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Legendary Swiss climber to be cremated near Everest

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The body of legendary Swiss climber Ueli Steck, who died on Mount Everest, will be cremated on Thursday at a Buddhist monastery that lies in the shadow of the world’s highest peak.

Steck — one of the most feted mountaineers of his generation — became the first fatality of this year’s spring climbing season on Everest when he fell from a ridge during an acclimatisation exercise on Sunday.

The climber’s body was flown by helicopter on Thursday to the Tengboche Monastery that lies on the trail to the peaks that claimed his life.

Steck’s wife Nicole and close family members arrived with the body from Kathmandu for the Buddhist funeral ceremony, according to an AFP photographer at the scene. They had flown to Nepal earlier this week.

Steck?s body was carried from the helipad to the cremation site a few hundred metres from the monastery, where the family were joined by monks in maroon ropes who offered prayers and played music.

A number of climbers are expected to trek down from Everest base camp to attend the cremation of the acclaimed mountaineer, according to Nimesh Karki of Seven Summits, a trekking company that helped Steck organise his Everest attempt.

Steck was famed for his record speed ascents in the Alps, which earned him the nickname the “Swiss Machine” — an epithet that he himself disliked.

“He lived with it, but Ueli was very modest,” Billi Bierling, a climber and journalist who is currently translating Steck’s latest book from German to English, told AFP.

“In a way he knew he was quite extraordinary, but on the other hand he thought that, ‘If I can do it, everybody can’.”

Steck was attempting to achieve another first this year by charting a rarely climbed route to summit both Everest and Lhotse, the world’s fourth highest mountain, all without the use of supplemental oxygen.

Steck was due to summit Everest via the West Ridge — a route that has recorded more fatalities than summits — before climbing Lhotse.

The accomplished alpinist was on an acclimatization run to Mount Nuptse, which shares a common ridge with Everest, when he slipped and fell more than 1,000 metres (3,280 feet) early on Sunday morning.

He scaled some of the world’s most daunting peaks, often alone and without basic safety equipment such as fixed ropes or bottled oxygen.

Tributes to Steck have poured in from the climbing community since his death.

Most have lauded a career that saw him become one of the most prominent names in mountaineering, though he has also received some criticism in the Swiss press for a series of controversies that stalked his career.

In 2013 Steck made global headlines when he and two other Western climbers came to blows with a group of furious Nepali guides on Everest.

The brawl shocked the mountaineering community, causing a damaging rift between Western climbers and the often lowly-paid Nepali guides who are essential for commercial expeditions to the crowded summit.

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BMW sees forecasts in reach after Q1 profit boost

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German luxury carmaker BMW on Thursday said it was “confident” of achieving its objectives for 2017, as it reported a leap in profits in the first three months.

Net profit at the group grew 31 percent year-on-year to 2.15 billion euros ($2.34 billion) between January and March, on revenues up 12.4 percent to 23.45 billion euros.

BMW pointed to increased sales as it began launching a slew of new models slated for the next two years, including a doubling in sales of electric-powered cars.

“We expect the BMW group’s three premium brands to set new delivery records again in 2017,” chief executive Harald Krueger said in a statement.

Alongside the group’s own-brand cars, BMW also operates Mini and Rolls-Royce as subsidiaries.

BMW noted that as well as a sales boost, financial effects contributed steeply to its bottom line.

One of those was a 183-million-euro increase in the value of its stake in high-tech mapping firm Here — which it owns jointly with competitors Daimler and Audi — as new investors were brought in.

Without those financial impacts, operating, or underlying profit grew just 7.7 percent compared with the same period last year, to 2.65 billion euros.

Looking to the rest of the year, “the first-quarter results lay a very sound foundation for us to achieve our ambitious targets for 2017,” finance chief Nicolas Peter said.

BMW expects “slight increases” in unit sales of its cars and pre-tax profits in 2017, while keeping operating profit margins between 8.0 and 10 percent.

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Route to Raqa dotted with discarded veils, burned cars

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Dozens of black veils dotted a freshly laid sand berm in northern Syria, ditched by women fleeing the Islamic State group’s bastion of Raqa as US-backed fighters close in.

Outside the village of Tishreen Farms, 17 kilometres (10 miles) north of Raqa, the Syrian Democratic Forces could be seen laying sandbags to protect themselves from IS car bombs and snipers.

With air support from the US-led coalition, the alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters has seized swathes of territory from the jihadists, who were stationed less than a kilometre away.

