Thursday, March 04, 2021


Bank to Canada’s Ailing Oil Heartland Gains From Diversifying

Kevin Orland

(Bloomberg) -- Canadian Western Bank is reaping the rewards from moving beyond its roots in the country’s ailing oil heartland.

Chief Executive Officer Chris Fowler is starting to see a payoff from years of transforming Canadian Western from an Alberta-focused commercial lender into a more geographically diversified, full-service bank targeting business owners. The Edmonton-based bank’s fiscal first-quarter earnings topped analysts’ estimates, helped by loan growth in Ontario and earnings from businesses that the bank has worked to bulk up, such as wealth management.

“We’ve got some very strong businesses in Ontario, where we see continued good growth opportunities and the opportunity for us to cross-sell into digital banking and wealth management,” Fowler said in an interview.

The company’s results for the three months through January, announced last week, gave the company’s shares their biggest gain in six months. The stock is up 17% this year, the best performance in the S&P/TSX Commercial Banks Index.

While the bank opened its first Ontario branch late last year, much of the diversification came from acquisitions that bolstered its offerings in Canada’s largest province, including equipment-leasing businesses and wealth manager iA Investment Counsel. Canadian Western had 31% of its loan portfolio in Alberta at the end of the fiscal first quarter, down from 48% in October 2010. Ontario now accounts for 24% of the loan book, up from 9%. The bank’s second-largest market, British Columbia, has remained stable at about a third.

That puts the bank within reach of a goal it set about four years ago of having Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario each account for about 30% of Canadian Western’s loan portfolio. The company generated loan growth of 14% in Ontario last quarter, compared with 5% in Alberta and 4% in British Columbia.

Alberta’s oil-focused economy has been hit by two major price declines in the past decade. The first started in 2014, about a year after Fowler became CEO, when OPEC increased production to fight back against the U.S. shale industry. Crude hadn’t fully recovered from that decline when the pandemic hammered prices again last year.

The shocks have reduced investment in new projects and caused continued layoffs of energy-company workers. The province’s unemployment rate was 10.7% in January, exceeding the 9.4% national figure.

The industry may have a somewhat weaker recovery than after previous declines as limited pipeline capacity restrains local crude prices and output, Fowler said.

“Oil and gas won’t be the same engine that it was in the past,” said Fowler, who noted that less than 1% of his bank’s loans are in direct oil and gas production. “I don’t think we’ll see a lot of growth capex in terms of larger capacity being added to production,” he said, referring to capital expenditures.

Branch Deposits

Beyond geographic diversification, Canadian Western also has gotten a lift from reducing its dependence on higher-cost broker deposits and moving more heavily into branch deposits that it pays lower interest on. That strategy has expanded net interest margin -- the difference between what the bank earns on loans and what it pays on deposits -- a key measure of profitability.

CIBC Capital Markets analyst Paul Holden upgraded Canadian Western’s shares to the equivalent of a buy last week after its net interest margin beat expectations for the second straight quarter, and because of the prospects that the improving economy will bolster loan growth.

“We think management guidance is conservative and that the shift in funding mix could lead to more net interest margin expansion,” Holden said in a note last week.

Canadian Western is working to keep the growth going with tools for bringing in new business clients entirely online, following last year’s roll-out of digital on-boarding for personal banking customers. The bank also plans to introduce in the second half of this year a cash-management tool for small- and medium-size businesses that will integrate with their accounting software and help them manage payables, receivables, inventory and payroll.

“We’re a growth-focused bank, and our goal is to find more clients and build our business by targeting business owners as our core market,” Fowler said. “We spend a lot of time and effort to make sure that we can be that full-service bank for our clients.”

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After the fall of the Roman empire, the mausoleum lost its relevance as a burial site and like other Roman monuments was put to a variety of uses by the generations that followed Filippo

Issued on: 04/03/2021

Rome (AFP)

A newly renovated colossal mausoleum for the founder of the Roman empire Augustus has reopened to the public in the Italian capital after centuries of neglect.

"Until now we have always known it as a ruin, but it is one of the most important monuments of antiquity," explained Alessia, a masked guide taking a small group of visitors on the labyrinthine route through five concentric enclosures.

"It was so majestic, they had never seen anything like this in Rome."

The mausoleum was built on the banks of the River Tiber between 28 and 23 BC.

It is a vast, towering monument to Augustus, the great-nephew of Julius Caesar who built the Roman empire during his 40-year rule.

The cylindrical base has a diameter of 90 metres, on top of which was planted a mound of cypress trees. On the summit, a bronze statue of the emperor stood guard, taking the total height to 45 metres.

At the centre of the mausoleum, originally clad in white marble and travertine, was a burial chamber reserved for Augustus and his wife Livia, while around them were further rooms reserved for members of their dynasty.

But it had fallen into such a state of disrepair, in ruins and overgrown with weeds, that modern-day Romans described it as a "rotten tooth".

Mayor Virginia Raggi rejoiced at seeing "a masterpiece of Roman antiquity, a priceless treasure, restored to its full splendour".

- Buffalo arena -

After the fall of the Roman empire, the mausoleum lost its relevance as a burial site and like other Roman monuments was put to a variety of uses by the generations that followed.

It was a fortress in the Middle Ages, then a Renaissance garden, an arena for bulls and buffalo fighting, and in the early 1900s a concert hall was built over it.

