Seoul, Apr 23 (AP/UNB) — North Korea confirmed Tuesday that leader Kim Jong Un will soon visit Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin in a summit that comes at a crucial moment for tenuous diplomacy meant to rid the North of its nuclear arsenal.
North Korea has so far not gotten what it wants most from the recent flurry of high-level summitry between Kim and various world leaders — namely, relief from crushing international sanctions. There are fears that a recent North Korean weapon test and a series of jibes at Washington over deadlocked nuclear negotiations mean that Pyongyang may again return to the nuclear and long-range missile tests that had many in Asia fearing war in 2017.
The North's state-run Korean Central News Agency released a terse, two-sentence statement saying Kim "will soon pay a visit to the Russian Federation," and that he and Putin "will have talks." A date for the meeting was not released, and it wasn't clear if Kim would fly or take his armored train. There are some indications the meeting will be held this week in the far-eastern port of Vladivostok, not too far from Russia's border with the North.
The Kremlin said in a brief statement last week that Kim will visit Russia "in the second half of April," but gave no further details.
It's not clear how — or even if — Putin will push the stalled nuclear talks along, and the visit may have more to do with each nation's economic interests. Russia is interested in gaining broader access to North Korea's mineral resources, including rare metals. Pyongyang, for its part, covets Russia's electricity supplies and wants to attract Russian investment to modernize its dilapidated industrial plants, railways and other infrastructure.
Kim and President Donald Trump have had two summits, but the latest, in Vietnam in February, collapsed because North Korea wanted more sanctions relief than Washington was willing to give for the amount of disarmament offered by Pyongyang.
For a leader often perceived by foreign media as isolated, Kim has had a remarkable string of summits, meeting with the leaders and other senior officials of South Korea, China, Vietnam and Singapore. He has also sent his deputies to Washington and received Trump's lieutenants in Pyongyang as part of nuclear talks.
But Kim's patience appears to be wearing thin. The North last week announced that it had tested what it called a new type of "tactical guided weapon." While unlikely to be a prohibited test of a medium- or long-range ballistic missile that could scuttle the negotiations, the announcement signaled the North's growing disappointment with the diplomatic breakdown.
The North also demanded that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo be removed from the talks, and on Saturday criticized White House national security adviser John Bolton for calling on North Korea to show more evidence of its disarmament commitment before a possible third leaders' summit.
Naypyitaw, Apr 23 (AP/UNB) — Myanmar's Supreme Court is to rule Tuesday on the appeal of two Reuters journalists who were sentenced to seven years in prison for their reporting on the military's brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and their colleagues were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, one of journalism's highest honors, earlier this month.
They were arrested in December 2017 and sentenced last September to seven years' imprisonment after being accused of illegally possessing official documents, a violation of the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
They denied the allegation and contended they were framed by police. International rights groups, media freedom organizations, U.N experts and several governments including the United States condemned their conviction as an injustice and an attack on freedom of the press.
Their appeal in January to a lower court was rejected on the ground that the lawyers for Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, failed to submit enough evidence to prove they were innocent.
Khin Maung Zaw, a lawyer for the two, has said the latest appeal argues that lower court rulings involved errors in judicial procedure.
The Myanmar army's brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the western state of Rakhine in response to attacks on security personnel in 2017 drove 700,000 members of the Muslim Rohingya minority to flee to Bangladesh.
Reporting on the crackdown is sensitive in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar because of worldwide condemnation of the military's human rights abuses, which it denies.
The two reporters had worked on an investigation of the killing of 10 Rohingya villagers in Inn Din village, for which the government last year said seven soldiers were sentenced to up 10 years in prison with hard labor.
Investigators working for the U.N.'s top human rights body said last year that genocide charges should be brought against senior Myanmar military officers, while other critics accused the army of ethnic cleansing.
Prosecution witnesses at the reporters' trial gave confusing and conflicting testimony, lending weight to the belief that the arrests were a clumsy setup by the government.
The reporters' claim that they were framed was supported by surprise testimony from a whistleblower in the police department, Police Capt. Moe Yan Naing.
Although summoned as a prosecution witness, he told the court that his superior had arranged for two policemen to meet the reporters at a restaurant and hand over documents described as "important secret papers" in order to entrap them.
As a result of his testimony, he was jailed for a year for violating the Police Disciplinary Act and his family was forced to leave their police housing unit.
A report released in February by Human Rights Watch noted that expectations of a new era of freedom of expression under the government of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi remain unfulfilled nearly three years after her party ended more than five decades of harsh military rule.
It said Suu Kyi's government has failed to roll back many of the legal restrictions imposed by past military regimes on freedom of speech and assembly, and has instead toughened some of those laws and enacted a new measure limiting free speech.
Journalists have been some of the most high-profile targets. The report cited a Myanmar freedom of express organization, Athan, as saying that at least 43 journalists have been arrested from when Suu Kyi's government took power in 2016 through last September.
