US assures Balkan allies of support against Russia

It comes as US vice president Mike Pence has called on Russia to reverse a decision limiting the US diplomatic presence in that country.

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Russia’s move followed the announcement of new sanctions to be imposed on Russia by the United States.

United States vice president Mike Pence has sought to reassure Baltic states of US support in the face of any Russian aggression.

While visiting the Estonian defence-force headquarters in Tallinn, Mr Pence has voiced assurances that the United States firmly backs NATO’s doctrine of collective defence.

That doctrine states that an attack against one ally is considered an attack against all the allies.

“At the heart of our alliance is a solemn promise that an attack on one is an attack on all. But this oath requires action, and every NATO member must renew their commitment to our common defence, and they must renew it now.”

Mr Pence’s comments to the presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania come ahead of large-scale military manoeuvres Russia has planned next month with Belarus.

The comments also come under the shadow of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and US president Donald Trump’s lukewarm support early on for NATO.

Mr Pence says President Trump is due to sign legislation soon that will strengthen sanctions against Russia.

“President Trump has called on Russia to cease its destabilising activities in Ukraine and elsewhere and to cease its support for hostile regimes like North Korea and Iran. And under President Trump, the United States will continue to hold Russia accountable for its actions, and we call on our European allies and friends to do the same.”

Russian president Vladimir Putin has retaliated to an announcement of new US sanctions against Russia last week by slashing the US embassy and consular staff in Russia.

He ordered it cut by about 60 per cent.

While the vast majority of the roughly 1,200 US embassy and consulate staff in Russia are Russian citizens, the cuts are still the most dramatic between the two since the Cold War.

Speaking on Russian state television, President Putin says Russia had to respond.

“We have a lot of options how to respond. Why now? Because the US has made this, what’s really important, unprovoked step to deteriorate the US-Russia ties, to impose illegal restrictions, to influence their allies who want to develop relations with Russia. (Russian …) I decided that it’s time for us to show that we will not leave anything without response. Is it a lot? Well, from the point of view of an embassy, it’s considerable.”

Mike Pence says the United States is open to a better relationship with Russia but Russia must reverse the actions, he says, caused the sanctions to be imposed originally.

Russian analyst Anna Matveeva, from King’s College in London, has told Al Jazeera television Russia is sending a signal it has lost hope in improving ties with the United States.

“Definitely, this is a response action. Most of the policy has been reactive. They have been already hesitant to what extent the early hopes to build a good relationship with President Trump can come to fruition. Now, this is a signal that there is a serious sign of doubt. Moscow has not been really responding to various hostile actions coming from the US. This is the first time where Moscow actually responded in kind.”

Mike Pence has also visited Montenegro, the NATO alliance’s newest member, and Georgia, an aspiring member that fought a brief war with Russia in 2008.

 

Etihad working with AFP over alleged terror plot

There are calls for stronger security presence in regional and domestic airports, following a thwarted alleged terror plot to bring down a commercial airliner.

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Abu Dhabi-based Etihad has not confirmed the alleged plot was targeting one of their flights, but has said that it is working with Australian police.

“The Etihad Airways aviation security team is assisting the Australian Federal Police with its investigation and the matter is ongoing,” the airline said in a statement. 

“Etihad is complying fully with the enhanced security measures at airports in Australia and monitoring the situation closely.”

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The Trade Workers Union believes less stringent security measures at regional airports are posing a major risk.

“They are still failing to come and to engage, and say ‘who is responsible’ for some airport breaches that are happening at our airports,” TWU Secretary Tony Sheldon told reporters in Sydney.

0:00 ‘We have to be more prudent’: AirAsia CEO on security measures Share ‘We have to be more prudent’: AirAsia CEO on security measures

“There is high staff turnover, lack of training, poor conditions, and no whistleblower protections.”

AirAsia X CEO Benyamin Ismail has told SBS World News that aviation safety rests on the shoulders of each airport.

“Everybody is concerned about attacks, but we just have to make sure we work together with airports to make sure that all these [security] processes are seamless,” Mr Ismail said.

At a Parliamentary inquiry into Australian border security, the newly-founded Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) said there remains an “unprecedented risk” to national security.

“In terms of the aviation and maritime sectors: they are highly vulnerable to serious and organised crime exploitation,” said ACIC deputy Paul Williams.

“They are a key link to the international illicit economy. They can facilitate the importation of illicit goods into Australia.”

Sydney father and son Khaled and Mahmoud Khayat, and Khaled and Abdul Merhi, remain behind bars without charge after being arrested on Saturday during raids across Sydney.

It is believed the alleged terror plot to bring down an Australian plane was “fairly well along” when authorities moved in, according to a Reuters report citing two US officials familiar with the case. 

