Monthly Archives: March 2017

Yemen says it captures senior al Qaeda leader

ADEN: Yemeni troops captured a senior leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) during an early morning raid on Tuesday in the southeastern Hadramawt region, a local security official said.

Special forces stormed the house in a remote village where Abu Ali al-Sayari, a Saudi national of Yemeni origins, was hiding, the official said. They detained three others and killed two more.

Al Qaeda militants took advantage of Yemen’s civil war which began in 2015, seizing parts of the country’s south before government soldiers and troops from a Saudi-led Arab coalition drove them out of major population centres.

The militants now control much less territory, but continue to launch occasional attacks on state officials and institutions.

AQAP, which the United States regards as one of the deadliest branches of the network founded by Osama bin Laden, has in the past plotted to down U.S. airliners and claimed responsibility for the 2015 attacks on the office of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris.

(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf, editing by Ed Osmond)

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US Senate set to advance approval of Montenegro into NATO

WASHINGTON: The US Senate is expected to approve Montenegro as the newest member of NATO this week in what supporters of the alliance’s expansion argue would send a stern message to Russia.

A procedural step late Monday (Mar 27) would set up a final approval vote in the chamber in the coming days.

President Donald Trump’s administration is encouraging lawmakers to back the small Balkan nation’s bid.

“It is strongly in the interests of the United States that Montenegro’s membership in NATO be ratified,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told US Senate leaders in a Mar 7 letter.

To date, 25 of NATO’s 28 members have ratified Montenegro’s accession, a country of 620,000 people seen as a geostrategic ally.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation holds its summit on May 25 in Brussels, where Trump will use the opportunity to reaffirm Washington’s strong commitment to the alliance, according to the White House.

“Montenegro’s participation in the May NATO summit as a full member, not an observer, will send a strong signal of transatlantic unity and that no third parties have veto power over NATO decisions,” Tillerson said in his letter.

The Kremlin is opposed to Montenegro’s accession, calling it a “provocation” that would reinforce the pro-Western military alliance’s presence in the Balkans.

The US vote comes days after a Montenegrin special prosecutor accused “Russian state bodies” of involvement in an alleged coup plot during Montenegro’s election last October.

Moscow branded the accusation “absurd.”

Russia also stands accused of interfering in the US presidential election last year, when US intelligence agencies say it leaked hacked emails that damaged Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

As with all international treaties, a two-thirds majority is required for final Senate approval. Success is likely, with all Democrats and most Republicans in favour of expanding NATO to include Montenegro.

Republican Senator Rand Paul strongly opposes the move, however, warning Washington against spreading itself too thinly when its military is involved in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen.

“The United States is pledged to defend 28 countries in NATO,” he said in a statement to AFP. “It is unwise to expand the monetary and military obligations of the United States given the burden of our US$ 20 trillion debt.”

The head of NATO’s Allied Command Operations, US General Curtis Scaparrotti, told a Senate panel last week that ratifying Montenegro as a NATO member is “absolutely critical.”

Besides the United States, the Netherlands and Spain have yet to ratify Montenegro’s membership.

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F1 opener puts overtaking in the spotlight

LONDON: Formula One entered a bold new era in Sunday’s Australian season-opener with bigger tyres, faster cars and a winning Ferrari but the lack of overtaking is causing concern.

“What overtaking?,” said Brazilian veteran Felipe Massa when the Williams driver was asked how difficult it had been to get past rivals.

Melbourne’s Albert Park has never ranked high on the list of circuits with the most overtaking manoeuvres but fans saw hardly any after the opening lap.

Force India’s Sergio Perez took both Toro Rossos while team mate Esteban Ocon was in a three-car battle that saw him and Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg sweep past Fernando Alonso’s McLaren.

But they were rare highlights of a race without crashes or a safety car.

“It was hard to follow and drive close behind others,” complained Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who has built up a reputation as one of the sport’s most exciting overtakers.

The problem came as no surprise to the likes of triple champion Lewis Hamilton, who had flagged up in testing that the new aerodynamic regulations had a downside and could lead to processional racing.

