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    Indonesia's parliament unanimously approved a tougher anti-terrorism law on Friday, lengthening detention periods and involving the military in counter-terrorism policing, spurred into action by recent bombings that involved children as perpetrators. Rights groups have criticized the revisions as overly broad and vague and warned against rushing them into law. The scope for the military to become involved in counter-terrorism operations is contentious because it backtracks on two decades of keeping soldiers out of areas under civilian authority. President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo had threatened to impose the changes by special decree if parliament didn't rapidly approve them. Changes were first proposed after a January 2016 suicide bombing and gun attack in Jakarta but languished in the legislature. Police have killed 14 suspected Islamic militants and arrested 60 since the suicide bombings May 13-14 in Indonesia's second-largest city, Surabaya, that were carried out by radicalized families, who involved their children, as young as 7, in the attacks. The suicide bombings, which horrified Muslim-majority Indonesia, killed 26 people, including 13 members of the families that carried them out. The key perpetrator was leader of the Surabaya cell of an Indonesian militant network that professes loyalty to the Islamic State group. The new law triples the maximum detention period without charge for suspected militants to 21 days and roughly doubles the entire permissible detention period from arrest to trial to more than two years. The definition of terrorist acts and threats was expanded to include motives of ideology, politics and security disruption. Some lawmakers said that would prevent the law from being abused. Military involvement in counter-terrorism operations will be defined later by presidential regulation. Muhammad Syafi'i, chairman of the parliamentary committee that reviewed the new law, said inclusion of the military aims to beef up police capabilities in cracking down on extremism and radical networks in Indonesia. Indonesia became a democracy after the ouster of dictator Suharto in 1998 and the role of the military, which had enjoyed sweeping powers, was reduced to national defense. Indonesia's counterterrorism operations are currently led by an elite police squad, Densus 88, set up following the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people mostly foreigners. In the past two years, it says it has thwarted as many as 23 terror plots and arrested more than 360 suspected militants.
  • Voters throughout Ireland have begun casting votes in a referendum that may lead to a loosening of the country's strict ban on most abortions. The referendum Friday will decide whether the eighth amendment of the constitution is repealed, which would open the way for more liberal legislation. The amendment, in place since 1983, requires authorities to equally protect the right to life of a mother and that of a fetus, from the moment of conception. Prime Minister Leo Varadkar tweeted his support for the bill before a moratorium on campaigning took effect Thursday. He urged people to vote 'yes' in favor of repeal. Results are not expected until Saturday afternoon or evening. Voting has already taken place on Ireland's offshore islands.
  • When North Korea slammed U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and national security adviser John Bolton, its language was very blunt and impolite. But it was milder than its typical crude and inflammatory insults unleased on other top U.S. and South Korean officials. The North likely had just tried to strengthen its positions amid negotiations on the size of concessions it could wrest from the United States in return for giving up its nuclear program. But its calling Pence a 'political dummy' was still strong enough for President Donald Trump to cite North Korea's hostility in scrapping the June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at a time when the president faced mounting pessimism at home about Kim's sincerity. Apparently startled at Trump's abrupt move, a senior North Korean official, who touched off his country's recent rhetorical attacks on Washington, issued an unusually conciliatory statement