SDF fighters told AFP that women hastily shed their IS-mandated black veils after crossing into SDF territory near Tishreen Farms, revealing vibrant, patterned robes underneath.

“Most of the women tear off their robes and burqas as soon as they arrive at our positions,” an SDF fighter said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Some of the women stomp on the robes because they finally feel safe and are finished with Daesh,” he added, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

Thousands of civilians have been smuggled out of Raqa and surrounding territory in recent weeks.

Ahmad, who fled Raqa to a village near Tishreen Farms, told AFP that he was one of the lucky ones.

He managed to escape despite IS’s brutal measures to block residents from leaving.

“IS is using the civilians as human shields to protect itself,” said the man in his 30s.

“We fled as part of a group two days ago, and an IS sniper shot and killed two of us.”

– Key coalition raids –

In Tishreen Farms, male and female SDF members worked to fill an underground tunnel they say jihadists used to avoid coalition air strikes as they transported supplies and ammunition throughout the area.

IS has used that tactic — as well as weaponised drones and car bombs — to defend territory across the so-called “caliphate” it declared in 2014.

The SDF launched its fight for Raqa in November, just a month after US-backed forces in neighbouring Iraq announced an offensive for IS’s other main stronghold, Mosul.

Both assaults have received crucial support from the US-led air coalition bombing the jihadists.

The bodies of alleged IS fighters were still visible around Tishreen Farms, along with destroyed vehicles on the side of the road that testified to the heavy strikes that targeted the area.

One SDF fighter told AFP that coalition raids had killed “most of the IS fighters present in these villages”.

“Others were killed during our combing operations… IS has lost a huge part of its defensive capabilities. The fight isn’t as intense,” he said.

As it faces mounting pressure, IS has lashed out in other areas — including multiple suicide attacks near a refugee camp on the Syrian-Iraqi border on Tuesday that left at least 46 people dead.

– ‘For its people’ –

The SDF has already seized most of Raqa province as part of its “Wrath of the Euphrates” campaign, named after the major river that cuts across the northern part of Syria.

At their closest point, they are just eight kilometres (five miles) from Raqa city.

SDF spokesman Talal Sello said SDF fighters were still working on fully besieging the city, after which they would launch the final phase of the campaign.

“As our troops get closer and closer to Raqa city, the number of soldiers and advisers from the international coalition continues to increase,” Sello told AFP.

The US has dispatched about 900 troops to Syria to help train and advise the SDF, as well as a Marine artillery unit.

Ahmad al-Hassan, a clean-shaven local SDF commander, said the US-led coalition “has provided the SDF with special weapons including artillery, tanks, anti-tank missiles.”

Like many SDF fighters, he wore a scarf around his head to protect from the reddish dust in the air from an incoming sandstorm.

The SDF would fully liberate the city in coordination with the coalition, Hassan said, but “Raqa will only be for its people.”

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African American(B)

Route to Raqa dotted with discarded veils, burned cars

3f02cb05ce0e11d6104c8c78b-0a96d852f0032e4d7eec02bb8f99c0acc8d0e99d

Dozens of black veils dotted a freshly laid sand berm in northern Syria, ditched by women fleeing the Islamic State group’s bastion of Raqa as US-backed fighters close in.

Outside the village of Tishreen Farms, 17 kilometres (10 miles) north of Raqa, the Syrian Democratic Forces could be seen laying sandbags to protect themselves from IS car bombs and snipers.

With air support from the US-led coalition, the alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters has seized swathes of territory from the jihadists, who were stationed less than a kilometre away.

SDF fighters told AFP that women hastily shed their IS-mandated black veils after crossing into SDF territory near Tishreen Farms, revealing vibrant, patterned robes underneath.

“Most of the women tear off their robes and burqas as soon as they arrive at our positions,” an SDF fighter said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Some of the women stomp on the robes because they finally feel safe and are finished with Daesh,” he added, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

Thousands of civilians have been smuggled out of Raqa and surrounding territory in recent weeks.

Ahmad, who fled Raqa to a village near Tishreen Farms, told AFP that he was one of the lucky ones.

He managed to escape despite IS’s brutal measures to block residents from leaving.

“IS is using the civilians as human shields to protect itself,” said the man in his 30s.

“We fled as part of a group two days ago, and an IS sniper shot and killed two of us.”

– Key coalition raids –

In Tishreen Farms, male and female SDF members worked to fill an underground tunnel they say jihadists used to avoid coalition air strikes as they transported supplies and ammunition throughout the area.

