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    Refugees' stories inspire filmmakers at Berlin Film Festival

    BERLIN (Reuters) – Migration, an issue that has vexed Germany since its 2015 refugee crisis, proved fertile ground for filmmakers at this year’s Berlin Film Festival where they showcased movies looking at refugees’ stories of escape, arrival and integration.

    This year’s Berlinale – the 68th edition of the festival set up in 1951 to showcase films addressing social and political issues – shows refugees’ experiences in at least eight entries ranging from documentaries to an adaptation of a 1940s novel.

    Filmmakers at the festival said they wanted to send a political message and show how migration was changing Europe.

    “It’s much more that you now look at what refugees are doing after they arrived in our Europe. What is their future?” said Dieter Kosslick, the festival’s director.

    “Eldorado”, by Swiss director Markus Imhoof, follows migrants who were rescued from near the Libyan coast and taken to Italy where they could either wait in shelters and sometimes end up being deported or leave the camps to work illegally and risk being exploited.

    In the film, Imhoof also tells a personal story of his family taking in an Italian girl after World War Two and having to give her up.

    FILE PHOTO: (L-R) Film director Karim Ainouz, Ibrahim Al Hussein from Syria, and Qutaiba Nafea from Iraq pose for the photographer ahead of an interview with Reuters about Ainouz’s Berlinale International Film Festival entry movie “Central Airport THF” at historic Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, Germany February 13, 2018. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch/File Photo

    Another documentary, “Central Airport THF”, shows the lives of those who stay and wait in asylum shelters through a 15-month blog of a Syrian refugee living in Berlin’s Tempelhof airport. [L2N1Q40ZN]

    “The most important question politically speaking to Europe now is how can Europe be a diverse continent. It is really great that there are films that are dealing with that,” said Karim Ainouz, the Brazilian film director.

    Through a fictional story that is set in contemporary France showing Germans escaping troops that are occupying Marseilles, “Transit”, adapts a novel by Jewish author Anna Seghers telling her own escape story from Nazi Germany in 1940.

    The film which is one of 19 films competing for the festival’s Golden Bear award, details the desperate journey of refugees trying to secure visas and official papers in a bid to escape persecution.

    German director Christian Petzold said he wanted to send a political message concerning the idea of asylum law in the German constitution.

    In “Styx”, a female solo sailor faces a dilemma when she sees an overcrowded boat carrying refugees, some of whom jump off as it starts to sink.

    The coastguard tells her not to assist, assuring her that help is on the way but the hours pass and when a young refugee boy starts swimming towards her, she steers her boat towards him, takes him on board and nurses him.

    Chinese artist Ai Weiwei who covered the facade of Berlin’s concert hall with 14,000 life jackets from refugees during Berlinale two years ago, showcases his first feature length film. “Human Flow” is a documentary visiting more than 40 refugee camps in 23 countries.

    Reporting by Riham Alkousaa; Editing by Edmund Blair

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    Film at Berlin fest examines how Islamic State jihadists recruit European brides

    BERLIN (Reuters) – A movie at the Berlin film festival that looks at how Islamic State fighters recruit young European women online highlights the dangers of using the internet, the actress in the starring role told Reuters.

    In the film “Profile”, British journalist Amy Whittaker goes undercover to investigate the workings of the militant group by creating a fake Facebook profile and pretending to be a Muslim convert called Melody Nelson.

    She comes up with a cover story, disguises her tattoo, learns a bit of Arabic and dons a hijab. Over the coming days she spends hours chatting online to an Islamic State fighter called Bilel, with whom she makes curry via video link in one scene, and gradually finds herself being attracted to him.

    “It’s dangerous for us all to be online because there’s so much access to everything,” said Valene Kane, who plays Amy. “You can basically do anything online and I suppose that’s what the film shines a light on, this new world that we live in.”

    “It’s not just Syria – it’s all over. People are being manipulated into different situations with the anonymity of being online and having an avatar or whatever it is that they use to represent themselves,” Kane said.

    Bilel, who in the film is originally from London and describes his job in Syria as “killing people”, promises the woman he knows as Melody he will treat her like a queen and get her a cat.

    The character, played by Shazad Latif, shows Melody a luxury home where she would live and makes a video call to her while he is having fun playing football with international recruits.

    Actors Valene Kane and Shazad Latif pose during a photocall to promote the movie Profile at the 68th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin, Germany, February 17, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

    Kane said women often had a fantasy about what romance should be like and Bilel played that role perfectly for her character.

