Saturday, October 19, 2019

Climate change protestors from the Extinction Rebellion movement gather to demonstrate at Town Hall in Sydney, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. In a series of protests also including Australian cities of Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, protestors are demanding much more urgent action against climate change. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft=Newsis)
Climate change protestors from the Extinction Rebellion movement gather to demonstrate at Town Hall in Sydney, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. In a series of protests also including Australian cities of Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, protestors are demanding much more urgent action against climate change. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft=Newsis)

The Opposition Australian Labor Party (ALP) joined forces with Greens and minor parties to vote in favour of declaring a climate emergency but were defeated by the governing Liberal-National party (LNP) coalition in federal Parliament.

During a debate on the motion, Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor declared the actions of the opposition a symbolic act and not practical.

“Labor’s hollow symbolism will not deliver a single tonne of emissions reduction … by contrast this government is taking meaningful actions.” said he, according to the recent report of The Sydney Morning Herald.

Australia has committed to reducing carbon emissions by 26-28 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 under the Paris climate accord.

However, according to figures released by Taylor emissions rose by 0.6 percent in the 12 months to March 2018.

The ALP is currently engaged in an internal debate on its climate policy.

The party went in to May’s general election, which it lost in a shock result, promising to reduce emissions by 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

Conservative members of the party have urged leader Anthony Albanese to pursue a less ambitious target in order to be more electable.

Albanese told The Australian that his party would not declare its emissions reduction targets until closer to the next election, likely in 2022.

“We need to know where we are at. If (emissions continue to go up) obviously our challenge will be more difficult,” he said.

“But we will deal with it based upon the facts, based upon where we are at that point in time. That is a sensible thing to do.” (Xinhua=Newsis)

Protesters with placards participate in the Global Strike 4 Climate rally in Sydney, Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. Thousands of protesters are gathering at rallies around Australia as a day of worldwide demonstrations begins ahead of a U.N. climate summit in New York. (Steven Saphore/AAP Images via AP=Newsis)
Protesters with placards participate in the Global Strike 4 Climate rally in Sydney, Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. Thousands of protesters are gathering at rallies around Australia as a day of worldwide demonstrations begins ahead of a U.N. climate summit in New York. (Steven Saphore/AAP Images via AP=Newsis)

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered Friday at rallies around Australia as a day of worldwide demonstrations calling for action to guard against climate change began ahead a U.N. summit in New York.

Some of the first rallies in what is being billed as a “global climate strike” kicked off in Australia’s largest city, Sydney, and the national capital,
Canberra. Australian demonstrators called for their nation, which is the world’s largest exporter of coal and liquid natural gas, to take more drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Organizers estimate more than 300,000 protesters took to Australian streets in what would be the largest demonstrations the country had seen since the Iraq War began in 2003.

Protests were staged in 110 towns and cities across Australia, with organizers demanding government and business commit to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2030.

Similar rallies were planned Friday in cities around the globe. In the United States more than 800 events were planned Friday, while in Germany more than 400 rallies were expected.

A similar coordinated protest in March that drew crowds around the world.
The protests are partly inspired by the activism of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who has staged weekly demonstrations under the heading “Fridays for Future” over the past year, calling on world leaders to step up their efforts against climate change. Many who have followed her lead are students, but the movement has since spread to civil society groups.

Australian universities have said they will not penalize students for attending Friday’s rallies, while Australian schools vary on what action, if any, they take against children who skip classes to attend demonstrations.

Siobhan Sutton, a 15-year-old student at Perth Modern School, said she would fail a math exam by attending a protest in the west coast city of Perth.

“I have basically been told that because it is not a valid reason to be missing school – it is not a medical reason or anything – I am going to get a zero on the test if I don’t actually sit it,” she said.

“Even though we ourselves aren’t sick, the planet which we live on is, and we are protesting and fighting for it,” she added.

Siobhan said her math teacher had given her the option to sit the exam before Friday, but she was unable to do so because of her commitments as one of the protest organizers.

Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack said students should be in school.

“These sorts of rallies should be held on a weekend where it doesn’t actually disrupt business, it doesn’t disrupt schools, it doesn’t disrupt universities,” McCormack told reporters in Melbourne.

“I think it is just a disruption,” he added.

School Strike 4 Climate said 265,000 protesters turned out at demonstrations in seven Australian cities alone. The largest crowd was an estimated 100,000 in Melbourne, followed by 80,000 in Sydney.