The mausoleum was brought back into public display in the 1930s by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who sought to present his regime as the heir of the ancient Roman empire.

As a result of all these conversions, only 30 percent of the original monument remains, and the spoils of Augustus and his family have long disappeared

But the restoration of the square in front of the building, which currently lies seven metres below ground level, has made it more visible -- ensuring it finally gets the attention it deserves.

The mausoleum was closed in 2007 and the restoration works are not yet complete, as evidenced by the crane overhanging the site and the swarms of contractors bustling around like ants.

Such is the scale of the building that experts believe Augustus was probably inspired by the tomb of Alexander the Great in Alexandria in Egypt, or the mausoleum of Halicarnassus, now in Turkey, which was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Gianluca Carli, a 38-year-old Roman, was overwhelmed after his first visit.

"It's a lot of emotion, as a Roman in love with his city, the idea of regaining possession of a part of my heritage," he told AFP.

"I feel a bit like the guardian of this city. So to be able to set foot again in such a mausoleum, so beautiful."

Rome is deserted of tourists thanks to coronavirus restrictions, but tickets for the mausoleum -- only accessible online -- are already booked up until the end of June.

Forgotten mausoleum of Roman emperor Augustus reborn 
The mausoleum had been closed since 2007 but the restoration works are not yet complete, as evidenced by the crane overhanging the site and the swarms of contractors bustling around like ants

© 2021 AFP
Climate disasters prompt Australia's first platypus refuge

Issued on: 04/03/2021 - 

A baby platypus at Taronga Zoo in Australia GREG WOOD AFP

Sydney (AFP)

The world's first dedicated platypus refuge will be established to rescue the unique Australian animals from climate change-fuelled crises, as bushfires and drought increasingly threaten their habitat.

Taronga Zoo announced it will build the facility in Dubbo, five hours northwest of Sydney, to provide emergency care to the river-dwelling, duck-billed mammals when disasters strike.

With capacity to house up to 65 platypuses, it will also be used as a research facility to study the reproductive biology of the egg-laying animals, which are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity.

Phoebe Meagher, a wildlife conservation officer at Taronga, said the project was prompted by a prolonged drought and Australia's 2019-2020 "Black Summer" of bushfires that devastated platypus habitats.

"We were just inundated with phone calls and emails asking us to come and help rescue platypus," she told AFP.

"The drought and bushfires hit New South Wales really hard and there was just nowhere for these platypus to go."

Scientists have estimated three billion animals died in the bushfires.

Even before that, platypuses were under threat.

A January 2020 survey estimated the total platypus population has plummeted by 50 percent since European settlement of Australia two centuries ago.

An earlier study published in November 2018 estimated the population had fallen by 30 percent over that period, to around 200,000.

Meagher said Taronga was able to save and later release seven of the monotremes back into the wild, but hopes the purpose-built refuge will allow larger-scale rescues in the future to help protect the species from extinction.

"We will hold them for as long as conditions mean that we have to... we can hold for years if we have to (but) that's not what we want to have to do," she said.

The refuge, which will also be used as an aquatic rehabilitation facility, is due to be completed by 2022.

© 2021 AFP

'It's over': Macron risks losing left in Le Pen battle

One recent leaked poll suggested that head of the far-right National Rally Marine Le Pen could get 48 percent in a presidential election 

Issued on: 04/03/2021

Paris (AFP)

A leading French daily has rattled the ruling party and sparked intense speculation about next year's presidential election by suggesting that voters won't come to Emmanuel Macron's aid if he finds himself in a rematch with the far-right.

Votes from the left propelled centrist Macron to power in 2017 in a run-off against far-right leader Marine Le Pen, just as they had helped Jacques Chirac in the 2002 election against Le Pen's father Jean-Marie.

The report in Liberation newspaper, based on accounts from hundreds of readers, said many left-leaning voters would no longer support Macron to prevent Le Pen taking power.

"I've blocked (the far right) in the past and this time it's over," read Liberation's shock front-page headline on Saturday -- a quote from one of the voters who told the paper they could no longer bring themselves to vote for Macron, whatever the cost.

Polls predict the 2022 election coming down to another duel between the two politicians who fought it out on a globalist-versus-nationalist platform in 2017.

But this time, they show Le Pen far closer to the halls of power, with a Harris Interactive poll, which was never published but was leaked to the media last month, showing the National Rally leader taking 48 percent of the vote in a run-off with the incumbent.

A survey by Ipsos-Steria in early February showed that her chances would be significantly boosted by a mass stayaway by left-wing voters in the event she faced Macron.

Following Socialist Francois Hollande's single-term presidency -- which ended in 2017 with him so unpopular he decided not to stand again -- the left is currently not tipped to make the run-off, with its vote split between Socialists, Greens and the hard-left France Unbowed.

- 'Hurt and humiliated' -

Some of Liberation's readers accused the president, who campaigned as a centrist but has been accused of tacking to the right, of acting as a "president of the rich" -- a label dating from his decision early in his presidency to cut wealth taxes.

Others attacked his attempts to get the French to work longer before being eligible for a full pension as well as his crackdown on anti-government "yellow vest" protests in 2018-2019 and his government's tough rhetoric on immigration and radical Islam.

"Left-wing voters feel hurt and humiliated. They feel they are being forced to vote for a candidate who has not respected them," Remi Lefebvre, professor of political science at Lille University, told AFP.