    “This man comes on her screen and says everything that she thought as a little girl that she wanted – I‘m going to get you a palace, I‘m going to give you as many children as you want, you’ll never have to work again,” she said.

    The camera shows Whittaker’s screen for the duration of the film, with viewers voyeuristically watching as she chats to Bilel and her friends and carries out internet searches on everything from Islamic State to how to freeze her eggs.

    “It’s about loneliness, about who we are today, how much of our life is happening on screen and how vulnerable we are when we are attached to the internet and how scary it is,” Russian-Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov told Reuters.

    “It’s a reality – it’s how we live today,” he said. “If I‘m awake for 15 hours, half of this time I‘m in front of a screen – my iPhone screen or my desktop or laptop and most important events today in my life are happening on screen.”

    The film is based on the true story of French journalist Anna Erelle’s undercover work, which was published in December 2014 and resulted in six people being arrested for involvement in jihadist recruitment networks.

    Germany’s domestic intelligence chief said last month that Islamic State continued to target vulnerable youths in Germany through the internet and social media.

    “Profile” is one of around 400 films being screened at this year’s Berlinale, which runs until Feb. 25.

    Reporting by Michelle Martin; Editing by Edmund Blair

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    Milk spas and manicures: A Hong Kong dog's life

    HONG KONG – For Hong Kong poodle Cream, grooming goes way beyond a brush and toe-clip – her deluxe once-a-month pampering includes lavender oxygen therapy and a milk bath.

    As the city welcomes the Year of the Dog, pet owners are pushing out the boat more than ever to ensure their pooches are glossed and spritzed, with money no object.

    “I treat her as my daughter,” says Cream’s owner, Margaret Lam, 45.

    “I want her to be beautiful,” she adds, picking out a tiny HK$600 (S$100) fur-trimmed jacket off a clothing rack at dog spa SexySushi, where Cream is having her treatments.

    With a lack of parks and dog-friendly open spaces, pooches in Hong Kong are often wheeled around in strollers or carried in their owners’ handbags.

    Pint-sized breeds like bichons, poodles, teacup yorkies and chihuahuas are particularly popular in the space-starved city.

    SexySushi, in the fashionable neighbourhood of Sai Ying Pun, sells itself as a “prestige pet grooming salon” and refers to dog owners as “parents”.

    It offers milk and herbal spa treatments, designed to improve fur quality and treat skin problems, and oxygen therapy, which the salon says calms the animals. There are also ear-cleaning and manicure services, with some treatments costing well over HK$1,000.

    Owners can buy accessories and clothing, including hoodies, bowties and even lace panties for their dogs.

    To celebrate Chinese New Year, all dogs receiving spa treatments at the shop pose for a bonus photo shoot, surrounded by red and gold-coloured traditional hanging ornaments and stuffed dog toys.

    SexySushi founder Monna Lam says she doesn’t think the treatments are over the top.

    “Pets also deserve better things for their lives,” insisted Lam, who has 12 dogs herself, while her pomeranian named Cupcake enjoyed an extravagant afternoon.

    “The dogs are very happy in here,” Lam said.

    “Sometimes they even fall asleep during the grooming service.” Lam, 30, who set up the store three years ago, said most clients bring their dogs in every two weeks for upkeep and trimming, and once every few months for full grooming.

    Owen Evans, 39, a web developer who has been in Hong Kong for a year, had brought his Yorkshire terrier Jackson to the shop for the first time and vowed to return.

    “We just wanted to treat Jackson to a really nice cut and a really nice time,” he said.

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    18 killed in massive explosion at Indian wedding: Official

    AJMER, INDIA – Rescuers discovered nine more bodies Sunday (Feb 18) beneath the ruins of an Indian hotel, bringing the known death toll from an explosion which tore through a wedding party to 18, an official said.

    A gas cylinder exploded late Friday at the hotel in the city of Beawar, in the western state of Rajasthan, reducing the venue to ruins and sparking a huge fire.

    By Saturday evening officials said nine bodies had been found.

    But the figure rose sharply Sunday as rescue teams, aided by the army, found nine more victims including women and children under rubble.

    “So far 18 bodies have been recovered,” said Gaurav Goyal, a senior administrative official in Ajmer, the district where the blast occurred, about 200 kilometres from the state capital Jaipur.

