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Vendor With Bird Flu Prompts China to Close Poultry Markets 

China will shutter poultry markets in a district of southwestern Sichuan province after a man fell ill with the H7N9 bird flu, state-owned China News Service reported Sunday.

The 44-year-old man sold live poultry at a farmers market, China News reported, citing officials in Zigong city.

Poultry markets in Zigong’s Ziliujing district will be closed starting from midnight Monday, the report said.

Cases of bird flu have been unusually high for China since last year, with three times more fatalities from H7N9 in the first four months of the year than in all of 2016, although deaths fell in April for the third consecutive month. 

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President’s ‘Regular Jae-in’ Touch a Hit With South Koreans

He removes his own jacket, brushing off an aide who tried to take it off like a butler. He takes questions from journalists without vetting them first. He gets a $3 lunch with employees at a Blue House cafeteria and tweets about his adopted cats and dogs, who found a new home in the presidential palace.

That may seem unremarkable elsewhere, but newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s “common man” touch is being feted in a country more used to authoritarian rule by aloof leaders.

High approval ratings

Moon has hit approval ratings not seen in South Korea for nearly a decade by standing in deliberate contrast to his disgraced and impeached predecessor, Park Geun-hye. She was widely reviled for her disconnected style even before the damaging bribery scandal that brought her down in March.

The infatuation may be short-lived if Moon fails to deliver on key election promises that resonated with the public, such as boosting jobs and welfare, reforming powerful family-run conglomerates and easing tensions over North Korea’s fast accelerating weapons programs.

“Naturally, Moon is having a honeymoon period,” said Daniel Tudor, an author of several books on Korean society and politics who briefly advised the Moon campaign. “So far everything Moon has done has shown that he has emotional concern for the average person.”

Moon’s approval rating hit 75 percent, according to polling firm Realmeter. Park’s was at 55 percent in her first week in 2012, before hitting an all-time low of 4 percent in March.

‘Message’ to public

Moon won election with just more than 40 percent of the votes. Much of his popularity among voters and supporters, most of whom are between 20 and 40 years old, was attributed to his down-to-earth and humble demeanor — an image he has maintained since becoming the most powerful person in the country.

Photos of Moon, 64, and his advisers strolling around the grounds of the Blue House presidential office with iced coffees in their hands went viral on social media and ran on major newspapers in Moon’s first few days.

The photos were no accident. Moon himself discussed such photo opportunities with his closest aides, to try to “send a message” that he will continue to communicate with the public, a spokesman for Moon said.

Sensitive to the influence-peddling scandal that brought down Park, Moon has also made a conscious decision to sideline some of his closest friends and advisers.

Yang Jung-chul, one of Moon’s closest aides and an instrumental member of his campaign, wrote in a memo to friends and journalists this week that his dream came true when Moon got elected, and it was now time to leave.

“Let me have the right to be forgotten,” Yang wrote.

Some moments unscripted

Other moments are unscripted. A short clip showing Moon refusing help from an aide with his jacket, which he casually hung on the back of his chair, was a hit on social media, along with pictures of his good-looking bodyguard and some of his cabinet appointments.

Photos of a younger Moon in his days as a special forces soldier wearing a beret and fatigues have been retweeted thousands of times.

He has moved his pets into his official residence, much to the delight of netizens. Tori, a rescue dog, will soon join South Korea’s “First Cat,” who moved into the Blue House this weekend, the Moon spokesman said.

Park left her nine pet dogs behind when she left the Blue House in March after the Constitutional Court upheld a parliamentary impeachment motion against her, drawing criticism from South Korean animal rights activists.

“All Korean presidents end up hated,” Tudor said, referring to the fact that nearly all former presidents, or their family members and key aides, have been embroiled in scandals at the close of their terms or after leaving office. “Moon might at least have a fair chance to buck that trend.”

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Taliban Attempt to Take Afghan City From Three Sides

Taliban fighters launched a three-pronged attack on parts of the central-eastern Afghan city of Ghazni overnight, driving a Humvee packed with explosives into the entrance of a district governor’s compound during the assault, police said Saturday.

The assault on Ghazni, on the highway linking the capital Kabul with the southern city of Kandahar, ramps up the Taliban’s spring offensive and comes as U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis prepares to present recommendations to President Donald Trump on future troop levels in Afghanistan.

In the north of the country, the Taliban has stepped up its operations and targeted Kunduz, a city they have twice managed to seize for brief periods in the past.

The Taliban have had a strong presence in the province of Ghazni for years, but provincial police chief Aminullah Amerkhil said the overnight attack from three directions was the fiercest launched by the insurgents. However, he said his men had held out.

Hashim Zwak, the police chief of Waghaz district, was wounded in the hand during the fighting. He described how the militants drove a Humvee packed with explosives into the entrance of the district governor’s compound and blew it up before other fighters tried to overrun the police defenders.

