International News

The Google logo is pictured at the entrance to the Google offices in London, Britain, January 18. — Reuters/File

Google on Friday told employees to focus on work instead of heated debates about politics with colleagues at the internet company, which has long been known for encouraging people to speak their minds.

Updated workplace guidelines for “Googlers” called on them to be responsible, helpful, and thoughtful during exchanges on internal message boards or other conversation forums.

“While sharing information and ideas with colleagues helps build community, disrupting the workday to have a raging debate over politics or the latest news story does not,” the updated guidelines stated.

“Our primary responsibility is to do the work we've each been hired to do, not to spend working time on debates about non-work topics.”

“We're all free to raise concerns and respectfully question and debate the company's activities — that's part of our culture,” the guidelines read.

“Take care not to make false or misleading statements about Google's products or business that could undermine trust in our products and the work that we do.”

Managers or those moderating forums were directed to intervene if the policy is violated, revoking comments, ending discussions, or even taking disciplinary action.

US President Donald Trump revived his criticism of Google this month, referencing a fired engineer who claimed the internet giant was working against his re-election.

The comments were the latest from the US leader alleging, without evidence, that Silicon Valley giants distort searches and social feeds to suppress conservatives.

Trump has assailed Google on several occasions, claiming bias against him and his supporters. Google repeated its response that these claims are baseless.

“The statements made by this disgruntled former employee are absolutely false,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement, referring to the fired engineer.

“We go to great lengths to build our products and enforce our policies in ways that don't take political leanings into account.”

In recent years, Google employees have challenged the company on issues including sexual harassment in the workplace, bidding on contracts with US defence or immigration agencies, and the potential for tailoring its online search engine for use on China's heavily censored internet.

Anti-government demonstrators apologise for yesterday's clashes with police at the airport in Hong Kong China on August 14. — Reuters

Flights resumed at Hong Kong's airport on Wednesday after two days of disruptions marked by outbursts of violence that highlight the hardening positions of pro-democracy protesters and the authorities in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.

About three dozen protesters remained camped in the airport's arrivals area a day after a mass demonstration and frenzied mob violence forced more than 100 flight cancellations. Additional identification checks were in place, but check-in counters were open and flights appeared to be operating normally.

Protesters spread pamphlets and posters across the floor in a section of the terminal but were not impeding travellers. Online, they also circulated letters and promotional materials apologising to travellers and the general public for inconveniences during the past five days of airport occupations.

"It is not our intention to cause delays to your travels and we do not want to cause inconvenience to you," said an emailed statement from a group of protesters.

"We ask for your understanding and forgiveness as young people in Hong Kong continue to fight for freedom and democracy."

The airport's management said it had obtained "an interim injunction to restrain persons from unlawfully and willfully obstructing or interfering" with airport operations. It said an area of the airport had been set aside for demonstrations, but no protests would be allowed outside the designated area.

The airport had closed check-in for remaining flights late on Tuesday afternoon as protesters swarmed the terminal and blocked access to immigration for departing passengers. Those cancellations were in addition to 200 flights cancelled on Monday.

Hong Kong police said they arrested five people during clashes with pro-democracy protesters at the airport on Tuesday night.

Assistant Commissioner of Police Operations Mak Chin-ho said the men, aged between 17 and 28, were arrested for illegal assembly. Two were also charged with assaulting a police officer and possessing offensive weapons as riot police sought to clear the terminal.

More than 700 protesters have been arrested in total since early June, mostly men in their 20s and 30s, but also including women, teenagers and septuagenarians.

Mak gave no further details, but said additional suspects were expected to be arrested, including those who assaulted an officer after stripping him of his baton and pepper spray, prompting him to draw his gun to fend them off.

Hong Kong law permits life imprisonment for those who commit violent acts or acts that might interfere with flight safety at an airport.

More than 7 million travellers pass through Hong Kong's airport each year, making it "not an appropriate place of protest," Mak said.

"Hong Kong police have always facilitated peaceful and orderly protests over the years, but the extremely radical and violent acts have certainly crossed the line and are to be most severely condemned," he said.

"The police pledge to all citizens of Hong Kong that we will take steps to bring all culprits to justice."

Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific said in a statement it had cancelled 272 flights over the past two days, affecting more than 55,000 passengers, while 622 departures and arrivals went ahead.

The airport disruptions have escalated a summer of demonstrations aimed at what many Hong Kong residents see as an increasing erosion of the freedoms they were promised in 1997 when Communist Party-ruled mainland China took over what had been a British colony.