    “Five seriously injured people, with severe burn injuries, are being treated in hospital,” he told AFP.

    The blast all but levelled the three-storey hotel where a wedding was underway.​
    Photo: AFP

    Recovery teams were sifting through mangled heaps of concrete and steel, removing victims on stretchers covered with white sheets.

    The blast all but levelled the three-storey hotel where a wedding was underway. Eyewitnesses told local broadcaster NDTV the explosion occurred as a chef tried to refill a cooking canister.

    Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje visited survivors in hospital late Saturday and announced compensation of 200,000 rupees (S$4,075) each for the families of the dead.

    “The cylinder blast at the wedding ceremony at Beawar is nothing less than a nightmare,” she said on Twitter.

    Domestic gas cylinder explosions are common in India, where safety standards are relatively poor. Reports of fatal accidents from cylinder blasts are frequent but mass casualties are unusual.

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    Trump slams FBI over school shooting, says preoccupied with Russia probe

    US President Donald Trump slammed the FBI Saturday for failing to heed signs that could have prevented the Florida school shooting, charging the agency was too preoccupied with probing his campaign team over Russian election meddling.

    Allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race and collusion with the Trump campaign are being investigated by several congressional committees and by special prosecutor Robert Mueller, who took charge of the federal government’s probe from the FBI last year following the sacking of its former chief James Comey.

    “Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable,” he wrote on Twitter.

    “They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign – there is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud!”

    Troubled teen Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people with an assault rifle at his former high school in Parkland, Florida on Wednesday.

    It was the 18th school shooting of the year and sparked renewed calls for gun control.

    US authorities have come under mounting scrutiny for failing to act on a series of warning signs.

    The FBI admitted Friday it received a chilling warning in January from a tipster who said Cruz could be planning a mass shooting, but agents failed to follow up.

    Cruz was also known to local police after his mother repeatedly reported him for violent outbursts, while records obtained by the South Florida Sun Sentinel show authorities investigated him in 2016 after he cut his arms on messaging app Snapchat and threatened to buy a gun.

    Mueller’s investigation has so far swept up four members of Trump’s campaign, with two agreeing to work for the probe under a plea deal.

    On Thursday Mueller indicted 13 Russians for allegedly running a secret campaign to tilt the vote, but did not accuse any Americans of knowingly participating in that effort.

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    Pakistan’s Saudi deployment risks entanglement in Yemen

    Pakistan has obliged Saudi Arabia’s request to send more troops to the kingdom in the name of border security.

    The deployment comes as Riyadh ramps up its battle against Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen, raising questions about whether the troops will ultimately be dragged into combat. Pakistan’s Parliament passed a resolution in 2015 to maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict.

    The Pakistan Army confirmed the deployment after Saudi Ambassador Nawaf Saeed Al-Maliki met Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa on February 15 at Pakistan’s military headquarters at Rawalpindi.

    Initial details of the deployment were outlined during General Bajwa’s meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, who also serves as defense minister, during a meeting in Riyadh on February 1, military sources told Asia Times.

    “The Crown Prince maintained that as per the two countries’ bilateral agreement Pakistan is bound to safeguard Saudi Arabian territory,” a senior military official told Asia Times. “The urgency of the matter can be gauged by the fact that the Crown Prince himself took up the matter with [the] army chief.”

    Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa with Saudi Arabian Crown prince Muhammad bin Salman in December 2016. Photo: Courtesy Pakistan Army

    Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in December 2016. Photo: Courtesy Pakistan Army

    Multiple government sources confirmed to Asia Times that Saudi Arabia’s apparent urgency owes to its continued military involvement in Yemen and rising cross-border attacks into Saudi territory by Houthi rebels.

    On January 20, Saudi Arabian air defense forces intercepted a ballistic missile fired by rebels headed toward the southern Saudi province of Najran. On February 13, over 41 Houthi fighters were killed and almost 50 injured during fighting in Yemen’s Hodeidah province, according to reports.

    On February 15, the day Saudi ambassador Nawaf Saeed Al-Maliki met Pakistani General Bajwa, the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s fighter jets launched 68 air strikes at rebel positions in six Yemeni provinces.

    Former Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif is already in Saudi Arabia as the first commander of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), an inter-governmental alliance of 41 countries launched in December 2015.

    However, Pakistan is sending troops to Saudi Arabia as part of its bilateral agreement to help guard the kingdom’s territorial integrity and not as part of the IMCTC, which is yet to become fully operational.