Most police services declined to release their own crowd estimates. Organizers put the crowd in Brisbane at 30,000, while police estimated 12,000. Organizers said 15,000 rallied in Canberra, but police said 7,000.
Australian police have a reputation for underestimating by half crowd numbers at protests.

The demonstrations come as Australia’s center-left opposition mulls abandoning its policy, rejected at May elections, of reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 45% below 2005 levels by 2030. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative coalition won a surprise third term with a commitment to reduce emissions by a more modest 26% to 28% in the same time frame.

Morrison is in the U.S. for a state dinner with President Donald Trump on Friday and has been criticized for failing to include in his New York itinerary the U.N. climate summit on Monday, when leaders will present their long-term plans for curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Some companies are encouraging their employees to join the climate strike.
Australian Council of Trade Unions, which represents labor unions, said it supported employees taking time off work to protest.

The council said in a statement that it “must take a stand for our future when our government will not.”

The demonstrations in 2003 that protested Australia sending combat troops to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq were the largest since the Vietnam War. (AP=Newsis)

(190905) --  KUNAR, Sept. 5, 2019 (Xinhua) -- Taliban militants and Islamic State fighters go to a surrender ceremony in Kunar province, Afghanistan, Sept. 4, 2019. As many as 150 militants surrendered to the government in Afghanistan's eastern Kunar province on Wednesday, the deputy provincial governor said. (Photo by Emran Waak/Xinhua=Newsis)
(190905) — KUNAR, Sept. 5, 2019 (Xinhua) — Taliban militants and Islamic State fighters go to a surrender ceremony in Kunar province, Afghanistan, Sept. 4, 2019. As many as 150 militants surrendered to the government in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province on Wednesday, the deputy provincial governor said. (Photo by Emran Waak/Xinhua=Newsis)

The Taliban attacked a third provincial capital in Afghanistan in less than a week, killing at least two civilians, an official said Friday as a U.S. envoy was back in Qatar for unexpected talks on a U.S.-Taliban deal he had described as complete just days earlier.

Farah provincial governor Mohammad Shoaib Sabet told The Associated Press that another 15 people were wounded in the latest attack, citing local hospitals, and that airstrikes had been carried out against the militant group. Small clashes continued in the city, he said.

This week’s spike in violence, including two shattering Taliban car bombings in the capital, Kabul, comes after U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said he and the insurgents had reached a deal “in principle” that would begin a U.S. troop pullout in exchange for Taliban counterterror guarantees.

Khalilzad abruptly returned to Qatar, where the Taliban have a political office, from Kabul for more talks Thursday evening, even though earlier in the week he said the deal only needed President Donald Trump’s approval to be final.

Objections to the agreement raised by the Afghan government and several former U.S. ambassadors to Afghanistan, and the death of a U.S. service member in the latest Kabul bombing on Thursday, have increased pressure on Khalilzad in recent days.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel has demanded that the envoy testify before the House committee about the negotiations, saying that “I do not consider your testimony at this hearing optional.”

The Taliban have explained their surge in deadly attacks – including on the capitals of northern Kunduz and Baghlan provinces last weekend – as necessary to give them a stronger negotiating position in talks with the U.S., a stance that has appalled Afghans and others as scores of civilians are killed.

One Farah resident, Shams Noorzai, said the Taliban on Friday had seized an army recruitment center close to the city’s main police headquarters and set it on fire. All shops had closed, he said, and some people were trying to flee. It was at least the third time the Taliban have attacked the city, the capital of Farah province, in the past four years.

The governor later said security forces had re-taken the recruitment center.

Fighting resumed in at least one part of Kunduz city and two outlying districts on Friday, with some residents trying to flee again, provincial council head Mohammad Yousuf Ayubi said.

Few details have emerged from the nine rounds of U.S.-Taliban talks over nearly a year. Khalilzad has said the first 5,000 U.S. troops would withdraw from five bases in Afghanistan within 135 days of a final deal. Between 14,000 and 13,000 troops are currently in the country.

However, the Taliban want all of the approximately 20,000 U.S. and NATO troops out of Afghanistan as soon as possible.

