Monthly Archives: July 2015

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Despite bombing, Islamic State is no weaker than a year ago

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WASHINGTON (AP) — After billions of dollars spent and more than 10,000 extremist fighters killed, the Islamic State group is fundamentally no weaker than it was when the U.S.-led bombing campaign began a year ago, American intelligence agencies have concluded.

The military campaign has prevented Iraq’s collapse and put the Islamic State under increasing pressure in northern Syria, particularly squeezing its self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa. But intelligence analysts see the overall situation as a strategic stalemate: The Islamic State remains a well-funded extremist army able to replenish its ranks with foreign jihadis as quickly as the U.S. can eliminate them. Meanwhile, the group has expanded to other countries, including Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Afghanistan.

The assessments by the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and others appear to contradict the optimistic line taken by the Obama administration’s special envoy, retired Gen. John Allen, who told a forum in Aspen, Colorado, last week that “ISIS is losing” in Iraq and Syria. The intelligence was described by officials who would not be named because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly.

“We’ve seen no meaningful degradation in their numbers,” a defense official said, citing intelligence estimates that put the group’s total strength at between 20,000 and 30,000, the same estimate as last August when the airstrikes began.

The Islamic State’s staying power also raises questions about the administration’s approach to the threat that the group poses to the U.S. and its allies. Although officials do not believe it is planning complex attacks on the West from its territory, the group’s call to Western Muslims to kill at home has become a serious problem, FBI Director James Comey and other officials say.

Yet under the Obama administration’s campaign of bombing and training, which prohibits American troops from accompanying fighters into combat or directing air strikes from the ground, it could take a decade to drive the Islamic State from its safe havens, analysts say. The administration is adamant that it will commit no U.S. ground troops to the fight despite calls from some in Congress to do so.

The U.S.-led coalition and its Syrian and Kurdish allies on the ground have made some inroads. The Islamic State has lost 9.4 percent of its territory in the first six months of 2015, according to an analysis by the conflict monitoring group IHS. And the military campaign has arrested the sense of momentum and inevitability created by the group’s stunning advances last year, leaving the combination of Sunni religious extremists and former Saddam Hussein loyalists unable to grow its forces or continue its surge.

“In Raqqa, they are being slowly strangled,” said an activist who fled Raqqa earlier this year and spoke on condition of anonymity to protect relatives and friends who remain there. “There is no longer a feeling that Raqqa is a safe haven for the group.”

A Delta Force raid in Syria that killed Islamic State financier Abu Sayyaf in May also has resulted in a well of intelligence about the group’s structure and finances, U.S. officials say. His wife, held in Iraq, has been cooperating with interrogators.

Syrian Kurdish fighters and their allies have wrested most of the northern Syria border from the Islamic State group. In June, the U.S.-backed alliance captured the border town of Tal Abyad, which for more than a year had been the militants’ most vital direct supply route from Turkey. The Kurds also took the town of Ein Issa, a hub for IS movements and supply lines only 35 miles north of Raqqa.

As a result, the militants have had to take a more circuitous smuggling path through a stretch of about 60 miles they still control along the Turkish border. A plan announced this week for a U.S.-Turkish “safe zone” envisages driving the Islamic State group out of those areas as well, using Syrian rebels backed by airstrikes.

In Raqqa, U.S. coalition bombs pound the group’s positions and target its leaders with increasing regularity. The militants’ movements have been hampered by strikes against bridges, and some fighters are sending their families away to safer ground.

In early July, a wave of strikes in 24 hours destroyed 18 overpasses and a number of roads used by the group in and around Raqqa.

Reflecting IS unease, the group has taken exceptional measures against residents of Raqqa the past two weeks, activists say. It has moved to shut down private Internet access for residents, arrested suspected spies and set up security cameras in the streets. Patrols by its “morals police” have decreased because fighters are needed on the front lines, the activists say.

But American intelligence officials and other experts say that in the big picture, the Islamic State is hanging tough.

“The pressure on Raqqa is significant, and it’s an important thing to watch, but looking at the overall picture, ISIS is mostly in the same place,” said Harleen Gambhir, a counterterrorism analyst at Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank. “Overall ISIS still retains the ability to plan and execute phased conventional military campaigns and terrorist attacks.”

In Iraq, the Islamic State’s seizure of the strategically important provincial capital of Ramadi has so far stood. Although U.S. officials have said it is crucial that the government in Baghdad win back disaffected Sunnis, there is little sign of that happening. American-led efforts to train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State have produced a grand total of 60 vetted fighters.

The group has adjusted its tactics to thwart a U.S. bombing campaign that tries to avoid civilian casualties, officials say. Fighters no longer move around in easily targeted armored columns; they embed themselves among women and children, and they communicate through couriers to thwart eavesdropping and geolocation, the defense official said.

Oil continues to be a major revenue source. By one estimate, the Islamic State is clearing $500 million per year from oil sales, said Daniel Glaser, assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department. That’s on top of as much as $1 billion in cash the group seized from banks in its territory.

Although the U.S. has been bombing oil infrastructure, the militants have been adept at rebuilding oil refining, drilling and trading capacity, the defense official said.

“ISIL has plenty of money,” Glaser said last week, more than enough to meet a payroll he estimated at a high of $360 million a year.

Glaser said the U.S. was gradually squeezing the group’s finances through sanctions, military strikes and other means, but he acknowledged it would take time.

Ahmad al-Ahmad, a Syrian journalist in Hama province who heads an opposition media outfit called Syrian Press Center, said he did not expect recent setbacks to seriously alter the group’s fortunes.

“IS moves with a very intelligent strategy which its fighters call the lizard strategy,” he said. “They emerge in one place, then they disappear and pop up in another place.”


Karam and Mroue reported from Beirut. This image made from gun-camera video taken on July 4, 2015 and released by United States Central Command shows an airstrike on a bridge near Islamic State group-held Raqqa, Syria, that was a key transit route for the militants. After billions of dollars spent and more than 10,000 extremist fighters killed, the Islamic State group is fundamentally no weaker than it was when the U.S.-led bombing campaign began a year ago, American intelligence agencies have concluded. (U.S. Central Command via AP)

Follow Ken Dilanian on Twitter at https://twitter.com/kendilanianap .

Follow Zeina Karam at https://twitter.com/zkaram?lang=en. Follow Bassem Mroue at https://twitter.com/bmroue

Searchers scour beaches in hopes of unlocking MH370 mystery

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SAINT-ANDRE, Reunion (AP) — After 16 agonizing months without answers, loved ones of those on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 will likely have to wait at least another day for confirmation that it crashed into the sea, as investigators work to identify the source of a barnacle-encrusted wing part that washed up on a remote Indian Ocean island and searchers scoured the shoreline for more debris.

Though several officials have expressed confidence that the debris found on the French island of Reunion is from a Boeing 777, French authorities are planning to send the piece to southern France for analysis before confirming it came from the missing Malaysian aircraft. The part could arrive Saturday morning, according to the Paris prosecutor’s office.

Officials, keenly aware that families of those on board Flight 370 are desperately awaiting word on the fate of their loved ones, hope to have at least some answers within the next day or two.

“The most important part of this whole exercise at the moment is to give some kind of closure to the families,” said Australian Transport Minister Warren Truss, whose country is leading the search for the plane in a desolate stretch of ocean off Australia’s west coast.

Still, given the myriad false leads that have peppered the search, some would prefer certainty to speed.

Jacquita Gomes, whose husband, Patrick, was a flight attendant on the missing plane, is anxious for the results of the analysis, but wants authorities to ensure they’re conclusive before announcing them.

“It’s going to be a nail-biting weekend but we cannot rush it,” said Gomes, of Kuala Lumpur. “We have been waiting for more than 500 days. The agony continues and I hope there will be answers soon.”

But even if the piece is confirmed to be the first confirmed wreckage from Flight 370, there’s no guarantee investigators can still find the plane’s vital black box recorders or other debris. A multinational search effort now focused on the southern Indian Ocean has come up empty.

The part has been moved to the local airport on Reunion, located off Africa’s east coast, and will next head to Toulouse, the hub of Europe’s aerospace industry. It will be analyzed in special defense facilities used for airplane testing and analysis, according to the Defense Ministry.

Air safety investigators, including one from Boeing, have identified the component as a “flaperon” from the trailing edge of a Boeing 777 wing, a U.S. official said. The official wasn’t authorized to be publicly named.

Flight 370, which disappeared March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board, is the only missing 777.

“Nothing has been confirmed, but obviously this is, by far, the most encouraging sign so far,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Sydney radio station 2SM. “We have long thought it went down somewhere in the Indian Ocean and, at last, it seems that we may be on the verge of some confirmation.”

A French law enforcement helicopter is scouring the waters around Reunion in hopes of spotting more debris, and Malaysian authorities were headed to the island and to Toulouse.

Scanning the beach’s distinctive black volcanic sand and stones on Friday, searcher Philippe Sidam picked up a plastic bottle for laundry detergent. “This is from Jakarta, Indonesia,” he said, pointing to the writing on the bottle. “This shows how the ocean’s currents bring material all the way from Indonesia and beyond. That explains how the debris from the Malaysian plane could have reached here.”

Reunion environmental worker Johnny Begue told The Associated Press that he stumbled across the plane part on Wednesday morning while collecting stones to grind spices. A colleague, Teddy Riviere, corroborated his account, but authorities wouldn’t say who discovered the component.

“I knew immediately it was part of an aircraft, but I didn’t realize how important it was, that it could help to solve the mystery of what happened to the Malaysian jet,” Begue, 46, told the AP.

He and several workmates carried the wing fragment out of the water so that it would not be battered by the surf against the volcanic rocks that make up most of the beach.