The cars are creating far more downforce, taking some corners flat out and throwing out more turbulent air that makes it harder for followers to get close.

TURBULENT AIR

“Even in the years before it’s been difficult to follow once you get within one and a half, or one second, just because of the turbulent air which messes up the aerodynamics of the car and that way we don’t have that much grip,” explained Mercedes’s Valtteri Bottas.

“Now, as more of the grip from the car is relying on the aero, it’s a bigger effect.

“And the cars are wider so I think there’s more turbulent air so now it’s more like two seconds or even two and a half because you actually feel quite a big effect from the car in front and that way in the corners it’s more difficult to follow.”

The next race is on April 9 in Shanghai, a circuit that last year saw more overtaking than any other with 128 passes. Hamilton alone made 18 of them – more than the entire 20 driver grid produced in Melbourne.

If there are far fewer cars overtaking there, then Formula One has a problem.

“It’s always generally been tough to follow… I hope that doesn’t mean for the rest of the year that it’s more of a train,” Hamilton said on Sunday.

“I don’t know if it was exciting for you guys to watch, but for me personally I want to be closer up with the cars and (doing) more close wheel-to-wheel battling.

“It’s really through strategy and pitstops that we are racing right now.”

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, Editing by Ken Ferris)

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Trump taps son-in-law to head bureaucracy overhaul: Report

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump has tapped son-in-law Jared Kushner to lead a new White House office, that aims to apply ideas from the business world to help streamline the government, the Washington Post reported Sunday (Mar 26).

The White House Office of Innovation is to be unveiled Monday with sweeping authority to overhaul the bureaucracy and fulfill key campaign promises like reforming care for veterans and fighting opioid addiction, the Post said.

“I promised the American people I would produce results, and apply my ‘ahead of schedule, under budget’ mentality to the government,” Trump was quoted as saying.

It is conceived as a sort of SWAT team made up of former private sector executives charged with bringing fresh ideas to the business of government, according to the report.

“The government should be run like a great American company. Our hope is that we can achieve successes and efficiencies for our customers, who are the citizens,” Kushner told the Post.

The 36-year-old is a senior adviser to Trump with far-reaching influence over domestic and foreign policy.

Top Trump strategist Stephen Bannon, who has called for “deconstruction of the administrative state,” will not be part of the new group, the Post said.

Technology and data are expected to be a key focus of the effort, and the White House has been working with the likes of Apple CEO Tim Cooke, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Tesla’s Elon Musk, the Post said.

“There is a need to figure out what policies are adding friction to the system without accompanying it with significant benefits,” Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of investment firm Blackstone Group, told the Post.

“It’s easy for the private sector to at least see where the friction is, and to do that very quickly and succinctly.”

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Kerber wins in third round at Miami Open but Keys loses

REUTERS: Top seed Angelique Kerber advanced to the fourth round at the Miami Open on Sunday, but eighth seed Madison Keys was sent packing.

On a day when Svetlana Kuznetsova and Venus Williams also won their third-round matches, Kerber did not have it all her own way against 61st-ranked American Shelby Rogers.

The German, however, proved too strong ultimately, breaking five times for a 6-4 7-5 win on the main stadium hardcourt at Crandon Park.

“It’s always good to have close sets, especially when you win them at the end. They give you confidence that you can go out in your next match knowing you can win close matches because you’ve just done it a day ago,” Kerber told reporters.

“You win the match, you’re always happy about your performance.

“In the second set, she was 4-2 up and we’d played a long game. That was important because she was playing well, but I was staying positive and believing in my chances. I think that was the key to the match.”

Keys fell to 72nd-ranked Spaniard Lara Arruabarrena 7-5 7-5. She was playing her second tournament since returning from wrist surgery.

Russian seventh seed Kuznetsova, the runner-up last year, stayed on track for another tilt at the championship when she bested American qualifier Taylor Townsend 6-4 6-2.

A week after losing the Indian Wells final to compatriot Elena Vesnina, Kuznetsova’s stronger second serve proved the difference, as she was broken just once while breaking her opponent four times.

