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  • US drops Cuba from terror blacklist in landmark move

    FILE – US President Barack Obama in a meeting with US Attorney General Loretta Lynch in the Oval Office of the White House on May 29, 2015, in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN

    The United States dropped Cuba from its blacklist as a state sponsor of terrorism on Friday, in a landmark move aimed at paving the way towards normalizing ties frozen for half a century.

    The decision means Cuba will now have better access to US banking facilities and American aid, and a ban on arms exports and sales is also lifted.

    It also wipes out an international stigma which Havana — on the blacklist since 1982 — has long contended was groundless and unfair.

    US President Barack Obama had notified Congress earlier this year that he intended to remove Havana from the list, giving lawmakers 45 days to object, which elapsed Friday.

    Now Secretary of State John Kerry “has made the final decision to rescind Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, effective today, May 29, 2015,” the State Department said in a statement.

    “The rescission of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism reflects our assessment that Cuba meets the statutory criteria for rescission,” the statement said.

    “While the United States has significant concerns and disagreements with a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions, these fall outside the criteria relevant to the rescission of a state sponsor of terrorism designation.”

    It is just the latest ground-breaking development in a fast-moving rapprochement between the Cold War foes, after Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro agreed in December to restore relations that have languished in the doldrums since 1961.

    Obama paid a surprise visit on Thursday to a Miami religious shrine popular with Cuban exiles to “honor the sacrifices that Cuban-Americans have made in their pursuit of liberty and opportunity, as well as their extraordinary contributions to our country,” a White House spokeswoman said.

    The visit had special significance, recognizing the instrumental role of the Catholic church and Pope Francis’s successful intervention in improving ties between Havana and Washington.

    Sticking points remain

    Obama has already made it easier for 12 categories of Americans to visit the communist island, no longer requiring them to apply for a license before traveling.

    But regular tourism remains off-limits. Trips are limited to specific visits including education, sports, culture or journalism.

    Those allowed to visit Cuba can bring back home $100 worth of cigars or rum, and pay for purchases on the islands with credit cards.

    US companies are now allowed to invest in Cuba’s tiny but growing private sector, which emerged under modest economic reforms launched by Castro.

    In March, the two countries re-established a direct telephone link and the US Treasury Department removed sanctions on some 60 individuals, shipping companies and trading firms.

    So far teams from the two countries have met four times seeking to work out the terms for re-opening their embassies.

    Officials say the talks have made progress, but nothing concrete was announced at the last round, held in Washington a week ago, and sticking points remain.

    The communist authorities in Havana have been particularly angered by US democracy programs and have so far not met demands that American diplomats be allowed to meet freely with dissidents.

    The island is still subject to a US trade embargo put in place in 1962, which Obama has called on Congress to lift.

    Friday’s decision means only Iran, Sudan and Syria remain on the State Department’s blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism.

    The diplomatic path has been advancing since December, and Castro and Obama also held a historic meeting in Panama in April on the sidelines of a regional summit.

    “For 55 years we tried using isolation to bring about change in Cuba,” Bernadette Meehan, National Security Council spokeswoman, wrote on a White House blog.

    “But by isolating Cuba from the United States we isolated the United States from the Cuban people and, increasingly, the rest of the world.”

  • Rookie Pinoy Backpacker’s Guide: Wisdom from experienced Pinoy backpackers  
    “I’m writing an article on backpacking.I sent you some questions,” I messaged. "Ok. I'll send it later! I'm in a mountain now. Haha,” he replied.    This conversation is exactly why I thought I’d ask my backpacker friends to help me put this Rookie Pinoy Backpacker’s Guide. 
  • Pope praises ‘heroism’ of parents who decided not to abort

    FILE – Pope Francis arrives for an audience with a group of children in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican, Monday, May 11, 2015. (L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

    VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has praised the “heroism” of parents of gravely ill children who chose not to abort.

    Francis met for nearly an hour with a group of severely ill children and their parents Friday in the Vatican hotel chapel. The families are participating in a pilgrimage to the shrines at Lourdes and Loreto.

    The Vatican said Francis spent time with each child, who ranged in age from two to 14. The father of one child, Andrea Maria, told Francis how doctors had advised his wife to have an abortion because of a difficult pregnancy and the child’s ailments but that they refused.

    A Vatican statement of the closed meeting said Francis expressed his admiration for their courage, saying abortion is a false solution and that such parents show “heroism.”

  • Sulu PNP headquarters bombed

    Two bombs exploded in the Philippine National Police Headquarters in Jolo, Sulu, evening of May 29.

    In a DZMM radio report, 17 were left wounded — 10 policemen and 7 civilians.

    The first explosion occurred at 7:20 p.m. inside a mosque near the camp, followed by a second explosion 10 minutes later.

  • IS claims suicide bombing on Shiite mosque in Saudi, 4 dead

    RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — A suicide bomber disguised as a woman blew himself up in the parking lot of a Shiite mosque during Friday prayers, killing four people in the second such attack in as many weeks claimed by the Islamic State group.

    The latest attack and a suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque that killed 21 people last Friday appeared aimed at fanning sectarianism and destabilizing the kingdom. Both attacks took place in the oil-rich east, which has a sizable Shiite community that has long complained of discrimination.

