Category Archives: World

Zuma says not against anti-graft probe as ANC grandees gather

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South African President Jacob Zuma said on Friday he was not against setting up an inquiry into claims of corruption in his government, after the ruling ANC denied a report it would this weekend discuss his removal as party head.

The Public Protector, an anti-corruption watchdog, published a report in November that alleged Zuma was influenced by the Guptas, a wealthy South African family with business interests from mining to media, in making government appointments.

Zuma faced down calls to resign over those claims, which both he and the Guptas have denied.

But pressure against him within the African National Congress, opposition parties and civil society has swelled since he axed respected finance minister Pravin Gordhan in March, triggering credit rating downgrades that have hit chances of a recovery in the struggling economy.

At the time of the report’s release, the watchdog also called on Zuma to appoint a commission within 30 days to examine its claims, which the president has yet to do.

He said on Friday he was “not opposed to establishing a commission of inquiry”, without specifying a timeframe. In a statement from his office, he also said the Protector had erred in law by asking him to set it up.

The ANC’s National Executive Committee meets on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and Bloomberg on Tuesday quoted two anonymous sources as saying it would discuss Zuma’s removal from the party presidency.

ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa called the report “a complete fabrication”.

The ANC stood by Zuma at a similar meeting in November in a debate about whether he should step down, and analysts poured cold water on chances of him being ousted or quitting before his term as party head ends in December.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, considered a likely candidate for ANC president in December, last month said he wanted the influence-peddling allegations investigated, lending support to the watchdog’s recommendations.

Ramaphosa has not formally announced his intention to stand.

A separate faction within the ANC including Zuma backs his ex-wife, former African Union Chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, to replace him as party head.

Zuma’s term as South African head of state runs until 2019.

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UK’s opposition leader says foreign wars, police cuts increased terrorism risk

Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn, address delegates at the annual conference of the GMB union in Dublin.

LONDON – The leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party said on Friday Britain’s foreign policy and intervention in wars abroad had fueled the threat of terrorism at homes as a political truce after the Manchester suicide attack came to an end.

Jeremy Corbyn also vowed to reverse Prime Minister Theresa May’s police cuts and give the security services more resources if they needed them, saying Britain could not “be protected on the cheap”.

Although he said he did not want “to make a narrow party political point”, opponents accused him of exploiting Monday’s bombing by Salman Abedi, a Briton born to Libyan parents, who killed 22 people, including children, at the Manchester Arena after a concert by U.S. singer Ariana Grande.

“No government can prevent every terrorist attack. But the responsibility of government is to minimize that chance, to ensure the police have the resources they need, that our foreign policy reduces rather than increases the threat to this country,” he said in a speech in London.

“Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services pointed out the connections between wars that we’ve been involved in or supported … in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.”

May’s Conservatives are leading in the opinion polls ahead of the June 8 election, and were widely expected to cruise to a landslide win when she called the vote in April.

But one survey on Thursday suggested their lead had been cut to just 5 points after she was forced to backtrack on a plan to force elderly people to pay more for their social care.

Corbyn, a socialist and veteran anti-war campaigner, said foreign policy was not solely to blame for terrorism but he would shy away from the interventionist approach that has seen Britain join military action in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan in recent years.

“We must be brave enough to admit the ‘war on terror’ is not working,” he said, vowing only to deploy troops when there was a clear need and a plan to secure a lasting peace.

His stance puts him not just at odds with May, who says he would put Britain’s security at risk if he won power, but also many in his own party such as former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair who led Britain into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I think his timing is incredibly disappointing and crass given there is a live police operation,” Security Minister Ben Wallace told BBC radio. “I don’t think the substance of what he says is correct at all.”

Corbyn, who has already pledged 10,000 extra officers, also promised to reverse police cost-saving measures, many brought in by May in her former role as interior minister. Britain now has fewer officers than in 2001.

Current interior minister Amber Rudd said rejected suggestions cuts had hindered the authorities’ ability to prevent Monday’s attack.

“We must not imply that this terrorist activity wouldn’t have taken place if there had been more policing,” she said.

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Europeans are starting to leave the UK in ‘statistically significant’ numbers

LONDON – Net migration to the UK fell by 84,000 people to 248,000 in 2016, driven by an increase in European citizens leaving the country, the Office for National Statistics said.

In total, immigration was estimated to be 588,000 and emigration 339,000.

“The net migration change was driven by a statistically significant increase in emigration up 40,000 from 2015, mainly EU citizens and a decrease of 43,000 in immigration (not statistically significant),” the ONS said.