In a new case, the online magazine The Irrawaddy reported Monday that it has been sued by the army for its coverage of recent fighting between the government and the Arakan Army ethnic rebel group.
It said the suit was filed under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which provides for up to three years in prison for "extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person using a telecommunications network."
There has been an upsurge of fighting since late last year involving attacks by the Arakan Army, which is aligned with Rakhine state's Buddhist population and seeks autonomy for the region.
New Delhi, Apr 23 (AP/UNB) — Indians are voting Tuesday in the third phase of the general elections with campaigning by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party and the opposition marred by bitter accusations and acrimony.
People lined up outside voting station at several places even before the polling started at 7 a.m.
The voting for 117 parliamentary seats in 13 states and two Union Territories on Tuesday means polls are half done for 543 seats in the lower house of Parliament. The voting over seven phases ends May 19, with counting scheduled for May 23.
The election is seen as a referendum on Modi's five-year rule. He has adopted a nationalist pitch trying to win the majority Hindu votes by projecting a tough stance against Islamic neighbor Pakistan.
The opposition is challenging him for a high unemployment rate of 6.1% and farmers' distress aggravated by low crop prices.
Modi is scheduled to vote on Tuesday in his western home state of Gujarat, though he is contesting for a parliamentary seat from Varanasi, a city in northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
The voting also is taking place in Wayanad constituency in southern Kerala state, one of the two seats from where opposition Congress party president, Rahul Gandhi, is contesting. His home bastion, Amethi, in Uttar Pradesh state will have polling on May 6. He will give up one seat if he wins from both places.
The voting is staggered to facilitate movement of security forces to oversee an orderly election and avoid vote fraud.
India's autonomous Election Commission intervened last week to block hate speeches by imposing a temporary ban on campaigning by some top politicians across political parties.
Uttar Pradesh state chief minister Yogi Adityanath of Modi's BJP was barred from campaigning, in the form of public meetings, road shows or media interviews, for three days for making anti-Muslim speeches. He said a Hindu god will ensure the BJP victory in elections, while the opposition was betting on Muslim votes.
Mayawati, a leader of Bahujan Samaj Party, was punished for 48 hours for appealing to Muslims to vote only for her party. India's top court ordered strict action against politicians for religion and caste-based remarks.
Hindus comprise 80% and Muslims 16% of India's 1.3 billion people. The opposition accuses the BJP of trying to polarize the Hindu votes in its favor.
Meenakshi Lekhi, a BJP leader, filed a contempt of court petition against Rahul Gandhi in the Supreme Court for misrepresenting a court order while accusing Modi of corruption in a deal to buy 36 French Rafale fighter aircraft. Modi denies the charge.
Modi has used Kashmir to pivot away from his economic record, playing up the threat of rival Pakistan, especially after the suicide bombing of a paramilitary convoy on Feb. 14 that killed 40 soldiers, in a bid to appear a strong, uncompromising leader on national security. The bombing brought nuclear rivals India and Pakistan close to the brink of war.
Opposition parties have consistently said that Modi and his party leaders are digressing from the main issues such as youth employment and farmers' suicides.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and both claim the Himalayan territory in its entirety. Rebels have been fighting Indian control since 1989. Most Kashmiris support the rebels' demand that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control.
Colombo, Apr 23 (AP/UNB) — Sri Lanka's president gave the military sweeping police powers starting Tuesday in the wake of the Easter bombings that killed nearly 300 people, while officials disclosed that intelligence agencies had warned weeks ago of the possibility of an attack by the radical Muslim group blamed for the bloodshed.
The suicide bombings struck three churches and three luxury hotels Sunday in the island nation's deadliest violence since a devastating civil war ended in 2009. The government shut down some social media, armed security forces patrolled the largely deserted, central streets in the capital of Colombo, and a curfew went into effect.
The military was given a wider berth to detain and arrest suspects — powers that were used during the civil war but withdrawn when it ended.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the massacre could unleash instability and he vowed to "vest all necessary powers with the defense forces" to act against those responsible.
Adding to the tension, three unexploded bombs blew up Monday inside a van parked near one of the stricken churches as police were trying to defuse them, sending pedestrians fleeing in panic. No injuries were reported. Dozens of detonators were discovered near Colombo's main bus depot, but officials declined to say whether they were linked to the attacks.
The government blocked access to Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram after the blasts, creating confusion and doing little to reassure residents and visitors that the danger had passed.
A nationwide state of emergency was scheduled to begin at midnight Monday (0630 GMT; 2:30 p.m. EDT) the president's office said, following the attacks that killed at least 290 people, with more than 500 wounded, according to police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara. The three stricken hotels and one of the churches, St. Anthony's Shrine, are frequented by tourists, and dozens of foreigners were among the dead.
Tourism Minister John Amaratunga said 39 foreigners were killed, although the foreign ministry put out a different figure, saying the number of dead was 31.