Faced with the rise of the anti-immigrant, anti-EU National Rally (formerly National Front) over the past two decades, mainstream French parties have regularly formed electoral pacts to bar the party winning office.

The pressure to join the "Republican front" against the far-right peaked in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen trumped leftwinger Lionel Jospin for a spot in the final against centre-right candidate Chirac.

Le Pen's breakthrough sent shockwaves through France and prompted left-wing voters to swing en masse behind Chirac, who won the run-off by a landslide.

But by 2017 the "everyone against Le Pen" strategy had already begun to unravel, with hard-left France Unbowed leader Jean-Luc Melenchon notably refusing to endorse investment banker Macron against Marine Le Pen after he himself was knocked out of the running for president.

- 'Recycling the programme' -

A former economy minister under Hollande, Macron has given key cabinet posts to allies of former right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy, such as Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin and Prime Minister Jean Castex.

In the past few weeks, his government has been accused of openly courting right-wing voters, with Darmanin criticising Marine Le Pen in a debate over her "softness" on Islamists.

Higher Education Minister Frederique Vidal warned about the spread of "Islamo-leftism" in French universities, a term often used by the far-right to demonise leftists who defend Muslims.

"Whether on social policy, civil liberties or political rhetoric, people have the impression, I think justifiably, that Macron is recycling the programme of the National Rally," Eric Coquerel, an MP for France Unbowed, told AFP.

Coquerel voted for Macron in the run-off of the 2017 election but said "quite frankly, if it were to be done again I think I would have the same reaction as these voters (who say they will not support him again)".

Gilles Finchelstein, director of the left-leaning Jean Jaures thinktank, said left-wing voters were "fed up" being asked to vote for the right or centre-right.

But if the election did produce another Macron-Le Pen face-off, "some of the left-wing voters who say today they will not go to vote will probably nonetheless vote for Macron," he predicted.

© 2021 AFP
After Sarkozy, ex-French PM Balladur in dock for corruption

Prosecutors have called for Balladur to be sentenced to a one-year suspended prison term and a fine of 50,000 euros 

Issued on: 04/03/2021 -

Paris (AFP)

A French court is set to hand down a verdict on former prime minister Edouard Balladur on Thursday over a decades-old campaign financing scandal, days after ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy was found guilty of corruption.

Balladur, 91, is accused of using kickbacks from 1990s arms deals with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to help finance a presidential bid in a case that has already seen six people sentenced to prison terms.

Balladur's former defence minister Francois Leotard, 78, was also put on trial. Both men deny the charges.

Prosecutors have called for Balladur to be sentenced to a one-year suspended prison term and a fine of 50,000 euros ($60,000).

Balladur and Leotard, both right-wingers, were charged in 2017 with "complicity in the misuse of corporate assets" over the sale of submarines to Pakistan and frigates to Saudi Arabia between 1993 and 1995.

Investigators discovered an estimated 13 million francs in kickbacks from the deals, now worth some 2.8 million euros after accounting for inflation.

A large chunk of the money is suspected to have been funnelled to Balladur's unsuccessful 1995 presidential bid, which he mounted while serving as prime minister in the final years of Francois Mitterrand's presidency.

The case is known in France as the "Karachi affair".

It came to light during an investigation into a 2002 bombing in Karachi, Pakistan, that targeted a bus transporting French engineers.

Fifteen people were killed, including 11 engineers working on the submarine contract, and the Al-Qaeda terror network was initially suspected of the attack.

But the focus later shifted to the submarines deal as investigators considered whether the bombing may have been revenge for former President Jacques Chirac's decision to halt commission payments for the arms deals shortly after he beat Balladur in the presidential vote.

Leotard is accused of having created an "opaque network" of intermediaries for the contracts signed with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

On Monday, former president Sarkozy was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to a three-year prison term in a decision that stunned France.

He was found to have formed a "corruption pact" with his lawyer Thierry Herzog to convince a judge to obtain and share information about an inquiry into the financing of Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign.

Sarkozy, 66, denies the charges and has vowed to clear his name with an appeal.

In two interviews Wednesday, he lambasted the verdict and said he was mulling filing a complaint with Europe's top rights court.

"I never betrayed the trust of the French people," France's president from 2007 to 2012 told TF1 channel in a primetime interview on Wednesday evening.

Sentenced for corruption, Sarkozy goes on media offensive

Issued on: 04/03/2021 - 
French former president Nicolas Sarkozy reacts as he is interviewed by journalist Gilles Bouleau (unseen) in the studio set of French television channel TF1's evening news on March 3, 2021 in Boulogne Billancourt, on the outskirts of Paris. © AFP

France’s former right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday vowed to “go all the way” to clear his name, two days after being handed a three-year sentence for corruption following a trial he portrayed as a travesty of justice.

Paris court ruled that the 66-year-old right-winger had formed a “corruption pact” with his lawyer Thierry Herzog to convince a judge to obtain and share information about an inquiry into the financing of Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign.

Sarkozy, who in December became France’s first modern head of state to appear in the dock, has announced plans to appeal.

In two interviews Wednesday he lambasted the verdict and said he was mulling filing a complaint with Europe’s top rights court.

“I never betrayed the trust of the French people,” France’s president from 2007 to 2012 told TF1 channel in a primetime interview, noting that the French court had convicted him of corruption despite concluding that “not a cent” had changed hands and that no favours had been granted.

