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Nepal prepares for mass animal sacrifice despite outcry

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Thousands of Hindu devotees gathered in southern Nepal on Monday ahead of a festival believed to be the world’s biggest ritual animal slaughter, despite court orders and calls by animal activists to end the event.

The sacrifices, set to begin on Tuesday, take place every five years in Bariyarpur village close to the Indian border, in honour of the Hindu goddess of power.

An estimated 200,000 animals ranging from goats to rats were killed during the last two-day Gadhimai Festival in 2014 and this year’s preparations were well underway by Monday night.

Buffaloes were corralled into holding pens as worshippers slept and cooked along the road to the temple.

Among them was Sabu Sahani, 25, who travelled with his family for a day from India’s Bihar with a goat offering.

“I am happy to be here. The goddess listened to me. We did not have children, but my wife has now given birth to a daughter,” Sahani told AFP.

Unlicensed traders and pilgrims who cross the border between India and Nepal are responsible for supplying most of the animals, with scores seized at crossings by Indian security officials and volunteers.

Many were hopeful the centuries-old tradition would end after the temple authorities announced a ban in 2015 and Nepal’s supreme court directed the government to discourage the bloodshed a year later.

But animal rights activists say that both government agencies as well as temple committees have failed to implement these rulings.

“The officials have let their personal beliefs rule over the court orders, they did not do enough to discourage the slaughters,” animal rights activist Manoj Gautam said.

Local priest Mangal Chaudhary, the tenth generation of his family to serve at the temple, did not comment on whether the temple supports this year’s mass sacrifice but said that the numbers in attendance are increasing.

“We will follow our traditions and perform the rituals in the temple. But what the devotees do outside is their own wish,” he said.

According to legend, the first sacrifices in Bariyarpur were conducted several centuries ago when the Hindu goddess Gadhimai appeared to a prisoner in a dream and asked him to establish a temple to her.

When he awoke, his shackles had fallen open and he was able to leave the prison and build the temple, where he sacrificed animals in gratitude.

Democratic candidates in fifth presidential debate agree on impeachment, little else

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For the fifth round of US Democratic debates on Wednesday, ten 2020 presidential hopefuls sparred in Atlanta, Georgia over health care, climate change, taxes, and race.
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The ongoing impeachment proceedings against US President Donald Trump were a backdrop to the debate, at times emerging to the front and centre.

It’s unanimous: Trump should be impeached

The moderators’ first question was about the Ukraine scandal and its fallout, which was revealed to be the only issue on which the candidates appeared to agree: That Trump should be ousted.

“The president broke the law again and again and again,” Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said in the event’s opening minutes.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders called Trump “the most corrupt president in modern history” but added, “We cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump” or the Democratic Party will lose the election. He said Democrats should also focus on other issues: “We can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time.”

Former US vice president Joe Biden—at the heart of the Ukraine scandal—added his own angle: “Trump doesn’t want me to be the [Democratic] nominee, and Vladimir Putin doesn’t want me to be president.”

Elizabeth Warren still stands alone on her 2% wealth tax

Warren answered a question about how she would unify a divided country by reintroducing her proposed 2% tax on wealth beyond $50 million, with an additional 4% tax on wealth beyond $1 billion.

“I’m tired of freeloading billionaires,” said Warren, adding that the tax would pay for free public college and universal childcare, while also cancelling most student loan debt.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker was asked whether he agreed with Warren’s proposal, leading to the first policy disagreement of the night.

Booker said he did not support Warren’s wealth tax but if elected, he would pursue “fair and just taxation where millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share.”

Healthcare: still a thorn in the candidates’ side

Healthcare reform figured prominently in the four previous Democratic debates; the fifth debate was no exception. Biden continued to push for modifications to Obama-era health care reforms over the “Medicare for all” proposals from Warren and Sanders.

Biden argued that voters are hesitant to make the transformative, government-backed changes pushed by candidates including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Biden said he didn’t want to force anyone to give up private health insurance.

Warren reiterated her longstanding position that she wants to “bring as many people in and get as much help to the American people as fast as we can.”

When questioning came to Sanders, he responded: “Thank you, I wrote the damn bill.”

Climate change mounting in importance

Candidates in this round took a more assertive position on climate change than previous debates. Businessman Tom Steyer has framed his candidacy around the issue, saying during the debate that that neither the former vice president nor Elizabeth Warren would characterize climate change as the most critical issue.