Friday saying the North still wants to engage with the United States. A look at how the North's statements have evolved over the past nine days, from harsh criticism of U.S. officials and threats to cancel the summit to a near apology: ___ BOLTON CRITICISM After canceling a high-level dialogue with South Korea, North Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan on May 16 issued a statement threatening to do the same with the Kim-Trump talks if the United States continues to 'drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment.' Kim categorically took issue with the remarks by Bolton that North Korea should follow the 'Libyan model,' which many experts say meant the North must take complete nuclear disarmament steps before getting major sanctions relief or other outside benefits. 'We shed light on the quality of Bolton already in the past, and we do not hide our feeling of repugnance toward him,' Kim was quoted as saying in the statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency. Kim's wording was weaker than the previous salvo North Korea fired off on the hawkish U.S. official. In 2003, Pyongyang's state media called him 'human scum' after Bolton described then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the late father of Kim Jong Un, as a 'tyrannical dictator.' In 2007, when Bolton raised strong skepticism about North Korea's previous disarmament pledges, KCNA said he 'talked trash' and that he is 'ill-famed for speaking ill of the countries standing for progress and peace.' ___ PENCE CRITICISM This directly prompted Trump to say that it's 'inappropriate' to go ahead with the summit because of the 'tremendous anger and open hostility' displayed in the North's 'most recent statement.' In remarks carried by KCNA Thursday, Choe Son Hui, another North Korean vice foreign minister, called Pence a 'political dummy' over his comments during a Fox News interview that again compared North Korea with Libya. 'As a person involved in the U.S. affairs, I cannot suppress my surprise at such ignorant and stupid remarks gushing out from the mouth of the U.S. vice president,' Choe said. 'In case the U.S. offends against our goodwill and clings to unlawful and outrageous acts, I will put forward a suggestion to our supreme leadership for reconsidering the (North)-U.S. summit.' Choe's 'political dummy' comment was certain to anger the United States. But again, in the past, North Korea attacked others including Trump using worse language. At the height of nuclear tensions between the countries last year, Kim Jong Un personally called Trump 'the mentally deranged U.S. dotard' after hearing Trump portraying him as 'the Rocket Man' on a 'suicide mission.' His propaganda machine called Trump a 'war maniac' and 'mad man.' North Korea's state media called former President Barack Obama a 'monkey,' and his secretary of state, John Kerry, a wolf with a 'hideous lantern jaw.' They called South Korea's former conservative Presidents Park Geun-hye a 'prostitute' and Lee Myung-bak a 'rat.' ___ LETTER OF APOLOGY About eight hours after Trump publicly called off the summit, Kim Kye Gwan issued a lengthy statement saying North Korea is still willing to sit down with the United States 'at any time, in any format.' 'The first meeting would not solve all, but solving even one at a time in a phased way would make the relations get better rather than making them get worse. The U.S. should ponder over it,' Kim said. Kim called Trump's decision 'very regrettable' but his statement still apparently focused on stressing that Trump misunderstood the North's true intensions. Experts say it was obvious the North had no plans to walk away from the U.S. summit from the beginning. It was also highly unusual for the North to make such a quick response to any major policy announcements by Washington and Seoul, and especially one that is so conciliatory in tone. 'What appears to be close to an apology letter was contained in Kim Kye Gwan's statement,' said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University. Choi Kang, vice president of Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies. said he believes Trump used the Pence criticism as a way to pull out of the summit because his government wasn't sure if North Korea would disarm in a manner that he wants.
