Beirut, Jul 21 (AP/UNB) — Syrian first responders and activists say government bombing of the last rebel stronghold in the country has killed at least 11 civilians, as the nearly four-month offensive shows no sign of abating.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says six people were killed, including a child, in the government bombing of the village of Urum al-Joz in southern Idlib province. The opposition-operated Shaam news agency says those killed had been displaced from the southern tip of the rebel stronghold.
Rescue workers, known as Syria's Civil Defense or White Helmets, say three children and a woman were killed in Kfaruma, south of Urum al-Joz. A White Helmet volunteer was killed in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, the group says.
The offensive began in late April, displacing more than 300,000 people.
London, Jul 21 (AP/UNB) — British Treasury chief Philip Hammond said Sunday that he will quit if — as widely expected — Boris Johnson becomes prime minister this week on a promise to leave the European Union with or without a divorce deal.
Hammond said Johnson's vow to press for a no-deal Brexit if he can't secure a new agreement with the EU is "not something that I could ever sign up to."
Hammond was almost certain to be removed from office by the new leader in any case. He has angered Brexit-backers, who now dominate the governing Conservative Party, with his warnings about the economic pain that leaving the EU could cause.
Hammond told the BBC that if Johnson wins, "I'm not going to be sacked because I'm going to resign before we get to that point."
Johnson is the strong favorite to win a two-person runoff to lead the Conservative Party and the country. The winner is being announced Tuesday, with the victor taking over from Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday.
Britain is due to leave the EU on Oct. 31 but Parliament has repeatedly rejected the divorce deal struck between May and the bloc. Both Johnson and his rival Jeremy Hunt, the current foreign secretary, say they will leave the EU without an agreement if the EU won't renegotiate.
Most economists say quitting the 28-nation bloc without a deal would cause Britain economic turmoil. The U.K.'s official economic watchdog has forecast that a no-deal Brexit would trigger a recession, with the pound plummeting in value, borrowing soaring by 30 billion pounds ($37 billion) and the economy shrinking 2% in a year.
But Johnson, who helped lead the "leave" campaign in Britain's 2016 EU membership referendum, says a no-deal Brexit will be "vanishingly inexpensive" if the country prepares properly.
The EU insists it won't reopen the 585-page divorce deal it struck with May.
Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney said Sunday that the bloc is "simply not going to move away from the Withdrawal Agreement."
"If the approach of the new British prime minister is that they're going to tear up the Withdrawal Agreement, then I think we're in trouble," he told the BBC. "We're all in trouble, quite frankly, because it's a little bit like saying: 'Either give me what I want or I'm going to burn the house down for everybody."
Hammond is the third U.K. minister within a week to quit or say they will resign in order to try to prevent a cliff-edge Brexit. Britain looks set for a fall showdown between the new Conservative government and British lawmakers determined to thwart a no-deal exit.
"I am confident that Parliament does have a way of preventing a no-deal exit on October 31 without parliamentary consent and I intend to work with others to ensure parliament uses its power to make sure that the new government can't do that," Hammond said.
Hong Kong, Jul 21 (AP/UNB) — Tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday, with some of the marchers defacing a national Chinese emblem in their latest expression of protest against mainland authorities.
After the march reached its designated end point in Hong Kong's Wan Chai district, thousands continued onward, at various points occupying key government and business districts before departing for the Liaison Office, which represents China's Communist Party-led central government within the city.
Protesters threw eggs at the building and spray-painted its surrounding surveillance cameras. China's national emblem, which adorns the front of the Liaison Office, was splattered with black ink.
Large protests began last month in the Chinese territory in opposition to a contentious extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to stand trial in mainland China, where critics say their rights would be compromised.
Hong Kong's leader, Carrie Lam, has declared the bill dead, but protesters are dissatisfied with her refusal to formally withdraw the legislation. Some are also calling for her to resign amid growing concerns about the steady erosion of civil rights in the city.
A former British colony, Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 and was promised certain democratic freedoms under the framework of "one country, two systems." Fueled by anger at Lam and an enduring distrust of the Communist Party-ruled central government in Beijing, the current demonstrations have ballooned into calls for electoral reform and an investigation into alleged police brutality.
Walking in sweltering heat, protesters dressed in black kicked off Sunday's march at a public park, carrying a large banner that read "Independent Inquiry for Rule of Law."
"Free Hong Kong! Democracy now!" the protesters chanted, forming a dense procession through Hong Kong's Wan Chai district as they were joined by others who had been waiting in side streets.
"I think the government has never responded to our demands," said Karen Yu, a 52-year-old Hong Kong resident who has attended four protests since they started in early June. "No matter how much the government can do, at least it should come out and respond to us directly."
Marchers ignored orders from police to finish off the procession on a road in Wan Chai, according to police and the Civil Human Rights Front, the march's organizers.