Net immigration was just from EU8 countries – a bloc which includes eastern European states such as Poland and Romania – stood at just 5,000 people, which is the lowest figure since the countries joined the European Union in 2004.

Here’s the chart from the ONS:

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Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party has interpreted the vote to leave the European Union as a reaction against immigration, pledging to reduce net migration to below 100,000 people following the election.

“Tough general election rhetoric on cutting migration is only likely to encourage more of the EU workers British businesses and public services rely upon to choose to cross the channel in search of a more secure future for themselves and their families,” Sophie Barrett-Brown, head of the UK Practice at Laura Devine Solicitors, said in an emailed statement.

Meanwhile, the Confederation of British Industry, the UK’s largest business lobby group, expressed concern at the potential for immigration restrictions to hamper access to talented workers from overseas.

“We have a much much higher degree of integration of our businesses within Europe than we do in any other part of the world, and [this is about] the ability to move people around quickly onto a construction project or to make a television programme or to work on a legal project. We are a services based-economy and people are our currency,” Carolyn Fairbairn, Confederation of British Industry’s director general, said earlier this month. – The Insider

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Moody’s downgrades China, warns of fading financial strength as debt mounts

Beijing

SHANGHAI/BEIJING – Moody’s Investors Service downgraded China’s credit ratings on Wednesday for the first time in nearly 30 years, saying it expects the financial strength of the economy will erode in coming years as growth slows and debt continues to rise.

The one-notch downgrade in long-term local and foreign currency issuer ratings, to A1 from Aa3, comes as the Chinese government grapples with the challenges of rising financial risks stemming from years of credit-fueled stimulus.

“The downgrade reflects Moody’s expectation that China’s financial strength will erode somewhat over the coming years, with economy-wide debt continuing to rise as potential growth slows,” the rating agency said in a statement, changing its outlook for China to stable from negative.

China’s Finance Ministry said the downgrade, Moody’s first for the country since 1989, overestimated the risks to the economy and was based on “inappropriate methodology”.

“Moody’s views that China’s non-financial debt will rise rapidly and the government would continue to maintain growth via stimulus measures are exaggerating difficulties facing the Chinese economy, and underestimating the Chinese government’s ability to deepen supply-side structural reform and appropriately expand aggregate demand,” the ministry said in a statement.

China’s leaders have identified the containment of financial risks and asset bubbles as a top priority this year. All the same, authorities have moved cautiously to avoid knocking economic growth, gingerly raising short-term interest rates while tightening regulatory supervision.

At the same time, Beijing’s need to deliver on official growth targets is likely to make the economy increasingly reliant on stimulus, Moody’s said.

“While ongoing progress on reforms is likely to transform the economy and financial system over time, it is not likely to prevent a further material rise in economy-wide debt, and the consequent increase in contingent liabilities for the government,” Moody’s said.

While the downgrade is likely to modestly increase the cost of borrowing for the Chinese government and its state-owned enterprises (SOEs), it remains comfortably within the investment grade rating range.

China’s Shanghai Composite index .SSEC fell more than 1 percent in early trade before paring losses, while the yuan currency in the offshore market CNH=D3 briefly dipped nearly 0.1 percent against the U.S. dollar after the news.

The Australian dollar AUD=, often see as a liquid proxy for China risk, also slipped.

One trader at a foreign bank in Shanghai said the spread between benchmark government bonds and those issued by SOEs in U.S dollars widened by 2-3 basis points.

“It’s going to be quite negative in terms of sentiment, particularly at a time when China is looking to derisk the banking system, as well as at a time when there’s going to be some potential restructuring of SOEs,” said Vishnu Varathan, Asia head of economics and strategy at Mizuho Bank’s Treasury division.

GROWTH TO SLOW

In March 2016, Moody’s cut its outlook on China’s ratings to negative from stable, citing rising debt and uncertainty about authorities’ ability to carry out reforms.

Rival ratings agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded its outlook to negative in the same month. S&P’s AA- rating is one notch above both Moody’s and Fitch Ratings, leading to speculation among analysts that S&P could also downgrade soon.

Moody’s has Japan at the same A1 rating China is now on.

“We understand the risk and the reason for downgrade but due to China being a unique system on its own – closed capital account and strong government control over all important sectors – it can tolerate a higher debt level,” said Edmund Goh, a Kuala Lumpur-based investment manager at Aberdeen Asset Management.