IS has used that tactic — as well as weaponised drones and car bombs — to defend territory across the so-called “caliphate” it declared in 2014.

The SDF launched its fight for Raqa in November, just a month after US-backed forces in neighbouring Iraq announced an offensive for IS’s other main stronghold, Mosul.

Both assaults have received crucial support from the US-led air coalition bombing the jihadists.

The bodies of alleged IS fighters were still visible around Tishreen Farms, along with destroyed vehicles on the side of the road that testified to the heavy strikes that targeted the area.

One SDF fighter told AFP that coalition raids had killed “most of the IS fighters present in these villages”.

“Others were killed during our combing operations… IS has lost a huge part of its defensive capabilities. The fight isn’t as intense,” he said.

As it faces mounting pressure, IS has lashed out in other areas — including multiple suicide attacks near a refugee camp on the Syrian-Iraqi border on Tuesday that left at least 46 people dead.

– ‘For its people’ –

The SDF has already seized most of Raqa province as part of its “Wrath of the Euphrates” campaign, named after the major river that cuts across the northern part of Syria.

At their closest point, they are just eight kilometres (five miles) from Raqa city.

SDF spokesman Talal Sello said SDF fighters were still working on fully besieging the city, after which they would launch the final phase of the campaign.

“As our troops get closer and closer to Raqa city, the number of soldiers and advisers from the international coalition continues to increase,” Sello told AFP.

The US has dispatched about 900 troops to Syria to help train and advise the SDF, as well as a Marine artillery unit.

Ahmad al-Hassan, a clean-shaven local SDF commander, said the US-led coalition “has provided the SDF with special weapons including artillery, tanks, anti-tank missiles.”

Like many SDF fighters, he wore a scarf around his head to protect from the reddish dust in the air from an incoming sandstorm.

The SDF would fully liberate the city in coordination with the coalition, Hassan said, but “Raqa will only be for its people.”

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African American(B)

Route to Raqa dotted with discarded veils, burned cars

3f02cb05ce0e11d6104c8c78b-0a96d852f0032e4d7eec02bb8f99c0acc8d0e99d

Dozens of black veils dotted a freshly laid sand berm in northern Syria, ditched by women fleeing the Islamic State group’s bastion of Raqa as US-backed fighters close in.

Outside the village of Tishreen Farms, 17 kilometres (10 miles) north of Raqa, the Syrian Democratic Forces could be seen laying sandbags to protect themselves from IS car bombs and snipers.

With air support from the US-led coalition, the alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters has seized swathes of territory from the jihadists, who were stationed less than a kilometre away.

SDF fighters told AFP that women hastily shed their IS-mandated black veils after crossing into SDF territory near Tishreen Farms, revealing vibrant, patterned robes underneath.

“Most of the women tear off their robes and burqas as soon as they arrive at our positions,” an SDF fighter said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Some of the women stomp on the robes because they finally feel safe and are finished with Daesh,” he added, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

Thousands of civilians have been smuggled out of Raqa and surrounding territory in recent weeks.

Ahmad, who fled Raqa to a village near Tishreen Farms, told AFP that he was one of the lucky ones.

He managed to escape despite IS’s brutal measures to block residents from leaving.

“IS is using the civilians as human shields to protect itself,” said the man in his 30s.

“We fled as part of a group two days ago, and an IS sniper shot and killed two of us.”

– Key coalition raids –

In Tishreen Farms, male and female SDF members worked to fill an underground tunnel they say jihadists used to avoid coalition air strikes as they transported supplies and ammunition throughout the area.

IS has used that tactic — as well as weaponised drones and car bombs — to defend territory across the so-called “caliphate” it declared in 2014.

The SDF launched its fight for Raqa in November, just a month after US-backed forces in neighbouring Iraq announced an offensive for IS’s other main stronghold, Mosul.

Both assaults have received crucial support from the US-led air coalition bombing the jihadists.

The bodies of alleged IS fighters were still visible around Tishreen Farms, along with destroyed vehicles on the side of the road that testified to the heavy strikes that targeted the area.

One SDF fighter told AFP that coalition raids had killed “most of the IS fighters present in these villages”.

“Others were killed during our combing operations… IS has lost a huge part of its defensive capabilities. The fight isn’t as intense,” he said.

As it faces mounting pressure, IS has lashed out in other areas — including multiple suicide attacks near a refugee camp on the Syrian-Iraqi border on Tuesday that left at least 46 people dead.

– ‘For its people’ –

The SDF has already seized most of Raqa province as part of its “Wrath of the Euphrates” campaign, named after the major river that cuts across the northern part of Syria.