    In this still image taken from video provided by Saudi TV, burnt out cars are seen as investigators collect evidence, in the aftermath of a suicide bomb outside the the Imam Hussein mosque in the port city of Dammam, Saudi Arabia, Friday, May 29, 2015. (Saudi Television via AP) SAUDI ARABIA OUT

    The Islamic State group views Shiites as apostates deserving of death and also seeks the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy, which it considers corrupt and illegitimate.

    Saudi Arabia had vowed to crack down on the extremists after last week’s bombing, and authorities appeared keen to claim credit for preventing the bomber from entering the Imam Hussein mosque, the only Shiite mosque in the port city of Dammam. The state-run Saudi Press Agency said security guards halted a car in the parking lot and that the bomber detonated his explosives as they approached.

    Witnesses said, however, that worshippers had taken their own security measures, including setting up checkpoints, and that young men had detected the bomber and chased him down, leading him to set off the explosion. It was unclear if the bomber was among the four dead.

    A security official told The Associated Press that the attacker had disguised himself in the black all-encompassing garments worn by women in Saudi Arabia and blew himself up after being stopped by security guards. He insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

    Mohammed Idris, a worshipper who witnessed the attack, told the AP by telephone that the suicide bomber attempted to enter the mosque but was chased by young men, who had set up checkpoints at the entrance.

    “They chased the suicide bomber when he tried to enter the women’s section of the mosque,” he said.

    Another witness, who did not want to be named because of security concerns, said security had been tightened at mosques after last week’s attack and that women were told to stay home because there were not enough female guards to check them.

    Body parts were scattered around the area after the explosion, which set four cars ablaze and sent black smoke into the air, said Mohammed al-Saeedi, who arrived half an hour after the blast. He called on police to do a better job of sharing information with the local Shiite community.

    The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was carried out by its “Najd Province,” referring to a region in the central Arabian Peninsula. Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has repeatedly called for attacks on the Saudi kingdom.

    A statement posted on a Facebook page used by the extremist group said a “soldier of the caliphate,” identified as Abu Jandal al-Jazrawi, blew himself up among “an evil gathering of those filth in front of one of their shrines in Dammam.” The name al-Jazrawi suggests that the bomber is a Saudi national.

    It called on Sunnis to “purify the land of the two shrines from the atheist rafida,” a derogatory term for Shiites.

    Last Friday, an Islamic State suicide bomber killed 21 people in the village of al-Qudeeh, in the oil-rich eastern Qatif region. It was the deadliest militant assault in the kingdom in more than a decade. Saudi Arabia’s newly enthroned King Salman vowed to punish those responsible for the “heinous terrorist attack.”

    Interior Ministry official Bassam Attiyah said earlier this week that the IS group has divided the kingdom into five self-styled provinces. He said on state TV that the group’s short-term plans are to target the security forces and attack Shiites to foment sectarian strife. Then they plan to target foreigners, including those working in the OPEC member’s oil industry, he said.

    “What we are seeing now is the short-term plans,” he said.

    Saudi Arabia branded the Islamic State a terrorist group last year and has joined the U.S.-led coalition targeting it in Syria and Iraq. But the kingdom’s powerful clerical establishment continues to espouse a hard-line version of Islam, known as Wahhabism, that views Shiites as heretics.

    In the decades before the Sept. 11 attacks, Saudi Arabia had used its vast oil wealth to support jihadi groups across the Muslim world, leading many critics to view the latest attacks as a predictable blowback.

    “He who plants thorns must never expect to gather roses. We have planted many thorns,” Saudi writer Turki al-Hamid wrote on Twitter.

    Another Saudi writer, Abdullah al-Alami, asked “how many Saudi citizens should get martyred before we purge the screens, the curriculum and the (mosque) podiums … from incitement,” referring to hard-line clerics who host TV programs and deliver weekly sermons across the kingdom.

    Shiites in Saudi Arabia have long complained of discrimination, and say their communities have benefited little from the country’s vast oil riches, which are also concentrated in the east.

    In 2011, Shiites in the east inspired by the Arab Spring uprising in neighboring Bahrain took to the streets to demand greater rights. Police arrested hundreds of people and a counterterrorism court sentenced an outspoken cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, to death.

    Saudi Arabia views Shiite movements elsewhere in the Middle East as proxies of its main regional rival, Shiite-majority Iran. It is currently leading a coalition in bombing raids against Shiite rebels in neighboring Yemen who seized the capital, Sanaa, last year.

    The IS group has deftly exploited sectarian conflicts generated by the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, particularly in Syria and Iraq, where it has carried out brutal attacks on Shiites and then portrayed itself as the defender of embattled Sunnis.

    Many now fear it will pursue a similar strategy in Saudi Arabia.

    Mohammed al-Hajji, a Saudi Shiite activist, called on the government to curb hate speech against Shiites in mosques, schools and the media, warning that the growing IS threat is “bigger than us.”

    “ISIS and whoever is behind it is trying to hit Saudi through the minority to create chaos in the region, and to make Saudi vulnerable,” he said.

  • Transfer eyed for 'insulted' Customs exec
    MANILA, Philippines - A Bureau of Customs official, reportedly “insulted” by BOC chief Alberto Lina, may be transferred in order to defuse the tension within the agency.
  • Noy to raise sea dispute issue with Abe
    MANILA, Philippines - President Aquino is expected to raise the West Philippine Sea dispute during his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan next week.