With three other legal cases pending against him, Monday’s conviction deals a blow to any hope Sarkozy has of making another political comeback after a failed bid to win a presidential nomination in 2016.

>> Explainer: After guilty verdict, Sarkozy faces more trials and tribulations

Sarkozy, a polarising presence who is a hate figure for many on the left but remains popular on the right, told TF1 he had “turned the page” on his political career.

Despite being given a three-year jail term Sarkozy is not expected to serve time: two of the three years were suspended by the court with the remaining year set to be served at home with an electronic bracelet.

‘Painful for me’

Handing down the sentence, the court said Sarkozy’s crime was “particularly serious having been committed by a former president who was the guarantor of the independence of the judiciary”.

In an interview with Le Figaro daily Sarkozy, a trained lawyer, said the ruling was “riddled with inconsistencies” and was based on “a bunch of circumstantial evidence”.

“Perhaps it will be necessary to take this battle to the (Strasbourg-based) European Court of Human Rights,” he said.

“It would be painful for me to have my own country condemned, but I am ready because that would be the price of democracy.”

The judgement is far from marking the end of Sarkozy’s legal woes.

On March 17, the ex-president is scheduled to face a second trial over accusations of fraudulently overspending in his failed 2012 re-election bid.

In a strongly-worded editorial, the newspaper Le Monde urged Sarkozy to put an end to his confrontation with the French legal system and stop whipping up the anger of his supporters towards judges.

“Today, he is reaping what he has sowed and must consider the advisability of continuing this populist excess, which has not only become a trap for him but a risk for the country,” it said.

But Le Parisien newspaper voiced sympathy for Sarkozy in an editorial by its director condemning the “relentless intransigence” of the judiciary towards the ex-politician.

Staff at the newspaper distanced themselves from the editorial.

‘Play politics’

Right-wing allies of Sarkozy have rushed to his defence, portraying him as the victim of a witch hunt by France’s national financial prosecutors.

“When some judges start to play politics, the role of lawmakers is to strongly denounce it,” Guillaume Peltier, the deputy leader of right-wing opposition party The Republicans, told LCI television.

>> Sarkozy conviction triggers right-wing backlash against ‘judges’ republic’

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, a former member of Sarkozy’s Republicans party who was poached by President Emmanuel Macron, also expressed support for the defendant.

“I know he’s an honest man,” Darmanin declared.

Before his conviction, Sarkozy’s name had been floated as the ideal candidate to unite the right against Macron in 2022 presidential polls.

In 2016 he was beaten to the presidential nomination of the Republicans by his former prime minister Francois Fillon, who later crashed out of the race after being charged with fraud. 

Sarkozy has also been charged over allegations he received millions of euros from the late Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi for his 2007 election campaign.

And in January, prosecutors opened another probe into alleged influence-peddling by Sarkozy over his advisory activities in Russia. 


Russia's Sputnik V vaccine takes key step to EU approval

Leaders in Europe have been warming to the idea of deploying the Russian-developed vaccine 

Issued on: 04/03/2021 -

The Hague (AFP)

Europe's drug regulator launched an in-depth review of Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine on Thursday, putting it on course to be the first non-Western jab used across the 27-nation EU.

Russia, which has pushed for a speedy approval, quickly said it was ready to provide jabs for 50 million Europeans as soon as the shot gets the green light from the Amsterdam-based European Medicines Agency.

Leaders in Europe have been warming to the idea of deploying the Russ

"EMA has started a rolling review of Sputnik V, a Covid-19 vaccine developed by Russia's Gamaleya National Centre of Epidemiology and Microbiology," the Amsterdam-based European Medicines Agency (EMA) said in a statement.

The watchdog said its decision was based on clinical studies and lab tests which "indicate that Sputnik V triggers the production of antibodies and immune cells that target the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and may help protect against Covid-19."

"EMA will assess Sputnik V’s compliance with the usual EU standards for effectiveness, safety and quality," it added.

The timeline for possible approval should "take less time than normal" due to the work already done during the rolling review, it said.

Concerns were initially raised about Sputnik after a fast-track procedure that saw it approved for use in Russia last August and deployed in December ahead of large-scale clinical trials.

But the Lancet medical journal published results in February showing Sputnik V to be 91.6 percent effective, based on third-phase trials with more than 20,000 volunteers.

Hungary has meanwhile broken ranks and become the first EU country to approve and order the vaccine, while the Czech Republic and Slovakia have also ordered Sputnik stocks.

- 'Inspection process' -

The three approved for use in the bloc so far are the US-German Pfizer-BioNTech jab, US firm Moderna's shot, and the vaccine developed by British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca with Oxford University.

US-based Johnson & Johnson has also applied for authorisation while Novavax and CureVac are under rolling review.

Russia and the EMA have rowed in recent weeks about the authorisation process for Sputnik.

Sputnik's makers insisted in February that they had applied for the start of a rolling review, urging the watchdog to hurry up. But the EMA said at the time that it had received no such application.

As it would be the first non-Western developed vaccine deployed in the EU, officials have said that Sputnik production sites outside the bloc would need to be inspected.

"They are not producing in Europe, so of course there should be an inspection process on the production sites," European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said on February 17.

Brussels has been wary of Russian and Chinese vaccines, concerned that Moscow and Beijing would use them as soft power tools.

Von der Leyen herself raised questions about why Moscow was so keen to push the vaccine on the EU.