Police have already obtained a court order to hold and question the four men for seven days, as investigators strengthen their case to lay charges.

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Chinese Christian churches targeted in religious crackdown

In an old apartment building in Beijing, a covert gathering of a dozen Christians takes place every Friday.

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They meet to read the bible, pray and sing Christian songs.

“We’ve been questioned by the police before. Friday is a less obvious day for us to meet,” says Pastor Xu Yonghai.

Every other day of the week the apartment is simply home to Pastor Xu and his wife. But on Friday it becomes a ‘house church.’

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“A few decades ago there was no such thing as a ‘house church.’ We had never even heard of Christianity. Now I believe there are thousands in this city alone,” says Pastor Xu.

And it’s this growth, says Bob Fu from the US-based NGO China Aid, which has caught the attention of the Chinese government.

“We definitely have been seeing a major deterioration and worsening. That has to do with the overall President Xi regime’s hardening policy.”

According the official estimates there are about 23 to 30 million Protestant Christians in China, but Bob Fu believes there are up to 100 million unregistered believers.

The state only recognises the Protestant ‘Three-Self Patriotic Movement’, a government-aligned church based on the principles of “self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation.”

Freedom of religion is guaranteed in China’s constitution, but many independent churches like Pastor Xu’s are outside the Chinese Communist Party’s control, “so they’re perceived as threat,” says Mr Fu.

Christians are turning to illegal ‘house churches’ in a bid to evade authorities.SBS World News

Punishment against Christians intensifying 

Last month Wang Zuo’an, director of China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs, published an article in a Communist Party magazine banning religion for its approximately 90 million members. Wang wrote that “foreign forces have used religion to infiltrate China.”

Concealing his identity to avoid punishment for speaking out, human rights lawyer Wang Yuan (not his real name) specialises in cases involving religious freedom. He says in some areas of China local authorities are intensifying punishment for Christians found worshipping in ‘home churches’.

Mr Wang says one of his clients from Xinjiang province was recently charged for ‘disturbing public order’ after holding a four-person Bible study at home.

“Disturbing public order usually refers to large gatherings in public places, such as protests etc. But these were just people in a private home reading and praying,” he says.

“Previously, people caught in home churches would be detained for 15 days at most. Now they’re being charged and sentenced to three, four or five years in jail. Even six and seven years.”

But Wang Yuan says the treatment of Christians varies throughout China.

“In some areas and cities the attitude of the local government is different. There are many Christians who can practice religion without too much trouble,” says Mr Wang.

But Bob Fu says churches previously allowed to grow unhindered have in recent years faced intense scrutiny, or have been destroyed.

Chinese are turning to Christianity in greater numbers.SBS World News

Crackdown nothing compared to decades before

In May a church in China’s northeastern Henan province was demolished after being deemed an “illegal structure,” by authorities.

The congregation of about 40 Christians reportedly tried to stop the demolition and were detained, but not charged. Weeks before government officials in the southern Zhejiang province reportedly forced their way into a church to install surveillance equipment.

“These cases are very common, more and more so in recent years,” says Mr Fu.

Pastor Xu Yonghai says he’s aware of the risk involved in continuing to run his ‘house church’, but has no intention of stopping.

He is no stranger to being imprisoned for his beliefs.

“I’ve been arrested three times. The first time in the ’90s I was sent to a labour camp for two years for ‘smearing the government’ in an article I wrote about the growth of Christianity.

“In 2003 I wrote another article about the treatment of Christians in the south, and was sentenced to two years in prison for “leaking state secrets”. In 2014 thirteen of us from our ‘home church’ were detained for one month because at one stage our congregation became too big and caught the attention of the police.” 

“We’ve since changed locations,” he adds smiling.

Pastor Xu feels the current crackdown is nothing compared to decades before.

“There hasn’t been a day when a Christian in China wasn’t in jail. But Christians before us in the ’50s were given lifelong sentences, they were in jail for 20 years. Compared to that, what we face is nothing, right? In some things you take two steps forward, five steps back. Right now we’re just in the five steps back stage.”

Followers of the Christian faith attend a ‘house church’.SBS World News

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PNG waiting to have next PM confirmed after chaotic and violent poll

Parliament will sit for the first time since the poll to vote for a prime minister, with the incumbent Peter O’Neill claiming his coalition has the numbers.

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Mr O’Neill’s People’s National Congress (PNC) was invited last Friday to form government during a controversial return of election writs, with counting in only 80 of 111 electorates completed.

A further extension of writs means a possible six electorates could still be undeclared when the 10th parliament sits, the largest number of empty seats for the first sitting ever in PNG history.

