Manila, Dec 29 (AP/UNB) — A strong undersea earthquake struck off the southern Philippines on Saturday and the head of the country's quake-monitoring agency advised people in a southeastern province to avoid beaches in case of a tsunami.
No casualties or damage have been reported, and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center lifted its warning for a potential tsunami that could hit coastal areas of the southern Philippine and Indonesia.
The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology said that the quake was detected at a depth of 49 kilometers (30 miles) and a magnitude of 7.1 about 162 kilometers (100 miles) off Davao Oriental province. It said that it could generate aftershocks but the agency did not expect any damage.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake hit at a depth of 60 kilometers (37 miles) and measured 6.9.
Renato Solidum, who heads the quake-monitoring institute, said that a major tsunami was unlikely given the depth of the quake and other factors but advised villagers to avoid the beach in Davao Oriental province and outlying regions for about two hours after the quake struck around noon as a precaution.
The quake was felt in some coastal areas, he said.
Indonesia's Meteorology and Geophysics Agency said the quake doesn't have a potential to cause a tsunami affecting Indonesia.
Kinshasa, Dec 29 (AP/UNB) — Congo's leader is blaming a deadly Ebola virus outbreak for the last-minute decision to bar an estimated 1 million voters from Sunday's long-delayed presidential election, claiming it would be a "disaster" if someone infects hundreds of people. Protests exploded again on Friday in response as health workers suspended efforts and warned that new cases could sharply rise.
In an interview with The Associated Press, President Joseph Kabila contradicted his own health officials and experts with the World Health Organization who have said precautions were taken in collaboration with electoral authorities so people could vote. Those include tons of hand sanitizer — Ebola is spread via infected bodily fluids — and the screening of all voters entering polling stations.
Without mentioning the election, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned late Friday that "prolonged insecurity" in Congo could erase recent gains made in containing the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in history. Work has reached a "critical point," he said.
Kabila on Thursday evening claimed that the hemorrhagic fever could spread as people use voting machines, tapping on a touchscreen to select candidates. A polling station could have 500 to 600 voters and "this assumes that a lot of people will be contaminated," he said. Health officials have said people would sanitize their hands before and after voting.
Until this week, the Ebola outbreak declared on Aug. 1 had been a challenge but not a barrier to the election. Voting is now delayed in the cities of Beni and Butembo — but not in other communities with Ebola cases — until March, long after the inauguration of Kabila's successor in January. Residents had largely supported Kabila in past elections but sentiment has turned in recent years amid persistent insecurity.
This latest delay in an election meant to occur in late 2016 has angered both residents and the opposition, which accuses the government of trying to ensure that Kabila's preferred successor wins. Many Congolese believe Kabila will wield power behind the scenes and protect his assets in a country with vast mineral wealth.
Protests broke out in Beni again on Friday, with hundreds of people demanding to vote on Sunday with the rest of the country. Police used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse the marchers who barricaded streets.
Some protesters carried crosses displaying "RIP Kabila" and saying his preferred successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, "will never be our president." Beni's civil society urged residents to turn out en masse on Sunday. Others protested in Butembo and Goma city.
"We don't fear Ebola," one marcher, Claude Vianney, told the AP. "I know that if you wash your hands, the Ebola virus will be killed." He added: "We are furious, as you can see. Why does Kabila keep mocking us?"
On Thursday, some protesters attacked an Ebola response center and sent 21 patients fleeing. Many later returned, but the vandalism was the latest setback in efforts to contain the outbreak. Nearly 600 cases have been reported, with more than 350 confirmed deaths.
The uproar over the voting delay has "badly disturbed" Ebola response work in Beni and Butembo, Congo's health ministry said. Health teams barely deployed on Thursday and no Ebola vaccinations could be carried out.
The Oxfam aid group said it was forced to suspend Ebola response work. Acting country director Raphael Mbuyi called it "extremely worrying" because previous suspensions have led to a spike in new cases.
"It's not surprising that people who have had their votes taken away at the last minute are frustrated and going to the streets," Mbuyi added. "These people deserve to have their say as well."
Congo's national organization of Episcopal churches called the decision to bar voters "unjust" and urged the election commission to reconsider.
Protesters said life has continued in the outbreak zone, with schools open, people going to church and candidates holding campaign rallies. Congo's president said such activities don't involve voting machines.
There is "no further reason" to prevent Sunday's election for the rest of the country, Kabila told the AP, adding: "Rest assured, there will be peace." Police can secure the population, he said.
He dismissed opposition allegations that campaigns had faced restrictions, including blocked flights and supporters assaulted.
Opposition candidate Martin Fayulu told the AP that up to 5 million of Congo's 40 million voters might not be able to cast ballots on Sunday, claiming that voting machines had yet to be delivered to some areas.
Congo's president also sounded defiant in the face of international pressure. His foreign minister on Thursday ordered the European Union ambassador to leave the country within 48 hours, citing EU sanctions on Kabila's preferred successor , Shadary.
