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Sunni insurgents close in on Iraq’s biggest oil refinery

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PHUKET MEDIA WATCH

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

Sunni insurgents close in on Iraq’s biggest oil refinery
Reuters / Phuket Gazette

PHUKET: Sunni insurgents from an al Qaeda splinter group closed in on Iraq’s biggest oil refinery yesterday after seizing the northern city of Mosul in a devastating show of strength against the Shi’ite-led government.

Security sources said militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – Sunni militants waging sectarian war on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian frontier – drove into the town of Baiji late on Tuesday in armed vehicles, torching the court house and police station after freeing prisoners.

The militants offered safe passage to some 250 men guarding the refinery on the outskirts of Baiji on condition they leave.

Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari called on his country’s leaders to come together to face “the serious, mortal” threat. “The response has to be soon. There has to be a quick response to what has happened,” he said during a trip to Greece.

Zebari said Baghdad would work with forces from the nearby Kurdish autonomous region to drive the fighters from Mosul.

Baiji resident Jasim al-Qaisi said the militants had also asked senior tribal chiefs in Baiji to persuade local police and soldiers not to resist their takeover.

“Yesterday at sunset some gunmen contacted the most prominent tribal sheikhs in Baiji via cellphone and told them: ‘We are coming to die or control Baiji, so we advise you to ask your sons in the police and army to lay down their weapons and withdraw before (Tuesday) evening prayer’.”

The Baiji refinery can process 300,000 barrels per day and supplies oil products to most of Iraq’s provinces and is a major provider of power to Baghdad. A worker there said the morning shift had not been allowed to take over and the night shift was still on duty.

The push into Baiji began hours after ISIL overran Mosul, one of the great Sunni historic cities, advancing their aim of creating a Sunni Caliphate straddling the border between Iraq and Syria.

DOMINANT PLAYER

ISIL has become a dominant player in Iraq and Syria where it has seized a string of cities over the past year, often fighting other Sunni groups.

An estimated 500,000 Iraqis have already fled Mosul, home to some 2 million people, and the surrounding province, the International Organisation for Migration said on Wednesday.

The fall of Mosul is a slap to Baghdad’s efforts to quash Sunni militants who have regained ground and strength in Iraq over the past year, seizing Sunni towns of Falluja and parts of Ramadi in the desert west of Baghdad at the start of the year.

The United States, which pulled its troops out from Iraq to and half years ago, pledged to help Iraqi leaders “push back against this aggression” as the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki asked parliament to declare a state of emergency.

It said Washington would support “a strong, coordinated response”, adding that “ISIL is not only a threat to the stability of Iraq, but a threat to the entire region”.

ISIL control in the Sunni Anbar province as well as around Mosul in the north, would help the Islamist group consolidate its grip along the frontier with Syria, where they are fighting President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Shi’ite Iran.

Fleeing residents said ISIL fighters were leaving their stamp everywhere in the cities they seized, planting their black flags and banners on police stations, army barracks and other government buildings.

“They are all masked, but they don’t do us any harm,” said a 13-year old schoolboy, describing the militants who pushed into his hometown of Mosul.

A 40-year old man who fled Mosul with his family said: “We are frightened because we don’t know who they are. They call themselves the revolutionaries. They told us not to be scared and that they came to liberate and free us from oppression.”

KURDISH HELP?

Critics say the failure of Maliki, a Shi’ite Muslim in power for eight years, to address grievances among the once dominant Sunni minority led to a rise in Sunni militancy and pushed Sunni groups and tribes to rally behind ISIL.

Many Sunnis feel disenfranchised and some have made common cause with foreign Islamist radicals, first against the U.S. troops that overthrew Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 and now Shi’ite-led Iraqi forces.

Most families fled north towards the nearby Kurdistan region, where Iraq’s ethnic Kurds have autonomy and their own large and disciplined military force, the Peshmerga.

Some officials in Baghdad spoke of seeking help for Mosul from Kurdish Peshmerga, which have long been a force in the jockeying between Shi’ites, Kurds and Sunnis for influence and, especially, for control of oilfields in the north of Iraq.

Two officials in the ministry of Peshmerga said on Wednesday that there was no military coordination between Baghdad and Arbil, but that on the ground locally there was some coordination between Iraqi army and Kurdish forces.

Peshmerga now control the Rabia area on the border with Syria after the Iraqi army allowed them to deploy there and also the Kusk base, 45 km west of Mosul, and some other brigade headquarters

Asked whether the Peshmerga would try to enter Mosul, Halgurd Hikmat, media officer at ministry of Peshmerga, said that depended on the President of the region and that a formal request would have to be made by Maliki, who is commander of the Iraqi armed forces.

ISIL, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, broke with al Qaeda’s international leader, Osama bin Laden’s former lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahri, and has clashed with al Qaeda fighters in Syria.

The group, originally rooted in austere Sunni groups like the Tawhid, fought US and Iraqi forces after Saddam’s fall and the Shi’ite rise to power that ending decades of Sunni rule. ISIL regards Shi’ites as heretics.

ISIL posted photographs of its fighters wearing black balaclavas on its “Nineveh State” Twitter account, interspersed with verses from the Koran. The group dubbed the Mosul offensive “Enter Upon Them Through The Gates”.

In a newsletter, ISIL enjoined Sunnis to join them in the fight against Maliki’s “Safavid” army – a reference to the Persian dynasty that promoted Shi’ite Islam.

“Join the ranks oh brothers!” ran one slogan. “Maliki’s tyrannical strength no match for pious believers.”

In the province of Salahuddin, they overran three villages in the Shirqat district, torching police stations, town halls and local council buildings before raising the ISIL banner.

Nearly 800 people were killed in violence across Iraq in May – the highest monthly death toll so far this year. Last year was the deadliest since the sectarian bloodletting of 2006-07.

— 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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