Begue also discovered a piece of a suitcase about 2.5 meters (8 feet) away, he said.

Australian officials expressed skepticism that the suitcase was associated with the wing part. Truss, the transport minister, noted that there did not appear to be any marine life attached to the suitcase, indicating it probably hadn’t been in the water for long. But he dubbed the wing part a major lead.

“There’s strong evidence to suggest that the wreckage found on Reunion Island does come from a Boeing 777,” Truss said.

Investigators have found what may be a maintenance number on the wing piece, which may help investigators figure out what plane it belongs to, Truss said.

Truss expects French investigators will also try to determine how the part separated from the rest of the aircraft, and whether it shows evidence of fire or other damage, which might explain how the plane crashed.

The fact that the part was found 4,200 kilometers (2,600 miles) from the current search site does not mean officials are looking in the wrong place, said Australian Transport Safety Bureau Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan, who is leading the hunt. To the contrary, it gives them reassurance that they’re in the correct spot, given that ocean modeling predicted that currents would eventually carry any floating wreckage to the African coast. The discovery is therefore unlikely to alter the seabed search, he said.

“We remain highly confident in our work defining the search area,” Dolan said.

Over the past 16 months, hopes have repeatedly been raised and then dashed that the plane, or parts of the plane, had been found. In the end, none was from Flight 370.

In Beijing Zhang Qian, whose husband, Wang Houbin, was on the plane, said she hopes this is not another false lead.

“I don’t want to see any news about suspected debris,” she said. “What I want is a verified result.”


Kristen Gelineau in Sydney, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, Ian Mader in Beijing, Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Joan Lowy in Washington and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed. Workers for an association responsible for maintaining paths to the beaches from being overgrown by shrubs, search the beach for possible additional airplane debris near the area where an airplane wing part was washed up, in the early morning near Saint-Andre on the north coast of the Indian Ocean island of Reunion Friday, July 31, 2015. A barnacle-encrusted wing part that washed up on the remote Indian Ocean island could help solve one of aviation’s greatest mysteries, as investigators work to connect it to the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that vanished more than a year ago with 293 people aboard. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

World Food Program cuts aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan

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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — The cash-strapped World Food Program has cut in half food aid to most Syrian refugees in Jordan and says only a last-minute U.S. donation prevented the program from being scrapped.

Friday’s announcement raises new concerns about more than half a million refugees who live in Jordanian communities rather than camps. Largely unable to work legally, most urban refugees live in poverty and rely on food vouchers for survival.

Jordan hosts 629,000 Syrian refugees, including about 100,000 in refugee camps.

Of the remaining urban refugees, 440,000 have been receiving food vouchers.

In August, support for the most vulnerable among them, or about 200,000 people, will drop from $28 to $14 per person per month and for the rest from $14 to $7.

The WFP says funding is not secured beyond August.

WikiLeaks says US spied on Japanese government, companies

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TOKYO (AP) — The WikiLeaks website published documents Friday that it says shows the U.S. government spied on Japanese officials and companies.

The documents include what appear to be five U.S. National Security Agency reports, four of which are marked top-secret, that provide intelligence on Japanese positions on international trade and climate change. They date from 2007 to 2009.

A notation on one of the top-secret reports on climate change before the 2008 G-8 summit is marked for sharing with Australia, Canada, Great Britain and New Zealand, according to WikiLeaks. It’s not clear if it was actually shared.

The organization also posted what it says is an NSA list of 35 Japanese targets for telephone intercepts including the Japanese Cabinet office, Bank of Japan officials, Finance and Trade Ministry numbers, the natural gas division at Mitsubishi and the petroleum division at Mitsui.

The Japanese government and the two companies had no immediate response to the postings, which went up on the WikiLeaks website late afternoon Japan time.

The validity of the documents could not be independently verified, though WikiLeaks has released U.S. government documents many times in the past.

Three of the apparent NSA reports deal with climate change, and the other two with agricultural trade issues, including U.S. cherry exports to Japan.

WikiLeaks has released similar documents in recent weeks that it said show NSA spying on Germany, France and Brazil.

U.S. spying on its allies became an issue in 2013, when WikiLeaks released documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that showed the NSA had been eavesdropping on the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Business: China drop, other global markets mostly up after US data

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — China’s stock market extended loss while other global stocks mostly gained Friday after data showed the U.S. economy posted solid growth during the second quarter.

KEEPING SCORE: Europe opened moderately higher with Britain’s FTSE 100 up 0.1 percent to 6,673.08 and Germany’s DAX gaining 0.2 percent to 11,277.44. France’s CAC 40 rose 0.5 percent to 5,072.11. Futures augured a tepid start for Wall Street. Dow futures remained flat while S&P futures rose less than 0.1 percent.

ASIA’S DAY: The Shanghai Composite Index finished 1.1 percent lower at 3,663.73, extending its loss to a second day. South Korea’s Kospi finished up 0.6 percent at 2,030.16. Japan’s Nikkei 225 added 0.3 percent to 20,585.24 while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index rose 0.6 percent to 24,636.28. Stocks in Australia and New Zealand were higher as well as most stocks in Southeast Asia.

CHINA’S SWING: The Shanghai benchmark finished this month with the worst monthly loss since August 2008, losing 14.3 percent in July. The index suffered its biggest one-day drop in eight years on Monday when it plunged 8.5 percent despite government intervention. Stocks recovered moderately on Wednesday before falling again on Thursday. Analysts say the volatility is a sign that economic fundamentals cannot support stock prices at their current levels and that the government’s support measures may have been less effective than what Beijing expected.

ANALYST’S TAKE: “Chinese markets should continue to grind sideways in the coming sessions, as some calm returned to the market,” said Bernard Aw, a market strategist at IG. “(Thursday’s) decline is expected to be tolerated by the authorities, but we could still see state fund bids cushioning the downside.”

US ECONOMY: Driven by strong consumer spending, the U.S. economy expanded 2.3 percent in the April-June quarter, the best showing since last summer. First-quarter growth was revised to 0.6 percent growth from an earlier government estimate of a contraction. The data underscored the steady growth that is likely to bolster the Federal Reserve’s case that it will soon be time to raise rates from a record low. Fed policymakers voted Wednesday to leave interest rates unchanged. Many investors expect the Fed will lift rates in September or December.

OIL: Benchmark U.S. crude lost 98 cents to $47.54 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell 27 cents to close at $48.52 a barrel on Thursday. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, fell 63 cents at $52.68 a barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The dollar rose 0.1 percent to 124.27 yen and the euro edged up 0.2 percent to $1.0955.


Afghan Taliban indicate pullout of peace talks in Pakistan

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Afghan Taliban, who have been fighting to topple the Kabul government for almost 14 years, said on Thursday they are “not aware” of a new round of peace talks due the following day in Pakistan — a statement indicating the group may be pulling out of the negotiations.

The apparent rejection of the talks comes a day after Kabul announced the death of the Taliban’s reclusive leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, but it was not immediately clear if the two developments were connected.

The Afghan intelligence service asserted Wednesday that Mullah Omar died in a Karachi hospital more than two years ago. In Washington, the U.S. government said they considered the report of the Taliban leader’s death credible, though it was not confirmed by the Taliban or Pakistan.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office said Mullah Omar’s death would strengthen conditions for the peace process, which has been his priority since he took office last year.

The first round of the official, face-to-face discussions was hosted by Islamabad earlier this month. The meeting was supervised by U.S. and Chinese representatives and ended with both sides agreeing to meet again — a significant progress in itself.

This week, Afghan and Pakistani officials said the second round would take place Friday, in the Pakistani resort town of Murree. But Thursday’s statement from the Taliban, who call themselves the “Islamic Emirate” contradicted that.

“The Islamic Emirate has handed all agency powers in this regard to its Political Office and they are not aware of any such process,” the statement said, referring to the talks.

The statement made no mention of Mullah Omar or his reported death. The Afghan government has not presented any evidence to back up its claim that the Taliban leader is dead and Kabul did not have an immediate comment on the Taliban statement. Ghani’s office said he had flown to Germany on Wednesday for minor medical treatment.

The Taliban have been fighting to overthrow the Afghan government since 2001, when the United States led an invasion to topple its extremist regime.

The allegedly enduring leadership of Mullah Omar, despite numerous past reports of his death, had provided a unifying force for fighters on the ground and for those on both sides who have pushed the peace process forward in the months since Ghani took office.

If confirmed, his removal creates a leadership vacuum in the Taliban, and appears to have exposed rifts at the top of the organization, which is widely believed to be split among those who support and reject contact with Ghani’s government.

Political analyst Ahmad Saeedi said the Taliban’s statement could signal a total rejection of the peace process by the movement. “I’m pretty sure there will be no peace deal,” he said.

Observers see a further fracturing within Taliban ranks likely to lead to a power struggle. Already, the Islamic State group, which has taken control of large parts of Iraq and Syria, is believed to have recruited some disaffected Taliban members to its ranks as it tries to establish a presence in Afghanistan.

For his part, Ghani has sought Pakistan’s help in bringing the Taliban to the negotiations, since Islamabad is believed to wield influence over the group.

A diplomat based in Kabul familiar with the peace process told The Associated Press that the “government’s position has been since Ashraf Ghani became president that the real negotiation is between Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters on the ongoing talks.

After the U.S.-led invasion, remnants of the Taliban led by Mullah Omar fled over the border into Pakistan, where they are believed to have the protection of Islamabad. Mullah Omar has not been seen in public since then, though statements have been issued in his name giving credence to Taliban denials of his death.