    While confirming that Pakistan is indeed sending more military personnel to Yemen, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of the Pakistan Armed Forces, maintained that the troops will not be involved outside of the Saudi kingdom.

    Houthi militants ride on the back of a patrol truck in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, on December 14, 2015. Photo: Reuters / Khaled Abdullah

    Houthi militants ride on the back of a patrol truck in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, on December 14, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Khaled Abdullah

    “Troops already there will not be employed outside [Saudi Arabia]. The Pakistan army maintains bilateral security cooperation with many other [Gulf Cooperation Council]/regional countries,” the statement said.

    Sources with knowledge of General Bajwa’s meeting with both Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Ambassador Al-Maliki say that Pakistan only agreed to station its troops along the border and won’t be sending its personnel to fight inside Yemen.

    “Although technically defending Saudi Arabia against Houthi rebels and their attacks, [the deployment] makes Pakistan firmly a part of the Saudi camp. This, in turn, makes them a party to the Yemen War,” a senior military official who spoke to Asia Times claimed.

    On February 16, Pakistan’s Senate summoned Defense Minister Khurram Dastgir to appear before Parliament’s upper house to explain the decision to send troops to Saudi Arabia, which was reportedly taken by the military rather than civilian leadership.

    This was confirmed by Indian security analysts and New Delhi-based diplomats monitoring developments in Pakistan. “Our information is that the decision to send the brigade was presented as a fait acompli to the the civilian leadership,” a senior Western diplomat in New Delhi told Asia Times.

    “The deliberately nuanced Foreign Office statements condemning the Houthi missile attacks as a threat to the [Saudi] kingdom and holy mosques also seem aimed at justifying sending Pakistani troops to Saudi Arabia for active engagement in the conflict,” Senator Farhatullah Babar said in Friday’s session.

    Pakistani troops from the Special Services Group (SSG) march during a Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad on March 23, 2017. Photo: AFP, Aamir Qureshi

    Pakistani troops from the Special Services Group (SSG) march during a Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad on March 23, 2017. Photo: AFP, Aamir Qureshi

    Others see the deployment as another point of friction between the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)-led government and the powerful army. It is believed that the army is pushing behind-the-scenes for a consolidation of opposition parties to keep the government in check and ensure its defeat in forthcoming general elections.

    In April 2015, Pakistan’s Parliament passed a resolution to uphold its neutrality in the Yemen conflict. However, with the military establishment increasingly consolidating its power, the Saudi royal family has recently coordinated directly with the Pakistani army leadership to fulfill its requests.

    “The fact that it was the ISPR and not the government that made the announcement to send troops shows how the military dominates policy-making in Pakistan,” Lieutenant General Talat Masood, a retired former secretary of the Ministry of Defense Production, told Asia Times. “The decision should’ve been taken by the Parliament because they had already passed a resolution against Pakistan’s involvement in Yemen.”

    Strategic analyst Hassan Askari Rizvi, author of The Military and Politics in Pakistan, said that it is not surprising that the army took the decision to send troops, of which he said the civilian government “has been informed.”

    Saudi soldiers stand in line at an airfield where Saudi military cargo planes land to deliver aid in Marib, Yemen January 26, 2018. Picture taken January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

    Saudi soldiers stand in line at an airfield where Saudi military cargo planes land to deliver aid in Marib, Yemen January 26, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Faisal Al Nasser

    “Pakistan has over 1,000 troops deployed there already as military trainers,” he said. However, there are credible reports to suggest that Pakistan Air Force (PAF) pilots fly Saudi fighter jets on occasion. “The only reason why this is being seen as an extraordinary development is because of the current rivalries in the Middle East,” he added.

    Lieutenant General Talat Masood notes an increasing inclination in the Pakistan army’s involvement on behalf of Saudi Arabia. “Pakistan has openly become involved on the Saudi side in the Yemen war. First, it used to say that it is only supposed to guard the two [Saudi] holy sites in Makkah and Madinah, then it became Saudi domestic interests, and now there’s open involvement in Saudi wars,” he said.

    The decision also has implications for Pakistan’s bilateral relations with neighboring Iran. There has been concern in Tehran over Pakistan’s growing military ties with Saudi Arabia.

    “The Iranians view the [IMCTC] as a force against them,” a senior New Delhi-based diplomat said. “General Bajwa has made considerable effort to maintain a balance between the two but this will heighten tensions.”

