France freeze assets of JeM chief Masood Azhar

Paris: France has decided to freeze the assets of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) founder and leader Masood Azhar, the French government said on Friday.

A joint statement issued by the French interior ministry, finance ministry and foreign ministry added that France would discuss putting Masood Azhar on a European Union list of people suspected of being involved in terrorism.

 

Pakistan is under pressure from global powers to act against groups carrying out attacks in India, including Jaish-e-Mohammed, which claimed responsibility for a February 14 attack in Kashmir’s Pulwama that killed at least 40 CRPF personnel.

France said it has always been and always will be by India’s side in the fight against terrorism.

“We will raise this issue with our European partners with a view to including Masood Azhar on the European Union list of persons, groups and entities involved in terrorist acts, based on this decree,” the statement said.

Indians to benefit as UK lifts limit on PhD-level work visas

London: Indians are among the largest group of professionals set to benefit from a new UK government plan to remove any limit on the number of PhD-level work visas to be granted.

UK Chancellor Philip Hammond announced on Wednesday in a Budget update, referred to as the annual Spring Statement, that from later this year all such highly-qualified roles will be exempt from any cap on the numbers that can apply and come to work in Britain.

 

“A key pillar of our plan is backing Britain to remain at the forefront of the technology revolution that is transforming our economy. And to support that ambition, from this Autumn we will completely exempt PhD-level roles from the visa caps,” Hammond said in his speech in the House of Commons.

“From Autumn 2019, PhD-level occupations will be exempt from the Tier 2 (General) cap, and at the same time the government will update the immigration rules on 180-day absences so that researchers conducting fieldwork overseas are not penalised if they apply to settle in the UK,” he added in his statement.

According to the most recent UK Home Office data, Indians form the largest chunk of highly-skilled professionals within the Tier 2 (General) category of work visas, accounting for 54 per cent of all such visas granted in 2018.

Indian nationals also marked the largest increase in the grant of Tier 2 visas last year, up by 6 per cent at 3,023 more visas compared to the previous year.

The UK government’s latest PhD-level visa exemption was welcomed by UK universities, who are key employers of international researchers.

“This is fantastic news for Indian researchers who would like to work in the UK, and for UK universities – who thrive on bringing together a diversity of brilliant minds from around the world,” said Vivienne Stern, Director of Universities UK International, the main representative body for UK higher education institutions.

“Many of the UK’s leading researchers, in fields ranging from biomechanics to gender politics, come from India. Outside of Europe, India is the third-largest country of origin for academic staff in the UK,” she said.

Universities UK International said that despite making up only 0.9 per cent of the global population, the UK is responsible for 15.9 per cent of the world’s most highly-cited research articles.

“The achievements are made possibly as a result of the international community of researchers that work at and with UK institutions,” Ms Stern said

The new announcement comes soon after doctors and nurses were removed from the cap to address shortages in the state-funded National Health Service (NHS) last year.

Currently, only a limited number of visas are issued every year under the Tier 2 skilled worker section of the visa system. The government’s latest announcement is seen as the first step towards the complete removal of a cap on visas for skilled workers in 2021, when a new immigration system comes into force.

“We already issue more skilled worker visas to Indian nationals than to the rest of the world combined, and I am delighted to see many Indian students coming to study at our world-class universities,” UK immigration minister Caroline Nokes had said following a Migration Dialogue with Indian government officials in January this year.

“Under the new system, operating from 2021, we will always be open to the brightest and best from India, who wish to come to live and work in the UK,” she said.

British PM May’s Brexit deal overwhelmingly crushed by lawmakers

London: British Prime Minister Theresa May has suffered yet another crushing Parliament defeat over Brexit when MPs overwhelmingly rejected her plan to quit the EU, plunging the UK into a further period of political uncertainty just 17 days before its divorce from the bloc.

May’s pleas in the House of Commons for lawmakers to support her draft exit deal on Tuesday, or run the risk of a chaotic exit from the European Union (EU) or no Brexit at all, were rejected by 391 votes to 242.

 

May was hopeful that last-minute concessions from the EU would swing the vote in her favour, but many lawmakers dismissed those changes as ineffectual or cosmetic. While this marked a smaller defeat than the 230-vote margin with which they rejected her deal back in January, it was a decisive rejection of government strategy even after May had claimed significant changes to the controversial Irish backstop clause had been achieved.

The Irish backstop, an insurance policy designed to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland between UK territory Northern Ireland and EU member-state – the Republic of Ireland – has been the biggest sticking point for many MPs in the UK. The historic bruising for May in January led her to seek changes to the agreement in order to table a second “meaningful vote” before Parliament that she hoped would stand a better chance of being voted through.