Moody’s has no specific timetable for re-visiting China’s rating, but would monitor conditions on a regular basis, said Marie Diron, associate managing director of Moody’s Sovereign Risk Group.

More than two hours after the announcement from Moody’s, no Chinese state media had published news about the downgrade.

The slowing economy has become an increasingly sensitive topic in China, with authorities directing mainland Chinese economists and journalists toward more positive messaging.

Authorities have stepped up efforts over the last several months to curb debt and housing risks, and a raft of recent data has signaled a cooling in the economy, which grew a solid 6.9 percent in the first quarter.

China’s potential economic growth was likely to slow toward 5 percent in coming years, but the cooldown is likely to be gradual due to expected fiscal stimulus, Moody’s said.

“Our GDP will keep medium- and high-level growth and that will provide fundamental support to fend off local government debt risks,” China’s Finance Ministry said. “China’s government debt risks will not change dramatically in the period of 2018-2020 from 2016.”

Government-led stimulus has been a major driver of growth over recent years, but has also been accompanied by runaway credit growth and has created a mountain of debt – now standing at nearly 300 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Julian Evans-Pritchard, China Economist at Capital Economics in Singapore, said steps to resolve the debt overhang, such as debt-for-equity swaps at state-owned enterprises, were insufficient to deal with problem.

“As a result, it’s reached the point where the bad debt problem is just so large the government will have to step in to resolve it at some point and that obviously means at some point a sizeable increase in government debt,” he said.

Moody’s said it expects the government’s direct debt burden to rise gradually toward 40 percent of GDP by 2018 “and closer to 45 percent by the end of the decade”.

A growing number of economists believe that a massive bank bailout may be inevitable in China as bad loans mount.

Reuters

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At least 22 killed in suicide attack at Ariana Grande concert in Britain

A police vehicle is seen outside the Manchester Arena, where U.S. singer Ariana Grande had been performing in Manchester, northern England, Britain May 23, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Yates

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – At least 22 people, including some children, were killed and 59 wounded when a suicide bomber struck as thousands of fans streamed out of a concert by U.S. singer Ariana Grande in the English city of Manchester on Monday.

Prime Minister Theresa May said the incident was being treated as a terrorist attack, making it the deadliest militant assault in Britain since four British Muslims killed 52 people in suicide bombings on London’s transport system in July 2005.

Police said the attacker detonated the explosives shortly after 10:33 pm (2133 GMT) at Manchester Arena, which has the capacity to hold 21,000 people. Children were among the dead, police said.

“We believe, at this stage, the attack last night was conducted by one man,” Manchester Chief Constable Ian Hopkins told reporters. “The priority is to establish whether he was acting alone or as part of a network.

“We believe the attacker was carrying an improvised explosive device which he detonated causing this atrocity,” said Hopkins, who declined to answer questions about whether the attacker was British.

A witness who attended the concert said she felt a huge blast as she was leaving the arena, followed by screaming and a rush by thousands of people trying to escape the building.

A video posted on Twitter showed fans, many of them young, screaming and running from the venue. Dozens of parents frantically searched for their children, posting photos and pleading for information on social media.

“We were making our way out and when we were right by the door there was a massive explosion and everybody was screaming,” concert-goer Catherine Macfarlane told Reuters.

“It was a huge explosion – you could feel it in your chest. It was chaotic. Everybody was running and screaming and just trying to get out.”

Ariana Grande, 23, later said on Twitter: “broken. from the bottom of my heart, i am so so sorry. i don’t have words.” May, who faces an election in two-and-a-half weeks, said her thoughts were with the victims and their families. She and Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, agreed to suspend campaigning ahead of the June 8 election.

“We are working to establish the full details of what is being treated by the police as an appalling terrorist attack,” May said in a statement. “All our thoughts are with the victims and the families of those who have been affected.”

May is due to hold a crisis response meeting and finance minister Philip Hammond will cut short a trip to Brussels to return to London.

Chinese President Xi Jinping sent his condolences to Queen Elizabeth while French President Emmanuel Macron said he would discuss the fight against terrorism with May.

SUICIDE BOMBER?

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but U.S. officials drew parallels to the coordinated attacks in November 2015 by Islamist militants on the Bataclan concert hall and other sites in Paris, which claimed about 130 lives.

British police were on alert for any further attacks. Central London’s Victoria coach station and roads around it were closed after discovery of a suspect package, the BBC said.

Islamic State supporters took to social media to celebrate the blast and some encouraged similar attacks elsewhere.

Britain is on its second-highest alert level of “severe”, meaning an attack by militants is considered highly likely.

