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North Korea Detains Fourth US Citizen

North Korea says it has detained another U.S. citizen, accusing him of committing “hostile acts.”

The North’s official news agency KCNA said Kim Hak Song was detained on Saturday.  The report said he had worked for the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, the only privately funded university in North Korea and a school that is also unusual for the large size of its foreign staff.

In a statement, the U.S. State Department said, “The security of U.S. citizens is one of the department’s highest priorities.  When a U.S. citizen is reported to be detained in North Korea, we work with the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang” to try to secure their freedom.

Kim Hak Song is the fourth American citizen in North Korean custody and his detention comes as tensions increase between Pyongyang and Washington over North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program.  U.S. President Donald Trump has dispatched an aircraft carrier strike group to the waters off the Korean peninsula as a warning against the communist nation’s military ambitions.

Other detainees

Last month, Pyongyang detained Kim Sang Dok, a Pyongyang University accounting professor in his 50s it accused of “acts of hostility aimed to overturn” the regime of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un.  North Korea said Kim Sang Dok was arrested “for committing criminal acts,” but did not elaborate.

In the case of Kim Hak Song, authorities said, “A relevant institution is now conducting detailed investigation into his crimes.”

In a 2015 message on the website of a Korean-Brazilian church in Sao Paulo, Kim Hak Song said he was a Christian missionary planning to start an experimental farm at the Pyongyang school and was trying to help the North Korean people learn to become self-sufficient.

North Korea has in the past detained U.S. citizens to use as bargaining chips in its negotiations with Washington.

Last year, Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in prison after he confessed to trying to steal a propaganda banner.

Kim Dong Chul, born a South Korean but believed to have U.S. citizenship, is serving 10 years of hard labor for subversion.

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Taliban Again Threaten Key Northern Afghan City

Heavy fighting is raging in northern Afghanistan where the Taliban insurgency has overrun several districts since launching its so-called yearly “spring offensive” more than a week ago.

The battlefield advances have again brought insurgents close enough to threaten Kunduz, the strategically important city the Taliban had briefly captured in 2015.

Officials told local media Sunday that Afghan forces were battling the insurgents in Charkhab area on the outskirts of the provincial capital.

The fighting has effectively blocked the main highway linking Kunduz to the conflict-hit Khan Abad district and to the northern Takhar province. Afghan security officials say army operations to reopen the highway are underway and have killed dozens of Taliban fighters.

On Saturday, the Taliban captured nearby Qala-e-Zal district after staging a multi-prong offensive on the area that borders the former Soviet Central Asian state of Tajikistan.

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri, however, insisted government forces staged a “tactical” withdrawal to protect civilians and surrounding areas. He claimed a counteroffensive to retake Qala-e-Zal is underway.

But a Taliban spokesman dismissed official claims Sunday, saying there was no fighting in the district, the insurgent group was in full control, and life is returning to normalcy there.

There are no casualty details available from either side.

US drone attack

Meanwhile, a U.S. drone attack in the eastern province of Nangarhar has killed at least 27 Islamic State militants and wounded 13 others. A provincial government spokesman, Attaullah Khogyani, told VOA on Sunday the strike occurred in the mountainous Achin district.

Fighting has also been raging for days in the northeastern Badkhashan province where Taliban insurgents are said to be consolidating their hold on the recently captured Zebak district and staging attacks on nearby districts.

Possible spillover effects of the Afghan conflict has been a cause of concern for neighboring Central Asian states because some of them are already struggling to tackle domestic Islamist extremists.

In a bid to allay those fears, the Taliban reiterated Sunday its combat mission is solely directed against Afghanistan’s “foreign occupiers and their internal allies”, an apparent reference to the U.S.-led NATO military mission and the Afghan government.

“We have no intention of meddling in others’ affairs and nor will we allow others to interfere in our internal affairs,” a statement quoted Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid as reassuring Afghanistan’s neighboring countries.

“However, the liberation of our land from foreign occupation and the establishment of an Afghan-inclusive government is our natural right and we will continue our struggle until we have achieved this goal,” Mujahid added.

Afghan authorities maintain militants from Central Asian states have been spotted in Taliban ranks in recent months while U.S. military commanders allege Russia is also arming the insurgents.

Moscow denies the charges as groundless and as an attempt by the U.S.-led military mission to place blame for failing to stabilize the war-shattered country.

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Waziri has also accused neighboring Pakistan of helping the Taliban, charges Islamabad rejects.

In its report for the first quarter of 2017, the U.S. Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR noted the government controlled nearly 60 percent of 407 Afghan districts, but 11.1 percent or 45 districts were under insurgent control on influence.

