Trump in Asia: A break from the past but uncertain results

Trump in Asia: A break from the past but uncertain results

In his travels across Asia, President Donald Trump offered himself as a sharp break from presidents past. He pushed regional leaders to reshape trade deals to America’s liking, opted against spotlighting human rights abuses and cranked up pressure on North Korea to end its nuclear program.

But for all the pageantry and promises unfurled during his five-nation, 12-day trip, Trump returns to Washington with few concrete accomplishments in hand and leaves uncertain Asian capitals in his wake.

The president pushed a go-it-alone trade policy yet reaffirmed traditional alliances. He cajoled and flattered leaders in Tokyo and Seoul without eliciting firm commitments for a more balanced economic relationship. He opened the door to negotiations with North Korea, but such diplomatic overtures were overshadowed by a tweet that derided dictator Kim Jong Un as “short and fat.”

And as regional allies nervously watched for Trump to define the new U.S. approach to the Pacific Rim, the president muddied his message. At a summit in Vietnam, he vowed to hold rising superpower China accountable for unfair business and trade practices. Yet in Beijing, the president said, “I don’t blame China” for a growing trade gap.

Trump’s unscripted decision to publicly denounce the policies of his predecessors while flattering his Asian hosts underlined his unconventional international approach, one centered on personal rapport and strategic commitments while paying little attention to the guardrails that have long defined U.S. foreign policy.

In the White House view, Trump accomplished what he set out to do: strengthen relationships with world leaders and lay the groundwork for more equitable economic relationships. The president soaked in the lavish welcome ceremonies at each stop and dubbed the trip “tremendously successful.”

“I think the fruits of our labor are going to be incredible, whether it’s the security of our nations, whether it’s security of the world or whether it’s trade,” Trump said before leaving the Philippines on Tuesday bound for home.

Trump said he’d have more to say about the trip with a “major statement” at the White House this week. But across the Pacific, Trump was reminded of the challenges awaiting him at home.

As Trump and Xi wrapped up their joint statements to the press in Beijing, they ignored shouted questions from American reporters in the Great Hall of the People. When they ducked backstage, Xi summoned his interpreter and posed an inquiry to Trump:

“Who is Roy Moore?” Xi asked.

That moment, described by two White House officials who weren’t authorized to speak publicly about private conversations, underscores Trump’s domestic challenges. He must grapple with the uncertain fate of his tax cut plan, face the threat of a government shutdown and decide whether to cut ties with Moore, the Republican candidate in Alabama’s special Senate race, who is accused of sexually assaulting underage girls decades ago.

For most of the trip, Trump was able to leave domestic affairs behind, though he did reignite the Russia firestorm by revealing that President Vladimir Putin had insisted to him in Vietnam that Moscow didn’t hack the 2016 election. Trump added: “And I believe — I really believe — that when he tells me that, he means it.” Trump later clarified that he was “with” the U.S. intelligence agencies that concluded Russia was behind the interference.

In Seoul, Trump delivered a sharp warning to North Korea, saying: “Do not underestimate us. And do not try us.” But he also, for the first time, signaled a willingness to negotiate with Kim, though he didn’t elaborate.

Just as vital as the message Trump delivered to Pyongyang was the one he sent to China, which supplies most of North Korea’s economic lifeblood. His message to Beijing: It’s time to do more.

At each stop on his trip, Trump both bemoaned the current state of U.S. trade relations in the region and announced new business deals, including more than $250 billion in China. But most of those agreements were older, already agreed-upon or only promises. In Vietnam, he scolded China for unfair trade practices and delivered a forceful advocacy for bilateral trade deals, only to have 11 nations strike a multinational agreement hours later.

Breaking with previous presidents, Trump largely abandoned publicly pressing foreign leaders on human rights. He said nothing about restrictions on civil liberties or press freedoms in China and Vietnam and, most notably, did not rebuke Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for overseeing a violent drug war that features extrajudicial killings.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called Trump’s trip a “flop.”

