Pope Francis calls for 'solidarity' with migrants stranded at sea

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Jan. 7, 2019 / 4:06 PM GMT / Updated 4:08 PM GMT

LONDON — Pope Francis has pleaded for European leaders to help 49 migrants stranded at sea after two rescue boats were refused permission to dock in both Italy and Malta.

“I make a heartfelt appeal to European leaders to show concrete solidarity for these people,” the pontiff told crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday.

Pope Francis celebrates Mass at the Vatican on Sunday. Andrew Medichini / AP

The Dutch-flagged vessel Sea-Watch 3, which is operated by a German humanitarian organization, rescued 32 migrants including women, children and unaccompanied minors off the coast of Libya on Dec. 22.

Sea-Eye, which is another German humanitarian group, said its boat of the same name is also stranded off the coast of Malta after it plucked 17 people from the Mediterranean Sea on Dec. 29.

The doctor aboard Sea-Watch 3 — which has been unable to dock for 16 days — said some of the migrants were seasick and growing increasingly desperate. On Jan. 4, Sea-Watch said one migrant had even tried to jump ship and swim to Malta before he was hauled back on board.

“The situation here on board is getting more and more unstable. Every day the stress level is increasing,” said the doctor who was identified only as Frank in a video posted on Twitter. “It is a very dire situation. This needs to end as soon as possible.”

Italy and Malta have clashed over who should take in the migrants with both refusing to open their ports to the vessels despite pressure from humanitarian groups.

On Jan. 3, Malta allowed the two ships to shelter in port from a storm but it has refused to let the migrants disembark.

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said in a statement posted online Sunday that he did not want to set a precedent by allowing the migrants into Malta.

“It’s easy to be the Christmas saint but then come January, February and the summer period we would be told to do the same,” Muscat added.

Th Sea-Eye rescue ship docked at the Spanish harbor of Malaga in December. Jorge Guerrero / AFP – Getty Images

Muscat said his country had saved almost 250 people at sea over the Christmas period “without protesting” but that it was not its responsibility to take in these 49 migrants they were not rescued in Maltese waters.

Italy has also refused to welcome the ships. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who also serves as deputy prime minster and who is a member of an anti-immigration populist party, has said the country has taken in “too many fake refugees.”

“Human trafficking must be stopped,” he posted on Facebook explaining his decision to keep Italy’s ports closed. “People escaping war should come to Italy by plane, as many already do, not by boat. We can send medicines, food and clothes to the boats, but enough of this blackmail.”

Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said the U.N. had received offers from some European states to receive the migrants aboard Sea-Watch 3 and Sea-Eye but gave no further details.

Nevertheless he warned that “unless a shared system of disembarkation and care is agreed upon, protracted negotiations will continue to cause hardship to those suffering and tension in Europe.”

Sep. 4, 201801:00

Charlie Yaxley, the U.N. refugee agency’s spokesperson for Asia and Europe, said “2019 must see an end to the boat by boat approach for allowing ships to dock rescued refugees and migrants.”

The ships are not the first to be stranded at sea.

The Aquarius, a rescue ship jointly operated by Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee, was kept at sea for 10 days in July after being repeatedly refused permission to dock my Italy and Malta.

The latest incident follows the implementation of a landmark U.N. agreement in December, in which signatory states agreed to better share the responsibility for migrants across the globe.

The pact, known as the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, was signed in Morocco by 164 nations, including Malta. An Italian delegation did not travel to the conference and Salvini has said Italy will debate the agreement in parliament.

Jeff Crisp, an expert in migration at the University of Oxford in England, said the fact that the migrants aboard the rescue ships still hadn’t been able to disembark marked a “bleak beginning” for the first year of the agreement with its primary focus on responsibility-sharing.

Pope Francis calls for 'solidarity' with migrants stranded at sea

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Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.

Jan. 7, 2019 / 4:06 PM GMT / Updated Jan. 7, 2019 / 4:08 PM GMT

LONDON — Pope Francis has pleaded for European leaders to help 49 migrants stranded at sea after two rescue boats were refused permission to dock in both Italy and Malta.