While Hong Kong's crucial travel industry suffers major losses, the city's reputation as a well-regulated centre for finance is also taking a hit. Some 21 countries and regions have issued travel safety alerts for their citizens travelling to Hong Kong, saying protests have become more violent and unpredictable.

The demonstrators are demanding Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam step down and scrap proposed legislation under which some suspects could be sent to mainland China, where critics say they could face torture and unfair or politically charged trials.

Lam has rejected calls for dialogue, saying on Tuesday the protesters were threatening to push their home into an "abyss".

In a statement on Wednesday, the Chinese Cabinet's liaison office in Hong Kong said the protesters had "entirely ruptured legal and moral bottom lines" and would face swift and severe repercussions under Hong Kong's legal system.

"Their behaviour shows extreme contempt for the law, seriously damages Hong Kong's international image and deeply hurts the feelings of the broad masses of their mainland compatriots," the statement said.

Most of the protesters left the airport on Tuesday after officers armed with pepper spray and swinging batons tried to enter the terminal, fighting with demonstrators who barricaded entrances with luggage carts. Riot police clashed briefly with the demonstrators, leading to several injuries and prompting at least one officer to draw a handgun on his assailants.

The burst of violence included protesters beating up at least two men they suspected of being undercover Chinese agents. Airport security appeared unable to control the crowd, and paramedics later took both men away. Police have acknowledged using "decoy" officers, and some protesters over the weekend were seen being arrested by men dressed like demonstrators in black and wearing face masks.

Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, identified one of the men as a journalist at the nationalistic Chinese tabloid.

"Fu Guohao, reporter of GT website is being seized by demonstrators at HK airport," Hu wrote on his Twitter account. "I affirm this man being tied in this video is the reporter himself. He has no other task except for reporting."

Protesters on Wednesday apologised that some of them had become "easily agitated and over-reacted".

On posters, the demonstrators said they have been "riddled with paranoia and rage" after discovering undercover police officers in their ranks.

Earlier this week, the central government in Beijing issued an ominous characterisation of the protest movement as something approaching "terrorism" a label it routinely applies to nonviolent protests of government policies on the environment or in minority regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet.

President Donald Trump tweeted that US intelligence believes that the Chinese government is moving troops to its border with Hong Kong and that, "Everyone should be calm and safe!"

While China has yet to threaten using the army as it did against pro-democracy protesters in Beijing in 1989 recent police exercises across Hong Kong's border with mainland China were a sign of its ability to crush the demonstrations, even at a cost to Hong Kong's reputation as a safe haven for business and international exchange.

Images on the internet showed armoured personnel carriers belonging to the People's Armed Police driving in a convoy Monday toward the site of the exercises.

The US and the Taliban will seek to thrash out elements of a deal to bring a close to Afghanistan's 18-year conflict in the second day of renewed talks in Doha on Sunday. — AP/File

The US and the Taliban will seek to thrash out elements of a deal to bring a close to Afghanistan's 18-year conflict in the second day of renewed talks in Doha on Sunday.

The US, which invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban in 2001, wants to withdraw thousands of troops and turn the page on its longest-ever war.

But it would first seek assurances from the insurgents that they would renounce Al-Qaeda and stop other militants like the Islamic State group using the country as a haven.

The talks, now in their eighth round, began on Saturday and were due to resume Sunday morning after pausing overnight, US and Taliban sources told AFP.

A Taliban source also said efforts were underway to organise a direct meeting between US envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Baradar, who heads the movement's political wing.

A coalition led by Washington ousted the Taliban in late 2001 accusing it of harbouring Al-Qaeda jihadists who claimed the September 11 attacks against the US that killed almost 3,000 people.

But despite a rapid conclusion to the conventional phase of the war, the Taliban have proved formidable insurgents, bogging down US troops for years.

Washington is hoping to strike a peace deal with the Taliban by September 1 — ahead of Afghan polls due the same month, and US presidential elections due in 2020.

US President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House on Friday that "we've made a lot of progress. We're talking".

"We are pursuing a peace agreement not a withdrawal agreement, a peace agreement that enables withdrawal," Khalilzad tweeted on Friday as he arrived in Doha after talks with Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad.

"Our presence in Afghanistan is conditions-based, and any withdrawal will be conditions-based."

In another sign of progress, the Afghan government has formed a negotiating team for separate peace talks with the Taliban that diplomats hope could be held as early as later this month.

'Negotiations will be tough'

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that an initial deal to end the war would see the US force in Afghanistan reduced to as low as 8,000 from the current level of around 14,000.