“He seemed far more interested in pomp and circumstance — red carpets, fancy meals, and the flattery of foreign leaders — than advancing American interests in a region that is increasingly looking to China for leadership,” Schumer, D-N.Y., said Monday. “And after the President’s performance, those countries are going to turn more to China. At least they have strength and direction, even though China will take advantage of them for sure as they have taken advantage of us.

Ever the showman, Trump reveled in the imagery of the trip, including a sunset private tour of Beijing’s Forbidden City, golf with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and lavish state dinners. But he was denied the dramatic moment he desired.

Trump planned a secret visit to the demilitarized zone at the heavily fortified Korean border. But with Marine One just five minutes away, heavy fog forced his helicopter to turn around.

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Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington and Zeke Miller contributed to this report from Washington.

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Follow Lemire on Twitter at http://twitter.com/@JonLemire and Colvin at http://twitter.com/@ColvinJ

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Iran’s death toll climbs to 530 after earthquake near Iran-Iraq border

Iran’s death toll climbs to 530 after earthquake near Iran-Iraq border

The death toll in Iran has climbed to 530 after a powerful earthquake struck the Iran and Iraq border region Sunday, Iran’s state-run news agency said.

Over 7,400 others in Iran were injured, the IRNA news agency said.

“People have been scared” after the magnitude-7.3 quake, Hamzeh Zarei, speaking in Farsi, told ABC News in Iran.

“People do not dare to go back home, so they have camped around the city and they are sleeping in the tents,” he said. “And it is very cold. But, being afraid of their lives, scared of what happened last night, they all stayed here outside.”

Zarei said people were in need off tents and blankets and he said people “urgently needed drinking water.”

Rescuers today dug through debris from the collapsed buildings.

Hassan Rouhani, president of Iran, went to see the damage today in Kermanshah, which appeared to be the most affected area, The Associated Press said.

Rouhani said, “This was a pain for all Iranians,” according to a statement on the presidency’s website, the AP said. “Representing the nation of Iran, I offer my condolences to the people of Kermanshah, and tell them that all of us are behind Kermanshah.”

The quake hit Iran much harder than Iraq. Seven deaths and 535 injuries were reported in Iraq, the Interior Ministry said, according to the AP.

Amina Mohammed said she and her sons fled their home in Darbandikhan, Iraq, as the house fell apart, the AP reported.

“I screamed to God and it must have been him who stopped the stairs from entirely collapsing on us,” she said, according to the AP.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Belgian divers identify sunken German WWI U-boat

Belgian divers identify sunken German WWI U-boat

Belgian authorities have identified a German submarine that went missing over a century ago during World War I.

Submarines were an integral part of the 1914-1918 war and Germany countered Britain’s surface fleet in the Atlantic and North Sea with an increasing reliance on U-boats.

One of those was the UB-29, which went missing in 1916. Belgian divers investigated the submarine’s wreck in a busy shipping lane off the coast of Belgium earlier this year, and officials were able to identify it after finding the tag of the U-boat.

Historical records show that UB-29 departed on its final mission on 27 November 1916 with 22 German sailors on board.

German Ambassador Ruddier Ludeking said his nation wanted the submarine and the 22 sailors’ bodies to remain in their underwater grave.

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Death toll from Syrian market airstrikes climbs to 61

Death toll from Syrian market airstrikes climbs to 61

Syrian rescue workers on Tuesday continued their search for victims still under the rubble a day after airstrikes hit a busy market in a rebel-held town in the country’s north, killing at least 61 people, according to a monitoring group and rescuers.

According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, there were at least three airstrikes on the market in the town of Atareb on Monday — those killed included six women, five children and three police officers. The Observatory’s director, Rami Abdurrahman, said the rest were male civilians.

The Syrian Civil Defense search-and-rescue volunteers, known as the White Helmets, told The Associated Press they gave up hope of finding more survivors after dawn, though recovery efforts continued. They said the death toll had climbed to at least 61 on Tuesday; 90 people were injured.

