Russia, Turkey and Iran sign deal to establish Syrian safe zones

Russia, Iran and Turkey on Thursday signed an agreement on setting up four safe zones in Syria that the United Nations described as a promising step to wind down the brutal six-year war.


The United States however gave an extremely cautious welcome, citing concerns over Iran’s role as a guarantor, even as it expressed hope that the deal could set the stage for a settlement.

Several members of the rebel delegation left the room shouting in protest as the signing ceremony got underway in the Kazakh capital Astana, angry at regime ally Iran, an AFP reporter saw. 


The plan for the “de-escalation areas” was discussed on Tuesday by US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a telephone conversation.

The agreement provides for a ceasefire, a ban on all flights, rapid deliveries of humanitarian aid to the designated areas and the return of refugees.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “encouraged” by the breakthrough. He stressed it will be “crucial to see this agreement actually improve the lives of Syrians.”

Russia and Iran, which back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the war, and Turkey, a supporter of rebel forces, hope to build on a ceasefire deal they reached in December.

The Syrian government and rebel delegations are not signatories to the deal. 

“We are not supporting this agreement. It is an agreement between the three countries,” said Usama Abu Zeid, a rebel spokesman. “We do not at all agree that Iran… is a guarantor of this accord.”

Watch: Trump vows to strike Middle East peace deal

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‘Promising’ step

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, who was in Astana as an observer, described the agreement as “an important, promising, positive step in the right direction” toward de-escalation.

A working group will be set up within two weeks to resolve technical issues and the three countries agreed to set up the four areas by June 4.

The areas include key territory held by anti-Assad forces.

The first zone includes the whole of Idlib province along with certain parts of neighboring Latakia, Aleppo and Hama provinces. 

The second will encompass certain parts in the north of Homs province, and the third will be comprised of some areas of Eastern Ghouta, outside of Damascus. 

The fourth zone will include parts of the Deraa and Quneitra provinces in southern Syria, according to the memorandum seen by AFP.

Watch: Trump and Putin speak on Syria 

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US doubts about Iran

The UN envoy said the deal would be quickly put to the test and that success on the ground could pave the way to a new round of political talks in Geneva later this month.

“There will be a period not longer than two weeks in which all this will be seriously put to the test and we want that test to succeed,” he said.

In Washington, the State Department, which had dispatched an observer to the talks, said it appreciated Russian and Turkish efforts but called into doubt Iran’s role.

“We continue to have concerns about the Astana agreement, including the involvement of Iran as a so-called ‘guarantor’,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

“Iran’s activities in Syria have only contributed to the violence, not stopped it, and Iran’s unquestioning support for the Assad regime has perpetuated the misery of ordinary Syrians.”

“We nonetheless hope that this arrangement can contribute to a de-escalation of violence, end the suffering of the Syrian people, and set the stage for a political settlement of the conflict,” she said. 

Watch: Battle against IS rages in Mosul 

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What monitoring?

Russia’s envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, said the zones would remain in place for six months, a period that could be extended. 

It remained unclear whether there would be any international monitoring of the safe zones.

Guterres said the United Nations will support de-escalation efforts, but he did not specify whether it would have a role in the new set-up.

Putin said Wednesday that ways to monitor the zones would be an issue for separate talks. 

Lavrentiev said Moscow was ready to send observers to the zones. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in comments published Thursday that the plan would solve “50 percent” of the six-year conflict.

Damascus supports the Russian plan, Syrian state news agency SANA reported. 

Syrian rebels said earlier Thursday that they had resumed participation in the talks after having suspended their involvement a day earlier over air strikes against civilians. 

More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since the country’s war began with anti-government protests in March 2011. 


Delta Airlines apologises after family kicked off overbooked flight

In yet another incident that could prove a public relations nightmare for the US airline industry, a California couple is claiming they were kicked off an overbooked Delta flight for refusing to give up their child’s seat.


The incident unfolded last week as the Schear family of Huntington Beach were flying home from Hawaii to Los Angeles.

In a video of the April 23 confrontation filmed and posted by the couple on YouTube, a flight attendant is overheard asking that they give up a seat occupied by their two-year-old son.

The father, Brian Schear, initially refuses on grounds the seat was paid for but finally relents. He is nonetheless booted off the flight with his wife and two toddlers.


“This is a federal offense and then you and your wife will be in jail and your kids will be in foster care,” a crew member is overheard telling Schear when he first refuses to disembark.

Delta airlines said in a statement to AFP on Thursday that the company was “sorry for the unfortunate experience” and had reached out to the family to refund their travel and offer compensation.