The rest of the area is contested, the government watch dog said, quoting the U.S. military assessment prior to the Taliban spring offensive on April 28.

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Indonesia: Two Days After Prison Break, 200 Inmates at Large

Indonesian authorities said about 200 inmates remained at large two days after a mass escape from an overcrowded prison on Sumatra island.

 

The prison break Friday occurred when prisoners were let out of their cells at Sialang Bungkuk Prison in Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province, to perform prayers. They broke through a prison door, overwhelming the few guards on duty.

About 200 at large

 

Local police chief Susanto, who goes by one name, said 242 men were recaptured by Sunday morning leaving about 200 still at large.

 

Authorities were initially uncertain about how many prisoners had escaped from the prison, estimating the numbers at between 100 and 300.

 

Police said some of the men surrendered or were returned by their families while others were captured by residents, police and soldiers.

Prison overcrowded 

Various officials have said the prisoners were angry at poor conditions and treatment. The prison has a capacity of about 360 but according to local police spokesman Guntur Aryo Tejo it is holding more than 1,870 men.

 

Tejo said four of the recaptured inmates were apprehended by police late Friday about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the prison on a bus heading for neighboring West Sumatra province. 

 

Hundreds of police and soldiers have been deployed since Friday in the hunt for the prisoners.

 

Jailbreaks are common in Indonesia where overcrowding has become a significant problem in prisons that are struggling to cope with poor funding and an influx of people arrested under a war on drugs.

 

Friday’s escape was the biggest since July 2013 when about 240 prisoners, including several convicted terrorists, escaped following a deadly riot at a prison in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra province. 

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Some South Koreans Hope to Thaw Ties With North if Moon Elected

In February 2016, Yoo Chang-geun and about 120 other South Korean businessmen frantically pulled their staff out of the Kaesong Industrial Zone, jointly run with North Korea. Seoul had ordered it closed after Pyongyang defied international warnings and tested a long-range rocket.

Now, with South Koreans in next week’s presidential election almost certain to elect liberal Moon Jae-in, they have reason for hope. Moon has promised to reopen the complex, the signature project of the so-called “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with North Korea pursued earlier this century.

“We are more hopeful than ever,” Yoo said. “Moon might not be able to reopen Kaesong right away but he will follow steps toward it in the course of improving South-North Korean relations.”

Trading sunshine for concessions

But reopening Kaesong could go against the spirit of U.N. sanctions to prevent money from going into North Korea’s banned weapons programs, government officials and experts say.

And for Moon to justify a return to engagement, North Korea would first need to at least signal a concession, said Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University in South Korea.

“Most importantly, not to make further provocation, like no more nuclear and missile tests. It can come out and show some kind of forward-looking stance, even if it is just words,” Lim said.

North Korea hinted at further nuclear tests as recently as this week, saying it will bolster its nuclear force “to the maximum” and “in a consecutive and successive way.”

The isolated country has carried out five nuclear tests and a series of missile tests despite ever-tightening U.N. and other international sanctions. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has vowed to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile at any time that can strike the mainland United States with a nuclear weapon.

Wages to weapons

Born out of the first of only two summits between leaders of the two Koreas in 2000, the Kaesong project opened to much fanfare in 2004 as a model of commercial cooperation: capital would come from South Korea and cheap labor from the North.

But critics say hundreds of millions of dollars paid to North Korea over the years as wages for workers at Kaesong were used to fund the development of nuclear weapons and missiles.

North Korea had demanded that the wages be paid to the state and not directly to the workers.

Best path to peace

Jong Kun Choi, who advises the 64-year-old Moon on foreign policy, said the candidate believes better inter-Korean relations is the best way to provide security on the Korean peninsula.

Moon, the son of North Korean refugees who came to the South during the 1950-53 Korean War, would end nine years of conservative rule in Seoul if elected, a time when Pyongyang stepped up its nuclear and missile tests.

“We want to be in the driver’s seat. Driving would mean doing so very actively with the United States, and Pyongyang.”

But he acknowledged the next administration would inherit “some very bad circumstances” that would make it difficult to simply revert to the engagement policies of previous liberal presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, who served from 1998 to 2008.

“How can we inject so-called Sunshine Policy into a situation that is so different to 10 years ago?” Choi told Reuters.

Moon, a human rights lawyer who was a top aide to the late president Roh, has Washington worried his more moderate approach could undercut efforts to increase pressure and sanctions on Pyongyang, senior South Korean government officials said.

