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Myanmar authorities arrest country’s best-known comedian amid ongoing crackdown

Authorities in Myanmar arrested the country’s best-known comedian on Tuesday as they continue to crack down on people they accuse of helping incite nationwide protests against February’s military coup.

The comedian Zarganar was taken from his home in Yangon by police and soldiers who arrived in two army vehicles, fellow comedian Ngepyawkyaw said on his Facebook page. Zarganar, 60, is a sharp-tongued satirist who has been in and out of prison since he was active in a failed 1988 popular uprising against a previous military dictatorship. He is also well known for his social work, especially arranging assistance for victims of Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

In the past week, Myanmar’s ruling junta has issued arrest warrants for about 100 people active in the fields of literature, film, theatre arts, music and journalism on charges of spreading information that undermines the stability of the country and the rule of law. It was not immediately clear what Zarganar, whose real name is Maung Thura, has been charged with.

Many ordinary protesters and activists are also being arrested every day, according to numerous reports on social media.

In Mandalay, the country’s second-biggest city, security forces used stun grenades and fired guns Tuesday to break up a march by medical workers who have defiantly continued to protest almost every day against the Feb. 1 coup that ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The army’s takeover set back Myanmar’s gradual return to democracy after five decades of military rule.

Anti-coup protesters throw red paint on a street during a demonstration in Yangon. Threats of lethal violence and arrests of protesters have failed to suppress daily protests across the country. (The Associated Press)

A participant who asked to remain anonymous for his own safety told The Associated Press that doctors, nurses and medical students were attacked as they gathered at about 5 a.m. local time by security forces who also used cars to run into protesters on motorbikes. The online news site The Irrawaddy reported that four doctors were arrested.

At least 570 protesters and bystanders, including 47 children, have been killed in the crackdown since the takeover, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which monitors casualties and arrests. The group says 2,728 people, including Suu Kyi, are in detention.

WATCH | Concerns growing that Myanmar unrest could erupt into civil war:

Two months after the military coup in Myanmar and the protests that followed, more than 500 people are dead and some are concerned the situation could deteriorate into civil war. 2:00

Boycott of New Year celebration in the works

United Nations spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said UN officials in Myanmar are “deeply concerned” about the impact of the continuing violence on the country’s health system, pointing to at least 28 attacks against hospitals and health personnel since Feb. 1.

And they are also concerned about violence against the education system, pointing to seven attacks against schools and school personnel since the coup, he said.

“Health volunteers are attacked, and attacks against ambulances are preventing life-saving help reaching civilians wounded by security forces,” Dujarric said.

Activists have begun organizing a boycott of next week’s official celebration of Thingyan, the country’s traditional New Year, usually a time for family reunions and merry-making.

In leaflets and social media posts, they are imploring people not to hold any Thingyan celebrations, saying it would be disrespectful to “fallen martyrs” to enjoy the festival.

Anti-coup protesters hold signs reading ‘Rain Strike’ as they use umbrellas during a drizzle while participating in a demonstration in Yangon. (The Associated Press)

The leaders of Brunei and Malaysia announced Monday that leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will meet to discuss the situation in Myanmar.

No date was given in the announcement, issued during a visit to Brunei by Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. He and Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah said they “expressed serious concern on the ongoing crisis in Myanmar and the rising number of fatalities.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo had proposed a summit on Myanmar last month.

There was no word on whether the ASEAN leaders would participate in person or by video, or if Myanmar, one of the group’s 10 members, would attend.

WATCH | What will it take to end the violence in Myanmar?

Maung Zarni, the founder of Forces of Renewal Southeast Asia, says the international community cannot depend on the United Nations Security Council to intervene in the crisis in Myanmar because of China’s and Russia’s respective interests in the country. 1:21

Military offensives in border regions

Myanmar’s junta also has been battling in some border areas where ethnic minority groups maintain their own armed forces.

Several major groups, most notably the Karen and the Kachin, have expressed solidarity with the anti-coup movement and vowed to protect protesters in the territory they control.

The Kachin, located in the country’s north, have engaged in combat with government forces, but the Karen in the east have borne the brunt of the junta’s military assaults.

The area where the Karen National Union holds sway has been subject to air attacks by the Myanmar military from March 27 through Monday, said David Eubank of the Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian organization that has for many years provided medical assistance to Karen villagers. Burma is another name for Myanmar.

Eubank said his group has verified that 14 civilians died and more than 40 were wounded in the air strikes. He said Tuesday that Myanmar’s military is mounting a ground offensive into Karen territory, driving villagers from their homes and increasing the number of displaced people in the area to more than 20,000, many of whom have to hide in caves or the jungle and are in desperate need of food and other necessities.

