26 killed in Kabul as IS suicide bomber targets Nauroz celebrations

A suicide bomber on Wednesday killed at least 26 people, many of them teenagers, after detonating a device among a crowd of people in Kabul who were celebrating the Persian new year Nauroz, officials said.

The militant Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for the deadly attack ─ the fifth suicide bombing in the Afghan capital in recent weeks ─ via its propaganda arm Amaq, SITE Intelligence Group said.

The Taliban earlier denied involvement on Twitter.

Another 18 people were wounded in the blast, Interior Ministry Spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said, “all of them civilians”.

There were fears the figure could rise, however, with the Health Ministry giving a higher toll of 29 people killed and 52 wounded. Afghan officials often give conflicting tolls in the wake of attacks.

The bomber, who was on foot, detonated his device in front of Kabul University and a hospital that was opposite, Rahimi said.

The blast occurred less than 200 metres from Karte Sakhi shrine where many Afghans gather every year to mark Nauroz ─ but had been unable to reach it due to heavy security for the holiday.

So he “detonated himself among teenagers returning from there”, Kabul police chief Mohammad Daud Amin told Tolo News.

Bloodstains could be seen among scattered belongings on the road at the site of the attack. A man who was standing metres from where the explosion happened told Tolo that he saw “at least four bodies in blood” on the ground.

IS has attacked the same shrine once before, in October 2016, when gunmen killed 18 people gathered to mark Ashura.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, whose government has been repeatedly lambasted for its inability to protect its citizens, condemned the attack in a statement as a “crime against humanity”.

Taliban and IS militants have increasingly targeted the war-weary city in recent months as United States and Afghan forces ramp up air strikes and ground offensives against the groups.

Wednesday’s blast comes days after a Taliban suicide attacker blew up a bomb-laden car in Kabul, causing multiple casualties.

Some Western and Afghan security experts believe the Haqqani Network has been behind some of the attacks in Kabul in recent months, including those claimed by IS.

The Taliban, Afghanistan’s largest militant group, faces growing pressure to take up a recent offer by President Ghani of peace talks to end the 16-year war. So far it has given only a muted response.

Little incentive for talks

This latest suicide attack underscores the growing challenge facing Afghan and foreign forces to protect the already heavily militarised city.

Authorities had increased security ahead of Nauroz festivities, which militants have previously struck with deadly force.

General John Nicholson, who leads US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, recently told reporters that protecting Kabul was a priority for foreign troops.

“Kabul is our main effort right now, to harden Kabul, to protect the people of Kabul and the international community that are here because of the strategic impact that has and the importance to the campaign,” Nicholson said.

But he acknowledged that preventing further attacks would be challenging in the sprawling city that is poorly mapped and extremely porous.

The latest attack comes as US Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford visits Afghanistan to assess the military campaign against insurgents ─ weeks before the start of the spring fighting season, which is expected to be particularly bloody this year.

Despite calls for the Taliban to sit down with the Afghan government, the group appears to have few reasons to negotiate.

The Taliban has been resurgent since the withdrawal of US-led Nato combat troops at the end of 2014, taking back territory and devastating Afghanistan’s beleaguered security forces.

In October, insurgents controlled or influenced nearly half of Afghanistan’s districts ─ double the percentage in 2015, the US government’s office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said in January.

Over the same period, the watchdog said, the number of districts under Afghan government control or influence fell to its lowest level since December 2015.

Data firm suspends CEO over Facebook scandal

Facebook expressed outrage on Tuesday over the misuse of its data as Cambridge Analytica, the British firm at the centre of a major scandal rocking the social media giant, suspended its chief executive.

The move to suspend CEO Alexander Nix came as recordings emerged in which he boasts his data company played an expansive role in Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, doing all of its research, analytics as well as digital and television campaigns.

In undercover filming captured by Britain’s Channel 4 News, he is also seen boasting about entrapping politicians and secretly operating in elections around the world through shadowy front companies.

Lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic have demanded answers after it was revealed at the weekend that Cambridge Analytica improperly harvested information from 50 million Facebook users. Cambridge Analytica has denied using Facebook data for the Trump campaign, but the scandal has ratcheted up the pressure on the social media giant — already under fire for allowing fake news to proliferate on its platform during the US campaign.

The US media reported on Tuesday evening that the Federal Trade Commission is investigating Facebook over the data scandal.

Facebook said its top executives were “working around the clock to get all the facts.”

“The entire company is outraged we were deceived. We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information and will take whatever steps are required to see that this happens,” the firm said.