Atareb and the countryside around it remain outside the control of the government in Damascus. Government forces retook the nearby city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest, following a ferocious assault on the rebel-held neighborhoods there in 2015.

The town population swelled with the arrival of Syrians who fled from fighting elsewhere in the country’s north. Atarab’s market drew not just the townspeople but also shoppers from the countryside and nearby villages.

“You can see the body fragments in the rubble,” said Yasser Hmeish, a medical technician at the scene. “This morning I saw civilians and rescue workers trying to lift the cement chunks to find the missing.”

“There were restaurants, mobile phone shops, butchers: it was a market in the full sense of the word,” Hmeish added. “It’s been completely destroyed.” Videos from the scene show a totally collapsed building amid other smaller buildings, and rescuers stepping over the rubble to get to the areas where they pull out survivors.

The airstrikes ripped through the market, crushed buildings and damaged an adjacent traffic police station. Survivors found limbs in the rubble and bodies with heads crushed by the pressure of the blasts.

The Observatory said it couldn’t determine whether Russia or the Syrian government was behind the attack. The opposition Syrian National Coalition accused Russia, Syrian President Bashar Assad’ chief military backer.

The attack was the latest breach in a “de-escalation” agreement mediated by Russia that sought to protect the civilian population but that has largely proven unenforceable.

Also Tuesday, Syria’s government called on the United States to withdraw its forces from the country now that the fight against the Islamic State group is nearly over. The Foreign Ministry statement, carried by state-run media, said the presence of U.S troops will not force a political solution to the conflict.

The comments came a day after U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said “we are not going to just walk away right now” before the U.N-backed political process yields results.

The United States “will not force a solution through military pressure but instead, (it) will prolong the crisis and make it more complicated,” the ministry said.

U.S troops and advisers are supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in their fight against Islamic State militants in northern and eastern Syria. Kurdish officials want the Americans to remain in the country to help prevent clashes with pro-government forces, which are also battling IS.

The SDF and Syrian government troops are racing for control of territories previously controlled by IS in eastern Syria. Syrian troops and allied militias have seized the last town near the border with Iraq, Boukamal, before losing it hours later in an IS counteroffensive. Meanwhile, SDF continues to battle IS militants on the opposite side of the river.

U.S. officials say they are maintaining contacts with their Russian counterparts to ensure no friction occurs between the two forces. Russia is a key ally of President Bashar Assad, along with Iranian-backed militias.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said there was no agreement with the U.S. to have Iranian or pro-Iranian forces withdraw from areas near the Syrian border with Israel.

The U.S. is seeking a deal to push them away from the frontier with its ally Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that his country would carry out operations inside Syria according to its “security needs.”

Israel has largely stayed on the sidelines of the Syrian war, but its officials have said they will not tolerate Iranian military presence in Syria. They have acknowledged carrying out dozens of airstrikes on suspected Iranian weapons shipments to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Israel is also suspected of striking Syrian military installations.

Syria’s civil war, now in its seventh year, has killed at least 400,000 people and displaced 11 million — half of Syria’s pre-war population.

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Associated Press Writers Sarah El Deeb in Beirut and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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Military outside Zimbabwe capital after army chief’s threat

Military outside Zimbabwe capital after army chief’s threat

Zimbabwe was on edge Tuesday as armored personnel carriers were seen outside the capital a day after the army commander threatened to “step in” to calm political tensions over the president’s firing of his deputy, and the ruling party accused the commander of “treasonable conduct.”

The Associated Press saw three armored personnel carriers with several soldiers in a convoy on a road heading toward an army barracks just outside the capital, Harare.

While it is routine for armored personnel carriers to move along that route, the timing heightened unease in this southern African country that for the first time is seeing an open rift between the military and 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe. The military has been a key pillar of Mugabe’s power since independence from white minority rule in 1980.

Mugabe last week fired Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and accused him of plotting to take power, including through witchcraft. Mnangagwa, who enjoyed the backing of the military and was once seen as a potential successor to Mugabe, fled the country and said he and his family had been threatened. Over 100 senior officials allegedly supporting him have been listed for disciplinary measures by a faction associated with Mugabe’s wife, Grace Mugabe.

