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Iraq rebels seize Northwest town in heavy battle

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Iraq rebels seize Northwest town in heavy battle | The Thaiger

PHUKET MEDIA WATCH

– World news selected by Gazette editors for Phuket’s international community

Iraq rebels seize Northwest town in heavy battle
Reuters / Phuket Gazette

PHUKET: Sunni insurgents seized a mainly ethnic Turkmen city in northwestern Iraq on Sunday after heavy fighting, solidifying their grip on the north after a lightning offensive that threatens to dismember Iraq.

Residents reached by telephone in the city of Tal Afar said it had fallen to the rebels from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant after a battle which saw heavy casualties on both sides.

“The city was overrun by militants. Severe fighting took place, and many people were killed. Shi’ite families have fled to the west and Sunni families have fled to the east,” said a city official who asked not to be identified.

Tal Afar is a short drive west from Mosul, the north’s main city, which the ISIL fighters seized last week at the start of a drive that has plunged the country into the worst crisis since U.S. troops withdrew.

Most of the inhabitants of Tal Afar are members of the Turkmen ethnic group, who speak a Turkic language. Turkey has expressed concern about their security.

The city had been defended by an unit of Iraq’s security forces commanded by a Shi’ite major general, Abu Walid, whose men were among the few holdouts from the government’s forces in the province around Mosul not to flee the rapid ISIL advance.

After sweeping through towns in the Tigris valley north of Baghdad, ISIL fighters appear to have halted their advance outside the capital, instead moving to tighten their grip on the north.

The Turkmen and other residents of Tal Afar are divided among Sunnis and Shi’ites in a part of Iraq with a complex ethnic and sectarian mixture. The city is just outside Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, whose own security forces have taken advantage of the collapse of government control to advance into the city of Kirkuk and rural areas with oil deposits.

ISIL fighters aim to establish a Caliphate on both sides of the Syria-Iraqi frontier based on strict medieval Sunni Muslim precepts. Their advance has been assisted by other Sunni Muslim armed groups.

The advance has alarmed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite supporters in Iran as well as the United States, which helped bring Maliki to power after its 2003 invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said he is reviewing military options, short of sending troops, to combat the insurgency, and Iran has held out the prospect of working with its longtime U.S. arch-enemy to help restore security in Iraq.

Washington said on Sunday it was beefing up security at its embassy in Baghdad and moving some staff out (story here).

The vast mission is the largest and most expensive embassy ever built anywhere in the world, a vestige of the days when the United States had 170,000 troops in Iraq battling to put down a sectarian civil war that followed its invasion.

Iraq now faces the prospect of similarly vicious warfare, but this time with no U.S. forces on the ground to intervene. Its million-strong army, trained and armed by Washington at a cost of around $25 billion, has been plagued by corruption, poor morale and a perception it pursues Shi’ite sectarian interests.

CRAZY FIGHTING

Residents in Tal Afar said Shi’ite police and troops rocketed Sunni neighbourhoods before the ISIL forces moved in and finally captured the city. A member of Maliki’s security committee told Reuters government forces had attacked ISIL positions on the outskirts of the city with helicopters.

“The situation is disastrous in Tal Afar. There is crazy fighting and most families are trapped inside houses, they can’t leave town,” a local official said on Sunday before the city was overrun. “If the fighting continues, a mass killing among civilians could result.”

Shi’ites, who form the majority in Iraq and are based mainly in the south, have rallied to defend the country, with thousands of volunteers turning out to join the security forces after a mobilisation call by the top Shi’ite cleric. Maliki’s security forces and allied militias regained some territory on Saturday.

In Baghdad on Sunday, a suicide attacker detonated explosives in a vest he was wearing, killing at least nine people and wounding 20 in a crowded street in the centre of the capital, police and medical sources said.

At least six people were killed, including three soldiers and three volunteers, when four mortars landed at a recruiting centre in Khalis, one of the last big towns in government hands north of the capital, 50 km (30 miles) north of Baghdad.