  • Israel called on the European Union on Friday to halt funding to more than a dozen European and Palestinian non-governmental organizations that it says promote boycotts against Israel, saying the financial support violates the EU's stated policy that it opposes boycotts against the Jewish state. Israel's Strategic Affairs Ministry published a report with a list of groups that it says receive EU funding and call for boycotts against Israel. It said some of the groups had links to militant groups while receiving EU money. The report was the latest salvo by Israel in its fight against a global movement calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions over of its treatment of the Palestinians. The movement, known as BDS, has urged businesses, artists and universities to sever ties with Israel and it includes thousands of volunteers around the world. Supporters of the movement say the tactics are a nonviolent way to promote the Palestinian cause. Israel says the campaign goes beyond fighting its occupation of territory Palestinians claim for their state and often masks a more far-reaching aim to delegitimize or destroy the Jewish state. 'The state of Israel expects the EU to act with full transparency and reveal the scope of its financial aid to organizations that have ties to terror and promote boycotts against Israel' the report said. 'Israel strongly urges the EU to fully implement in practice its declared policy of rejecting boycotts against Israel, and to immediately halt funding to organizations which promote anti-Israel boycotts and de-legitimization.' The EU said it hadn't received any 'communication from the government of Israel' on Friday's report and that the bloc is confident its 'financing does not go to support terrorism' or boycott efforts. 'We are of course happy to review any relevant information received concerning EU funded activities. Money from the EU budget may only be spent for the purpose for which it was contracted, under strict transparency rules and is subject to extensive monitoring requirements,' the EU statement said. Israel said the NGOs received a total of 5 million euros ($5.9 million) in 2016, the last year for which data was available, according to the ministry report. It accused some of the NGOs of having links to Palestinian militant groups, listing among others Norwegian People's Aid, which received more than 1.7 million euros ($2 million) in 2016 and claiming the group had links to Palestinian militant groups. The U.S. Justice Department announced in April that the group reached a settlement with the United States over accusations that it had provided 'training and expert advice or assistance' to the Islamic militant Hamas group that rules the Gaza Strip, as well as other Palestinian militant groups and Iran. As part of the settlement, NPA 'admitted to and accepted responsibility for its conduct' and agreed to pay more than $2 million. The U.S., along with the EU, considers Hamas a terror group. NPA said it wanted to see the list before commenting. Other groups singled out in Friday's report included the British organization War on Want, the Dutch anti-war group PAX as well as a number of Palestinian groups, including PNGO Net, an umbrella organization that works to coordinate Palestinian civil society. Munjid Abu Jaish of PNGO Net called Friday's report 'another Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people and their institutions.' 'We will continue our legal nonviolent struggle according to the international law, regardless of the results, because we believe in this path,' he said. The call to the EU follows other steps Israel has taken to ratchet up its fight against the boycott movement. Earlier this year, Israel identified 20 activist groups from around the world whose members would be banned from entering the country over their calls to boycott the Jewish state. For its part, the EU has recommended that its member states put special labels on exports from Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It has stopped short of banning settlement products, but they do not receive the same tax emptions that products made in Israel receive. The EU has upheld the free expression rights of its citizens to call for a boycott of Israel but has stressed that the body opposed any boycott of Israel. In the years since its formation, the BDS movement has persuaded several church organizations to divest themselves of Israel-related investments and has garnered support on U.S. college campuses. Recently, pop singer Lorde joined a number of other artists who have canceled performances in Israel amid pressure from BDS activists. Even so, a slew of other musicians have defied boycott calls and performed. Israel has also enjoyed new economic partnerships and diplomatic ties despite calls for boycotts, and it has become a top destination for international sporting and cultural events. Earlier this month, Israel became the first non-European country to host stages of the Giro d'Italia cycling event.
  • Malaysian police said Friday the cash stashed in bags at an apartment linked to former Prime Minister Najib Razak and seized in a money-laundering investigation amounted to 114 million ringgit ($28.6 million). Police seized 284 boxes of expensive designer handbags and 72 pieces of luggage stuffed with cash, jewelry and watches from an unoccupied apartment at a high-end Kuala Lumpur condominium on May 18. Allegations of corruption at the 1MDB state investment fund that Najib set up led to his shocking defeat and the end of his coalition's 60-year unbroken rule in May 9 elections. He has denied any wrongdoing. Najib's United Malays National Organization, which is the main party in the former ruling coalition, said in a statement that the cash seized by police was donations to the party, partly for the recent elections. Najib has stepped down as party president after the election loss and hasn't yet transferred the money to the new leadership, the statement said. It called for the money to be returned to the party once the investigation is completed. Commercial crime investigations chief Amar Singh said 35 of the 72 pieces of luggage contained cash in 26 denominations, largely the Malaysian and Singapore currencies, amounting to 114 million ringgit. Singh said police are still assessing the value of jewelry and watches in the other 37 items of luggage. He declined to say who the unoccupied apartment belongs to, saying the investigation is ongoing. In total, Singh said police raided 12 locations as part of the probe into a criminal breach of trust involving the 1MDB fund. He said police also seized 500,000 ringgit ($126,000) in cash and an unidentified amount of foreign currencies, as well as more handbags and valuables from Najib's family home. Police also separately took 150 handbags and valuables from an apartment occupied by Najib's daughter, he said. Najib and his wife have been barred from leaving the country. Najib was grilled for more than 10 hours over two days this week by the anti-graft agency. The country's new anti-graft chief has said investigations into 1MDB were suppressed by intimidation during Najib's rule and that Najib could face criminal charges 'very soon.' New Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng has said Najib's administration had conducted an 'exercise of deception' over 1MDB and misrepresented the country's financial situation to Parliament. He said government debt had ballooned to more than 1 trillion ringgit (US$251 billion) and that the Finance Ministry had bailed out 1MDB by paying nearly 7 billion ringgit (US$1.76 billion) to service its debts since April 2017, contrary to 1MDB's claim that the money was from a rationalization exercise. 1MDB officials also told the ministry that the fund is insolvent and unable to repay millions more in debts due this year, Lim said.