At their closest point, they are just eight kilometres (five miles) from Raqa city.

SDF spokesman Talal Sello said SDF fighters were still working on fully besieging the city, after which they would launch the final phase of the campaign.

“As our troops get closer and closer to Raqa city, the number of soldiers and advisers from the international coalition continues to increase,” Sello told AFP.

The US has dispatched about 900 troops to Syria to help train and advise the SDF, as well as a Marine artillery unit.

Ahmad al-Hassan, a clean-shaven local SDF commander, said the US-led coalition “has provided the SDF with special weapons including artillery, tanks, anti-tank missiles.”

Like many SDF fighters, he wore a scarf around his head to protect from the reddish dust in the air from an incoming sandstorm.

The SDF would fully liberate the city in coordination with the coalition, Hassan said, but “Raqa will only be for its people.”

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African American(B)

Gatlin and De Grasse ready for early athletics season Doha clash

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They finished second and third in last year’s Olympics 100m final and on Friday Justin Gatlin and Andre De Grasse renew their rivalry in the Diamond League season-opener in Qatar.

The sprint race is not the only standout event of the now-traditional Doha curtain-raiser for the league — this year spread over 14 meetings in 13 different countries — but is given an extra edge coming as it does in a World Championship season.

Both athletes will have their eyes on London in August, when they will take on the legendary Usain Bolt in his international farewell, but for now battle commences in Doha.

Canadian De Grasse, 22, is Bolt’s heir apparent and has already said that he wants to “spoil” the legendary’s Jamaican’s goodbye to athletics.

De Grasse also claimed silver to Bolt in the 200m in Rio.

The controversial Gatlin, 35, has already struck an early season blow, anchoring his American team to victory at the IAAF World Relays in Nassau last month, De Grasse’s Canada bombing out in the final.

The pair will be joined in Doha by another former Jamaican 100m world record holder — and last year’s Diamond League winner — the evergreen Asafa Powell and yet another rising star, Akani Simbine.

The South African, 23, ran 9.92sec in March, the second fastest time of the year so far.

His early season form has been superb, dipping under 10 seconds five times and winning his country’s 100m title ahead of Wayde van Niekerk.

The women’s 200m will be contested by the gold and silver medallists from Rio — Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson and Dafne Schippers from the Netherlands.

Last year’s bronze medallist in Rio, Tori Bowie from the US, is not in Doha but has already made her presence felt by clocking the year’s fastest time so far, 22.09sec.

– Middle-distance clash –

In recent years in the Doha leg of the Diamond League, some of the best performances have come in the middle and long-distance races.

This year could prove the same.

All three female 800m finalists from Rio — South Africa’s Caster Semenya, Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui — will race on Friday.

They will be joined by Ethiopia’s Genzebe Dibaba, a former 1500m world-record holder who has chosen an extremely tough field in which to make her 800m debut.

In the 3000m steeplechase, Kenyan-born Bahraini runner Ruth Jebet, who won gold in Rio, will make her season debut.

She is also the current world record holder with a time of 8mins 52.78.

Off the track, there’s another clash of Olympic gold and silver medallists from Rio, when Greece’s Ekaterini Stefanidi takes on America’s Sandi Morris in the pole vault.

Friday’s meeting marks the beginning of the eighth season of the Diamond League.

As with many other athletics events, it comes at a time of controversy within the sport.

The build-up has been overshadowed by a controversial European Athletics’ proposal, which could see all world records set before 2005 written off as the sport tries to set a clean slate in its fight against doping.

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Gatlin and De Grasse ready for early athletics season Doha clash

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They finished second and third in last year’s Olympics 100m final and on Friday Justin Gatlin and Andre De Grasse renew their rivalry in the Diamond League season-opener in Qatar.

The sprint race is not the only standout event of the now-traditional Doha curtain-raiser for the league — this year spread over 14 meetings in 13 different countries — but is given an extra edge coming as it does in a World Championship season.

Both athletes will have their eyes on London in August, when they will take on the legendary Usain Bolt in his international farewell, but for now battle commences in Doha.

Canadian De Grasse, 22, is Bolt’s heir apparent and has already said that he wants to “spoil” the legendary’s Jamaican’s goodbye to athletics.

De Grasse also claimed silver to Bolt in the 200m in Rio.

The controversial Gatlin, 35, has already struck an early season blow, anchoring his American team to victory at the IAAF World Relays in Nassau last month, De Grasse’s Canada bombing out in the final.