The U.S. for its part seeks Taliban guarantees that they will not allow Afghanistan to become a haven from which extremist groups such as al-Qaida and the local affiliate of the Islamic State group can launch global attacks. (AP=Newsis)

From left, Japan's Land, Infrastructure and Transport Minister Keiichi Ishii, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso attend a Cabinet meeting in Tokyo Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. Japan has approved the removal of South Korea from a "whitelist" of countries with preferential trade status, escalating tensions between the neighbors. (Yoshitaka Sugawara/Kyodo News via AP=Newsis)
From left, Japan’s Land, Infrastructure and Transport Minister Keiichi Ishii, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso attend a Cabinet meeting in Tokyo Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. Japan has approved the removal of South Korea from a “whitelist” of countries with preferential trade status, escalating tensions between the neighbors. (Yoshitaka Sugawara/Kyodo News via AP=Newsis)

Japan on Friday decided to remove South Korea from a list of nations entitled to simplified export control procedures.

The cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved plans to remove South Korea from a “white list” of countries, raising the stakes in a bitter diplomatic row between the neighbors.

The removal of South Korea from the list will take effect on Aug. 28 after going through necessary domestic procedures, Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshige Seko said at a press conference.

Japan has already tightened regulations early last month on its export to South Korea of three materials vital to make memory chips and display panels, which are the mainstay of the South Korean export.

Under the preferential deals which also simplified procedures, Japanese exporters can ship products and technology to 27 whitelisted countries including Argentina, Australia, Britain, Germany, New Zealand and the United States, among others.

South Korea is the first country to be excluded on Japan’s white list after gaining the status in 2004. Now Japanese companies will need to obtain case-by-case approval from Japan’s trade ministry to be able to export to South Korea.

The announcement came a day after Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers did not manage to reduce tensions between the two countries in a meeting in Bangkok, Thailand. (Xinhua=Newsis)

(190724) -- TOKYO, July 24, 2019 (Xinhua) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during the "One Year to Go" ceremony celebrating one year out from the start of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, July 24, 2019. (Xinhua/Du Xiaoyi=Newsis)
(190724) — TOKYO, July 24, 2019 (Xinhua) — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during the “One Year to Go” ceremony celebrating one year out from the start of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, July 24, 2019. (Xinhua/Du Xiaoyi=Newsis)

Japan on Monday said it should maintain an intelligence-sharing pact with South Korea despite sinking bilateral ties between both countries.

“It is important for the two countries to cooperate with each other on issues that should be dealt with in a cooperative manner,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.
Japan’s top government spokesperson did concede, however, that ties between both c
ountries are in “a very difficult situation.”

The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) is a bilateral military intelligence-sharing accord signed between both countries in November 2016.

The accord comes up for renewal each year, but can be cancelled by either party giving notice by Aug. 24.

Suga, however, said the deal remained significant and underscored the fact that since it was originally signed, it has been automatically renewed each year.

“We have automatically renewed the pact every year based on a recognition that it has strengthened bilateral security cooperation and contributed to peace and stability in the region,” Japan’s top government spokesperson said.

Ties between Japan and South Korea have sunk to their lowest level in recent times amid issues of wartime history and trade disputes.

Owing to Japan’s use of Korean forced laborers during its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, South Korea’s Supreme Court has ordered some Japanese companies to pay compensation to the Korean victims.

Japan, however, maintains that the issue of wartime forced labor was resolved in a bilateral accord inked in 1965 between both parties and believes that Seoul has not cooperated with the setting up of an arbitration panel to address the matter.

Japan then tightened its export controls on three key materials widely imported by South Korea and used in the manufacturing of semiconductors and panels for TVs and smartphones.

Seoul maintains the stricter export controls imposed by Tokyo earlier this month were retaliation for the perceived lack of cooperation on arbitration for the wartime labor dispute, although Tokyo has insisted the move was made for reasons of national security.

As the rift between both sides widens, Japan said it will decide early next month whether to remove South Korea from its list of countries given preferential treatment when it comes to purchasing particular products that could also be used for military purposes.

The decision by Japan on whether to remove South Korea from its preferential “white list” will be made on Aug. 2 and will likely take effect from later the same month, sources close to the matter said.

If Japan goes ahead with the move, which will be endorsed by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it will be the first time a country has been removed from Japan’s white list.

Seoul has been on the white list since 2004 and has been guaranteed preferential treatment in terms of importing certain products from Japan.

Suga said late last week that the trade ministry is still conducting reviews of public sentiment here towards removing South Korea from its white list and maintained that nothing had been formally decided as yet.

