Off the Wires

Aleppo, the scared and hungry

September 26th, 2016  |  Source: AFP

In five years, it experienced misfortune after misfortune prison regime and that of the EI, the death of his parents in a raid, the seat of his native Aleppo, hunger and hell bombing.

Despite this terrible journey, our correspondent Karam Al-Masri, photographer and videographer in the rebel part of Syria's second city tells us day to day, with a courage that does not waver, the history of this metropolis consumed by war merciless.

Here is his testimony, follow the story of his collaboration with AFP told by the journalist Rana Moussaoui.
Slideshow here: https://making-of.afp.com/couvrir-alep-la-peur-au-ventre-et-le-ventre-vide


As Obama's term wanes, so does focus on Israeli-Palestinian issue

September 21st, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

In his first major United Nations speech eight years ago, President Barack Obama said he would not give up on Israeli-Palestinian peace.

In likely his last U.N. speech, on Tuesday, he spoke little about the conflict beyond voicing the unsurprising sentiment that matters would improve if Israel let go of Palestinian land and if the Palestinians rejected incitement and embraced Israel's legitimacy.

While U.S. officials have said Obama could lay out the rough outlines of a deal - "parameters" in diplomatic parlance - after the Nov. 8 presidential election and before he departs on Jan. 20, many Middle East analysts doubt this will have much effect.

The result, they say, is likely to be a legacy of failure on an issue Obama made a priority when he came into office in 2009 and declared in his first U.N. General Assembly address: "I will not waver in my pursuit of peace."

Obama has little to show for his two efforts - one spearheaded by George Mitchell in his first term and another by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in his second.

"He has not made an impact on this issue, at all, and he wants to," said Elliott Abrams, a Middle East adviser to former President George W. Bush, a Republican. "So I think the question that he is asking is really a legacy question, rather than asking a pragmatic question of what will really help the parties."

Obama will raise concerns about Israeli settlements when he meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York on Wednesday, the White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.

Rhodes said Obama had no plans to pursue a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative before leaving office, though he could take unspecified steps.

AFTER NOV. 8

A U.S. official who tracks the issue said he does not expect the White House to decide whether Obama might make a speech on the issue or seek to pass a new U.N. Security Council resolution, until after Americans elect his successor.

"They are waiting to see what they can get the boss to do after the election pressure is over," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They have been toying with the idea for months."

The U.S. presidential election pits Democrat Hillary Clinton, Obama's former secretary of state and his choice for the top job, against Republican businessman Donald Trump. Several analysts believe Obama will consult Clinton if she wins.

The acid political climate between Israelis and Palestinians makes progress unlikely. Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have no plans to meet this week at the annual U.N. gathering of world leaders.

"We don’t expect much from Abu Mazen," Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon told reporters on Monday, referring to the Palestinian leader by his nickname.

Palestinians say Israeli settlement expansion in occupied territory is dimming any prospect for the viable state they seek, with a capital in Arab East Jerusalem.

Israel has demanded tighter security measures from the Palestinians and a crackdown on militants responsible for a string of stabbings and shootings against Israelis in recent months. It also says Jerusalem is Israel’s indivisible capital.

With U.S. efforts to broker a deal on a Palestinian state on Israel-occupied land in deep freeze for two years, France has tried to revive interest in the issue, with one senior French diplomat arguing that letting matters drift even during a U.S. election year is like "waiting for a powder keg to explode."


Verizon Facing FCC Questions on Data Metering After $9,100 Phone Bill

September 19th, 2016  |  Source: Fortune

Mysterious data charges hit customers, including some without smartphones—and some who are dead.

The Federal Communications Commission confirmed this week that it is examining complaints about data billing from Verizon Wireless customers. The move comes after a series of stories in the Cleveland Plain Dealer detailing unexplained— and in some cases, inexplicable—upticks in customers’ mobile data usage.

