Monthly Archives: March 2017

Figure skating – Medvedeva emulates Kwan by winning back-to-back world titles

HELSINKI: A performance full of grace and technical wizardry proved that Evgenia Medvedeva will be the woman to beat at next year’s Winter Olympics as the Russian soared above her rivals to win back-to-back titles at the world figure skating championships.

Friday’s triumph with a world record total of 233.41 points made her the first woman since American Michelle Kwan in 2001 to win successive world titles and enhanced her reputation as a skating phenomenon since she has now claimed 10 titles in a row.

No one came close to ending that run on Friday as she romped to victory by a margin of 15.28 points over Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond.

The 17-year-old Russian made it a clean sweep of world records on Friday as her free skate score of 154.40 was also an all-time best.

Osmond and her team mate Gabrielle Daleman earned their first world championship medals by finishing second and third respectively.

Osmond, who scored 218.13, and Daleman (213.52) produced the performances of their lives to earn Canada their first women’s medals at the worlds since Joannie Rochette won a silver in 2009.

But their skating skills were no match for the poise or artistry that Medvedeva brings to the ice.


Wearing a sparkling grey and pink dress, the Russian appeared to have grown wings as she floated through her free skate, beautifully executing all of her 11 jumps to the haunting melodies of the ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ film soundtrack.

The balletic style of her jumps, where she twirls her arm above her head as she spins through the air, adds another dimension to the flawless presentation of her routines and she had fans purring as she opened with a soaring triple flip-triple toeloop combination.

The “oohs” and “ahhs” grew louder and louder before reaching ear-splitting levels as she whirled around in a blur for her final Biellman spin.

American Karen Chen was fourth while Japan’s Mai Mihara was left to wonder what might have been had she not messed up her short skate as she surged from 15th to fifth in the overall standings following an exquisite free skate on Friday.

Medvedeva’s team mate and 2016 bronze medallist Anna Pogorilaya, however, burst into tears after suffering a total meltdown.

She knelt on the ice and buried her head after three crash landings saw her drop from fourth to 13th.

(Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by Ken Ferris)

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'Real' Syria peace talks yet to start: UN

GENEVA: The UN on Friday (Mar 31) said “incremental” progress was made during a fifth round of talks between Syria’s warring parties, but warned the “real peace negotiations” had yet to begin.

Syrian government and opposition representatives had been “serious and engaged” during the latest nine days of talks in Geneva, UN mediator Staffan de Mistura told reporters.

He said all sides were “keen and ready to return to Geneva for a sixth round of talks,” adding that he would announce the date after discussions next week with UN chief Antonio Guterres and the UN Security Council.

The two sides, who met with de Mistura separately, did finally delve into some substance, after spending four previous rounds squabbling over the agenda.

They began discussing four separate “baskets” of issues, on governance, drafting a new constitution, elections and combating terrorism in the war-ravaged country.

There was never much hope of a breakthrough, with the sides hopelessly deadlocked over the fate of President Bashar al-Assad and violence persisting in a six-year conflict that has already claimed more than 320,000 lives.

De Mistura previously warned not to expect “miracles” and on Friday hailed the fact that no one had walked out. He acknowledged though that the talks still remained in the preparation stage.


“In every negotiation there are certain issues that need to be prepared … before the real, real peace negotiations start … and it is clear, we are not quite there,” he said.

“I cannot deny that there are serious challenges, and I am not seeing immediately this developing into a peace agreement,” he added.

He insisted that “we must maintain this incremental momentum on the political process, even if it is only incremental.”

The negotiating sides hailed that negotiations on substance had finally begun, but appeared less optimistic than their mediator that progress was being made.

Nasr al-Hariri, the chief negotiator for the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC), lamented to reporters that the opposition was dealing with “a side that does not want to reach a political solution.”

The chief negotiator on the government side, Syria’s ambassador to the UN Bashar al-Jaafari, was even more pessimistic.

“We were looking forward to achieving … at least some progress in this round, but this did not happen,” he told reporters.

He maintained that his opponents “do not want a political solution, unless (it) is in accordance with their illusions … that we would hand over the keys to Syria to them.”

The Syrian government appears to have little reason to make concessions.

The rebels increasingly find themselves on the back foot, both on the ground, where they have been haemorrhaging territory, and when it comes to international support.

The United States, long the opposition’s most powerful backer, acknowledged on Thursday that it is no longer focused on ousting Assad as it seeks a new strategy to end Syria’s civil war.

Other opposition backers have been indicating the same, even as government supporters Russia and Iran wield increasing influence.

De Mistura on Friday meanwhile dismissed a barrage of rumours he was preparing to step down.

Only “if and when you will hear it directly either from the Secretary General or from myself, then you have to take it very seriously,” he told reporters.

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North Korean murder suspects sent home with body of victim

KUALA LUMPUR: Two, possibly three, North Koreans wanted for questioning over the murder of the estranged half-brother of their country’s leader were believed to have accompanied the coffin of the victim on a flight from Kuala Lumpur after Malaysia agreed to a swap deal with the reclusive state.