"Overall I must say, we still wonder why Russia is offering theoretically millions and millions of doses while not sufficiently progressing in vaccinating their own people," she said.


© 2021 AFP
SpaceX unmanned rocket makes soft landing before exploding on ground

Issued on: 04/03/2021
This screengrab made from SpaceX's live webcast shows the Starship SN10 prototype during the second attempted test flight of the day at SpaceX's South Texas test facility near Boca Chica Village in Brownsville, Texas, March 3, 2021. © Jose Romero / SPACEX / AFP


Third time's a charm? Not so for SpaceX, whose unmanned rocket exploded on the ground Wednesday after carrying out what had seemed to be a successful flight and landing – fresh on the heels of two fiery crashes.

It was yet another flub involving a prototype of the Starship rocket, which SpaceX hopes one day to send to Mars.

"A beautiful soft landing," a SpaceX commentator said on a live broadcast of the test flight, although flames were coming out at the bottom and crews were trying to put them out.

The rocket exploded a few minutes later, lurching into the air and crashing back to the ground.

No explanation was immediately provided.

"Starship SN10 landed in one piece!" Musk tweeted jokingly about an hour after the explosion.

"SpaceX team is doing great work! One day, the true measure of success will be that Starship flights are commonplace," he said in a second tweet.

The latest prototype, named SN10, for serial number 10, took off a little before 2320 GMT from Boca Chica, Texas.

The rocket rose into the sky and progressively shut down its three engines as it reached a height of six miles (10 kilometers) and assumed a horizontal position before becoming vertical again and returning to Earth.

As seen on SpaceX video, it appeared to have otherwise landed properly after its flight. Then came the explosion.

To Mars or the Moon

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has been developing the next-generation Starship rocket for the purpose of going to Mars - though two prototypes (SN8 and SN9) blew up in spectacular fashion on their test runs in December and early February.

The tests take place in a nearly deserted area leased by SpaceX in South Texas near the border with Mexico and Gulf of Mexico - the area is vast and empty enough that an accident or explosion would not likely cause damage or fatalities.

Apart from Mars, the rocket, if it becomes operational, could also prove useful for closer trips, especially to the Moon.

On Wednesday, Japanese billionaire and online fashion tycoon Yusaku Maezawa, who paid an undisclosed sum for a SpaceX lunar spaceship trip expected to launch in 2023 at the earliest, threw open the application process for eight people from around the world to join him.

He announced the move in a video posted on Twitter in which Musk tells potential applicants: "I'm highly confident that we will have reached orbit many times with Starship before 2023 and that it will be safe enough for human transport by 2023. It's looking very promising."

The mission will be the first private space flight beyond Earth's orbit, Musk said.

Female doctor killed in eastern Afghanistan after murder of media workers

Issued on: 04/03/2021 - 

Jalalabad (Afghanistan) (AFP)

A female doctor was killed in a bomb blast in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad in what appeared to be another targeted hit, officials said Thursday, just days after three women media workers were gunned down in the area.

Journalists, religious scholars, activists and judges have all been victims of a recent wave of political assassinations across Afghanistan, forcing many into hiding -- with some fleeing the country.

In the latest incident, the doctor was killed after a magnetic bomb was attached to the vehicle she was travelling in, according to a spokesman from the provincial governor’s office. A child was also injured by the explosion.

“She was commuting in a rickshaw when the bomb went off,” the spokesman told AFP.

Another spokesman from a provincial hospital also confirmed the incident and toll.

No group has claimed responsibility for the blast.

The attack comes two days after three female media workers were gunned down in Jalalabad in separate attacks that were just minutes apart.

The local Islamic State group affiliate said its gunmen carried out the killing of what it called "journalists working for one of the media stations loyal to the apostate Afghan government".

Afghan and US officials have blamed the Taliban for the wave of violence, but the group has denied the charges.

The assassinations have been acutely felt by women, whose rights were crushed under the Taliban's five-year rule, including being banned from working.

Intelligence officials have previously linked the renewed threat against female professionals to demands at the peace talks for their rights to be protected.

The attacks come as speculation is rife over America's future in Afghanistan after the administration of President Joe Biden announced plans to review the withdrawal agreement signed with the Taliban last year that paved the way for foreign troops to leave the country by May.

© 2021 AFP
Myanmar pro-democracy protesters back on streets after ‘bloodiest day’ since coup

Issued on: 04/03/2021 
People hold up the three finger salute during the funeral procession for protester Kyal Sin, in Mandalay on March 4, 2021, a day after she was shot in the head during a protest.


Police in Myanmar broke up demonstrations in several places with tear gas and gunfire on Thursday as protesters took to the streets again undeterred by the rising death toll in a crackdown on opponents of last month's military coup..

The incidents followed the bloodiest day so far since the military overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1, with the United Nations special envoy on Burma saying 38 people had been killed on Wednesday.

The United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, called on the security forces to halt what she called their "vicious crackdown on peaceful protesters".

At least 54 people had been killed in total but the actual toll could be much higher, she said. More than 1,700 people had been arrested, including 29 journalists.

"Myanmar's military must stop murdering and jailing protesters," Bachelet said in a statement.

Activists said they refused to accept military rule and were determined to press for the release of the detained Suu Kyi and recognition of her victory in a November election.

"We know that we can always get shot and killed with live bullets but there is no meaning to staying alive under the junta," activist Maung Saungkha told Reuters.