Japan has a total of 27 countries on its whitelist, including the United States, Britain, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina, and whitelisted countries can, through simplified procedures, receive products exported from Japan that could be potentially be diverted for military use.

In order to export the products to countries not on the white list, the countries need to obtain approval from Japan’s trade ministry. (Xinhua=Newsis)

Leaders of the G20 pose for a family photo at the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan on Friday June 28, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld=Newsis)
Leaders of the G20 pose for a family photo at the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan on Friday June 28, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld=Newsis)

World leaders attending a Group of 20 summit in Japan that began Friday are clashing over the values that have served for decades as the foundation of their cooperation as they face calls to fend off threats to economic growth.

“A free and open economy is the basis for peace and prosperity,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told his counterparts in opening the two-day G-20 meeting that comes as leaders grapple with profound tensions over trade, globalization and the collapsing nuclear deal with Iran.

While groups like the G-20 endeavor to forge consensus on broad policy approaches and geopolitical issues, the rifts between them run both shallow and deep.

Speaking before the formal opening of the summit, European Union President Donald Tusk blasted Russian President Vladimir Putin for saying in an interview with the Financial Times newspaper that liberalism was “obsolete” and conflicts with the “overwhelming majority” in many countries.

“We are here as Europeans also to firmly and unequivocally defend and promote liberal democracy,” Tusk told reporters. “What I find really obsolete are: authoritarianism, personality cults, the rule of oligarchs. Even if sometimes they may seem effective.”

As U.S. President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Putin and other leaders met on the sidelines of the summit, Tusk told reporters that such comments suggest a belief that “freedoms are obsolete, that the rule of law is obsolete and that human rights are obsolete.”

Putin praised Trump for his efforts to try to stop the flow of migrants and drugs from Mexico and said that liberalism “presupposes that nothing needs to be done. That migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected.”

A planned meeting between Trump and the Chinese president on Saturday as the G-20 meetings conclude has raised hopes for a detente in the tariffs war between the world’s two largest economies.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross accompanied Trump to Osaka, suggesting potential for some movement after 11 rounds of talks stalled in May.
But while prospects for detente in the trade war are in the spotlight, many participating were urging a broader perspective in tackling global crises.

“I am deeply concerned over the current global economic situation. The world is paying attention to the direction we, the G-20 leaders, are moving toward,” Abe said. “We need to send strong message, which is to support and strengthen a free, fair and indiscriminatory trade system.”

A major breakthrough in the standoff is not assured. On Thursday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing reiterated that China is determined to defend itself against further U.S. moves to penalize it over trade friction. China often has sought to gain support for defending global trade agreements against Trump’s “America First” stance in gatherings like the G-20.

Threats by Trump to impose more tariffs on Chinese exports “won’t work on us because the Chinese people don’t believe in heresy and are not afraid of pressure,” the spokesman, Geng Shuang, said.

Trump has at times found himself at odds with other leaders in such international events, particularly on issues such as Iran, climate change and trade.

Abe has sought to make the Osaka summit a landmark for progress on environmental issues, including climate change, on cooperation in developing new rules for the “digital economy,” such as devising fair ways to tax companies like Google and Facebook, and on strengthening precautions against abuse of technologies such as cyber-currencies to fund terrorism and other types of internet-related crimes.

On the rising tensions between Iran and the U.S., U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the world can’t afford the conflict and it was “essential to deescalate the situation” and avoid confrontation. Iran is soon poised to surpass a key uranium stockpile threshold, threatening the nuclear accord it reached with world powers in 2015.

Iran’s moves come after Trump announced in May 2018 that he was pulling the U.S. out of the deal and reimposing economic sanctions on Tehran.

Guterres also urged G-20 leaders to take action on equitable and stable reforms to strengthen the global financial safety net and increase the global economy’s resilience.

Guterres said in a letter to the leaders gathered in Osaka that although the world has made progress fixing some big problems, it’s not happening fast enough or shared by all countries.

While there are good plans and vision, what’s needed are “accelerated actions, not more deliberations,” he said.

Fast and equal economic growth should be constructed so that people who live in “the `rust belts’ of the world are not left behind,” he said.

The leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, in a meeting on the G-20 sidelines, called for joint efforts to stabilize international trade and oppose protectionism.