British counter-terrorism police have said they are making on average an arrest every day in connection with suspected terrorism.

In March, a British-born convert to Islam ploughed a car into pedestrians on London’s Westminster Bridge, killing four people before stabbing to death a police officer who was on the grounds of parliament. The man was shot dead at the scene.

In 2015, Pakistani student Abid Naseer was convicted in a U.S. court of conspiring with al Qaeda to blow up the Arndale shopping center in the center of Manchester in April 2009.

PARENTS’ ANGUISH

Manchester Arena, the largest indoor arena in Europe, opened in 1995 and is a popular concert and sporting venue.

Desperate parents and friends used social media to search for loved ones who attended Monday’s concert while the wounded were being treated at six hospitals across Manchester.

“Everyone pls share this, my little sister Emma was at the Ari concert tonight in #Manchester and she isn’t answering her phone, pls help me,” said one message posted alongside a picture of a blonde girl with flowers in her hair.

Paula Robinson, 48, from West Dalton about 40 miles east of Manchester, said she was at the train station next to the arena with her husband when she felt the explosion and saw dozens of teenage girls screaming and running away from arena.

“We ran out,” Robinson told Reuters. “It was literally seconds after the explosion. I got the teens to run with me.”

Robinson took dozens of teenage girls to the nearby Holiday Inn Express hotel and tweeted out her phone number to worried parents, telling them to meet her there. She said her phone had not stopped ringing since her tweet.

“Parents were frantic running about trying to get to their children,” she said. “There were lots of lots children at Holiday Inn.” – Reuters

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Zambian opposition leader’s wife urges international community to help free husband

Zambia’s United Party for National Development (UPND) President Hakainde Hichilema

The wife of Zambia’s main opposition leader, Hakainde Hichilema, has urged the international community to help free her husband who has now been in prison for 43 days on treason charges.

Known by his supporters as HH, Hichilema was arrested on treason charges for allegedly obstructing the presidential motorcade. Police allege Hichilema’s convoy endangered the president’s life.

Mutinta Hichilema pleaded for her husband’s release and urged the international community not to close its eyes on the erosion of democracy in Zambia, amid concerns the country is rapidly sliding towards a dictatorship, according to BBC.

Her comments come days after British High Commissioner to Zambia, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, warned that British government departments and investors were lose confidence over Hichilema’s incarceration.

A magistrate was today expected to decide whether Hichimena and five others’ casewould be dropped or referred to the High Court.

Tweeting from the court, his United Party for National Development (UPND) party confirmed the case had been postponed to Wednesday (24 May) after the magistrate fell ill.

Businessman Hichilema, who has also been regularly tweeting about his detention, was arrested on 11 April after he accused President Edgar Lungu of trying to kill him after security forces raided his home in the capital Lusaka, forcing him to retreat to a safe room in the house.

According to the government, Hichilema refused to make way for Lungu’s convoy on 9 April as the president’s motorcade attempted to overtake his fleet.

The charge allows no bail and can carry a minimum jail term of 15 years and a maximum sentence of death. Hichilema’s party, the United Party for National Development (UPND) has denied any wrongdoing. – IBTimes

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British Polls: Labour slash gap in the polls as Tories flounder on social care

Labour have slashed the gap in the polls to come within nine points of the Conservative Party, making it the smallest lead Prime Minister Theresa May has had over Jeremy Corbyn all year.

A YouGov survey for the Sunday Times showed that since last week, support for Labour has increased from 31 points to 35, while support for the Tories has gone down from 49 points to 44.

The poll is the first to be released since both parties released their manifestos this week.

Several reports at the weekend have shown a growing number of voters are unhappy with Prime Minister Theresa May’s policies of reducing the number of pensioners protected from social care costs and introducing means testing for the winter fuel allowance.

One Conservative MP told The Sunday Times that several frontbenchers privately voiced concerns to May that the manifesto would repel voters, complaining it was too unpalatable.

The minister said May should “quickly change the subject from the manifesto – a lot of which is a kick in the teeth for voters”.

He added: “We need to get off care and pensioner benefits and start talking about the calamity of Corbyn again.”

The closing of the gap in the polls will cause concern within Tory HQ. It indicates that at least for now a general election landslide is not as guaranteed as initially thought.

Another Tory minister warned that minds needed to be refocused, warning that resources were being deployed poorly.

“They’re getting carried away with all this talk of a landslide, sending people to places we are never going to win,” he said.