Police opened fire and used tear gas to break up protests in Yangon and the central town of Monywa, witnesses said. Police also fired in the town of Pathein, to the west of Yangon, and used tear gas in the eastern town of Taunggyi, media reported.

In Yangon, crowds of protesters soon assembled again to chant slogans and sing.

Big crowds also gathered peacefully for rallies elsewhere, including the second city of Mandalay and in the historic temple town of Bagan, where hundreds marched carrying pictures of Suu Kyi and a banner saying: "Free our leader", witnesses said.

Hundreds of people attended the funeral of a 19-year-old woman shot dead in Mandalay on Wednesday, who was photographed wearing a T-shirt that read "Everything will be OK".

Earlier on Thursday, five warplanes made several low passes in formation over Mandalay, residents said, in what appeared to be a show of military might.

On Wednesday, police and soldiers opened fire with live rounds with little warning in several cities and towns, witnesses said.

"Myanmar's security forces now seem intent on breaking the back of the anti-coup movement through wanton violence and sheer brutality," said Richard Weir, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The group also mentioned an incident caught on camera-phone footage in which a man in police custody appeared to have been shot in the back.

A spokesman for the ruling military council did not answer telephone calls seeking comment.

'Few friends'

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party said in a statement that flags would fly at half mast at its offices to commemorate the dead.

The U.N. special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, said on Wednesday she had warned deputy military chief Soe Win that the army was likely to face strong measures from some countries and isolation in retaliation for the coup.

"The answer was: 'We are used to sanctions, and we survived'," she told reporters in New York. "When I also warned they will go (into) isolation, the answer was: 'We have to learn to walk with only few friends'."

The U.N. Security Council is due to discuss the situation on Friday in a closed meeting, diplomats said.

U.S. State Department said Washington was "appalled" by the violence and was evaluating how to respond.

The United States has told China it expects it to play a constructive role, it said. China has declined to condemn the coup which its state media called a "major cabinet reshuffle".

The turmoil has alarmed Myanmar's Southeast Asian neighbours but an effort by some of them to encourage dialogue has come to nothing.

Singapore, the biggest foreign investor in Myanmar in recent years, advised its nationals to consider leaving as soon as they could due to the rising violence while it was still possible to do so.

Three Myanmar police constables crossed Myanmar's northwestern border to defect to India after refusing to obey military orders, an Indian police official said.

The military justified the coup by saying its complaints of voter fraud in the Nov. 8 vote were ignored. Suu Kyi's party won by a landslide, earning a second term. The election commission said the vote was fair.

Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has pledged to hold new elections but given no time frame.

Suu Kyi, 75, has been held incommunicado since the coup but appeared at a court hearing via video conferencing this week and looked in good health, a lawyer said.

Myanmar anti-coup protesters return after deadliest day
Issued on: 04/03/2021 -
Yangon (AFP)
Defiant anti-coup protesters returned to cities and towns across Myanmar on Thursday after dozens of people were killed in the deadliest day of the junta's crackdown, with global powers condemning the "brutal violence".

At least 38 people died on Wednesday, according to the United Nations, when online images streamed out of Myanmar showing security forces firing into crowds and blood-covered bodies of protesters with bullet wounds in their heads.

Myanmar's military staged its coup on February 1, ending a decade-long experiment with democracy and triggering a mass uprising that the junta has increasingly sought to quash with lethal force.

Wednesday's violence left the United States "appalled and revulsed," State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

"We call on all countries to speak with one voice to condemn the brutal violence by the Burmese military against its own people," he said, referring to the country by its former name.

French President Emmanuel macron called for an "immediate end of the repression in Myanmar".

More than 50 people have been killed since the military takeover, UN envoy to Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener told reporters.

On Thursday, protesters hit the streets again in Yangon and Mandalay, the nation's two biggest cities, as well as other towns that have been hotspots for unrest.

"It's dangerous to be here after about 9:30am. They are shooting in the streets," one food vendor in Yangon told AFP on Thursday morning.

In a district where protests have occurred almost daily in Yangon, the protesters had built barriers with old tires, bricks, sandbags, bamboo and barbed wire.

- 'Fear, false news' -

The junta has sought to hide its crackdown from the rest of the world, choking the internet and banning Facebook -- the most popular social media platform.

Six journalists were also arrested on the weekend and charged under a law prohibiting "causing fear, spreading false news, or agitating directly or indirectly a government employee", according to their lawyer Tin Zar Oo.

Among them was Associated Press photographer Thein Zaw, who was arrested Saturday as he covered an anti-coup demonstration in Yangon. Video emerged on Wednesday of him being held in a chokehold by police as he was handcuffed.

However protesters, citizen journalists and some media groups have continued to send images out of Myanmar, and on Thursday the funeral of a 19-year-old woman killed in Mandalay was streamed live on Facebook.

The victim, Ma Kyay Sin, had been wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with 'Everything will be OK' in big letters on the front when she was shot in the head.

Security forces have arrested nearly 1,500 people since the start of the coup, with 1,200 of them still in detention, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) monitoring group.

The group said it had documented more than 50 deaths, as it detailed teenagers and people aged in their 20s who had been shot in the head and chest.

One of the first people detained at the start of the coup was Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of the civilian government and a heroine for most people in Myanmar for leading the resistance against the previous dictatorship.

