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Phuket Gazette World News: Russia, NATO plan joint operation on Syria’s chemical weapons

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Phuket Gazette World News: Russia, NATO plan joint operation on Syria’s chemical weapons | The Thaiger
PHUKET MEDIA WATCH

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

Russia, NATO plan joint operation on Syria’s chemical weapons
Phuket Gazette / Reuters

PHUKET: Russia and NATO are drawing up plans for a rare joint naval operation in the Mediterranean to protect the U.S. ship that will destroy Syria’s deadliest chemical weapons, officials and other sources said.

The operation would be a symbolic breakthrough at a time when NATO-Russian relations are strained over NATO’s anti-missile shield and East-West tensions are running high over Ukraine.

It would also signal strong global backing for the U.S.-Russian agreement last August to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, a deal that averted the threat of U.S. military strikes on Syria.

Under the plan being discussed, NATO and Russian warships would share the task of protecting the Cape Ray, a U.S. cargo ship that will process at sea about 500 tonnes of chemicals that are too dangerous to deal with on land.

NATO and Russia are still trying to iron out some technical hitches, but NATO sources say a deal could be announced as early as next week.

NATO and Russian warships would provide strong protection to a ship carrying some of the world’s most dangerous cargo.

Russia has invested heavily in the international deal on Syria’s chemical disarmament, which it sponsored from the outset, and does not want to see it fall apart in spite of Damascus falling behind the schedule.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen discussed supporting international efforts to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons at talks in Brussels on January 28, both Russia and NATO have said.

After that meeting, Rasmussen “asked NATO’s civilian and military experts to prepare a presentation on what the available options are,” a NATO source told Reuters.

“We understand the Russians are doing the same thing on their side. We are talking here about a potential joint operation at the sea,” the source added.

“They are discussing a joint security operation in the Mediterranean for the Cape Ray, to protect it while it destroys the chemical weapons,” said a separate source at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is supervising the disposal of Syria’s chemical arms.

Several NATO sources in Brussels confirmed that an operation to guard the Cape Ray is under discussion.

Rare Mission

Russian officials had no immediate comment.

But after talks in Moscow on Friday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told a news conference with Lavrov present that an agreement was on the way under which Russia would take part in protecting the transport of Syrian chemical weapons by a U.S. ship in the Mediterranean.

Diplomatic sources said both sides were willing to go ahead with the mission but some issues remain to be ironed out.

They include, among others, a unified command structure or the so-called “rules of engagement”, or response procedures in case the convoy faces danger.

The United Nations/OPCW mission said Syria shipped out a third consignment of chemical weapons materials on Monday and has destroyed some more on its territory.

Under the international agreement, Syria is obliged to transfer all its chemicals to the Mediterranean port of Latakia for removal abroad and destruction aboard the Cape Ray.

The Cape Ray is to pick up the chemicals in Italy and needs an escort in international waters. It docked in the Spanish port of Rota on Thursday en route from Virginia.

The deadline for complete elimination of Syria’s chemical arsenal is June 30, a time-frame the head of the international mission has said is still possible.

NATO and Russian defence ministers first discussed the toxins destruction in October, raising the possibility of eventual cooperation.

Moscow is often at loggerheads with the 28-member alliance over issues ranging from the development of the U.S. missile shield system in Europe to discussions of membership prospects for the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine.

Earlier this month, Rasmussen voiced concern at recent military moves by Russia and urged more constructive engagement.

NATO and Russia hold regular discussions in a body called the NATO-Russia Council, which meets at ministerial or ambassadorial level. The NATO-Russia Council Foreign Ministers issued a joint statement in December supporting the U.N./OPCW mission.

NATO and Russia also cooperate on countering piracy and promoting cyber security and stage joint military exercises, but they very rarely entertain joint military missions.

Russia deployed its vessels twice in 2006 and 2007 to support NATO in patrolling the Mediterranean, a precedent for cooperation between Moscow and the alliance in the area.

Other than that, Russia has also temporarily contributed forces to the NATO mission in Kosovo that started in 1999.

Symbolic

Russia has echoed Damascus in blaming security issues in a war zone for delays in destroying Syria’s chemical arms.

Moscow has beefed up its presence in the Mediterranean since the conflict started in March, 2011, with its nuclear-powered warship Pyotr Veliky taking part in the third chemical transport from Syria.

The international community has invested heavily in the operation, providing ships, vehicles, personnel and tens of millions of dollars in donations to OPCW and U.N. funds.

Some sources said that, should the NATO-Russia operation go ahead, its meaning would be largely symbolic, also because the Americans can protect the Cape Ray on their own.

But for NATO such a mission could be a rare success story in strained ties with Russia. From Moscow’s point of view, showing off flexibility and determination on the chemical disarmament front would also serve to defuse Western criticism that it is shielding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

— 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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