Afghan-German man detained for possible Iran espionage: prosecutors

BERLIN (Reuters) – A 50-year old Afghan-German dual national who worked for the German military was detained on Tuesday on suspicion of passing data to an Iranian intelligence agency, Germany’s federal prosecutor’s office said on Tuesday.

The suspect, identified only as Abdul Hamid S., will go before a judge later Tuesday, the prosecutor’s office said.

“Abdul Hamid S. is strongly suspected of having worked for a foreign intelligence agency. The suspect was a language expert and cultural adviser for the Bundeswehr (German armed forces). In this capacity, he is believed to have passed insights to an Iranian intelligence agency,” it said in a statement.

A spokesman for the German defense ministry said it was aware of an espionage case involving a member of the military, but gave no further details.

German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that the suspect had access to sensitive information in his role with the military, including possible data on troop deployments in Afghanistan.

The German military often uses native-born interpreters to accompany troops on patrol in Afghanistan.

Intelligence officials in Germany and Europe have raised concerns about what they see as Iran’s increasing espionage activities, including through cyber attacks.

In July, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency reported that Iran had expanded its cyber attack capabilities and posed a danger to German companies and research institutions.

Allegations of espionage and cyber attacks by Iran come at a particularly sensitive time for Germany, which is battling along with other European countries to preserve the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, from which the United States has withdrawn.

In January, the foreign ministry summoned Iran’s ambassador to reprimand Tehran for spying on individuals and groups with close ties to Israel.

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U.S., North Korea to hold talks this week seeking 'interim' deal: media

SEOUL (Reuters) – The United States and North Korea plan to hold high-level talks in Washington this week to discuss a second meeting between their leaders, South Korean media said on Tuesday, as the old enemies seek an “interim” deal to revitalizes nuclear talks.

The meeting, led by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, is due on Thursday or Friday, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported, citing an unidentified diplomatic source familiar with the issue.

They are expected to finalize the date and venue of a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the newspaper said.

The U.S. embassy in Seoul referred questions to the White House. The White House offered no immediate comment on the Chosun Ilbo report, while a State Department official said: “We don’t have any meetings to announce.”

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted an unidentified diplomatic source as saying Pompeo and Kim Yong Chol could meet this week.

The North Korean delegation could visit the United States “as soon as this week” but plans have not been finalised, a CNN reporter, citing an unidentified source, said on Twitter.

Trump wrote Kim Jong Un a letter, which was flown to Pyongyang and hand delivered over the weekend, the CNN reporter added, citing the source.

South Korea’s foreign ministry spokesman told reporters the North and the United States were “in contact” but it was “inappropriate” to comment on plans for talks.

A meeting this week could mean the two sides are nearing a compromise after months of standoff over how to move forward in ending North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Trump and Kim pledged at their first summit, in Singapore in June, to work toward denuclearization “of the Korean peninsula”. But there has been little significant progress.

Pompeo, who made several trips to Pyongyang last year, sought to meet his counterpart last November, but the talks were called off at the last minute.

Contact was resumed after Kim’s New Year’s speech, in which he said he was willing to meet Trump “at any time,” South Korea’s ambassador to the United States, Cho Yoon-je, told reporters last week.

In Seoul, South Korea deleted a description of North Korea as an “enemy” in its defense white paper released on Tuesday, though it said its weapons of mass destruction posed a threat to peace and stability.


The United States and South Korea have been discussing how to respond to any North Korean steps toward denuclearization, South Korean officials told Reuters.

The United States is considering easing sanctions in exchange for the North’s discarding and sending abroad its intercontinental ballistic missiles, in addition to freezing its nuclear program, the Chosun Ilbo said, citing its source.

U.S. responses could include exemptions from sanctions for inter-Korean business and opening a liaison office, Seoul officials said.

“Those ideas are being discussed as interim measures, not as an end state, in order to expedite the denuclearization process, because the North wouldn’t respond to any demand for a declaration of facilities and weapons,” said a senior South Korean official, who declined to be identified.

“The end goal remains unchanged, whether it be complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, or final, fully verified denuclearization.”

The official said a Trump and Kim meeting could happen by early March, though added: “No one knows what Trump is thinking.”