  • Cyclone Mekunu will be 'extremely severe' when it crashes into the Arabian Peninsula this weekend, meteorologists warned Friday, after earlier thrashing the Yemeni island of Socotra. At least 17 people are missing from Socotra, with one Yemeni official describing them as likely dead. The cyclone is expected to make landfall early Saturday near Salalah, Oman's third-largest city and home to some 200,000 people near the sultanate's border with war-ravaged Yemen. Conditions quickly deteriorated in Salalah after sunrise Friday, with winds and rain beginning to pick up. Strong waves smashed into empty tourist beaches. Many holidaymakers fled the storm Thursday night before Salalah International Airport closed. India's Meteorological Department said the storm in the Arabian Sea was packing maximum sustained winds of 160-170 kilometers (99-106 miles) per hour, with gusts of up to 180 kph (112 mph). On Socotra, Gov. Ramzy Mahrous said one ship sank and two others ran aground in the storm. The storm sent torrents of rain pouring through homes and streets, leaving residents soaking wet and trying to wade to safety. He said of the 17 missing: 'We consider them dead.' Yemen's self-exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in a statement ordered troops under his command on the island to help citizens, deliver supplies and reopen roads. The island, listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, has been the focus of a dispute between the United Arab Emirates and Yemen's internationally recognized government amid that country's war after Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, seized the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. Saudi troops recently deployed on Socotra as a confidence-building measure over complaints by Yemen's government that the UAE deployed troops there without its permission. Socotra has a unique ecosystem and is home to rare plants, snails and reptiles that can be found nowhere else on the planet. It is known for its flower-and-fruit bearing dragon blood tree, which resembles an umbrella and gets its name from the dark red sap it secretes. Salalah, the hometown of Oman's longtime ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, already began sandbagging low-lying doors and warning residents not to go into valleys for fears of flashing flooding. Oman sent rescue helicopters to remote villages in its Dhofar governorate to evacuate those who could be impacted by flooding or mudslides. It also evacuated the critically ill from Sultan Qaboos Hospital in Salalah, flying them north to Muscat, the country's capital. The port of Salalah, crucial to Qatar amid a boycott by four Arab nations over a diplomatic spat with Doha, said it also had taken precautions and secured cranes ahead of the cyclone. Seasonal rains are nothing unusual for southern Oman this time of year. While the rest of the Arabian Peninsula bakes in areas where temperatures near 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), those in the sleepy port city of Salalah enjoy rainy weather that sees fog and cool air wrap around its lush mountainsides. Temperatures drop down around 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) during its annual monsoon festival. Powerful cyclones, however, are rare. Over a roughly 100-year period ending in 1996, only 17 recorded cyclones struck Oman. In 2007, Cyclone Gonu tore through the sultanate and later even reached Iran, causing $4 billion in damage in Oman alone and killing over 70 people across the Mideast. The last hurricane-strength storm to strike within 160 kilometers (100 miles) of Salalah came in May 1959, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's archives. However, that cyclone was categorized as a Category 1 hurricane, meaning it only had winds of up to 152 kph (95 mph). A cyclone is the same as a hurricane or a typhoon; their names only change because of their location. Hurricanes are spawned east of the international date line. Typhoons develop west of the line and are known as cyclones in the Indian Ocean and Australia. Mekunu, which means 'mullet' in Dhivehi, the language spoken in the Maldives, is on track to potentially be the same strength as a Category 2 hurricane at landfall. It also comes just days after Cyclone Sagar struck Somalia. ___ Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jongambrellAP His work can be found at http://apne.ws/2galNpz
