Peru approves shooting down of drug smuggling planes

The Peruvian Congress has approved legislation that allows the country’s air force to shoot down small planes suspected of carrying illegal drugs.

Peru produces more cocaine than any other country and anti-narcotics agents say most of it is smuggled to the US.

The bill was passed unanimously 89-0 and is expected to be signed into law by President Ollanta Humala.

However, officials say the US has expressed its opposition to restoring so-called aerial interdiction.

Peru halted the tactic in 2001 after an American missionary and her infant daughter were killed in an attack on a plane wrongly identified as carrying drugs.

The plane was brought down by the Peruvian Air Force but it was a joint operation with the CIA.

The US, which sponsors anti-drugs programmes across South America, has opposed attacks on suspected drug planes since then.

Common tactic

Other countries in the region – including Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela and Bolivia – already permit such planes to be shot down, albeit with strict guidelines.

Officials in Peru say about half of the cocaine crossing its border is being taken via small planes to Bolivia.

Peruvian congressman Carlos Tubino, who wrote the legislation, said the government could no longer allow traffickers to defy its laws.

Mr Tubino said there were about 600 drug flights a year in Peru, adding: “Just today there were two flights!”

President Humala vowed to make combating drug trafficking a priority when he took office in 2011.

His government has eradicated a record amount of coca crops with US assistance but has been criticised for seizing a relatively small amount of cocaine and leaving the air link to Bolivia undisturbed.

Australia considering joining anti-ISIS airstrikes in Syria

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Friday that he was considering a formal request from the United States for Australia to join air strikes in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group.

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is already involved in bombing ISIS targets in Iraq, but its aerial role in Syria has so far been limited to refuelling and intelligence gathering.

“While there are processes that we need to go through and there’s no decision that should be made lightly here … we will carefully consider that request,” Abbott told reporters in Canberra.

“I want to make very clear that the consolidation of a terrorist state in eastern Syria and northern Iraq would be a catastrophe for the world.”

RAAF planes have been bombing ISIS targets in Iraq since September.

China to build $10 billion N-plants in Pakistan

Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif says the project is an ‘example of the healthy friendship’ with Beijing.

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Thursday inaugurated construction work on a China-backed $10 billion nuclear power plant here.

The Karachi Nuclear Power Plant II (Kanupp II) with the capacity to produce 1,100 MW electricity is being built with the assistance of China, which has become the biggest investor in energy and infrastructure projects in Pakistan.

“This project is an example of the healthy friendship between Pakistan and China. We are thankful for the continued support of Pakistan by the Chinese government,” Mr. Sharif said.

He also congratulated the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission on the timely start of the project after its foundation was laid in November 2013.

Built for an estimated cost of $10 billion, the project was in the spotlight due to opposition by civil society activists who alleged that it was being built in violation of environmental laws.

The start of work on Kanupp II will pave the way for the construction of Kanupp III, also with a planned capacity to produce 1,100 MW, to be built with Chinese help.

The groundbreaking of Kanupp III was also performed in 2013 along with Kanupp II.

Bangkok bomb: Thai TV apologises for bomb re-enactment

A Thai television station has apologised for re-enacting the Bangkok blast at the Erawan shrine with a staff member dressed as the main suspect.

The re-enactment on Thursday evening sparked outrage among Thais at the shrine and online.

Executives at Nation TV have since acknowledged it was insensitive and disrespectful to the dead.

The bomb blast on Monday evening killed 20 people and injured scores more. Police are hunting for the suspect.

Nation TV presenters read out an apology on television on Thursday night.

An evening news editor with the station said in a statement posted online (in Thai) a team was sent out to re-enact the bombing at around 18:00 local time on Thursday (11:00 GMT Thursday).

CCTV image
CCTV footage from the night of the blast shows what police have called the main suspect in a yellow shirt and black bagpack

A member of staff was dressed up to look like the suspect, the statement said. The team stopped filming when people at the scene “expressed frustration” at them.

