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Senate panel approves William Barr, Trump’s attorney general pick | News

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The US Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved President Donald Trump’s attorney general nominee, William Barr, and sent his nomination on to the full Senate for a final confirmation vote.

The committee voted along party lines. Republicans praised Barr as well qualified, while Democrats who voted against him said they were concerned he might not make public the findings from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

A corporate lawyer who previously served as attorney general under Republican President George HW Bush in the early 1990s, Barr has been praised by politicians from both parties as someone who is deeply familiar with the workings of the Justice Department and does not owe his career to Trump.

He is expected to win confirmation in the Republican-controlled chamber.

If he wins the job, Barr’s independence could be put to the test when Mueller wraps up his investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia during the 2016 election. 

The Republican president has repeatedly criticised the investigation as a “witch-hunt” and denies any collusion with Moscow. 

Barr criticised the investigation last year in a memo to the Justice Department, but he told the committee in confirmation hearings three weeks ago that he would allow Mueller to conclude his work and said he would make as much of his findings public as possible.

But Barr has refused to promise that he will release the report in its entirety, citing Justice Department regulations that encourage prosecutors not to criticise people who they do not end up charging with criminal behavior.



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Wallace’s giant bee, world’s largest, refound by scientists | News

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The world’s largest bee, which had not been seen by scientists since 1981, has been rediscovered by a team of conservationists and international researchers in a remote part of Indonesia.

The team found the first specimens of Megachile Pluto, an insect commonly known as Wallace’s giant bee that is roughly the size of a human thumb, in the archipelago’s North Moluccas islands last month.

On Thursday, they released images and video of a nest and its queen, saying their find was the “holy grail” of species discoveries.

“Amid such a well-documented global decline in insect diversity, it’s wonderful to discover that this iconic species is still hanging on,” said Simon Robson, a member of the team and professor at the University of Sydney.

Despite its conspicuous size, Wallace’s giant bee had not been observed in the wild since 1981, the Global Wildlife Conservation said. Several previous expeditions to the region where the bee lives failed to spot it.

The announcement reignites hope that more of the region’s forests may be home to this very rare species, said the team, which includes researchers from the University of Sydney, Saint Mary’s University in Canada and Princeton University in the United States.

Female specimens of the bee can reach a length of 3.8 centimetres and have a wingspan of more than six centimetres. Males grow to about 2.3 centimetres.

“It was absolutely breathtaking to see this ‘flying bulldog’ of an insect that we weren’t sure existed anymore,” said Clay Bolt, a natural history photographer, who took the first photos and video of the giant bees alive.

“To see how beautiful and big the species is in real life, to hear the sound of its giant wings thrumming as it flew past my head, was just incredible,” Bolt said. “My dream is to now use this rediscovery to elevate this bee to a symbol of conservation in this part of Indonesia.”





A photomontage showing a living Wallace’s giant bee (right), which is approximately four times larger than a European honeybee [Clay Bolt/Global Wildlife Conservation/AFP]

The insect is named after British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection before Charles Darwin’s published contributions.

Wallace collected the species for the first time in 1858 while exploring the Indonesian island of Bacan.

The bee was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1981 by Adam Messer, a US entomologist, who found six nests on the island of Bacan and two other nearby islands. It had not been seen again since.

Eli Wyman, a researcher from Princeton University, said Messer’s find had given some insight, “but we still know next to nothing about this extraordinary insect”.

“I hope this rediscovery will spark research that will give us a deeper understanding of this unique bee and inform any future efforts to protect it from extinction,” Wyman said.

Global Wildlife Conservation, a Texas-based non-profit organisation that runs a Search for Lost Species programme, put Wallace’s giant bee on its list of the “top 25 most wanted lost species”.

Researchers said forest destruction in Indonesia for agriculture, threatens the habitat for this species and many others.

Between 2001 and 2017, Indonesia lost 15 percent of its tree cover, according to Global Forest Watch.