The junta justified its coup by making unfounded allegations that Suu Kyi's party rigged the election.

Suu Kyi, 75, is reportedly being detained in Naypyidaw, the isolated capital that the military built during its previous, decades-long dictatorship.

© 2021


Myanmar coup: Funeral of pro-democracy demonstrator taking place

Demonstrators in Myanmar protesting last month's military coup returned to the streets Thursday, undaunted by the killing of at least 38 people the previous day by security forces. Protesters in Mandalay flashed a three-fingered salute of resistance as they rode their motorbikes to follow a funeral procession for Kyal Sin, also known by her Chinese name Deng Jia Xi, a university student who was killed as she attended a demonstration on Wednesday.

'Everything will be ok': 
Myanmar mourns teen killed protesting

Issued on: 04/03/2021 - 

Thousands turned out for Kyal Sin's funeral in Mandalay, many carrying the slogan: 'everything will be ok'

Mandalay (Myanmar) (AFP)

Kyal Sin always let her clothes do the talking -- at one Myanmar anti-coup rally, she taped a sign onto the back of her black jacket: "We need democracy. Justice for Myanmar. Respect our votes."

Weeks later, when the 19-year-old was gunned down Wednesday at a protest on the streets of Myanmar's second largest city Mandalay, her t-shirt read: "Everything will be ok".

The slogan has become a poignant refrain echoing across social media, and thousands turned out for her funeral in Mandalay on Thursday

For Kyal Sin, nicknamed "Angel", restoring her country's fragile democracy trumped concerns about her own safety as she protested for an end to military rule.

The young dance enthusiast joined hundreds of thousands across the country calling for the release of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been in detention since the military took over on February 1.

Before going to a demonstration this week, she listed her blood type on her Facebook page, her phone number, and said her organs were available for donation if anything were to happen to her.

"If you need, you can contact me freely at this phone number any time," she wrote.

"I could donate (my organs) if I died. If someone needs urgent help, I can donate even if it causes my death."

She was one of at least 38 people the United Nations said were killed on Wednesday, Myanmar's deadliest day since the coup.

Footage posted on social media shows Kyal Sin's final moments during a demonstration that turned violent -- crawling along the road and running for cover amid the sounds of gunfire and a plume of tear gas.

A doctor confirmed to AFP she had been shot in the head.

- 'One vote from the heart' -

In the hours following news of Kyal Sin's death, tributes flooded online, with artwork created of her striking a crouching pose on the day of her death.

On her Facebook page, she showed a different side -- posting videos of her dance moves, selfies of her outfits, and showcasing her close relationship with her father.

In a tender moment last month, he tied a red ribbon symbolising bravery around her wrist, according to photos she posted.

"I don't want to post too much about this -- just thank you, daddy," Kyal Sin wrote, along with the hashtag "Justice for Myanmar".

Late last year, father and daughter took photographs of their purple ink-stained fingers after casting their votes at Myanmar's second democratic election, which Suu Kyi's party went on to win in a landslide.

"For the first time in my life, I have undertaken my responsibility as a citizen... one vote from the heart," Kyal Sin wrote on Facebook, posting a picture of her kissing her inked finger.

On Thursday morning, mourners sang popular revolutionary song "We Won't Forget Until the End of the World" as they filed past her coffin carrying bouquets and floral wreaths.

Leading the funeral procession to the cemetery was a truck covered in flowers with a "hero" poster on the front followed by an elaborate black and gold hearse.

The outpouring of grief extended online with many calling her a martyr.

"My heart feels so much hurt," one of her friends posted on Facebook.

"Rest in peace my friend," another male friend wrote. "We will fight this revolution until the end."

© 2021 AFP
Yemen’s Houthi rebels claim missile attack against Saudi Aramco oil site
A production facility of Saudi Aramco's Shaybah oilfield in the
 Empty Quarter, Saudi Arabia, May 22, 2018. 
© Ahmed Jadallah, Reuters (illustration)

Issued on: 04/03/2021 - 

Yemen's Houthi forces fired a cross-border missile at a Saudi Aramco facility in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea city of Jeddah, a Houthi military spokesman said on Thursday, but there was no immediate confirmation from Saudi authorities.

Saudi Aramco, whose oil production and export facilities are mostly in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, more than 1,000 km (620 miles) across the country from Jeddah, did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

The spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition that has been battling the Iran-aligned Houthi movement for six years did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea said in a Twitter post that the attack took place at dawn using a winged Quds-2 missile and had struck its target, without elaborating.

He posted an image with coordinates of what appeared to be a petroleum products distribution plant in Jeddah used for domestic supplies that the Houthis struck with a Quds-2 missile in November 2020. Military experts estimated then that the missile was fired from about 700 km (430 miles) away in Houthi-controlled territory.

Aramco said then that the attack on the North Jeddah Bulk Plant hit a storage tank but did not affect supplies.

The movement, which controls northern Yemen, has struck Saudi energy assets in the past. Last November, the Saudi energy ministry said a limited fire broke out near a floating platform belonging to the Jazan oil products terminal after a foiled attack using explosive-laden boats in the southern Red Sea.

The Houthis have recently stepped up cross-border drone and missile attacks on Saudi cities, mostly targeting southern Saudi Arabia. The coalition says it intercepts most attacks.

On Thursday, the coalition destroyed a Houthi ballistic missile launched towards Jazan and an armed drone launched towards Khamis Mushait, both cities in the south of the kingdom, state media reported.