  • North Korea said Friday that it's still willing to sit for talks with the United States 'at any time, (in) any format,' a remarkably restrained and diplomatic response, from a nation noted for its proud belligerence, to U.S. President Donald Trump's abrupt cancellation of a summit with the North's autocratic leader, Kim Jong Un. The statement by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, a longtime nuclear negotiator and senior diplomat, which said the North is 'willing to give the U.S. time and opportunities' to reconsider talks that had been set for June 12 in Singapore, could be driven by a need to use the summit to ease crushing international sanctions, or by a determination that a summit with the mercurial Trump is the best opportunity the North will ever have to elevate itself, and its nuclear program, to equality with its archrival. One analyst marveled that the North Korean response was 'close to an apology letter.' Regardless of the motivation, Kim Kye Gwan's statement is the latest whiplash development in efforts to diplomatically address what might be the world's most dangerous standoff. Focus will now swing back to how Trump will respond to the North's seemingly conciliatory gesture. The stakes are high. A scrapping of diplomacy could see a return to the torrent of weapons tests — and the fears of war they created — that North Korea unleashed last year as it sought to put the finishing touches on a nuclear-armed missile program meant to target the entire U.S. mainland. Since January, Kim has taken a radically softer approach to foreign affairs, sending his sister to the Olympics in South Korea, meeting with his South Korean counterpart on their shared border and exploding parts of his nuclear testing site Thursday in an apparent sign of good faith. The Singapore summit would have been the culmination of this outreach. Earlier comments by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, seen as a driving force behind the summit and just returned to Seoul from a meeting with Trump in Washington, suggested that the South, a top U.S. ally and host to 28,500 U.S. troops, was blindsided by Trump's statement. Moon said he was 'perplexed' at Trump's announcement that he was canceling the summit because of what the U.S. president said was North Korea's 'tremendous anger and open hostility.' Moon urged direct talks between Trump and Kim to get things back on track. Many observers had expected a belligerent North Korean response to Trump's cancellation, but the comments by Kim, the North's vice foreign minister, seemed, at times, almost meek, and in stark contrast to the bellicose declarations last year of the North's willingness to pursue nuclear war. Kim said Pyongyang's 'objective and resolve to do our best for the sake of peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and all humankind remain unchanged.' Kim said the cancellation of the talks shows 'how grave the status of historically deep-rooted hostile North Korea-U.S. relations is and how urgently a summit should be realized to improve ties.' 'As far as the historic (North Korea)-U.S. summit is concerned, we have inwardly highly appreciated President Trump for having made the bold decision, which any other U.S. presidents dared not, and made efforts for such a crucial event as the summit,' Kim said. 'His sudden and unilateral announcement to cancel the summit is something unexpected to us and we cannot but feel great regret for it.' Kim speculated that Trump may have 'lacked the will for the summit or he might not have felt confident,' but that the North has 'exerted sincere efforts' for talks that 'would mark a meaningful starting point for peace and security in the region and the world.' Kim Dong-yub, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Institute for Far Eastern Studies, said the North Korean response was notably 'courteous, reserved and diplomatically refined,' which he said shows that Pyongyang is eager to talk with Washington and believes that the United States needs more time to prepare for the summit. Trump's cancellation of the summit came amid mounting skepticism about the North's sincerity after the country's earlier threats to scrap the Kim-Trump summit. That may have been aimed at bolstering its negotiating position, rather than killing the meeting. 'They wanted to face the United States in a more confident position. Obama or (Bill) Clinton could have accepted (these kinds of North Korean statements). But it's Trump. He's decided not to enter talks while being pushed (by North Korea) like this,' said Choi Kang, vice president of Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies. Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University, said Kim's statement was 'close to an apology letter.' The North might have also sensed an opening in Trump's seemingly mixed messages. 