Biden replied that he does see climate change as such, calling it “the No. 1 issue” facing the country” and “the existential threat to humanity,” eliciting a somewhat stunned look from the billionaire businessman.

Referencing Steyer, the former vice president went on to say, “I don’t need a lecture from my friend,” noting his own work on Senate climate change legislation.

Bernie Sanders repeated his suggestion that executives in the fossil fuel industry could be prosecuted for their actions. The industry has “lied and lied and lied,” he said.

Top US military official says 500 troops to remain in Syria

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US troop levels in northern Syria will probably stabilize around 500, a top American military leader said Sunday, weeks after President Donald Trump had announced a complete withdrawal.

“There will be less than 1,000, for sure,” General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Probably in the 500ish frame, maybe six.”

Trump’s abrupt announcement last month that he had ordered a full troop withdrawal drew angry rebukes at home and abroad, with critics saying it could allow a resurgence of the Islamic State group while leaving US-allied Kurdish fighters in Syria vulnerable to a Turkish invasion.

The US president later relented in part, saying he would leave some troops in the region to protect valuable oil fields.

Milley, who has commanded troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, told ABC that it was important for US troops to remain in Syria so long as IS has a presence there.

“There are still ISIS fighters in the region,” he said, using an alternate term for IS. “Unless pressure is maintained, unless attention is maintained on that group, there’s a very real possibility there could be a re-emergence of ISIS.”

Asked about the killing Oct. 26 of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by a US special forces unit, Milley said it would have a “significant disruptive effect on the organization.” He said the US had “a considerable amount of information on his successor,” Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi.

“Where opportunities arise,” Milley said, “we’ll go after him.”

Trump has said he wants to wind down US military entanglements abroad where possible, but Milley predicted that American troops, already in Afghanistan for 18 years, would remain there “for several more years.”

He was also asked whether he knew Alexander Vindman, the army lieutenant colonel and White House Ukraine expert who has testified about his concerns over a controversial phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Milley declined to comment “on a witness to an active investigation” — the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry into Trump.

UK Parliament to elect new speaker after John Bercow’s departure

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British MPs will on Monday select the new speaker of the House of Commons, once an unremarkable event but one now charged with significance following the previous occupant’s role in Brexit.

Eight MPs are running to replace John Bercow, who placed himself front and centre of the Brexit saga by choosing amendments and introducing procedures that Leave-supporting MPs claimed were designed to frustrate Britain’s departure from the European Union.

Bercow also faced accusations that he fostered a culture of bullying within parliament. But his colourful personality and eccentric performances in parliament gave him an international profile and raised the status of the office.

Lindsay Hoyle, Bercow’s deputy since 2010, is the odds-on favourite to fill his shoes but other political heavyweights are also vying for the job.

Hoyle has been a Labour MP for 22 years and was Bercow’s deputy from 2010, since when his distinctive Lancashire accent has rung out from the speaker’s chair.

In a sign that he may follow a different path from Bercow, he recently rejected amendments that would have made it more difficult for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to force a general election, now due on December 12.

The 62-year-old is as unimpressed as his predecessor by rowdy MPs, once chastising Scottish Nationalists for humming the EU anthem “Ode to Joy” in the chamber.

Hoyle pledged in an interview published in the Sunday Times to repair what he claims has become a “toxic parliament”.

“I don’t want the abuse of each other and I think we have got to close that down quickly and make sure it is a calmer place to be,” he said.

‘Irreplaceable’

His closest rival appears to be veteran Labour MP Harriet Harman, parliament’s longest-serving female MP.

She entered the Commons in 1982 and served as the Labour Party’s deputy leader from 2007-2015, leading the party twice, in 2010 and 2015, between leaders.

The former justice minister is known for her ardent feminism and has been a long-time crusader on social justice issues.

Another woman in the running is Eleanor Laing, Bercow’s number two deputy since 2013.

The 61-year-old Conservative entered parliament in 1997 and previously served as the party’s spokeswoman on Scotland.

One of the more colourful characters in contention is former Church of England vicar, and now Labour MP Chris Bryant.

The openly gay 57-year-old’s civil partnership ceremony in 2010 was the first held in the Houses of Parliament.

Bercow stepped down on Thursday after 10 years as speaker.

The man in the middle of more than three years of fiery parliamentary debates has proved a controversial figure, loathed by pro-Brexit supporters and hailed by its foes.