Moon’s election would also complicate the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system. He has repeatedly said the incoming administration should decide whether to deploy the anti-missile system and it should be ratified by parliament.

Wild card factor

A conservative president in Washington and a liberal president in Seoul may not necessarily be an incompatible mix, said John Delury at Seoul’s Yonsei University. Both Moon and Trump, for instance, have indicated they would be willing to meet with Kim Jong Un.

“There’s the wild card factor,” said Delury. “It takes us back to one of Trump’s first statements about North Korea where he said why don’t we talk to the guy. He shares a premise there with South Korean liberals. Are these two guys really so out of joint?”

North Korea’s state media has been quiet about the candidacy of Moon, shielding him from the harsh invective usually reserved for conservative leaders in Seoul.

Rhetoric aside, Moon has said it will be practically impossible to renew dialogue with Pyongyang if it conducts another nuclear test.

Yoo, who employed 430 North Korean workers at a semiconductor parts manufacturing plant in Kaesong, said his revenue has halved since he was forced to leave the industrial zone last year.

A February survey conducted by the association of South Korean companies that operated in Kaesong showed that two-thirds were willing to go back to Kaesong.

“We don’t want to see our companies leaving for China and Vietnam. We want to go back to Kaesong, a symbol of South-North economic cooperation,” Yoo said.

Yoo likened the two Koreas to a divorced couple, saying talks for resumption of the Kaesong project can be “beginning for the divorced couple to get back together.”

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Nepalese Climber Hoping to Be Everest’s Oldest Conqueror Dies Trying

An 85-year-old Nepalese man who was trying to reclaim the title of oldest person to climb Mount Everest died at a base camp late Saturday, officials said.

Min Bahadur Sherchan became known as the oldest climber to reach Everest’s 8,850-meter-high summit in 2008, when he was 76. Five years later, however, the title went to Yichiro Miura of Japan, who was 80.

Nepal does not allow anyone under age 16 to try to climb Everest, but it does not set an upper age limit for climbers.

Mountaineering officials, including one at the base camp, said the likely cause of death was cardiac arrest.

Sherchan told The Associated Press in April that he had been training for months for his second conquest of Everest. He was not a professional climber, but had worked as an apple farmer, construction worker and hotel manager in Kathmandu.  

He was the second climber to die this week in the vicinity of Everest. Famed Swiss climber Ueli Steck, known for his rapid mountaineering ascents, died April 30 when he fell on nearby Mount Nuptse while preparing for an ascent of Everest.

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Taliban Again Seize Northern Afghanistan City

Taliban militants captured a district just outside the northern Afghan city of Kunduz Saturday, officials said.

Mahfouz Akbari, a police spokesman for eastern Afghanistan, said security forces pulled out of Qala-i-Zal district, west of Kunduz city, Saturday to avoid further civilian and military casualties after more than 24 hours of heavy fighting.

In a statement, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the insurgents had taken the police headquarters, the governor’s compound and all security checkpoints. He said several police and soldiers had been killed and wounded.

Taliban there before

Over the past 18 months, Taliban insurgents have twice succeeded in seizing the town center of Kunduz for brief periods and the latest fighting underscores warnings that Afghan forces face another grueling year of fighting.

A shopkeeper, whose name is also Zabihullah, said the situation was reminiscent of last October when Taliban forces entered the city before being driven back after days of fighting and air strikes.

“I am extremely worried. There are security forces everywhere,” he said. “Everyone in my family is worried and if the situation gets worse, we’ll have to leave.”

Heavy fighting

According to U.S. estimates, government fighters control about 60 percent of the country, with the rest either controlled or contested by the insurgents, who are seeking to reimpose Islamic law after their 2001 ouster.

Although the Taliban made a formal announcement of their spring offensive last week, there had been heavy fighting from the northern province of Badakhshan to the Taliban heartlands of Helmand and Kandahar in the south.

In the Helmand province Saturday, Gen. Aqa Noor Kentoz, provincial police chief, said at least four police officers were killed Friday night at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital.

 

The four might have been attacked by an insider, Kentoz said, and an investigation is underway.

 

No one immediately claimed responsibility.

There have also been several operations against Islamic State militants in the eastern province of Nangarhar, which have also involved U.S. special forces and air strikes.

More than 1,000 members of Afghan security forces have been killed since the start of the year, according to Afghan officials and figures cited by U.S. Congressional watchdog SIGAR, along with more than 700 civilians.

Also, more than 75,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in the first four months of the year, according to United Nations figures.