“I make a heartfelt appeal to European leaders to show concrete solidarity for these people,” the pontiff told crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday.

Pope Francis celebrates Mass at the Vatican on Sunday. Andrew Medichini / AP

The Dutch-flagged vessel Sea-Watch 3, which is operated by a German humanitarian organization, rescued 32 migrants including women, children and unaccompanied minors off the coast of Libya on Dec. 22.

Sea-Eye, which is another German humanitarian group, said its boat of the same name is also stranded off the coast of Malta after it plucked 17 people from the Mediterranean Sea on Dec. 29.

The doctor aboard Sea-Watch 3 — which has been unable to dock for 16 days — said some of the migrants were seasick and growing increasingly desperate. On Jan. 4, Sea-Watch said one migrant had even tried to jump ship and swim to Malta before he was hauled back on board.

“The situation here on board is getting more and more unstable. Every day the stress level is increasing,” said the doctor who was identified only as Frank in a video posted on Twitter. “It is a very dire situation. This needs to end as soon as possible.”

Italy and Malta have clashed over who should take in the migrants with both refusing to open their ports to the vessels despite pressure from humanitarian groups.

On Jan. 3, Malta allowed the two ships to shelter in port from a storm but it has refused to let the migrants disembark.

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said in a statement posted online Sunday that he did not want to set a precedent by allowing the migrants into Malta.

“It’s easy to be the Christmas saint but then come January, February and the summer period we would be told to do the same,” Muscat added.

Th Sea-Eye rescue ship docked at the Spanish harbor of Malaga in December. Jorge Guerrero / AFP – Getty Images

Muscat said his country had saved almost 250 people at sea over the Christmas period “without protesting” but that it was not its responsibility to take in these 49 migrants as they were not rescued in Maltese waters.

Italy has also refused to welcome the ships. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who also serves as deputy prime minster and who is a member of an anti-immigration populist party, has said the country has taken in “too many fake refugees.”

“Human trafficking must be stopped,” he posted on Facebook explaining his decision to keep Italy’s ports closed. “People escaping war should come to Italy by plane, as many already do, not by boat. We can send medicines, food and clothes to the boats, but enough of this blackmail.”

Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said the U.N. had received offers from some European states to receive the migrants aboard Sea-Watch 3 and Sea-Eye but gave no further details.

Nevertheless he warned that “unless a shared system of disembarkation and care is agreed upon, protracted negotiations will continue to cause hardship to those suffering and tension in Europe.”

Sep. 4, 201801:00

Charlie Yaxley, the U.N. refugee agency’s spokesperson for Asia and Europe, said “2019 must see an end to the boat by boat approach for allowing ships to dock rescued refugees and migrants.”

The ships are not the first to be stranded at sea.

The Aquarius, a rescue ship jointly operated by Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee, was kept at sea for 10 days in July after being repeatedly refused permission to dock my Italy and Malta.

In December, the two humanitarian organizations which ran the ship said they were ending its operations, blaming harassment from Italy and other countries.

A month before, an Italian prosecutor had ordered the seizure of the vessel on the grounds that crew members had contravened rules for the disposal of waste.

The latest incident follows the implementation of a landmark U.N. agreement in December, in which signatory states agreed to better share the responsibility for migrants across the globe.

The pact, known as the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, was signed in Morocco by 164 nations, including Malta. An Italian delegation did not travel to the conference and Salvini has said Italy will debate the agreement in parliament.

Jeff Crisp, an expert in migration at the University of Oxford in England, said the fact that the migrants aboard the rescue ships still hadn’t been able to disembark marked a “bleak beginning” for the first year of the agreement with its primary focus on responsibility-sharing.

Chinese gay dating app halts registration after underage HIV report

Jan. 7, 2019 / 3:59 PM GMT

Chinese gay dating app Blued is halting new user registration for a week, it said on Sunday, following media reports that underage users caught HIV after going on dates set up via the world’s largest networking app for the LGBTQ community.