Putin, whose country faces an array of U.S. and EU sanctions, said at the meeting that “international trade has suffered from protectionism, politically motivated restrictions and barriers.” Putin also emphasized the need for BRICS nations to take coordinated action to help block sources of funding for terrorist groups. (AP=Newsis)

Riot police fire tear gas to protesters outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, Wednesday, June 12, 2019. Hundreds of protesters have blocked access to Hong Kong's legislature and government headquarters in a bid to block debate on a highly controversial extradition bill that would allow accused people to be sent to China for trial. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu=Newsis)
Riot police fire tear gas to protesters outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, Wednesday, June 12, 2019. Hundreds of protesters have blocked access to Hong Kong’s legislature and government headquarters in a bid to block debate on a highly controversial extradition bill that would allow accused people to be sent to China for trial. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu=Newsis)

Hong Kong’s downtown was calm Friday after days of protests by students and human rights activists opposed to a bill that would allow suspects to be tried in mainland Chinese courts, although the prospect of further protests over the weekend loomed large.

Demonstrators have said they remain committed to preventing the administration of Beijing-appointed Chief Executive Carrie Lam from pushing through the legal amendments they see as eroding Hong Kong’s cherished legal autonomy which it retained after its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

Traffic flowed on major thoroughfares that had been closed after a protest by hundreds of thousands of people on Sunday, posing the biggest political challenge yet to Lam’s two-year-old government. Protesters had kept up a presence through Thursday night, singing hymns and holding up signs criticizing the police for their handling of the demonstrations.

Police said they have arrested 11 people on charges such as assaulting police officers and unlawful assembly. Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung said 22 officers had been injured in the fracas and hospital administrators said they treated 81 people for protest-related injuries.

Several hundred young protesters gathered Thursday on a pedestrian bridge across from the government complex, standing for hours and singing “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,” while holding signs with messages such as “Don’t Shoot” and “End the Violence.” Signs were posted on the walls of the bridge Friday, including photocopies of the famed Associated Press “Tank Man” picture that became a symbol of resistance to China’s bloody suppression of student-led pro-democracy protests centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Other signs criticized the police for their use of force in fighting back against protesters, including firing tear gas and rubber bullets and striking out with steel batons.

The debris-strewn area around government headquarters was blocked off by police while sanitation workers gathered rubbish and police officers checked the identity cards of pedestrians before letting them into the area.

The standoff between police and protesters is Hong Kong’s most severe political crisis since the Communist Party-ruled mainland took control in 1997 with a promise not to interfere with the city’s civil liberties and courts. It poses a profound challenge both to the local leadership and to Chinese President Xi Jinping, the country’s strongest leader in decades who has demanded that Hong Kong follow Beijing’s dictates.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam declared that Wednesday’s violence was “rioting” that was “intolerable in any civilized society that respects the rule of law.” That designation could raise potential legal penalties for those arrested for taking part.

“Intense confrontation is surely not the solution to ease disputes and resolve controversies,” Lam said, according to an official news release.

It’s unclear how Lam, as chief executive, might defuse the crisis, given Beijing’s strong support for the extradition bill and its distaste for dissent. Beijing has condemned the protests but so far has not indicated whether it is planning harsher measures. In past cases of unrest, the authorities have waited months or years before rounding up protest leaders.

Nearly two years ago, Xi issued a stern address in the city stating that Beijing would not tolerate Hong Kong becoming a base for what the Communist Party considers a foreign-inspired campaign to undermine its rule over the vast nation of 1.4 billion people.

Not all in Hong Kong support the protesters. About a dozen older people staged a demonstration in a downtown garden in support of the extradition bill. But others expressed sympathy.

Though never a bastion of democracy, Hong Kong enjoys freedoms of speech and protest denied to Chinese living in the mainland.

Opposition to the proposed extradition legislation brought what organizers said was 1 million people into the streets on Sunday. The clashes Wednesday drew tens of thousands of mostly young residents and forced the legislature to postpone debate on the bill.

That came days after Hong Kong held one of the biggest June 4 candlelight vigils in recent years to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1989 protests in mainland China, a reminder of the uneasy relationship citizens of the region maintain with the authoritarian regime in Beijing.

Those in Hong Kong who anger China’s central government have come under greater pressure since Xi came to power in 2012.

The detention of several Hong Kong booksellers in late 2015 intensified worries about the erosion of the territory’s rule of law. The booksellers vanished before resurfacing in police custody in mainland China. Among them, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai is under investigation for allegedly leaking state secrets after he sold gossipy books about Chinese leaders.