The first lady, whose political profile has risen in the past few years, now appears positioned to replace Mnangagwa at a special conference of the ruling party in December, leading many in Zimbabwe to suspect that she could succeed her husband as president.

On Monday, army commander Constantino Chiwenga issued an unprecedented statement saying purges against senior ruling ZANU-PF party officials linked to the 1970s liberation war should end “forthwith.”

“We must remind those behind the current treacherous shenanigans that when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in,” the army commander said.

The state-run broadcaster did not report on his statement.

The ruling party’s youth league, aligned to the first lady, on Tuesday criticized the army commander’s comments, saying youth were “ready to die for Mugabe.” The army spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

On Tuesday night, the ruling party issued a statement accusing the army commander of “treasonable conduct,” saying his comments were “clearly calculated to disturb national peace and stability” and were “meant to incite insurrection.” It was not clear whether the commander still had his post.

State broadcaster Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation read out part of the ruling party statement late in the nightly news, which was led by a report on regional tourism.

Elsewhere, the capital remained calm.

Mugabe in the past has warned military commanders from interfering in ZANU-PF succession politics. “Politics shall always lead the gun, and not the gun politics. Otherwise it will be a coup,” he told supporters in July.

Frustration has been growing in once-prosperous Zimbabwe as the economy collapses under Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state. The country was shaken last year by the biggest anti-government protests in a decade, and Mugabe’s appointment of a minister for cybersecurity last month was criticized by activists as a crackdown on social media users.

The arrest earlier this month of a 25-year-old U.S. citizen who was charged with subversion and accused of insulting Mugabe as a “sick man” on Twitter was called the first since the cybersecurity ministry was created.

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This version corrects to armored personnel carriers.

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Rouhani vows action over quake collapses

Rouhani vows action over quake collapses

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has vowed to “find the culprits” responsible for buildings collapsing in a 7.3-magnitude earthquake on Sunday.

He suggested that government-built buildings had collapsed while privately-built ones remained standing.

As he spoke in the worst-affected city, Sarpol-e Zahab, he gestured to two buildings, one of which had collapsed while the other had not.

More than 400 people were killed and close to 8,000 injured in the quake.

Although an earlier report from the state news agency Irna said 530 people had died, the death toll was later revised downward, to 432. But many more people are thought to have died and been buried without death certificates, meaning they are not included in the official figures.

The government is scrambling to get aid to Kermanshah province in the west of the country, where hundreds of homes were destroyed and people have spent two nights outdoors in the cold.

President Rouhani visited the region on Tuesday – a national day of mourning – and made an address that was broadcast live on TV.

He said the government would lend and give money to those left homeless, and hold accountable anyone found not to have upheld building standards.

“Who is to be blamed?” he asked.

“These are the issues that we should follow, we should find the culprits and people are waiting for us to introduce the culprits.

“We will do that, we will do that.”

A photograph circulating on social media shows an unaffected private building next to a collapsed building that was part of the Mehr project, a scheme created by previous President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to build two million housing units for people on low incomes.

Mehr is Farsi for kindness, and under the scheme hundreds of homes were built in Sarpol-e Zahab.

“Pay attention, please, that some of these houses are very new, some of them have been built by the government and they are not very old,” Mr Rouhani said.

“However, you can see that some buildings collapsed. How could that happen?”

But Maj Gen Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), told state TV: “Newly constructed buildings… held up well, but the old houses built with earth were totally destroyed.”

Mansoureh Bagheri, an Iran-based official with the Red Crescent Society, told the BBC about 12,000 residential buildings had “totally collapsed”.

One aid agency said 70,000 people needed shelter after the quake, which struck at 21:18 local time (18:18 GMT) on Sunday, about 30km (19 miles) south of Darbandikhan in Iraq, near the north-eastern border with Iran.


