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Pompeo Hopes for Afghan Peace Deal Before September

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday during a visit to Afghanistan that the Trump administration is aiming for a peace deal in the war-ravaged country by September.

His visit came as American and Taliban negotiators are scheduled to meet in Qatar later this week (June 29) for the next round of talks in their months-long dialogue aimed at finding a political settlement to the Afghan war.

“I hope we have a peace deal before September 1st. That’s certainly our mission set,” Pompeo told reporters at the U.S. embassy in Kabul after his meetings with Afghan leaders. The country is due to hold presidential elections on September 28.

The U.S.-Taliban dialogue process is primarily focused on working out a timeline for the withdrawal of American and NATO forces from Afghanistan in return for assurances international terrorists will not be allowed to use Taliban-controlled areas for attacks against other countries.

The insurgent group controls or contests more than 50% of the Afghan territory and continues to inflict battlefield losses on U.S.-backed Afghan security forces,

“We have made real progress and are nearly ready to conclude a draft text outlining the Taliban’s commitments to join fellow Afghans in ensuring that Afghan soil never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists,” Pompeo noted.

He said discussions with the Taliban regarding foreign troop withdrawal have begun.  Pompeo also said insurgent claims that Washington has agreed to pull out of Afghanistan are not true.

“While we’ve made clear to the Taliban that we are prepared to remove our forces, I want to be clear we have not yet agreed on a timeline to do so,” Pompeo explained. He acknowledged the U.S.-Taliban discussions will be the basis for intra-Afghan peace and reconciliation talks.

Pompeo visited Kabul on a day when members of opposition groups held a large public gathering in the city to protest against extension given to President Ashraf Ghani by the country’s Supreme Court. They insisted Ghani’s constitutional five-year term ended in May and demanded the president must step down. The incumbent president is seeking re-election.

“We call upon the former president (Ghani) to withdraw his candidacy if he should continue to hold office as a caretaker president for the purpose of realization of the principles of justice and impartiality,” said a post-rally statement by the Council of Presidential Candidates (CPC).

Pompeo also emphasized the need for a credible Afghan presidential election.

“I urge the Afghan government, the Independent Election Commission, and all political stakeholders to take all necessary steps to ensure that the elections are credible,”  Pompeo stressed.

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US Plays Down Expectations of Trump-Xi Meeting

Top U.S. officials are saying no one should expect any major deals when President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet later this week at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan.

The officials say the main purpose of the meeting is to reach agreement to restart trade negotiations that broke off in May.

Eleven rounds of talks have failed to ease U.S. concerns over China’s massive trade surplus with the U.S. and alleged intellectual property theft. 

Trump has already threatened another $325 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods, which would cover just about everything China exports to the U.S. that is not already covered by the current 25% tariff on $250 billion in Chinese imports.

China has slapped its own tariffs on U.S. products, including those produced by already financially strapped American farmers.

FILE – In this April 8, 2019, file photo, Boeing 737 Max aircraft are parked near a Boeing Co. production facility in Renton, Wash. From airplanes to fruit to wheat no other state will feel the effect of tariffs like Washington.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Tuesday in Beijing the meeting will hopefully “promote mutual trust” and “resolve some of the outstanding issues we are facing now.”

A senior U.S. official said Monday the meeting will provide Trump the chance to get China’s position on the escalating trade war. The official added Trump would be “comfortable with any outcome” of the meeting.

The U.S. has accused China of building a huge trade surplus with the U.S. while stealing technological and trade secrets. It alleges China demands U.S. businesses operating in China to give up some of that information if they want access to the Chinese market. 

China denies the charges and says the U.S. is trying to deny a competitor a piece of the global marketplace.

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Instagram Head Asserts That Company Does Not Spy on Users

Instagram is not spying on its users conversations, according to the social media company’s chief. 

In an interview on Tuesday with CBS, head of Instagram Adam Mosseri told CBS This Morning host Gayle King that Instagram was not listening to private conversations in order to tailor user advertisements. 

“We don’t look at your messages, we don’t listen in on your microphone,” Mosseri said. “Doing so would be super problematic for a lot of different reasons.” 

Mosseri acknowledged that his story was hard to believe. 

“I recognize you’re not going to really believe me” Mosseri told King, who had repeatedly questioned the Instagram chief about how users would receive advertisements for products they had spoken about aloud but had never searched. 