'I really believe Kim Jong Un wants to do what's right,' the U.S. president said at one point. Trump also said from the White House that a 'maximum pressure campaign' of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation would continue against North Korea — with which the U.S. is technically still at war — but he added that it was possible the summit could still take place at some point. In his statement to the North, Trump said: 'If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write.' It was unclear whether Trump was engaged in what he saw as a negotiating ploy or if his moves were a manifestation of mounting internal concerns over ensuring a successful outcome for the summit. While the statement may keep the possibility of a summit alive, there were also hints in North Korea's response to Trump that Pyongyang was willing to walk away. Kim said the United States is at fault for what Trump described as North Korea's 'hostility,' saying that Pyongyang was responding to 'excessive' U.S. comments pressuring the country to 'unilaterally discard' its nuclear weapons ahead of the summit. Trump's move to cancel the summit has forced the North to 'rethink whether the efforts we have so far put in and the new path we have taken is the right choice.' ___ AP writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.
  • Italy's premier-designate Giuseppe Conte spent his first day on the job Thursday finalizing his proposed Cabinet list as European officials vowed to judge deeds, not words, from a euroskeptic and populist Italy in their ranks. Conte, a law professor and political unknown, received a mandate from President Sergio Mattarella on Wednesday to try to form a government after the 5-Star Movement and anti-immigrant League pitched him as their candidate for premier following two months of political deadlock. Conte, 53, spent much of his first day in consultations with political leaders, including the two populists backing him and the many skeptical of his would-be government's plans. In a sign of the sort of change he wants to bring, Conte told reporters he would end the day by meeting with Italian savers who lost money when the small banks where they had stored their life savings failed. 'These people have the right to be listened to by the institutions. They are asking for respect of their rights and that their savings be protected,' Conte said. 'This protection will be one of the principal commitments of this government.' Conte said that he would meet Friday with the Bank of Italy's president, and then spend the rest of the day working on the Cabinet to present to Mattarella. He gave no indication of when that might be. Speculation swirled over his proposed Cabinet list, and whether it would be his choice or that of the two party leaders who put him in charge: 5-Star Leader Luigi Di Maio and League leader Matteo Salvini. Both offered assurances after their meetings with Conte that he was in charge of choosing ministers, along with Mattarella. Conte said the ministers that he proposes 'will be political, just as yours truly.' Most controversial is their pick for economy minister, Paolo Savona, an 81-year-old former industry minister who has had held a series of positions in government, industry and banking. He is also known for his euroskeptic views, which will surely be a concern of Mattarella's who will want to ensure that any minister will respect Italy's commitments with its partners. Salvini doubled down in insisting on his pick for economy minister, saying Italians should cheer that someone will finally represent their interests in Brussels while acknowledging Savona's 'past doubts' about the euro. Political analyst Stefano Folli said that how they resolve the Savona question 'will make clear the tone of the government.' 'Above all, it will be clear if it has the fuel to take off and maintain altitude for at least a few months,' Folli wrote in La Repubblica. Di Maio again repeated that the government intends to fulfill its full five-year mandate. After his meeting with Conte, Maurizio Martina of the Democratic Party, which badly lost the March elections and has vowed to stay in the opposition, continued to express doubt about the proposed populist government, calling the two leaders 'inconsistent' and their program 'superficial.' He warned them: 'Don't joke with the sacrifices of Italians in these last years, made by families, companies and workers to bring the country out of the worst crisis since the war.' Giorgia Meloni, the head of the small, far-right Fratelli d'Italia party that was part of a right-wing bloc that ran in the election together with the League, said they would support the incoming government on flat tax, immigration curbs and security matters, but would otherwise vote on the merits of each proposal. She expressed doubt about the basic income proposal from the 5-Star Movement. Beatrice Lorenzin, former health minister and head of a small centrist party, urged the incoming health minister to make decisions based on science and evidence — a reference to the 5-Star pledge to undo the expanded obligatory vaccination program that was a hallmark of Lorenzin's tenure and passed during a deadly measles outbreak. In Brussels, meanwhile, finance ministers gathering for a Eurogroup meeting expressed relief at Conte's pledge to respect Italy's European commitments during comments after being tapped Wednesday evening. 