Protesters repeated the five points of their "manifesto," which was first introduced when a small group of them stormed the legislature earlier this month. Their main demands include universal suffrage — direct voting rights for all Hong Kong residents — as well as dropping charges against anti-extradition protesters, withdrawing the characterization of a clash between police and protesters as a "riot" and dissolving the Legislative Council.
Protesters read the demands aloud in both English and Cantonese in videos released Saturday.
"We did not want to embark on this path of resisting tyranny with our bare bodies," they said, "but for too long, our government has lied and deceived, and refused to respond to the demands of the people."
While the demonstrations have been largely peaceful, some confrontations between police and protesters have turned violent. In Sha Tin district last Sunday, they beat each other with umbrellas and bats inside a luxury shopping center. Demonstrators broke into the Legislative Council building on July 1 by moving past barricades and shattering windows. Meanwhile, police officers have used pepper spray, tear gas, bean bag rounds and rubber bullets to quell the crowds.
On Friday, Hong Kong police discovered a stash of a powerful homemade explosive and arrested a man in a raid on a commercial building. Materials voicing opposition to the extradition bill were found at the site, local media said, but a police spokesman said no concrete link had been established and the investigation was continuing.
Tokyo, Jul 21 (AP/UNB) — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling coalition appeared certain to hold onto a majority in Japan's upper house of parliament following Sunday's election, with exit polls indicating he could even close in on the super-majority needed to propose constitutional revisions.
NHK public television said that Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and its partner Komei were sure to win from 67 to 77 seats in the upper house, and that the two-thirds majority needed for constitutional revision could be within reach if the bloc is joined by supporters from another party.
Up for grabs were 124 seats in the less powerful of Japan's two parliamentary chambers. There are 245 seats in the upper house — which does not choose the prime minister — about half of which are elected every three years.
If the exit polls prove accurate, the results would match or even exceed pre-election polls that indicated Abe's ruling bloc was to keep ground in the upper house, with most voters considering it a safer choice over an opposition with an uncertain track record.
Opposition parties have focused on concerns over household finances, such as the impact from an upcoming 10% sales tax increase and strains on the public pension system amid Japan's aging population.
Abe has led his Liberal Democratic Party to five consecutive parliamentary election victories since 2012.
He has prioritized revitalizing Japan's economy and has steadily bolstered the country's defenses in the backdrop of North Korea's missile and nuclear threats and China's growing military presence. He also has showcased his diplomatic skills by cultivating warm ties with President Donald Trump.
Abe hopes to gain enough upper house seats to boost his chances for constitutional revision, his long-cherished goal before his term ends in 2021.
But Abe and his conservative backers also face challenges because voters seem more concerned about their jobs, the economy and social security.
The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and three other liberal-leaning parties teamed up in some districts. They stressed support for gender equality and LGBT issues — the areas Abe's ultra-conservative lawmakers are reluctant to back.
At a polling station in Tokyo's Chuo district on Sunday, voters were divided over Abe's 6 1/2-year rule.
A voter who identified himself only as a company worker in his 40s said he chose a candidate and a party that have demonstrated an ability to get things done, suggesting he voted for Abe's ruling party and its candidate, as "there is no point in casting my vote for a party or a politician who has no such abilities."
Another voter, Katsunori Takeuchi, a 57-year-old fish market worker, said it was time to change the dominance of Abe and his ultra-conservative policies.
"I think the ruling party has been dominating politics for far too long and it is causing damage," he said.
Dera Ismail Khan, Jul 21 (AP/UNB) — A female suicide bomber struck outside a hospital in Pakistan on Sunday as the wounded were being brought in from an earlier shooting against police, in a complex assault claimed by the Pakistani Taliban that killed a total of nine people and wounded another 30.
Salim Riaz Khan, a senior police officer in Dera Ismail Khan, said gunmen on motorcycles opened fire on police in a residential area, killing two. He says the bomber then struck at the entrance to the hospital, killing another four police and three civilians who were visiting their relatives. He said eight police were among the wounded, and that many of the wounded were in critical condition.
Inayat Ullah, a local forensics expert, said the female attacker set off 7 kilograms (15 pounds) of explosives packed with nails and ball-bearings.
The blast damaged the emergency room and forced it to shut down, according to a hospital official, who said the wounded were taken to a military hospital. The official spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
The Pakistani Taliban claimed the attack but did not acknowledge that the bomber was a woman. The group has launched scores of attacks going back nearly two decades, but almost all of them were carried out by men.
Pakistan's military has carried out several major operations in recent years against the Pakistani Taliban and other militants in areas along the porous border with Afghanistan. The violence has declined, but the militants still make their presence known through occasional attacks, mainly targeting security forces and religious minorities.