Cambridge Analytica’s board said that Nix would stand aside immediately pending an investigation into the snowballing allegations against him. “In the view of the Board, Nix’s recent comments secretly recorded by Channel 4 and other allegations do not represent the values or operations of the firm and his suspension reflects the seriousness with which we view this violation,” the company said.

In Channel 4’s recordings, Nix slights US representatives on the House Intelligence Committee to whom he gave evidence last year, claiming its Democrats are motivated by “sour grapes” and Republicans asked few questions.

“They’re politicians, they’re not technical. They don’t understand how it works,” he was caught on camera telling an undercover reporter.

He also outlines the use of a secret self-destructing email system.

“There’s no evidence, there’s no paper trail, there’s nothing,” he said of the tool, which deletes emails two hours after they have been read.

Investigations multiply

Channel 4 News broadcast an interview filmed in October last year with defeated presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, in which she said she had faced “a massive propaganda effort”.

“There was a new kind of campaign that was being run on the other side,” she said. “It affected the thought processes of voters.”

Facebook now faces investigations on both sides of the Atlantic, sending its share price tumbling another 2.6 per cent after a 6.8pc plunge on Monday.

European Union officials have called for an urgent investigation while British lawmakers have asked Zuckerberg to give evidence to a UK parliamentary committee.

Zuckerberg has been asked to appear before the European Parliament.

“Facebook needs to clarify before the representatives of 500 million Europeans that personal data is not being used to manipulate democracy,” tweeted parliament president Antonio Tajani.

US lawmakers have also called on Zuckerberg to appear before Congress, along with the chief executives of Twitter and Google. Officials in the states of Massachusetts and New York announced they were sending a “demand letter” to Facebook for the facts of the case.

“Consumers have a right to know how their information is used — and companies like Facebook have a fundamental responsibility to protect their users’ personal information,” New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman said in a statement.

Thirteen US consumer and privacy organisations meanwhile released a letter to the Federal Trade Commission asking it to reopen a probe into Facebook, saying the firm’s admission so far “suggests a clear violation” of a 2011 consent decree.

Watchdog searches

A former Cambridge Analytica employee says it was able to create psychological profiles on 50 million Facebook users through the use of a personality prediction app that was downloaded by 270,000 people, but also scooped up data from friends — as was possible under Facebook’s rules at the time.

The end goal was to create software to predict and influence voters’ choices at the ballot box. The company blames the academic who developed the app, University of Cambridge psychologist Aleksandr Kogan, for misusing the data, which it says was never used on the Trump campaign, and has in any event been deleted.

But the firm’s reputation took a severe hit on Monday, with the broadcast of the first batch of secret footage showing Nix saying it could entrap politicians in compromising situations with bribes and sex workers.

He also said the firm secretly campaigns in elections around the world, including by operating through a web of shadowy front companies, or by using sub-contractors, according to Channel 4 News.

A Cambridge Analytica spokesman told the news programme it does not use “untrue material for any purpose”. Facebook, which says the data was taken without its knowledge, has launched its own investigation into Cambridge Analytica.

But it was forced to suspend its probe following a request from Britain’s information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, who is making her own inquiries into both companies. Denham’s office said it had yet to obtain a court warrant to search Cambridge Analytica’s servers and was now expecting to secure it on Wednesday.

Israel defence minister says 2007 Syria strike was a ‘message’ to enemies

This combination of pictures created on March 20, 2018 of handout images provided by the

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Wednesday that a 2007 strike on a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor was a message to his country’s enemies after the military acknowledged the raid for the first time.

“The motivation of our enemies has increased in recent years, but the strength of our army, our air force, and our intelligence capabilities have increased compared with the capabilities we had in 2007,” Lieberman said in a statement.

“This equation should be taken into account by everyone in the Middle East.”

Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz was more explicit, specifically naming Iran.

“The courageous decision of the Israeli government almost 11 years ago to destroy the nuclear reactor in Syria and the successful operation following it sends a clear message: Israel will never allow nuclear weapons to countries like Iran who threaten its existence,” he wrote on Twitter.

Earlier on Wednesday, Israel’s military formally admitted carrying out the top-secret raid and released newly declassified material related to the operation.

The admission comes as Israel intensifies its warnings over the presence of its main enemy Iran in neighbouring Syria.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also repeatedly called for the nuclear deal between world powers and Iran to be changed or eliminated.

Netanyahu recently warned that Israel will “never let Iran develop nuclear weapons”.

The 2007 strike occurred at a desert site in the Deir Ezzor region of eastern Syria on what Israel says was a nuclear reactor under construction.

It had long been widely assumed that Israel carried out the strike. Syria has denied it was building a nuclear reactor.