Volunteers were being gathered by the army to join fighting to regain control of the nearby town of Udhaim.

ISIL fought as Al Qaeda’s Iraq branch against U.S. forces during the years of American occupation in Iraq, but broke away from Al Qaeda after joining the civil war in Syria. It now says the group founded by Osama bin Laden is not extreme enough.

In years of fighting on both sides of the frontier, ISIL has gained a reputation for shocking brutality. It considers Shi’ites to be heretics deserving of death and sends bombers daily to kill hundreds of Iraqi civilians each month.

A series of pictures distributed on a purported ISIL Twitter account appeared to show gunmen from the Islamist group shooting dozens of men, unarmed and lying prone on the ground.

Captions accompanying the pictures said they showed hundreds of army deserters who were captured as they tried to flee the fighting. They were shown being transported in the back of lorry and led to an open field where they were laid down in rows and shot by several masked gunmen. In several pictures, the black Islamist ISIL flag can be seen.

Most of the captured men were wearing civilian clothes, although one picture showed two men in military camouflage trousers, one of them half covered by a pair of ordinary trousers.

“This is the fate of the Shi’ites which Nuri brought to fight the Sunnis,” a caption to one of the pictures reads. Others showed ISIL fighters apparently seizing facilities in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, which they captured on Wednesday.

It was not immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the pictures.

Across the border, a Syrian government air raid hit near ISIL’s headquarters in the eastern city of Raqqa, Syrian activists said.

The only Syrian provincial capital in insurgent hands, Raqqa has been a major base for ISIL since the group evicted rival rebels, including al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, during infighting this year.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said warplanes targeted the governorate building, a large structure in the centre of town, as well as two other buildings, including a sharia, or Islamic law, court.

The fighting in Iraq is by far the worst since U.S. troops pulled out in 2011. U.S. President Barack Obama has come under fire at home for failing to do more to bolster Baghdad.

While expressing support for Maliki’s government, the United States has stressed the need for a political solution to the crisis. Maliki’s opponents accuse him of sidelining Sunnis, which fuelled resentment that fed the insurgency.

Secretary of State John Kerry told Iraq’s foreign minister in a call on Saturday that U.S. assistance would only succeed if Iraqi leaders set asid

— Phuket Gazette Editors

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World

Key ally rejects PM Johnson’s Brexit plan – Sterling sags

The Thaiger

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Key ally rejects PM Johnson’s Brexit plan – Sterling sags | The Thaiger

The British Pound tumbled again today after UK PM Boris Johnson’s key ally in parliament said it “could not support” his plans for a Brexit deal, throwing a spanner in the works – just as Britain and the EU were closing in on an agreement.

The comment caused an immediate reaction from this morning’s Asia Pacific markets.

After years of wrangling, the two sides said they were edging towards the basis for a treaty allowing Britain to avoid an economically catastrophic “no-deal” exit from the European Union.

With both teams working through the night, EU negotiator Michel Barnier said there had been “good progress, and work is ongoing”, while France’s deputy foreign minister said Thursday a deal was “within reach but is not guaranteed”.

There had been optimism that a deal was in the offing, just two weeks before Britain is due to leave the bloc, as they worked towards a solution on the vexed question of British-ruled Northern Ireland.

But Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) dropped a bombshell hours before the start of a crunch EU summit Thursday, saying it cannot support the plan.

“As things stand, we could not support what is being suggested on customs and consent issues, and there is a lack of clarity” on Value Added Tax, the DUP, which props up Johnson’s government, said in a statement on Twitter.

“We will continue to work with the Government to try and get a sensible deal that works for Northern Ireland and protects the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.”

DUP leader Arlene Foster had met Johnson several times this week to discuss the progress of talks and had described as “nonsense” previous reports that she was ready to give way.

The pound, which earlier in the day was hovering at five-month highs around $1.2877 sank to $1.2750 before edging back slightly, while it also lost ground to the euro.

