New Delhi, Jun 20 (AP/UNB) — India's government has created a new ministry to respond to a growing water crisis, with more than 60% of the country's 1.3 billion people dependent on farming and favorable monsoon rains.
Indian President Ram Nath Kovind told Parliament on Thursday that the new Ministry of Water Power will tackle water conservation and management.
Kovind said traditional water conservation practices are disappearing as ponds and lakes are filled to build houses and other developments, and that vanishing water sources have worsened the crisis for the poor.
Millions of people have been forced to rely on water from tank trucks in the southern Tamil Nadu state, which had a 62% shortfall in monsoon rains last year.
Kovind said water shortages are one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century and are likely to be worsened by climate change. He said the creation of the new ministry "is a decisive step in this direction, which will have far-reaching benefits."
The government is assessing the possibility of connecting rivers in various states to help with regional water shortages. Several Indian states have disputes over the sharing of water carried by rivers and have petitioned the Supreme Court to obtain larger shares.
Experts recommend the restoration of open areas to recharge groundwater, the prevention of polluted water from entering groundwater, and the collection of rainwater from roofs.
Kovind, whose position is largely ceremonial, addressed both houses of Parliament at the start of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's second term after his party's massive victory in elections last month.
Putrajaya, Jun 20 (AP/UNB) — Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Thursday rejected the implication that Russia may have been involved in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, after international prosecutors charged with murder four men — three of them Russians with military or intelligence backgrounds — in the 2014 missile attack that killed all 298 people aboard.
Mahathir said he doesn't think the findings of the international investigative team "is true at all" as it was based on hearsay.
"We are very unhappy because from the very beginning, it became a political issue on how to accuse Russia of the wrongdoing," he told reporters. "Even before they examine (the debris), they already say Russia. So it is very difficult for us to accept that."
In announcing the charges Wednesday, prosecutors appealed for witnesses to help lead them even further up the chain of command in President Vladimir Putin's Russia.
The trial for the defendants, who also include a Ukrainian separatist fighter, was set for next March in the Netherlands, though it appeared unlikely any of them would be brought before the court, since Russia and Ukraine forbid the extradition of their citizens.
Russia's Foreign Ministry called the charges against its citizens "absolutely unfounded" and accused the investigators of using "dubious sources of information" and ignoring evidence provided by Moscow in order to discredit Russia.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was brought down on July 17, 2014, over eastern Ukraine by what investigators said was a Buk missile from a Russian anti-aircraft unit. Investigators believe the Ukrainian rebels probably mistook the Boeing 777 passenger jet for a Ukrainian military plane.
Eastern Ukraine's pro-Moscow rebels have relied heavily on Russian military assistance during the separatist conflict that erupted in April 2014 and has claimed more than 13,000 lives.
"As far as we are concerned we want proof of guilt ... but so far, there is no proof. Only hearsay," Mahathir said. "I hope everybody will go for the truth."
Malaysia's Foreign Ministry said the country remained committed to the investigation to ensure it remains transparent, credible and effective. It urged all parties to cooperate with the process.
In Australia, Paul Guard, the son of MH17 passengers Roger and Jill Guard, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that he's glad the investigation has progressed and nearing its end. But he said he doesn't hold out much hope that the four men charged will face court.
The parents of another victim, Jack O'Brien, who was one of 38 Australians on the plane, said it was hard for them to even look at the photos of the suspects.
"I also looked at the faces of the ... average soldiers from that brigade and wondered, you know, are any of them remorseful for what's happened if they played a role? Who knows. We don't know them, we don't know what their lives are."
One of those charged was Igor Girkin, a retired colonel in Russia's main intelligence agency, the FSB. He led Russian and separatist forces in Ukraine's Donetsk region in 2014.
Girkin dismissed the accusations in a telephone interview Wednesday, saying the "insurgents did not shoot down the Boeing." Girkin lives in Moscow.
The three others charged are Russian citizens Sergey Dubinskiy, identified as a former employee of Russia's military intelligence service, and Oleg Pulatov, described as a former soldier in military intelligence; and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian citizen who led a combat unit in the Donetsk.
Beijing, June 20 (AP/UNB) — Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived Thursday morning for a two-day state visit to North Korea, where he’s expected to talk with leader Kim Jong Un about the stalled negotiations with Washington over North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
China’s official Xinhua news agency reported that Xi was accompanied by his wife, Peng Liyuan, and several Communist Party officials. He is the first Chinese president to visit North Korea in 14 years.
The summit comes as both Xi and Kim are locked in separate disputes with the United States — Xi over trade and Kim over his nuclear weapons.
A Xinhua commentary said China could play a unique and constructive role in breaking the cycle of mistrust between North Korea and the U.S. so they can work out a roadmap to achieve denuclearization.
The U.S. is demanding that North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons development before international sanctions are lifted. North Korea is seeking a step-by-step approach in which a step toward its denuclearization would be matched by a concession from the U.S., notably a relaxation of economic sanctions.
China backs what it calls a “suspension for suspension” proposal. The Xinhua said both sides “need to have reasonable expectations and refrain from imposing unilateral and unrealistic demands.”
Experts say Xi will likely endorse North Korea’s calls for an incremental disarmament process.
Chinese and North Korea media have said Xi would stay in Pyongyang for two days. His meeting with Kim would their fifth summit since Kim entered nuclear diplomacy with the United States and South Korea early last year.
In an essay published in both countries’ official media before his trip, Xi praised North Korea for moving in the “right direction” by politically resolving issues on the peninsula. He did not mention Kim’s nuclear diplomacy with the U.S. in the article, much of which focused on lauding the neighbors’ seven-decade relationship. Xi said his visit will “strengthen strategic communication and exchange” between the traditional, though sometimes strained, allies.