“We need to make sure we get the seats we can get.”

In an effort to further cash in on Labour’s momentum, Corbyn on Saturday (20 May) announced a five-point pledge to pensioners, which included promises to preserve the triple lock, the winter fuel allowance and the state pension age. – IBTimes

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Trump tells Middle East to ‘drive out’ Islamist extremists

US President Donald Trump delivers a speech during Arab-Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.Reuters

RIYADH – President Donald Trump urged Arab and Islamic leaders on Sunday to unite and do their share to defeat Islamist extremists, making an impassioned plea to “drive out” terrorists while toning down his own harsh rhetoric about Muslims.

Trump singled out Iran as a key source of funding and support for militant groups. His words aligned with the views of his Saudi Arabian hosts and sent a tough message to Tehran the day after Hassan Rouhani won a second term as Iran’s president.

The U.S. president did not use his signature term “radical Islamic terrorism,” a signal that he decided to employ a more moderate tone in the region after using the phrase repeatedly as a presidential candidate.

“Terrorism has spread all across the world. But the path to peace begins right here, on this ancient soil, in this sacred land,” Trump told leaders from dozens of Muslim majority countries representing more than a billion people.

“A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and drive out the extremists. Drive them out. Drive them out of your places of worship, drive them out of your communities, drive them out of your holy land and drive them out of this earth.”

The president’s first speech abroad provided an opportunity to show his strength and resolve, in contrast to his struggle to contain a mushrooming scandal at home after his firing of former FBI director James Comey nearly two weeks ago.

With a forceful tone, he made clear that Washington would partner with the Middle East but expected more action in return.

“There is still much work to be done. That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism, and the Islamists, and Islamic terror of all kinds,” he said in his speech.

The advance excerpts of the speech had him saying “Islamist extremism” and it was not clear why he veered from that text.

The term “Islamist extremism” refers to Islamism as a political movement rather than Islam as a religion, a distinction that Trump had frequently criticized the administration of his predecessor Barack Obama for making.

As a candidate, Trump proposed temporarily banning Muslims from entering the United States. In office he ordered temporary bans on people from certain Muslim-majority countries, which have been blocked by courts that ruled they were discriminatory.

The speech in a gilded hall bedecked with chandeliers is part of an effort to redefine his relationship with the Muslim world. Trump’s “America first” philosophy helped him win the 2016 election and has rattled allies who depend on U.S. support for their defense.

Trump received a warm welcome from Arab leaders, who set aside his campaign rhetoric and focused on his desire to crack down on Iran’s influence in the region, a commitment they found wanting in Obama.

“For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror,” Trump said. “It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this very room.”

JOINT FIGHT, ROYAL WELCOME

Introducing Trump, Saudi King Salman described their mutual foe Iran as the source of terrorism they must confront together.

“Our responsibility before God and our people and the whole world is to stand united to fight the forces of evil and extremism wherever they are … The Iranian regime represents the tip of the spear of global terrorism,” the king said.

Iran is a Shi’ite Muslim country. The groups that the United States has been fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere since the September 11, 2001 attacks on Washington and New York are mostly Sunni Muslims, and enemies of Iran.

The United States and Gulf Arab countries announced an agreement to coordinate efforts against the financing of terrorist groups.

Trump’s welcome in the region was put on display during a series of individual meetings with Arab leaders.

He praised Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, telling him, “You have done a tremendous job under trying circumstances”. The Obama administration had a difficult relationship with Sisi, who came to power after leading a military coup in 2013 during which hundreds of demonstrators were killed, and has since jailed thousands of opponents.

Trump promised to schedule a trip to Egypt soon, and he singled out the Egyptian’s choice of footwear, a pair of shiny black shoes. “Love your shoes. Boy, those shoes,” he said.

To Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, Trump declared that the two nations had a lot in common and “there won’t be strain with this administration.”

The king lauded the relationship and said it had led to “great stability in the region and prosperity”. Bahrain is home to the U.S. fleet in the Middle East. Its Sunni Muslim royal family rules over a majority Shi’ite population and was occasionally rebuked by the Obama administration for harsh treatment of opponents.

Trump’s Riyadh visit kicks off his first presidential trip abroad, with Saudi Arabia the first stop on a nine-day journey through the Middle East and Europe.

Soon after Trump embarked on his trip Friday, he was hit with more accusations that, with Comey’s firing on May 9, he was trying to squelch a federal investigation into his campaign’s ties with Russia last year.

