U.S. top court rejects challenge to California gun waiting period

Firearms are shown for sale at the AO Sword gun store in El Cajon, California, January 5, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In a blow to gun rights activists, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday turned away a challenge to California’s 10-day waiting period for firearms purchases that is intended to guard against impulsive violence and suicides.

The court’s action underscored its continued reluctance to step into the national debate over gun control roiled by a series of mass shootings including one at a Florida school last week. One of the court’s most conservative justices, Clarence Thomas, dissented from the decision to reject the case and accused his colleagues of showing contempt toward constitutional protections for gun rights.

The gun rights groups and individual gun owners who challenged the law had argued that it violated their right to keep and bear arms under the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment. The challengers did not seek to invalidate California’s waiting period for everyone, just for people who already owned guns and passed a background check.

In his dissent, Thomas scolded his colleagues. “If a lower court treated another right so cavalierly, I have little doubt this court would intervene,” Thomas wrote. “But as evidenced by our continued inaction in this area, the Second Amendment is a disfavored right in this court.”

The Supreme Court has not taken up a major firearms case since issuing important gun rulings in 2008 and 2010.

The United States has among the most lenient gun control laws in the world. With the U.S. Congress deeply divided over gun control, it has fallen to states and localities to impose firearms restrictions. Democratic-governed California has some of the broadest firearms measures of any state.

A series of mass shootings including one in which a gunman killed 17 people at a Parkland, Florida high school on Feb. 14 have added to the long-simmering U.S. debate over gun control and the availability of firearms.

In another gun case, the high court on Tuesday also declined to take up a National Rifle Association challenge to California’s refusal to lower its fees on firearms sales and instead use a surplus generated by the fees to fund efforts to track down illegal weapons.

Thomas said he suspected that the Supreme Court would readily hear cases involving potentially unconstitutional waiting periods if they involved abortion, racist publications or police traffic stops.

“The right to keep and bear arms is apparently this court’s constitutional orphan. And the lower courts seem to have gotten the message,” Thomas added.

Lead plaintiff Jeff Silvester, the Calguns Foundation and its executive director Brandon Combs, and the Second Amendment Foundation in 2011 challenged the 10-day waiting period between the purchase of a firearm and its actual delivery to the buyer, saying it violated the Second Amendment for individuals who already lawfully own a firearm or are licensed to carry one.

The waiting period gives a gun buyer inclined to use it for an impulsive purpose a “cooling off” period before obtaining it, which has been shown in studies to reduce handgun suicides and homicides, the state said in a legal filing. The waiting period also gives officials time to run background checks and ensure that weapons being sold are not stolen or being purchased for someone prohibited from gun ownership, the state said.

The states of California, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Illinois, Minnesota, Florida, Iowa, Maryland and New Jersey as well as Washington, D.C., have waiting periods that vary in duration and type of firearm, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gun control advocacy group.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld California’s law in 2016, reversing a federal trial court that had ruled it unconstitutional.

Last year, the Supreme Court left in place a California law that bars permits to carry a concealed gun in public places unless the applicant can show “good cause” for having it.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. and Turkey agree to mend ties; Turks propose joint deployment in Syria

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu after a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

By Yara Bayoumy, Orhan Coskun and Ece Toksabay

ANKARA (Reuters) – The United States and Turkey agreed on Friday to try to rescue a strategic relationship that Washington acknowledged had reached a crisis point, with Turkey proposing a joint deployment in Syria if a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia leaves a border area.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met President Tayyip Erdogan during a two-day visit that followed weeks of escalating anti-American rhetoric from the Turkish government.

While relations between Washington and its main Muslim ally in NATO have been strained by a number of issues, Turkey has been particularly infuriated by U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists.

Turkey launched an air and ground assault last month in Syria’s northwest Afrin region to sweep the YPG away from its southern border. The United States has armed, trained and aided YPG fighters with air support and special forces, as the main ground force in its campaign against Islamic State.

“We find ourselves at a bit of a crisis point in the relationship,” Tillerson told a news conference after meeting with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Friday morning. He had met with Erdogan for a more than three-hour discussion on Thursday night.