The next challenge for 2006 champion Kuznetsova will be 11th seed Venus Williams, a three-time Miami champion, who was far too good for Romanian qualifier Patricia Maria Tig 6-3 6-0.

British 10th seed Johanna Konta and Australian 14th seed Sam Stosur also won their third round matches.

(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina, editing by Gene Cherry)

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How Republicans can hobble Obamacare even without repeal

CHICAGO: Republicans may have failed to overthrow Obamacare this week, but there are plenty of ways they can chip away at it.

The Trump administration has already begun using its regulatory authority to water down less prominent aspects of the 2010 healthcare law.

Earlier this week, newly confirmed Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price stalled the rollout of mandatory Medicare payment reform programs for heart attack treatment, bypass surgery and joint replacements finalised by the Obama administration in December.

The delays offer a glimpse at how President Donald Trump can use his administrative power to undercut aspects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), including the insurance exchanges and Medicaid expansion that Republicans had sought to overturn.

The Republicans’ failure to repeal Obamacare, at least for now, means it remains federal law. Price’s power resides in how to interpret that law, and which programs to emphasize and fund.

Hospitals and physician groups have been counting on support from Medicare – the federal insurance program for the elderly and disabled – to continue driving payment reform policies built into Obamacare that reward doctors and hospitals for providing high quality care at a lower cost.

The Obama Administration had committed to shifting half of all Medicare payments to these alternative payment models by 2018. Although he has voiced general support for innovative payment programs, Price has been a loud critic of mandatory federal programs that dictate how doctors should deliver healthcare.

Providers such as Dr. Richard Gilfillan, chief executive of Trinity Healthcare, a US$ 15.9 billion (13 billion pound) Catholic health system, say they will press on with these alternative payment plans with or without the government’s blessing. But they have been actively lobbying Trump officials for support, according to interviews with more than a dozen hospital executives, physicians and policy experts.

Without the backing of Medicare, the biggest payer in the U.S. healthcare system which Price now oversees, the nascent payment reform movement could lose momentum, sidelining a transformation many experts believe is vital to reining in runaway U.S. healthcare spending.

Price “can’t change the legislation, but of course he’s supposed to implement it. He could impact it,” said John Rother, chief executive of the National Coalition on Health Care, a broad alliance of healthcare stakeholders that has been lobbying the new administration for support of value-based care.

The move Friday to pull the Republican bill only reinforces the risk to the existing law, which Trump said on Friday “will soon explode.”

“It seems that the Trump Administration now faces a choice whether to actively undermine the ACA or reshape it administratively,” Larry Levitt, senior vice president at Kaiser Family Foundation, wrote on Twitter.

“The ACA marketplaces weren’t collapsing, but they could be made to collapse through administrative actions,” he added.

NEW PAYMENT PLANS AT RISK

The United States spends US$ 3 trillion a year on healthcare – more by far than 10 other wealthy countries – yet has the lowest life expectancy and the highest infant mortality rate, according to a 2013 Commonwealth Fund report. Link to Graphic: http://tmsnrt.rs/2nkTWoC

Health costs have soared thanks in part to the traditional way doctors and hospitals get paid, namely by receiving a fee for each service they provide. So the more advanced imaging tests a doctor orders or pricey procedures they perform, the more money he or she makes, regardless of whether the patient’s health improves.

“We have a completely broken economy in healthcare,” said Blair Childs, senior vice president at hospital purchasing group Premier Inc. “Literally, all of the incentives in fee-for-service are for higher cost.”

Alternative payment models are designed to remove incentives that reward overtreatment of patients. Private insurers are on board, with Aetna Inc, Anthem Inc, UnitedHealth Group and most Blue Cross insurers announcing plans to shift half of their reimbursement to alternative payment models to control costs.

To promote the shift to alternative payments, the ACA created an incubator program at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). The CMS innovation centre is funded by US$ 10 billion over 10 years to test payment schemes aimed at improving quality and cutting the cost of care.