Facebook rocked by data breach scandal as investigations loom

Facebook shares plunged on Monday as the social media giant was pounded by criticism at home and abroad over revelations that a firm working for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign harvested and misused data on 50 million members.

Calls for investigations came on both sides of the Atlantic after Facebook responded to explosive reports of misuse of its data by suspending the account of Cambridge Analytica, a British firm hired by Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar and Republican John Kennedy called for Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg to appear before Congress, along with Google and Twitter’s CEOs.

The lawmakers said the companies “have amassed unprecedented amounts of personal data” and that the lack of oversight “raises concerns about the integrity of American elections as well as privacy rights”.

Facebook’s chief of security Alex Stamos said his role has shifted to focusing on emerging risks and election security at the global social network.

Stamos revealed the change after The New York Times reported that he was leaving Facebook in the wake of internal clashes over how to deal with the platform being used to spread misinformation.

“Despite the rumors, I’m still fully engaged with my work at Facebook,” Stamos said in a message posted on his verified Twitter account.

“It’s true that my role did change. I’m currently spending more time exploring emerging security risks and working on election security.”

Stamos advocated investigating and revealing manipulation of news at the social network by Russian entities, to the chagrin of other top executives, the Times reported, citing unnamed current and former employees.

Profiles weaponized?

Senator Ron Wyden asked Facebook to provide more information on what he called a “troubling” misuse of private data that could have been used to sway voters.

Wyden said he wants to know how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook tools “to weaponize detailed psychological profiles against tens of millions of Americans”.

In Europe, officials voiced similar outrage.

Vera Jourova, the European commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality, called the revelations “horrifying, if confirmed,” and vowed to address concerns in the United States this week.

According to a joint investigation by The New York Times and Britain’s Observer, ‘How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions’, Cambridge Analytica was able to create psychological profiles on 50 million Facebook users through the use of a personality prediction app that was downloaded by 270,000 people, but also scooped up data from friends.

Cambridge Analytica denied misusing Facebook data for the Trump campaign.

Elizabeth Denham, Britain’s Information Commissioner who regulates the sector in the country, announced her office would seek a court warrant on Tuesday to search Cambridge Analytica’s computer servers.

She said the company had been “uncooperative” to requests for access to its records and missed a Monday deadline stipulated.

Meanwhile, Facebook said it has hired a digital forensics firm to examine how the data leak occurred and to ensure that any data collected had been destroyed.

Facebook shares skidded 6.8 percent by the close of the Nasdaq on concerns about pressure for new regulations that could hurt its business model.

Shares slipped another percent or so to $170 in after-market trades.

The sell-off spread to other technology giants on Wall Street including Apple, Google-parent Alphabet and Netflix. Asian markets extended the losses, with Tokyo-listed Sony down, Samsung falling in Seoul and Tencent retreating in Hong Kong.

‘Self-regulation not working’

Jennifer Grygiel, a Syracuse University professor who studies social media, said the disclosures will increase pressure to regulate Facebook and other social media firms, already under scrutiny for allowing disinformation from Russian-directed sources to propagate.

“Self-regulation is not working,” Grygiel said.

Daniel Kreiss, a professor of media and communications at the University of North Carolina, said Facebook failed to live up to its responsibilities on election ads.

“The fact that Facebook seems to make no distinction between selling sneakers and selling a presidential platform is a deep problem,” Kreiss said.

Brian Wieser at Pivotal Research maintained that the revelations highlight “systemic problems at Facebook”, but that they won’t immediately impact the social network’s revenues.

David Carroll, a media professor at the Parsons School of Design, said Facebook and others will soon be forced to live with new privacy rules such as those set to take effect in the European Union.

“Facebook and Google will have to ask users a lot more permission to track them,” Carroll said. “Most people are going to say no, so I think it’s going to have a huge impact on these companies.”

Carroll has filed a legal action in Britain calling on Cambridge Analytica to disclose what data was gathered and used on him.

An undercover investigation of Cambridge Analytica by Britain’s Channel 4 said executives boasted they could entrap politicians in compromising situations with bribes and Ukrainian sex workers, and spread misinformation online.

The executives claimed to have worked in more 200 elections across the world, including Argentina, the Czech Republic, India, Kenya and Nigeria.

The British firm said it “strongly denies” the claims from Channel 4 as well as reports on misuse of Facebook data.

“Facebook data was not used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump presidential campaign,” a statement read.

China urges US to not act ’emotionally’ on trade

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Tuesday called on the United States (US) to not act “emotionally” and to avoid a trade war, as President Donald Trump considers new punitive measures against Beijing.

After announcing tariffs on global steel and aluminium imports, Trump is now mulling new actions against China over its “theft” of US intellectual property.