Government’s slow response criticised

Analysis by Jiyar Gol, BBC Persian

Forty-eight hours after the earthquake, thousands of people complain that still they have no tents, food or water. They complain about the lack of co-ordination between security forces and aid agencies. Although many soldiers showed up, they didn’t have enough ambulances or proper machinery to move rubble.

More than 1,900 Kurdish mountain villages have been affected. The villagers say no one from the government has come to their rescue but ordinary Iranians from neighbouring cities and provinces have started sending aid.

Most of the government-sponsored affordable housing complexes for the poor were damaged severely, and many died inside. Even the newly-built hospital in Sarpol-e-Zahab was completely destroyed.

President Rouhani brought attention to this, saying those responsible for the projects – initiated under his predecessor’s presidency – must be held accountable. But his opponents claim Mr Rouhani’s aim is to divert attention from his own government’s slow response to the victims.


Tremors were felt as far away as Turkey, Israel and Kuwait. The earthquake was the deadliest of 2017, and one of the year’s strongest.

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Although the quake hit both Iran and Iraq, the Iraqi side of the border is much more sparsely populated. Several hundred people were injured in Iraq, and 10 people died.

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Syria market strikes ‘kill more than 50’

Syria market strikes ‘kill more than 50’

At least 53 people are reported to have been killed in air strikes on a rebel-held town in northern Syria.

A market was hit, with video on social media showing widespread destruction. Rubble covers the streets and panicked civilians are seen carrying away the injured.

Eyewitnesses say there were three separate strikes.

It is not clear whether the strike was carried out by Syrian government warplanes or those of its ally Russia.

The town is located in an area of Aleppo province that is part of a “de-escalation zone” established earlier this year by Russia and Iran – which support the Syrian government – and Turkey, which backs the rebels.

The zones are credited for creating a drop in violence, but intermittent clashes have continued while humanitarian access is minimal.

The area is largely held by opposition forces and a jihadist group formerly affiliated to Al-Qaeda.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the country’s civil war through a network of sources on the ground, said children were among those killed.

Both the Observatory, and The Syria Civil Defence, whose rescue workers are also known as the White Helmets, gave the death toll as 53.

A journalist for the pro-opposition news website Zaman Al Wasl, Ahmed Primo, tweeted that three Russian warplanes had fired missiles at the market.

The entire market, which contained more than 100 shops, was destroyed, he said.

Photographs published by AFP news agency showed the aftermath of the attack, including the bodies of three young children laid out in a street, partly covered by plastic sheets and a sack.

Other images showed rescue workers pulling victims and survivors from the rubble of destroyed buildings.

Atareb is home to tens of thousands of Syrians who have been displaced by fighting that is believed to have left at least 400,000 people dead since 2011.

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Saudi coalition ‘to reopen Yemen ports’

Saudi coalition ‘to reopen Yemen ports’

A Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen is to begin reopening some air and sea ports, a week after closing them in response to a missile attack on Riyadh.

Ports controlled by Yemen’s government, which the coalition is backing in the civil war, will reopen within 24 hours, the Saudi mission to the UN announced.

Aid deliveries to rebel-held ports will resume once the UN addresses concerns about alleged weapons smuggling.

The coalition has faced widespread criticism for tightening its blockade.

The UN’s aid chief warned that the restrictions could trigger “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims”.

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More than 8,670 people – 60% of them civilians – have been killed and 49,960 injured in Yemen since the coalition intervened in the war between forces loyal to President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the rebel Houthi movement in 2015, according to the UN.

The conflict has also left 20.7 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, created the world’s largest food security emergency, and led to a cholera outbreak that is believed to have affected 913,000 people and caused 2,196 deaths.

The coalition announced the “temporary closure” of Yemen’s air, land and sea borders on 6 November, two days after a ballistic missile fired from rebel-controlled territory was intercepted over Riyadh’s King Khaled International Airport.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accused Iran of supplying the missile to the Houthis, which he said amounted to an act of “direct military aggression”.