“The situation now seems, from our perspective, to be all-out war to the finish,” Eubank wrote Monday in an emailed message.

“Unless there is a miracle, the Burma Army will not hold back in their attempt to crush the Karen and any other ethnic group that stands against them, just as they have not held back killing their own Burman people in the cities and plains of Burma.”

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Racial trauma counsellors in B.C. see surge in patients amid ongoing anti-Asian hate

Ever since the Atlanta spa shootings on March 16 that killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, Angela Leong stopped walking to and from work because she was too scared to be out in public.

“Quite frankly, I’m scared and I don’t want to work anymore,” Leong said. “I’m not comfortable with walking down the streets, so I started taking Uber exclusively just to go back and forth to my office.”

Leong, a registered clinical counsellor in Vancouver, says some of her Asian Canadian clients have been echoing the same fears and have stopped visiting the office after sunset. She said since the surge in anti-Asian hate crimes in both in the United States and Canada, she’s seen an increase in patients experiencing racial trauma.

According to a report released in March by the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) Toronto chapter, there were more than 1,000 cases of both verbal and physical attacks against Asians across the country from March 2020 to February 2021. And since the start of the pandemic, Canada had more anti-Asian racism reports per capita than the United States.

In February, Vancouver police said they saw anti-Asian hate crimes jump by more than 700 per cent in 2020 as reports of incidents rose from 12 in 2019 to 98 in 2020.

Linda Lin, a registered clinical counsellor who focuses on racial identity and trauma, says she’s also seen a spike in people who are seeking mental health support.

“I noticed a tenfold increase in my caseload,” said Lin. “They are clients who are coming to talk about … past experiences of racialized verbal abuse or incidents linked with COVID-19.”

Racial trauma therapist Linda Lin said she also remembers the challenges of growing up with a different culture in a predominately white neighbourhood. (Submitted by Linda Lin)

She said racial trauma can stem from feelings of being marginalized while growing up in Canada or from feeling discriminated against because of ethnicity or race.

Leong said in the past two weeks, 66 to 75 per cent of her clients were from the Asian community, whereas just eight weeks before the shooting in Atlanta, only 35 to 52 per cent of her clients were Asian. 

“My patients have been telling me … there has always been aggressive behaviour as a result of their race or ethnicity,” she said.

Triggering events

Co-founder of the Asian Canadian Women’s Alliance and former journalist Jan Wong said the recent increase in anti-Asian hate is bringing back memories of her own experience of racism, which triggered a severe clinical depression.

In 2006, she said she received an onslaught of racist messages and attacks against her family’s Chinese restaurant after a story she published in the local paper.

“I noticed people in Quebec started … saying that we were serving cat and dog and rats and that we were dirty,” Wong told Canada Tonight host Ginella Massa.

“In fact the restaurant had to close.”

Jan Wong says hearing about the recent surge in anti-Asian hate crimes is bringing back memories of the racist attacks she and her family experienced in 2006. (Submitted by Jan Wong)

She said hearing about the frequent racist attacks against members of the Asian community is having a negative impact on her.

“I have raised cortisone levels because of this, and if you have chronically raised cortisone, you can end up in depression,” Wong said. “It makes me really angry.”

Need for education

Rage and anger are common signs of racial trauma, according to Lin, as individuals who have been victims of racial abuse and violence often feel silenced and invalidated.

“I’m hearing stories of discrimination … and people are hoping to be seen and heard and hoping to be respected,” Lin said. “I’m also noticing people trying to protest not just for their own story of racial trauma but for their parents and their community as well.”

Queenie Choo, CEO of United Chinese Community Enrichment Services Society (S.U.C.C.E.S.S.), says she’s not surprised to hear that there has been an increase in Asian Canadians seeking mental health support.

She said in January 2021, the organization received over 400 calls through its help line, which provides counselling services in Mandarin and Cantonese.

S.U.C.C.E.S.S. CEO Queenie Choo says that in January 2021, the organization received over 400 calls through its help line. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

“People feel that they are in such a vulnerable situation where they could be subject to attacks, whether that’s physical, mental or emotional … and I think that is all very negative to people’s mental health,” Choo said.

What the government is doing

When asked about federal efforts to combat anti-Asian racism, the Canadian Heritage department said in an emailed statement that the government set up an anti-racism secretariat in March 2020 and is “engaging on a regular basis with pan-Asian networks of community organizations” to discuss how it can be more effective in countering anti-Asian racism.

