US Prisoner Freed From Venezuela Prison Meets Trump

White House thanks President Maduro’s ‘regime’ for releasing Joshua Holt but says policy on Venezuela will not change.

A United States citizen who was held in a Venezuelan prison for two years has met US President Donald Trump shortly after his release.

Joshua Holt was accused of being the CIA’s top spy in Latin America by senior Venezuelan officials but US officials, including Trump, say he was held “hostage”.

The 26-year-old travelled to the country to marry a Venezuelan woman he met online and to secure US visas for her and her two daughters.


At the meeting in the White House on Saturday, Trump called Holt “incredibly brave”.

“We saw what was happening inside of that prison. So you really have been very, very brave,” Trump said.

Holt said he was overwhelmed with gratitude for the support he received from the US government while behind bars.

“They were a very, very, very difficult two years,” he said. “I’m just so grateful for what you guys have done and for thinking about me, and caring about me, just a normal person.”

Holt’s arrest and imprisonment came amid deteriorating relations between the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro and the US.

Maduro has blamed an “economic war” by the US for his country’s deteriorating finances and consequent social instability.

The US also refuses to recognise Maduro’s re-election as president in a vote last weekthat was largely boycotted by the opposition.

A White House spokesperson thanked the Maduro “regime” for releasing the “unjustly detained” Holt from detention, but said US foreign policy towards the country would not change.

“The Maduro regime must call free, fair, and transparent elections, consistent with its constitution,” a statement issued by the White House said.

“The election process that occurred on May 20 was illegitimate … The United States will continue to use all available tools and options to pressure the Maduro regime to abide by democratic norms.”

Donald Trump: US-North Korea Summit Back On For June 12

South Korea’s President Moon says Kim Jong-un reaffirmed his commitment to ‘complete’ denuclearisation during talks.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un believes a face-to-face meeting with US President Donald Trump in Singapore next month could “put an end to the history of war” between the two nations, South Korea’s president said.

Moon Jae-in also said on Sunday that Kim reaffirmed his commitment to “complete” denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula in talks they had at a surprise meeting a day earlier at the demilitarised zone.

“Chairman Kim and I have agreed … our quest for the Korean Peninsula’s denuclearisation and a perpetual peace regime should not be halted,” Moon told reporters.

“He also expressed his intention to put an end to the history of war and confrontation through the success of the North-US summit and to cooperate for peace and prosperity.”

Saturday’s meeting was the latest dramatic turn in a week of diplomatic ups and downs surrounding the prospects for an unprecedented summit between the United States and North Korea, and the strongest sign yet the two Korean leaders are trying to keep the on-again-off-again meeting on track.

‘Moving along very nicely’

A statement from North Korea’s state news agency KCNA on Sunday also said Kim expressed “his fixed will” on the possibility of meeting Trump as previously planned.

Trump, meanwhile, signalled preparations for the June 12 summit with Kim were going ahead, despite having called off the meeting last week.

“We’re doing very well in terms of the summit with North Korea,” Trump said at the White House. “It’s moving along very nicely. So we’re looking at June 12th in Singapore. That hasn’t changed. So, we’ll see what happens.”

Trump rattled the region on Thursday by cancelling his June 12 meeting with Kim in Singapore citing “open hostility” from Pyongyang.

But within 24 hours he reversed course, saying it could still go ahead after productive talks were held with North Korean officials.


‘Complete’ denuclearisation

While maintaining that Kim is committed to denuclearisation, Moon acknowledged Pyongyang and Washington may have differing expectations of what that means, and he urged both sides to hold working-level talks to resolve their differences.

“Even though they share the same resolve, there need to be discussions regarding the roadmap for how to make it happen, and that process could be tough,” he said, declining to define “complete denuclearisation”.

The Trump administration has demanded North Korea completely and irreversibly shutter its nuclear weapons programme. Kim and Trump’s initial decision to meet followed months of war threats and insults between the leaders over Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.

American officials are sceptical that Kim will ever fully abandon his nuclear weapons, and Moon said North Korea is not yet convinced it can trust security guarantees from the United States.

A senior South Korean official later said the two Koreas are discussing a possible non-aggression pledge and the start of peace treaty talks as a way of addressing Pyongyang’s security concerns ahead of US-North Korean negotiations.

War’s end?

The Moon-Kim talks at the Panmunjom border village, which South Korean officials said lasted two hours, came after their April 27 meeting, the first inter-Korean summit in more than a decade that was also held at the same venue. At that meeting, they declared they would work towards a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War.