The president of Nation Broadcasting Corporation Adisak Limprungpatanakij said separately that the plan was made “without consideration for the sensitivity of the public and with disrespect for the dead,” reported AP news agency.

He added that the station would consider disciplining those responsible.

Twitter user BoyOfHeaven posted pictures on Thursday evening which appeared to show the Nation TV staff during the re-enactment.

“There is an unidentified TV crew, they have someone dressed as the suspect in the shrine. Police have asked him to leave the scene and people are shouting ‘terrible’ at him,” he said in a tweet that was later shared thousands of times online.

Mistaken identity

The incident was the second controversy involving identification of the suspect in the days following the blast.

Australian actor Sunny Burns, who teaches English in Bangkok, was mistaken as the main suspect earlier this week after a Thai journalist pointed out that Mr Burns resembled him.

Mr Burns said he later found that private details including his home address were being spread online.

He went to the police to give a statement on Tuesday, and posted a picture of himself at the station “to share any evidence in case something went wrong”, he said. He later posted CCTV video stills showing he was at his apartment building at the time of the blast.

Screengrab of Sunny Burns' Facebook post on 19 August 2015
Mr Burns said he was interrogated for hours by the police

Thai police have released a sketch of the suspect and say that he is a foreigner.

Two other men earlier identified as suspects in the bombing have since beencleared of involvement.

Police sketch of bomb suspect
Thai police released this sketch of the “man in yellow”, suspected of planting the bomb

Sri Lanka: Prez Sirisena’s followers to join unity government

Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was poised to form a new broad-based unity government on Thursday with the backing of President Maithripala Sirisena’s followers after winning parliamentary elections.

Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) fell seven seats short of an absolute majority in the 225-member legislature in Monday’s election when he saw off a challenge by the island’s former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa had been standing as a candidate of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) which is officially led by Sirisena, even though the two men are now arch rivals.

While Rajapaksa and a rump of his hard-core supporters are expected to remain on the opposition benches, another faction loyal to Sirisena is going to link up with the UNP, according to one of its leaders.

“We will support the formation of a national government, at least for a period of two years,” Duminda Dissanayake told reporters after meeting Sirisena in Colombo.

Officials said Wickremesinghe was expected to be sworn in by the President at his sea-front office on Friday morning and his new cabinet could include some of the defectors.

The break-up of the UPFA had been widely expected given the splits between the factions loyal to Sirisena and Rajapaksa who surprisingly lost a January presidential election after nearly a decade in power.

Sirisena had been an ally of Rajapaksa, serving as health minister before splitting from his mentor and running against him for the presidency.

After winning the contest in January, Sirisena then turned to Wickremesinghe’s UNP to lead a minority government.

But after its programme was consistently blocked in Parliament where Rajapaksa’s followers remained in the ascendant, Sirisena decided to call elections a year ahead of schedule to break the logjam.

How many of the 95 UPFA members who won seats will join the government is not yet known. Rajapaksa has indicated that he does not want to be the formal opposition leader but will instead be a backbencher.

Sirisena wants to reverse many of the constitutional changes brought in by Rajapaksa which gave huge powers to the President.

Wickremesinghe’s government is likely to introduce legislation to establish independent commissions to run the police, public services and judiciary.

The Sri Lankan Parliament is due to open on September 1.

IS destroys Syrian monastery, tranfers Christian captives

Extremist group Islamic State’s militants have demolished a monastery in the central Syrian province of Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Thursday.

The group has also transferred several dozen Christians, captured during its offensive, to a location near its stronghold in northeastern Syria, the monitor said.

Militants used bulldozers to raze the monastery in the town of Qaryatain, a strategically-located town wrestled from government control by the jihadist group in early August, the Britain-based Observatory added.

Syrian government’s warplanes were still pounding the area with air strikes two weeks after Islamic State captured the town.