As part of a four-year anti-racism strategy announced in 2019, it has committed $ 15 million to 85 projects to combat racism and discrimination, it said, including anti-Black racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Indigenous racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

It has also created a Centre on Diversity and Inclusion at the Treasury Board secretariat and invested in more disaggregated data, the statement said.  

The statement also said the government is redoubling its efforts when it comes to:

  • Taking action on online hate.
  • Advancing economic empowerment opportunities for specific communities.
  • Building a whole-of-federal-government approach on better collection of disaggregated data.
  • Implementing an action plan to increase diverse representation in hiring, appointments and leadership development within the public service.

“There is more work to do,” the statement said. “However, our government will continue to condemn all forms of racism and take concrete steps to confront anti-Asian racism and discrimination in all its forms.” 

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U Sports cancels winter national championships due to ongoing coronavirus pandemic

There will be no Canadian university winter national championships this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

U Sports announced Thursday the cancellation of the 2021 winter national championships in men’s and women’s basketball, hockey, swimming, track and field, volleyball and wrestling. 

The news follows June’s decision to cancel six fall national championships, including the flagship Vanier Cup. Curling Canada previously announced the suspension of the 2021 university championships. The decision came with unanimous support of U Sports’ board of directors and the four university sports conferences: Atlantic University Sport, Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec, Ontario University Athletics and Canada West. 

“Following consultations with the four conferences, we agreed that student-athlete safety remains our top priority,” said Dick White, the interim chief executive officer of U Sports. “It is not logistically possible for teams to be travelling across the country at this time.” 

The chief medical officer for U Sports, Dr. Taryn Taylor, added that with the number of cases rising during the second wave of COVID-19 and without an available vaccine, it’s recommended that on-going sports restrictions stay in place for the health and safety of student athletes. 

No championship awarded

It’s the first time in the modern history of U Sports since 1961, that no Canadian university national championships will be awarded. 

The only previous cancellations — outside of last March’s cancellation of the men’s and women’s hockey and volleyball championships — came during the war years of 1915-19 and 1940-45 when the Queen’s Cup (men’s hockey) and Wilson Cup (men’s basketball) were not contested. At that time, only universities in Ontario and Quebec were part of the organization.

It’s heartbreaking news for the nearly 20,000 student athletes and coaches from 56 schools coast-to-coast-to-coast. Outside of making a national or Olympic team, the U Sports national championships are the highest level of sport in this country. 

“We wanted to take things one step at a time. This is an unprecedented situation. We hoped that things would change, that a vaccine would be found or there was some way we could still hold them,” said Lisette Johnson Stapley, chief sport officer for U Sports. 

“We offer nine winter championships in nine different parts of the country. Our host committees are facing a variety of challenges due to COVID-19, including travel restrictions and limits on public indoor gatherings that impact planning.” 

There have been many layers for U Sports to contend with during this pandemic. Geography is one of the biggest. Canada West, which covers B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and AUS, which covers the Atlantic provinces, have four provincial boundaries to consider, not to mention evolving public health restrictions around COVID-19. For instance, individuals travelling into the Atlantic bubble or Manitoba must self-isolate for 14 days. The conferences in Ontario and Quebec have schools in the centre of rising numbers of COVID-19 cases. 

UNB Reds captain Marcus McIvor, centre, celebrates a hockey title with his teammates on March 17, 2019. (Rob Olson/Canadian Press)

Virtual courses

There’s also been the academic piece to consider. Many universities are conducting their courses virtually, while others are offering a blended model of on-campus and remote learning. 

“Timing was important for us with this decision,” Johnson Stapley said. “Some student athletes want to know if they should stay for the term or not. It’s different across the country. You’ve got some schools where all the athletes are back and you’ve got some that aren’t. You got some universities that haven’t even opened recreation facilities.” 

There is a silver lining in that student athletes will not lose a year of their five years of playing eligibility, even if they are able to train or play games within their conference. Athlete eligibility is at the forefront of all of U Sports decision making, Johnson Stapley said. 

“It’s the biggest impact. Our board approved a recommendation this summer that if there’s no pathway or national championship, then we wouldn’t be charging eligibility. That’s standard across the board.” 

Earlier this summer, U Sports also granted a one-year exception to its age rule for football. Previously, players who turned 25 before Sept. 1 would be ineligible to play. 

Conferences weighing return-to-play options

Though there will be no national championship to play for this season, some of the individual conferences are looking at options for a return-to-play in the winter semester.