The British Prime Minister made a statement to the Commons soon after the bruising result was announced to confirm that Parliament will vote on a new motion on Wednesday to decide if the UK should leave the EU within the March 29 deadline without any deal in place.

In an unusual move, she announced that all Conservative Party MPs will be given a free vote on the issue instead of being made to vote in a particular way by the government.

“This is an issue of grave importance for the future of our country. Just like the referendum, there are strongly held and equally legitimate views on both sides,” she said. “For that reason, I can confirm that this will be a free vote on this side of the House,” she said.

There is unlikely to be a majority in favour of a no-deal chaotic Brexit, which would then give way to a third parliamentary motion on Thursday to determine if the Brexit deadline of March 29 needs to be extended, which would then have to be ratified by the EU.

May, visibly tired and struggling to speak as a result of a sore throat, admitted that Tuesday’s vote confirms that there is no support for “this deal” and how the Brexit process moves forward remains all the more uncertain. Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called for a general election to allow the British public to decide who should lead them into the next phase of Brexit.

The EU’s Chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said in a Twitter statement: “The EU has done everything it can to help get the Withdrawal Agreement over the line. The impasse can only be solved in the UK. Our ‘no-deal’ preparations are now more important than ever before.”

Earlier on Tuesday, May made a final push for the UK Parliament to back her Brexit withdrawal agreement in the vote after she claimed to have secured “legally binding” changes to the draft rejected by the Home of Commons earlier this year. She had called on the Commons to get behind her enhanced agreement setting out the UK’s exit strategy from the EU or risk going against the will of the majority that voted for Brexit in the June 2016 referendum.

“This is the moment and this is the time. Back this motion and get the deal done… We cannot serve our country by overturning a democratic decision of the British people,” she said, hours after she had claimed a breakthrough in negotiations with the EU to secure changes to the controversial Irish backstop to make it more acceptable to all sides of Parliament.

Corbyn countered that it was the same “bad deal” MPs had rejected in January and that his party would be voting against it again because it risks people’s living standards and jobs.

The clash came soon after UK Attorney General Geoffrey Cox confirmed that the legal risk from the controversial Irish backstop “remains unchanged”, leading to hard-Brexiteers from within May’s own Conservative Party refusing to back the so-called “improved” divorce arrangement.

In his official advice as the country’s chief legal adviser, Cox said the extra assurances won by May do “reduce the risk that the United Kingdom could be indefinitely and involuntarily detained” in the backstop if talks on the two sides’ future relationship broke down due to “bad faith” by the EU. However, he reiterated that the “legal risk remains unchanged” that if no such agreement can be reached due to “intractable differences”, the UK would have “no internationally lawful means” of leaving the backstop without EU agreement.

The Brexit-backing European Research Group (ERG) within the Tory Party declared soon after that it will not be voting for the withdrawal agreement in the Commons later, in a major blow to May’s leadership.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which provides May’s government its majority, also declared they would vote against the deal as the changes did not alleviate their concerns over the backstop. The March-end deadline for Brexit kicked in when the UK triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty following a referendum in favour of Brexit by nearly 52 per cent to 48 per cent in June 2016.

Another crushing defeat for Theresa May

London: British Prime Minister Theresa May has suffered yet another crushing Parliament defeat over Brexit when MPs overwhelmingly rejected her plan to quit the EU, plunging the UK into a further period of political uncertainty just 17 days before its divorce from the bloc.

May’s pleas in the House of Commons for lawmakers to support her draft exit deal on Tuesday, or run the risk of a chaotic exit from the European Union (EU) or no Brexit at all, were rejected by 391 votes to 242.

 

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May was hopeful that last-minute concessions from the EU would swing the vote in her favour, but many lawmakers dismissed those changes as ineffectual or cosmetic.

While this marked a smaller defeat than the 230-vote margin with which they rejected her deal back in January, it was a decisive rejection of government strategy even after May had claimed significant changes to the controversial Irish backstop clause had been achieved.

The Irish backstop has been the biggest sticking point for many MPs in the UK. The historic bruising for May in January led her to seek changes to the agreement in order to table a second “meaningful vote” before Parliament that she hoped would stand a better chance of being voted through.

The British Prime Minister made a statement to the Commons soon after the bruising result was announced to confirm that Parliament will vote on a new motion on Wednesday to decide if the UK should leave the EU within the March 29 deadline without any deal in place.        