Qaryatain is near a road linking the ancient Roman city of Palmyra to the Qalamoun mountains, along the border with Lebanon.

The hardliner militant group has been gaining ground in the desert areas east and south of Homs after it took over Palmyra last May.

The Syrian army has launched a large-scale counteroffensive to recapture the city, which lies in a region where some of Syria’s largest gas fields are located, but so far it has made no significant advances.

Islamic State militants captured 230 people, including dozens of Christian families after taking over Qaryatain, the monitor reported at the time.

Of those captured, 48 had been released and 110 were transferred to Raqqa province, whose capital city Raqqa is an IS stronghold, the monitor claimed.

Christians would be given the choice of conversion to Islam or paying “jizya”, a tax imposed on non-Muslims, the monitor said, citing “informed sources.”

The fate of the remaining 70 people captured after the seizure of Qaryatain was unclear.

Among them were 45 women and 19 children, including 11 families, some of whom were on the IS’ wanted list, said the monitor, which tracks the violence of Syria’s civil war through an extensive network of sources on ground.

Islamic State has killed members of religious minorities and Sunni Muslims who do not swear allegiance to its self-declared “caliphate”. They also consider Christians as infidels.

Greek opposition leader to get mandate to form government on Friday

ATHENS (REUTERS) – Greece’s main opposition party leader Vangelis Meimarakis will meet the country’s president Prokopis Pavlopoulos on Friday morning to receive a mandate to form a new government, an official from Meimarakis’ New Democracy party said.

Given the arithmetic of the current parliament, New Democracy has little chance of pulling a coalition together after Greece’s left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras resigned on Thursday, making national elections the most likely outcome.

Tsipras hoped to strengthen his hold on power in snap elections after seven months in office in which he fought Greece’s creditors for a better bailout deal but had to cave in.

Government officials said the aim was to hold the election on Sept 20, with Tsipras seeking to quell a rebellion in his leftist Syriza party and seal public support for the bailout programme that he negotiated. It is Greece’s third bailout since 2010.

Faced with a near collapse of the Greek financial system which threatened the country’s future in the euro, Tsipras was forced to accept the creditors’ demands for yet more austerity and economic reform – the very policies he had promised to scrap when he was elected in January.

“I want to be honest with you. We did not achieve the agreement we expected before the January elections,” he told the Greek people. “I feel the deep ethical and political responsibility to put to your judgment all I have done, successes and failures.”

His decision to return to the ballot box deepens political uncertainty on the very day Greece began receiving funds under its 86 billion-euro (S$135 billion) bailout programme – five years after a previous government took the first bailout from the euro zone and International Monetary Fund.

North Korea Warns of War After Exchange of Fire With South

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Friday declared his frontline troops in a “quasi-state of war” and ordered them to prepare for battle a day after the most serious confrontation between the rivals in years.

South Korea’s military on Thursday fired dozens of artillery rounds across the border in response to what Seoul said were North Korean artillery strikes meant to back up a threat to attack loudspeakers broadcasting anti-Pyongyang propaganda.

The North’s declaration Friday is similar to its other warlike rhetoric in recent years, including repeated threats to reduce Seoul to a “sea of fire,” and the huge numbers of soldiers and military equipment already stationed along the border mean the area is always essentially in a “quasi-state of war.” Still, the North’s apparent willingness to test Seoul with military strikes and its recent warning of further action raise worries because South Korea has vowed to hit back with overwhelming strength should North Korea attack again.

Pyongyang says it did not fire anything at the South, a claim Seoul dismissed as nonsense.

Kim Jong Un ordered his troops to “enter a wartime state” and be fully ready for any military operations starting Friday evening, according to a report in Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency. The North has also given Seoul a deadline of Saturday evening to remove border loudspeakers that, after a lull of 11 years, have started broadcasting anti-Pyongyang propaganda. Failure, Pyongyang says, will result in further military action. Seoul has vowed to continue the broadcasts.