'We all took positive note of the first declarations of the president of the Italian council (of ministers) who committed to respect the European rules,' French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said. 'It is a positive signal and we want to work constructively with Italy, and we will judge it on its actions.' As recently as last week, Le Maire had warned that the eurozone's financial stability could be threatened if a populist government blows Italy's deficit commitments. The 5-Star-League government program calls for a host of budget-busting measures, with little detail on financing, including a basic income for needy Italians and a two-tier flat tax that is expected to add to Italy's debt load, already Europe's heaviest after Greece. Emerging from Mattarella's office Wednesday, Conte vowed to implement the program, saying Italians were waiting for a 'government of change' and that he couldn't wait to get to work to deliver it. But he also sought to reassure allies and markets that Italy would respect its European and international obligations, particularly as the EU begins budget negotiations. 'Deeds count more than words,' responded Margaritis Schinas, spokesman of the European Commission, when asked at the daily briefing about Conte's assurances. ___ Colleen Barry reported from Milan.
  • We meet again, Mr. Bond — or maybe not. Britain's MI6 intelligence service has made its first-ever television ad, aiming to banish macho James Bond-style imagery and attract more women and ethnic-minority recruits. The TV spot shows a shark gliding through an aquarium, watched by a child who backs away nervously before being comforted by his mother. A voiceover says that, as an intelligence officer, 'it is not keeping your cool in the shark tank, it is picking up the silent cues that matter.' The ad, airing Thursday on British TV, ends: 'MI6: Secretly we are just like you.' MI6 chief Alex Younger says the spy agency is trying to diversify. He says 'I want people who would have never have thought about joining MI6 to think about joining MI6.
  • Growing U.S. pressure on Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, including a new wave of sanctions targeting its top leadership, may hamper the formation of a new government that caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri was overwhelmingly chosen to form on Thursday. Hariri's aim is to quickly recreate a national unity government that incorporates Hezbollah members to implement reforms and deal with a crippling and growing national debt, but might come under increasing pressure from the U.S. and its Arab allies to shun the militant group which says it wants to play a bigger role in the future Cabinet. After a day of consultations between President Michel Aoun and the country's 128 legislators, 111 named Hariri as their choice to form a new Cabinet while the rest, including Hezbollah's bloc and some of its allies, did not give a name. Hariri's nomination comes after this month's parliament elections in which Hezbollah, along with its political allies, significantly increased their presence in the legislature. 'The least we should expect is huge complications over the formation of the Cabinet,' said Nabil Bou Monsef, deputy editor-in-chief of the leading daily An-Nahar. He said Lebanon is again in the heart of the U.S.-Iran conflict and this will lead to 'complications over the government that will be caused by conditions and counter conditions.' Despite soaring regional tensions, Hariri appeared optimistic after he was named to form the Cabinet. 'I extend my hand to all political elements. We should work together to achieve what the Lebanese people are looking for,' Hariri told reporters. Asked if there will be a veto on Hezbollah's participation, Hariri said 'I only heard that from the Lebanese media. This is the first time I hear it.' Hariri added: 'I am open to all elements and never closed the door in front of anyone.' Hezbollah, which has 13 seats in the 128-member legislature, did not name its own candidate for the premiership as it has done in the past — signaling it will likely go along with Hariri's re-appointment despite tense relations between the Iran-allied Shiite group and the Western-backed Hariri. A U.N.