Protests of the ‘yellow vests’ escalates in Paris

Paris: Hundreds of “yellow vest” protesters began marches in Paris on Saturday, marking the 17th straight weekend of anti-government demonstrations despite attempts by French President Emmanuel Macron to quell discontent with a nationwide series of debates.

Protesters wearing the neon high-visibility vests that have come to symbolise the movement were joined by others donning pink tops, as child-care workers turned out against a reform of their unemployment subsidies.

 

Other gatherings were planned on Saturday in several French cities such as Bordeaux and Toulouse as well as smaller towns such as southerly Puy-en-Velay.

Some demonstrators staged a “flashmob” at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, waving French flags and dancing in one of the terminals, television footage on BFM TV showed.

What started out last November as a backlash against Macron’s plan to hike fuel taxes — part of his bid to push a cleaner energy model — has morphed into a broader movement decrying the government as out of touch with the hardships faced by some households and low-income workers.

Some demonstrators staged a “flashmob” at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, waving French flags and dancing in one of the terminals

Turnout has dwindled since nearly 300,000 people took part in road blockades and marches across France on November 17, coming in at 39,300 last Saturday according to the interior ministry.

But protesters have carried on nonetheless, with few signs of a halt in demonstrations any time soon. The latest turnout figures were not yet available.

Mr Macron, who dropped the fuel tax increase and budgeted an extra 10 billion euros ($11.24 billion) to help the poorest workers, has also sought to defuse the unrest with a series of town hall-like meetings across France.

Consultations with local representatives are due to draw to a close next weekend, coinciding with calls by some ‘yellow vest’ campaigners to up the pressure on the government throughout March. The movement has no single leader.

After protests descended into riots in December, recent demonstrations been largely peaceful.

Some 54 per cent of French people backed or had sympathy with the ‘yellow vests’, a  poll taken on March 7 and 8 for online news site Atlantico showed on Saturday. That was up from 50 per cent in mid-February but down from a peak of 72 percent.

Mr Macron’s popularity has also improved in recent weeks. An Ipsos poll released on March 6 showed his ratings improved by 8 percentage points since December of 2018, to a 28 per cent approval level.

‘Lucky Day’: 2 minutes late, Greek man saved from Ethiopian plane crash

Athens: A Greek man said on Sunday he would have been the 150th passenger on the Nairobi-bound Ethiopian Airlines Boeing plane that crashed killing all on board, except he arrived two minutes late for the flight.

“I was mad because nobody helped me to reach the gate on time,” Antonis Mavropoulos said in a Facebook post entitled “My lucky day” in which he includes a photo of his ticket.

 

Mavropoulos, president of the International Solid Waste Association, a non-profit organization, was travelling to Nairobi to attend the annual assembly of the UN Environment Programme, according to Athens News Agency.

He was supposed to board the plane but he reached the departure gate just two minutes after it was closed.

He booked a later flight but was then prevented from boarding by airport staff.

“They led me to the police station of the airport. The officer told me not to protest but to pray to God because I was the only passenger that didn’t board the ET 302 flight that was lost,” Mavropoulos said in his post in which he admits being in shock.

The airport authorities explained that they wanted to question him because he was the only passenger booked onto the doomed flight who wasn’t on board.

“They said they couldn’t let me go before cross-checking my identity, the reason I hadn’t boarded the plane etc.” 

The Nairobi-bound Boeing 737 crashed just minutes after an early-morning takeoff Sunday from Addis Ababa.

People holding passports from more than 30 countries were on board including a number of UN workers.

State-owned Ethiopian Airline had taken delivery of the Boeing 737-800 MAX plane on November 15. It was of the same type as a plane that crashed in October after takeoff from Jakarta, killing all 189 people on board.

Horrifying that Pak will use N-weapons to protect terrorists

Geneva: In an attempt to protect terrorists on its soil, Pakistan is willing to bring the world to the brink of war and even resort to the use of nuclear weapons, which should “horrify all of us”, a researcher at an Amsterdam-based foundation told the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on Monday.

Yoana Barakova, the researcher at the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS), underlined that Pakistan “unscrupulously exports terrorism” and continues to use terror outfits to engage in proxy war against its neighbours, implying India and Afghanistan.

 

Intervening during the 40th Session of the UN Human Rights Council here, Barakova referred to the ghastly February 14 terror attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama district of Jammu and Kashmir and the Pakistani aerial bombing in Jammu and Kashmir on February 27, a day after Indian air strike at terror camp in Balakot.