“We’re going to act together from this point forward. We’re going to lock arms. We’re going to work through the issues that are causing difficulties for us and we’re going to resolve them.”

The United States has no troops on the ground in Afrin, where the Turkish offensive has so far taken place. But Turkey has proposed extending its campaign further east to the town of Manbij, where U.S. troops are based, potentially leading to direct confrontation with U.S.-backed units.

In a proposal that could signal an important breakthrough in efforts to overcome the allies’ stark differences over Syria, a Turkish official told Reuters that Turkey had proposed that Turkish and U.S. forces could deploy jointly in Manbij.

Such a joint deployment could take place if YPG fighters first withdrew to positions east of the Euphrates river, long a Turkish demand.

Neither Tillerson nor Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, directly responded to a question about Reuters’ report of a possible joint deployment to Manbij.

MANBIJ

Turkey would be able to take joint steps with the United States in Syria once the YPG left the vicinity of Manbij, Cavusoglu told reporters.

“What is important is who will govern and provide security to these areas,” he said. “We will coordinate to restore stability in Manbij and other cities. We will start with Manbij. After YPG leaves there, we can take steps with the U.S. based on trust.”

He also said the two countries had created a “mechanism” for further talks and would meet again by mid-March to further hash out their differences. Tillerson said issues around Manbij would receive priority in the talks, acknowledging Washington had not fufilled some of its promises to Turkey on Manbij.

“The United States made commitments to Turkey previously, we’ve not completed fulfilling those commitments. Through the working group, we’re going to address that and Manbij is going to receive priority,” he said.

Turkey’s pro-government media has been particularly scathing of the United States over its failure to keep a promise that the YPG would leave the town once Islamic State was defeated there.

“But it’s not just Manbij. We have to think about all of northern Syria,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson said he recognized Turkey’s legitimate right to defend its borders, but called on Ankara to show restraint in the Afrin operation and avoid actions that would escalate tensions in the area.

He also said the United States had serious concerns about local employees at its missions in Turkey and called on Ankara to release a U.S. pastor and other Americans detained in Turkey.

(Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Gareth Jones, Peter Graff and Andrew Heavens)

Reuters report on Myanmar massacre brings calls for independent probe

Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel as members of the Myanmar security forces stand guard in Inn Din village September 2, 2017.

(Reuters) – A Reuters investigation into the killing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar prompted a demand from Washington for a credible probe into the bloodshed there and calls for the release of two journalists who were arrested while working on the report.

The special report, published overnight, lays out events leading up to the killing of 10 Rohingya men from Inn Din village in Rakhine state who were buried in a mass grave after being hacked to death or shot by Buddhist neighbors and soldiers.

“As with other, previous reports of mass graves, this report highlights the ongoing and urgent need for Burmese authorities to cooperate with an independent, credible investigation into allegations of atrocities in northern Rakhine,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

“Such an investigation would help provide a more comprehensive picture of what happened, clarify the identities of the victims, identify those responsible for human rights abuses and violations, and advance efforts for justice and accountability,” she said.

The Reuters report drew on interviews with Buddhists who confessed to torching Rohingya homes, burying bodies and killing Muslims in what they said was a frenzy of violence triggered when Rohingya insurgents attacked security posts last August.

The account marked the first time soldiers and paramilitary police have been implicated by testimony from security personnel in arson and killings in the north of Rakhine state that the United Nations has said may amount to genocide.

In the story, Myanmar said its “clearance operation” is a legitimate response to attacks by insurgents.

Asked about the evidence Reuters had uncovered about the massacre, Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay said on Thursday, before publication of the report: “We are not denying the allegations about violations of human rights. And we are not giving blanket denials.”

If there was “strong and reliable primary evidence” of abuses, the government would investigate, he said.

There was no comment from the government following the publication of the report.

“A TURNING POINT”

Nearly 690,000 Rohingya have fled their villages and crossed the border of western Myanmar into Bangladesh since August.

British Labour Party lawmaker Rosena Allin-Khan told BBC’s Newsnight that the Reuters report was consistent with accounts she had heard while working as a doctor at Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh last year.

“We’ve been bystanders to a genocide,” she said. “This evidence marks a turning point because, for the first time since this all started to unfold in August, we have heard from the perpetrators themselves.”