The Obama administration’s decision to make some of these payment programs mandatory has drawn the ire of Price, a former U.S. senator and orthopedic surgeon. In response to a mandatory payment program for joint replacements last September, for example, Price charged that the CMS innovation centre was “experimenting with Americans’ health.”

In his January 17 confirmation, Price said he was a “strong supporter of innovation,” but said he believed the CMS innovation centre “has gotten a bit off track.”

TRUMP SETS WHEELS IN MOTION ON DAY 1

President Trump has already signed an executive order directing the HHS to begin unravelling Obamacare. In the early hours of his presidency, Trump directed government agencies to freeze regulations and take steps to weaken the healthcare law.

The order directed departments to “waive, defer, grant exemptions from, or delay the implementation” of provisions that imposed fiscal burdens on states, companies or individuals. These moves were meant to minimize the costs and regulatory burdens imposed on states, private entities and individuals.

David Cutler, the Harvard health economist who helped the Obama Administration shape the ACA, said Price could do all sorts of things to undermine the law.

“If he wants to blow it up, he can,” Cutler said in an email. But if they do, he added, “they alone will own the failure.”

(Editing by Edward Tobin)

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Motor racing – Ricciardo handed grid penalty for gearbox change

MELBOURNE: Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo will start the Australian Grand Prix (0500 GMT) from 15th on the grid on Sunday after being given a five-place penalty for a gearbox change.

The Australian crashed during qualifying and the resulting damage had forced the repair, the team said.

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton will start the race on pole, with Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel also on the front row.

(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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After healthcare flop, White House seeks help from Congress on tax

REUTERS: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday blamed the U.S. Congress for thwarting a Republican plan to overhaul healthcare law, but acknowledged that the White House will need to work with lawmakers to accomplish its next set of legislative plans.

Speaking to a group of small business owners in Charleston, West Virginia, Pence said President Donald Trump is ready to move on to his next priority: simplifying the tax code and cutting tax rates.

“We’re going to roll our sleeves up and we’re going to cut taxes across the board for working families, small businesses and family farms,” Pence said.

“Working with this Congress, President Trump is going to pass the largest tax cut since the days of Ronald Reagan, and we’re going to get this American economy moving again,” he said.

Comprehensive tax reform has eluded previous Congresses and administrations since 1986 when it was last accomplished under former President Ronald Reagan.

Pence made his comments the day after the Republican-controlled House of Representatives failed to find enough support within its own ranks to pass legislation to roll back Obamacare – a setback that raised doubts about Trump’s ability to deliver on other big promises requiring help from Congress.

Trump and Republicans had campaigned to overhaul former President Barack Obama’s health care law, which they have argued is too intrusive and expensive.

“As we all learned yesterday, Congress just wasn’t ready,” said Pence, who spent a dozen years in Congress starting in 2001, and has been a key emissary for Trump on Capitol Hill.

“With 100 percent of House Democrats – every single one – and a handful of Republicans actually standing in the way of President Trump’s plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, we’re back to the drawing board,” Pence said.

On tax reform, Pence said Trump wants to cut the corporate tax rate to 15 percent from 35 percent to spur investment.

The House of Representatives’ tax committee is working on legislation that would cut the corporate rate to 20 percent.

Pence said the White House also would seek to work with Congress to boost funding for the military, roll back regulations on the energy sector, and confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s pick to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.

Standing with Linda McMahon, who started and ran World Wrestling Entertainment before being named as head of Trump’s Small Business Administration, Pence joked that the White House could use some muscle to work with lawmakers.

“Maybe we could have used a few of your WWE superstars on Capitol Hill yesterday,” Pence said.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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Figure skating – 'Old guard' out to keep young guns at bay in Helsinki

LONDON: Javier Fernandez, Yuzuru Hanyu and Patrick Chan have won the last six men’s titles at the figure skating world championships but the ‘old guard’ will be under pressure in Helsinki to quell the growing threat posed by a gang of high-flying upstarts.