Mr O’Neill claims his coalition has at least 56 members, enough to rule, while an opposition alliance made up of the National Alliance, Pangu Parti and independents claims it almost has 50 MPs and is within striking distance of power.

The election has been marred by widespread electoral roll irregularities, with many thousands of people unable to vote, in what was described by international election observers as alarming.

Violence between rival supporters over disputed vote counting has cost numerous lives in the volatile Highlands, including two police officers killed with assault rifles, and caused rioting in major centres.

Electoral commissioner Patilias Gamato has faced calls for him to resign for incompetence, allegations he rejects.

Former prime minister Sir Mekere Morauta came out of political retirement to win a seat as an independent and has condemned the handling of the poll.

Mr O’Neill has said it was one of the most peaceful elections on record.

No one party has ever held a majority, but after writs the one with the highest number of MPs is usually asked to try to form government.

In the lead up to parliament sitting, “camps” of MPs-elect try to build a coalition, with PNC and its allies meeting in the regional town of Alotau, while opponents united by a shared wish to unseat Mr O’Neill met in Kokopo and Goroka.

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Both camps have returned to Port Moresby ahead of parliament sitting, with each keeping a careful watch that MPs who have declared their allegiance do not swap sides.

About 50 per cent of MPs lose their seats in PNG’s five-yearly election and many high-profile PNC ministers have been thrown out, while some veteran politicians have returned, along with newcomers with no parliamentary experience.

MPs are often financially broke after the election and allegations of inducements circulate, including offers of money and plumb ministerial positions being offered by the camps.

As the last of the electorates were still being declared and the opposing sides built up their numbers, at least one opposition MP was the target of a kidnap attempt at gunpoint.

Mr O’Neill said the alleged plotter, a failed candidate who was accompanied by police, was no longer a member of the PNC.

With the widespread election irregularities, many MPs will face further challenges in the court of disputed returns.

After the 2012 poll, it took four years to finalise the last cases.

One certainty is the new parliament will be all male, with no women elected after a record number in the previous term and despite the highest number of female candidates in the country’s short democratic history standing.

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Charity row over Italian migrant rescue rules

“There were two sticking points that prevented us from signing the code,” said Tommaso Fabbri, head of MSF’s Italy mission, after the charity took part in a meeting in Rome between the interior ministry and non-governmental organisations.

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One was the obligation for rescue vessels to operate with an Italian police official on board, and the other was the ban on moving rescued migrants from one aid vessel to another at sea, which complicated missions, he said.

“We are doctors, not policemen,” Fabbri told AFP.

“We will continue to carry out rescue operations without changing anything,” he said, but added the organisation was “open to controls” by the Italian coastguard in the name of transparency.

The code, created to address the biggest migrant phenomenon in Europe since World War II, lays down 13 rules Rome insists must be followed to prevent aid groups rescuing migrants from acting as a magnet for human traffickers.

But the rules have been widely criticised by the NGOs as making it more difficult for them to save the lives of those attempting the perilous crossing from the shores of crisis-hit Libya to Europe.

The interior ministry said those who “refuse to agree and sign are excluded from the system of sea rescues”.

The German NGO Jugend Rettet, a privately-funded aid organisation which has been carrying out rescue operations in the central Mediterranean, also refused to sign.

“We would only sign if the new rules made our work more efficient and increased the security of our volunteers,” spokesman Titus Molkenbur told journalists at the close of the meeting in Rome.

 ‘Restore climate of trust’

The new rules, which have been given a green light by Brussels, forbid NGOs from sailing into Libyan waters unless lives are at risk, or communicating with smugglers — including using lights that could attract traffickers.

Save the Children had signed up because its ship — the Vos Hestia — already operated according to most of the rules laid out in the code, the charity’s director general Valerio Neri said in a statement.

He said the decision to agree to the code “was dictated by the desire to guarantee continuity for the rescue operations, in a transparent fashion, and restore a climate of trust and collaboration”.

The charity said it would “constantly monitor” the code’s application “to make sure it does not hinder the efficacy of search and rescue operations at sea by NGOs”.

MOAS, the Maltese-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station, also rubber-stamped the rules “in solidarity with the government and the Italian people,” said founder Christopher Catrambon.

“Our mission has always been to save as many lives as possible at sea, and this document allows us to continue to do just that,” he said.

Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms sent a letter to Rome saying it was willing to sign the code, the ministry said.

Nearly 95,000 people have been brought to safety in Italy this year, a rise of one percent on the same period last year, according to the interior ministry.

The privately-funded aid boats performed 26 percent of the rescues carried out in 2016, rising to 35 percent so far this year.