Most recently, a statement purportedly by Mullah Omar was issued on the occasion of this month’s Eid-al-Fitr holiday, expressing support for the peace talks.


Associated Press writer Humayoon Babur in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

Top officials critical of Ohio cop indicted on murder charge

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CINCINNATI (AP) — This time, some of the sharpest criticism of a police officer after the slaying of an unarmed black man came from top law enforcement and city officials.

The indictment Wednesday of a University of Cincinnati police officer on a charge of murder in the traffic stop shooting was applauded by officials in a city roiled by racial violence that erupted in 2001 after an unarmed black man was killed by Cincinnati police after a string of earlier shootings by officers.

The family of Samuel DuBose, 43, urged the community to remain calm, as it has in a series of demonstrations since the July 19 shooting by officer Ray Tensing, who is white. Tensing had stopped DuBose for a missing front license plate, which is required in Ohio but not in neighboring states.

DuBose’s death comes amid months of national scrutiny of police dealings with African-Americans, especially those killed by officers. Authorities so far have not focused on race in the death of DuBose. City officials who viewed video footage released from Tensing’s body camera said the traffic stop shouldn’t have led to a shooting.

“This officer was wrong,” Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell said, adding that officers “have to be held accountable” when they’re in the wrong.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters scoffed at Tensing’s claim that he was dragged by DuBose’s car, saying the officer “purposely killed him.” Using words such as “asinine” and “senseless,” the veteran prosecutor known for tough stands on urban crime called it “a chicken crap” traffic stop.

“It was so unnecessary,” Deters said. He added that Tensing “should never have been a police officer.”

Mayor John Cranley said the way officials have handled the case could help make Cincinnati a national model for “the pursuit of justice.”

But Emmanuel Gray, an organizer with the activist group Black Lives Matter, said at a rally Wednesday evening that the body camera video made the difference in how the case was handled.

“If there was no camera at that scene, the media and everybody would have taken the word of Tensing and the other officers,” he said.

Tensing, 25, who was jailed Wednesday and has a court appearance scheduled Thursday, was fired soon after the indictment was announced. He had been with the University of Cincinnati for more than a year after starting police work in 2011 in a Cincinnati suburb. He also had earned a UC degree in criminal justice.

Tensing’s attorney, Stewart Mathews, said he was shocked that his client was indicted on a murder charge and that Tensing did not intend to kill DuBose.

Tensing, who could face up to life in prison if convicted, has said he thought he was going to be dragged under the car and “feared for his life,” Mathews said.

Mathews said a video from the body camera of a police officer who arrived right after the shooting shows Tensing lying in the street after he had gotten free of the car, but that video hasn’t been released by authorities.

“With the political climate in this country with white police officers shooting black individuals, I think they need somebody to make an example of,” Mathews said.

Authorities have said Tensing noticed the car driven by DuBose didn’t have a front license plate. They say Tensing stopped the car and a struggle ensued after DuBose failed to provide a driver’s license and refused to get out of the car.

“I didn’t even do nothing,” DuBose can be heard telling Tensing. DuBose held up what appears to be a bottle of gin.

Tensing fired once, striking DuBose in the head.

Aubrey DuBose, the victim’s brother, called the shooting “senseless” and “unprovoked.” He said news of the indictment was “awesome.”

He said the family is upset but wants any reaction to the case to be nonviolent and done in a way that honors his brother’s style.

“Sam was peaceful,” he said. “He lived peaceful. And in his death, we want to remain peaceful. Like my mom said, let God fight the battle. I’m a lifetime Cincinnatian. I remember 2001. We don’t want none of that.”

In the aftermath of the riots, the city increased police training and citizen feedback, revised policies to reduce use of deadly force and focused on community-oriented policing under a collaborative agreement hammered out with the police union and American Civil Liberties Union.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said during a May visit that Cincinnati’s reforms could be a model for other cities dealing with the issue of community-police relations. Violent protests have followed the deaths of unarmed blacks in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore and other cities in the past year.

The Wednesday evening rally drew a large crowd outside a Cincinnati courthouse. It appeared peaceful with some holding up signs calling for justice for DuBose. One man on a bullhorn stressed, “We’re not going to riot.”


Associated Press writers Kantele Franko, Ann Sanner, Mitch Stacy, Julie Carr Smyth and Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus contributed to this report.

Afghan official: Drone strike kills 20 members of IS group

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — An Afghan official says two separate drone strikes in an eastern province bordering Pakistan have killed 20 militants affiliated with the Islamic State group.

Ahmad Zia Abdulzai, spokesman for the governor of Nangarhar province, says the strikes took place late on Wednesday night. He says both took place in Haska Mina district near the border

Abdulzai says the district is adjacent to Pachi Agam district, where militants are active.

A statement from the U.S. military in Afghanistan confirmed a “kinetic strike” in Nangarhar against what it says were “individuals threatening the force.”

Abdulzai says no civilians were killed or wounded.

Nangarhar has seen heavy fighting in recent months between militants purported to be from the Taliban and the Islamic State group, battling for control of trade routes.

Landslides bury Nepal villages, killing at least 20 people

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KATHMANDU, Nepal (AP) — Landslides in a mountain area of Nepal buried three villages Thursday, killing at least 20 people, authorities said.

Nepal’s National Emergency Operation Center said the landslide was triggered by heavy rainfall in the village at Lumle, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) west of Kathmandu, where rescuers pulled out 14 bodies.

An Associated Press cameraman saw police and army rescuers digging through piles of debris in search of at least 11 more people.

Continuing rain was hampering the rescue. The highway linking the village with Pokhara, the main city in the region, was blocked at several places, delaying rescuers. Bad weather also prevented helicopters from flying.

Another five bodies were pulled out of nearby Dudhe village on Thursday, where two bridges were washed away.

One more person was killed in the neighboring Baglung district, where the death toll was expected to rise.

Heavy monsoon rains in Nepal often trigger landslides in mountains and flooding in southern plains.

The devastating earthquake in April that killed nearly 8,900 people had set off many landslides and officials fear that the heavy rainfall would trigger more.

Business: China falls again but other Asian stocks, Europe higher

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BEIJING (AP) — Chinese stocks fell again Thursday while other major global markets rose after the U.S. Federal Reserve left interest rates unchanged at a record low.

KEEPING SCORE: In early trading, Germany’s DAX gained 0.2 percent to 11,229.04 points and France’s CAC-40 was up 0.2 percent at 5,029.86. Britain’s FTSE 100 gained 0.4 percent to 6,655.83. On Wall Street, futures for the Dow Jones industrial average and Standard & Poor’s 500 both were off 0.1 percent. On Wednesday, the Dow and the S&P both rose 0.7 percent and the Nasdaq composite gained 0.4 percent.

CHINA’S GYRATIONS: The Shanghai benchmark suffered its biggest one-day drop in eight years on Monday when it plunged 8.5 percent despite government intervention to stem a slide in stock prices. The index fell further before rebounding 3.5 percent on Wednesday and then slipping again Thursday. Analysts say the volatility is a sign economic fundamentals cannot support stock prices at their current level. Other say even if the intervention restores confidence, markets are likely to face turbulence in coming weeks before prices settle down.

ASIA’S DAY: The Shanghai Composite Index fell 2.2 percent to 3,705.77 for its third losing day this week. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng lost 0.5 percent to 24,497.98. Tokyo’s Nikkei 225 advanced 1.1 percent to 20,525.80 and Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 rose 0.8 percent to 5,669.50. Seoul’s Kospi shed 0.9 percent to 2,019.03. Benchmarks in India, Taiwan and the Philippines rose.

FED DECISION: Fed policymakers voted Wednesday to leave interest rates unchanged and gave no indication a rise was imminent. The Fed said the U.S. economy is improving but signaled that it wants to see further economic gains and higher inflation before raising rates. Many investors expect the Fed will still lift rates in September or December, but its statement gave no timing for the raise. Low interest rates have been good for stock investors, helping fuel a bull market that has lasted more than six years.

THE QUOTE: “You have to hand it to the Federal Reserve. They look primed to put up the fed funds rate in September, perhaps December. Yet at the same time, equities looks supported and the yield curve remains unchanged,” said IG chief strategist Chris Weston in a market commentary. “If the object of its communication exercise is to ease the market into a normalization process without causing a stir in capital markets, then you would give their performance a nine out of ten.”

U.S EARNINGS: Stocks were boosted by a strong batch of corporate earnings. Gilead Sciences rose 2.3 percent after its profit jumped 23 percent, helped by its new hepatitis C medicine Harvoni. Northrop Grumman led defense companies higher after it posted a stronger-than-expected profit in the second quarter and raised its outlook for the year. Northrop’s stock jumped 6.2 percent, its biggest one-day gain in at least five years.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude fell 2 cents to $48.81 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract jumped 81 cents to close at $48.79 on Wednesday. Brent crude, used to price international oils, gained 32 cents to $53.70 in London after rising 8 cents to $53.38 the previous session.

CURRENCIES: The dollar rose to 124.17 yen from Wednesday’s 123.90 yen. The euro edged down to $1.0980 from the previous session’s $1.0986.


Iran nuclear deal turns up lobbying heat on Congress

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Iran nuclear deal has supercharged congressional lobbying, with President Barack Obama securing the support of a prominent Jewish Democrat and pro-Israel groups pressuring lawmakers in an all-out, big-money drive.

Obama, his Cabinet and other allies are making the case that the deal, which calls on Iran to curb its nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in sanctions relief, is the best possible way to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.

Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are scheduled to testify on Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee along with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state for political affairs and ambassador to NATO, will meet with House Democrats at the invitation of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is leading the effort to round up Democratic support for the deal. House Democrats also were scheduled to meet with Obama at the White House later in the day.