Kim reiterated his resolve to meet Trump during a meeting last week with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Trump said this month he had received a “great” letter from Kim and would probably meet him again soon.

“At the second summit, they’ll probably focus on reaching a possible interim deal, rather than a comprehensive roadmap for denuclearization,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.

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China has culled more than 900,000 pigs due to African swine fever

BEIJING (REUTERS) – China has culled 916,000 pigs after around 100 outbreaks of African swine fever in the country, the agriculture ministry said on Tuesday (Jan 15), as the disease continues to spread to new regions and larger farms.

The disease has reached 24 provinces and regions since the first outbreak in August, roiling trade in the world’s top pork market and related sectors. China slaughtered almost 700 million pigs in 2017.

African swine fever does not harm humans but is deadly to pigs and there is no vaccine or cure.

The rare update by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs on the size of the culling follows growing attention to the issue from other markets.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen urged Beijing last month to “not conceal” information about the disease, after a dead pig was found on a beach on Taiwan’s Kinmen island, which is about 10km from the Chinese coastal city of Xiamen. The pig was later found to have the African swine fever virus.

“China has always followed the principles of ‘being timely, open and transparent’ when reporting the cases,” said Mr Guang Defu, a ministry spokesman, in the statement on its website.

In addition to the pigs culled on the infected farms, many more have been slaughtered by farmers seeking to exit the industry because of the impact the disease is having on prices and trade, said Mr Pan Chenjun, a senior analyst at Rabobank.

Prices in some parts of the country have been sitting at loss-making levels for months, following restrictions on transport implemented after disease outbreaks.

“The numbers culled is just a small part,” said Mr Pan.

Liquidation by small farmers and the slow restocking and expansion of larger farms could reduce China’s pig herd by about 20 per cent in 2019, she said.

The effect of the swine fever outbreak is spilling over to animal feed markets. China’s soymeal futures plunged almost 3 per cent on Monday, following a fresh outbreak on a large breeding farm announced last Saturday.

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Singapore Health Quality Service Awards honour staff who go extra mile

SINGAPORE – When Adjunct Associate Professor Tan Heng Hao decided to specialise in reproductive medicine in 2008, it was because he wanted to balance surgical and medical work.

But treating patients has often required him to play another role – as a listening ear and a friend.

Prof Tan is a senior consultant and head of the Department of Reproductive Medicine at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, as well as the director of the KKIVF Centre.

Many of the couples who visit him say they experience social stigma associated with being childless, which leads to anxiety, depression and sometimes even the breakdown of their marriage.

Prof Tan said: “I often describe it as a journey that we go on with the patient. That means being more than just a doctor addressing their medical needs.”

On Tuesday (Jan 15), Prof Tan was one of nine healthcare professionals presented with the Superstar Award, the highest accolade under the Singapore Health Quality Service Awards.

He said that being a good fertility doctor requires patience, empathy and a non-judgmental attitude: “The social pressure to have more children or to carry on the family name can be quite tremendous. So this is often not just a medical issue but a psychological and emotional one.”

He added that for some patients, the “fertility journeys” can take years with several rounds of in-vitro fertilisation.

“Even then, you can’t get everyone pregnant,” he said.

President Halimah Yacob, guest of honour at the ceremony at the University Cultural Centre at the National University of Singapore, presented a total of 3,462 awards to healthcare workers from 34 public and private institutions, as well as organisations in the intermediate and long-term care (ILTC) sector such as Peacehaven Nursing Home.

Madam Halimah said in her speech: “The award recipients have set themselves apart by going the extra mile and raising the bar to deliver quality care and a positive experience to patients and their caregivers.”

Another Superstar Award recipient was Mr Yap Thian Yong, a physiotherapist at St Luke’s Hospital.

He works mostly with elderly patients undergoing rehabilitation.

Many worry that they are too old to exercise, but Mr Yap said: “To build up their confidence, I sometimes pair up patients who have just come in with those with similar conditions who have regained some good function through rehabilitation.

“The next time new patients come in, they can act as role models to share their experiences and show what can be achieved.”

Mr Yap is also involved in care innovation at St Luke’s Hospital, where he conducted trials of a ceiling-mounted track harness for supporting patients doing walking and balancing exercises and helped incorporate it to the hospital’s rehabilitation programme.