She said that, as well as an international probe, there needed to be a referral to the International Criminal Court.

Human Rights Watch said Myanmar’s military leaders should be held accountable in an international court for alleged crimes against the Rohingya population.

“As more evidence comes out about the pre-planning and intent of the Myanmar armed forces to wipe out Rohingya villages and their inhabitants, the international community … needs to focus on how to hold the country’s military leaders accountable,” said HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.

Campaign group Fortify Rights also called for an independent investigation.

“The international community needs to stop stalling and do what’s necessary to hold accountable those who are responsible before evidence is tainted or lost, memories fade, and more people suffer,” said the group’s chief executive Matthew Smith.

United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, said in a tweet: “During the reporting of this article, two Reuters journalists were arrested by Myanmar police. They remain held & must absolutely be released.”

Yanghee Lee, the U.N. human rights investigator for Myanmar who has been barred from visiting the Rohingya areas, echoed that call and added in a tweet: “Independent & credible investigation needed to get to the bottom of the Inn Din massacre.”

Police arrested two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, on Dec. 12 for allegedly obtaining confidential documents relating to Rakhine and have accused them of violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. They are in prison while a court decides if they should be charged under the colonial-era act.

(Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alex Richardson)

A look at Washington’s battle of the Russia classified memos

A copy of the formerly top secret classified memo written by House Intelligence Committee Republican staff and declassified for release by U.S. President Donald Trump is seen shortly after it was released by the committee in Washington, February 2, 2018.

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House must decide this week whether to clear the release of a classified memo written by Democrats. The document aims to rebut a Republican memo alleging FBI and Justice Department bias against President Donald Trump in a federal probe into potential collusion between his 2016 presidential campaign and Russia.

The following explains what is in play in a partisan dispute roiling Washington.

WHAT IS THE REPUBLICAN MEMO?

The four-page document was commissioned by Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, and released on Feb. 2.

It accused senior Federal Bureau of Investigation and Justice Department officials of not revealing that portions of a dossier of alleged Trump-Russia contacts used in seeking a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant to eavesdrop on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page were partly paid for by Democrats.

It also portrayed former British spy Christopher Steele, who compiled the dossier, as biased, saying he “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.”

WHAT IS THE DEMOCRATIC MEMO?

In late January, House Intelligence Committee Democrats said they had drafted their own classified 10-page memo about the investigation of Russia and the 2016 U.S. election. They said their document would counteract what they criticized as “highly misleading” assertions in the Republican memo.

While Republicans on the intelligence panel initially blocked Democrats’ effort to release their memo, they joined Democrats on Feb. 5 and allowed the Democratic document to be sent to the White House for Trump to decide whether to release it.

WHY DOES IT MATTER?

Democrats say the Republican memo could be used by Republicans to try to undermine the credibility of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s federal investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia to help him win the election.

Mueller’s investigation also is examining whether Trump has committed obstruction of justice by trying to thwart the Russia probe, which has cast a cloud over his year-old presidency.

Democrats say Trump’s allies hope to use the memo to protect Trump. They believe it could give the president, who fired FBI Director James Comey in May, an excuse to fire Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who hired Mueller, or even to dismiss Mueller himself.

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential campaign using hacking and propaganda, an effort that eventually included attempting to tilt the race in Trump’s favor.

Moscow has denied meddling and Trump has denied collusion or any obstruction of justice. He has called the investigation a witch hunt.

WHAT ARE THE POSSIBLE CONSEQUENCES OF THE MEMOS?

The release of the Republican memo widened the divide between Democrats and Republicans, possibly diminishing the credibility of any findings by congressional panels that are also investigating the Russia matter.

Its release also threatened to weaken long-standing cooperation between lawmakers and intelligence agencies, which have shared classified information with Congress with the understanding that it would never be made public.

If Trump declines to declassify and release the Democrats’ memo, it could set up a dispute that would pit the White House and many of Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress against Democrats, law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

WHAT ROLE DOES THE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE PLAY?