Photographs obtained by Reuters from Japan’s Kyodo news agency show Hyon Kwang Song, the second secretary at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and Kim Uk Il, a staff member of North Korea’s state airline Air Koryo were on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on Thursday evening.

The pictures match those released by the Malaysian police earlier. The coffin carrying the body of Kim Jong Nam was also believed to have been on the same flight, though this has not been confirmed by authorities.

Malaysian media reported that the third North Korean, Ri Ji U, also known as James, who had been hiding with them at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur was also allowed to go home. The three men and the coffin are expected to be transferred to a flight to Pyongyang.

Malaysian authorities released the body Kim Jong Nam to North Korea on Thursday, in a deal that secured the release of nine Malaysian citizens held in Pyongyang after a drawn out diplomatic spat.

(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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Fowler masters 'mud balls' on way to lead in Houston

REUTERS: Rickie Fowler, with one eye on Augusta, turned the other eye to the task at hand, coping with a number of “mud balls” to surge into the first round lead at the Shell Houston Open in Texas on Thursday.

The American ended his day in style, very nearly grabbing a hole-in-one at the 230-yard par-three ninth, his ball rolling past the edge of the cup before settling five feet away, setting up a birdie.

He rolled in seven birdies from inside 10 feet for a bogey-free eight-under 64 and a one-shot advantage over South Korean Kang Sung-hoon, who missed a short putt at the final hole.

Former world number four Fowler skipped last week’s World Golf Championships match-play event, preferring instead to play the week before the Masters.

“I like playing my way into majors and they’ve been able to do a great job here making it as similar to possible of what we may see next week,” Fowler told reporters.

“I love playing here. Just playing and going through the process and getting ready makes it easier when you tee it up Thursday next week.”

Fowler said several of his drives had collected mud on the damp fairways at the Golf Club of Houston, leading to some guess-work on approach shots, with the flight of the ball difficult to predict.

But he didn’t have to worry about mud on the four par-threes, where he could peg it up, making three birdies.

“I was fortunate enough to take advantage of the par-threes and managed my way around nicely with mud balls, as everyone did.

“Yes, the golf course was gettable but tough when you’re playing in those conditions with mud balls.”

Second-placed Kang was poised to join Fowler in the lead, only to miss a putt at the final hole that was officially measured at four feet but looked considerably shorter.

“Unfortunately there were a couple of spike marks and I hit those and kicked to the right,” world number 202 Kang said of his miss. “(Overall I) putted great today. I’m very pleased with how I played.”

Not so great was Phil Mickelson, the three-times Masters champion who shot even-par 72.

“I played terrible,” he said. “I was just a little bit off, didn’t hit my irons close, hit a few in the hazard, just wasn’t quite sharp.”

Mickelson, publicly at least, preferred to think he had gotten his bad round out of the way.

“I think playing here really helps me get sharp (for the Masters), so I don’t have a day like this next Thursday. I like the fact the course is set up similar.”

(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Ian Ransom)

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Netanyahu set to approve first West Bank settlement for 20 years

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he expected to sign off on Thursday on building the first new settlement in the occupied West Bank for two decades, even as he negotiates with Washington on a possible curb on settlement activity.

Netanyahu was due to convene his security cabinet later in the day to approve the new enclave, government officials said.

“I made a promise that we would establish a new settlement,” Netanyahu told reporters. “We will keep it today. There are a few hours until then and you will get all the details.”

He made the pledge in the run-up to the eviction in February of 40 families from the West Bank settlement of Amona. Israel’s Supreme Court said the dwellings had to be razed because they were built illegally on privately owned Palestinian land.

Israel and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump are in discussions on limiting the construction of settlements, which are built on land Palestinians seek for a state.

Such settlements, in territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war, are deemed illegal by most of the world. Israel cites biblical, historical and political links to the land, as well as security interests, to defend its actions.

Establishing a new settlement could be a way for Netanyahu to appease far-right members of his coalition government who are would be likely to object to any concessions to U.S. demands for restraints on building.

Trump, who had been widely seen in Israel as sympathetic towards settlements, appeared to surprise Netanyahu during a White House visit last month when he urged him to “hold back on settlements for a little bit”.

The two then agreed that their aides would try to work out a compromise on how much Israel can build and where.

Trump’s Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, this week wrapped up a second trip to the region aimed at reviving Middle East peace talks that collapsed in 2014.

A new settlement would be the first built in the West Bank since 1999. About 400,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank which is also home to 2.8 million Palestinians. Another 200,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem.

Palestinians want the West Bank and East Jerusalem for their own state, along with the Gaza Strip.

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Louise Ireland)

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Brazil eyeing presidential visit to White House – sources

BRASILIA: Brazilian and U.S. officials are in talks about a White House visit by President Michel Temer to discuss bilateral trade and investment issues, two sources in Temer’s office said on Wednesday.

U.S. President Donald Trump invited Temer for a visit during a March 18 phone call, when the two leaders discussed deepening commercial and business ties between the Western Hemisphere’s largest economies, the sources said.

