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Pakistan says it has refused a request by India’s President Ram Nath Kovind to fly through its airspace due to New Delhi’s recent “behaviour”.

The decision on Saturday comes amid heightened tensions between the two neighbours over the disputed region of Kashmir.

“The Indian president had sought permission to use Pakistan’s airspace to travel to Iceland but we decided not to permit him,” Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said in a statement, without giving further details.

“The decision has been taken in view of India’s behaviour.”

Such permissions are usually granted. There was no immediate comment by India.

Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir in full, but administer separate portions of it. The nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours have fought two of their three wars over the region, and their forces regularly exchange fire across a 740km Line of Control, which is the de facto border.

On August 5, India’s Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked a special constitutional status accorded to Indian-administered Kashmir, imposing a communications blackout and deploying thousands of troops to the Muslim-majority state, where a rebellion has been ongoing for 30 years.

Amid a strict lockdown, hundreds of activists and political leaders, including three former chief ministers, have been detained by Indian authorities in recent weeks.

Pakistan closed its airspace to Indian traffic after aerial dogfights in February raised tensions between Islamabad and New Delhi.

It reopened its skies for all civilian traffic in July, ending months of restrictions affecting major international routes.

Pakistan denies Indian president’s request to use airspace

Pakistan says it has refused a request by India’s President Ram Nath Kovind to fly through its airspace due to … Read more

Iran said Saturday it has fired up advanced centrifuges to boost its enriched uranium stockpiles, in the latest scaling back of commitments under a crumbling 2015 nuclear deal.

The country’s Atomic Energy Organisation said, however, that it would honour commitments to give UN inspectors access to monitor its nuclear sites.

Three European countries — Britain, France and Germany — have been engaged in talks to try to rescue the 2015 deal that gave Iran relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.

Tensions have been escalating between Iran and the United States since May last year when President Donald Trump pulled out of the accord and began reimposing sanctions that have crippled its economy.

READ ALSOUS ‘Not Surprised’ Iran Starting New Nuclear Centrifuges – Defence Secretary

The arch-foes were on the cusp of confrontation in June when Iran downed a US drone and Trump ordered retaliatory strikes before cancelling them at the last minute.

On Saturday, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation said it had activated 20 IR-4 and 20 IR-6 centrifuges as its latest step back in rolling back its commitments.

“The centrifuge machines, as they are engaged in research and development, will help with increasing the stockpile,” said the agency’s spokesman, Behrouz Kamalvandi.

“The capacity of these machines is many times more than the previous machines. This started as of yesterday (Friday),” he told a news conference in Tehran.

US ‘not surprised’ 

Under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran was allowed to enrich uranium using only first generation — or IR-1 — centrifuges.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said he was “not surprised that Iran has announced that it’s going to violate the JCPOA”.

“It’s no surprise that the Iranians are going to pursue what the Iranians have always intended to pursue,” he said in Paris.

Kamalvandi said Iran would allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to continue monitoring its nuclear programme, as it has done under the 2015 accord.

“Regarding the monitoring and accesses of the IAEA… so that everything is clear (Iran’s) commitments regarding transparency will be followed as before,” the spokesman said.

The European Union on Friday emphasised its reliance on the UN nuclear watchdog to monitor Iran’s activities as it voiced “great concern” over the country’s decision to roll back its commitments.

The IAEA in its latest report, on August 30, said it continues to verify compliance through cameras and on-site inspections.

But in an apparent hint at worries about access it said “ongoing interactions… require full and timely cooperation by Iran”.

 Europe ‘must hurry’ 

The latest move by Iran came after EU members Britain, France and Germany were unable to find a way to offset the impact of sanctions on the country before a September 7 deadline set by the Islamic republic.

“If Europe wants to do something, it must hurry, because returning to the situation before reducing commitments could take time,” Kamalvandi said.

Tehran has already hit back twice with countermeasures in response to the US withdrawal from the 2015 deal.

On July 1, Iran said it had increased its stockpile of enriched uranium to beyond the 300-kilogram maximum set by the deal.