He is also currently working to introduce a new exoskeleton device to the programme.

Besides his work in the hospital, he once granted a terminally ill patient’s dying wish to go on an outing to Gardens by the Bay with her family.

“I feel blessed to receive this award as a recognition of what my peers and I have achieved,” he said. “I want to be more than just a therapist who helps people to walk again.”

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Russia's Sovcomflot IPO hobbled by weak freight markets: CEO

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian state-owned shipping company Sovcomflot said on Tuesday that uncertain conditions in the freight market are delaying its long-planned initial public offering (IPO).

The Russian government has weighed a listing of Sovcomflot for years as part of broader privatization plans, but obstacles ranging from weak markets to international sanctions placed on Russians over Moscow’s role in Ukraine crisis have prevented an IPO.

The Russian economy ministry has said it had hoped to raise 24 billion rubles ($358 million) from the sale of a stake in Sovcomflot.

Sovcomflot’s chief executive Sergei Frank told reporters that shipping markets are expected to improve this year, with signs of a recovery seen in the fourth quarter of last year.

But the company will wait for the right moment to list its shares on the market, Frank added.

Over the past year, as the oil price has risen, appetite has grown in the cruise ship industry as well as in the container, cargo and tanker sectors. It is still fragile, according to Frank.

“We need that the markets return to their historical average. The fourth quarter was a joy for us, but it is not a record one,” he said.

Russian energy giants including Gazprom Neft (SIBN.MM), Novatek (NVTK.MM) and Sakhalin Energy, which runs Russia’s liquefied natural gas plant (LNG) in the Far East, are among Sovcomflot’s customers.

Sovcomflot has benefited from Russia’s plans to raise its global share of the global LNG market. It has signed a strategic agreement with Russia’s top LNG producer Novatek (NVTK.MM) in June.

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Parliament: Singapore's police coast guard, navy responded promptly to recent incursion by Johor's MB, says Ng Eng Hen

SINGAPORE – Incidents like the recent incursion by Johor’s Menteri Besar into Singapore’s territorial waters are “provocative and escalatory”, and contradict the officially stated policy of the Malaysian government, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in Parliament on Tuesday (Jan 15).

“Tensions and real risks increased during this incident,” he said, adding that Singapore’s security agencies had detected the movement of Datuk Osman Sapian’s entourage early, during which the number of Malaysian government vessels in Singapore’s waters increased from two to five.

“Our Police Coast Guard and Republic of Singapore Navy vessels responded promptly to this provocation, as they had to,” he said. “As a result, the total number of vessels in the area more than doubled. These provocations do nothing to help resolve disputes and indeed can precipitate incidents on the ground, which will do lasting harm to bilateral ties.”

Dr Ng was replying to Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan, who had asked what has been and will be done to prevent more Malaysian vessels from entering Singapore’s territorial waters.

He said Singapore has the ability to compel intruding Malaysian government vessels to leave its territorial waters. But its security agencies have been ordered to exercise restraint and avoid escalating tensions for now “so as not to jeopardise the conditions necessary for constructive discussions and peaceful resolution of the dispute”.

In October 2018, Malaysia unilaterally extended the Johor Baru port limits into Singapore’s territorial waters off Tuas. Daily intrusions into these waters by Malaysian government vessels since November have continued despite the Malaysian Foreign Affairs Ministry declaring that it would take “all effective measures” to de-escalate the situation on the ground.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan delivered a ministerial statement setting out Singapore’s position on the various disputes with Malaysia, including the issue of maritime boundaries.

Dr Balakrishnan said Malaysia’s extension of port limits goes beyond even the territorial sea claims in its 1979 map, which Singapore has rejected consistently. He also highlighted how Singapore has long exercised sovereignty and patrolled the disputed waters without any protest from Malaysia.

Dr Ng said Singapore’s Police Coast Guard, Republic of Singapore Navy and Maritime and Port Authority will continue to protect and assert the Republic’s sovereignty over the disputed waters off Tuas and the waters in Singapore port limits.

“Our security agencies carry out their operational duties with the utmost professionalism,” he said, adding that Singapore’s security personnel have repeatedly pressed the Malaysian vessels to leave the area.