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    Passenger plane crashes in Iran, killing all 66 aboard

    TEHRAN – An Iranian passenger plane on a domestic flight crashed into the country’s Zagros mountains on Sunday (Feb 18) killing all 66 people on board, officials said.

    The Aseman Airlines flight left Tehran’s Mehrabad airport around 0800 (0430 GMT) for the city of Yasuj in Isfahan province, said Mohammad Tabatabai, director of public relations for the airline.

    The plane crashed into Dena mountain, part of the Zagros range, around 23 kilometres from Yasuj, some 500 kilometres south of the capital, he told state broadcaster IRIB.

    “After searches in the area, unfortunately we were informed that the plane crashed. Unfortunately, all our dear ones lost their lives in this incident,” said Tabatabai.

    The plane was carrying 60 passengers, including one child, as well as six crew, he added.

    A helicopter sent by Iran’s national emergency services was unable to land at the site of the accident due to severe weather, its spokesman said.

    The Relief and Rescue Organisation of Iran’s Red Crescent said it had dispatched 12 teams to the region.

    “Given the fact that the area is mountainous, it is not possible to send ambulances,” Mojtaba Khaledi, spokesman for the national emergency services, told ISNA news agency.

    Decades of international sanctions have left Iran with an ageing fleet of passenger planes which it has struggled to maintain and modernise.

    It has suffered multiple aviation disasters, most recently in 2014 when a Sepahan plane crashed killing 39 people.

    Tabatabai said the plane that crashed on Sunday was a twin-engine turboprop ATR-72.

    Aseman currently has a fleet of 36 planes – half of them 105-seat Dutch Fokker 100s. Its three Boeing 727-200s are almost as old as the Islamic revolution, having made their first flights in 1980.

    Lifting sanctions on aviation purchases was a key clause in the nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers in 2015.

    Following the deal, Aseman Airlines finalised an agreement to buy 30 Boeing 737 MAX jets for US$3 billion (S$3.94 billion) last June, with an option to buy 30 more.

    However, the sale could be scuppered if US President Donald Trump chooses to reimpose sanctions in the coming months, as he has threatened to do.

    The US has maintained its own sanctions on Iran, which block almost all trade with the country, but plane manufacturers were given a specific exemption under the nuclear deal.

    Boeing, which is also building 80 planes for national carrier Iran Air, faces heavy criticism from US lawmakers who say Iranian airlines have been used to ship weapons and troops to Syria and other conflict zones.

    The US Treasury Department approved the sale of the 80 Boeing jets as well as 100 Airbus planes to Iran Air.

    The first few Airbus jets have already arrived in Tehran.

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    Golden days for the Olympic record-breakers

    Majestic is the only word to describe him. Marcel Hirscher produced another amazing performance to win his second gold medal at the Winter Olympics in South Korea after lifting the giant slalom title.

    The 28-year-old Austrian had already wrapped up the Alpine combine event earlier in the week and is now a hot favorite to continue his golden run in Thursday’s men’s slalom, his favorite event.

    “Wow. It was not so easy to be the absolute favorite in this discipline,” he told the media. “I knew I had to give it 100 percent and I had to battle, and that is what I did.”

    But what was remarkable about Hirscher’s show on Sunday was the massive winning margin of 1.27 seconds over Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen, who took the silver medal. France’s Alexis Pinturault finished with a bronze.

    Still, the Olympic giant slalom title was one of the few honors missing from Hirscher’s trophy collection until his fabulous run in Pyeongchang.

    “It was hard to drive in the second round,” Hirscher told Austria’s ORF television. “I made a few small mistakes. Despite the lead, I went all or nothing. I put everything on one card.”

    And it paid off with defending champion Ted Ligety describing Hirscher’s performance as “pretty phenomenal.”

    The 33-year-old American was 20th-fastest after a slow first run in the morning, and finished more than three seconds back and outside the top 10. “Marcel is always able to bring out those incredible performances,” he said. “It’s amazing to be able to watch that.”

    Yuzuru plans another date with history

    What do you do when you have just created Olympic history? For skating sensation Yuzuru Hanyu, it means doing the impossible again.

    Barely 24 hours after winning back-to-back gold medals in the men’s figure skating for the first time in more than half a century, he announced plans to perform a quadruple Axel. The jump has never been completed by a skater.