The pair will be joined in Doha by another former Jamaican 100m world record holder — and last year’s Diamond League winner — the evergreen Asafa Powell and yet another rising star, Akani Simbine.

The South African, 23, ran 9.92sec in March, the second fastest time of the year so far.

His early season form has been superb, dipping under 10 seconds five times and winning his country’s 100m title ahead of Wayde van Niekerk.

The women’s 200m will be contested by the gold and silver medallists from Rio — Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson and Dafne Schippers from the Netherlands.

Last year’s bronze medallist in Rio, Tori Bowie from the US, is not in Doha but has already made her presence felt by clocking the year’s fastest time so far, 22.09sec.

– Middle-distance clash –

In recent years in the Doha leg of the Diamond League, some of the best performances have come in the middle and long-distance races.

This year could prove the same.

All three female 800m finalists from Rio — South Africa’s Caster Semenya, Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui — will race on Friday.

They will be joined by Ethiopia’s Genzebe Dibaba, a former 1500m world-record holder who has chosen an extremely tough field in which to make her 800m debut.

In the 3000m steeplechase, Kenyan-born Bahraini runner Ruth Jebet, who won gold in Rio, will make her season debut.

She is also the current world record holder with a time of 8mins 52.78.

Off the track, there’s another clash of Olympic gold and silver medallists from Rio, when Greece’s Ekaterini Stefanidi takes on America’s Sandi Morris in the pole vault.

Friday’s meeting marks the beginning of the eighth season of the Diamond League.

As with many other athletics events, it comes at a time of controversy within the sport.

The build-up has been overshadowed by a controversial European Athletics’ proposal, which could see all world records set before 2005 written off as the sport tries to set a clean slate in its fight against doping.

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African American(B)

Australia’s NAB swings back into net profit

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National Australia Bank posted a 2.3 percent rise in interim cash earnings Thursday and swung back into net profit after offloading loss-making British banking operations.

The lender’s cash profit in the six months to March 31, the financial industry’s preferred measure which strips out volatile items, came in at Aus$3.29 billion (US$2.44 billion), in line with expectations.

Net profit spiked to Aus$2.55 billion from a loss of Aus$1.74 billion previously, with last year’s result impacted after spinning off its troubled British asset Clydesdale.

The underperforming Clydesdale unit was divested with 75 percent going to NAB shareholders and the rest sold through an initial public offering to institutional investors.

NAB’s half-yearly dividend was unchanged at 99 cents.

?Revenue is up, our asset quality remains sound and we have further strengthened our funding and capital positions,” said chief executive Andrew Thorburn.

“There have been solid contributions across the business, in particular our priority segments of small and medium business where we have maintained or grown our leading market shares.”

NAB said bad loan charges rose 5.1 percent to Aus$394 million over the six months, while revenue increased 1.8 percent due to a growth in lending and stronger trading income.

All of Australia’s big banks are battling higher funding costs and lower interest margins, with rules now demanding they hold more reserves as a buffer against mortgages and fears over rising bad loans.

Thorburn said the operating environment remained “challenging, including heightened regulatory change, digital disruption and increasing stakeholder expectations”.

“But Australia?s economic fundamentals provide a favourable backdrop including strong population growth and improving business conditions,” he added.

ANZ Bank reported a 23 percent spike in cash profit to Aus$3.41 billion on Tuesday, with Westpac Bank releasing its results next week.

The Commonwealth Bank — Australia’s biggest — uses a different reporting schedule and posted a record interim cash profit of Aus$4.91 billion in February.

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Tillerson lays out US diplomatic priorities

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid out his plans Wednesday for tackling world issues including the standoff with North Korea, which he called the most urgent challenge the United States has to deal with.”

Three months after taking over the State Department, Washington’s top diplomat gave a wide-ranging pep talk to his staff around the globe on the work ahead.

In his budget proposal, President Donald Trump has proposed slashing the US foreign relations and aid budget by more than a quarter.

But Tillerson reassured his audience that they would be consulted on plans to restructure the department even as they work together on the key challenges.

These are:

– North Korea –

North Korea’s efforts to develop an arsenal of nuclear-armed missiles capable of reaching US cities are the “greatest threat” faced by the United States.

Tillerson told the diplomats that he had advised Trump to “test” China’s commitment to reining in its neighbor by “leaning in hard” on leader Xi Jinping.

If Beijing fails to enforce existing UN sanctions, he warned, then Washington could take action against Chinese banks or companies that deal with Pyongyang.