The North’s media report said that “military commanders were urgently dispatched for operations to attack South Korean psychological warfare facilities if the South doesn’t stop operating them.”

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing an unidentified government source, reported Friday that South Korean and U.S. surveillance assets detected the movement of vehicles carrying short-range Scud and medium-range Rodong missiles in a possible preparation for launches. South Korea’s Defense Ministry said it could not confirm the report.

North Korea said the South Korean shells fired Thursday landed near four military posts but caused no injuries. No one was reported injured in the South, either, though hundreds were evacuated from frontline towns.

The loudspeaker broadcasts began after South Korea accused the North of planting land mines that maimed two South Korean soldiers earlier this month. North Korea denies this, too.

Authoritarian North Korea, which has also restarted its own propaganda broadcasts, is extremely sensitive to any criticism of the government run by leader Kim Jong Un, whose family has ruled since the North was founded in 1948. The loudspeaker broadcasts are taken seriously in Pyongyang because the government does not want its soldiers and residents to hear outsiders criticize what they call world-leading human rights abuse and economic mismanagement that condemns many to abject poverty, South Korean analysts say.

North Korea on Thursday afternoon first fired a single round believed to be from an anti-aircraft gun, which landed near a South Korean border town, Seoul said. About 20 minutes later, three North Korean artillery shells fell on the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas. South Korea responded with dozens of 155-milimeter artillery rounds, according to South Korean defense officials.

7 die, 31 survive as two planes crash in mid-air

Over western Slovakia, killing seven people, officials said.

Two planes carrying dozens of parachutists collided in mid-air on Thursday over western Slovakia, killing seven people, officials said. Thirty-one others on board survived by jumping out with their parachutes.

The crash took place on Thursday morning near the village of Cerveny Kamen, said Zuzana Farkasova, a spokeswoman for the Slovak fire-fighters.

Rescue workers used helicopters to reach the forested crash site in the White Carpathians mountain range that forms the border with the Czech Republic.

The two Czech-made L-410 transport planes collided at an altitude of 1,500 meters, said Juraj Denes, an official with the Slovak Air and Naval Investigations Bureau, a government agency that investigates plane crashes.

Peter Bubla, spokesman for the Health Ministry, said 38 people were on board the two planes and 31 survived. Five people needed some medical treatment but nobody was hospitalised, he said.

Some on board jumped out even after the planes collided, according to Interior Minister Robert Kalinak. “The 31 parachutists managed to jump out from the falling planes and survived,” Mr. Kalinak told the TA3 news television station as he visited the crash site. “They all landed safely. It’s a small miracle.”

The dead included the two crew members from both planes and three parachutists, Juraj Gyenes, another official at the aviation investigations agency, told TA3. TA3 reported the parachutists were training for this weekend’s air show in nearby Slavnica. “All of a sudden, I heard a big blow,” one witness told TASR, the Slovak news agency, in a news video. “Then it roared. I thought some pieces were falling, but it could be the parachutists.”

Kalinak and Slovak Health Minister Viliam Cislak visited the crash site, where wreckage from the planes smouldered among the dense mountain forest.

Obama’s Democrats face intense pressure as they weigh Iran deal

As he weighed whether to support President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, Representative Donald Norcross was showered with the sort of attention rarely shown to junior members of the U.S. Congress.

WASHINGTON: As he weighed whether to support President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, Representative Donald Norcross was showered with the sort of attention rarely shown to junior members of the U.S. Congress.

The New Jersey Democrat, a former labour union leader, met with Obama and other Democrats twice in the White House. He listened to briefings by Secretary of State John Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and senior Defense Department officials.

He took an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent two hours with him and 21 other Democratic lawmakers, picking out faults in the agreement that Israel opposes. Voters from Norcross’s south New Jersey district flooded his office with phone calls and emails and buttonholed him in person.

On Tuesday, Norcross said he would oppose the deal on the grounds that it does not go far enough to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. All the attempts at persuasion gave him the information he needed to make up his mind, he said, adding that the politics of the debate weren’t a factor.