-backed tribunal has indicted five Hezbollah members in the 2005 assassination of Hariri's father and former premier Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah denies the charges. 'We have confirmed our readiness to take part in the next government and to deal positively with whomever is named by the majority,' Mohammed Raad, who heads Hezbollah's bloc in parliament, said after meeting Aoun. Naming Hariri came amid concerns in Lebanon that a new wave of sanctions by the U.S. and its Arab allies against Hezbollah would delay Hariri's formation of the Cabinet. The increasing pressures by the U.S. and its Arab allies on Hezbollah come amid rising tensions in the region following President Donald Trump's decision earlier this month to withdraw Washington from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the militant group's gains in the May 6, parliamentary elections. On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tehran should end its support of Hezbollah, Iran's most powerful arm in the region. 'We will track down Iranian operatives and their Hezbollah proxies operating around the world and crush them,' Pompeo said. Pompeo in testimony Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was asked if the Lebanese government is now indistinguishable from Hezbollah and whether the U.S. should continue to provide assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces. 'I don't believe that it is, although we are reviewing that, to be sure, to make sure that the actions that we take, the funding that is provided, is provided appropriately and consistent with the law,' he said. The U.S. has been imposing sanctions on the militant group for decade. However, a new wave last week appears to be more serious about targeting the group's top leadership as well as businessmen and companies that Washington says are funding the group that is heavily involved in Syria's seven-year war, providing strong military backing for President Bashar Assad's forces. The sanctions reflect the battle between the U.S. and its allies against Iran, which has expanded its influence in the Arab world in recent years. Tehran enjoys wide influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen and last year opened a land corridor from its border through Iraq and Syria all the way to the Mediterranean. On May 16, the U.S. and the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council that includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman imposed sanctions on 10 top Hezbollah officials including its leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, his deputy Naim Kassem and top officials Hashem Safieddine, Ibrahim Aim al-Sayyed, Hussein Khalil and Mohammed Yazbek. A day later, Washington imposed sanctions on businessman Mohammed Ibrahim Bazzi and Hezbollah's representative in Iran, Abdullah Safieddine, as well as several companies in Europe, Africa and Lebanon saying they launder money for the group. The six GCC countries and the U.S. consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization while the European Union only labels its military wing as a terrorist group. 'This action highlights the duplicity and disgraceful conduct of Hezbollah and its Iranian backers. Despite Nasrallah's claims, Hezbollah uses financiers like Bazzi who are tied to drug dealers, and who launder money to fund terrorism,' said Secretary of the Treasury Steven T. Mnuchin in a statement. 'The savage and depraved acts of one of Hezbollah's most prominent financiers cannot be tolerated. This Administration will expose and disrupt Hezbollah and Iranian terror networks at every turn, including those with ties to the Central Bank of Iran,' he said. Hariri said earlier this week that the sanctions will not hinder the formation of a new Cabinet but on the contrary might accelerate it. On Sunday, outgoing cabinet minister Marwan Hamadeh, a Hariri ally, said that sanctions on Hezbollah would 'hamper the formation of the government.' Senior Hezbollah official Nabil Kaouk said Saudi Arabia does not want his group to be represented in the government, adding that the coming days will prove that the kingdom 'is weak and cannot prevent Hezbollah from holding important portfolios in the government.' A Saudi envoy said during a visit to Lebanon over the weekend that the kingdom does not interfere in the country's internal politics and supports the stability of Lebanon. Hezbollah's allies are strongly standing behind the organization's representation in the new Cabinet. 'The party should be represented in the new government. This is not negotiable,' said Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement that has the largest bloc in parliament, about Hezbollah. __ Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.