For example, AUS, given the success of the Atlantic bubble, will release its return-to-play recommendations in mid-November. OUA has announced the cancellation of all regular and post-season competition for the winter, but exhibition play might be possible depending on public health guidelines. RSEQ has suspended all play until at least Jan. 15, 2021. Canada West shuttered all regular season and playoffs for team sports in the winter semester, but is putting off a decision on individual sports to a later date.

U Sports will announce its updated event hosting rotation before the end of the year.

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Spike Lee Shares What He Finds Encouraging About the Ongoing Black Lives Matter Protests (Exclusive)

Spike Lee Shares What He Finds Encouraging About the Ongoing Black Lives Matter Protests (Exclusive) | Entertainment Tonight

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140,000 Syrians displaced in past 3 days due to ongoing offensive

More than 140,000 Syrians have been displaced in the past three days alone by violence in the country’s northwest, bringing the total of those uprooted in a Syrian government offensive against the last opposition stronghold to over 800,000, the United Nations said Thursday.

The UN said at least 60 per cent of the more than 800,000 displaced since Dec. 1 are children. The humanitarian crisis in the already overcrowded opposition-held enclave is compounded by freezing weather and a lack of supplies.

The government offensive, backed by Russia, has intensified and expanded to include southern and eastern Idlib province as well as southern and western Aleppo, an area home to an estimated four million people. Most have already been displaced from other parts of Syria because of the ongoing conflict.

The humanitarian situation for people in northwest Syria is “at the most critical points,” the UN said, as the massive scale of human displacement over such a short period of time has increased needs exponentially.

David Swanson, UN regional spokesperson for the crisis in Syria, said more resources, including funding, are immediately needed to save lives and alleviate suffering. He predicted the 800,000 figure will rise in the coming days as the government offensive continues.

“This level of displacement couldn’t come at a worse time as more and more people are squeezed into an increasingly smaller area of land with little more than the clothes on their back,” he said, describing people fleeing in the middle of the night to avoid detection in temperatures below zero.

More than 140,000 people have been displaced in the past three days alone. (The Associated Press)

“The crisis is deepening by the minute, but the international community remains indifferent,” Swanson said.

Government forces, with Russian support, have focused their offensive on areas along a strategic highway that runs through opposition territory and connects the country’s south to the north. The M5 highway, now secured by Syrian troops, had been out of government control since 2012 and accessing it was part of a now failed 2018 ceasefire agreement. Calls for a ceasefire have failed to stop the violence.

On Thursday, government troops continued to advance through the Aleppo countryside to secure their hold on the highway. Most of the villages and towns that sit alongside the highway are now empty, while hundreds of thousands are squeezing into displacement camps, open fields and tents to move away from the front lines.

The UN said 550,000 of the displaced are living in Idlib towns and villages already packed with displaced people. Another 250,000 have moved to northern Aleppo in areas administered by Turkey and allied Syrian groups.

Syrian troops are waging an offensive in the last rebel stronghold. (The Associated Press)

Turkey, a sponsor of the ceasefire and a backer of the opposition, has sent thousands of troops into the area to stall the advances, sparking rare direct confrontations with Syrian troops.

The Syrian war, now in its ninth year, has pulled in international players including the U.S., Russia and Turkey. Russia has supported the Syrian government troops while the U.S. has led an international coalition fighting ISIS militants.

Also on Thursday, the U.S. military acknowledged its troops fired on and killed a Syrian combatant when government supporters attacked an American convoy in northeastern Syria a day earlier.

The clash Wednesday was a rare direct confrontation between a Syrian pro-government group and U.S. troops deployed in the increasingly crowded terrain near the border with Iraq and Turkey.

A convoy of U.S. armoured vehicles drove into a government-controlled area and was attacked by pro-government supporters, including armed men who fired at the soldiers and pelted them with stones and Molotov cocktails.

Col. Myles Caggins, spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition, said the person killed was a combatant. He said the U.S. soldiers had come under fire and responded in self-defence. Syrian government media maintained the person killed was a civilian.

The U.S. maintains hundreds of troops in the area. In recent weeks, and following a Turkish invasion of villages and towns along its borders, the area has been swarming with Russian, Syrian government and Turkish troops. They are deployed in part to maintain the peace but also in the latest tug over territorial control in Syria’s conflict.

Caggins said the patrol was planned, and the route passed through a pro-government area. The convoy of U.S. armoured vehicles passed through a Syrian military checkpoint, but government militia were also present.