The New York Times reported Trump called Comey a “nut job” in a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week. The Washington Post said the probe had reached into the White House to include a Trump adviser, who was not named.

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One killed in northern Kenya after rally attended by President Kenyatta

ISIOLO, Kenya (Reuters) – Police shot dead one person in northern Kenya’s Isiolo county after a political rally attended by President Uhuru Kenyatta at which supporters of rival political candidates for regional government positions clashed, police said.

Officials and political leaders said the trouble started before Kenyatta arrived to address the gathering on Saturday.

Kenya’s Aug. 8 presidential campaign in which incumbent president Kenyatta will run, coincides with elections for members of parliament and representatives in regional governments, known as counties.

Devolution of some powers to county level during Kenyatta’s presidency, and the associated access to and control of lucrative local budgets and high official salaries, has sparked intense interest in the local contests, especially for the governor post.

Police said after the rally, supporters of one candidate for the county governor roll, accompanied by a convoy of vehicles, approached a roadblock in Isiolo town and refused to move to one side when asked by police officers, who then dispersed them.

“A strong team of security personnel were all over the place to maintain order. We can’t allow lawlessness. It is illogical to claim they shot at a peaceful crowd. No they (police) acted to restore order after being attacked,” Isiolo County police commander Charles Ontinta said.

He said they were investigating the circumstances that led to the death.

Abdul Bahari, a candidate for governor in Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party, said his supporters had been peaceful when police shot at them.

“I was in the crowd with the group. They are all my supporters, very peaceful, singing in my support. Campaigning for Jubilee is not an offence. It’s very sad we have lost an innocent life,” he said after giving a statement to police on the incident.

Last month’s primaries for various seats, in which voters chose party candidates, were marred by violence, claims of rigging and cancelled ballots. Record numbers of candidates who failed to secure party tickets have also rushed to register as independents.

Footage broadcast on privately-owned Citizen Television showed one speaker at the rally asking the crowd – seen waving banners, blowing whistles and shouting – to be orderly to allow Kenyatta to speak. Kenyatta was also shown trying to calm the crowd.

Last month, he said the government would not tolerate violence between rival camps of supporters during the primaries and before a national election.

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Under siege in Washington, Trump reaps Saudi arms deal, stronger ties

RIYADH – Under political fire at home, U.S. President Donald Trump sealed a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia on Saturday on his maiden foreign trip as he struggled to shift attention from the aftermath of his firing of the director of the FBI.

The arms deal, plus other investments that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said could total up to $350 billion, was the central achievement of Trump’s first day in Riyadh, first stop on a nine-day journey the Middle East and Europe.

Speaking to journalists after a ceremony to exchange agreements, Trump said it was a “tremendous day” and spoke of “hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs. So I would like to thank all of the people of Saudi Arabia.”

King Salman gave Trump a remarkably warm greeting, meeting him at the steps of Air Force One on arrival, shaking the hand of Trump’s wife, Melania, riding with Trump in his limousine and spending most of the day with him.

But the political turmoil back in Washington consumed the headlines in the United States and cast a long shadow over the trip.

His firing of Federal Bureau of Investigation head James Comey on May 9 and the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign ties to Russia have raised the question of whether he tried to squelch a probe into allegations of a Russian connection.

Fanning the flames was a New York Times report that Trump had called Comey a “nut job” in a private meeting last week in the Oval Office with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and ambassador Sergei Kislyak. The Times quoted briefing notes of the conversation.

Asked for a response, the White House said that for national security reasons, “we do not confirm or deny the authenticity of allegedly leaked classified documents.”

Russia’s Interfax news agency on Saturday quoted Lavrov as saying he had not discussed Comey with Trump. “We did not touch this issue at all,” the minister said.

In another development, the Washington Post said a current White House official close to Trump was a significant “person of interest” in the investigation into possible ties with Russia.

Against that backdrop, Trump soldiered through a long day of diplomacy.

Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir called the results of Trump’s meetings with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz “the beginning of a turning point” between the United States, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.

Both he and Tillerson made clear the arms deal was aimed at countering Iran on a day that Hassan Rouhani was re-elected as Iran’s president.

Tillerson said Rouhani should use his second term to end Iran’s ballistic missile testing and stop promoting extremism in a volatile region.

He said he had no plans to talk to his Iranian counterpart but that he in all likelihood he would do so “at the right time.”

Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy, the Vatican and Belgium has been billed by the White House as a chance to visit places sacred to three of the world’s major religions, while giving Trump time to meet with Arab, Israeli and European leaders. – Reuters

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