SOURCE:
Al Jazeera and news agencies



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US says 200 troops to remain in Syria after forces’ withdrawal | USA News

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The United States will leave around 200 troops in Syria for a period of time, the White House has announced, as President Donald Trump pulled back from a complete withdrawal of forces.

In a surprise declaration, Trump in December said the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group had been defeated in Syria and ordered the withdrawal of the 2,000 US soldiers from the war-torn country.

But the president has been under pressure from multiple advisers to adjust his policy, which was fiercely criticised, including by members of his own Republican party. 

Critics have decried a number of possible outcomes from a precipitous withdrawal, including a Turkish attack on US-backed Kurdish forces – Washington’s main ally in the fight against ISIL – and a resurgence of the armed group.

“A small peacekeeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

The decision was announced after Trump spoke by phone to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A White House statement said the two leaders agreed, regarding Syria, to “continue coordinating on the creation of a potential safe zone”.

Turkey wants to set up a safe zone with logistical support from allies and says it should be cleared of the US-backed Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara considers a “terrorist” group.






US troops withdrawal from Syria ‘will be gradual’ process (1:52)

A senior US administration official said Trump’s decision had been in the works for some time. It was unclear how long the 200 troops would be expected to remain in the area or where exactly they would be deployed.

Leaving even a small group of US troops in Syria could pave the way for European allies to commit hundreds of troops to help set up and observe a potential safe zone in northeast Syria.

“This is a clear direction to our allies and coalition members that we will be on the ground in some capacity,” the senior administration official told Reuters news agency.

On Thursday, acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan met with his counterpart from Belgium. Before the meeting, Didier Reynders, Belgium’s minister of defense, was asked whether he would be open to keeping troops if there were no American forces left.

“We are waiting for preparation of the withdrawal of US troops and we are waiting now for more discussions,” he said.

Until now, European allies have balked at providing troops unless they received a firm commitment that Washington was still committed to the region.


SOURCE:
Al Jazeera and news agencies



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China’s shadow looms large over second Trump-Kim summit | China News

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Beijing, China – All eyes were on Singapore in June last year as a jumbo jet carrying Kim Jong-un landed on the tarmac of the city-state’s Changi airport, days before the North Korean leader’s landmark summit with US President Donald Trump.

As Kim took his first steps onto Singaporean soil, having completed his longest trip abroad as head of state, those present saw it wasn’t a North Korean airline from which he had just disembarked – but a Chinese one.

Beijing’s loan of the Air China 747 carrier made logistical sense, providing Kim with a much more reliable mode of transport to make the 4,800km trip to Singapore than using his own, decades-old, official aircraft. 

The move, however, was not only practical but also symbolic. Though China – North Korea‘s main ally – was not physically present at the Singapore meeting aimed at reviving stalled nuclear talks, it had an undeniable a role to play in it.

“China’s blessing is important for North Korea,” Tong Zhao, a nuclear-policy fellow at the Beijing-based Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy, told Al Jazeera. Without Chinese support, he added, Pyongyang may fear being “strong-armed into an unfair deal”.





Kim waves from a train in Beijing on January 10, 2019 [KCNA via Reuters]

And now, with another summit between the United States and North Korea set to take place at the end of this month in Vietnam, Beijing’s influence is once again palpable.

China does not want to be pushed aside by the Trump-Kim summit; it wants to have a role in shaping it,” Carlyle Thayer, a security consultant and Emeritus Professor at The University of New South Wales in Australia, said.

Indeed, it was only last month when Kim arrived in Beijing on a bulletproof train at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, just as speculation over an upcoming second meeting with Trump mounted.

The trip marked the once-reclusive North Korean leader’s fourth summit with Xi over the past year, including his first known diplomatic foray overseas with a visit to the Chinese capital in March 2018, all coming before and after talks with either Trump or South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

“The four visits seem an effort to get them both on the same sheet of music,” Thayer told Al Jazeera. “It indicates some kind of coordination.”





Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un have held four meetings over the past year [KCNA via Reuters]

A strategic partnership

China is North Korea’s largest economic partner, accounting for the vast majority of its trade. Beijing’s support for Pyongyang dates back to the Korean War (1950–1953), when Chinese troops were sent to the Korean Peninsula to aid the North’s forces. Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong once described the relationship between the two countries as “close as lips and teeth”.

But these brotherly ties began to deteriorate when North Korea began missile testing in 2006, before hitting further lows in 2017 after Pyongyang began ramping up its nuclear tests.

“China was very irritated when Kim was firing his ballistic missiles and setting off explosions,” Thayer said. “It brought threats from Trump as trade issues were rising,” he added, referring to a major tariff dispute between the world’s two largest economies.

“It complicated the situation enormously.”

According to Zhao, China’s renewed closeness with North Korea does not stem from “mutual trust” but from “mutual benefit”. He said China’s ultimate goal was denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula whilst maintaining influence over the region.

“As long as North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, it will be an excuse for South Korea and Japan to continue enhancing their own military capabilities, and for the US to strengthen its alliances in the region and to continue deploying missile defence and other advanced military assets near China’s doorstep,” Zhao added. “That is a major cause for concern in China.”

Cheng Xiaohe, a professor of Korean studies at China’s Renmin University, said Beijing supported the Trump-Kim summit because it saw it as a crucial step towards stability in the region.

“Nuclear issues have been bothering the whole of Northeast Asia,” Cheng told Al Jazeera, adding that China believed a positive outcome would help transform North Korea from “a country that used to be the origin of tensions and wars, to one that’s stable and peaceful”.






101 EAST: North Korea’s Secret Money (25:00)

Economic push

Pyongyang, in turn, sees close ties with Beijing as crucial for its economic development. Chinese support also gives Kim a certain amount of leverage while negotiating for the lifting of international sanctions.

“Putting a stop to the sanctions will be very important,” Cheng said. “If that doesn’t happen, North Korea can never have a real reform and opening up.”

Though China began imposing United Nations sanctions on North Korea in 2017, it hs been careful to maintain its role as an economic lifeline for North Korea – Beijing remains the country’s main source of food and energy.

“China wants to push Kim in the direction of denuclearisation,” said Thayer. “But not squeeze him so badly so that the regime collapses and affects China.”

But for Zhao, there is a deeper reason behind Beijing’s continued assistance: increasing economic interaction with Pyongyang is the only way for China to address the root cause of its nuclear ambition. “North Korea’s nuclear weapons are simply the symptom of the disease,” Zhao said. “The disease itself is actually deep paranoia; its serious threat perception towards the outside world, especially the US.”

Therefore, he added, promoting dialogue with the US and interaction with other countries was, “in the long run, good news for China”.






INSIDE STORY: Is North Korea’s timeline to denuclearise for real? (25:25)

Concrete outcomes

Last time Kim and Trump met on June 12, 2018, in what was the first encounter between a North Korean leader and a sitting US president, millions of people around the world stopped to watch the two leaders’ historic handshake. Only months before, such a moment seemed unthinkable – North Korea had intensified its nuclear testing, prompting threats from the US president to rain down “fire and fury”.

But though the Singapore meeting was high on spectacle, it was low on details, resulting in little tangible progress on denuclearisation.

This time, Cheng said, China would want more concrete results and both countries to reach “a real consensus” in the February 27-28 summit in Hanoi.

“For example, for North Korea to agree to international monitors checking and reporting on its nuclear weapons and facilities; and for the US to agree to partially lift sanctions,” said Cheng.

Failing that, he said Beijing would welcome “lower” or “medium-level” goals, such the halting of weapon development and the dismantling of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, increased economic cooperation with South Korea and an official end to the Korean War.

China does not expect denuclearisation to happen overnight, said Zhao. “North Korea’s leaders still have a very strong incentive to keep their independent nuclear deterrent capability.

“It really requires time for trust to be built between Washington and Pyongyang. Any progress to be made at the second summit is likely to be incremental and limited.”



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