Washington has long accused Beijing of forcing US companies to turn over proprietary commercial information and intellectual property as a condition of operating in China.

But Li pledged that China “will strictly protect intellectual property rights”.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer recently proposed a package of $30 billion in tariffs on China but Trump wants it to go higher, according to US media.

The US trade deficit with China ran to a record $375 billion last year but US exports to the country were also at a record.

“Nobody will emerge as a winner” from a trade war, Li told a press conference after the country’s annual parliament session.

“We hope that both parties can maintain reason, not act emotionally, and avoid a trade war,” said Li, who was given a second five-year term by the National People’s Congress on Sunday.

Li vowed that China will further open its huge market to foreign firms, and make it easier for companies in the services sector — such as healthcare, education and finance — to gain access.

“We will completely open the manufacturing sector. We will not allow the forced transfer of technology,” he said.

It is not the first time that Chinese officials have promised to improve access to foreign firms, but US and European companies still complain about major hurdles.

The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China summed up the exasperation last year as “promise fatigue” — a complaint that challenges Xi’s image as a champion of globalisation.

Trump attacks fairness of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s election meddling

US President Donald Trump on Sunday attacked special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s election meddling as unfair, insisting the probe is staffed with “hardened” Democrats.

“Does anyone think this is fair? And yet, there is NO COLLUSION!” Trump tweeted.

The salvo was the latest in an intensifying confrontation over Mueller’s probe into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian attempts to sway the 2016 election in his favour.

The president also took aim at former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, who was fired on Friday, two days before he was due to retire, and former FBI director James Comey, who Trump sacked last year over the Russia probe.

Until now, the president has steered clear of directly attacking Mueller, the former FBI director who took over the Russia probe after Comey’s firing on May 9, 2017.

“Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and Zero Republicans? Another Dem recently added,” Trump said.

Widely respected in both political camps, Mueller was appointed FBI chief by the Republican president George W Bush, and kept on under the Democrat Barack Obama.

Lawmakers have repeatedly warned that any attempt by the president to oust him as special counsel would cross a red line.

In earlier tweets, Trump accused Comey of lying under oath in congressional testimony and dismissed as “fake memos” contemporaneous notes McCabe and Comey took of their interactions with the president.

Those memos could be fodder for Mueller’s probe if he is pursuing potential obstruction of justice by the president.

“Spent very little time with Andrew McCabe, but he never took notes when he was with me. I don’t believe he made memos except to help his own agenda, probably at a later date. Same with lying James Comey.”

After his firing, McCabe said he was the victim of a Trump administration “war” against the FBI and the special counsel.

Comey has pushed back as well. “Mr President, the American people will hear my story very soon. And they can judge for themselves who is honourable and who is not,” he tweeted on Saturday.

Turkish-led forces seize centre of Syria’s Afrin

Turkish-backed rebels have seized the centre of Afrin city in northern Syria, Ankara said Sunday, as they made rapid gains in their campaign against Kurdish forces.

“Units of the Free Syrian Army, which are backed by Turkish armed forces, took control of the centre of Afrin this morning at 8:30am (0530 GMT),” said President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has vowed to oust Kurdish militia from areas along the Turkish border.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the country’s war, said Turkish-led forces had made a lighting advance inside Afrin, taking control of half the Kurdish-majority city.

A civilian inside Afrin said that rebels had deployed in the city centre and that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia had withdrawn.

Civilians hiding in basements could hear fighting outside and people shouting “God is greatest”, one resident told AFP.

An AFP correspondent in the city said he heard explosions on Sunday morning.

The capture of Afrin would be a major victory in Ankara’s campaign against the YPG, which Turkey considers a terrorist group.

Ankara launched Operation “Olive Branch” in Afrin two months ago, saying the area near the Turkish border needed to be secured and the YPG pushed out.

The advance has made steady gains and earlier this week Turkish-led forces largely surrounded Afrin city, leaving a single escape route open southwards to territory still held by the YPG or controlled by the Syrian regime.

At least 200,000 civilians had fled the city over the last week, the Observatory said.

Turkish jets and artillery have been battering Afrin for weeks and ground clashes intensified in recent days, raising fears for thousands of civilians trapped in street-to-street fighting.

At least 27 civilians were killed in Turkish bombing on Friday and Saturday, according to the Observatory, including 16 when a raid reportedly struck the main hospital in Afrin city on Friday.

Civilian toll

The Observatory says more than 280 civilians have been killed since the campaign began. Ankara has denied the reports, including of Friday’s hospital strike, and said it takes the “utmost care” to avoid civilian casualties.

The Observatory said Sunday that more than 1,500 Kurdish fighters had been killed since the start of the offensive, most of them in air strikes and artillery fire.