“I believe that Israel, the region, and the world are far more secure if Iran does not move toward possession of a nuclear weapon,” longtime Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., said in a statement that referenced his Jewish faith.

On the other side is the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is spending millions of dollars on ads to convince lawmakers that Iran can’t be trusted and the deal should be scuttled. Its members were personally pressing the argument in meetings on Capitol Hill.

“We flew in this morning from Miami,” Stephen Fiske, one of hundreds of AIPAC activists in Washington this week, said as he headed toward a lawmaker’s office. “We have a few meetings today and we have 13 tomorrow.”

Lawmakers from Fiske’s home state, Florida, along with the New York delegation, are considered among the top lobbying targets in Congress, according to interviews with lawmakers, their aides and activists.

Vote counters are especially focused on members such as Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who have not announced how they’ll vote. Also undeclared is the House’s chief Democratic vote counter, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

Congress has begun a 60-day review of the international agreement, with a vote expected in September. If the Republican-controlled Congress passes a resolution of disapproval for the deal, Obama has said he will veto it. The administration is hoping to secure the backing of Democrats to sustain the veto.

Tension rose Tuesday during a packed hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Three of Obama’s Cabinet members — Kerry, Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew — fielded pointed questions from wary representatives.

As the hearing entered its third hour, Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., told the trio that the deal would embolden Iran, which is already involved in activities that destabilize the region.

“Well, we’re going to give the crocodile, or the shark, a few more teeth and let’s just see if it does something different,” said Perry, who thinks the administration needs to negotiate a better deal. He went on, asking Kerry whether he cared about what the American people, through their congressional representatives, thought about the agreement.

Kerry lashed back: “Congressman, I don’t need any lessons from you about who I represent. I’ve represented and fought for our country since I was out of college. … Don’t give me any lessons about that, OK? Now, let me just make it crystal clear to you. This is America’s interest. … Now, we believe that Iran was marching towards a weapon or the capacity to have a weapon, and we’ve rolled that back, congressman.”

Kerry warned the committee members against nixing the deal, insisting that it includes strict inspections and other safeguards to deter Tehran from cheating.

“Iran has cheated on every agreement they’ve signed,” said California GOP Rep. Ed Royce, the panel’s chairman.

Kerry was asked what would prevent Iran from temporarily adhering to the agreement, then taking the money from the sanctions relief and rushing to build an atomic bomb. If Iran tries to develop a nuclear weapon covertly, the international community will know, Kerry told the panel.

“The red flags that would go off — the bells and whistles that would start chiming — as a result of any movement away from what they have to do” under the agreement, Kerry said.

Parole for Pollard revisits divisions over extent of harm

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The arrest of Jonathan Pollard for spying for Israel touched off one of the most sensational spy cases in recent American history, stoking fierce international passions and decades of legal and diplomatic wrangling.

Thirty years later, Pollard, 60, has been granted parole from his life sentence by the U.S. Parole Commission, which set his release for Nov. 21.

In some ways the dispute continues. His lawyers say they will ask President Barack Obama for clemency and to allow Pollard to travel from the United States to Israel. The White House dismisses that prospect, saying Pollard had committed “very serious crimes” and would serve his sentence under the law.

“We are looking forward to his release,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Tuesday.

The Pollard case has been a divisive political flashpoint — and an occasional diplomatic bargaining chip — from the day in 1985 he was arrested while trying to gain asylum at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

Supporters have seen the former Navy intelligence analyst as a martyr who was punished excessively given that he spied for a longtime U.S. ally. But critics, including many in the U.S. government, have condemned the American as a traitor who exchanged secrets for money.

“He took an oath to support the Constitution of the United States, and he failed it,” said M.E. “Spike” Bowman, a former FBI deputy general counsel. “The fact that he gave it to an ally, that makes absolutely no difference to me. I’m glad that it was an ally rather than the Russians, but what he did makes absolutely no difference.”

Even as many American Jews have wrestled with how much leniency he should get, Israelis have long campaigned for his freedom. The government there has recognized him as an Israeli agent and granted him citizenship. Still, recent American presidents have rejected overtures to free him, with former President Bill Clinton writing in his memoir that Pollard’s release “was a hard case” to push.

Said Netanyahu, in Israel, “Throughout his time in prison, I consistently raised the issue of his release in my meetings and conversations with the leadership of successive U.S. administrations.”

“Immense joy,” Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked wrote in Hebrew on her Facebook page, adding that “30 years of suffering will come to an end this November.”

The U.S. had dangled the prospect of Pollard’s release during Israel-Palestinian talks last year, but the peace efforts collapsed and nothing came of the proposal.

Though the decision was announced just weeks after the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, White House officials strongly denied that Pollard’s release had anything to do with that agreement, or that was it was intended as a concession to Israel. Officials there have said that while they would welcome the release, it would not ease their opposition to the Iran agreement.

The Justice Department, for its part, noted that federal sentencing rules in place at the time of Pollard’s prosecution entitled him to parole after 30 years of his life sentence. Department lawyers did not contest his parole bid, which was granted following a hearing this month before the Parole Commission. He was presumptively entitled to parole provided he had a record of good behavior in prison and was seen as unlikely to commit future crimes once released.

His lawyers say they have secured housing and a job for Pollard in the New York area. Parolees are required for five years after their release to get government permission for foreign travel.

“The president has no intention of altering the terms of Mr. Pollard’s parole,” said Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council.

Pollard has faced health problems in recent years. He is being held in the federal prison in Butner, North Carolina. His lawyers said he was “looking forward to being reunited with his beloved wife, Esther.”

His supporters maintain that he provided information critical to Israel’s security interests at a time when the country was under threat from its Middle East neighbors. Prosecutors and many in the U.S. intelligence community say that his disclosure of voluminous classified documents constituted a criminal breach on par with that of America’s most infamous spies.

The U.S. has said Pollard provided reams of sensitive and classified information to Israel, including details about radar-jamming techniques and the electronic capabilities of nations hostile to Israel, including Saudi Arabia.

A court statement from then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger said Pollard did “irrevocable” damage to the U.S. and had provided the Israelis with more than 800 U.S. classified publications and more than 1,000 classified messages and cables. Portions of the Weinberger document that have been declassified state that Pollard admitted passing to his Israeli contacts “an incredibly large quantity of classified documents” and that U.S. troops could be endangered because of the theft.

Eliot Lauer, one of Pollard’s lawyers, rejected that assessment, saying his client “loves this country” and “never intended to do anything to harm the United States.”

“We are grateful and delighted that our client will be released soon,” said a statement from Pollard’s lawyers, Lauer and Jacques Semmelman.


Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Deb Riechmann in Washington and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report. FILE – In this May 15, 1998, file photo, Jonathan Pollard speaks during an interview in a conference room at the Federal Correction Institution in Butner, N.C. Lawyers for the convicted spy Pollard say the U.S. has granted his parole and he will be released in November 2015. Pollard, sentenced to life in prison, has served 30 years for spying for Israel. (AP Photo/Karl DeBlaker, File)

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Russia security boss: IS recruits come from over 100 nations

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s security chief says the Islamic State group has recruited nationals of more than 100 countries, posing a long-term threat to global stability.

Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main KGB successor agency, said at Wednesday’s security conference that IS’s aim is to create a global network of sleeper cells that could undermine the security and territorial integrity of its recruits’ home countries.

He said IS efforts are mostly focused on young people.

Bortnikov spoke Wednesday at the opening of a two-day security conference in the Volga River city of Yaroslavl attended by representatives of security agencies of more than 60 nations.

He called for broader international cooperation to track down IS recruiters and sleeper cells and undercut the group’s funding base.


BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi government forces recaptured Anbar University from the Islamic State militant group Sunday after hours of fierce clashes, provincial officials said, as part of its push to reclaim territory across the embattled province.

The university, located 5 kilometers (3 miles) south of Anbar’s provincial capital, the militant-held city of Ramadi, was under the full control of government forces, which had entered the complex early Sunday amid intense combat with the militant group.

Athal al-Fahdawi, a provincial councilman said a number of buildings in and around the university complex have been badly damaged or destroyed, but that the militants retreated. Another Anbar councilman, Faleh al-Issawi, told The Associated Press that about two dozen Islamic State fighters were killed in the clashes. He declined to provide more details.

The Iraqi military launched a large-scale operation this month to retake Anbar province, in which most of the biggest cities are held by the Islamic State group. The loss of Ramadi in mid-May recalled the collapse of Iraqi security forces last summer in the face of the Islamic State group’s blitz into Iraq that saw it capture a third of the country, where it has declared an Islamic caliphate.

A U.S.-led coalition has launched more than 3,000 airstrikes in Iraq, many of them in Anbar province. The fall of Ramadi was the latest defeat on the ground calling into question the Obama administration’s hopes of relying solely on airstrikes to support the Iraqi forces in expelling the extremists.

Government-backed forces, which include the Iraqi military, Shiite militias and Sunni tribes, are also currently assembling around the militant-held city of Fallujah, which was the first major city in Iraq to fall to the militant group in early 2014.

Troubles first began for Anbar University in June 2014 when militants stormed the campus, briefly taking students hostage before withdrawing from the school amid gunfire. Ramadi was long under the protection of the local tribes and government-backed forces, which managed to hold on to the city longer than most others in the province.


Yacoub reported from Amman, Jordan.

Official: Turkish jets pound PKK positions in Iraq

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ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish jets hit Kurdish rebel targets in northern Iraq in a new raid against the separatist group, authorities said Wednesday, as Turkey’s opposition pro-Kurdish party called for an immediate end to the violence and the resumption of peace efforts.