The House Intelligence Committee is one of three congressional panels investigating the Russia issue even as Mueller pursues his criminal probe. The dispute over the memo has deepened a partisan divide on the panel, whose Democratic members accuse Republicans of seeking to focus on the Steele dossier and Page surveillance to protect Trump. Republicans say they merely want to publicize wrongdoing.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Peter Cooney and Frances Kerry)

Amazon’s automated grocery store of the future opens Monday

By Jeffrey Dastin

SEATTLE (Reuters) – Amazon.com Inc will open its checkout-free grocery store to the public on Monday after more than a year of testing, the company said, moving forward on an experiment that could dramatically alter brick-and-mortar retail.

The Seattle store, known as Amazon Go, relies on cameras and sensors to track what shoppers remove from the shelves, and what they put back. Cash registers and checkout lines become superfluous – customers are billed after leaving the store using credit cards on file.

For grocers, the store’s opening heralds another potential disruption at the hands of the world’s largest online retailer, which bought high-end supermarket chain Whole Foods Market last year for $13.7 billion. Long lines can deter shoppers, so a company that figures out how to eradicate wait times will have an advantage.

Amazon did not discuss if or when it will add more Go locations, and reiterated it has no plans to add the technology to the larger and more complex Whole Foods stores.

The convenience-style store opened to Amazon employees on Dec. 5, 2016 in a test phase. At the time, Amazon said it expected members of the public could begin using the store in early 2017.

But there have been challenges, according to a person familiar with the matter. These included correctly identifying shoppers with similar body types, the person said. When children were brought into the store during the trial, they caused havoc by moving items to incorrect places, the person added.

Gianna Puerini, vice president of Amazon Go, said in an interview that the store worked very well throughout the test phase, thanks to four years of prior legwork.

“This technology didn’t exist,” Puerini said, walking through the Seattle store. “It was really advancing the state of the art of computer vision and machine learning.”

“If you look at these products, you can see they’re super similar,” she said of two near-identical Starbucks drinks next to each other on a shelf. One had light cream and the other had regular, and Amazon’s technology learned to tell them apart.

HOW IT WORKS

The 1800-square-foot (167-square-meter) store is located in an Amazon office building. To start shopping, customers must scan an Amazon Go smartphone app and pass through a gated turnstile.

Ready-to-eat lunch items greet shoppers when they enter. Deeper into the store, shoppers can find a small selection of grocery items, including meats and meal kits. An Amazon employee checks IDs in the store’s wine and beer section.

Sleek black cameras monitoring from above and weight sensors in the shelves help Amazon determine exactly what people take.

If someone passes back through the gates with an item, his or her associated account is charged. If a shopper puts an item back on the shelf, Amazon removes it from his or her virtual cart.

Much of the store will feel familiar to shoppers, aside from the check-out process. Amazon, famous for dynamic pricing online, has printed price tags just as traditional brick-and-mortar stores do.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in Seattle; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Rosalba O’Brien)

Turkey to end extraditions to U.S. unless cleric is turned over, Erdogan says

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey,

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey will not extradite any suspects to the United States if Washington does not hand over the cleric Ankara blames for orchestrating a failed 2016 military coup, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday.

Ankara accuses U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen of masterminding the putsch and has repeatedly asked Washington for his extradition. U.S. officials have said courts require sufficient evidence to extradite the elderly cleric who has denied any involvement in the coup.

“We have given the United States 12 terrorists so far, but they have not given us back the one we want. They made up excuses from thin air,” Erdogan told local administrators at a conference in his presidential palace in Ankara.

“If you’re not giving him (Gulen) to us, then excuse us, but from now on whenever you ask us for another terrorist, as long as I am in office, you will not get them,” he said.

Turkey is the biggest Muslim country in NATO and an important U.S. ally in the Middle East.

But Ankara and Washington have been at loggerheads over a wide range of issues in recent months, including a U.S. alliance with Kurdish fighters in Syria and the conviction of a Turkish bank executive in a U.S. sanctions-busting case that included testimony of corruption by senior Turkish officials.

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said ties were harmed by Washington’s failure to extradite Gulen and U.S. support for Syria’s Kurdish YPG militia and its PYD political arm. He said relations could deteriorate further.