In exchange, the Taliban would abide by a ceasefire, renounce Al-Qaeda, and talk to the Kabul administration. An Afghan official hinted last week that the government of President Ashraf Ghani was preparing for direct talks with the Taliban, the details of which have yet to be announced.

"We have no preconditions to begin talks, but the peace agreement is not without conditions," Ghani wrote in Pashto on his Facebook page on Friday ahead of the talks.

"We want a republic government not an emirate," he said, a challenge to the Taliban which has insisted on reverting to the "Islamic Emirate" name Afghanistan bore under its rule.

"The negotiations will be tough, and the Taliban should know that no Afghan is inferior in religion or courage to them."

The thorny issues of power-sharing with the Taliban, the role of regional powers including Pakistan and India, and the fate of Ghani's administration also remain unresolved.

The latest US-Taliban encounter follows last month's talks between influential Afghans and the Taliban which agreed a "roadmap for peace" — but stopped short of calling for a ceasefire.

Kabul resident Somaya Mustafa, 20, said her country desperately needed a peace deal, but only one in which the Taliban "accept women and their achievements".

"It is a total mess in our country right now. And if it continues, women will suffer more than anyone else."

The United Nations has said that civilian casualty rates across Afghanistan matched record levels last month, following a dip earlier in the year.

Outages are being reported across the U.S.

The world’s not ending, but this is pretty close. 

Right now #FacebookDown and #WhatsAppDown are trending on Twitter, with users reporting problems with Facebook images, Twitter DMs, WhatsApp connections, and Instagram Stories.

"We're working to get things back to normal as soon as possible," a spokesman for Facebook told BBC News.

"We're currently having some issues with DM delivery and notifications. We're working on a fix and will follow up as soon as we have an update for you. Apologies for the inconvenience," Twitter (TWTR) said in a tweet.

When we checked Down Detector, it showed all websites experienced a large spike in outage reports, peaking around 11 a.m. EDT. Facebook maxed out at over 7,500 reports, while Instagram users reported over 14,000 problems with the photo-sharing app. 

It's unclear what's causing this social media meltdown. Facebook confirmed it's not the result of a cyber attack.

We will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.

 

The warning is the latest salvo in a dispute that has intensified since Trump ramped up tariffs against China. — Reuters/File

Chinese state media on Wednesday dangled the threat of cutting exports of rare earths to the United States as a counter-strike in the trade war, potentially depriving Washington of a key resource used to make everything from smartphones to military hardware.

The warning is the latest salvo in a dispute that has intensified since President Donald Trump ramped up tariffs against China and moved to blacklist telecom giant Huawei earlier this month, while trade talks have apparently stalled.

Huawei stepped up its legal battle on Wednesday, announcing it had filed a motion in US court for summary judgement in its bid to overturn US legislation that bars federal agencies from using its equipment over security concerns.

Beijing had already dropped a big hint that rare earths could be in the firing line by showing images last week of President Xi Jinping visiting a rare earths factory in Ganzhou, central China.

An unnamed official from the National Development and Reform Commission, China's state planner, issued a cryptic warning late Tuesday.

"You asked whether rare earths will become China's countermeasure against unwarranted suppression from the US. What I can tell you is that if anyone wants to use products made from our rare-earth exports to curb and suppress China's development, I'm sure the people of Ganzhou and across China will not be happy with that," the official said in answers to questions published by state media.

The official said rare-earth resources should "serve domestic needs first" but China is also willing to meet the "legitimate needs of countries around the world".

Shares in rare earth companies surged in the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets during Wednesday trading.

'Forcing China's hand'

State media were more blunt.

"Waging a trade war against China, the United States risks losing the supply of materials that are vital to sustaining its technological strength," the official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary.

The state-owned Global Times tabloid warned in an editorial posted online that the "US will rue forcing China's hand on rare earths".

"It is believed that if the US increasingly suppresses the development of China, sooner or later, China will use rare earths as a weapon," the nationalist tabloid said.

China produces more than 95 percent of the world's rare earths, and the United States relies on China for upwards of 80 percent of its imports.

Rare earths are 17 elements critical to manufacturing everything from smartphones and televisions to cameras and lightbulbs.

Beijing could hurt US companies in what is shaping up as a battle for who will dominate the future of high-tech.

Huawei took the US to court over a defence bill passed by Congress last year that bans government agencies from using its equipment. But it also faces a recent Trump administration order that cuts it off from critical American-made components for its products.

"The US government has provided no evidence to show that Huawei is a security threat," Huawei's chief legal officer Song Liuping told reporters, rejecting US warnings that the company's equipment could be used by China to spy on other countries.