In April, nine leaders of a 2014 pro-democracy protest movement known as the “Umbrella Revolution” were convicted on public nuisance and other charges.
Hong Kong’s protests have drawn international concern and support from human rights groups and foreign capitals.

On Thursday, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said Hong Kong’s situation shows the “one country, two systems” framework devised for Hong Kong when Britain handed the colony back to China cannot work. Beijing says it wants to unite with Taiwan under the same formula, despite overwhelming opposition among citizens of the self-governing island democracy that China claims as its own territory.

The Hong Kong government should listen to its people and not rush to pass the legislation that sparked the protests, Tsai told reporters. (AP=Newsis)

In this photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks at a meeting in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. Khamenei called U.S. officials "first-class idiots," mocking American leaders as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tours the Mideast. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP=Newsis)
In this photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks at a meeting in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. Khamenei called U.S. officials “first-class idiots,” mocking American leaders as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tours the Mideast. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP=Newsis)

Iran will “under no circumstances” enter a war either directly or indirectly with the United States, a prominent reformist Iranian lawmaker said Wednesday, as both Washington and Tehran try to ease heightened tensions in the region.

The reported comments by Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh come after the White House earlier this month sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the region over a still-unexplained threat it perceived from Iran.

Since that development, Iran has announced it will back away from the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, an accord that President Donald Trump pulled America out of a year ago. The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, alleged that four oil tankers were sabotaged off its coast, and Iranian-allied rebels in Yemen have launched drone attacks into Saudi Arabia.

Falahatpisheh’s comments, reported by the semi-official ILNA news agency, carry additional heft as he serves as the chairman of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission.

“Under no circumstance will we enter a war,” Falahatpisheh said, according to ILNA. “No group can announce that it has entered a proxy war from Iran’s side.”

Since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Tehran has worked to leverage relationships with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and others to counter what it perceives as the threat from America’s vast military presence across the Mideast. Analysts believe that if attacked, Iran could rely on those militant groups to target American troops, Israel and other U.S. allies in the region.

On Monday, Iran announced it had quadrupled its production capacity of low-enriched uranium. Iranian officials made a point to stress that the uranium would be enriched only to the 3.67% limit set under the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, making it usable for a power plant but far below what’s needed for an atomic

But by increasing production, Iran soon will exceed the stockpile limitations set by the nuclear accord. Tehran has set a July 7 deadline for Europe to set new terms for the deal, or it will enrich closer to weapons-grade levels in a Mideast already on edge.

The U.S. Air Force announced Wednesday that a B-52 bomber deployed to America’s vast Al-Udeid Air Base over the tensions took part in a formation flight with Qatari fighter jets. That come as Qatar has grown closer to Iran after facing a nearly two-year boycott by four Arab nations also allied with the U.S.
“This flight was conducted to continue building military-to-military relationships” with Qatar, the Air Force said.(AP=Newsis)

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, walks to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Abe's official residence in Tokyo Thursday, May 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, Pool=Newsis)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, walks to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Abe’s official residence in Tokyo Thursday, May 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, Pool=Newsis)

Iran’s foreign minister on Thursday said sanctions imposed by the Trump administration are “unacceptable” but that his country is committed to an international nuclear deal that has steadily unraveled amid rising tensions.

On a visit to Tokyo, Mohammad Zarif defended Iran’s right to respond to the U.S. pullout from the nuclear deal last year and the imposition of sanctions.

“We believe that escalation by the United States is unacceptable and uncalled for. We have exercised maximum restraints,” he said. In other comments carried on the semi-official Mehr news agency, Zarif was quoted as saying “a multilateral deal cannot be treated unilaterally.”

Recent days have brought allegations of sabotage attacks targeting oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline claimed by Yemen’s Iran-allied Houthi rebels, and the dispatch of U.S. warships and bombers to the region.

Saudi Arabia responded to Tuesday’s drone attack with a wave of airstrikes on Houthi targets in Yemen’s rebel-held capital, Sanaa. On Thursday, residents scrambled to pull 14 wounded people from the rubble of a building.

Fawza Ahmed told The Associated Press he saw three bodies being retrieved from the rubble – a father, mother and child, all buried together. A medic at the al-Manar city hospital said the three bodies were brought to the hospital morgue. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

A Saudi-led coalition has been at war with the Houthis since 2015, and carried out near-daily airstrikes. The drone attacks on the pipeline marked one of the rebels’ deepest and most significant strikes inside Saudi territory since the conflict began.