“So it’s a pressure campaign that has a knob on it. I’d say we’re at about dial setting 5 or 6 right now,” he said, without saying how high the dial goes.

“I would say we’re at about the 20 to 25 percent stage of this strategy… but we’ve got a lot of work left to do to keep that pressure on.”

– China –

China’s role in North Korea may be the most pressing issue, but Tillerson senses an opening to reset the basis of China-US ties for the next 50 years.

Trump and Xi, the leaders of the world’s two biggest powers, met last month in Florida and Tillerson wants the bilateral dialogue to to intensify.

Differences remain over freedom of navigation in waters claimed by China in the South China Sea and the trans-Pacific trade imbalance.

But Tillerson said ties were at a “point of inflection” and ripe for review.

“Let’s kind of revisit this relationship, and what is it going to be over the next half century.

“I think it’s a tremendous opportunity we have to define that, and there seems to be a great interest on the part of the Chinese leadership to do that as well.”

– The Islamic State –

Before North Korea’s latest weapons tests, Trump had made the battle to eradicate “radical Islamic terrorism the focus of his foreign policy.

It remains a key goal, and Tillerson said the State Department would be part of the effort.

He described the threat as emanating in “concentric circles” from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria through the Middle East to Africa and Central Asia.

“So a lot of work ahead of us,” he said, underlining that the battle is central to policy in the region.

“Many of you are directly engaged in it already. Many more of you are going to become engaged in it, I think you can expect.”

– Russia –

In his former job as CEO of energy giant ExxonMobil, Tillerson was a frequent visitor to Russia pursuing oil deals with President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.

Russia clearly hoped that Trump’s election victory and Tillerson’s appointment would lead to warmer ties with Washington — that has not happened.

Tillerson told his colleagues that, on a visit to Moscow last month, he had told Putin that relations are as bad as they have been since the Cold War.

“He did not disagree. He shrugged his shoulders and nodded in agreement,” Tillerson said.

Washington hopes to work with Russia to develop ceasefire zones in Syria, but the former foes are still divided over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.

So the secretary, who meets Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Alaska next week, said he would work on “some small things” to build a level of trust.

“So that’s what we’re hoping, is that we can begin to build a way in which we can learn how to work with one another. I don’t know whether we can or not,” he said.

– The Rest –

Tillerson cited work in Africa to alleviate health crises and disrupt terror networks, and in Latin America to combat trafficking and extremist finance.

But his list of priorities included no reference to Europe, beyond repeating Trump’s call for NATO members to spend more on collective defense.

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US visa exemption rules in Republican crosshairs

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Congressional Republicans sounded an alarm Wednesday over rules allowing millions of Europeans to travel to the United States without a visa, warning that jihadists could exploit weak links in the program.

The Islamic State and Al-Qaeda extremist groups “have incurred great losses in Syria and Iraq,” Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told a hearing on the security of the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

“Yet as the territory under their control shrinks, we are seeing an exodus of foreign fighters returning to their homelands,” he said.

House Republican Mike Gallagher pointed to deadly attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice and Berlin as examples of why the US should increase its vigilance.

“The majority of these attackers were European citizens with valid passports, so it is easy to imagine any one of them gaining access to this country through a valid visa or through the Visa Waiver Program,” said Gallagher, who heads the Task Force on Denying Terrorists Entry to the United States.

“While there are numerous benefits to our country that stem from our welcoming immigration system — like tourism, trade, and business — we should never cease to examine our processes through the lens of a terrorist in search of potential gaps.”

Millions of travelers from 38 wealthy countries, including 30 European nations, currently benefit from the exemption, which allows them to come to the United States for 90 days without having to go through a lengthy visa process.

Only a simple Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) form need be filled out online beforehand.

But since the attacks that bloodied France in 2015, committed by or with the help of jihadists bearing French or Belgian passports, many lawmakers see the exemption as a dangerous security flaw.

In December 2015, a few weeks after the Paris attacks, Congress tightened VWP rules, banning people from using the exemption if they had traveled after March 2011 to any of seven countries deemed to be risks: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

It also barred citizens from VWP countries who had dual nationalities from Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria — for example a Frenchman with Syrian citizenship — from taking advantage of the exemption.

Since last October, more than 16,000 people have had their ESTA request rejected according to these criteria, said John Wagner, a deputy commissioner for US Customs and Border Protection.

The individuals affected are not automatically denied US entry, but must apply for a visa from a US consulate where comprehensive security measures are undertaken, such as scanning fingerprints and conducting interviews.

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