    “Right now, I have no intention to stop,” he told a news conference on Sunday after winning gold a day earlier with a flawed yet captivating free skating program.

    “I’ve already achieved my dreams,” he added. “But there are still things I want to do in skating.”

    At the top of that list is to land a quadruple Axel, which is believed to be technically possible, but would require an extra half-turn in the air on top of the four already needed for any successful quad. Nobody has achieved it.

    [embedded content]

    “I want to do one, because nobody else has,” the 23-year-old said. “One of my coaches has called the Axel ‘the king of jumps’ and I would like to aim for a quad.”

    But that will have to wait until he gets back to full fitness after taking painkillers for a damaged right ankle, which threatened his career on the ice. The initial problem was so complicated that nobody really knew how to treat it, he pointed out to a packed media gallery.

    “Everything depends on my ankle. I’ve been taking painkillers, injections would have been better but that wasn’t possible. So, I’ve just taken lots and lots of painkillers,” Yuzu said.

    “To be honest, the situation is unclear even now. All I can say is that if I wasn’t taking painkillers, I couldn’t do the jumps or land them. I need some time to recover,” he added.

    Super ‘shock’ for Ledecka

    Ester Ledecka was convinced she would wake and realize it was all a dream. The 22-year-old snowboarder and skier still could not believe she had snatched the gold medal in one of the most prestigious Alpine events – the Winter Olympics super G,

    With a pair of borrowed skis from giant slalom gold medallist Mikaela Shiffrin, she set a blistering time of 1 minute 21.11 seconds to win the title. “I thought there must be some mistake,” Ledecka told a news conference. “I thought they’d switch the times for someone else’s!”

    To put her victory into perspective, she had never even finished in a top three spot in a World Cup super G event. This was, after all, her other persona as her main claim to fame is being a world snowboard champion.

    “I am so surprised about all of it,” Ledecka said. “I’m really trying to win and do a good run every time, but I didn’t really realize that this really can happen.”

    The goal medal hanging around her neck proved that it did.

    Record-breaking Kovalchuk

    It was always going to be bruising. Goals from Ilya Kovalchuk and Nikolai Prokhorkin helped the Olympic Athletes from Russia win a brutal 4-0 victory against the United States men’s hockey team to claim the top spot in their preliminary round group.

    It meant the Russians will go directly into the quarter-final round, giving them an extra day of rest and cementing their credentials as one of the tournament favorites. The Americans face a qualification playoff on Tuesday.

    Kovalchuk is now the leading scoring Russian Olympian in history with 13 career goals, two ahead of Pavel Bure’s previous best of 11.

    “I still have some gas left in my tank, so I hope I score some more,” Kovalchuk told the media. “I think we played well. We came out strong. We scored the first goal then our goalie made some great saves.”

    – with Reuters and AFP

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    Tillerson throws Erdogan a bone in Syria

    Until the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011, Manbij was a forgotten and neglected city, famed more for its ancient past rather than any modern achievements.

    During colonial times, the city’s residents took up arms against French colonial rule. Manbij dwellers later took great pride in knowing that one of the greatest Arab poets of modern times, Omar Abu Risheh, was one of its celebrated sons.

    For the past six years, though, Manbij has risen to international fame as militarily and politically contested by the Turks, Iran, Russia, the United States, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and, of course, Damascus.

    Located 30 kilometers west of the Euphrates River, it is part of the Aleppo Governorate, presently controlled by US and Kurdish forces.

    US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson agreed during a two-day visit to Turkey beginning on Thursday to finally allow Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army troops into Manbij, where they will be deployed side-by-side with American forces.

    The anti-ISIS Kurdish militias that have run Manbij since 2016, including the Syrian Kurdish YPG, a group Turkey considers a terror organization with links to the insurgent Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), will be asked to leave and dispatch east of the Euphrates River.

    This is music to the ears of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is known to have sought a military presence in Manbij for the past two years.

    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Turkey, February 13, 2018. Yasin Bulbul/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members parliament in Ankara, February 13, 2018. Photo: Presidential Palace Handout via Reuters/Yasin Bulbul

    He has publicly claimed that the Kurds have no historic right to Manbij, which before the war was inhabited by an assortment of Arabs, Circassians and Kurds.

    Erdogan had pleaded with former US President Barack Obama to allow him to liberate Manbij from ISIS rule after the terror group’s fighters stormed and occupied the city in January 2014.