The warplanes overnight pounded about half a dozen positions, including shelters and storage facilities, belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a government statement said. Locations included the group’s mountainous stronghold in Qandil.

Turkish jets have been attacking rebel positions in northern Iraq and in southeastern Turkey in a dramatic escalation of tensions that has left an already fragile peace process with the Kurds in shatters. The airstrikes came after the rebels claimed responsibility for the killing of two policemen.

Kurdish activists have held the government responsible for a suicide bombing — blamed on the Islamic State group — accusing it of not doing enough to stop the extremists’ activities.

Turkish jets have also attacked extremists in Syria following the suicide bombing.

Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, called for the peace process to resume as parliament prepared to hold an extraordinary session — possibly behind closed doors — to discuss the attacks by the rebels and the IS group, and Turkey’s response.

“We need to immediately create the conditions for an immediate return to the environment of truce and to the process of dialogue,” Demirtas said.

His call came at the same time that a prosecutor demanded that Demirtas’ parliamentary immunity be lifted so that he can be prosecuted for insulting Turkey’s ruling party. The prosecutor petitioned parliament a day after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a call for prosecutors to act against Kurdish party leaders for alleged links to the outlawed PKK..


FILE – In this Jan. 30, 2015, file photo, a Syrian Kurdish sniper looks at the rubble in the Syrian city of Ain al-Arab, also known as Kobani. Turkey’s dramatic air campaign against the Islamic State and Kurdish forces has created a bit of a conundrum for President Barack Obama, who is leading the fight against one of Turkey’s targets while relying heavily on the other target. (AP Photo, File)

New York prison worker: I got ‘caught up’ in escape plot

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PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. (AP) — A prison worker who got “caught up in the fantasy” of a breakout planned by two killers told investigators she performed sex acts with one of the men and took naked photos of herself for the other.

Joyce Mitchell, 51, an instructor in the tailor shop at the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York, tearfully pleaded guilty Tuesday to helping prisoners Richard Matt and David Sweat escape. She faces a sentence of 2 1/3 to seven years in prison under terms of a plea deal with prosecutors.

Her lawyer, Stephen Johnston, said Mitchell realizes she made a “horrible mistake” by getting involved with Matt and Sweat, who staged an elaborate escape from the maximum-security prison on June 6.

“She got in over her head into something that she never should have started. But she did, and she’s paying the price now,” Johnston said outside court. “I think that to a certain extent, Matt got her to feeling good about herself, better than she had for a period of time, and she was swept off her feet a bit. … And then when she realized who she was dealing with, everything changed.”

Matt was shot and killed by searchers June 26, about 30 miles west of the prison. Sweat was captured near the Canadian border two days later and sent to another prison.

Mitchell’s sentencing is set for Sept. 28. Johnston said his client will not be able to post the bail of $100,000 cash or $200,000 bond.

In documents first obtained by NBC News, Mitchell told investigators she believed she helped the two inmates escape because she “was caught up in the fantasy” of their plot.

“I enjoyed the attention, the feeling both of them gave me and the thought of a different life,” she said in a statement.

“Matt told me they were getting out and we were all going to be together,” Mitchell said.

In April, Mitchell said, she was alone with Matt in the tailor shop when he grabbed her and kissed her.

“It startled me. He kissed me with an open mouth kiss. I didn’t say anything because I was scared for my husband, who also works for the facility,” Mitchell said.

In May, Matt asked her to perform oral sex and she so did out of fear, Mitchell said. On two or three other occasions, she said, Matt would come to her desk wearing a large coat in which he’d cut a hole so Mitchell could fondle him.

She said she took photos of her breasts and genitals and gave them to Matt to give to Sweat.

In another statement, she admitted she passed notes, some of which were “of a sexual nature” to Matt to give to Sweat. Sweat was reassigned from her tailor shop after rumors surfaced that he was romantically involved with Mitchell.

District Attorney Andrew Wylie said separate cases against Sweat and Gene Palmer, a guard who investigators accuse of unwittingly helping the two inmates, are expected to go before a grand jury next month.

“At this time, there are no other individuals who have been identified through the investigation as being involved directly or indirectly” with the escape, Wylie said.

Prosecutors say Mitchell provided hacksaw blades, chisels, a punch tool and a screwdriver to Matt on May 1. Authorities say she became close with the pair and agreed to be their getaway driver. But she backed out at the last moment, forcing the two to flee on foot after they emerged from a manhole near the prison.

Investigators also said Mitchell had discussed killing her husband, Lyle Mitchell, as part of the plot.

Lyle Mitchell was in court Tuesday and declined to speak with an Associated Press reporter.

Wylie said a grand jury could have considered other counts against Joyce Mitchell, including conspiracy to commit murder and sexual-related charges based on allegations involving the inmates. But he said he accepted pleas on two clearly provable charges — first-degree promoting prison contraband, a felony, and fourth-degree criminal facilitation, a misdemeanor— “in the interest of justice.”

The deal requires Mitchell to cooperate with a probe by the state inspector general.

Authorities said she smuggled the tools into the prison by hiding them in frozen meat she placed in a refrigerator in the tailor shop. They said Palmer then took the meat to Sweat and Matt, who were housed in a section where inmates are allowed to cook their meals.

Authorities do not believe Palmer knew of the escape plan. He was released on bail after being arrested on charges including promoting prison contraband.

Mitchell, who was arrested June 12, resigned from her job but remains eligible for a pension, according to corrections officials and the state comptroller’s office.

Matt and Sweat cut through their adjoining cell walls over months, climbed down catwalks to tunnels and broke through a brick wall. They then cut into a steam pipe and cut a chain holding a manhole cover outside the prison to get away, authorities said.


Joyce Mitchell cries as she sits with her attorney Stephen Johnston in court on Tuesday July 28, 2015 in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Mitchell, an instructor in the tailor shop at the Clinton Correctional Facility, pleaded guilty to charges of aiding two inmates convicted of murder by smuggling hacksaw blades and other tools to the pair, who broke out and spent three weeks on the run in June. She faces a sentence of 2 1/3 to 7 years in prison under terms of a plea deal with prosecutors. (Rob Fountain/The Press-Republican via AP, Pool)

Business: Global stocks rise ahead of Fed, keep wary eye on China

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TOKYO (AP) — Global stock markets rose Wednesday as Chinese shares rebounded after a record sell-off and attention turned to a Federal Reserve meeting that might give clues about the timing of a U.S. interest rate hike.

KEEPING SCORE: France’s CAC 40 rose 0.7 percent in early trading to 5,011.69. Germany’s DAX added 0.4 percent to 11,213.54. Britain’s FTSE 100 gained 0.6 percent to 6,596.83. U.S. shares were set to rise. Wall Street was set to rise. S&P 500 futures were up 0.2 percent to 2,090.30. Dow futures climbed 0.2 percent to 17,574.00

FED MEETING: Traders are focusing on the U.S. Federal Reserve as they try to assess when interest rates will rise. Fed policymakers started a two-day meeting Tuesday. Many expect the Fed to raise interest rates for the first time since the global financial crisis in either September or December. Ultra-low interest rates have spurred stock markets for several years.

ASIA’S DAY: China’s Shanghai Composite Index rebounded 3.4 percent to close at 3,789.17 after flitting between gains and losses for most of Wednesday. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng rose 0.5 percent to 24,619.45. Japan’s Nikkei 225 inched down 0.1 percent to close at 20,302.91. South Korea’s Kospi fell 0.1 percent to 2,037.62. Taiwan’s benchmark fell while Australia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia rose.

CHINA JITTERS: Alarm over the sharp fall in Chinese shares has abated somewhat after the Shanghai index steadied following Monday’s 8.5 percent dive. Many market commentators say 3,500 is a level for the index that Chinese authorities will aggressively defend. The economic effects of the past month’s slide in Chinese shares is likely to be limited as a low proportion of households are stock investors and levels of private savings are among the highest in the world.

THE QUOTE: “The major issue for investors is the level of growth and demand in China’s overall economy rather than the stock market itself,” said Ric Spooner, chief analyst at CMC Markets in Sydney. But he expects “many will remain cautious until there is some confirmation of a definite trend change in this market with prices continuing to move clearly away from yesterday’s support levels.”

EARNINGS SEASON: Investors are watching for earnings reports and forecasts. Wall Street was cheered Tuesday by strong results from UPS, Ford and other big companies. Lowered earnings forecasts from some companies, such as major Japanese robotics company Fanuc, sent the Nikkei down.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude was down 41 cents to $47.57 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It rose 59 cents to close at $47.98 a barrel in New York on Tuesday. Brent crude was down 70 cents at $52.60 a barrel in on ICE futures exchange in London.

CURRENCIES: The euro fell to $1.1043 from $1.1068 in the previous trading session. The dollar rose to 123.67 yen from 123.57 yen.


Opinion: Donald Trump is a superhero – but not in a good way

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(PhatzNewsRoom / Reuters)     —-       Hovering above all the brouhaha about Donald Trump’s bizarre presidential candidacy floats one critical question: Are we an electorate or are we an audience?

Trump has bet on the latter, while his competitors, even one like Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who has positions close to Trump on many issues, bet on the former. Trump has received a lot of opprobrium for his antics, but it isn’t clear that he is wrong. Even if much of the establishment and leading political analysts have already rendered their verdicts.

Trump certainly isn’t the first candidate to conflate entertainment and politics. When Ronald Reagan was asked if it was hard adjusting to being president after being an actor, he replied that he couldn’t imagine anyone being president without being an actor. Reagan was right. Performance skills, including the skill of drawing attention to oneself, are now intrinsic to political skills if one hopes to become president.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Trump stands in front of a statue of actor John Wayne during a campaign event in Winterset

But Reagan was talking about communication, which is why he always invoked President Franklin D. Roosevelt, another great communicator, as a model. He wasn’t talking about replacing substantive policy with performance.