Video and a photo released by South Korea’s presidential Blue House on Saturday showed Kim hugging Moon and kissing him on the cheek three times as he saw Moon off after their meeting at Tongilgak, the North’s building in the truce village, which lies in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – the 4km wide buffer that runs along the heavily armed military border.

Andrei Lankov, from Kookmin University in Seoul, said North Korea’s fear of what might happen next likely pushed Pyongyang back on track for the summit.

“Donald Trump is seen as a person who can start a war.  And over the last say 48 hours – maybe more – they fear that Donald Trump’s administration is going to cancel the summit and that this will lead to a new escalation of tensions and probably war. This fear has been decisive,” said Lankov.

Stephen Nagy from the International Christian University said Pyongyang is seeking to benefit after achieving nuclear power status.

“I think it’s the North Koreans who have driven this engagement. They’ve consolidated their strategic nuclear deterrent, they’ve decided that they can push through with negotiations – not only with the United States but also with South Korea and re-engage China. They have a clear pathway forward,” he said.



Syria War: Russians Killed In Militant Raid In Deir Al-Zour

At least four Russian combatants have been killed by militants in the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zour.

Two military advisers died when the Syrian army battery they were directing was attacked. Five other Russians were injured and two died later of their wounds, the defence ministry said.

Syria’s army took Deir al-Zour city last November but Islamic State fighters remain active in the province.

Officially Russia has lost about 90 personnel in the Syrian civil war.

Scores of military contractors have also died since Moscow began its intervention in support of President Bashar al-Assad in September 2015.

The RIA Novosti agency said that “a few mobile terrorist groups” had attacked the Syrian army’s artillery battery during the night.

The injured are being treated at a Russian military hospital.

The defence ministry in Moscow said its forces had killed 43 militants in the fighting.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the attacks had been carried out by Islamic State fighters and that 35 pro-government troops were killed, including nine Russians.

As well as holding pockets of IS fighters, Deir al-Zour province also marks a division between areas held by Syrian government forces and Syrian Kurdish units, including the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

After seven years of war, the Syrian government, backed by Russian and Iranian military muscle, now controls much of central Syria, including the second city, Aleppo.

Rebel forces are now concentrated in Idlib.


Over seven years of war, more than 400,000 people have been killed or reported missing, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

More than half the population of 22 million have been driven from their homes with at least 6.1 million Syrians internally displaced, and another 5.6 million living abroad, t

he vast majority of them in neighbouring countries, such as Lebanon.



US Mid-Term Elections: First Black Female Nominee For Governor

A former Georgia lawmaker and author has taken a major step towards becoming the first ever African-American female governor of a US state.

Stacey Abrams won the Democratic Party primary on Tuesday, telling voters that trying to “convert” Republicans into Democrats had previously failed.

A Democrat has not held the red state’s governor’s mansion since 2003.

Ms Abrams, 44, will face a Republican candidate in the high-stakes mid-term contest in November.

Lt Gov Casey Cagle won the Republican primary on Tuesday, and will face Georgia’s secretary of state Brian Kemp in a run-off on 24 July to decide her eventual opponent.

If elected in the deeply conservative state, Ms Abrams would become the first woman and the first person from an ethnic minority to lead the southern state.

A number of women battled for and won their Democratic Party mid-term bids in Kentucky, Arkansas and Texas, highlighting the strength of female candidates in the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

Among the winners was political newcomer Amy McGrath, a former fighter pilot, who won a Kentucky primary for a seat in the US Congress.

Philip Roth: Portnoy’s Complaint Author Dies Aged 85

One of the great American authors, Philip Roth, has died aged 85.

The Pulitzer, National Book Award and Man Booker International Prize-winning novelist’s work drew its inspiration from Jewish family life, sex and American ideals.

His works included American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and Portnoy’s Complaint.

The New York Times reported that a close friend of Roth’s said he had died of congestive heart failure.

Roth first found success with his short story collection, Goodbye Columbus, published in 1959.

A decade later his sexually explicit novel Portnoy’s Complaint catapulted him to notoriety, making him a celebrity in the US.

In later life, he wrote a number of highly regarded historical novels, including his 1997 work American Pastoral, for which he won his Pulitzer.

He wrote prolifically over the course of his career, publishing more than 30 books before ending his fiction career in 2009.

When Roth won the 2011 Man Booker International, chairman of the judges Rick Gekoski said: “His career is remarkable in that he starts at such a high level, and keeps getting better.

“In his 50s and 60s, when most novelists are in decline, he wrote a string of novels of the highest, enduring quality.”