But Iranian President Hassan Rouhani denied arming the rebels and said the missile attack was a “reaction” by Yemenis to coalition air strikes.

The coalition said it would continue to allow aid to enter Yemen under strict vetting procedures, but the UN said on Saturday that no permits had been received for any humanitarian flights to and from Yemen or for the World Food Programme’s boat to Aden.

The WFP warned that a protracted delay in the delivery of food supplies would affect six million vulnerable people, and that the depletion of nutrition supplies would deprive 27,000 malnourished children of the required treatment.

The World Health Organisation meanwhile said its medical supplies were running critically low, and that at least one million children under the age of one would be at risk of diseases including polio and measles if vaccine deliveries were blocked.

On Monday, the Saudi mission to the UN said the coalition was taking “all possible measures” to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people and that steps were being taken to start the process of reopening air and sea ports.

“The first step in this process will be taken within the next 24 hours and involves the reopening of all ports in areas controlled by the government of Yemen, including Aden, Mukalla and Mocha.”

It added that the coalition had asked the UN to send a team of experts to Riyadh to review the organisation’s procedures “to enhance and deliver a more robust verification and inspection mechanism aimed at facilitating the flow of humanitarian and commercial shipments while preventing the smuggling of weapons, ammunition, missile parts and cash”.

The head of the rebel Presidency Council, Saleh al-Sammad, said on Monday that with the tightening of the blockade the coalition had “shut down all doors for peace and dialogue”, while a rebel military commander threatened on Sunday to attack warships and oil tankers from coalition countries in retaliation.

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PM ‘will return to Lebanon in days’

PM ‘will return to Lebanon in days’

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri says he will return home “in days” to formally submit his resignation.

Mr Hariri spoke to Future TV from Riyadh, his first public remarks since he announced he was stepping down last week.

His cabinet allies say he is being held captive, but Mr Hariri denied this.

He has blamed the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement for his resignation, citing concerns over his and his family’s safety.

The US and UK have warned other countries not to use Lebanon for proxy conflicts.

Mr Hariri, a Sunni leader and businessman, was nominated to form Lebanon’s government in November 2016.

“I have resigned. I am going to Lebanon very soon and I will resign in the constitutional manner,” he said in the TV interview.

Under Lebanese law the prime minister has to submit his resignation to the president, who must accept it for it to take effect.

However, Mr Hariri also held out the prospect that he might reconsider resigning if Hezbollah stopped intervening in neighbouring countries.

“If we want to go back on the resignation, we have to return to the policy of distancing ourselves” from regional conflicts,” he said, according to the Associated Press.

“I am not against Hezbollah as a party, I have a problem with Hezbollah destroying the country,” he said.

The main problem for the region, he said, was “Iran interfering in Arab states”.

‘Wake-up call’

A sombre Mr Hariri recognised that he did not resign in the “usual way” but said he wanted to give his country a “positive shock”.

“My resignation came as a wake-up call for Lebanon,” he said.

Iran and Hezbollah have accused Saudi Arabia of holding Mr Hariri hostage.

But Mr Hariri insisted that he was free to travel as he pleased in the country. “I am free here. If I want to travel tomorrow, I will,” he said.

Observers noted the journalist who interviewed Mr Hariri made an effort to demonstrate that the event was live, rather than pre-recorded, though there were several moments which raised suspicions about the conditions under which the interview was held, the Associated Press reported.

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Briton ‘could get diplomatic protection’

Briton ‘could get diplomatic protection’

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Offering a British-Iranian mother in prison in Iran diplomatic protection is “one of the options” being considered in the case, Downing Street has said.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested during a visit to Iran in April 2016 and accused of trying to overthrow the regime there – a charge she denies.

Her husband Richard Ratcliffe has criticised the UK’s response and said it could offer diplomatic protection.

Number 10 said it was working to find the “most beneficial” course of action.

In a phone call, Mr Ratcliffe asked Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to consider diplomatic protection for his wife, which under international law is a way for a state to take diplomatic action on behalf of a national.