Noting that the Pulwama terror attack, in which 40 CRPF personnel were killed, was perpetrated by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) outfit, she said the subsequent action (of aerial bombing) by Pakistan “unveils an ugly truth, (that) the country is willing to bring the world to bring of war and threaten to use its nuclear arsenal, just in order to defend its terrorists.”

She went on to add, “The sheer thought of such utterly reckless behaviour should horrify all of us.”

She told the UN body that Pakistan continues to use terrorist outfits to engage in proxy warfare against its neighbours.

“The UN Security Council’s consolidated list of terrorist individuals and entities includes 139 entries from Pakistan. Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Haqqani Network and Jamaat-ud-Dawa – are all based in Pakistan and believed to be receiving State protection,” the European researcher said, slamming Pakistan.

She referred to a recent interview of Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi with BBC in which he accepted that the Government of Pakistan is in contact with Jaish-e-Mohammed, exposing the country’s duplicitous rhetoric vis-à-vis terrorism.

“While Pakistan continues to unscrupulously export terrorism and is the only country in this world which is willing to use nuclear weapons in order to protect its terrorists, it also remains a member state of this (UNHR) Council. Surely, a matter that warrants contemplation,” she added.

Angry after the ghastly suicide car bomb attack on CRPF convoy in Pulwama, India on February 26 carried out air strike at JeM terror camp in Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

It has also shared dossiers with Pakistan about links to the terror attack in that country but Pakistan continues to be in a denial mode.

India has also mounted intensified campaign globally to ensure that the world community pushes Pakistan to dismantle the terror infrastructure and end support to terrorists.

Theresa May fights to save Brexit deal

London: British Prime Minister Theresa May refused to admit defeat for her European Union divorce deal on Monday, despite deadlocked talks with the bloc a day before Parliament is scheduled to vote on the plan.

The House of Commons is due to vote on Tuesday on whether to approve a deal that it resoundingly rejected in January. There are few signs of any big shift in opinion, with British lawmakers still divided over whether to leave the EU, and if so on what terms.

 

The EU, meanwhile, is frustrated at what it sees as the inability of Britain’s government to lay out a clear vision for Brexit – and because it is seeking changes to an agreement that May herself helped negotiate.

British lawmakers’ opposition to the deal centers on concerns over arrangements for the Irish border. May’s government has been seeking changes, but the EU refuses to reopen the 585-page agreement that it spent a year-and-a-half negotiating.

May in final push to convince lawmakers

London: British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday made a final push for the UK Parliament to back her Brexit withdrawal deal in a crunch vote after she claimed to have secured “legally binding” changes to the draft rejected by the House of Commons earlier this year.

May called on MPs in the House of Commons ahead of the vote scheduled for around 1900 GMT on Tuesday to get behind her enhanced agreement setting out the UK’s exit strategy from the EU or risk going against the will of the majority that voted for Brexit in the June 2016 referendum.

 

“This is the moment… Back this motion and get the deal done…We cannot serve our country by overturning a democratic decision of the British people,” she said, hours after claiming a breakthrough in negotiations with the EU to secure changes to the controversial Irish backstop to make it more acceptable to all sides of the Commons.

Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn countered that it was the same “bad deal” MPs had rejected in January and that his party would be voting against it again because it risks people’s living standards and jobs.

The clash came soon after UK Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox confirmed that the legal risk from the controversial Irish backstop “remains unchanged”, leading to hard-Brexiteers from within May’s own Conservative Party refusing to back the so-called “improved” divorce arrangement, leaving Britain’s exit from the EU still precariously poised ahead of the March 29 Brexit deadline.

In a last-minute dash to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Monday night, May emerged alongside European Commission President Jean Claude-Juncker to declare that the UK and EU have agreed “legally binding” changes to the controversial Irish backstop clause to ensure any such arrangement would not be permanent.

The move was aimed at addressing the concerns of hard-Brexiteers in her own Conservative Party and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which provides her government with its majority in the House of Commons.

“MPs were clear that legal changes were needed to the backstop. Today we have secured legal changes. Now is the time to come together to back this improved Brexit deal,” May said at a joint press conference with Juncker.

Brexiteers from within her party and the DUP had refused to comment if they feel the changes she has secured will be enough for them to vote in favour of the deal before they take full legal advice on the changes.

UK’s chief legal advisor Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said the extra assurances won by May do “reduce the risk that the UK could be indefinitely and involuntarily detained” in the backstop if talks on the two sides’ future relationship broke down due to “bad faith” by the EU.

However, the “legal risk remains unchanged” if no such deal can be reached.