Something has happened over the past 15 years or so that has radically altered the relationship between performance and politics. It is partly due to the U.S. political arena, in which a candidate must constantly try to grab attention. More subtly, however, it is also due to America’s ever-shifting popular culture, in which new kinds of narratives regularly push aside older ones.

Today it is comic-book superhero narratives that matter. We live in the age of Iron Man, where an irrepressible, indomitable smart-aleck, able to verbally and physically parry just about anything, is the exemplar. And this has affected our political discourse.

Many pundits attribute Trump’s publicity domination to his celebrity and his ability to grab the spotlight, honed by decades of playing the media. To many of them, he is the political Kardashian. There is some truth in this. The public’s appetite for Trump seems limitless. And he understands that, in today’s culture, the shortest road to success might not actually mean being successful but portraying yourself as being successful. Which then results in success. In effect, he is a Mobius strip seamlessly moving from perception to reality.

But as much as Trump boasts about his wealth (and denigrates everyone else), that is not what has catapulted the New York real estate magnate to the top of the Republican polls. He has gained a following because he understands the power of the superhero narrative, which he has adapted to his campaign. In this superhero era, Trump recognizes that a sizable chunk of the public is seeking a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners, politically incorrect avenger who channels their grievances and runs roughshod over opponents.


What Trump offers them is his detestation of the very mechanics of politics — and of democracy itself. He has no time for the compromises, negotiations, consensus building, civility and seriousness required in a democracy. The aptly named Trump is telling them that he will trump the entire political system. He’ll replace the mess of politics with a clean sweep of super heroics.

Reagan, the one professional entertainer who did assume the presidency, never purported to be a superhero. Quite the opposite. As studio boss Jack Warner quipped when he heard Reagan was running for governor of California: “No, no. Jimmy Stewart for governor. Reagan for best friend.” That was exactly right. Reagan was genial — the happy face of conservatism.

Trump, on the other hand, is no one’s best friend. He intentionally irritates.

Sure, his disruption is entertainment. The Huffington Post has already decided to consign Trump’s campaign to its entertainment pages. But it is a particular kind of entertainment, not just nutty bloviation.

When Trump promises to build his wall across the entire Mexican-U.S. border (and make Mexico pay for it!); when he promises to tell off China; when he promises to blow Islamic State off the face of the earth, he isn’t propounding policy. He is creating scenes from a movie. A movie we have all seen now dozens of times. He is playing to an audience that has foresworn being an electorate. It is what all demagogues do, but most of them have not had popular culture at their back the way Trump does.

This may also be why Trump keeps doubling-down on his inanities — accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists or insisting Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) is not a hero. Iron Man doesn’t apologize. He destroys. So does Trump. The more the political establishment rebukes him, the better.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Trump speaks during a news conference regarding issues on undocumented immigrants in Beverly Hills, California

But if Trump has bet on the electorate as audience, and on his ability to turn the presidential campaign into a Marvel movie, he may not have fully gamed it out. He may not have considered that entertainment, which is fundamentally anti-political, inevitably loses out when it comes up against politics, which is fundamentally anti-entertainment.

In the past, at some point, the demagogues who make themselves out to be populist superheroes have hit a critical mass where their posturing can trigger the public to say the show is over and the jig is up. As pollster Stuart Rothenberg recently explained, Trump’s popularity is a product of his voicing the angry sentiments many Republicans feel. It is not a product of their really wanting him to be president.

Usually sooner rather than later, the lights come up in the theater, and the audience walks out into the bracing real world from which they had been escaping.

At least that is the way it has always been. Trump is in a movie. His competitors are in a primary. If he somehow manages to sustain his candidacy, if the power of popular culture has so embedded itself in Americans’ consciousness as to make the public re-envision the world, it will say less about Trump than about a sea change in U.S. political culture — from one that is about governance to one that is about putting on an exhilarating show.

Trump can’t be president any other way.

Obama to wrap Africa trip with speech to African Union

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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — President Barack Obama highlighted his administration’s efforts to combat hunger worldwide on Tuesday as he prepared to end a historic return to the land of his father’s birth with a speech to the African Union.

Obama toured a plant operated by Faffa Foods, which participates in the U.S. Feed the Future program. The initiative focuses on helping smaller farmers in 19 countries, including Ethiopia and 11 other African nations, expand their businesses.

Faffa, in the Ethiopian capital, is the chief supplier of baby food for children in Ethiopia, where child malnutrition is a serious problem.

Obama said the “huge percentage” of Africans who still get their income from agriculture can improve their yields with a few interventions. He said a woman he met at the factory had increased her yield threefold, providing enough money for her to buy a cow and send her children to school.

With shirt-sleeves rolled up, the president admiringly held up ears of corn grown by Gifty Jemal Hussein, a farmer from the Gurege area of Ethiopia.

Obama said Feed the Future “is making a difference in some very concrete ways.”

Ethiopia is also the home of the African Union, a membership organization that promotes peace and security on the continent. Obama’s speech will be the first time a sitting American president addresses the group.

Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, said the AU takes the lead on an array of global issues, including peace and security, health and agriculture. Obama wanted to address the continent via the AU because the U.S. has come to work closely with the union on many of these issues.

Obama also met one on one with Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, chairperson of the African Union Commission. She also was among regional leaders Obama met with Monday to discuss the civil strife in neighboring South Sudan.

Obama’s speech will cap a five-day, two-nation tour of Africa that began with his arrival Friday in Kenya, where his late father was born.

The president flew to the Kenyan capital of Nairobi to attend a U.S.-sponsored business development summit, but the trip was also a homecoming of sorts. The country considers Obama a local son and Kenyans have been waiting years to welcome him back as president of the United States. Many lined the streets in Kenya, as well as in Ethiopia, to watch his motorcade drive by.

Obama also reconnected with relatives on his father’s side of the family, including his sister, Auma Obama, and a grandmother.

At both stops, Obama challenged the country’s leaders to clean up their governments to attract business investments.

He also pressed them to respect and uphold human rights, including gay equality, and basic democratic freedoms.

Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit both countries.

He arrives back in Washington early Wednesday.


AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.




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Summer camp for Iraqi Shiite boys: training to fight IS

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BAGHDAD (AP) — A quiet middle-class Shiite neighborhood in western Baghdad was transformed recently into a mini-boot camp, training teenagers for battle against the Islamic State group.

The Shiite boys and young men ran through its normally placid streets carrying out mock exercises for urban warfare since the toughest battles against the Sunni extremists are likely to involve street fighting. They were taught how to hold, control and aim light weapons, though they didn’t fire them.

In cities from Baghdad to Basra, summer camps set up by the Popular Mobilization Forces, Iraq’s largest militia umbrella group, are training teens and boys as young as middle school age after the country’s top Shiite cleric issued an edict calling on students to use their school vacations to prepare for battle if they are needed.

With dozens of such camps around the country, hundreds of students have gone through the training though it is impossible to say how many went on to fight the Sunni extremists since those who do so go independently. Of around 200 cadets in a training class visited by The Associated Press, about half were under the age of 18, with some as young as 15. Several said they intended to join their fathers and older brothers on the front lines.

It’s yet another way minors are being dragged into Iraq’s brutal war as the military, Shiite militias and Kurdish fighters battle to take back territory from Islamic State militants, who seized much of the country’s north and west over the past year. The Sunni extremists have aggressively enlisted children as young as 10 for combat, as suicide bombers and as executioners in their horrifying videos.

Among those training this month in the streets of Baghdad, 15-year-old Jaafar Osama said he used to want to be an engineer when he grew up, but now he wants to be a fighter. His father is a volunteer fighting with the Shiite militias in Anbar and his older brother is fighting in Beiji, north of Baghdad.

“God willing, when I complete my training I will join them, even if it means sacrificing my life to keep Iraq safe,” he said.

Earlier this summer, the AP saw over a dozen armed young boys, some as young as 10, deployed on the front line with the Shiite militias in western Anbar province.

Baghdad natives Hussein Ali, 12, and his cousin Ali Ahsan, 14, said they joined their fathers on the battlefield after they finished their final exams. Carrying AK-47’s, they paced around the Anbar desert, boasting of their resolve to liberate the predominantly Sunni province from IS militants.

“It’s our honor to serve our country,” Hussein Ali said, adding that some of his schoolmates were also fighting. When asked if he was afraid, he smiled and said no.

The training program could have serious implications for the U.S.-led coalition, which supports the Iraqi government but has distanced itself from the Iranian-backed militias. The U.S. does not work directly with the Popular Mobilization Forces, but they receive weapons and funding from the Iraqi government and are trained by the Iraqi military, which receives its training from the U.S.

The Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 says the U.S. cannot provide certain forms of military support, including foreign military financing and direct commercial sales to governments that recruit and use child soldiers or support paramilitaries or militias that do.

When informed of the AP findings, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued a statement saying the U.S. was “very concerned by the allegations on the use of child soldiers in Iraq among some Popular Mobilization Forces in the fight against ISIL,” using an acronym for the militant group. “We have strongly condemned this practice around the world and will continue to do so.”

Last year, when IS took over the northern city of Mosul, stormed to the doorstep of Baghdad and threatened to destroy Shiite holy sites, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on the public to volunteer to fight. His influence was so great that hundreds of thousands of men came forward to join the hastily-established Popular Mobilization Forces along with some of the long-established Shiite militias, most of which receive support from Iran.