The DUP are against any deal that would tie Northern Ireland to EU rules but cut the rest of the United Kingdom loose.

Markets react

In early trade, London’s FTSE added 0.1%, Paris was flat and Frankfurt eased 0.2%. In Asia, most markets were in the red, with traders unable to take advantage of weak US retail data that raised the chances of another Federal Reserve interest rate cut. Comments in the Fed’s Beige Book update on the economy also pointed to a slowdown.

Hong Kong added 0.7% but Shanghai finished 0.1% lower and Tokyo lost 0.1%.

Sydney sank 0.8%, Singapore shed 0.7% and Seoul retreated 0.2%t, with Wellington and Manila also off. There were gains in Taipei, Mumbai, Bangkok and Jakarta.

Speculation about a possible US rate cut provided support to higher-yielding currencies against the dollar, with the Australian dollar 0.6 percent up and the South Korean won 0.1 percent stronger. The Thai baht, the Mexican peso and the South African rand also posted healthy gains.

Oil prices fell after data pointed to a sharp rise in US stockpiles that reinforced worries about the impact on demand from the China-US trade war and the global economic slowdown.

Key markets today

Pound/dollar: DOWN at $1.2784 from $1.2817 at 2100 GMT

Euro/pound: UP at 86.65 pence from 86.33 pence

Euro/dollar: UP at $1.1081 from $1.1073

Dollar/yen: UP at 108.80 yen from 108.71 yen

London – FTSE 100: UP 0.1 percent at 7,175.09

Tokyo – Nikkei 225: DOWN 0.1% at 22,451.86 (close)

Hong Kong – Hang Seng: UP 0.7% at 26,848.49 (close)

Shanghai – Composite: DOWN 0.1% at 2,977.33 (close)

West Texas Intermediate: DOWN 56 cents at $52.80 per barrel

Brent North Sea crude: DOWN 55 cents at $58.87 per barrel

New York – Dow: DOWN 0.1% at 27,001.98 (close)

SOURCE: Agence France-Presse

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World

EU and UK zone in on possible breakthrough

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EU and UK zone in on possible breakthrough | The Thaiger

British and European negotiators headed back into intense negotiations on a draft Brexit deal after late-night talks brought them closer but so far fails to confirm an elusive breakthrough.

Reports that Britain has softened its stance on the customs status of Northern Ireland in order to clinch an accord at this week’s European summit had raised hopes that a chaotic “no-deal Brexit” can be avoided and is driving the pound higher.

But a marathon overnight negotiating session in the EU’s Brussels headquarters brought them to the eve of the meeting with still some distance to go to agree the wording of a treaty to govern the terms of Britain’s October 31 departure from the bloc.

“The teams worked into the night and continue to make progress. The teams will meet again this morning,” a UK official said, describing the talks as “constructive”. He and EU officials said the teams would get back to work at around 9am.

A senior European diplomat told AFP that the negotiators had begun to transcribe the British offer into a legal text that could eventually go before the 28 EU national leaders on Thursday at their European Council summit which begins on Thursday.

But there remain some important differences, he cautioned, while a European official, speaking on condition of anonymity as closed-door negotiations continue, played down hopes that any text would be finalised Wednesday.

Even if a text is prepared for the leaders this week – or if, as many observers in Brussels expect, an extraordinary summit is called later – any deal would have to be approved by a skeptical British parliament, which holds a special session on Saturday.

By agreeing to a form of customs boundary in the Irish Sea, Britain could allow its province of Northern Ireland to remain under EU rules, prevent a return to a hard land border with EU member Ireland and salvage a negotiated withdrawal.

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may struggle to convince hardline Conservative eurosceptic MPS and his allies from Northern Ireland’s loyalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to accept this concession — less than three weeks before Britain is due to leave the EU.

Nevertheless, EU negotiator Michel Barnier and British Brexit minister Stephen Barclay judged that a deal was close enough to justify officials working into the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Barnier had said a text must be on the table by Wednesday if member state governments are to have a chance to consider it before the summit, because the 28 national leaders have no plans to themselves debate the details of the agreement.