The Plain Dealer’s stories were mostly authored by Teresa Dixon Murray, whose reporting on similar billing issues led to a huge fine against Verizon in 2010. Murray first wrote about mysterious increases in her own family’s data usage, caused in part by data apparently being used while the family slept.

ne Verizon customer told Murray that she was being charged for wireless data—despite using a flip phone with no wireless data connection, on an account that blocks data. Another customer, Joyce Shinn, had been using her recently-deceased husband’s phone to answer phone calls to settle his affairs. About a year after his death, the phone suddenly started showing data usage, triggering overages on Shinn’s account.

Many more accounts came in from customers detailing incremental rises in data usage over the course of several months, despite no changes in their usage habits.

The capper came from a Tampa mother, Valarie Gerbus, whose data usage suddenly surged from less than 4GB one month to 569GB the next, resulting in$8,535 in data charges. Verizon charged her an extra $600 when she decided to cancel her plan.

Verizon did ultimately agree to waive much of that bill, and in a statement said they had resolved Gerbus’ situation “to her satisfaction.” But the company provided no details about the nature of the initial problem.


U.S. sees stronger median household income, less poverty

September 13th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

The median U.S. household income rose last year, its first significant annual increase since 2007, and helped push down the number of people living in poverty to 53.1 million, federal government data released on Tuesday showed.

About 29 million people did not have health insurance in 2015, down from 33 million in the previous year, the Census Bureau said in its annual Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage and Supplemental Poverty Measure report.

The poverty rate fell to 13.5 percent from 14.8 percent in 2014, the report said.

Median income rose 5.2 percent to $56,500 from $53,700 in 2014, in large part due to increases in employment, Census officials told reporters on a conference call.

The poverty rate has continued to edge down in the wake of the 2007-2009 recession amid a tepid recovery. The latest drop is the largest annual percentage point decline since 1999, Census officials said.

Analysts, however, caution against using the poverty rate to assess the long-term trend because it does not account for non-cash benefits, including food stamps and refundable tax credits.

 

 


Apple drags down Wall Stree

September 8th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

Apple weighed on the three major U.S. stock indexes on Thursday morning, a day after the tech giant unveiled the new iPhone 7 that failed to impress Wall Street.

Shares of Apple (AAPL.O) fell 2.1 percent, their steepest decline since June 24 when the markets witnessed a broad selloff after the result of the Brexit vote.

The S&P 500 information technology index .SPLRCT fell 0.51 percent and was the biggest loser among the benchmark's 10 major sectors.

Investor reaction to an unexpected drop in weekly jobless claims and the European Central Bank's decision was largely muted.

U.S. stocks have been trading in a tight range in recent months, even as they hover near record levels, due to growing uncertainty over interest rates.

The S&P 500 index has not moved more than 1 percent in either direction on a daily basis since July 8.

At 9:33 a.m. ET the Dow Jones industrial average .DJI was down 54.17 points, or 0.29 percent, at 18,471.97.

The S&P 500 .SPX was down 4.85 points, or 0.22 percent, at 2,181.31.


Iran-Saudi war of words heats up ahead of hajj

September 7th, 2016  |  Source: AFP

A bitter war of words between Iran and Saudi Arabia intensified Wednesday ahead of the annual hajj pilgrimage from which Iranians have been excluded for the first time in decades.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blasted the "incompetence" of the Saudi royal family as he met with the families of victims of a deadly stampede during last year's hajj.

"This incident proves once again that this cursed, evil family does not deserve to be in charge and manage the holy sites," Khamenei said.

Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia were already at rock bottom before the regional rivals started trading caustic remarks ahead of the annual pilgrimage to Islam's holiest places in Saudi Arabia, which is due to start on Saturday.

Iranians have been blocked from the event after talks on safety and logistics fell apart in May.

"If the existing problems with the Saudi government were merely the issue of the hajj... maybe it would have been possible to find a way to resolve it," Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said at a cabinet meeting.

"Unfortunately, this government by committing crimes in the region and supporting terrorism in fact shed the blood of Muslims in Iraq, Syria and Yemen," Rouhani said.