He also recognised that Roth’s win divided the Man Booker International panel, and had caused one judge to quit in protest.

“I can recall few of his novels that don’t provoke an occasional but overwhelming desire to shout ‘Will you shut up!’ at a character or his author,” he said.



Lebanon’s New Parliament Set To Hold First Session

Nabih Berri, holding the position of assembly speaker since 1992, is widely expected to be reappointed in first session.

 After a nine-year run and three extensions of its mandate, Lebanon’s parliament has finally dissolved, paving the way for a new house of assembly.

Legislators elected in Lebanon’s May 6 parliamentary vote are set to convene on Wednesday for the assembly’s first session, when they are expected to elected a new house speaker.

Under Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system, the speaker must be a Shia Muslim, the president a Maronite Christian and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim.

Nabih Berri, who has held the position of assembly speaker since 1992, is widely expected to be reappointed. Once that position is filled, the speaker will then oversee the process to elect a deputy speaker.

Hezbollah, Amal, the Future Movement – led by outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri – the Progressive Socialist Party and the March 8 movement have all declared their support for Berri.

The focus will then turn to the position of prime minister. According to Lebanon’s political system, the president must hold consultations with the main parliamentary blocs before nominating a new prime minister.

Government formation

The parliamentary election, the first in nine years, saw 917 candidates from multiple parties compete for Lebanon’s 128-seat national assembly.

The election, which was devised under a new proportional list system that divided the country into 15 electoral constituencies, was marked by low voter turnout – 49.2 percent.

The Shia movement Hezbollah and its allies made the biggest gains, winning 70 seats. Hariri’s Future Movement lost more than a third of its power, but remains the biggest Sunni-led party with 20 seats.

On Tuesday, Lebanese news outlet al-Jadeed quoted Hariri as saying that a decision had been taken to form a new government quickly.


“There is a decision to accelerate government formation, and I think the sanctions on Hezbollah could have a positive impact and speed up the birth of the new government,” he said.

The sanctions Hariri was referring to was the measures imposed by the United States and Arab Gulf countries on May 16 on Hezbollah, which targeted the Iran-backed movement’s top five officials, including Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah.

The move was denounced by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who criticised Saudi Arabia’s role in supporting the sanctions as collusion.

“Collaboration with its US patron to sanction the first force to liberate Arab territory and shatter the myth of Israeli invincibility,” Zarif tweeted. “Shame upon shame.”

However, Lebanon’s political pundits said that whether these sanctions will play a role in the formation of a new government is yet to be seen.


Iran Sanctions: Zarif Condemns Pompeo Announcement

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has condemned the US for vowing to impose what it said would be the “strongest sanctions in history” on his country.

Measures outlined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he said, showed the US was a prisoner of its “failed policies” and it would suffer the consequences.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini also criticised the US.

She said Mr Pompeo had failed to show how dropping the 2015 nuclear deal would make the Middle East safer.

There was, she said, “no alternative” to the agreement, which US President Donald Trump vowed earlier this month to abandon, and she said the EU would stick by it if Iran met its commitments.

Despite the EU’s official position, some of Europe’s biggest firms who rushed to do business with Iran after the nuclear deal now find themselves forced to choose between investing there or trading with the US.

What did Pompeo announce?

US sanctions lifted after the 2015 deal would be re-imposed, he said, and those and new measures would together constitute “unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime”.

He set out conditions for any new deal with Iran, including the withdrawal of its forces from Syria and an end to its support for rebels in Yemen.

The older US sanctions prohibited almost all trade with Iran.

Mr Pompeo did not say what new measures Washington was contemplating but described sanctions imposed last week on the head of Iran’s central bank as “just the beginning”.



North Korea Summit: Pence Warns Kim Jong-Un Not To ‘Play’ Trump

US Vice-President Mike Pence has warned North Korea’s Kim Jong-un not to “play” President Donald Trump if they meet next month.

Mr Pence said in a Fox News interview that such a move would be a “great mistake” by the North Korean leader.

Mr Pence also said there was “no question” that Mr Trump could walk away from the 12 June summit.

North Korea has threatened to pull out of the meeting after comments by US National Security Adviser John Bolton.

The country reacted furiously when Mr Bolton suggested it would follow a “Libya model” of denuclearisation.

Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi agreed with Western powers in 2003 to dismantle his programme in return for the lifting of sanctions. Eight years later he was killed at the hands of Western-backed rebels.

North Korea is also angry at current US-South Korea military drills and has halted talks with the South in response.