Mosseri provided two potential explanations as to why users received ads for products and stores that they believed to have only disclosed in private.   

“There’s two ways it could happen.  One is dumb luck, which can happen.” Mosseri said. “Repeatedly,” King interjected. 

“The second is you might be talking about something because it’s top of mind, because you’ve been interacting with that type of content more recently,” he continued.  “I think this kind of thing happens often in a way that’s really subtle,” he later said. 

The popular photo sharing app, Instagram, recently changed its logo.

Over the course of the interview, which is released in full on Wednesday,  Mosseri was also asked about “deepfakes,” videos that are altered to make it appear that an individual did something different or in a different manner than what actually occurred. Often, the videos are very realistic, making it difficult to some viewers to distinguish between the fabricated and original footage. 

Recently, a deepfake video of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was posted to Instagram that appeared to show Zuckerberg admitting to being in possession of stolen user data. The account that posted the video disclosed that it was fabricated. 

In response to questions over the removal of deepfakes on the platform, Mosseri said the company was working on developing a criterion for removal, though it would not remove the video of Zuckerberg. 

“We are not going to make a one-off decision to take a piece of video down just because it’s of Mark and Mark happens to run this place. That would be really inappropriate and irresponsible,” he said. “We need to have defined principles and we need to be transparent about those principles.”

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China Hopes Trump-Xi Meeting Will Help Ease Escalating Trade War

China hopes an upcoming meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will help build trust and deescalate the trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

The two leaders are scheduled to meet later this week at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan, their first face-to-face meeting since trade talks broke off in May.  

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters Tuesday in Beijing the meeting will hopefully “promote mutual trust” and “resolve some of the outstanding issues we are facing now.”

During a phone call Monday between Chinese Vice Premier Liu He and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, they exchanged opinions on trade and and agreed to maintain communications, China’s Commerce ministry said. China’s state-owned Xinhua News Agency said the phone call was requested by U.S. officials.

A senior U.S. official said Monday the meeting will provide Trump the chance to get China’s position on the escalating trade war. The official added that Trump would be “comfortable with any outcome” of the meeting.

Trump has said he is prepared to impose tariffs on $300 billion in Chinese imports. The move would extend tariffs to everything China transports to the U.S., since Trump had previously imposed 25 percent tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese imports. China has retaliated with tariffs on U.S. goods.

Eleven rounds of previous talks have failed to ease U.S. concerns over China’s massive trade surplus and China’s acquisition of U.S. technology.

 

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Midwifery Students Use Augmented Technology to Improve Clinical Skills

Midwifery students in London are learning to bring new life into the world in a radically new way with the help of augmented reality (AR) technology.

Using AR headsets and lifelike models of full-term mothers, trainee midwives at Middlesex University can take part in fully simulated births, which the university’s clinical staff hope will both hone their clinical skills and leave them better prepared to face challenges rarely seen in day-to-day practice.

AR technology offers users an interactive experience in which objects in the real world are enhanced by computer-generated information.

Midwifery educator Sarah Chitongo said the AR system allowed students to understand better the birthing process by displaying an interactive representation of a patient’s anatomy.

“It allows you to see a visual picture of the actual anatomy itself, which is raised out of the normal body, and you can step in, walk around and have an internal view,” Chitongo told Reuters.

Chitongo cited high-risk problems such as shoulder dystocia – when a baby’s shoulders get stuck in the mother’s body – and breech births – when a baby is born bottom first – as particular rarities for midwives where AR could help prepare students to cope better and ultimately to save lives.

Chitongo believes that younger trainees will embrace the technology positively as they are of a generation that has largely grown up with computers and interactive environments.

However, her overarching aim is for midwives to become better prepared to reduce mortality rates, which are disproportionately high among ethnic minority pregnancies.

“Currently, here in the U.K., it sits at 60% combined, compared to 9.8% in white women,” Chitongo said, adding that the issue had not been meaningfully addressed despite the trend having risen since 2011. “When you get it right, with a population where it’s actually on the worst side (of the statistics), it means you’ve got a better and safer maternity service across the U.K.”

 

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Conservationists: Venice Must be Put on UN Danger List, Ban Cruise Ships

Venice should be put on the United Nations’ list of endangered cities and cruise ships should be banned from its fragile lagoon to prevent an ecological disaster, Italy’s main conservation group said on Monday.