The former interior minister is under an EU asset freeze and travel ban for obstructing Congo's electoral process and for a crackdown against protesters angry over the delayed vote. The EU prolonged the sanctions this month.
An EU spokesperson called Congo's order "completely unjustified" and counterproductive ahead of "very challenging elections."
Kabila, when asked what advice he had for his successor, replied: "The biggest recommendation is that he listen to the voice of the Congolese and not follow that of the United States, Europe or elsewhere."
Congo resists what it considers international meddling, funding this election itself. Western observer groups are notably absent.
"I have already said that Congo is not a beggar country," Kabila said.
Cairo, Dec 29 (AP/UNB) — Thousands demonstrated Friday in nearly two dozen neighborhoods of the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, calling for President Omar Bashir to step down, according to activists, keeping up the pressure on the autocratic general-turned-president who has been in power for nearly 30 years.
The activists said hundreds also took to the streets Friday in the railway city of Atbara north of Khartoum, Obeid in the western North Kordofan province, and Senar and Wad Madani south of the capital. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals.
They said police used tear gas to disperse protesters in the Khartoum suburb of Omdurman, a traditional hotbed of dissent. There were no reports of casualties.
Friday's protests were the latest in a wave of demonstrations that began across much of Sudan on Dec. 19, first against price rises and shortages but which later turned against Bashir, in power since a 1989 military coup he led. They coincide with worsening economic woes that saw a currency devaluation spiking prices, fuel shortages and a steep rise in the price of bread, a main fare for most Sudanese.
The government says elections are the only legitimate means for "regime change" and insists that "subversive elements" have infiltrated the ranks of peaceful protesters. Lawmakers loyal to Bashir are rallying support in the legislature for constitutional amendments to allow Bashir, who is in his mid-70s, to run for election in 2020.
London-based rights group Amnesty International says it has "reliable reports" to show that 37 people were killed in the first five days of unrest. The United States, Britain, Canada and Norway have expressed concern about the use of lethal force by security forces against protesters and are demanding an investigation.
On Thursday, the government gave its first casualty figures from the unrest. It said 19 people were killed in the protests and more than 200 protesters were wounded. Nearly 190 members of the security forces were wounded, it added.
As in previous protests, participants numbered in the hundreds or very low thousands, but the continuing defiance of the government in the face of security forces accused of using lethal force indicate a high level of popular discontent.
But it's too soon to speculate on whether these relatively modest numbers could force Bashir to step down. They may embolden top army commanders to counsel the president to quit in the nation's interest, although another general at the helm is unlikely to placate the Sudanese. A protracted uprising would likely paralyze the country and turn into the kind of chaos seen in Libya, whose 2011 revolt turned into a civil war that has left the country divided to this day.
Sudan's military has dominated the country since independence in 1956 and the ongoing protests bear some resemblance to popular revolts in 1964 and 1985 that toppled military regimes and ushered in democratically elected governments, later overthrown by military coups in 1969 and 1989 respectively.
The protesters in Atbara chanted "the people want to bring down the regime," the main slogan of the Arab Spring revolts of 2010 and 2011. In Omdurman, they chanted "freedom, peace and justice."
A video clip provided to The Associated Press by the activists and posted online purported to show the scene at a Khartoum mosque where Bashir, an Islamist, performed his Friday prayers. A lone male voice could be heard shouting "Bashir, leave!" The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified.
Friday's protests also coincided with an indefinite strike by doctors and a three-day strike by journalists that began on Thursday.
Also Friday, the activists reported another wave of arrests of opposition leaders, including some of the organizers of an attempted march on Bashir's presidential palace on Tuesday. The call for the march attracted thousands of participants who clashed with police who used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse them. Scores were wounded, some seriously.
Among those arrested is the chairman of the liberal Sudan Conference Party and a senior leader of the Communist Party, the latter a key player in past popular uprisings.
Beirut, Dec 29 (AP/UNB) — Syria's military said Friday it had entered the key Kurdish-held town of Manbij in an apparent deal with the Kurds, who are looking for new allies and protection against a threatened Turkish offensive as U.S. troops prepare to leave Syria.
Turkey and American troops patrolling the town denied there was any change of forces in the contested area, contradicting the Syrians and highlighting the potential for chaos in the wake of last week's surprise pronouncement by the United States that it was withdrawing its troops.
Since the U.S. announcement, forces have been building up around Manbij and further east, ushering in new alliances and raising the chances for friction. The Kurds' invitation to Syrian troops shows they'd rather let Syria's Russian- and Iranian-backed government fill the void left by the Americans, than face the prospect of being overwhelmed by their top rival Turkey.
Meanwhile, a flurry of meetings is expected in the coming days as all sides of the conflict scramble to find ways to replace the departing U.S. troops. They include one Saturday in Moscow, where Russia will host top Turkish officials in a possible sign that the two sides could be working on a deal to avert a Turkish offensive into Syria. Russians officials have said they expect Syrian government troops to replace the U.S. troops when they withdraw.