A social media mash-up by German television of Bercow trying to calm down rowdy MPs has been seen more than a million times. A Belgian newspaper called him “irreplaceable”.

Johnson paid guarded tribute to the outgoing speaker, likening Bercow’s glare to a “trademark Tony Montana scowl”, after Al Pacino’s character in the 1983 film “Scarface”.

Opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn added: “You’ve done so much to reform this House of Commons and our democracy is the stronger for the way you have done it.”

Bercow will not stand in next month’s general election.

Parents of UK crash victim meet Trump at White House

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The parents of a British teen killed in a road crash involving an American diplomat’s wife met with President Donald Trump at the White House Tuesday to urge that she be returned to Britain to face justice.

Trump met with Tim Dunn and Charlotte Charles and dropped a “bombshell” that the woman at the wheel, Anne Sacoolas, was in the building and willing to meet them.

The couple said they refused.

“We made it very clear that, as we’ve said all along, we will meet with her… and we would still love to meet with her, but it has to be on our terms and on UK soil,” Charles told reporters after the meeting, which lasted about 15 minutes.

“She needs to come back and face the justice system,” she said.

Harry Dunn, aged 19, died on August 27 in a head-on collision between his motorcycle and a car being driven on the wrong side of the road in Northamptonshire in central England.

Sacoolas was interviewed by police but flew back to the United States after claiming diplomatic immunity.

She has not been charged with criminal wrongdoing, but her claim of immunity and return to the US have provoked an uproar in Britain.

In his surprise meeting with Dunn’s parents, Trump indicated Sacoolas would not be returning to Britain but was sympathetic.

“When we first got there, he extended his condolences to us, which did feel sincere. I don’t suppose we would have expected anything else. Many of his staff also did the same,” Charles said.

Trump “was quite respondent”, she said.

At end of their meeting “I asked him again, I said, ‘If it was your 19-year-old son, or your son no matter what age, you would be doing the same as me.’ And he was holding my hand at the time and he said, ‘Yes, I would’ and he said ‘Maybe we’ll try and push this from a different angle’,” Charles said.

Dunn said the president “was very gracious and spoke very well to us”.

“He was understanding and I think he genuinely will look to try to resolve this in a way to help us,” he said.

Prime Minister Johnson has said Sacoolas should return to Britain, saying: “I do not think that it can be right to use the process of diplomatic immunity for this type of purpose.”

But a Washington Post photograph of briefing notes held by Trump in an October 9 news event indicated that “the spouse of the US Government employee will not return to the United Kingdom.”

“We still want justice for Harry and we will take it as far as we possibly can to ensure that’s done,” Charles said.

Iraq military admits ‘excessive force’ used in deadly protests

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Iraq’s military admitted for the first time Monday it had used “excessive force” in nearly a week of deadly protests, as paramilitary units said they were ready to back the government.

More than 100 people have been killed and several thousand wounded in demonstrations increasingly spiralling into violence, with witnesses reporting security forces using water cannons, tear gas and live rounds.

On Sunday evening a mass protest in Sadr City in east Baghdad led to clashes that medics and security forces said left 13 people dead.

In videos distributed on social media, protesters could be seen ducking into streets littered with burning tyres as a volley of gunfire and suspected heavy weapons were heard.

“Excessive force outside the rules of engagement was used and we have begun to hold accountable those commanding officers who carried out these wrong acts,” the military said.

It said Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi had ordered those forces to be replaced with federal police units and the intelligence services to open an investigation into the incident.

It was the first time since protests broke out that security forces acknowledged using disproportionate measures, after the premier insisted they had been acting “within international standards” in dealing with demonstrations.

Across Baghdad on Monday morning as in several southern cities, streets were reopening and no protests could be seen, although demonstrators typically gather in the late evening.

– Reform pledges –

Sadr City, a densely populated, impoverished part of the capital, is a bastion of firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr who has thrown his weight behind the protests by calling on Abdel Mahdi’s government to resign.

But the embattled premier instead announced a series of reforms to create jobs, boost social welfare and oust corrupt officials.

He has accused “saboteurs” of infiltrating the protests, a claim echoed by the Hashed al-Shaabi, a powerful network of mostly-Shiite, pro-Iran paramilitary units.

“We know who stands behind these protests. The plan to bring down the regime has failed,” its chief Faleh al-Fayyadh told journalists in Baghdad.

He said his forces would support actions against corrupt institutions but not “the fall of the regime,” a chant which has featured more prominently in the protests in recent days.