A week later, it announced it had exceeded a 3.67-percent cap on the purity of its uranium stocks.

On Saturday, however, Iran indicated it had no plans to step up the enrichment of uranium to higher levels.

“We currently do not need 20 percent enrichment, and if we do so at some time, we will first increase the 4.5 percent stockpile and then act,” said Kalamvandi.

The announcement came on the eve of a visit to Iran by the acting head of the IAEA, Cornel Feruta.

Kamalvandi said Feruta would meet the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, Ali Akbar Salehi, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Nuclear: Iran Dares US, Fires Up Advanced Centrifuges

Iran said Saturday it has fired up advanced centrifuges to boost its enriched uranium stockpiles, in the latest scaling back … Read more

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Saturday  he was “not surprised” Iran had turned on advanced centrifuges to increase uranium stockpiles, a further breach of the 2015 nuclear deal which Washington pulled out of last year.

“I’m not surprised that Iran has announced that it’s going to violate the JCPOA,” Esper said in Paris, using the official name of the accord signed in Vienna four years ago.

“They had been violating it, they had violated the nuclear non-proliferation treaty for many years, so it’s no surprise that the Iranians are going to pursue what the Iranians have always intended to pursue,” he added, following talks with his French counterpart Florence Parly.

Esper was in France after visits to London and Stuttgart, Germany, to meet with NATO allies since taking up his post in July.

READ ALSO: Nuclear: Iran Dares US, Fires Up Advanced Centrifuges

Parly reiterated France’s calls for Tehran to “respect the Vienna accord”, adding “we will continue with all our diplomatic efforts in this direction. We have to continue.”

France and other EU nations have been trying to ease tensions in the Gulf region since President Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear deal and re-imposed sanctions that have hit the Iranian economy hard.

President Emmanuel Macron has overseen recent talks between French and Iranian officials, and even secured a potential opening with Trump at last month’s G7 summit, when he said he would be willing to meet with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani.

Esper said he had “productive discussions” with Parly, though neither indicated any progress had been made on de-escalating the conflict.

They also agreed to disagree on the US’s new “maritime security mission” in the Gulf, aimed at ensuring open passage for vessels through the Strait of Hormuz after a series of incidents, including ship seizures by Iranian forces.

France has declined to join the US initiative and instead sought out like-minded partners for its own surveillance of the strategic waterway.

“The goal is to rally as many partners and means of surveillance as possible to improve security in the Gulf, and there’s absolutely no competition between these initiatives,” Parly said.

Esper said the US effort “is about deterring bad behaviour.”

“Obviously our preference is that all countries join underneath this broader umbrella,” he said.

 China warning 

Esper reiterated that China along with Russia were the main threats as the US shapes its defence strategy for the coming years, and warned Europe about its own vulnerabilities to the two countries as well.

“China is seeking to gain influence around the world and throughout Europe, in many ways contrary to the interests of European states,” he said.

Yet the prospect of huge Chinese spending has opened doors to Beijing across the Indo-Pacific region and into Africa, with Italy also recently accepting billions of euros from China for a major port expansion.

“As countries increase their dependence on Chinese investment and trade, they become more susceptible to coercion and retribution when they act outside of Beijing’s wishes,” Esper said.

But he declined to confirm if the US defence shift toward China and Russia would lead to fewer American troops in Africa, where France is leading efforts against Islamic terrorist groups operating across large swaths of sub-Saharan territory.

“I’ve not made any decisions,” Esper said. “I’m looking at every theatre, and every command, to figure out how I can economise our forces, how I can optimise our assets.”

He praised France’s role, saying its was “directly benefiting the security of Europe,” and revealing that “earlier this week our French partners provided a lifesaving medical evacuation for a US soldier in Africa.”

Analysts have speculated the US may shift to a drone-based presence for Africa, and France has often sought American surveillance and drone strikes for operations by its 4,500-strong Barkhane counter-insurgency force.