The call came less than a month after a towering cruise ship collided with a dock and a tourist boat in Venice, injuring four people and rekindling a heated debate in Italy about how to protect the historic city, which draws some 30 million tourists a year.

“Venice is unique and we cannot allow it to be destroyed even more than it has been already,” said Mariarita Signorini, national president of Italia Nostra [Our Italy], whose stated mission is to defend Italy’s cultural and natural heritage.

“Venice is one of the most endangered cities in the world,” she told a news conference announcing the decision to ask the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to put the city on its List of World Heritage in Danger.

Venice and its lagoon are already on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites but Italia Nostra says unbridled tourism, a steady exodus of longtime residents and environmental decay pose a huge threat to the city’s survival.

According to UNESCO’s website, the danger list is meant to “encourage corrective action.”

While being put on the danger list would have no immediate consequences, Italia Nostra argues that this would compel national authorities to enact more safeguards.

It was not immediately clear what Venice’s prospects were for being included on the list, which currently has 54 sites worldwide, some of them but by no means all in conflict zones.

‘Not just buildings’

The June 2 collision between MSC Cruises’ massive 2,679-passenger Opera and the moored “River Countess,” which had 110 people on board, re-ignited calls for banning giant ships.

The accident conjured up memories of the 2012 accident involving the Costa Concordia, which overturned after hitting rocks near the island of Giglio, killing 32 people.

“If something like that happened in the lagoon, it would be the end of the ecosystem,” said Lidia Fersuoch, head of Italia Nostra in Venice. “Venice is not just buildings. The lagoon is a living thing.”

Cruise ships enter the lagoon via one of the three “mouths” that connect it to the Adriatic Sea, pass near St. Marks Square and go through the Giudecca Canal to reach a passenger terminal.

Italia Nostra says they cause waves that damage historic buildings. The group wants a port for big ships built at one of the mouths where the Adriatic meets the lagoon.

 

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Turkish Court Frees US Consulate Worker From House Arrest

A court in Istanbul has released an employee of the U.S. Consulate from house arrest for health reasons.
 
The court on Tuesday ruled, however, that Nazmi Mete Canturk should continue to be barred from leaving the country pending the outcome of his trial.
 
Canturk — along with his wife and daughter — is on trial accused of links to U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey holds responsible for a failed coup attempt in 2016. He is among three U.S. diplomatic missions’ Turkish employees to be prosecuted on terror or espionage charges.
 
 The top U.S. diplomat in Turkey, Jeffrey Hovenier, welcomed Canturk’s release but said the U.S. saw “no evidence to support the charges brought against him.”
 
 He called for a quick resolution of cases brought against his staff.

 

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Australia Rescues ISIS Orphans in Syria

Australia has rescued the children and grandchildren of two dead Islamic State fighters from a Syrian refugee camp.  The Australian prime minister Scott Morrison said they could not be held responsible for the “crimes of their parents.” 

For the three surviving children of the notorious Australian militant Kahled Sharrouf, the nightmare of Syria is over.  They are now reported to be in Iraq and will be resettled in Australia within weeks.  

They are said to be traumatized and in poor health.  One has bullet wounds to her legs, while another, who’s still a teenager, is expecting her third child.  She was forced by her father to marry a jihadist when she was 13.  Sharrouf took his family from Sydney to the Middle East in 2014.  

He made headlines around the world, when he posed for a photograph in the city of Raqqa with his young son, who was holding a severed head.  It’s thought Sharrouf was killed in an airstrike two years ago.   

He had previously been jailed in Australia for terrorism offenses and released in 2009.  His Australian wife,  Tara Nettleton, a convert to Islam, reportedly died of medical complications in Syria in 2015.
 
The Australian prime minister Scott Morrison says the couple’s children deserve a fresh start.

“I mean the fact that you would take a child and put them in a conflict zone like this is despicable and I find it disgusting.  But the children can’t be held responsible for that,” he said.

The children – aged between 2 and 18 – were removed from a camp in northern Syria by an aid agency working with Australia.

The group includes three orphans of another Australian militant, Yasin Rizvic.  The rescue mission was THE first of its kind by a Western government.  Concerns over security in Syria have so far deterred other countries, including Britain, Germany and the United States.

A lawyer representing Khaled Sharrouf’s children said that some Australians would not welcome them home because of their family ties to extremism.

 

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