The UN says 550,000 of the displaced are living in Idlib towns and villages already packed with displaced people. (The Associated Press)

The U.S. maintains lines of communication with Russia, Damascus’s ally, to avoid such confrontations.

Videos showed government supporters attacking the vehicles and two men firing small arms at the convoy, which was flying the U.S. flag. Some residents pelted the convoy with stones, while another dumped a bucket full of dirt on the back of one vehicle.

U.S. soldiers were seen standing in the middle of the melee, trying to disperse the crowd. One U.S. vehicle was stuck in the dirt, apparently having veered into a ditch, while another had a flat tire.

“Despite U.S. troops’ repeated de-escalation efforts, local militia members attacked U.S. troops with small arms weapons from multiple firing positions,” Caggins said. “Coalition forces always have the right to self-defence and fired back at armed aggressors, killing one adult male combatant.”

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Puerto Rico braces for tropical storm Dorian amid ongoing recovery from past hurricanes

Puerto Rico on Wednesday faced its first major test of emergency preparedness since the 2017 devastation of Hurricane Maria as Tropical Storm Dorian neared the U.S. territory at near-hurricane force — and forecasters said it could grow to Category 3 status as it nears the U.S. mainland later.

The storm was expected to move near the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, with landslides, widespread flooding and power outages possible in Puerto Rico.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane warning for the Puerto Rican islands of Vieques and Culebra, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands.

Dorian prompted President Donald Trump to declare an emergency Tuesday night and order federal assistance for local authorities.

“It’s possible it could turn into a hurricane before it reaches Puerto Rico,” said Roberto Garcia, director of U.S. National Weather Service San Juan, during a press conference on Wednesday.

However, he said the forecast could keep changing, adding that late shifts occur with storms such as Dorian that do not have a well-defined centre.

“This is not written in stone. It could change in the next minutes, hours,” he said.

At 11 a.m. ET on Wednesday, Dorian was located about 40 kilometres southeast of St Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said it had strengthened slightly, with maximum sustained winds of 110 kilometres per hour while moving northwest at 20 km/h.

The Hurricane Center said the storm could grow into a dangerous Category 3 storm as it pushes northwest in the general direction of Florida.

The storm was expected to dump 10 to 15 centimetres of rain with isolated amounts of 20 centimetres.

It’s a forecast that worries many in Puerto Rico because blue tarps still cover some 30,000 homes nearly two years after Hurricane Maria. The island’s 3.2 million inhabitants also depend on an unstable power grid that remains prone to outages since it was destroyed by Maria, a Category 4 storm.

Workers of the Social State Plan prepare food rations in preparation for Storm Dorian in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic on Tuesday. (Ricardo Rojas/Reuters)

Ramonita Torres, a thin, stooped, 74-year-old woman lives by herself in the impoverished, flood-prone neighborhood of Las Monjas in the capital of San Juan. She was still trying to rebuild the home she nearly lost after Maria but was not able to secure the pieces of zinc that now serve as her roof.

“There’s no money for that,” she said, shaking her head.

Dorian earlier had been projected to brush the western part of the U.S. territory and the change in the storm’s course caught many off guard in the tiny island of Vieques just east of Puerto Rico, a popular tourist destination that now lies in Dorian’s path.

“I’m in shock,” Vilma Santana said in a phone interview, adding that she’s relieved it’s not a hurricane. “Thank God it’s a storm.”

Trump sent a tweet assuring that “We are tracking closely tropical storm Dorian as it heads, as usual, to Puerto Rico. FEMA and all others are ready, and will do a great job.”

He added a jab at Puerto Rican officials who have accused the government of a slow and inadequate response to Hurricane Maria.

The mayor, Carmen Yulin Cruz, tweeted that Trump needs to “calm down get out of the way and make way for those of us who are actually doing the work on the ground.”

Dorian earlier caused power outages and downed trees in Barbados and St. Lucia.

Although top government officials in Puerto Rico said they were prepared for the storm and had sufficient equipment, a couple of mayors, including those in the western region, said they did not have enough generators or shelters that were properly set up.

Learned Maria’s lesson, governor says

Jose Ortiz, executive director of Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority, acknowledged that the distribution system still has weak areas and could “suffer” under high winds. However, he stressed the agency has the needed inventory, including more than 120,000 lights, 23,000 poles and 7,400 transformers.

But Freddyson Martinez, vice-president of a power workers’ union, told The Associated Press that while the electric grid has improved in some areas, he worries about a lack of power line workers and post-Maria patches which feature lines affixed to palm trees.

Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vazquez urged those living in flood-prone areas or under a blue tarp to move into one of the island’s 360 shelters.

Officials also said public schools and government offices would remain closed through at least Thursday.

“We learned our lesson quite well after Maria,” Vazquez said. “We are going to be much better prepared.”

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, which is still struggling to recover from hurricanes Irma and Maria, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. closed schools and government offices and said he would implement a curfew until Thursday, adding that officials would soon open more shelters and were preparing sandbags in all three islands.

“The main threat in this storm is the water,” he said in a conference call early Wednesday. “We still have a lot of vulnerable people in the territory.”

Some 1,000 customers in St. Croix and dozens in St. Thomas and St. John were already without power on Wednesday.

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Hundreds arrested in India-run Kashmir during ongoing clampdown

A petition was filed Thursday in India’s top court challenging the communications blackout and security clampdown in Indian-controlled Kashmir, where people remained holed up in their homes for a fourth day.

Indian authorities have detained at least 300 politicians and separatists to quell protests in India-run Kashmir over the withdrawal of its special status, a police officer, local leaders and media said.

State-run All India Radio also reported cross-border firing by Indian and Pakistani troops in the Rajouri sector of India-run Kashmir late Wednesday.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to address the nation on Thursday to discuss Kashmir.

India’s government this week revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and downgraded the Himalayan region from statehood to a territory. Muslim-majority Kashmir is claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, and rebels have been fighting Indian rule in the portion it administers for decades.

Watch as India-run Kashmir remains under tight security:

The streets in the city of Srinagar were largely deserted amid an ongoing security clampdown and communications blackout in India-run Kashmir. 0:59

India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval visited Kashmir on Wednesday to assess the law and order situation.

Activist Ali Mohammed told the New Delhi Television news channel that he has been organizing ambulances to carry sick poor people to hospitals in Srinagar, the main city in India’s portion of Kashmir, as local residents can’t even use phones to ask for medical help.

“It’s hell,” a patient told the television channel.

Congress party activist Tehseen Poonawalla said he expected the Supreme Court to hear his petition on Thursday seeking immediate lifting of curfew and other restrictions, including blocking of phone lines, internet and news channels in Kashmir.

He also sought the immediate release of Kashmiri leaders who have been detained, including Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti.

India urges Pakistan to review decision to downgrade ties

In response to India’s action, Pakistan on Wednesday said it would downgrade its diplomatic ties with India, expel the Indian ambassador and suspend bilateral trade. Prime Minister Imran Khan told Pakistan’s National Security Committee that his government will use all diplomatic channels “to expose the brutal Indian racist regime” and human rights violations in Kashmir, the government’s statement said.

India said it regretted Pakistan’s steps, adding in a statement that “the intention behind these measures is obviously to present an alarming picture to the world of our bilateral ties.”

Indian paramilitary soldiers stop a Kashmiri man on a scooter on Wednesday during the curfew in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir. (Farooq Khan/EPA-EFE)

The External Affairs Ministry said it was not surprising that Pakistan has negatively perceived India’s decision to end Kashmir’s special status as Islamabad “has used such sentiments to justify its cross-border terrorism.”‘

Describing India’s latest steps in Kashmir as internal affairs, the statement urged Pakistan to review its decision to downgrade ties so that normal channels for diplomatic communications are preserved.’

India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence over control of Kashmir. The first war ended in 1948 with a United Nation-brokered cease-fire that left Kashmir divided and promised its people a UN-sponsored referendum on the region’s future.

Pakistan said it would ask the UN to pressure India to reverse its decision to downgrade the Indian-administered portion of Muslim-majority Kashmir from a state to two separate territories. The region also lost its right to fly its own flag and make many of its own decisions.

The government in Islamabad also said it would give diplomatic, political and moral support to people living in Kashmir and their “right of self-determination.”

Kashmir is India’s only Muslim-majority state and most people there oppose Indian rule. The insurgency that began in 1989 and India’s ensuing crackdown have killed more than 70,000 people.

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Hong Kong protesters clash with police in ongoing showdown over China’s tightening grip

Tens of thousands rallied in a large Hong Kong suburb on Sunday, driven by abiding anger at the government’s handling of an extradition bill that has revived fears of China tightening its grip over the former British colony and eroding its freedoms.

Clashes broke out as protesters hurled umbrellas and plastic bottles at police who retaliated by firing pepper spray amid chaotic scenes inside a shopping mall that houses some of the world’s biggest luxury brands.