“Those who wanted to defame Iraq will be punished,” Fayyadh said, adding that his forces were “ready for any government order.”

His words echoed a statement earlier Monday by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who accused “enemies” of trying to drive a wedge between Tehran and Baghdad.

“Enemies seek to sow discord but they’ve failed & their conspiracy won’t be effective,” Khamenei was quoted as saying on his office’s Twitter account.

Iran has urged its citizens planning to take part in a major Shiite pilgrimage in Iraq to delay their travel into the country over the violence.

Baghdad has close but complicated ties with Tehran, which enjoys significant influence among its Shiite political groups, but is also an ally of Washington.

On Monday, Abdel Mahdi said he discussed the recent events and reform plans in a phone call with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, without providing further details.

And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov landed in Baghdad to meet top officials.

Hold the vodka: Russians cut drinking 40 percent under Putin

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Russians might have a reputation as a nation of hard drinkers, but a report by the World Health Organization published Tuesday showed their alcohol consumption has dropped by more than 40 percent from its peak in the early 2000s.

The WHO put the decrease down to a raft of measures brought in since sport-loving President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, including restrictions on alcohol sales and the promotion of healthy lifestyles.

“The Russian Federation has long been considered one of the heaviest-drinking countries in the world,” the report said, adding that alcohol was a major contributor to a spike in deaths in the 1990s.

“However, in recent years these trends have been reversed.”

The study showed a 43 percent drop in alcohol consumption per capita from 2003 to 2016, driven by a steep decline in the consumption of bootleg booze.

The authors said this trend was a factor in increased life expectancies, which reached a historic peak in 2018, at 78 years for women and 68 years for men. In the turbulent early 1990s, male life expectancy was just 57.

Under Putin, Russia has introduced measures including a ban on shops selling any alcohol after 11:00 pm, increases in the minimum retail price of spirits and an advertising blackout.

– ‘More civilised’ –

In a central Moscow bar that specialises in beer, drinkers said they thought people were cutting down partly because of the restrictions, particularly on late-night alcohol sales in shops, but also due to changing lifestyles.

“We drink less, at least some of us,” said Alexander Sukhontsov, a 28-year-old bank employee, adding that people’s busy schedules mean they “just don’t have the time”.

“People have changed their approach to drinking,” said Roman Pechnikov, a 38-year-old computer scientist.

“Bars have become more civilised, and people do not drink until the end of the night,” he said

Last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was so concerned at habitual drinking among workers that he led a massively unpopular anti-alcohol campaign with partial prohibition, which brought down consumption from the mid-1980s until 1990.

But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, alcohol consumption exploded, continuing to rise until the start of the 2000s. President Boris Yeltsin was also notorious for embarrassing public incidents that appeared to be alcohol-fuelled.

By contrast, Putin is almost never seen drinking in public, although he is not teetotal and this month raised a glass of vodka while visiting the North Caucasus.

Earlier WHO figures showed Russian adults now drink less alcohol on average than their French and German counterparts.

Moscow has also launched a drive against smoking, last week announcing a ban on lighting up even on private balconies.

Tobacco use plummeted by more than a fifth between 2009 and 2016, down to 30 percent of Russians smoking, according to the most recent Global Adult Tobacco Survey.

N.Korea says to hold nuclear talks with US on Saturday

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North Korea on Tuesday said it will hold working-level nuclear talks with the US on Saturday, signalling the resumption of much-anticipated negotiations after the collapse of a summit in February.

The two sides agreed to have “preliminary contact” on October 4 and hold working-level negotiations the following day, the North’s vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

“It is my expectation that the working-level negotiations would accelerate the positive development of the DPRK-US relations,” she added without disclosing the talks’ venue.

North Korean officials were “ready” to enter the discussions, she said.

Negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington have been gridlocked since a second summit between North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump in February ended without a deal.

The two agreed to restart working-level dialogue during an impromptu meeting at the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas in June, but the North’s anger at a US refusal to cancel joint military deals with South Korea placed the process on hold.

Relations thawed last month after Trump fired his hawkish national security advisor John Bolton, who Pyongyang had repeatedly denounced as a warmonger.

North Korea’s chief negotiator also responded positively to Trump’s suggestion that the two sides try a “new method” of approaching their discussions.

Trump had criticised Bolton’s suggestion of the “Libyan model” for North Korea, a reference to a denuclearisation deal with the African nation’s former dictator Moamer Kadhafi — who was killed after being deposed in 2011.