The Houthi's Sarea said in a separate Twitter post that the Khamis Mushait attack targeted a military site.

The coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 after the Houthis ousted the internationally recognised government from power in the capital, Sanaa.

The United States and United Nations have renewed peace efforts as fighting also intensified in Yemen's gas-rich Marib region. The U.S. Treasury Department imposed new sanctions on Tuesday on two Houthi military leaders.

The conflict is widely seen in the region as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Houthis deny being puppets of Tehran and say they are fighting a corrupt system.

Myanmar journalist arrested after overnight attack: employer

Myanmar's junta has escalated force as it attempts to quell 
an uprising against its rule 
Sai Aung Main AFP/File

Yangon (AFP)

A Myanmar reporter was attacked in his home and detained by the military, his employer said Tuesday, after days of crackdowns by the junta on anti-coup protesters.

Myanmar's military has escalated force as it attempts to quell an uprising against its rule, deploying tear gas, rubber bullets and, increasingly, live rounds.

Journalists have found themselves targeted by police and soldiers as they try to capture the unrest on the streets. In recent days, several have been arrested, including an Associated Press photographer in Yangon.

A Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) reporter live-streamed the Monday night attack on his apartment building in the southern city of Myeik as he pleaded for help.

Hours later, DVB said on Twitter that reporter Kaung Myat Hlaing had been taken from his home by security forces.

"DVB has no knowledge of where he was taken away, and which military authority took him," said the statement.

It added that Kaung Myat Hlaing's latest reports were on a weekend military crackdown in Myeik, as well as on Monday's demonstrations.

Loud bangs could be heard during Kaung Myat Hlaing's live stream, which was hosted on DVB's official Facebook page.

"If you are shooting like this, how will I come down?" he shouted at the security forces outside.

DVB, a well-known news organisation within Myanmar, started as an exile media outlet during the previous junta, broadcasting uncensored reports on TV and radio.

After a 49-year hold on power, the military dictatorship loosened its grip in 2011, and DVB moved into Myanmar the following year.

The outlet demanded Tuesday that the military release Kaung Myat Hlaing, as well as other journalists detained since the February 1 putsch.

"They are all doing their professional jobs as journalists," it said.

© 2021 AFP
CO2 pollution bounces back, climate goals at risk: IEA

Energy-related emissions were two percent higher in 
December 2020 than in the same month a year earlier 

Issued on: 02/03/2021 -

Paris (AFP)

Global CO2 emissions have returned to pre-pandemic levels and then some, threatening to put climate treaty targets for capping global warming out of reach, the International Energy Agency said Tuesday.

Energy-related emissions were two percent higher in December 2020 than in the same month a year earlier, driven by economic recovery and a lack of clean energy policies, the IEA said in a report.

"The rebound in global carbon emissions toward the end of last year is a stark warning that not enough is being done to accelerate clean energy transitions worldwide," IEA executive director Fatih Birol said in a statement.

"If governments don’t move quickly with the right energy policies, this could put at risk the world’s historic opportunity to make 2019 the definitive peak in global emissions."

A year ago, the intergovernmental agency called on governments to put clean energy at the heart of economic stimulus plans, but the appeal appears to have fallen on deaf ears for the most part.

"Our numbers show we are returning to carbon-intensive business-as-usual," Birol said.

In China, carbon pollution last year exceeded 2019 levels by more than half a percent despite a draconian, though brief, lockdown to halt the virus' spread.

China -- which accounts for more than a quarter of global CO2 output -- was the only major economy to grow in 2020.

Other countries are also now seeing emissions climb above pre-Covid crisis levels, the report found.

In India, they rose above 2019 levels from September as economic activity increased and Covid restrictions relaxed.

The rebound of road transport in Brazil from May drove a recovery in oil demand, while increases in gas demand toward the end of 2020 pushed emissions above 2019 levels in the final quarter.

US emissions fell by 10 percent in 2020, but by December were approaching levels from the year before.

- Decoupling growth and emissions -

"If current expectations for a global economic rebound this year are confirmed -– and in the absence of major policy changes in the world’s largest economies –- global emissions are likely to increase in 2021," Birol said.

A sharp surge in economic activity -- and the pollution that comes with it -- is more the norm than the exception after an economic downturn.

Annual GDP growth and CO2 emissions, for example, both spiked after the Great Recession of 2008.

But as pressure builds to tackle the climate crisis, there are encouraging signs that major emitters are taking steps to decouple economic growth from planet-warming carbon emissions, Birol noted.

China's surprise committment to become carbon neutral by 2060, the Biden administration's ambitious climate agenda along with the US reentry into the Paris Agreement, and the European Union's Green New Deal all point in the right direction, he said.

"India's stunning success with renewables could transform its energy future," he added.

Global emissions plunged by almost two billion tonnes in 2020, the largest absolute decline in history.

More than half of that decline was due to lower use of fuel for road transport and aviation.

The 2015 Paris Agreement enjoins nations to cap the rise in global temperatures "well below" two degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels, and to strive for a cieling of 1.5C if possible.

Earth's surface is already 1.1C warmer on average, enough to increase the frequency and intensity of deadly heatwaves, droughts and superstorms made more destructive by rising seas.

In May, the IEA is to publish its first global road map on how the energy sector can reach net-zero by 2050.

© 2021 AFP