“They put all their effort into it but they could not defeat us,” Zwak told Reuters from a hospital in Ghazni city.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said, however, that the fighters had gained control of Waghaz district, straddling the highway to the south of the city and fighting was continuing in other areas.

He said several members of the security forces had been killed and many vehicles destroyed along with weapons and ammunition.

The provincial police chief said the Taliban had suffered far heavier casualties, with 25 fighters killed, while only two members of the security forces died.

“The Taliban put all their pressure on Afghan security forces to take control of at least one district but we fought well and pushed them back,” Amerkhil said.

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Asia Pacific Trade Ministers Meet, Seek to Revive TPP

The Pacific Rim trade ministers started their two-day meeting in Hanoi Saturday focusing on free trade and regional economic integration amid fears of growing trade protectionism.

U.S Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer made his international debut at the gathering of 21 ministers from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

Trans Pacific Partnership

On the sidelines of the meeting, trade ministers from the remaining 11 countries involved in the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact are scheduled to meet Sunday seeking to revive the agreement after the U.S. pulled out.

Alan Bollard, executive director of APEC Secretariat, said the ministers may either change some of the articles and put the pact into force or discuss it further.

President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the TPP soon after taking office in January, something he championed during his presidential campaigns as part of his “America First” trade policy.

Vietnam and Malaysia had been expected to be beneficiaries from the original TPP with greater access to U.S. markets and investments.

China trade group

In the meantime, ministers from the 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership led by China will also hold a meeting in Hanoi Monday to further their discussion on the deal seen as an alternative to TPP. It is expected to be finalized by the end of this year.

Speaking at the opening of the APEC ministers’ meeting, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said that APEC should step up economic and technical cooperation to enhance the effectiveness and distinguish APEC cooperation from that of the other organizations and forums.

Vietnam will host the annual APEC summit this November when leaders including Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to attend. 

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Pakistan’s Social Media Crackdown Alarms Critics

A Pakistani government crackdown on social media to deter anti-military content has prompted accusations of curbing freedom of expression and victimizing political activists.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government last Sunday ordered the cybercrime department of the Federal Investigation Agency to proceed against activists “dishonoring” the national armed forces through social media.

Authorities have since detained and interrogated an unspecified number of activists and seized their computers and cellphones. Most of the detainees belong to the opposition Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party, headed by Imran Khan.

An independent watchdog group, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), has harshly criticized the crackdown. In a statement Friday, it demanded an end to “arbitrary curbs” on freedom of expression and a “climate of intimidation” of political activists, bloggers, journalists and other civil society activists.

‘Hostility’ toward free speech

“We hope the authorities realize how the prevailing situation demonstrates their hostility towards freedom of expression,” the HRCP said.

Khan has also accused the government of abusing the cybercrime law to “politically victimize” PTI’s social media activists. The opposition politician has been organizing street protests to pressure Sharif to resign, accusing him of corruption.

“Do not force PTI to come out on to the streets. We will never let you muzzle public dissent against you,” Khan warned the Sharif government while addressing a party rally in the southwestern city of Quetta on Friday.

He alleged that the ruling party through fake accounts had unleashed an anti-army campaign in order to provoke the crackdown on social media activists of PTI. Khan’s party has been good at using social media to mobilize public support and highlight alleged corruption cases against government leaders.

The Sharif government has defended the punitive proceedings against social media activists, saying the constitution does not allow citizens to criticize the national armed forces.

‘Serious offense’

“Ridiculing the Pakistan army or its officers on social media in the name of freedom of speech is unacceptable” and “a serious offense” under the law, the federal interior minister warned while ordering authorities to arrest and take “severe” action against those involved in such “condemnable” activities.

In its statement, HRCP dismissed those assertions and reminded authorities that the constitution also says any restriction with regard to freedom of speech “must be reasonable and shall not take effect if provided by law.”

The powerful military has ruled Pakistan at three different times, for a total of more than three decades, through direct coups against civilian governments. Critics say it continues to influence political affairs, particularly foreign policy.

The military, particularly its spy agency, also has long faced foreign criticism for allegedly harboring militants involved in cross-border attacks in Afghanistan and India.

Analysts say that despite the controversies surrounding the military, the institution has benefited from constitutional provisions that curtail criticism of it.

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US Defense Secretary: Military Response to North Korea Would Be ‘Tragic’

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said North Koreans probably learned a lot from their latest rocket launch, adding that attempts to resolve the North Korea missile crisis through military force would be “tragic.”

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon on Friday, Mattis declined to say whether the missile North Korea launched earlier this week had a controlled re-entry into the atmosphere.

Pyongyang claimed on Monday that the missile reached an altitude of about 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) and was capable of carrying “a large, heavy nuclear warhead.”

