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Fears for Russia probe as Trump fires US Attorney General Jeff Sessions

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Washington: US Attorney General Jeff Sessions was fired by Donald Trump on Wednesday, casting a cloud over the Russia investigation that has dogged the White House, a day after Republicans lost control over the lower house of Congress.

The move capped more than a year of bitter criticism by the president over his legal advisor’s decision to recuse himself from the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, paving the way for the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

In announcing the resignation in a tweet that thanked the former Alabama senator “for his service” — Trump right away named as acting attorney general Sessions’ chief of staff Matthew Whitaker.

That set off immediate alarm bells: Whitaker has been overtly critical of the broad scope granted to Mueller’s team to probe beyond allegations Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia in 2016, into other ties between Trump, his family and aides, and Russia — an investigation the president calls a “witch hunt.”

In an op-ed in August last year he publicly urged Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — who oversees the probe — to “limit the scope of his investigation to the four corners of the order appointing him special counsel.”

As acting attorney general, Whitaker now has the power to wrest oversight away from Rosenstein, and take charge himself.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer immediately called on Whitaker to recuse himself from the probe as his predecessor had, “given his previous comments advocating defunding and imposing limitations” on it.

Schumer and other leading Democrats were joined in their call for an unhampered probe by Republican Mitt Romney, a former presidential candidate and frequent Trump critic who won a US Senate seat in Tuesday’s midterm.

Thanking Sessions for his service, Romney said that it was “imperative that the important work of the Justice Department continues, and that the Mueller investigation proceeds to its conclusion unimpeded.”

Whitaker himself meanwhile offered little clue about his intentions in a bland statement to reporters thanking Trump for his appointment, praising his former boss as a “dedicated public servant” and adding he would work to leading a department that conformed to the “highest ethical standards.”

Sessions was the first casualty of a cabinet shake-up that had been expected from Trump following the midterm elections.

But his departure was anticipated since early this year, after he endured withering and repeated criticism from the president over the legally troubled ban on Muslim travellers Trump sought when he came into office, and over the Mueller probe.

“At your request, I am submitting my resignation,” Sessions said in the first line of a letter addressed to Trump, released by the Department of Justice.


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CIA concludes Saudi Crown Prince behind Khashoggi’s killing: report

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Washington: The US Central Intelligence Agency has concluded Saudi’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was behind the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, The Washington Post reported, citing people close to the matter.

The US assessment directly contradicts the conclusions of a Saudi prosecutor one day prior, which exonerated the prince of involvement in the brutal murder.

According to the CIA findings, 15 Saudi agents flew on government aircraft to Istanbul and assassinated Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate, the Post said. Queried by AFP, the CIA declined to comment.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, had gone to the consulate to obtain documents necessary to marry his Turkish fiancee.

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly changed its official narrative of the October 2 murder, first denying any knowledge of Khashoggi’s whereabouts and later saying he was killed when an argument degenerated into a fistfight. In the latest version presented by the Saudi prosecutor on Thursday, a 15-member squad was formed to bring Khashoggi back from Istanbul “by means of persuasion” — but instead ended up killing the journalist and dismembering his body in a “rogue” operation.

The CIA scrubbed multiple intelligence sources, the Post said, among them a phone call between the prince’s brother — the Saudi ambassador to the United States — and Khashoggi. The ambassador reportedly told the late journalist that he would be safe to go to the consulate in Istanbul and get the papers he needed.

The US intelligence agency also said in determining the Crown Prince’s role it considered him a “de facto ruler” in Saudi Arabia: “The accepted position is that there is no way this happened without him being aware or involved,” the Post quoted an official as saying.

That official dubbed Prince Mohammed a “good technocrat” — but also someone unpredictable who “goes from zero to 60, doesn’t seem to understand that there are some things you can’t do.”

The CIA conclusions threaten to further fray relations between Washington and key ally Riyadh, which has sought to end discussion of Khashoggi’s murder and rejected calls for an international investigation.

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China offers Myanmar support over Rohingya issue after US rebuke

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Beijing: China supports the Myanmar government`s efforts to protect domestic stability and approach to resolving the Rohingya issue, Premier Li Keqiang told the country`s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, after US Vice President Mike Pence offered a strong rebuke.

Pence voiced Washington`s strongest condemnation yet of Myanmar`s treatment of Rohingya Muslims, telling Suu Kyi that “persecution” by her country`s army was “without excuse”.

Meeting Suu Kyi on the sidelines of a Southeast Asian summit in Singapore, Li said China attaches great importance to its ties with Myanmar and would build on their tradition of friendship, China`s Foreign Ministry said.

“The Chinese side supports Myanmar`s efforts in maintaining its domestic stability, and supports Myanmar and Bangladesh appropriately resolving the Rakhine state issue via dialogue and consultation,” the ministry cited Li as saying.

China is “willing to provide the relevant parties with necessary support in this regard”, he added, without elaborating.

More than 700,000 Rohingya refugees crossed into Bangladesh from western Myanmar`s Rakhine state, U.N. agencies say, after Rohingya insurgent attacks on Myanmar security forces in August 2017 triggered a sweeping military crackdown.

The two countries agreed on Oct. 30 to begin returning refugees to Myanmar in mid-November. The U.N. refugee agency has said conditions in Rakhine are “not yet conducive for returns”.

China has close relations with Myanmar, and backs what Myanmar officials have called a legitimate counter-insurgency operation in Rakhine.

China`s statement cited Suu Kyi as expressing thanks to China for the many times it has extended help to Myanmar, especially the constant understanding and support for the Myanmar peace process and the Rakhine issue.

A plan to begin repatriating hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees to Myanmar stalled , amid protests by refugees at camps in Bangladesh and recriminations between the officials in both countries.

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US votes against UN censure of Israel over Golan

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UNITED NATIONS: For the first time, the United States voted against an annual UN resolution condemning Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, dropping its practice of abstaining in the vote.

The non-binding resolution was adopted in a General Assembly committee by a vote of 151 to 2, with the United States and Israel the only two countries opposing the measure.

US Ambassador Nikki Haley called the resolution “useless” and “plainly biased against Israel,” citing concerns about Iran’s military role in Syria to oppose the measure.

“Further, the atrocities the Syrian regime continues to commit prove its lack of fitness to govern anyone. The destructive influence of the Iranian regime inside Syria presents major threats to international security,” she said in a statement on the eve of the vote.

Israel seized control of much of the Golan Heights from Syria in a 1967 war and later annexed it, in moves never recognized by the international community.

The resolution declares that the Israeli decision to occupy and annex the Golan was “null and void,” and calls on Israel to rescind that decision.

Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon applauded the US shift, which he said was “another testament to the strong cooperation between the two countries.” The administration of President Donald Trump has taken a strong pro-Israeli stance, defying UN resolutions by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and cutting aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

US ambassador to Israel David Friedman told an Israeli newspaper in September that he expected the annexed Golan Heights to remain under Israeli control “forever,” and mentioned the possibility of US official recognition of the Golan as Israeli territory.

During a visit to Israel in August, US National Security Advisor John Bolton said there were no discussions on such recognition.

Israel and Syria, which has been embroiled in conflict since 2011, are still technically at war.

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