stay ahead of higher tariffs may have slowed production and investment, economists say.

“Impacts from the tariffs started to kick in this month,” said Liu Xuezhi, an economist at Bank of Communications.

The official manufacturing purchasing managers’ index fell to a five-month low of 51.2 from June’s 51.5, data released by the National Bureau of Statistics showed Tuesday. July’s reading came in slightly lower than economists’ expectations.

The import subindex of the official PMI slipped to a 23-month low, while the export subindex held steady thanks to a weaker yuan, said Julian Evans-Pritchard, an economist at Capital Economics.

In addition to trade friction, disruptions caused by weather conditions, such as extreme heat and typhoons, also contributed to the slowdown, according to Zhao Qinghe, an analyst with the bureau.

Both output and demand weakened in July. A subindex measuring production dropped to 53.0 from 53.6, while the new orders index fell to 52.3 from 53.2.

Despite July’s fall, the headline index has stayed above the 50 mark, which separates an expansion of activity from a contraction, for nearly two years.

An official measure of activity outside China’s factory gates, also released Tuesday, declined to an 11-month low in July, as cooling manufacturing and construction activities weighed on the sector.

“Today’s data are consistent with our view that China’s economy is on track to slow further this quarter and next, triggering additional policy easing,” Mr. Evans-Pritchard said.

Beijing has stepped up its efforts to spur economic growth in recent weeks, a sign that the government is becoming more worried about slowing growth as trade tensions rise.

The country’s cabinet, the State Council, last week encouraged local governments to quickly tap the bond market. The central bank lent more than 500 billion yuan ($73 billion) to banks, a push to get them to lend and the largest one-time amount since such injections started in 2014.

China’s efforts to tame debt weighed on domestic demand, and recent economic-policy easing measures may boost sentiment over the medium term but could come at a cost, said Betty Wang, an economist at ANZ.

“While this is likely to lift domestic sentiment over the medium term, we are mindful of whether China will shift back to pump-priming the economy,” Ms. Wang said.

Corrections & Amplifications 
Earlier this month, the Trump administration imposed 25% tariffs on $34 billion worth of Chinese goods. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a 10% tariff was imposed.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/chinese-economy-starts-to-feel-tariff-impact-1533015872

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Thailand asks UK to extradite convicted former PM Yingluck

July 31, 2018

Thailand has asked Britain to extradite former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, overthrown in a coup in 2014 and sentenced in absentia to jail for negligence, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said on Tuesday.

In fleeing Thailand, the former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra joined her wealthy brother Thaksin Shinawatra, also a former prime minister, in self-imposed exile.CreditChaiwat Subprasom/Reuters

Yingluck fled the country last August to avoid being jailed over a rice subsidy scheme that ran up losses in the billions of dollars. She has denied wrongdoing and said the trial was politically motivated.

The Supreme Court sentenced her in absentia to five years’ jail last September.

Prayuth said the request was a necessary procedure between the two countries which share an extradition treaty.

“We cannot go and arrest people abroad so it is up to that country to arrest and send (her) to us,” Prayuth said.

Yingluck and her brother, ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, have been at the center of a power struggle that has dominated Thai politics for more than a decade, pitting traditional royalist and the military elite against the Shinawatra family and their supporters in the rural north and northeast.

It was not immediately clear why the government had waited until now to seek Yingluck’s extradition or how Britain would respond.

With a long-awaited general election due for some time next year, both Thaksin and Yingluck still wield significant political influence.

The junta has long maintained that it is unconcerned by the Shinawatra siblings but critics say the military is looking to end the family’s political influence by introducing a new military-backed constitution and restrictions on political parties.

Reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat, Panarat Thepgumpanat, Panu Wongcha-um; Editing by Nick Macfie

Reuters

Macron government faces no-confidence vote over Benalla scandal

July 31, 2018

France’s centrist government faces confidence votes from both the left and right Tuesday over the damaging scandal surrounding a top aide to President Emmanuel Macron who was filmed manhandling demonstrators.

© AFP archive | Prime Minister Édouard Philippe pictured on April 4,2018, in Paris.

Since Macron’s Republic On The Move (LREM) party holds a comfortable majority in the lower-house National Assembly, the two votes have no chance of bringing down the government.

But they condemn what opposition lawmakers call a “constitutional crisis” over revelations that Macron’s office knew that a top security aide, Alexandre Benalla, had roughed up protesters during May Day demonstrations in Paris.

Alleging an attempted cover-up, opposition parties are demanding that the government “explain itself” over the worst scandal since Macron took office in May last year.

Numerous senior officials have already been hauled before parliamentary commissions over their responses to the affair, with LREM chief Christophe Castaner the latest to appear on Tuesday.

Macron has dismissed the scandal as a “storm in a teacup” but his opponents have continued to heap criticism on his handling of it, demanding he address the nation.

Christian Jacob of the rightwing Republicans has accused Macron of “monarchical leanings” and disrespect for the balance of power, while leftwing firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon has urged a “return to order”.

Benalla, Macron’s 26-year-old former chief bodyguard, has been charged with assault and impersonating an officer after he was filmed hitting a protester and wrestling another while wearing a police helmet.

New allegations

On Monday prosecutors opened a new investigation over allegations from two more protesters that Benalla also manhandled them, hours before the incident that sparked the scandal.

Benalla was initially suspended for two weeks from his job and stripped of some of his responsibilities over the May Day incident.

He was finally sacked this month after Le Monde published videos of him at the demo.

In several media interviews he has insisted that he was trying to help the police by bringing aggressive demonstrators under control, and that he himself did not use violence.

He was wearing a helmet that he was given for his own protection while attending the protest as an observer, he added.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is set to respond to speeches by the two MPs presenting the motions, led by the Republicans and the Communist Party, starting at 1300 GMT.

LREM lawmakers have dismissed the votes as an attempt to derail Macron’s reform drive, with the debate over planned constitutional amendments already set back by the row.

“Trying to bring down a government and its reforms because one official went out of control?” tweeted LREM spokesman Gabriel Attal.

Macron will be hoping for some respite as MPs head off on their summer break Wednesday.

Confidence votes are fairly common in France: there have been more than 100 since the current constitution was adopted in 1958.

Only once has such a move actually brought down a French government, that of Georges Pompidou in 1962.

(AFP)