More troops needed

Earlier this year, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, said he needed a few thousand more international troops to boost the Resolute Support training and advisory mission and break a “stalemate” with the Taliban.

The U.S. military is due to make its formal recommendations to President Donald Trump within the next week, a senior official told a Senate committee last week.

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Tribe That Worships Prince Philip, Dismayed by His Retirement

The retirement of Britain’s Prince Philip from public life led world headlines Thursday, but his most devout and remote followers have only just heard the news.

A tribe in Vanuatu was shocked and dismayed to discover Saturday that the man they pray to as the son of an ancestral local mountain god will likely never return to their Pacific Island home.

The British royal, who said he would no longer take part in public engagements, alone or alongside his wife, Queen Elizabeth II, is part of the fabric of life in the village of Younanen on Tanna Island.

Daily prayers for blessing

Villagers pray to the 95-year-old prince daily, asking for his blessing on the banana and yam crops that make their primitive and extremely poor community self-sufficient.

“If he comes one day the people will not be poor, there will be no sickness, no debt and the garden will be growing very well,” village chief Jack Malia told Reuters through an interpreter at the village’s Nakamal, a traditional meeting place where the men gather at night to drink highly intoxicating kava.

Villagers have several photos of the prince, including one dated 1980 of him in a suit, holding a club they made for him and sent to London.

“Prince Philip has said one day he will come and visit us,” said Malia, who was born in 1964 but did not know his birthday.

“We still believe that he will come but if he doesn’t come, the pictures that I am holding … it means nothing.”

Local legend and Philip

According to local legend, the pale-skinned son of the mountain god had ventured across the seas to look for a rich and powerful woman to marry.

Anthropologists believe Philip, who fitted the bill by marrying a powerful woman, became linked to the legend in the 1960s when Vanuatu was an Anglo-French colony known as the New Hebrides. Villagers at the time were likely to have seen portraits of Philip and the Queen at government offices and police stations run by colonial officials.

The belief that Philip, also known as the Duke of Edinburgh, was indeed the traveling son was reinforced in 1974 when he and the Queen made an official visit to the New Hebrides.

“Prince Philip is important to us because our ancestors told us that part of our custom is in England,” said Malia, who took over from his father as village chief in 2003.

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Thailand Pulls Passport of Fugitive Red Bull Heir

Thailand’s government has canceled the passport of a fugitive heir to the Red Bull energy drink fortune who is wanted on deadly hit-and-run charges, a Foreign Ministry official said.

 

Vorayuth “Boss” Yoovidhya will no longer be able to enter other countries on that passport, and his immigration status is invalid in whatever country he is visiting, making him subject to penalties under that country’s laws, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Busadee Santipitak said Friday. 

 

Vorayuth fled Thailand last month just before a warrant for his arrest was issued. He flew to Singapore two days before he was to appear before prosecutors in one of several planes owned by his family’s companies, but left two days later. His current whereabouts are unknown. 

5-year-old warrant

 

The warrant was issued almost five years after Vorayuth allegedly left a motorcycle police officer dead after crashing into him with his Ferrari at high speed. 

 

Police Maj. Gen. Apichart Suribunya said earlier this week that Friday Thailand would begin the process of having Interpol issue a Blue Notice advising officials in 190 countries that Vorayuth is wanted.

 

His family is half-owner of the Red Bull energy drink company, which has brought them an estimated wealth of more than $20 billion.

Tracked by journalists, social media

 

Earlier this year, The Associated Press watched Vorayuth, 32, and his family enjoying a $1,000-a-night vacation in Laos, and reported on more than 120 social media postings of him traveling in luxury through more than nine countries since the accident, snowboarding in Japan, attending Grand Prix races with team Red Bull and visiting beach resorts.

 

All that time he’d been repeatedly telling prosecutors, through his attorney, that he was sick or out of the country on business when called in to face charges. His attorney and Red Bull have not responded to requests for comment.

 

Since the AP report, friends and family who had been posting his photos on social media over the years have stopped. Although his Facebook page is still up, the name has changed, and was updated with a photo of an airplane wing.

 

Vorayuth is not necessarily immobilized by having his Thai passport revoked. It is possible to obtain a passport in several countries by making a minimum level of investment, or in some cases, what amounts to almost a straight cash payment.

 

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been abroad since 2008 to avoid serving a prison term for what he has described as a politically motivated conviction on a conflict of interest charge. His Thai passports, an official one and an ordinary one, were revoked, but he holds passports from Montenegro and reportedly Nicaragua, and travels frequently from his home in exile in Dubai.