South Korean President Moon Jae-in plans to meet Mr Trump in Washington on Tuesday to discuss plans for the summit.Mr Pence said that Mr Trump would be willing to walk away from the planned Singapore meeting.

“I don’t think President Trump is thinking about public relations, he’s thinking about peace,” the vice-president said.

The New York Times reported on Sunday that the US president is asking aides and advisers whether he should continue to go forward with the summit.

Syria Army Pushes ISIL Out Of South Damascus District: State TV

Army and its allies have battled for weeks to recapture tiny ISIL-held enclave in south of Damascus.

Syria’s army has pushed the last ISIL fighters out of the al-Hajar al-Aswad district south of Damascus,Syrian state TV said on Monday.

The Syrian army and its allies have been battling Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) fighters for weeks to recapture a tiny enclave in al-Hajar al-Aswad and the adjacent Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, the last area outside government control in or around the capital.

State TV broadcast footage of the shattered area and said air strikes “were targeting the last terrorist remnants” in the area after reporting earlier that a temporary humanitarian ceasefire had been in place since Sunday night.

On Sunday, activists said fighters had begun withdrawing from the area towards ISIL-controlled territory in eastern Syria under a ceasefire deal, but state media said fighting continued.

The armed group had controlled the tiny pocket in south Damascus and two besieged desert areas in eastern Syria, while another armed group that has pledged loyalty to it holds a small enclave in the southwest.

Yarmouk was the largest Palestinian camp in Syria and was put under crippling government siege in 2012 – making it one of the longest besiegements of Syria’s war.

During the siege, its 160,000-strong population dwindled to just several hundred people.

Last year, ISIL fighters and relatives were evacuated from an area on the Lebanese-Syrian border under a deal between IS on one side, and Syrian government and its powerful Lebanese ally Hezbollah on the other.

The Damascus government was fiercely criticised over the agreement, which also enraged the US-led coalition carrying out air strikes against ISIL in Syria since 2014.

The coalition sent airplanes to shadow last year’s convoy, conducting bombing raids to block it from reaching ISIL-held territory.

Before launching its anti-ISIL push in Yarmouk, Syria’s government managed to clear out other rebels from the area with military drives and evacuation deals.

Since the start of Syria’s war, more than 465,000 Syrians have been killed in the fighting, over a million injured, and over 12 million – half the country’s prewar population – have been displaced.


North Korea Threatens To Cancel Trump Summit

North Korea has said it may pull out of a summit with US President Donald Trump if the US insists it gives up its nuclear weapons.

The highly anticipated meeting between Mr Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is due to take place on 12 June.

But in an angry statement, North Korea’s vice-foreign minister accused the US of making reckless statements and of harbouring sinister intentions.

He pointed the finger squarely at US National Security Adviser John Bolton.

“We do not hide our feeling of repugnance towards him,” Kim Kye-gwan said.

The White House has responded by saying it is still hopeful the meeting will go ahead.

“The president is ready if the meeting takes place. If it doesn’t, we’ll continue the maximum pressure campaign that’s been ongoing,” said spokesperson Sarah Sanders.

The groundbreaking agreement for Mr Kim and Mr Trump to meet came about as North Korea said it was committed to denuclearising the Korean peninsula.

Exactly what that would entail has remained unclear, but North Korea has invited foreign media to witness the dismantling of its main nuclear test site later this month.

Mr Bolton recently said North Korea could follow a “Libya model” of verifiable denuclearisation, but this alarms Pyongyang, which watched Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi give up his nuclear programme only for him to be killed by Western-backed rebels a few years later.

The BBC’s Laura Bicker in Seoul says North Korea – which had long said its nuclear arsenal is essential for its survival as a state – is now making its demands clear.

What does North Korea’s statement say?

Mr Kim’s statement, carried by state media, said that if the US “corners us and unilaterally demands we give up nuclear weapons we will no longer have an interest in talks” and “will have to reconsider” attending the 12 June summit in Singapore.

He said North Korea did have “high hopes” but that it was “very unfortunate that the US is provoking us ahead of the summit by spitting out ludicrous statements”.

Kim Kye-gwan is known to be highly respected in the North Korean leadership and has taken part in negotiations with the US before. There is very little chance his comments were not personally endorsed by Kim Jong-un.

Hours before the announcement, in a sign of growing problems, North Korea had also pulled out of a meeting scheduled with South Korea on Wednesday.because of anger over the start of US-South Korea joint military drills.

North Korea had earlier said it would allow them to go ahead, but then called them “a provocative military ruckus” which was undermining its diplomatic efforts.