But if, as now seems likely, the Wednesday deadline is missed, officials said talks could instead resume next week and a special summit be called just in time for Johnson to fulfil his pledge to lead Britain out of the bloc on October 31.

European leaders warn they will not let Britain use Northern Ireland as a back door to the single market and Barnier said Tuesday that “it is high time to turn good intentions into legal text.”

Yesterday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel outlined why EU officials are driving a hard bargain and hoping Britain will commit to a “level playing field” in post-Brexit trade and commerce.

“One thing is clear, Britain will develop into another competitor on the doorstep of Europe. And therefore the EU will be challenged to become more competitive and to assume geopolitical responsibility.”

Glimmers of hope

“The last moment is always a bit later than you think,” one German government official told AFP, suggesting Brexit would have to be postponed beyond the end of the month if talks are to reach a successful conclusion.

More than three years after Britain’s 2016 referendum vote to leave the European bloc, talks remain stuck on how to avoid customs checks on the border between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland.

The EU has reservations about London’s proposed customs arrangements and the role for Northern Ireland’s Stormont assembly in giving consent to the plans.

In London, DUP leader Arlene Foster told the BBC that she wanted to support a deal, but would not do so if she felt it divided Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and added that without her party’s support “everybody knows” it would not pass in parliament.

If no deal is reached by Saturday, Johnson will fall foul of a British law demanding he ask the EU to postpone Brexit for a third time rather than risk a potentially disastrous “no deal” departure.

SOURCE: Agence France-Presse

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Myanmar

Burmese surfing team head to SEAsia Games, a first for Myanmar

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Burmese surfing team head to SEAsia Games, a first for Myanmar | The Thaiger

PHOTO: Burmese surfer Thwe Thwe Soe practicing off the coast of Ngwe Saung – Myanmore

Paddling hard and smiling, Thwe Thwe Soe flung herself up on the board just as a wave was breaking, spreading her arms out for balance before getting knocked off.

“I can’t live without surfing. I did not expect to be chosen for the national team but I’m thrilled at the opportunity.”

Thwe Thwe Soe was speaking after a day in the blue waters off the small coastal resort town of Ngwe Saung. Competitive surfing was barely known in Myanmar a few years ago but one local beach town is riding a wave of enthusiasm to the Southeast Asia Games for the first time ever.

The Southeast Asian country is flanked by surf-ready coasts to the west and south, but decades of military rule, lack of equipment and poverty kept aspiring athletes from testing the waters. The 25 year old encountered the sport while studying in southern California and has been hooked since, saying she “always feels happy” on the water.

Now she is going up against the region’s giants at the December games in the Philippines. Thwe Thwe Soe has one of the best chances to medal among the handful of surfers going, but all are training hard.

“We surf for at least four to six hours a day,” said American coach Robert Brickell, a 26 year old originally from New York.

The mild waves at Ngwe Saung present a paradox for competitive surfers – they are good to learn on but much tamer than the conditions in surfing hotspots. The team went to Bali in Indonesia for two months to get used to some “big wave surfing” and have made enormous strides in a short amount of time, Brickell said.

“My hope is that we can show everybody that people from Myanmar, we know how to surf, we know how to respect the ocean. And of course our hope is to win some meets.”

The Surf Association of Myanmar was established only this year. The sport is slowly gaining prominence thanks to the impassioned surfers, most from a village near the beach and newcomers themselves. Ngwe Saung is the heartland of the growing craze and has now hosted several competitions.

“We hadn’t heard of surfing before 2017. It will be a difficult competition but we will do our best for sure.” said 19 year old Aung Min Naing.

SOURCE: Agence France-Presse

Burmese surfing team head to SEAsia Games, a first for Myanmar | News by The Thaiger

PHOTO: Aspiring new Burmese surfer, Aung Min Naing – MMTimes.com

Burmese surfing team head to SEAsia Games, a first for Myanmar | News by The Thaiger

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