“We will continue to do so as their presence does not strengthen Malaysia’s legal claims in any way and indeed can result in mishaps or regrettable incidents,” he said.

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Parliament: MOH to review MediShield Life claim limits more regularly, about once every three years

SINGAPORE – The Ministry of Health (MOH) will review claim limits – which cap MediShield Life coverage and Medisave payment – more regularly, around every three years or so, said Mr Edwin Tong, Senior Minister of State for Health.

Currently, the plan is to review these limits every five years.

Mr Tong promised more regular reviews after the issue of how a patient received only $4.50 from MediShield Life for his subsidised bill of $4,477 was raised in Parliament on Tuesday (Jan 15).

The case of Mr Seow Ban Yam, 83, who underwent surgery at the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC), was first reported in The Straits Times.

Mr Tong said MOH will “redouble” its efforts to keep healthcare costs and sustainable and affordable and “keep a close watch on public healthcare costs”.

He also said that should the current review exercise, which started last year, be completed ahead of time, revisions will be announced earlier.

Mr Tong said such a review “requires a careful assessment of the appropriate claim limits and also the consequential impact it may have on premiums, to ensure that the coverage of MediShield Life remains broad-based and sustainable”.

He was replying to questions from Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) and Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok ) on whether MediShield Life provides adequate coverage.

Mr Tong told the House that the MOH had asked the SNEC to review its charges.

“Following the review, SNEC has decided to scale down its fees for this procedure (which Mr Seow underwent) and a number of other complex procedures with higher fees, and will do so from 1 March 2019,” he said.

The number of subsidised bills that fall within MediShield Life claim limits has fallen from nine out of 10, to eight out of 10. Mr Tong explained that one reason for this is increased healthcare costs.

But even so, about half those bills top the MediShield Life claim limits by $230 or less.

Without claim limits, the premiums for MediShield Life, which insures people based on subsidised rates, will go up significantly by 30 per cent or more, he said.

He added: “Rather than impose this on all Singaporeans across the board, those who prefer to have higher coverage and are willing to pay higher premiums can consider private Integrated Shield Plans which can include ‘As-Charged’ features that cover 100 per cent of the bill.”

Mr Tong also promised that in reviewing claim limits, “we will ensure that it is in tandem with the cost” and that it also tracks inflationary cost for the healthcare sector.

Mr Pillai asked if public healthcare institutes check with the ministry when setting their prices. To this, Mr Tong said there are “several hundred thousand bills”, so it is not possible for the MOH to look at every bill.

But he added there are guidelines and benchmarks and assured that “we will constantly look at that and keep that within a range that fits in with the philosophy of MediShield Life”.

He also promised: “We will continue to review, refine and strengthen MediShield Life and other components of our public healthcare financing system, and just as importantly, manage our healthcare costs to ensure that public healthcare remains affordable for all Singaporeans.”

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Clip of Johor MB being stopped from riding with sultan, Mahathir goes viral

JOHOR BARU • A video clip showing Johor Menteri Besar Osman Sapian being stopped from getting into a Proton Saga car has gone viral on social media.

The car was being driven by Johor ruler Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar to take Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to the airport last week.

In the 31-second clip, Sultan Ibrahim and Tun Dr Mahathir are seen in the driver and front passenger seat respectively, while Datuk Osman is seen trying to open the left passenger door at the back.

However, he is stopped by a man wearing a military uniform, believed to be Sultan Ibrahim’s military aide de camp. Mr Osman is then seen uttering a few words to the two leaders.

The incident happened after Dr Mahathir had an audience with Sultan Ibrahim at Istana Bukit Serene last Thursday.

The meeting lasted 1½ hours.

Sultan Ibrahim then drove Dr Mahathir back to Senai International Airport in a first-generation Proton Saga, which the Prime Minister had gifted to the ruler’s father, way back in 1985.

The video, which was uploaded by Ops Johor on its Facebook page, garnered 599 comments, 935 shares and 185,000 views on social media as of noon last Saturday.


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Volkswagen, Ford to announce automotive alliance

Volkswagen and Ford are expected to unveil an alliance on Tuesday that combines forces on commercial vehicles and is likely to expand into joint development of electric and self-driving technology, moves meant to save the automakers billions of dollars.