Risky business

China has been accused of using its rare earth leverage for political reasons before.

Japanese industry sources said it temporarily cut off exports in 2010 as a territorial row flared between the Asian rivals, charges that Beijing denied.

But experts say the Japan experience showed that China may not have such strong leverage.

"Even with such apparently favourable circumstances, market power and political leverage proved fleeting and difficult to exploit," according to a 2014 report by the Council on Foreign Relations think tank written by University of Texas professor Eugene Gholz.

The report said China's advantages were already slipping away in 2010 due to normal market behaviour, including increases in non-Chinese production and processing capacity, and innovations that have contributed to reducing demand for some rare earth elements.

Analysts have said China appears apprehensive of targeting the minerals just yet, possibly fearful of hastening a global search for alternative supplies of the commodities.

The Global Times acknowledged that using rare earths as leverage could be risky.

"If China decides to ban rare earths export to the US, it would produce complex effects, including incurring certain losses on China itself," it said.

"However, China also clearly knows that the US would suffer greater losses in that situation."

This AFPTV screen grab from a video made on May 28, 2019 in Moscow shows Taliban Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar during a conference marking a century of diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and Russia, followed by discussions with Afghan politicians about the future of the country. — AFP

Senior Afghan Taliban officials including the group's top political advisor met with Afghan political figures in Moscow on Tuesday, saying they were committed to peace in Afghanistan — even as US-led talks appear to have stalled.

In a message the Taliban have not altered since talks with the US started last autumn, Taliban co-founder and political leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar said the insurgents want an end to 18 years of conflict — but would only sign a deal after foreign forces quit Afghanistan.

The Taliban are “really committed to peace, but think the obstacle for peace should be removed first”, Baradar said in a rare televised appearance at the start of the two-day meeting marking 100 years of diplomatic ties between Russia and Afghanistan.

“The obstacle is the occupation of Afghanistan, and that should end,” Baradar added.

Baradar — who helped Mullah Omar found the Taliban — was appointed its political chief in January following his release from a Pakistan prison.

 

Tuesday's Moscow meeting once again cut out senior members of President Ashraf Ghani's government, which the Taliban consider a US-backed puppet regime, though the head of the Kabul administration's high peace council had been slated to attend.

Other Afghan politicians — including former president Hamid Karzai and candidates challenging Ghani in a presidential election slated for September — were also present.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (L) and Stanakzai Sher Mohammad Abbas, Taliban chief negotiators, pictured during the conference marking a century of diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and Russia. — AFP
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (L) and Stanakzai Sher Mohammad Abbas, Taliban chief negotiators, pictured during the conference marking a century of diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and Russia. — AFP

 

The talks mark the second time Taliban leaders have met with Afghan figures in Russia, following a February summit that saw the former foes praying together and chatting over meals.

Former warlord Atta Muhammad Noor said the previous Moscow meeting had yielded “quite positive results”. “We are for having good relations with our brothers, with the Taliban,” Noor said.

“Let's step back a little, embrace each other and create conditions for the start of peace”.

Moscow appears to be gaining influence in the ongoing process, with the US announcing last month that Washington had reached a consensus with China and Russia on the key formula for a peace deal it is negotiating in Afghanistan.

But a recent sixth round of talks between US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban ended in Doha this month with no tangible progress cited by the negotiating teams.

While the Taliban insist foreign forces must leave Afghanistan before it can agree to peace, the US has refused to agree to a withdrawal until the Taliban put in place security guarantees, a ceasefire, and other commitments including an “intra-Afghan” dialogue with the Kabul government and other Afghan representatives.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who opened Tuesday's meeting, said Russia and Afghanistan have “a shared aim — fighting terrorism” and reiterated that Moscow supports a complete withdrawal of foreign forces.

The Soviet Union and Afghanistan fought a war in the 1980s that resulted in a Moscow's withdrawal after nine years of brutal conflict.

There was no immediate confirmation from Saudi authorities or from a Saudi-led coalition that has been battling the Houthis in Yemen for four years. ─ AFP/File

Yemen's Houthi rebels allegedly launched a drone strike on military hangars in Saudi Arabia's Jizan airport near the Yemeni border, according to the group's Masirah TV on Sunday.

There was no immediate confirmation from Saudi authorities or from a Saudi-led coalition that has been battling the Houthis in Yemen for four years.

The Houthis, who ousted the Saudi-backed, internationally recognised government from power in the Yemeni capital Sanaa in late 2014, have stepped up missile and drone attacks on Saudi cities in the past two weeks.

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