“The United States does not listen to us, but it listens to the PYD/YPG. Can there be such a strategic partnership?… Turkey is not a country that will be tripped up by the United States’ inconsistent policies in the region,” Erdogan said.

Last week, a U.S. jury convicted an executive of Turkey’s majority state-owned Halkbank of evading U.S. sanctions on Iran, in a case which Erdogan has condemned as a “political coup attempt” and a joint effort by the CIA, FBI and Gulen’s network to undermine Turkey.

The two countries also suspended issuing visas for months last year over a dispute following the detention of two locally employed U.S. consulate workers in Turkey on suspicion of links to the failed 2016 coup.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Dominic Evans and Peter Graff)

‘World is doomed’: Erdogan denounces U.S. justice after Turkish banker trial

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a ceremony in Ankara, Turkey, December 21, 2017. Kayhan

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Tayyip Erdogan denounced U.S. justice on Friday and suggested Turkey could rethink some bilateral agreements with Washington, after a U.S. court convicted a Turkish banker in a trial that included testimony of corruption by top Turkish officials.

In his first public comments on Wednesday’s verdict, the Turkish president cast the case as American plot to undermine Turkey’s government and economy – an argument likely to resonate with nationalist supporters.

“If this is the U.S. understanding of justice, then the world is doomed,” Erdogan told a news conference before his departure to France for an official visit.

A U.S. jury convicted an executive of Turkey’s majority state-owned Halkbank  of evading Iran sanctions, at the close of the trial which has strained relations between the NATO allies. Some of the court testimony implicated senior Turkish officials, including Erdogan. Ankara has said the case was based on fabricated evidence.

Without being specific, Erdogan said the case put agreements between the two countries into jeopardy: “….The bilateral accords between us are losing their validity. I am saddened to say this, but this is how it will be from now on.”

Turkey’s foreign ministry on Thursday condemned the conviction as unprecedented meddling in its internal affairs. The row has unnerved investors and weighed on the lira currency, which hit a series of record lows last year.

The court case has put pressure on relations between Washington and the biggest Muslim country in NATO, already strained since a 2016 failed coup in Turkey which Erdogan blames on followers of a cleric who lives in the United States.

Only last week the United States and Turkey lifted all visa restrictions against each other, ending a months-long visa dispute that began when Washington suspended visa services at its Turkish missions after two local employees of the U.S. consulate were detained on suspicion of links to the coup.

The Halkbank executive, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, was convicted on five of six counts, including bank fraud and conspiracy to violate U.S. sanctions law. The case was based on the testimony of a wealthy Turkish-Iranian gold trader, Reza Zarrab, who cooperated with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to charges of leading a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran.

In his testimony Zarrab implicated top Turkish politicians, including Erdogan. Zarrab said Erdogan, then prime minister, had personally authorised two Turkish banks to join the scheme.

Turkey says the case was based on fabricated evidence and has accused U.S. court officials of ties to the cleric Turkey blames for the coup attempt. The bank has denied any wrongdoing and said its transactions were in line with local and international regulations.

“The United States is carrying out … a chain of plots, and these are not just legal but also economic plots,” Erdogan said.

(Reporting by Daren Butler and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by David Dolan and Peter Graff)

U.S. warns North Korea against new missile test, plays down talks

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks at UN headquarters in New York, U.S., January 2, 2018

By Rodrigo Campos and Christine Kim

UNITED NATIONS/SEOUL (Reuters) – The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, warned North Korea on Tuesday against staging another missile test and said Washington would not take any talks between North and South Korea seriously if they did not do something to get Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.

Haley told reporters the United States was hearing reports that North Korea might be preparing to fire another missile.

“I hope that doesn’t happen. But if it does, we must bring even tougher measures to bear against the North Korean regime,” Haley said.

South Korea on Tuesday offered talks with North Korea next week, amid a tense standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in a New Year’s Day speech that he was “open to dialogue” with Seoul.

Kim also said he was open to the possibility of North Korean athletes taking part in Winter Olympics South Korea hosts next month.

At the same time, he stressed that his country would push ahead with “mass producing” nuclear warheads in defiance of U.N. sanctions and that he had a nuclear button on his desk capable of launching missiles at the United States.