Ford and VW will announce their partnership against the backdrop of the Detroit auto show, VW Chief Executive Herbert Diess told reporters on Monday.

The companies in recent months have discussed cooperating in vans and other commercial vehicles, and have said that any expanded alliance would not involve a merger or equity stakes.

They have scheduled a joint conference call at 8:30 a.m. EST (13:30 GMT) to provide an update on the status of the proposed collaboration.

The two automakers have been exploring closer cooperation as trade frictions force carmakers to rethink where they build vehicles for Europe, the United States and China.

The expanding alliance highlights the growing pressure on all global automakers to manage the costs of developing electric and self-driving vehicles, as well as technology required to meet tougher emissions standards for millions of internal combustion vehicles they will sell in the years to come.

Slowdowns in the world’s largest auto markets – China and the United States – have ratcheted up the pressure to cut costs. The scope of the VW-Ford alliance was still being determined ahead of the auto show as talks covered cooperation in the area of electric and autonomous cars.

The framework of the alliance is expected to include the pooling of resources in autonomous technology and VW investing in that Ford business, and Ford licensing Volkswagen’s MEB electric vehicles platform, sources have said.

Volkswagen’s Diess confirmed at the Detroit auto show on Monday that the alliance will include VW gaining access to Ford’s midsized Ranger pickup truck platform.

In June 2018, Ford and VW revealed talks about an alliance in commercial vehicles and added they were looking at other joint projects.

Executives with both companies have talked about the potential savings of a deeper alliance, and VW officials have talked openly about building their vehicles in Ford plants, and Ford using the German automaker’s electric vehicle platform.

The tie-up with Volkswagen serves as a big bet for Ford Chief Executive Jim Hackett since he took over in May 2017 from the ousted Mark Fields with the mandate to speed up decision-making and cut costs.

Some analysts and investors have been frustrated by Ford’s laggard stock price and a perceived lack of details from Hackett about the Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker’s $11bn restructuring.

Last week, Ford said it would cut thousands of jobs, discontinue building money-losing vehicles and look at closing plants as part of a turnaround effort for its unprofitable European business.

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Detained Chinese lawyer Yu Wensheng wins Franco-German human rights award

BEIJING (AFP) – The French and German ambassadors to Beijing have granted a human rights award to a detained Chinese lawyer, with his wife picking up the prize on his behalf.

Mr Yu Wensheng – best known for suing the Beijing government over the city’s once chronic pollution – was detained in January last year and charged with “inciting subversion of state power”.

Beijing has stepped up its crackdown on civil society since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, tightening restrictions on freedom of speech and detaining hundreds of activists and lawyers.

Prior to his arrest, Mr Yu had circulated an open letter calling for five reforms to China’s Constitution, including the institution of multi-candidate presidential elections.

His wife, Madam Xu Yan, received the award at an event organised by the German embassy in Beijing on Monday (Jan 14).

The prominent attorney was among 15 winners of the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law for 2018, announced in November last year.

“He (Yu) has lost his freedom for a year and not allowed to meet with a defence lawyer,” Madam Xu said at the event attended by the German and French ambassadors to China, according to a transcript she posted on her WeChat social media account.

“His case has been postponed three times, and referred back to the police for further investigations twice,” Madam Xu told AFP, adding that her husband’s case had been referred again for “for review and prosecution” in December.

“I learnt about this situation when I went to the Xuzhou City Procuratorate on Dec 24. I didn’t receive any news before that,” she said.

“No matter how difficult it is, I will continue to defend the rights of Yu Wensheng, because I believe Yu Wensheng,” Madam Xu said.

For several days beginning on July 9, 2015, more than 200 Chinese human rights lawyers and activists were detained or questioned in a police sweep that rights groups called “unprecedented”.

The “709 crackdown”, as it was later dubbed, marked the largest clampdown on the legal profession in China’s recent history.

But Mr Yu was not arrested during the sweep and had continued to express his opinions on legal issues.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Madam Xu and Madam Li Wenzu – the wife of another detained rights lawyer, Mr Wang Quanzhang – during her trip to Beijing in May last year, in a rare move for a visiting leader.

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