Taking such a measure would effectively escalate the case from an individual consular matter to a formal legal dispute between Britain and Iran, BBC diplomatic correspondent James Landale said.

Asked about the possibility, Downing Street said it was an option, adding: “I think what we need to look at is what will work best and what can be most beneficial in this case.”

The government “will look” at Mr Ratcliffe’s comments “very closely” and decide the “best course of action to secure her release”, the Number 10 spokesman added.

Mr Johnson and fellow cabinet minister Michael Gove have been accused of bungling the UK’s handling of the case.

The foreign secretary told MPs last week that he believed Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been teaching in Iran before she was arrested, while Mr Gove told the BBC he did not know what Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been doing in Iran.

Her family have always maintained she was on holiday with her daughter.

Asked about the government’s official position, Downing Street said: “The government’s position on this is clear. She was there on holiday. It wasn’t for any other purpose.

“The foreign secretary reiterated that in his conversation with the Iranian foreign minister last week.”

The spokesman said Prime Minister Theresa May had been involved in Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case “from the outset” and was treating it as “a priority”.

She had raised it with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on at least two occasions, he added.

What is ‘diplomatic protection’?

By James Landale, BBC diplomatic correspondent

When a British citizen is jailed overseas, they normally get basic consular help from the local embassy.

This could include anything from contacting family to legal support to medical help. But if the UK were assert its diplomatic protection over a British citizen, that would change things significantly.

This would be a signal that the UK is no longer treating the case as a consular matter but a formal, legal dispute between Britain and that country.

That’s because diplomatic protection is a mechanism under international law that a state can use to help one its nationals whose rights have been breached in another country.

The broad legal principle is that British diplomats would no longer be representing the interests of a citizen but the interests of their state.

Speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme earlier, Mr Ratcliffe said he had written to the Foreign Office following remarks made by Mr Gove.

He said Mr Johnson “did promise to consider whether she’ll be eligible for diplomatic protection” which “gives a different push” to what the government can do for his wife.

“I’m reassured that it is the position of the government,” Mr Ratcliffe said.

Asked about his conversation with Mr Ratcliffe, Mr Johnson told the BBC Foreign Office officials were working “very, very hard” on the case.

“On Iran – and on consular cases generally – they are all very sensitive and I think the key thing to understand is that we are working very, very hard and intensively and impartially on all those cases,” he added.

Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe – who has a three-year-old daughter, who is being cared for by family in Iran – was arrested and jailed in Iran in April 2016.

The full details of the allegations against her have never been made fully public.

But speaking in Westminster on 1 November, Mr Johnson appeared to contradict her own account when he wrongly said she had been training journalists.

Four days later, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was recalled to court in Iran and Mr Johnson’s remark cited as evidence against her, prompting fears that her five-year sentence could be extended.

Labour have since called for the foreign secretary’s resignation, but Mr Ratcliffe has said he believes it is not in his wife’s interests for anyone to resign.

‘Violation of rights’

The UK government’s policy for dual British nationals arrested abroad, is that UK authorities “won’t get involved if someone’s arrested in a country for which they hold a valid passport, unless there’s a special humanitarian reason to do so”.

Iran, however, does not recognise dual nationality, and so does not allow consular assistance from the foreign office or the British embassy.

Should Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe be granted diplomatic protection, the UK government could make representations at a political and diplomatic level instead.

Mr Ratcliffe says a call for his wife’s release from the United Nations last month had not been endorsed by government.

In October, José Antonio Guevara Bermúdez, chair-rapporteur of the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and Ms Asma Jahangir, special rapporteur on human rights for Iran, called for Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s immediate release.

She had been “deprived of her liberty”, they said.

“The UK didn’t endorse that call,” Mr Ratcliffe said. “It hasn’t ever acknowledged a violation of her rights, which I find staggering.”

But he still hopes his family will be reunited by the end of the year.

“I think the best chance Nazanin has of coming home this side of Christmas is all of the weight of the Foreign Office and the foreign secretary being focused on doing that,” he said.

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