U.S. President Donald Trump responded to Kim in a Twitter post on Tuesday: “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

Haley said the United States would not take talks seriously if they did not take steps toward banning North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

“North Korea can talk to anyone they want, but the U.S. is not going to recognize it or acknowledge it until they agree to ban the nuclear weapons that they have,” she said.

Haley gave no details of the missile test preparations.

Another U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there were indications that could point toward a potential missile launch “sooner rather than later,” but cautioned that such signs had been seen in the past and no test had resulted.

‘DRIVE A WEDGE’

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said North Korea might be “trying to drive a wedge of some sort” between the United States and South Korea and added that while it was up to Seoul to decide who it talked to: “We are very skeptical of Kim Jong Un’s sincerity in sitting down and having talks.”

Trump, who has led a global drive to pressure North Korea through sanctions to give up development of nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting the United States, earlier held back judgment on Pyongyang’s offer to talk, saying on Twitter:

“Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time. “Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not – we will see!”

Trump has frequently derided Kim as “rocket man.” The U.S. president said sanctions and other pressures were starting to have a big impact on North Korea.

Kim and Trump have exchanged fiery barbs in the last year and the U.S. president has warned that the United States would have no choice but to “totally destroy” North Korea if forced to defend itself or its allies.

North Korea regularly threatens to destroy the United States, South Korea and Japan and tested its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile in November, which it said was capable of delivering a warhead anywhere in the United States.

South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myong-gyon said the offer for high-level talks next Tuesday had been discussed with the United States. Nauert said she was not aware if the matter had been discussed in advance of the South Korean response.

Cho suggested the talks be held at the border village of Panmunjom and said they should be focused on North Korea’s participation at the Olympics, but other issues would likely arise, including the denuclearisation of North Korea.

“I repeat: The government is open to talking with North Korea, regardless of time, location and form,” Cho said.

Should the talks be held, it would be the first such dialogue since a vice-ministerial meeting in December 2015.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in welcomed Kim’s New Year address and asked his government to move as quickly as possible to bring North Korea to the Olympics, but he stressed that an improvement in inter-Korean relations “cannot go separately with resolving North Korea’s nuclear program”.

China, which has persistently urged a return to talks to ease tensions, said recent positive comments from North and South Korea were a good thing.

“China welcomes and supports North Korea and South Korea taking earnest efforts to treat this as an opportunity to improve mutual relations, promote the alleviation of the situation on the Korean peninsula and realize denuclearisation on the peninsula,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.

(Reporting by Christine Kim, Jane Chung and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul, Michael Martina in Beijing, Doina Chiacu, David Brunnstrom, David Alexander and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, and Rodrigo Campos at the United Nations; Editing by Andrew Hay, Alistair Bell and Lisa Shumaker)

Pakistan summons U.S. ambassador after Trump’s angry tweet

David Hale, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, speaks at the Pakistan Stock Exchange in Karachi, Pakistan, July 26, 2016.

By Drazen Jorgic

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan has summoned the U.S. ambassador to protest against U.S. President Donald Trump’s angry tweet about Pakistani “lies and deceit”, which Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif dismissed as a political stunt.

David Hale was summoned by the Pakistan foreign office on Monday to explain Trump’s tweet, media said. The ministry could not be reached for comment but the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad confirmed on Tuesday that a meeting had taken place.

Trump said the United States had had been rewarded with “nothing but lies and deceit” for “foolishly” giving Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid in the last 15 years.

“They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” he tweeted on Monday.

His words drew praise from Pakistan’s old foe, India, and neighboring Afghanistan, but long-time ally China defended Pakistan.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on Tuesday chaired a National Security Committee meeting of civilian and military chiefs, focusing on Trump’s tweet. The meeting, which lasted nearly three hours, was brought forward by a day and followed an earlier meeting of army generals.

Relations with Washington have been strained for years over Islamabad’s alleged support for Haqqani network militants, who are allied with the Afghan Taliban.

The United States also alleges that senior Afghan Taliban commanders live on Pakistani soil, and has signaled that it will cut aid and take other steps if Islamabad does not stop helping or turning a blind eye to Haqqani militants crossing the border to carry out attacks in Afghanistan.