Most of the demonstrators dispersed shortly afterward as a small group sang the Christian hymn Sing Hallelujah to the Lord, which has emerged as the unlikely anthem of the protests.

Millions have taken to the streets in the past month in some of the largest and most violent protests in decades over an extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party.

Protesters marched in sweltering heat of about 32 C in Sha Tin, a town between Hong Kong island and the border with China, extending the demonstrations outward from the heart of the financial centre into surrounding districts.

“These days there is really no trust of China, and so the protesters come out,” said Jennie Kwan, 73.

“Didn’t they promise 50 years, no change? And yet we’ve all seen the changes. I myself am already 70-something years old. What do I know about politics? But politics comes to you.”

Extradition bill ‘dead’

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees its people freedoms for 50 years that are not enjoyed in mainland China, including the liberty to protest and an independent judiciary.

Beijing denies interfering in Hong Kong affairs, but many residents worry about what they see as an erosion of those freedoms and a relentless march toward mainland control.

An injured police officer is escorted by his colleagues after a scuffle with protesters inside the mall. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, has said the extradition bill is “dead,” but opponents say they will settle for nothing short of its formal withdrawal.

Some protesters on Sunday waved banners appealing to U.S. President Donald Trump to “Please liberate Hong Kong” and “Defend our Constitution.” Such scenes are certain to rile Beijing, which has been angered by criticism from Washington and London over the controversial bill.

Others waved British and American flags, while banners calling for Hong Kong’s independence billowed in the sultry breeze from makeshift flagpoles.

One placard featured a picture of Chinese leader Xi Jinping with the words: “Extradite to China, disappear forever.”

Chants of “Carrie Lam go to hell!” rang through the crowd. Organizers said around 115,000 attended Sunday’s rally. Police put the number at 28,000 at its peak.

Police chief Stephen Lo said 10 officers were injured and taken to hospital during clashes, including one who had a segment of his finger bitten off by a protester.

More than 40 people were arrested for charges including assaulting police and illegal assembly, he added.

Protesters span generations

The bill has stirred outrage across broad sections of Hong Kong society amid concerns it would threaten the much-cherished rule of law that underpins the city’s international financial status.

Young, elderly and families joined the latest protest.

Protesters with protection gear hold homemade shields as they prepare to face off with police. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

The protests have caused the former British colony’s biggest political crisis since its handover to China. Demonstrators stormed the Legislative Council building on July 1 and ransacked it.

“I never missed a march so far since June,” said a 69-year-old man who gave only his surname, Chen.

“I support the youngsters, they have done something we haven’t done. There is nothing we can do to help them, but come out and march to show our appreciation and support.”

Protesters are also demanding that Lam step down, the withdrawal of the word “riot” to describe demonstrations, the unconditional release of those arrested and an independent investigation into complaints of police brutality.

Police have condemned what they describe as “violent protesters” and stressed that officers will investigate all illegal acts.

A protester is tackled by an officer Sunday, as the battle over a controversial extradition bill continued. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

One woman, in her mid-50s, said protesters had harassed her after she tried to defend the police, whom activists described as “dogs.”

“It’s verbal violence,” said the woman, who gave her name only as Catherine. “People just surrounded me and shouted rude language and that makes me feel I am living in fear.”

Mass protests over the bill since June have morphed into demonstrations over democracy and broader grievances in society.

On Saturday, a largely peaceful demonstration in a town close to the Chinese border turned violent as protesters hurled umbrellas and hardhats at police, who retaliated by swinging batons and firing pepper spray.

The government condemned violence during Saturday’s protests against so-called “parallel traders” from the mainland who buy goods in bulk in Hong Kong to carry into China for profit.

It said that during the last 18 months it had arrested 126 mainland visitors suspected of infringing the terms of their stay by engaging in parallel trading, and barred about 5,000 mainland Chinese also suspected of involvement.

Earlier on Sunday, hundreds of journalists joined a silent march to demand better treatment from police at protests.

A police statement said that while there was room for improvement in co-ordination between officers and the media, the police respected press freedom and the media’s right to report.

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UN threatens to cut off food aid to Yemen amid ongoing evidence Houthis are stealing it

The head of the UN food agency on Monday accused Yemen’s Houthi rebels of diverting food from the war-torn country’s hungriest people and threatened to suspend food aid later this week unless they immediately implement registration and monitoring agreements.

David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program, told the UN Security Council that the agency in late 2018 uncovered “serious evidence that food was being diverted and going to the wrong people” in the capital of Sanaa and other Houthi-controlled areas.