Then, on June 9, as schools let out, al-Sistani issued a new fatwa urging young people in college, high school and even middle school to use their summer vacations to “contribute to (the country’s) preservation by training to take up arms and prepare to fend off risk, if this is required.”

A spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces, Kareem al-Nouri, said the camps give “lessons in self-defense” and underage volunteers are expected to return to school by September, not go to the front.

A spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister’s office echoed that. There may be “some isolated incidents” of underage fighters joining combat on their own, Saad al-Harithi told the AP. “But there has been no instruction by the Marjaiyah (the top Shiite religious authority) or the Popular Mobilization Forces for children to join the battle.”

“We are a government that frowns upon children going to war,” he said.

But the line between combat training and actually joining combat is weakly enforced by the Popular Mobilization Forces. Multiple militias operate under its umbrella, with fighters loyal to different leaders who often act independently.

Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser, said that if the Shiite militias are using children as fighters, “then the countries that are supporting them are in violation of the U.N. Convention” on the Rights of the Child.

“If you are supporting the Iraqi army, then by extension, you are supporting” the Popular Mobilization Forces, she said.

The U.N. convention does not ban giving military training to minors. But Jo Becker, the advocacy director of the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, said that it puts children at risk.

“Governments like to say, ‘Of course, we can recruit without putting children in harm’s way,’ but in a place of conflict, those landscapes blur very quickly,” she said.


In this Tuesday, July 14, 2015 photo, Iraqi volunteers with Popular Mobilization Forces train at a volunteers center in Baghdad, Iraq. The Associated Press has found that militia forces battling the Islamic State group are actively training children under 18 years old. (AP Photo/Vivian Salama)

Libya court sentences Gadhafi son to death for 2011 killings

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TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — A court in Libya’s capital convicted a son of Moammar Gadhafi of murder and inciting genocide during the country’s 2011 uprising on Tuesday, sentencing him to death in absentia.

The Tripoli court that sentenced Seif al-Islam, who is being held by a militia that refuses to hand him over to the central government, also sentenced to death eight others, including former Libyan spy chief Abdullah al-Senoussi, who is in government custody.

It was unclear whether the sentences in the mass trial of 38 Gadhafi-era figures, only 29 of whom were present, would be carried out. Six others were sentenced to life in prison and four were cleared of charges.

Libya has slid into chaos since the overthrow and killing of Gadhafi. It is now bitterly divided between an elected parliament and government cornered in the country’s east, with little power on the ground, and an Islamist militia-backed government in the west that has seized Tripoli.

Since the end of the civil war, Seif al-Islam has been held by a militia in Zintan, which is allied with the Tobruk-based internationally recognized government against the Tripoli one. He is also wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague on charges of crimes against humanity.

During the trial, Seif al-Islam was accused of recruiting mercenaries who were given Libyan nationality, planning and carrying out attacks on civilian targets from the air, forming armed groups and shooting into crowds of demonstrators. Among the charges he was convicted of were incitement of murder and rape.

Hundreds of militias in Libya are battling for power and turf in a lawless environment has allowed human traffickers and kidnappers to flourish.

The U.N. envoy for Libya, meanwhile, has urged the Islamist-led government in Tripoli to sign a peace deal that would establish a unity government. Members of the Tobruk government and regional leaders signed the unity accord in Morocco on July 11.

Also sentenced to death were foreign intelligence chief Abu-Zeid Omar-Dawarda and Gadhafi’s former Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi.


FILE – In this Saturday, Nov. 19, 2011 file photo, Seif al-Islam is seen after his capture in the custody of revolutionary fighters in Zintan. A court in the Libyan capital has sentenced Seif al-Islam to death over killings during the country’s 2011 uprising. The Tripoli court handed down the sentence Tuesday for Seif al-Islam, who is currently being held by a militia that refuses to hand him over to the central government. The court sentenced eight others to death as well, including former Libyan spy chief Abdullah al-Senoussi. (AP Photo/Ammar El-Darwish, File)

Theater shooting: No red flags reported at time of gun sale

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CARROLLTON, Ga. (AP) — John Russell Houser’s mental problems were well known to many, though perhaps not to the store that sold him the .40-caliber handgun used in a deadly attack on a Louisiana movie theater. A federal background check came back clean, the pawn shop said, with no red flags raised at the time of sale.

Yet Houser’s own family worried he was dangerous in 2008 and sought court protection. His wife was so worried that she removed his guns from their home, her attorney said. A probate judge in Georgia signed an order allowing sheriff’s deputies to detain Houser and bring him to a hospital for a mental evaluation.

But the judge who ordered Houser detained said Monday that she did not — and legally could not — have him involuntarily committed. That may explain why he was able to legally purchase the gun used to kill Jillian Johnson and Mayci Marie Breaux in a theater in Lafayette. He wounded nine others before killing himself.

Houser’s case underscores concerns raised in the aftermath of other mass shootings involving suspects with mental health issues — and the gaps in the system meant to “red-flag” people ill-suited to own or carry a firearm.

Funeral services for Johnson and Breaux were held Monday. Johnson was remembered as an artist who worked to beautify her neighborhood while Breaux was looking forward to a new job and married life with a longtime boyfriend.

The members of Johnson’s band, an all-female group called The Figs, sang during the funeral as her husband, stepdaughter, parents, and brother looked on. A ukulele was placed near her casket.

Their assailant had come under the scrutiny of authorities in the past, but he managed to avoid the sort of legal consequences that might have blocked him from buying a gun. While an Alabama sheriff said he denied Houser’s application for a concealed weapons’ permit in 2006, there appears to have been nothing in court filings that would raise concerns in the FBI background check system.

Contrary to legal filings by Houser’s family, Carroll County Probate Judge Betty Cason said she did not order Houser to be involuntarily committed for mental health treatment at the West Central Regional Hospital in Columbus, Georgia, which is in Muscogee County, where she lacks jurisdiction.

Doctors at the hospital would have had to petition that county’s probate judge for such a commitment, so “it wouldn’t have come through me,” Cason told The Associated Press.

Houser’s federal background check allowed the sale to proceed, according to a lawyer for the pawn shop where he bought the weapon in February 2014, Money Miser Northside Pawn in Phenix City.

“We know ATF reviewed our sale and said everything is right on our side,” said the store’s attorney, Eric B. Funderburk, referring to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Cason said she did sign an order on April 22, 2008, authorizing deputies to detain Houser and take him, against his will if necessary, to a treatment facility for a mental health evaluation.

That order would have allowed medical authorities to examine Houser for up to five days. Afterward, doctors would have had to either release Houser, convince him to voluntarily commit himself for treatment, or ask the Muscogee County Probate Court to force him to undergo treatment over a longer period.

It was not immediately clear Monday how Houser’s case was resolved, since the probate court records are sealed from public view, and the judges involved said they can’t be released.

The case came before Cason’s court in 2008 when Houser’s family asked her to intervene in Carroll County, where he had allegedly menaced his daughter and in-laws.

While Houser was in the hospital, his family’s lawyer, Candace Rader, sought and obtained a protective order from another Carroll County judge after writing — mistakenly, as it turns out — that an “Order of Involuntary Commitment” had been issued two days earlier by the probate judge. The AP left messages seeking comment from Rader at her office and on her phone Monday with no immediate response.

Houser suffered from bipolar disorder, showed extremely erratic behavior and had made “ominous as well as disturbing statements” in Carroll County objecting to the pending marriage of his daughter, the family said as they asked for help keeping him away. His wife, Kellie Houser, told police her husband was not taking his medication and was forgetting to eat, according to a police report.

Muscogee County Probate Court Judge Marc D’Antonio said Monday that privacy laws prevent him from saying whether Houser ever appeared before his court. However, D’Antonio said his office reports all involuntary mental health hospitalizations to Georgia’s statewide criminal records system, and those records are eventually fed in a federal database run by the FBI.

“If there had been an adjudication, I am confident we would have reported it,” D’Antonio said.

Judge Cason says the case still raises troubling questions about how society cares for the mentally ill.

On one hand, judges are reluctant to take away the civil rights of someone who needs help. She credited Georgia with moving away from a system that effectively warehoused people with mental illness, and now focuses on community care.

“Somebody may be depressed, they may have gone through, lost their jobs or whatever, and they can overcome that. You wouldn’t want to earmark that person as somebody who is mentally ill for the rest of their life,” she said.

On the other hand, she said, “you have these people that can’t basically function, so the question is what do you do?”


Associated Press Writers Rebecca Santana in New Orleans, Claire Galofaro in Louisville, Kentucky, and Kim Chandler in Phenix City, Alabama, contributed to this report.

Dondie LeBlanc Breaux, mother of Mayci Breaux, center, and Kevin Breaux, right, father of Mayci, are comforted outside the Church of the Assumption, after her funeral in Franklin, La., Monday, July 27, 2015. She was one of two people killed in Thursday’s movie theater shooting in Lafayette, La. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

NATO holding rare emergency meeting at Turkey’s request

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BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO’s secretary-general said Tuesday that the alliance “stands in strong solidarity with our ally Turkey,” as ambassadors gathered for a rare emergency meeting about the threat faced by a member.

Turkey requested the extraordinary meeting to gauge the threat the Islamic State extremist group poses to Turkey, and the actions Turkish authorities are taking in response, including attacks on Kurdish rebels.

“It is right and timely that we hold this meeting today, to address the instability on Turkey’s doorstep, and on NATO’s border,” secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said before ambassadors from the 28 member states went into a closed session.

Article 4 of NATO’s founding treaty empowers member states to seek such consultations when they consider their “territorial integrity, political independence or security” to be in jeopardy. This was only the fifth such meeting in NATO’s 66-year history.