In 2016, Taliban leader Mullah Mansour was killed by a U.S. drone strike inside Pakistan and in 2011, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. troops in the garrison town of Abbottabad.

Islamabad bristles at the suggestion that it is not doing enough to fight Islamist militants, noting that its casualties at the hands of Islamists since 2001 number in the tens of thousands.

“DEAD-END STREET”

Foreign Minister Asif dismissed Trump’s comments as a political stunt born out of frustration over U.S. failures in Afghanistan, where Afghan Taliban militants have been gaining territory and carrying out major attacks.

“He has tweeted against us and Iran for his domestic consumption,” Asif told Geo TV on Monday.

“He is again and again displacing his frustrations on Pakistan over failures in Afghanistan as they are trapped in dead-end street in Afghanistan.”

Asif added that Pakistan did not need U.S. aid.

A U.S. National Security Council official on Monday said the White House did not plan to send an already-delayed $255 million in aid to Pakistan “at this time” and that “the administration continues to review Pakistan’s level of cooperation”.

Afghan defense spokesman General Dawlat Waziri said Trump had “declared the reality”, adding that “Pakistan has never helped or participated in tackling terrorism”.

Jitendra Singh, a junior minister at the Indian prime minister’s office, said Trump’s comment had “vindicated India’s stand as far as terror is concerned and as far as Pakistan’s role in perpetrating terrorism is concerned”.

But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, asked during a briefing about Trump’s tweet, did not mention the United States.

“We have said many times that Pakistan has put forth great effort and made great sacrifices in combating terrorism,” he said. “It has made a prominent contribution to global anti-terror efforts.”

Pakistani officials say tough U.S. measures threaten to push Pakistan further into the arms of China, which has pledged to invest $57 billion in Pakistani infrastructure as part of its vast Belt and Road initiative.

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic in ISLAMABAD, Syed Raza Hassan in KARACHI, Malini Menon in NEW DELHI, Mirwais Harooni in KABUL; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Taiwan says Chinese air force exercised near island 16 times in last year

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen visits the Suyapa Cathedral in Tegucigalpa, Honduras January 9, 2017.

TAIPEI (Reuters) – China’s air force has carried out 16 rounds of exercises close to Taiwan in the last year or so, Taiwan’s defense ministry said on Tuesday, warning that China’s military threat was growing by the day.

China considers self-ruled and democratic Taiwan to be its sacred territory and has never renounced the use of force to bring what it views as a wayward province under Chinese control.

China has taken an increasingly hostile stance towards Taiwan since Tsai Ing-wen from the island’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party won presidential elections last year.

Beijing suspects her of pushing for the island’s formal independence, a red line for China. Tsai says she wants peace with China, but that she will defend Taiwan’s security and way of life.

In a lengthy report, Taiwan’s defense ministry listed the number of times China’s air force had drilled near the island since the end of October last year and which aircraft were involved, including bombers and advanced fighter jets.

Of the 16 drills, 15 of them were around Taiwan, flying through the Bashi Channel which separates Taiwan from the Philippines and near Japan’s Miyako island, to the north of Taiwan. The other drill was through the Bashi Channel and out into the Pacific.

China has repeatedly said the drills are routine.

Taiwan’s defense ministry said China was the island’s biggest security threat.

“The Chinese military’s strength continues to grow rapidly,” it said.

“There have been massive developments in military reforms, combined operations, weapons development and production, the building of overseas military bases and military exercises, and the military threat towards us grows daily.”

Chinese missiles can already cover all of Taiwan, and China has been improving its abilities in long-range anti-ship missiles “to build an ability to resist foreign forces”, the ministry added.

Tensions rose earlier this month after a senior Chinese diplomat threatened that China would invade Taiwan if any U.S. warships made port visits there.

Taiwan is well equipped with mostly U.S.-made weapons, but has been pressing Washington to sell more advanced equipment.

The United States is bound by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, to China’s distaste.

Proudly democratic Taiwan has shown no interest in being run by autocratic China, and Taiwan’s government has accused Beijing of not understanding what democracy is all about when it criticizes Taipei.

(Reporting by Fabian Hamacher; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)