As examples, he said up to 60 per cent of beneficiaries at seven centres in Sanaa “confirmed they had not received any assistance” and 33 per cent of respondents in the rebels’ northern stronghold of Saada received no food in April.

He said WFP has insisted on — and the Houthis finally agreed to — registration and biometric identification of beneficiaries and monitoring in December and January, but the agency has faced roadblocks ever since in implementing the agreements.

One of the Houthis’ leaders said the World Food Program is sending expired food aid to Yemen and demanded cash instead. (Hani Mohammed/Associated Press)

Beasley said he wrote to Houthi authorities again asking for action, not words.

“If we do not receive these assurances, then we will begin a phased suspension of food assistance, most likely toward the end of this week,” he said.

The Associated Press reported Dec. 31 that armed factions on both sides of the conflict were stealing much-needed food aid, diverting it to their fighters or reselling it for profit. Some groups are blocking deliveries to communities they view as their enemies, AP found. WFP confirmed the report.

On Jan. 1, the Houthis said they were “surprised” by the WFP’s accusations and accused the food agency of taking sides in the war.

Houthis say UN sending expired food aid 

Beasley told the council Monday that the diversions were mainly in Houthi areas. When there are reports in government-controlled areas, he said, “we receive co-operation to address issues.”

Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a rebel leader, accused the WFP of sending expired food to Yemen. He demanded the agency distribute cash rather than their “corrupted food,” according to the Houthi-run al-Masirah TV.

The conflict in Yemen began with the 2014 takeover of Sanaa by the Iranian-backed Houthis, who toppled the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. A Saudi-led coalition allied with Yemen’s internationally recognized government has been fighting the Houthis since 2015.

Saudi-led airstrikes have hit schools, hospitals and wedding parties and killed thousands of Yemeni civilians. The Houthis have used drones and missiles to attack Saudi Arabia and have targeted vessels in the Red Sea.

Civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict, which has killed over 10,000 people and created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the council that 80 per cent of Yemen’s population — more than 24 million people — “need assistance and protection, including 10 million who rely on food aid to survive.”

“Yemen is getting more violent, not less,” he said, noting that “today there are more than 30 active front lines” in the country.

“Fighting this year has displaced more than 250,000 people,” Lowcock said. “The number of incidents killing or injuring children more than tripled between the last quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of this year.”

UN special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, Lowcock and many council ambassadors expressed concern at the increase in attacks on Saudi Arabia, especially the recent drone attacks on the airport in Abha in the country’s southwest that the kingdom said injured 26 people.

Griffiths repeated his warning that “war can take peace off the table, and in the context of wider regional tensions, the risks to the political process [in Yemen] have never looked more stark.”

He told the council that while the reduction in violence around the key port of Hodeida has been maintained since an agreement in Stockholm in December, negotiations on the redeployment of government and Houthi forces are still taking place.

“I am also deeply disappointed by the lack of progress on the implementation of the exchanges of prisoners and detainees agreed in Stockholm,” he said.

The Security Council expressed support for Griffiths and reiterated that there can only be a political solution to the Yemen conflict.

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Nicki Minaj Asks for 'Peace' Amid Ongoing Feud With Cardi B — See the Rapper's Response

Peace at last?

Nicki Minaj and Cardi B appeared to agree to end their explosive feud on Tuesday.

“Ok you guys, let’s focus on positive things only from here on out,” Minaj tweeted. “We’re all so blessed. I know this stuff is entertaining & funny to a lot of people but I won’t be discussing this nonsense anymore. Thank you for the support & encouragement year after year. Love you. ♥️.”

Cardi reposted the message on her Instagram account, adding her own caption encouraging “positivity.”

“@Nickiminaj alright then!” she wrote. “Let’s keep it positive and keep it pushing!”

The two have been embroiled in a nasty war of words over social media since September when they got into a physical altercation at a party.

Tension escalated on Monday after Cardi posted a stream of videos slamming Minaj on Instagram.         

The posts came after Minaj claimed on her Queen Beats radio show that her friend, Rah Ali, had hit Cardi with “the hardest punches you’ve ever heard in your life.”

See more on the drama below.


NEWS: Cardi B Fires Back at Nicki Minaj's Radio Comments: 'You Lie So Much, You Can't Even Keep Up'

NEWS: Nicki Minaj Claims Her Friend Beat Up Cardi B With the 'the Hardest Punches You've Ever Heard'

NEWS: Ellen DeGeneres Pokes Fun at Cardi B and Nicki Minaj's Feud With a Clever Costume for Kids

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