Trump’s promises to defend U.S. companies from foreign competition have worried Washington’s partners in much of Latin America, especially Mexico which is under pressure to rework a free-trade deal with its northern neighbour.

But the centre-right Temer government hopes to see business opportunities opening up with the United States as it struggles to rescue the Brazilian economy from a two-year recession.

Industries in Brazil, whose biggest trading partner is China, are benefiting from a weaker real currency. They could potentially increase their U.S. market share, if Trump advances on his threats overhaul or pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada.

“We are not a threat to the United States and there are plenty of investment opportunities in both countries,” one of the sources, a senior government official, said.

The sources asked not to be identified because they had not been authorized to speak about Temer’s possible White House visit publicly. No date for the visit has been set, they said.

Temer’s press office declined to comment.

(Reporting by Alonso Soto; Editing by Tom Brown)

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Senior players want say in choosing next Dutch coach

AMSTERDAM: Netherlands captain Arjen Robben believes he and experienced team mate Wesley Sneijder should be given a role in helping to find a replacement for former national team coach Danny Blind, who was sacked at the weekend.

“We have been in the team for the last 14 years and have told the KNVB (Dutch football association) that we want to be part of the process,” the Bayern Munich winger told reporters after a 2-1 friendly defeat to Italy in Amsterdam on Tuesday.

“We have built up the right experience with coaches over the years and we know what this squad needs and we think we also have a good idea who would fit in with the group.”

As captain, the 33-year-old said he had a responsibility to keep playing as the Netherlands struggle for form and are in danger of missing out on next year’s World Cup.

“I am the first point of contact between the association and the players. I have no plans to stop. That’s why Wesley and I want to be involved in the process,” he told Dutch NOS television.

Louis van Gaal has emerged as the media favourite to return to the helm of a team he led to the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil but Robben said he did not want to discuss individual candidates.

“I would have Van Gaal high on my list but it is too early to start mentioning specific names.”

The KNVB are looking for a replacement for Blind, who was fired on Sunday after a 2-0 loss in Bulgaria last week left the Netherlands in fourth place in their World Cup qualifying group, six points off the pace.

“These last days have been tumultuous. We did not see any of it coming. It is unbelievable how quickly things can change in the space of 24 hours,” added Robben in reaction to the sacking.

Robben, with 90 caps, and 32-year-old Sneijder are the most experienced players in a relatively young Dutch squad.

Sneijder won his 128th cap on Tuesday as a late substitute and is now just two behind Edwin van der Sar’s record number of Dutch international appearances.

The Netherlands play three more internationals this season, with friendlies against Morocco on May 31, the Ivory Coast on June 4 and then a World Cup qualifier at home to Luxembourg on June 9.

A new coach is expected to be named before those games.

(Reporting by Mark Gleeson; Editing by John O’Brien)

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German SPD closing on Merkel's conservatives, AfD at lowest since Nov 2015 – poll

BERLIN: Germany’s centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) narrowed the gap with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, a weekly poll showed on Wednesday, less than six months before a federal election in Europe’s biggest economy.

The Forsa poll for Stern magazine and RTL television showed support for Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party (CSU) stable at 34 percent while the SPD under new leader Martin Schulz gained 1 percentage point on the week to reach 32 percent.

The Forsa institute put the poll’s margin of error at 2.5 percentage points, meaning Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU bloc and the SPD are in a neck-and-neck race.

Both Merkel, who will seek a fourth term as chancellor, and Schulz are hoping to end their parties’ current ‘grand coalition’ and to form a new government with smaller allies.

The poll showed the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) down 2 percentage points at 7 percent, which is the lowest level of support in that poll since November 2015.

The far-left Linke gained one percentage point to reach 8 percent, making it the third-strongest party. The Greens stood at 7 percent and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) at 6 percent – above the 5 percent threshold needed to enter parliament.

The poll of some 2,500 voters was carried out between March 20-24. The weekly poll mirrored the results of a monthly survey by the Allensbach institute for newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which were published on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Michael Nienaber; Editing by Catherine Evans)

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Soccer – Messi banned for four international matches

ZURICH: Argentina forward Lionel Messi has been banned from their next four competitive internationals starting with Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier in Bolivia for swearing at a match official, FIFA said on Tuesday.

The decision means the five-times world player of the year will play in only one of Argentina’s remaining five World Cup qualifiers, a severe blow to the two-times world champions who are struggling in the marathon South American campaign.

FIFA said Messi had “directed insulting words at an assistant referee” during the 1-0 win over Chile on Friday.

Messi, 29, will also miss games away to Uruguay and home to Venezuela and Peru. The Barcelona forward will be eligible again when Argentina visit Ecuador on Oct. 10.

Argentina are third in the 10-team South American group with 22 points from 13 games but have only a two-point cushion over sixth-placed Chile, with Colombia (21) and Ecuador (20) sandwiched in between.

The top four qualify directly for the tournament in Russia and the fifth side play off against a team from a different confederation for another place.

“This decision is in line with the FIFA Disciplinary Committee’s previous rulings in similar cases,” FIFA said.

(Writing by Brian Homewood, editing by Ed Osmond)

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