AFP

US ‘Not Surprised’ Iran Starting New Nuclear Centrifuges – Defence Secretary

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Saturday  he was “not surprised” Iran had turned on advanced centrifuges to increase uranium … Read more

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement faces a major test this weekend as it tries to muster another huge crowd following criticism over a recent violent airport protest and as concerns mount over Beijing’s next move.

Ten weeks of protests have plunged the international finance hub into crisis with the communist mainland taking an increasingly hardline tone, including labelling the more violent protester actions “terrorist-like”.

Chinese state media have put out images of military personnel and armoured personnel carriers across the border in Shenzhen, while the United States has warned Beijing against sending in troops, a move many analysts say would be a reputational and economic disaster for China.

The nationalistic Global Times newspaper said there would not be a repeat of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, in which hundreds — or even thousands — are believed to have been killed, if Beijing moves to quash the protests.

“The incident in Hong Kong won’t be a repeat of the June 4th political incident in 1989,” it said, insisting the country now had more sophisticated approaches.

It was a rare reference to the bloody events, which are taboo in China.

Hong Kong’s protests were sparked by opposition to a plan to allow extraditions to the mainland, but have since morphed into a wider call for democratic rights in the semi-autonomous city.

Millions of people have hit the streets while clashes have broken out between police and small groups of hardcore protesters for ten consecutive weekends.

For most of that time, US President Donald Trump has taken a hands-off approach to the unrest but began speaking up this week, suggesting any potential trade deal with Beijing could be upended by a violent response from the mainland.

Speaking on Thursday, Trump urged Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to meet protesters and solve the crisis “humanely”.

If Xi sat down with the protesters, Trump said, “I’ll bet he’d work it out in 15 minutes.”

– Huge Sunday rally planned –

Activists are now planning to hold a major rally on Sunday, which is being billed as a “rational, non-violent” protest designed to show the movement still maintains broad public support after suffering a setback earlier in the week.

On Tuesday, protesters blocked passengers from boarding flights at the city’s airport and later assaulted two men they accused of being Chinese spies.

The shocking images damaged a movement that until then had largely only targeted the police or government institutions, and prompted some soul-searching among protesters.

China’s propaganda apparatus seized on the violence, with state-media churning out a deluge of condemnatory articles, pictures and videos.

Sunday’s rally is being put together by the Civil Human Rights Front, a protest group that advocates non-violence and has previously been the driving force behind record-breaking rallies in June and July that saw hundreds of thousands of people hit the streets.

“This coming Sunday should be another million-strong march. Hong Kong people can’t be defeated, Hong Kongers soldier on,” prominent pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo wrote on Facebook.

But the likelihood of renewed clashes over the weekend remains high.

On Saturday, activists have vowed to gather in Hung Hom and To Kwa Wan — two harbourside districts popular with mainland Chinese tourists — despite police banning their proposed marches.

And while police have given permission for protesters on Sunday to rally in a major park on the island, they have forbidden demonstrators from marching through the city.

Previous bans in the last few weeks have simply been ignored by demonstrators, leading to running battles with riot police.

Authorities say they have been compelled to ban recent rallies because of increasing violence used by hardcore protesters, who have often targeted police stations alone their marching routes with bricks, slingshots and Molotov cocktails.

– Trump urges peaceful resolution –

Hong Kong maintains freedoms unknown on the authoritarian mainland under a 50-year deal that came into effect when the former colony was handed back to China by Britain in 1997.

Many Hong Kongers say those liberties are being eroded and have hit the streets in huge numbers in recent years.

Yet their demands to elect their own leaders and halt sliding freedoms have fallen on deaf ears.

The current protests are the biggest threat to Beijing’s authority since the handover and as violence has escalated, party leaders have only hardened their tone.

In a new editorial on Friday, the staunchly nationalist state-run Global Times said it was “imperative then for the central government to take direct actions” if the “riots intensify”.

Hong Kong Protesters Face Crucial Weekend Test After Airport Setback

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement faces a major test this weekend as it tries to muster another huge crowd following criticism … Read more