Pyongyang had bristled at that comment, which Trump said had “set us back very badly”.

Despite the gridlock, Pyongyang has continued to praise Trump, calling him “bold” and “wise”.

South Korea’s presidential Blue House welcomed the resumption of dialogue between the North and the US.

“We hope to see the realisation of practical steps towards permanent peace regime and complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula through the upcoming talks,” said spokeswoman Ko Min-jung.

Bomb explodes injuring five in southern Turkey: state media

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Five people were injured on Wednesday when a roadside bomb exploded as a bus carrying police drove by in the southern Turkish province of Adana, state media reported.

The blast in Adana was either an “improvised explosive device or a different type of bomb”, the governor, Mahmut Demirtas, told Anadolu news agency.

One of those hurt was a police officer, he said, but the casualties did not suffer serious injuries.

The other four injured were passers-by, Demirtas added.

“The injured are in a really good condition. Citizens went to the hospital as a precaution. There are no issues for our police,” Demirtas said after police and ambulance services rushed to the scene.

Images in Turkish media showed the damaged bus underneath a footbridge in Yuregir district.

The Adana governor did not speculate on who carried out the bombing.

Turkey was hit by a series of terror attacks in 2015 and 2016 which killed hundreds of people and were blamed on the Islamic State extremist group and Kurdish militants.

Tailoring peace: Colombian ex-rebels turn to fashion

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Once dressed to kill as they stalked the Colombian jungle, a group of young former FARC rebels have shed their camouflage fatigues, boots and guns to help ease their way back into society following a 2016 peace deal.

The ex-guerrillas held a fashion show in Bogota this week, with colorful outfits and overt messages of peace pressed into service in the battle for Colombian hearts and minds, as the peace deal frays at the edges.

“This fashion parade is aimed at showing the clothes we make, and to demonstrate to Colombia our commitment to peace,” said former rebel Gonzalo Beltran, who has swapped his automatic rifle for a needle and thread.

The peace deal between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the government of then-president Juan Manuel Santos has come under increasing strain since the election of Santos’s conservative successor Ivan Duque.

Duque was elected last year on promises to renegotiate the peace accord on the grounds that it was too lenient toward ex-fighters guilty of serious crimes.

And last month, the man who negotiated and signed the deal on behalf of FARC, Ivan Marquez, announced he and dozens of followers were returning to arms.

The FARC hardliners accuse the government of betraying the accord and failing to deliver rural reform.

– ‘We’re complying’ –

Entitled “Pazarela” — a play on the Spanish word for peace, “paz”, and catwalk, “pasarela” — Wednesday night’s fashion parade took place to the beat of electronic music.

A dozen models — students and former combatants — strutted in front of 200 spectators to show off the first fashion collection designed in one of the country’s 26 rebel reintegration zones.

“We’re complying” was scrawled on a banner carried by a young woman dressed in a yellow kimono. Other signs drove home the message: “Everyone for Peace”, “Nothing for War” and “Fashion is a political act”.

Designer Angela Maria Herrera worked with around 30 former fighters from Colombia’s mountainous Icononzo area.

“Our clothes carry messages of peace. Some were made by ex-combatants, but tailored by victims of violence, so the message of reconciliation is intrinsic.”

Former guerrilla Melina Reyes presented a flowered dress, carrying a sign calling on the government to fulfill its promises under the deal.

“These are the clothes we are making, men and women who are betting on peace, that left their rifles behind, who said ‘no’ to the war, and want to continue like this,” she said.

– Jungle fashion –

The private Andean University of Bogota hosted the fashion event to mark the International Day of Peace on September 21.

Event organizer Leonardo Gonzalez said it underlined the young people around him “do not want to return to war.”

The United Nations says although a “vast majority” of about 13,000 former FARC combatants and their civilian collaborators remain committed to peace, the return to arms of some factions — and the thousands who never disarmed at all — is undermining efforts to overcome more than half a century of conflict.

Reyes wants to turn the page and says fashion provides her with an opportunity to put into practice a talent acquired in the jungle.

“We altered the clothes we were given because they were standard sizes, too big for some of us, and too tight for others,” another woman said.

“We were stylists, the tailors of the guerrilla movement.”

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Democratic candidates in fifth presidential debate agree on impeachment, little else

For the fifth round of US Democratic debates on Wednesday, ten 2020 presidential hopefuls sparred in Atlanta, Georgia over health care, climate change, taxes,...