The U.S. State Department confirmed that at least four Americans were among the dead and several others were seriously wounded, but it did not release any identities. The Sri Lankan government said other foreigners killed were from the U.K., Bangladesh, China, India, France, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and Australia.
A national day of mourning was declared for Tuesday.
International intelligence agencies had warned that the little-known group, National Thowfeek Jamaath, was planning attacks, but word apparently didn't reach the prime minister's office until after the massacre, exposing the continuing political turmoil in the highest levels of the Sri Lankan government.
Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said the intelligence agencies began issuing the warnings on April 4; the defense ministry wrote to the police chief with information that included the group's name; and police wrote April 11 to the heads of security of the judiciary and diplomatic security division.
President Maithripala Sirisena, who was out of the country Sunday, had ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in October and dissolved the Cabinet. The Supreme Court later reversed his actions, but the prime minister has not been allowed into meetings of the Security Council since October, which meant he and his government were in the dark about the intelligence.
It was not immediately clear what action, if any, was taken after the threats. Authorities said they knew where the group trained and had safe houses, but did not identify any of the suicide bombers, whose bodies were recovered, or the two dozen other suspects taken into custody.
All the bombers were Sri Lankans, but authorities said they strongly suspected foreign links, Senaratne said.
Also unclear was a motive. The history of Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, a country of 21 million including large Hindu, Muslim and Christian minorities, is rife with ethnic and sectarian conflict.
In the civil war, the Tamil Tigers, a powerful rebel army known for using suicide bombers, was crushed by the government and had little history of targeting Christians. While anti-Muslim bigotry fed by Buddhist nationalists has swept the country recently, there is no history of Islamic militancy. Its small Christian community has seen only scattered incidents of harassment.
Two other government ministers also alluded to advance knowledge. Telecommunications Minister Harin Fernando tweeted: "Some intelligence officers were aware of this incidence. Therefore there was a delay in action. Serious action needs to be taken as to why this warning was ignored." He said his father had heard of a possible attack as well and had warned him not to enter popular churches.
Mano Ganeshan, the minister for national integration, said his security officers had been warned by their division about the possibility that two suicide bombers would target politicians.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, said the attacks could have been thwarted.
"We placed our hands on our heads when we came to know that these deaths could have been avoided. Why this was not prevented?" he said.
The coordinated blasts took place in the morning at St. Anthony's and the Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels in Colombo, as well as the two churches outside Colombo. They collapsed ceilings and blew out windows, killing worshippers and hotel guests, and leaving behind scenes of smoke, soot, blood, broken glass, screams and wailing alarms.
A few hours later, two more blasts occurred just outside Colombo, one at a guesthouse where two people were killed, the other near an overpass, said Brig. Sumith Atapattu, a military spokesman.
Also, three police officers were killed while searching a suspected safe house on the outskirts of Colombo when its occupants apparently detonated explosives to prevent arrest, authorities said.
A pipe bomb with 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of explosives was found and defused late Sunday on a road to the international airport, said air force Group Capt. Gihan Seneviratne. It was powerful enough to have caused damage in a 400-meter (400-yard) radius, he said.
A morgue worker in Negombo, outside Colombo, where St. Sebastian's Church was targeted, said many bodies were hard to identify because of the blasts. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Nilantha Lakmal, a 41-year-old businessman who took his family to St. Sebastian's for Mass, said they all escaped unharmed, but he remained haunted by images of bodies being taken from the sanctuary.
At the Shangri-La Hotel, one witness said "people were being dragged out" after the blast.
"There was blood everywhere," said Bhanuka Harischandra, 24, of Colombo, a founder of a tech marketing company who was going to the hotel for a meeting. "People didn't know what was going on. It was panic mode."
The scale of the violence recalled the worst days of the civil war, when the Tamil Tigers, from the ethnic Tamil minority, sought independence from the Sinhalese-dominated country. The Sinhalese are largely Buddhist. The Tamils are Hindu, Muslim and Christian. Sri Lanka, off the southern tip of India, is about 70% Buddhist. In recent years, tensions have soared between hard-line Buddhist monks and Muslims.
Two Muslim groups in Sri Lanka condemned the church attacks, and Pope Francis expressed condolences at the end of his traditional Easter blessing in Rome. The United Nations' most powerful body, the Security Council, also denounced the "heinous and cowardly terrorist attacks."
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Washington that he spoke to the prime minister and offered assistance. Later, the FBI said it was helping with the investigation.
"This is America's fight, too," he said. "We also stand with millions of Sri Lankans who support the freedom of their fellow citizens to worship as they please. We take confidence in knowing that not even atrocities like this one will deter them from respecting religious freedom."
Colombo, April 22 (Xinhua/UNB) -- Sri Lanka's Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said at a media briefing on Monday that a local group named the "National Thowheed Jamaat" was behind the explosions which occurred in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday.
The minister said investigations were ongoing to see if it had any foreign links.