In the final global meet before next February’s Winter Olympics in South Korea’s Pyeongchang, the trio will be eager to show that they are still capable of pulling off more soaring quadruple jumps than their younger rivals.

“It’s mind blowing what these guys are doing technically,” the 26-year-old Chan, who won a hat-trick of world titles before settling for Olympic silver behind Hanyu at the 2014 Sochi Games, told reporters in a conference call.

“We are at a point now where it’s crazy.”

Just seven years ago, American Evan Lysacek captured the 2010 Olympic gold without attempting a single quadruple jump.

That prompted 2006 Olympic gold medallist Yevgeny Plushenko to claim Lysacek was “not a true champion” and that he had won gold by “dancing rather than skating like a man”.

Now it is no longer a question of ‘if’ the top contenders will attempt a skill that requires them to lift off into the air and complete four revolutions before touching down on the ice, but ‘how many’ quads they will pull off.

The battle for the gold medal is likely to be between double world champion Fernandez and Japan’s Hanyu, who won the Olympic and world titles during a magical few weeks in 2014.

The two Brian Orser graduates have been untouchable at the world championships for the last two years, leaving the rest of the field to chase bronze.

However, with 17-year-old American Nathan Chen capturing the top prize at last month’s Four Continents competition, the chasing pack is closing in fast.

‘SKATING WIFE’

Fernandez, 25, still expects to be fighting it out with Hanyu for gold in Helsinki but said emerging talents such as China’s Jin Boyang and Japanese teenager Shoma Uno could not be discounted.

“Definitely Yuzu will be my biggest rival in Helsinki because he’s always my biggest rival,” Fernandez told Reuters about the training partner he calls his “skating wife”.

“I know Patrick is going to be fighting for that medal.

“Nathan Chen is a great technique guy, he does a lot of quads and is pretty strong. Boyang Jin is also very technical and strong. Even Shoma Uno can skate really well.”

When Chan decided to take a break after his Olympic dreams were dashed, his quad repertoire was limited to quad-toeloops.

A year into his comeback, he has added a quad Salchow to his arsenal in an attempt to keep pace with the young tyros.

Fernandez said the younger skaters were developing quickly.

“Figure skating is changing, the guys who were in the juniors only one or two years ago are now pushing us really hard,” he added.

“There are maybe five skaters who will be fighting so hard for that gold medal at the worlds.”

Recent form suggests that the other titles will be more clear cut as defending women’s champion Evgenia Medvedeva has not been beaten this season, while 2010 Olympic ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir have enjoyed a comeback to savour.

Following a two-year hiatus, the Canadians have won every meet they have entered and look set to end the two-year reign of their French training partners Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

“This is the most prepared we’ve been for a world championships arguably in our whole career,” Moir said during a conference call. “We can’t wait to get to Finland, we can’t wait to get on that ice and we can’t wait to compete two programs that we love.”

Fellow Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford will arrive in Helsinki for the March 29 to April 2 championships chasing a hat-trick of pairs titles.

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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Venezuela's Maduro asks UN to help ease medicine shortages

CARACAS: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Friday he has asked the United Nations to help the South American nation alleviate medicine shortages, which have become increasingly severe as the oil-producing nation’s economic crisis accelerates.

Triple digit inflation and a decaying socialist economic model have left medications ranging from simple anti-inflammatory drugs to chemotherapy medication out of reach for most Venezuelans.

Maduro did not specify the type of aid he requested, although he stressed that the U.N. has knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry.

“I have asked them for support to continue making permanent progress in the regularization of medicines for hospitals,” he said.

Maduro earlier on Friday met with Jessica Faieta, Assistant Administrator and Director of the U.N. Development Program, according to state television.

The Venezuelan Pharmaceuticals Federation estimates some 85 percent of drugs are unavailable to the country’s citizens.

Maduro often blames the deteriorating economy and widespread shortages of goods on an “economic war” led by opposition politicians with the help of the United States.

Critics say the problems are the result of dysfunctional price and currency controls that have decimated private industry.

(Reporting by Deisy Buitrago, Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)

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