Gaining the ability to control a missile’s re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere from space would be a big step forward for the North Korean missile program.

North Korea has made no secret of its desire to develop missiles capable of targeting some of its neighbors and intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the U.S. mainland.

“If this goes to a military solution, it is going to be tragic on an unbelievable scale, and so our effort is to work with the U.N., work with China, work with Japan, work with South Korea to try to find a way out of this situation,” Mattis said, adding that Chinese influence on the North Korean government “appears” to be having “some impact.”

South Korea’s capital, Seoul, is home to about 10 million people and is located just 55 kilometers from the North Korean border.

Tensions on peninsula

Meanwhile, at the United Nations, North Korea’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Kim In Ryong again blamed the United States for the current tension on the Korean Peninsula.

“The current situation on the Korean Peninsula is often engulfed in a touch-and-go state to the brink of war, whose root cause squarely lies on the U.S.,” Kim told reporters at a hastily called news conference. He also criticized recent ICBM tests conducted by the United States and annual joint U.S.-South Korean annual military exercises as “provocative war maneuvers.”

U.S. missile test a routine action

America’s top general confirmed Friday that the U.S. did recently test ICBMs in accordance with international protocols, but said the test “had nothing to do with North Korea” and was a routine action to ensure a “safe, reliable deterrent” against nuclear attacks.  

“It wasn’t messaged in that direction. It wasn’t pointed in that direction,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said. “For North Korea to compare what they have been doing to threaten and intimidate their neighbors, as well as the United States, to our routine military exercises — advertised well in advance with full transparency — would be an unfair comparison.”

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Philippine President Alleges China Threatened War

Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte says Chinese President Xi Jinping threatened him with war if the Philippines begins drilling for oil in a disputed part of the South China Sea.

Duterte said Friday in Manila that Xi gave him a firm but friendly warning when they met in Beijing on Monday. The Philippine head of state said he told Xi his island nation intended to enforce an international arbitration ruling and begin searching for oil in a part of the South China Sea that Beijing claims as its exclusive property.

Paraphrasing his conversation with Xi, Duterte said he told the Chinese president: “We intend to drill [for] oil there. If it’s yours, well, that’s your view; but my view is, I can drill the oil, if there is some inside the bowels of the Earth, because it’s ours.”

Duterte’s speech Friday appeared to be intended to silence domestic critics who have accused him of failing to press the maritime territorial dispute.

He continued with his account of the meeting with Xi: “His response to me [was], ‘We’re friends. We don’t want to quarrel with you. We want to maintain the present warm relationship. But if you force the issue, we’ll go to war.’ ”

Account may upset China

Political observers said Duterte’s frank account of the conversation in the Chinese capital could infuriate China.

Ironically, the Philippine president’s remarks came on the same day that China and the Philippines opened talks on the mainland aimed at resolving their South China Sea dispute. The two sides said they agreed to seek “mutually acceptable approaches” to settling disputes that divided them.

The talks in Guiyang, in southwestern China, included discussion of the arbitration ruling last year that invalidated Beijing’s sweeping claims of South China Sea sovereignty. The Philippines’ ambassador to China, Jose Santiago Romana, said the delegates “touched on it [but] didn’t dwell on it.”

Officials meet in Beijing

And in Beijing Friday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met with a senior political figure from the Philippines, House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, and called for continued improvement of the two nations’ relations.

The ruling last July by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague voided China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea and declared China had infringed on the traditional rights of Philippine fishing boats in the area.

China has ignored the ruling and insisted that any maritime disputes in the area must be resolved bilaterally, by the countries directly concerned, not through international bodies.

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Police in Australia Probe Case of African Girl Held as ‘Sex Slave’

Australian police said on Friday they were investigating the case of a West African girl who said she had been held as a sex slave and repeatedly assaulted before she made an escape.

The 17-year-old from Guinea told investigators she was flown to Sydney via Paris in early April after a man in her home country offered her a job as a cleaner in Australia.

The pair traveled together from Guinea and upon arrival, the man drove her to a house police believed was in the Sydney area where she was “kept in a room and sexually assaulted by a number of men,” the police said in a statement.

The teenager, who was not named, escaped from the house in the early hours of April 27. She ran until she was picked up by a woman, who drove her to an asylum seeker center.

Police officers from the human trafficking and sex crime units were looking into how and when the girl arrived in Australia, as well as the alleged sexual assaults, the statement said.

A spokeswoman for the New South Wales police contacted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation could not give further information on the case.

Police are searching for the man who the girl traveled with and urged the woman who picked up the teenager to come forward.

Australia is home to an estimated 4,300 victims of forced labor, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index by Australia-based rights group Walk Free Foundation.

Globally, nearly 46 million live as slaves, forced to work, sold for sex, trapped in debt bondage or born into servitude, according to the group.