- 'Inappropriate and offensive' -

The week began with a furious rebuke from Khamenei, published on his website, in which he accused the Saudi royals of "murder" over the deaths of nearly 2,300 pilgrims, including hundreds of Iranians, in last year's stampede.

Saudi Arabia claims the death toll was only 769 -- despite data from more than 30 countries suggesting it was far higher -- and has refused to release the details of its investigation into the disaster.

But the head of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council hit back on Wednesday, calling Khamenei's remarks "inappropriate and offensive... and a desperate attempt to politicise" the hajj.

AFP/File /Iran was fiercely critical of the Saudi response to a deadly stampede during the 2015 hajj, which killed some 2,300 foreign pilgrims, including an estimated 464 Iranians

Saudi Arabia's most senior cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, also waded into the dispute, telling the Makkah daily on Tuesday: "We must understand these are not Muslims, they are children of Magi and their hostility towards Muslims is an old one."

"Magi" is a reference to the Zoroastrian religion that was prevalent in Iran before Islam, and is sometimes used as an insult against Iranians.

Jane Kinninmont, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the Chatham House think tank in London, said the world needed to pay more attention to the "cold conflict" between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

This week's verbal attacks "are an indication that the tensions that really ratcheted up earlier this year are still unresolved," she told AFP.

"Particularly when it comes to the pilgrimage and religious discourse, then it has quite damaging effects on sectarian relations around the world."

- A history of violence -

Iranian Presidency/AFP /Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called on the Muslim world to unite and "punish" the Saudi government for its actions in the region

The two dominant Middle Eastern powers follow different branches of Islam -- Shiite and Sunni -- and vie for regional dominance.

Iran boycotted the hajj for three years between 1988 and 1990 after clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi police in 1987 left around 400 people dead.

Diplomatic ties were restored in 1991, but relations have deteriorated in recent years, particularly over the countries' support for opposing sides in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars.

In January, relations were severed again after Iranian demonstrators torched the Saudi embassy and a consulate following the kingdom's execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.

Around 60,000 Iranians took part in last year's hajj, but the two sides could not reach an agreement on this year's pilgrimage.

A former senior US foreign policy official, John Hannah, last month cited Gulf sources in an article for Foreign Policy magazine, saying that "the Saudis did in fact go out of their way to make Iranian attendance difficult."

"(The) Saudis were insisting that the Iranians be kept in a closed camp, effectively barred from co-mingling and socialising with participants from other countries, often considered an essential element of the hajj experience," Hannah wrote.

His claims could not be independently verified. Saudi Arabia says Tehran made "unacceptable" demands, including the right to organise demonstrations "that would cause chaos".

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef reiterated those concerns on Monday, saying Iran wanted to "politicise hajj and convert it into an occasion to violate the teachings of Islam, through shouting slogans and disturbing the security of pilgrims."


Philippines scrambles to soothe tensions after Obama slur

September 6th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte sought to defuse a row with the United States on Tuesday, voicing regret for calling President Barack Obama a "son of a bitch", a comment that prompted Washington to call off a bilateral meeting.

The tiff between the two allies overshadowed the opening of a summit of East and Southeast Asian nations in Vientiane, Laos.

It also soured Obama's last swing as president through a region he has tried to make a focus of U.S. foreign policy, a strategy widely seen as a response to China's economic and military muscle-flexing.

Diplomats say strains with longtime ally the Philippines could compound Washington's difficulties in forging a united front with Southeast Asian partners on the geostrategic jostle with Beijing over the South China Sea.

Duterte has bristled repeatedly at criticism over his "war on drugs", which has killed about 2,400 people since he took office two months ago, and on Monday said it would be "rude" for Obama to raise the question of human rights when they met.

Such a conversation, Duterte told reporters, would prompt him to curse at Obama, using a Filipino phrase "putang ina" which can mean "son of a bitch" or "son of a whore".

He has previously used the epithet against Pope Francis, although he later apologized, and the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines.