China has a vibrant lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender scene scene, though activists say conservative attitudes among some groups in society have prompted occasional government clampdowns.

On Saturday, citing academic research, financial magazine Caixin said juveniles were heavily involved in the gay dating app, where some teenagers had even hosted livestreaming.

It added that many gay teenagers had unprotected sex through the app and contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

In response, Blued vowed to launch a “comprehensive content audit and regulation,” and crack down on juvenile users posing as adults and on texts, pictures and groups that involve minors.

“Blued always forbids juveniles from logging on and using the app,” it said in a statement on its verified account on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.

The company added that it had enabled artificial intelligence to weed out pornographic content since last year, and vowed to further support AIDS prevention work.

The Beijing-based company did not immediately reply to a request from Reuters for comment on Sunday.

Blued, which was launched in 2010 and now boasts 40 million registered users, is backed by state-run media Beijing News. It is the brainchild of a former policeman who quit his job to play Cupid to millions of gay men in China.

Grindr, a Los Angeles-based gay dating app well-known globally, is also owned by a Chinese company.

U.S.-China trade war: Beijing says both sides have expressed a desire to hammer out a deal

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Jan. 7, 2019 / 1:28 PM GMT/ Source: CNBC.com

As officials from Beijing and Washington met to attempt to hash out their countries’ ongoing trade dispute, China’s foreign ministry said Monday that both sides had expressed a will to work together in order to implement the consensus of their respective presidents.

Lu Kang, spokesman at the foreign ministry, told reporters that China is willing to resolve its trade disputes with the U.S. — on equal footing.

Those comments come as Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Jeffrey Gerrish leads a working team in China for a two-day round of trade discussions set to conclude on Tuesday.

Commenting on an image tweeted by a Wall Street Journal corespondent apparently showing China’s top trade negotiator, Liu He, making an appearance at the trade talks, Scott Kennedy, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote, “Good signs in this photo. That’s a lot of people in the room. Serious working-level discussions. And Liu He’s drop-by shows he’s in charge.”

Trade tensions between the world’s two largest economies escalated last year, putting global stock markets on edge. The U.S. announced tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods, while Beijing countered with its own.

Soldiers announce coup 'to restore democracy' to Gabon

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Jan. 7, 2019 / 9:26 AM GMT / Updated Jan. 7, 2019 / 11:11 AM GMT

LIBREVILLE, Gabon — Soldiers from Gabon’s Republican Guard have appeared on state television saying they have launched a coup “to restore democracy” in the West African country.

Early Monday a soldier who identified himself as Lt. Kelly Ondo Obiang, commander of the Republican Guard, read out a statement saying the military has seized control of the government. He was flanked by two others holding weapons and all were dressed in camouflage uniforms and green berets.

Ondo Obiang described himself as the leader of the self-declared Patriotic Movement of the Defense and Security Forces of Gabon.

A curfew has been imposed over the capital, Libreville, and the internet has been cut. The city on the Atlantic Ocean coast is being patrolled by military tanks and armed vehicles.

President Ali Bongo, 59, has been out of the country since October amid reports that he had a stroke. He recently addressed the country in a New Year’s message that was filmed in Morocco, where he has been receiving medical treatment.

In that speech, Bongo acknowledged health problems but said he was recovering. He slurred some of his words and did not move his right arm, but otherwise appeared in decent health.

Bongo has been in power since 2009.

The Bongo family has ruled the oil-producing country for nearly half a century. Bongo has been president since succeeding his father, Omar. His re-election in 2016 by fewer than 6,000 votes was marred by claims of fraud, sparking deadly clashes between protesters and police during which the parliament was torched.

Gabon has a population of around 2 million.Bing Maps

Ondo Obiang said the coup was being carried out against “those who, in a cowardly way, assassinated our young compatriots on the night of August 31, 2016,” a reference to the violence that erupted after Bongo was declared the election’s winner.