    Obama refused, however, handing the task instead to the US-backed Kurdish army, also known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which until now has administered Mabjib through its City Council. The YPG is seen as the SDF’s main ground element in Syria.

    Erdogan had hoped to include Manbij in his neatly carved out buffer zone in the Syrian north, which included the border cities of Jarablus and Azaz, and the inland town of al-Bab, located 4o kilometers northeast of Aleppo.

    That military-led project aimed to push both ISIS and Kurdish separatists from Turkey’s border with Syria and create a safe zone where Erdogan could resettle millions of Syrian refugees who have resided in Turkey since 2011.

    In February 2017, a Turkish government spokesman said that its operations would stop at al-Bab, with no plans to advance on Manbij or al-Raqqa, previously ISIS’ de-facto capital.

    Syria-Turkey-Afrin-Manbij-Aleppo-Map

    However, Erdogan almost immediately countered that official statement, saying: “There might be a miscommunication. There is no such thing as stopping when al-Bab is secured. After that, there are Manbij and al-Raqqa.”

    To his later dismay, both cities were liberated from ISIS rule instead by the Kurdish SDF. Now, in exchange for allowing Erdogan to gain a foothold in Manbij, the US hopes he will halt his offensive on the Kurdish city of Afrin, situated west of the Euphrates River, which his troops have been shelling since January 20, 2018.

    Erdogan launched an offensive on Afrin amid concerns it was earmarked as one of three Kurdish cantons of a proposed “federal government of northern Syria.” The YPG are known to be active in the town.

    That’s anathema to Ankara, which has long fought against PKK insurgents in its eastern reaches. A continued Kurdish presence in Afrin would enable the Kurds to link their three districts administratively and politically, although not geographically.

    Nearly one month later, however, Turkish troops have failed to penetrate Kurdish defenses around the contested city of Afrin, threatening a protracted battle that could further inflame the region and perhaps lead to reprisal attacks within Turkey.

    At least 28 combatants have already been killed on the Turkish side (11 in one day), while Kurdish militias have managed to strike deep into Turkish territory, destroying a 17th century Ottoman mosque in one assault.

    A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands guard near the village of Bir Fawaz, 20km north of Raqqa on February 8, 2017. Photo: AFP / Delil Souleiman

    A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands guard near the village of Bir Fawaz, 20 kilometers north of Raqqa, February 8, 2017. Photo: AFP/Delil Souleiman

    Kurdish groups and rights activists have accused Erdogan of using prohibited chemical weapons in the battle, claims his government has denied. The US has also said it doubts chemical weapons were used in the battle.

    At the same time, Erdogan has arrested over 600 journalists, bloggers and anti-war protestors who dared to critically report on his Afrin Operation.

    A video of Turkish backed troops stomping the corpse of a Kurdish female fighter has recently gone viral on social media, reaffirming to some Erdogan’s abusive take-no-prisoners approach on the battlefield.

    Despite tough talk vowing to rout Kurdish fighters, it already seems clear that Erdogan seeks a face-saving way out of Afrin’s quagmire – though he cannot walk away without receiving something in return.

    That “something” now appears to be control over Manbij. US President Donald Trump’s White House now seems keen to pacify Turkey, its long-time NATO ally which has accused Washington of providing heavy arms to the YPG. The US has denied arming the militia with heavy weaponry.

    A Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighter looks through a pair of binoculars outside of Afrin, Syria February 17, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

    A Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighter looks through a pair of binoculars outside of Afrin, Syria, February 17, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Khalil Ashawi

    Trump’s government still sees Turkish cooperation as vital to its regional interests, despite reservations about Erdogan’s massive crackdown against thousands of suspected opponents after a failed coup attempt in mid-2016.

    A US-brokered handover of Manbij will no doubt please Erdogan while not overly perturbing the Kurds, who do not appear to have any long-term ambitions for the city.

    In exchange for leaving Manbij, the Kurds will get to stay in al-Qamishly, al-Hassakeh and Afrin, although Afrin will reportedly be handed over to Syrian government troops by the end of this week, given its location in Russia’s sphere of battlefield influence.

    This is what the Kurds had originally proposed, just hours before the Turkish offensive started. Damascus refused, allowing the offensive to happen. Now, Russia has secured approval of all sides concerned to have government troops return to Afrin, rather than allowing for Turkish control or Kurdish rule.