More than 400 pro-Ankara rebels have been killed since January 20, the Observatory said Sunday.

The Turkish military says 46 Turkish soldiers have lost their lives.

Turkey sees the YPG as a “terrorist” offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

But the Kurdish militia has also formed the backbone of a US-backed alliance that has successfully expelled the Daesh jihadist group from large parts of Syria.

Syria’s civil war entered its eighth year this week with heavy fighting on two fronts — around Afrin and in the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus.

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad launched a ferocious assault last month to retake Eastern Ghouta, the last major opposition-held area around the capital.

More than 1,400 civilians have been killed in bombardment and clashes in Eastern Ghouta during the offensive, according to the Observatory.

Regime forces have retaken some 80 per cent of Eastern Ghouta since launching the offensive, carving it up into three shrinking pockets held by different rebel groups.

More than 50,000 people are reported to have fled the area in recent days.

On Saturday, pro-government forces took control of the two towns of Kafr Batna and Saqba in the southern pocket held by the Faylaq al-Rahman rebel group, the Observatory said.

More than 350,000 people have been killed since Syria’s conflict broke out in 2011 with protests against Assad.

He has maintained his grip on power despite global calls to step down and outrage at the offensives he has waged to retake towns and cities from rebel fighters.

5 Afghan policemen killed in Taliban attack

An Afghan official says the Taliban have attacked security positions northwest of Kabul, killing at least five police.

Mohammed Zaman, the provincial police chief for Ghazni province, says the attack late on Saturday set off a two-hour gunbattle.

The Taliban have stepped up attacks across Afghanistan since the United States and Nato formally concluded their combat mission at the end of 2014.

In the western Ghor province, meanwhile, a roadside bomb killed a young shepherd and wounded five others.

Police Spokesman Iqbal Nizami says the Taliban planted the bomb in order to target security forces.

In the eastern Khost province, Police Spokesman Basir Bina says a roadside bomb killed two children and wounded another nine. Both bombs went off on Saturday.

Iconic physicist Stephen Hawking passes away at age 76

Renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking, whose mental genius and physical disability made him a household name and inspiration across the globe, has died at age 76, a family spokesman said on Wednesday.

“We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today,” professor Hawking’s children, Lucy, Robert, and Tim said in a statement carried by Britain’s Press Association news agency.

“He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years.”

“His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world,” the family said. “He once said, ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him forever.”

The physicist and cosmologist had defied death for decades after being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease when he was a 21-year-old student at Cambridge University. Most people die within a few years of the diagnosis of the disease, also called the motor neurone disease.

Hawking first gained attention with his 1988 book A Brief History of Time, a simplified overview of the universe. It sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. His subsequent theories have revolutionised modern understanding of concepts like black holes and the Big Bang theory of how the universe began.

For 30 years, he held a mathematics post at the Cambridge University previously held by Sir Isaac Newton. Hawking retired from that position in 2009 and then became the director of research at the university’s Centre for Theoretical Cosmology.

Hawking achieved all that despite being nearly entirely paralysed and in a wheelchair since 1970. In his last days, he communicated only by twitching his right cheek. Since catching pneumonia in 1985, Hawking needed around-the-clock care and relied on a computer and voice synthesizer to speak.

A tiny infrared sensor on his glasses hooked up to a computer detected Hawking’s cheek pulses, which selected the words displayed on a computer screen. The chosen words were then spoken by the voice synthesizer. It could take up to 10 minutes for Hawking to formulate a single sentence.

[pullquote]His last book, The Grand Design, was published in 2010.
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Lou Gehrig’s disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, attacks motor neurons, cells that control the muscles. Patients typically suffer muscle weakness and wasting, become paralysed and have problems talking, swallowing and breathing. Only about 10 per cent of patients live longer than a decade.

Hawking married twice and has three children and three grandchildren. With his daughter Lucy, he wrote several children’s books on physics.

US did not ‘deserve’ Trump presidency, says Hillary Clinton during India visit

Hillary Clinton told an audience in India that the United States did not “deserve” Donald Trump’s presidency and these are “perilous times.”

The 2016 Democratic presidential candidate spoke over the weekend at a conference in Mumbai.

Clinton said the Republican president has “quite an affinity for dictators” and said Trump “really likes their authoritarian posturing and behavior”. But she said she thinks it’s “more than that” with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia.

Clinton was critical of the reality campaign tactics of her opponent and questioned whether she should have provided more entertainment to voters who responded to Trump’s brash style.

She also believes former FBI director James Comey’s October 28, 2016, letter to Congress about her private email server cost her support from white women voters.

The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.