The European Union said it found anomalies during the election in Bongo’s stronghold province of Haut-Ogooue, where he won 95 percent of the vote on a 99.9 percent turnout.

Saudi teen seeking asylum barricades herself in Thai hotel room

Maj. Gen. Surachate Hakparn, the chief of Thailand’s Immigration Police chief, said Monday that she would not be sent anywhere against her wishes.

On Twitter, where Alqunun has accumulated tens of thousands of followers in about a day-and-a-half, she wrote of being in “real danger” if forced to return to her family under pressure from Saudi authorities, and has claimed in media interviews that she could be killed.

Alqunun told Human Rights Watch she was fleeing abuse from her family, including beatings and death threats from her male relatives who forced her to remain in her room for six months for cutting her hair.

“My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things,” Alqunun told Reuters.

Asked why she was seeking refuge in Australia, she said: “Physical, emotional and verbal abuse and being imprisoned inside the house for months. They threaten to kill me and prevent me from continuing my education.”

Alqunun added: “They won’t let me drive or travel. I am oppressed. I love life and work and I am very ambitious but my family is preventing me from living.”

June 22, 201801:25

Her family could not immediately be reached for comment. In her initial social media pleas, Alqunun said her family was powerful in Saudi society but she did not identify them.

For runaway Saudi women — to whom Saudi law grants male relatives legal guardianship even if they are adults — fleeing can be a matter of life and death, and they are almost always doing so to escape male relatives.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said: “The key thing is she should not be sent back to Saudi Arabia, she should not be sent back into harm’s way.”

Alqunun appeared to have scored a small victory on Monday when the flight on which she said she would be sent to Kuwait departed without her.

Germany’s ambassador to Thailand, Georg Schmidt, also posted a message of concern on his verified Twitter account about her case, which he said he was conveying to Thai authorities.

The Associated Press reached Alqunun by telephone Sunday night in her hotel room and she spoke briefly, saying that she was tricked into giving up her passport on her arrival in Bangkok.

“Someone told me he would help me get a visa for Thailand, so I can go inside,” she said “After that he took my passport. After one hour he came with five or four persons and told me my family wants me. And they knew I had run away and should go back to Saudi Arabia.”

Alqunun has identified the man who took her passport variously as a Kuwait Airways employee or a Saudi Embassy official. She said Saudi and Thai officials then told her she would be returned to Kuwait on Monday, where her father and brother are awaiting her.

Saudi Arabia’s charge d’affaires in Bangkok Abdullah al-Shuaibi denied Saudi authorities were involved in any way.

He was quoted in Saudi press saying that Alqunun was stopped by Thai authorities because she did not appear to have a return ticket, a hotel reservation or itinerary to show she was a tourist. He said the Saudi Embassy has no authority to stop anyone at the airport and that this decision rests with Thai officials.

“She was stopped by airport authorities because she violated Thai laws,” al-Shuaibi was quoted as saying in Sabq, a state-aligned Saudi news website. “The embassy is only monitoring the situation.”

Alqunun’s plight mirrors that of other Saudi women who have tried to flee abusive or restrictive family conditions.

A Saudi activist familiar with other cases of females who’ve run away said often the women are young, inexperienced and unprepared for the obstacles and risks involved in seeking asylum when they attempt to flee.

Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussion, the activist said there have been instances where Saudi women runaways were stopped by authorities in Hong Kong or the Philippines en route to Australia or New Zealand. In some cases, Saudi authorities have been involved in forcing women to return to their families and in other cases local authorities suspect the women of seeking asylum and deport them.

Alqunun appears to have attempted to flee while on a family visit to Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia requires that a woman have the consent of a male relative — usually a father or husband — to obtain a passport, travel abroad or marry.

Saudi women runaways, however, have increasingly turned to social media to amplify their calls for help.

In 2017, Dina Lasloom triggered a firestorm online when she was stopped en route to Australia where she planned to seek asylum. She was forced to return to Saudi Arabia and was not publicly heard from again, according to activists tracking her whereabouts.