The Saudi-led coalition acknowledged in a statement it had struck a number of Houthi targets on Thursday, including what it said were weapons depots and military sites.

At the root of the recent spike in Persian Gulf tensions appears to be President Donald Trump’s decision a year ago to pull the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, embarking on a maximalist sanctions campaign against Tehran to cripple the country’s economy.

In response, Iran’s supreme leader issued a veiled threat Tuesday, saying it wouldn’t be difficult for the Islamic Republic to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels. He also said that while his country would not negotiate with the United States, Iran is not seeking war.

On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department ordered all nonessential government staff to leave Iraq, and Germany and the Netherlands both suspended their military assistance programs in the country in the latest sign of tensions.

The movement of diplomatic personnel is often done in times of conflict, but what is driving the decisions from the White House remains unclear. Iraq is home to powerful pro-Iranian militias, while also hosting more than 5,000 American troops. The U.S. military’s Central Command said its troops were on high alert, without elaborating.

Last week, U.S. officials said they had detected signs of Iranian preparations for potential attacks on U.S. forces and interests in the Middle East, but Washington has not publicly provided any evidence to back up claims of an increased Iranian threat.

A senior British officer in the U.S.-backed coalition fighting the Islamic State group appeared to push back against the U.S. claims, telling reporters earlier in the week that there’d been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria. Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika’s comments exposed international skepticism over the American military buildup.

Iran recently threatened it might resume higher enrichment by July 7, beyond the level permitted by the current deal between Tehran and world powers. The U.S. pulled out of the deal last year, re-imposing sanctions that penalize countries and global companies that do business with Iran.

Though Iran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, scientists say the time needed to reach the 90% threshold for weapons-grade uranium is halved once uranium is enriched to around 20%.

Late Wednesday, Anwar Gargash, the UAE minister of foreign affairs, said the Saudi-led coalition would “retaliate hard” for attacks on civilian targets, without elaborating.

However, he also said the UAE is “very committed to de-escalation” after the alleged sabotage of oil tankers off the country’s coast on Sunday. Gargash declined to directly blame Iran for the attack, though he repeatedly criticized Tehran.

In a joint letter to the U.N. Security Council, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Norway said that while the alleged sabotage targeted four ships, “the attacks damaged the hulls of at least three.” It did not elaborate. A U.S. official previously said all four ships sustained damage at or below their waterlines.

Meanwhile, the Qatar-funded satellite news broadcaster Al-Jazeera said Qatar is trying to “defuse escalating tensions.” It cited an anonymous official as saying that Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, had traveled to Tehran in recent days to speak with his Iranian counterpart, and that the U.S. was aware of the trip in advance.

Qatar hosts the forward headquarters of the U.S. military’s Central Command at its vast Al-Udeid Air Base. Several of the B-52 bombers ordered by the White House to the region amid the latest escalation between Washington and Tehran are stationed there.

Qatar has grown closer to Iran diplomatically over the past two years after four Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, cut ties to protest its regional policies.(AP=Newsis)

Relatives weep at the coffin with the remains of 12-year Sneha Savindi, who was a victim of Easter Sunday bomb blast at St. Sebastian Church reach home, Monday, April 22, 2019 in Negambo, Sri Lanka. Easter Sunday bombings of churches, luxury hotels and other sites was Sri Lanka's deadliest violence since a devastating civil war in the South Asian island nation ended a decade ago. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe=Newsis)
Relatives weep at the coffin with the remains of 12-year Sneha Savindi, who was a victim of Easter Sunday bomb blast at St. Sebastian Church reach home, Monday, April 22, 2019 in Negambo, Sri Lanka. Easter Sunday bombings of churches, luxury hotels and other sites was Sri Lanka’s deadliest violence since a devastating civil war in the South Asian island nation ended a decade ago. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe=Newsis)

The coordinated Easter Sunday bombings that ripped through Sri Lankan churches and luxury hotels, killing more than 200 people, were carried out by seven suicide bombers from a domestic militant group named National Thowfeek Jamaath, a government official said Monday.

All of the bombers were Sri Lankan citizens, but authorities suspect foreign links, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said at a news conference.

Earlier, Ariyananda Welianga, a government forensic crime investigator, said an analysis of the attackers’ body parts made clear that they were suicide bombers. He said most of the attacks were carried out by a single bomber, with two at Colombo’s Shangri-La Hotel.