Turkey considers the U.S.-backed Kurdish People's Protection Units, which now controls nearly 30 percent of Syria, a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders. Kurdish-controlled Manbij has been at the center of rising tension between the U.S. and Turkey.
There were conflicting reports Friday on the location of the Syrian troops, who said they had moved into Manbij and raised the Syrian flag in the town. The Kurdish militia said it has invited the Syrian government to take control of Manbij to protect it against "a Turkish invasion."
But a Kurdish official said the government deployment has so far been limited to the front line with Turkey-backed fighters, based north and west Manbij. And U.S. officials in Washington said Syrian regime forces and some Russian forces had moved a bit closer to the city and were largely south or southwest of the city. The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to discuss the troop movements publicly.
The U.S.-led coalition said the announcement that government troops had entered the town was "incorrect," and called "on everyone to respect the integrity of Manbij and the safety of its citizens."
Russia and Iran, meanwhile, welcomed the Syrian announcement. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called it a "positive step" that could help stabilize the area. Iran hailed it as a "major step toward establishing the government's authority" over all of Syria. Russia has signaled it expects the Syrian government to deploy where U.S. forces leave.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Syrian government move was "a psychological act," and the situation in Manbij was uncertain. He spoke as Turkey-allied forces in Syria said they were fortifying their front line positions ahead of the possible military offensive.
But Erdogan also noted that his country's goal is to oust the Kurdish militia from along his country's borders. "If terror organizations leave, then there is no work left for us anyway," Erdogan told reporters.
In Washington, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who broke with U.S. President Donald Trump on his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, tweeted that reports about the Kurds aligning with Assad were a "major disaster in the making." Graham, a leading voice on foreign policy and national security issues in Congress, warned the development would be a "nightmare for Turkey and eventually Israel." Graham tweeted that the "big winners" are Russia, Iran, Assad and Islamic State militants.
National Security Adviser John Bolton is expected in Turkey after the new year.
Friday's announcement by the Syrian military comes as Turkey and allied Syrian fighters have been sending in reinforcement to the front lines and threatening an offensive to dislodge the Kurdish forces. In response, the U.S. first warned against unilateral action and increased patrols and observation points in northeastern Syria.
Then, in a surprise move, Trump announced he was withdrawing troops from eastern Syria. He later said the withdrawal would be coordinated with Turkey.
The decision has left America's Syrian Kurdish partners in a conundrum. With no backing from the U.S., the Kurdish forces looked to new allies to protect their Kurdish-administered areas. Partners since 2014, the U.S-led forces and the Kurdish group have liberated most of east Syria from Islamic State militants.
Ilham Ahmed, a senior Kurdish official, said an agreement is being worked out between the Russians and the Syrian government. She said the U.S. troops have not yet withdrawn from Manbij, but said Syrian troops would take over once U.S. withdrawal is complete.
"The aim is to ward off a Turkish offensive," Ahmed said. "If the Turks' excuse is the (Kurdish militia), they will leave their posts to the government."
The Syrian government has said it welcomes the Kurdish group returning to areas under its authority. But government officials have stated they will not accept an autonomous area, a main demand for the Kurds.
The Syrian military declaration came shortly after the Kurds invited the government to seize control of Manbij to prevent a Turkish attack.
Pro-state Syrian al-Ikhbariya TV aired footage from inside Manbij of commercial streets on a rainy day, but didn't show any troops. It carried images of a military convoy driving late at night, purportedly to Manbij.
A timetable for the U.S. withdrawal has not yet been made public.
Rio De Janeiro, Dec 29 (AP/UNB) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened the first visit to Brazil by a leader of Israel on Friday, saying he hopes for a strong partnership between the two countries.
Netanyahu came for President-elect Jair Bolsonaro's inauguration Jan. 1, but arrived several days early in Rio de Janeiro to meet with the incoming far-right leader and several other top members of the new administration.
The two men's first interaction was at lunch in Copacabana Fort. They then visited a local synagogue.
"Through our mutual cooperation, enormous benefits will be created for our two peoples," Netanyahu said following their meeting.
Bolsonaro said he wants to increase economic and security bonds between Brazil and Israel. "More than partners, we will be brothers," he said.
Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, will be staying in Rio until Tuesday, when they will fly to Brasilia for the inauguration. The prime minister is expected to also meet with other foreign delegations attending the ceremony, including U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pomeo.
Brazil and Israel have previously had cordial but strained relations.
The leftist Workers Party, which had dominated Brazilian politics for 13 years before Bolsonaro's election, often showed support for the Palestinian independence movement. But Bolsonaro and Netanyahu have developed an increasingly warm relationship with similar views on security issues.
Netanyahu announced his trip to Brazil following a Nov. 1 tweet from Bolsonaro indicating he intends to move the Brazilian Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The move angered several Arab states, which threatened to boycott halal meat from Brazil, the world's top exporter.
In preparation for his tenure as president, Bolsonaro has sent aides to Israel to study desalination technology and to investigate the potential purchase of drones for use by Brazilian security forces.