The nations fought together in the 1950-53 Korean War against the United States, South Korea and their allies, but there has been friction in recent years, especially over the North’s relentless push for nuclear weapons.
United Nations , Jun 19 (AP/UNB) — The U.N. humanitarian chief declared Tuesday that "a humanitarian disaster" is unfolding in Syria's last rebel-held territory where Bashar Assad's forces have launched an offensive, ending a cease-fire negotiated by Turkey and Russia in September.
Mark Lowcock told the Security Council that since Syrian troops began pushing into Idlib on April 30 an estimated 330,000 people have been forced to flee their homes and more than 230 civilians have died.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed to Russia and Turkey to stabilize the situation in Idlib, home to over three million people, "without delay." He called the situation "especially dangerous given the involvement of an increased number of actors," and said civilians are again "paying a horrific price."
U.N. political chief Rosemary DiCarlo told that council that for Syria's close ally Russia, the presence in Idlib of radicals from the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, "is not tolerable" and "for Turkey, time is required to effectively isolate and address HTS' most hardline fighters."
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the September memorandum with Turkey "is being fully implemented," telling council members it "doesn't ban but rather encourages the fight against terrorism."
He stressed that all military activities are in response "to provocations from terrorists," saying HTS controls 99 percent of the Idlib de-escalation zone.
"We think that the issue is not that it's a humanitarian catastrophe," Nebenzia said. "It's clear that the issue is the desire to keep the territories that are not under Damascus' control for as long as possible regardless of who prevails in them."
Nebenzia said Idlib should ultimately return to Syrian government control "and the terrorists there ... will have to be liquidated." And he added that fighting the spread of terrorists "is much more important than artificial stoking of tensions in the region, in the Persian Gulf."
Germany, Belgium and Kuwait asked for the humanitarian briefing on Idlib by Lowcock, and the United States asked for DiCarlo's political briefing.
Lowcock said the World Health Organization has confirmed that 26 health care facilities in northwestern Syria have been attacked since late April and stressed that attacking civilians and civilian installations like hospitals and schools is a violation of international law.
"A number of partners now feel that supplying geographical coordinates to be given to the warring parties effectively paints a target on their backs," he said. "Some have drawn the conclusion that hospital bombings are a deliberate tactic aimed to terrorize."
The U.S., Britain and many Western ambassadors echoed his concern.
Turkey's U.N. Ambassador Feridun Sinirlioglu told the council that the "fight against terrorism can in no way justify these indiscriminate attacks."
Russia's Nebenzia said "we decisively reject any accusation of indiscriminate strikes" and told the council "we're not carrying out attacks against civilians." He added that terrorist fighters are using civilian infrastructure and civilians as human shielings.
On the political front, DiCarlo said political efforts "cannot move forward in an environment of open conflict" and U.N. efforts "will stall if Russia and Turkey cannot uphold the cease-fire agreement."
Turkey's Sinirlioglu said the HTS problem needs to be addressed "with a more sophisticated and comprehensive long-term strategy, targeting its ideology and structure."
"Progress in the political process will be one of the key elements to this end," he said.
For over a year, the U.N. has been trying to form a committee to draft a new constitution for Syria, and Sinirlioglu said finalizing an agreement is at a "critical stage."
Convening the committee "will be the first essential step of the international community's efforts towards a democratic Syria," he said.
But Sinirlioglu said the Syrian regime's attacks in Idlib are clearly aimed "at the collapse of the political process."
"If the Idlib de-escalation area cannot hold," he warned, "prospects for a viable political solution will diminish considerably."
Islamabad, Jun 19 (AP/UNB) — A Pakistani army helicopter rescued on Tuesday four Italian and two Pakistani climbers stranded at an altitude of around 5,300 meters (17,390 feet) in the country's north, after an avalanche struck the team the previous day, a mountaineering worker said. A Pakistani member of the team was killed.
The expedition was hit while descending a peak in the Ishkoman Valley, located in the northern district of Ghizar.
Karrar Haidri, head of Pakistan's Alpine Club, told The Associated Press that the six surviving climbers were taken to a hospital in the nearby town of Gilgit for the treatment of injuries.
"Sadly, one Pakistani mountaineer was killed, but six other members of the expedition are being treated at a hospital," he said.
"A Pakistan army helicopter was used for this complicated but successful rescue operation, despite the fact that the stranded mountaineers were present at an altitude of around 5,300 meters," he added.
Ashraf Aman, a Pakistani tour operator who arranged the expedition, confirmed that Pakistan's military had dispatched the helicopter earlier on Tuesday morning to rescue the climbers.
He said the body of the Pakistani mountaineer, Mohammad Imtiaz, would be brought down later.
Aman said none of the surviving team had life threatening injuries.
The four Italian climbers involved are expedition leader Tarcisio Bellò, Luca Morellato, David Bergamin and Tino Toldo.
Bellò said they were "very lucky" that they survived. "I think glacier collapsed and millions tons come down. We were very up at the mountain," he said.
In a separate incident on Monday, two Chinese mountaineers were reported missing in another area in northern Pakistan, said Haidri. He said a rescue mission was planned to find them.
Mountaineers from across the world travel to Pakistan every year to try scaling its high northern mountains. Harsh weather and conditions often prove a test for the most experienced of climbers.
Earlier this year, two European climbers —Italian Daniele Nardi and Briton Tom Ballard — were killed during bad winter weather on Nanga Parbat, which is the world's ninth-tallest mountain at 8,126 meters (26,660 feet).
Nardi, from near Rome, had attempted to scale the peak in winter several times. Ballard's disappearance hit his homeland particularly hard as he is the son of Alison Hargreaves, the first woman to scale Mount Everest alone.
She died at age 33 descending the summit of K2.