In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkish and U.S. officials were discussing the creation of a safe zone near Turkey’s border with Syria, which would be cleared of IS group presence and turned into a secure area for Syrian refugees to return.

Speaking at a news conference Tuesday before leaving for China, Erdogan also said it was impossible to advance a peace process with the Kurds as attacks on Turkey continue.

Recently, an IS suicide bombing near Turkey’s border with Syria left 32 people dead and an IS attack on Turkish forces killed a soldier.

After months of reluctance, Turkish warplanes last week started striking militant targets in Syria and agreed to allow the U.S. to launch its own strikes from Turkey’s strategically located Incirlik Air Base.

In a series of cross-border strikes, Turkey has not only targeted the IS group but also Kurdish fighters affiliated with forces battling IS in Syria and Iraq.

The Syrian Kurds are among the most effective ground forces battling IS and have been backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, but Turkey fears a revival of the Kurdish insurgency in pursuit of an independent state.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has fought Turkey for autonomy for Kurds in a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 1984. The Kurds are an ethnic group with their own language living in a region spanning present-day Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia.

For some NATO members and independent observers, it’s unclear whether Turkey’s No. 1 target is IS or the Kurds, said Ian Kearns, director of the European Leadership Network, a London-based think tank.

What’s more, Turkish leaders “have actually been arguing that the Kurds in Syria are more of a threat to Turkey,” Kearns told The Associated Press.

On Monday, Syria’s main Kurdish militia and an activist group said Turkish troops shelled a Syrian village near the border, targeting Kurdish fighters.

“There is no difference between PKK and Daesh,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters Monday, using an Arabic acronym to refer to the Islamic State group.

“You can’t say that PKK is better because it is fighting Daesh,” Cavusoglu said during a visit to Lisbon, Portugal.


Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Barry Hatton in Lisbon contributed. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, left, talks during a North Atlantic Council Meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday July 28, 2015. For just the fifth time in its 66-year history, NATO ambassadors met in emergency session Tuesday to gauge the threat the Islamic State extremist group poses to Turkey, and the debated actions Turkish authorities are taking in response. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

Business: China stocks fall for second day, Europe rises

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BEIJING (AP) — Chinese stocks fell further Tuesday after suffering their biggest drop in eight years the previous day while most other Asian markets declined and Europe rose.

KEEPING SCORE: The Shanghai Composite Index dropped 3.8 percent in early trading but recovered to end down 1.7 percent at 3,663.00. In Europe, Germany’s DAX was up 0.9 percent at 11,150.48 and France’s CAC-40 gained 0.8 percent to 4,967.18. Britain’s FTSE 100 added 0.7 percent to 6,549.23. On Wall Street, futures pointed to gains after Monday’s fall. Dow futures were up 0.5 percent and S&P 500 futures rose 0.6 percent.

CHINA’S PLUNGE: The Shanghai index fell 8.5 percent on Monday, its biggest one-day loss since February 2007 despite a massive government intervention. Analysts blamed investor concern over slowing economic growth and said a decline appeared inevitable after a rebound driven by government measures over the past two weeks. The Shanghai index had risen nearly 150 percent starting late last year before hitting a peak in early June and falling. Chinese authorities responded with a raft of market support measures that included prohibiting stock sales by major shareholders. State-owned brokerages and pension funds have pledged to buy shares.

THE QUOTE: “With Chinese markets heading further south on Tuesday after yesterday’s plunge, the question whether Beijing’s intervention is working gets louder,” said IG market strategist Bernard Aw in a commentary. Since only 9 percent of Chinese households actively traded shares, and a small subset of those use borrowed money, the negative wealth effect from a stock market meltdown should not be “that big a deal,” Aw said. “In this vein, could the Chinese authorities be over-reacting? Could they have left the market forces alone to determine what the equilibrium level is? Or perhaps they know more intimate details than we do?”

ASIA’S DAY: Hong Kong’s Hang Seng rose 0.6 percent to 24,503.94 while Tokyo’s Nikkei 225 shed 0.1 percent to 20,328.89. India’s Sensex declined 0.4 percent to 27,437.61. Singapore, New Zealand, Bangkok and Jakarta also retreated. Seoul’s Kospi was flat at 2,039.10 and Sydney’s S&P/ASX 200 dropped 0.1 percent to 5,584.70.

U.S. ECONOMY: Traders were turning attention to the U.S. Federal Reserve as they try to assess when interest rates will be raised. Expectations are split between September or December. Fed leaders meet this week but few central bank watchers expect a rate hike. Ultra-low interest rates have been a boon for stock markets for several years and the first U.S. rate hike since the 2008 financial crisis is likely to ruffle markets.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude declined 26 cents to $47.13 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract shed 75 cents on Monday to $47.39. Brent crude, used to price international oils, fell 72 cents to $52.74 after tumbling $1.15 on Monday to $53.47.

CURRENCIES: The dollar rose to 123.71 yen from 123.27 yen on Monday. The euro fell to $1.1067 from $1.1087.


In an Afghanistan awash in arms, a push to ban toy guns

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A shootout at a wedding party in northern Afghanistan has left 21 people dead and eight wounded, an official said Monday.

Abdul Jabar Perdili, police chief of Baghlan province, said a gunfight broke out between two groups attending the wedding in Dih Salah district late Sunday. He said that most of the dead were wedding guests and at least two of the wounded were younger than 18 years old.

Perdili’s spokesman, Jaweed Basharat, had earlier said that 10 people were wounded. Conflicting accounts are common in the chaotic aftermath of violent incidents.

Baghlan and other provinces of the north have been plagued by insurgent attacks since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 that toppled the Taliban. However, the war is often used as a cover for criminal activity and personal feuds.

The police chief of Dih Salah, Col. Gulistan Qasani, said hostility between the two groups involved in the gunfight had been simmering for many years.

“The clash broke out after a relative of a provincial police official was assassinated during the wedding party,” Qasani said.

He said some 400 people had gathered at a private house for the wedding of a local mullah’s son.

“When we collected the bodies it was difficult to determine who were the shooters and who were not, because I could not find any weapons,” Qasani said.

Meanwhile in northern Sari Pul province, a local police commander and seven of his men surrendered to the Taliban in Kohistanat district, according to provincial police chief Gen. Mohammad Asef Jabarkhail.

Jabarkhail said the surrender came after Taliban fighters attacked police checkpoints on Sunday. Reinforcements have reached the area to support police still fighting, he said.

The Taliban, who often exaggerate battlefield gains, said in a statement that 100 police in Sari Pul had defected to their side, a claim Jabarkhail denied.



KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The weapons of Afghanistan’s long decades of war can be seen almost everywhere, from the burned-out hulks of Soviet tanks to the Kalashnikov assault rifles slung over policemen’s shoulders and helicopter gunships roaring overhead.

It should be no surprise then that young children play “police and Taliban,” chasing each other around with toy guns and weaponry designed to mimic the real thing. And like the real war, there have been casualties.

At least 184 people, nearly all children, suffered eye injuries over the recent Eid al-Fitr holiday from toy weapons that fire BB pellets and rubber shot, health officials said. In response, authorities have banned toy guns.

“The Afghan Interior Ministry orders all police forces to confiscate toy guns, which can lead to physical and psychological damage to people,” the order read.

It didn’t elaborate on what psychological damage the toy guns can cause. The noise of gunfire is almost unmistakable to most Afghans, and unlike in the U.S., there have been no prominent cases of police officers here killing children brandishing toy Kalashnikovs or plastic pistols.

Afghans have grown familiar with firearms over long decades of war, from the 1979 Soviet invasion and the resulting insurgency to the civil war and the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. The U.S.-led invasion in 2001 after the Sept. 11 terror attacks introduced the population to a new host of armaments, from the M4 rifles carried by American soldiers to the heavy-duty armored vehicles known as MRAPs chugging down city streets.

The toy guns come mostly from China and neighboring Pakistan, and many were given to young boys as gifts during the recent Eid, or festival, that marks the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Authorities had tried to warn parents about the dangers the guns pose before the holiday.

“An awareness video was prepared as an initiative to inform people how much these toy guns can be dangerous,” said Dr. Abdul Rahim Majeed, the program manager for the public Noor Eye Hospital. “Unfortunately, the families did not take it seriously and didn’t pay attention to this important message and it caused many people to get injured and come to hospitals for treatments.”

Majeed said many of those injured by toy guns came to Noor, which treated 116 cases during this most recent holiday — double the number from last year. He said the national figure of those injured likely was higher, as some may have not sought treatment or gone to private clinics.

Since the ban went into effect, police have been told to search shops and seize toy guns from children, but the Interior Ministry could not offer any statistic for the number confiscated.

Parents like Shakib Nasery, a 38-year-old father of two, welcomed the effort to destroy the toy guns. Any reduction of violence in the insurgency-wracked country — even if just children’s play — would be good, he said.

“It is not good for a society to have kids with such mentality of using guns or playing gun battles,” Nasery said. “Unfortunately, this is the negative impact of an ongoing war in our country.”

Yemen ground fighting rages after airstrikes pause

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SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemeni security officials say Shiite rebels and their opponents are battling across several provinces hours after the start of a five-day humanitarian pause in the Saudi-led air campaign.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters, say coalition planes carried out flyovers Monday but did not drop munitions.

The rebels, known as Houthis, said in a statement that they fired missiles across the border at a Saudi military position in the kingdom’s Jazan region.

Security officials say the Houthis are battling their opponents north of the southern port city of Aden, and officials and witnesses say there are sporadic clashes in Yemen’s central Marib province.

Ground fighting erupted in multiple provinces within minutes of the start of the unilateral cease-fire late Sunday.

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