    The Kurds would prefer to see Russian and Syrian forces in Afrin rather than Turkish troops, while Erdogan would settle for anything that prevents the Kurds from annexing Afrin into their own territorial project.

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    The power of dialogue in a disrupted world

    Closing the divides in our fractured world will require collaboration among many stakeholders. And, more often than not, it is dialogue that sets cooperation apart from conflict, and progress from painful reversals of fortune.

    Good-faith dialogue – the ability to see the world through the eyes of other people, especially those with whom we disagree – has never been more important. We are living in an age when the internet and other information and communications technologies have broken down traditional borders and brought us closer together.

    But it is also an age in which the drumbeat of nationalism is pushing us further apart. In the absence of calm, constructive, and sometimes uncomfortable conversations about what kind of future we want, intolerance and isolationism threaten to roll back centuries of progress.

    The stakes really are that high. The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Risks Report shows that an overwhelming majority of experts worldwide believe that a catastrophic conflict between major powers could erupt this year.

    In the meantime, problems within countries will continue to fuel public suspicion that the system is rigged to favor elites. Chief among those problems are rising inequality and declining social mobility. According to the International Monetary Fund, income inequality has increased in 53% of all countries over the past 30 years, and particularly in advanced economies.

    The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus once said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” The same principle applies to dialogue, which requires that we listen to different perspectives, and always keep an open mind. In 2018, that means heeding the public’s grievances, and working together toward collective solutions. Only joint responses will suffice to tackle the complex problems we face.

    The indispensability of multi-stakeholder dialogue to global progress is why it is the cornerstone of the Forum’s guiding ethos. Beyond the vital work of organizations such as the United Nations, the Forum has created a space on the world stage where business leaders can rub shoulders with labor activists, and world leaders can talk – but, more importantly, listen.

    Back in 1987, the WEF’s annual meeting in Davos played a key role in preventing a war between Greece and Turkey. Turgut Őzal, Turkey’s prime minister at the time, met with his Greek counterpart, Andreas Papandreou, and the two men formed a bond of trust that helped stave off a military conflict.

    In Davos this year, a group of Israeli and Palestinian business leaders met to renew their commitment to a two-state solution, and pledged their support for strengthening the Palestinian economy.

    Should driverless vehicles value the lives of their passengers over those of pedestrians? Is there still such a thing as privacy in a world of facial recognition software and big-data applications? Should companies be able to patent human genes that they have isolated? Should AI make battlefield decisions?

    Moreover, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the prime minister of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Zoran Zaev, held the first prime-ministerial-level meeting between their two countries in seven years.

    Together, they advanced negotiations to end a lingering dispute that has stymied FYROM’s bid for European Union accession. Last but not least, Davos hosted diplomatic talks to bolster ongoing multilateral peacemaking and political-reconciliation efforts on the Korean Peninsula, in Venezuela, and in Sub-Saharan Africa and Somalia.

    In 2018 and in the years ahead, longstanding geopolitical challenges will persist alongside fresh disruptions from the digital world. The Fourth Industrial Revolution and its attendant technologies – artificial intelligence (AI), bioengineering, and so forth – offer abundant opportunities for material and social progress. But they are also upending established business models and pushing modern warfare in frightening new directions.

    The dilemmas confronting us today are profound. Should driverless vehicles value the lives of their passengers over those of pedestrians? Is there still such a thing as privacy in a world of facial recognition software and big-data applications? Should companies be able to patent human genes that they have isolated? Should AI make battlefield decisions?

    None of these questions can be answered without thoughtful, open dialogue between segments of society that rarely interact. Technology companies, start-ups, international organizations, academics, and civil-society leaders need to come together with regulators and policymakers to develop measures that will limit the risks of new technologies without restricting innovation.

    The Forum’s San Francisco-based Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution was founded in 2016 to facilitate this type of dialogue. And it has already brought together various stakeholders to formulate policy responses to the challenges posed by AI and machine learning, the Internet of Things, digital trade and cross-border data flows, civilian drones, and blockchain technology.

    The world needs more of this kind of cooperative dialogue. Many people might hanker for a return to the supposedly simpler world of the past. But withdrawing into our cultures, nations, industries, and organizations is not the answer. In fact, it is part of the problem. For the sake of our shared future, we must recognize the power of dialogue.

    Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, is the author of The Fourth Industrial Revolution.

    Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
    www.project-syndicate.org

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