“People really know at a gut level that if anybody tries to bring politics into it, (that’s) way off base,” he said in an interview with Reuters.

As the minority party, Norcross and his fellow Democrats are often sidelined on Capitol Hill. But over the past month they have been the targets of a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign as they weigh one of the most consequential foreign-policy decisions in years.

The intense pressure appears to have made the outcome of next month’s votes on the deal closer than expected as some Democrats are persuaded to break ranks with Obama.

Congress, where majority Republicans overwhelmingly oppose the deal, is expected to reject the pact next month. But Obama will still be able to save the agreement if he can deny opponents in either house the two-thirds majority needed to override his expected veto.

The fate of the deal now hinges on the votes of the 18 Democratic senators and roughly 100 Democratic House members who have yet to say how they will vote.

The U.S.-led international agreement reached in July would put new limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting crippling economic sanctions on the country.

On one side of the lobbying effort are progressive groups who back Obama’s view that the deal is the best chance to avoid another Middle East war. On the other side, with a larger war chest, are many Jewish-American groups that say the deal has dangerous loopholes and fear it will empower Iran and ultimately leave Israel vulnerable to nuclear attack.

Norcross came out against the deal at a synagogue in his district, where he was joined on stage by an Israeli official and a lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful pro-Israel group that opposes the pact.

Many members of that congregation who normally support Obama oppose him on this issue, according to its leader.

“This is a chasm that can’t be bridged,” said Rabbi Ephraim Epstein of Congregation Sons of Israel in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

REPUBLICAN OPPOSITION

White House officials privately expect they will be able to round up the 146 votes needed in the House to keep the deal alive, and are cautiously confident about the Senate as well.

In the Senate, 26 of the chamber’s 44 Democrats have said they support the deal and two have said they will oppose it, according to a Reuters tally.

That means opponents of the deal need to win over at least 11 of the 18 senators who remain undecided.

“I would say we have a fighting chance,” said former Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman, who is making calls while recovering from knee surgery on behalf of Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, an interest group that opposes the deal.

“It’s not out of reach, but we’re not kidding ourselves,” Lieberman told Reuters.

Democrats still on the fence face intense public pressure.

Lieberman’s group, which is funded by AIPAC, plans to spend up to US$40 million in its campaign to kill the deal. The group has run TV ads in at least 23 states, according to public filings compiled by the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group.

It has taken out billboards in New York’s Times Square praising Charles Schumer – the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat – for opposing the deal and chastising Senator Kirsten Gillibrand for backing it.

Another AIPAC affiliate paid for Norcross’s trip to Israel earlier this month, which was planned before the deal was complete. Most of the other 21 Democratic House members on the trip have yet to announce their position on the deal.

Secure America Now, another advocacy group that opposes the deal, has bought ads on the messaging service Snapchat to sway Maryland Senator Ben Cardin. The group’s supporters have generated 2,400 calls to his office and 3,500 calls to his top staffer, according to spokesman Vincent Harris.

The group has also used Twitter to target undecided members like New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.

“I have never had my cell phone blow up and my email account blow up as much as it is now,” Booker said on a conference call with Jewish-American groups on Thursday.

J Street, a liberal Jewish-American group that backs the deal, is running TV ads in nine states and has enlisted former Israeli security officials to speak to undecided Democrats.

CREDO Action, another liberal group that backs the deal, says its members have placed 49,000 phone calls and organised dozens of meetings with lawmakers and staff.

Norcross’s decision to oppose the deal has given new ammunition to Alex Law, a progressive Democrat who is mounting a long-shot bid to unseat him in the 2016 primary election.

“He should be supporting our president,” Law told Reuters.

Norcross said even a personal appeal from the president probably wouldn’t have changed his mind.

“What bit of information that I don’t have already could he have brought to light?” he told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Stuart Grudgings)