After Washington called off Tuesday's bilateral meeting between Obama and Duterte in response to his latest comment, the Philippines issued two statements expressing regret and also briefed reporters.

"President Duterte explained that the press reports that President Obama would 'lecture' him on extrajudicial killings led to his strong comments, which in turn elicited concern," the Philippines government said in a statement.

"He regrets that his remarks to the press have caused much controversy," it added. "He expressed his deep regard and affinity for President Obama and for the enduring partnership between our nations."

Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said the focus on Duterte's comments leading into the summit had not created a constructive environment for a bilateral meeting.

"All of the attention frankly was on those comments, and therefore not on the very substantive agenda that we have with the Philippines," he told reporters.

Officials from both countries said there would be no formal meeting rescheduled in Laos but a short conversation between the two presidents was possible.

Instead of the Duterte meeting, Obama held talks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, a day after North Korea fired three medium-range missiles into the sea. He urged a full implementation of sanctions against North Korea, adding that the missile test demonstrated the threat that Pyongyang posed


First U.S.-Cuba scheduled passenger flight in decades arrives

August 31st, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

A JetBlue Airways Corp (JBLU.O) passenger jet landed in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara on Wednesday, becoming the first scheduled commercial passenger flight from the United States to the island in more than a half century.
The arrival of the Airbus A320 from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, opened another chapter in the Obama administration's efforts to improve ties and increase trade and travel with the former Cold War foe. The Obama administration hopes regular scheduled flights will usher in an era of more routine travel to and from the Communist-ruled island.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, JetBlue Chief Executive Officer Robin Hayes, other officials and journalists were aboard the 150-seat plane. Regular travelers, including some of Cuban descent, occupied nearly half the seats on a route that may be a commercial challenge, at least initially


Comey: FBI takes political hacking "very seriously"

August 30th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

FBI Director James Comey says the agency is closely watching what foreign countries are doing in light of allegations the Russian government is seeking to undermine the U.S. presidential election


Fed's Yellen says case for interest rate hike has strengthened

August 26th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

The case for a U.S. interest rate hike has strengthened in recent months, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said on Friday in a speech that left the door open for such a move as early as next month.

Yellen, speaking at an international gathering of central bankers and academics in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, did not say when the U.S. central bank would raise borrowing costs, and investors remained skeptical that such a move was imminent.

But the Fed chief said the U.S. economy was creating a lot of new jobs and would likely keep growing moderately, despite data earlier in the day showing only sluggish growth in the second quarter.

"In light of the continued solid performance of the labor market and our outlook for economic activity and inflation, I believe the case for an increase in the federal funds rate has strengthened in recent months," Yellen said, adding that the Fed still thinks future rate increases should be "gradual."

Yellen did not give guidance on what the central bank needs to see before raising rates. Following her remarks, investors continued to bet there were roughly even odds of an increase at the Fed's December policy meeting.

"She's just kept the door open for a hike sooner rather than later," said Subadra Rajappa, an interest rate strategist at Societe Generale in Washington.

The Fed also has policy meetings scheduled in September and November, with prices for fed funds futures implying investors see much lower chances of a rate increase at either of those meetings.

Fed Vice Chair Stanley Fischer, however, told CNBC on Friday that a rate hike in September and more than one hike before the end of the year were possible, though he added that it would depend on future economic data.

In her speech, Yellen said the U.S. central bank already thinks the economy is close to meeting its goals of maximum employment and stable prices. She also described consumer spending as "solid," but noted that business investment was weak and exports were taking a hit from a strong U.S. dollar.

The Fed raised rates in December, its first hike in nearly a decade, but it has held off further increases so far this year due to a global growth slowdown, financial market volatility and an inflation rate persistently below its 2 percent target.

The dollar jumped after Yellen's remarks and was about 0.50 percent higher against a basket of currencies .DXY in early afternoon trading. U.S. stock prices fell in choppy trading, while prices of U.S. Treasuries were mostly weaker.




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