The bombings, Sri Lanka’s deadliest violence since a devastating civil war ended a decade ago on the island nation, killed at least 290 people with more than 500 wounded, Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said Monday.

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan police investigating the bombings are examining reports that intelligence agencies had warnings of possible attacks, officials said Monday.

Two government ministers have alluded to intelligence failures. 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 the possibility of an attack as well and had warned him not to enter popular churches.

And Mano Ganeshan, the minister for national integration, said his ministry’s security officers had been warned by their division about the possibility that two suicide bombers would target politicians.

The police’s Criminal Investigation Department, which is handling the investigation into the blasts, will look into those reports, Gunasekara said.

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.

Earlier, Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardena described the blasts as a terrorist attack by religious extremists, and police said 13 suspects had been arrested, though there was no immediate claim of responsibility. Wijewardena said most of the bombings were believed to have been suicide attacks.

But officials have yet to say who they believe is behind the attacks. The Tamil Tigers, once a powerful rebel army known for its use of suicide bombers, was crushed by the government in 2009, and had little history of targeting Christians. While anti-Muslim bigotry has swept the island in recent years, fed by Buddhist nationalists, the island also has no history of violent Muslim militants. The country’s small Christian community has seen only scattered incidents of harassment in recent years.

The explosions – mostly in or around Colombo, the capital – collapsed ceilings and blew out windows, killing worshippers and hotel guests in one scene after another of smoke, soot, blood, broken glass, screams and wailing alarms.

A morgue worker in the town of Negombo, outside Colombo, where St. Sebastian’s Church was targeted, said many bodies were hard to identify because of the extent of the injuries. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

Lakmal, a 41-year-old businessman in Negombo who declined to provide his last name, went with his family to St. Sebastian’s for Easter Mass. He said they all escaped the blast unscathed, but he remains haunted by images of bodies being taken from the sanctuary and tossed into a truck.

At the Shangri-La Hotel, a witness said “people were being dragged out” after the blast.

“There was blood everywhere,” said Bhanuka Harischandra a 24-year-old from Colombo and founder of a tech marketing company. He was heading to the hotel for a meeting when it was bombed. “People didn’t know what was going on. It was panic mode.”

Most of those killed were Sri Lankans. But the three bombed hotels and one of the churches, St. Anthony’s Shrine, are frequented by foreign tourists, and Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry said the bodies of at least 27 foreigners from a variety of countries were recovered.

The U.S. said “several” Americans were among the dead, while Britain, India, China, Japan and Portugal said they, too, lost citizens.

The streets were largely deserted Monday morning, with most shops closed and a heavy deployment of soldiers and police. Stunned clergy and onlookers gathered at St. Anthony’s Shrine, looking past the soldiers to the stricken church.

The Sri Lankan government initially lifted a curfew that had been imposed during the night but reinstated it Monday afternoon. Most social media remained blocked Monday after officials said they needed to curtail the spread of false information and ease tension in the country of about 21 million people.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the massacre could trigger instability in Sri Lanka, and he vowed to “vest all necessary powers with the defense forces” to take action against those responsible.

The scale of the bloodshed recalled the worst days of Sri Lanka’s 26-year 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 percent Buddhist. In recent years, tensions have been running high between hard-line Buddhist monks and Muslims.

Two Muslim groups in Sri Lanka condemned the church attacks, as did countries around the world, and Pope Francis expressed condolences at the end of his traditional Easter Sunday blessing in Rome.

Six nearly simultaneous blasts took place in the morning at the shrine and the Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels in Colombo, as well as at two churches outside Colombo.

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, Atapattu said.

Also, three police officers were killed during a search at a suspected safe house on the outskirts of Colombo when its occupants apparently detonated explosives to prevent arrest, authorities said.

Authorities said a large bomb had been found and defused late Sunday on an access road to the international airport.

Air Force Group Captain Gihan Seneviratne said Monday that authorities found a pipe bomb filled with 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of explosives. It was large enough to have caused damage to a 400-meter (400-yard) radius, he said.

Harischandra, who witnessed the attack at the Shangri-La Hotel, said there was “a lot of tension” after the bombings, but added: “We’ve been through these kinds of situations before.”

He said Sri Lankans are “an amazing bunch” and noted that his social media feed was flooded with photos of people standing in long lines to give blood. (AP=Newsis)