“Delta’s goal is to always work with customers in an attempt to find solutions to their travel issues,” the statement adds. “That did not happen in this case and we apologize.”

Brian Schear said the family had to scramble to find a hotel room after being kicked off the airplane and paid $2,000 the next day for another flight, this time on United Airlines.

“We never thought it was going to get to the point where they were actually getting us all off the flight,” he told the local CBS television station. 

“As we were leaving the plane, there’s four or five passengers waiting for our seat. The bottom line is, they oversold the flight.”

– Public relations nightmare –

Schear said the seat he was asked to give up had originally been bought for his 18-year-old son Mason, who ended up going home on an earlier flight so the younger child could use it.

“Sir, Mason is not here, so Mason is the one that owns the seat,” a crew member is overheard telling him on the video.

The Delta crew also tries to coax Schear into giving up the seat by telling him that under federal regulations, two-year-old children must sit on an adult’s lap during a flight.

Schear fired back that that argument did not hold up given that the toddler flew out in a separate seat on the way to Hawaii and was doing the same on the way back.

Delta’s website encourages parents to purchase a separate seat for children as does the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“We want you and your children to have the safest, most comfortable flight possible,” the airline’s website states. “For kids under the age of two, we recommend you purchase a seat on the aircraft and use an approved child safety seat.”

The video of the California family’s mishap, which was being widely shared on social media Thursday, follows a number of other incidents that have prompted outrage and proven a public relations fiasco for some of the airlines involved.

The most notable was that of a doctor who was left bloodied after being dragged off an overbooked United Airlines flight last month in Chicago.

Several days later, a Delta passenger was forced off a flight for making an emergency bathroom run while the plane was waiting for take off.

United also made headlines last month after a giant rabbit being flown from Britain to Chicago died while in its care.


Countries condemn Venezuelan govt violence

Eight Latin American nations have denounced Venezuelan authorities’ “excessive use of force” against civilian protesters after the death toll from anti-government unrest in Venezuela rose to 36.


Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Paraguay condemned the increase in violence in the oil-producing nation and urged the Venezuelan government to respect human rights of its citizens.

“We condemn the excessive use of force by Venezuelan authorities against civilians who are protesting government measures that affect democratic stability and cause the loss of human life,” they said in a statement from the Mexican government.

The statement comes as a mass of students battled tear gas-throwing police officers in demonstrations across Venezuela’s capital as the two-month-old protest movement showed no signs of letting up.

“We are students, not terrorists!” students chanted as they marched in Caracas on Thursday.

Soldiers bathed hundreds of protesters in tear gas at the Central University of Venezuela, with medics in gas masks attending to students with bloodied faces and limbs.

A 38-year-old police officer died in central state of Carabobo after being shot during a Wednesday protest that had hundreds of thousands of people on the street nationwide, authorities said.

Opposition leaders said 30 were injured in Thursday’s student demonstrations. Overall, more than 1000 have been arrested.

Protesters are demanding immediate presidential elections.

President Nicolas Maduro accused the opposition of attempting a coup and has responded with an initiative to rewrite the constitution.

Venezuelans were also shaken on Thursday after rumours about the health of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

President Nicolas Maduro’s leftist government, facing a wave of major opposition protests since last month, later issued a short “proof of life” video in which Lopez said he was fine.

Meningococcal a disease of the young


* Meningococcal disease is an acute bacterial infection that causes septicaemia (blood poisoning) and/or meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord)

* It is a medical emergency that can kill within hours if not recognised and treated promptly

* 10 per cent of patients die and around 20 per cent will have permanent disabilities – ranging from sight and hearing problems and loss of fingers or toes


* Babies, children and young adults are most at risk

* Two thirds of cases are children up to the age of 5 years due to their immature immune systems

* Teenagers and young adults from 15 to 24 years are also at higher risk because of their social lifestyles

* Winter and early spring are higher risk times


* Meningococcal bacteria is transmitted through mucus via sneezing, coughing, kissing and sharing of food or drinks

* About 20 per cent of people will be carrying these bacteria at any one time without ever becoming ill

* Daycare centres, school camps, parties and nightclubs make it easier for the bacteria to spread


* A high fever is usually one of the symptoms, and people are advised not to wait for a purple rash to appear before seeking treatment

* Babies will refuse to feed, cry, become floppy and can arch their body or neck

Common symptoms include:

* Fever (which may not go down with medication)

* Nausea or vomiting

* Lack of energy, tiredness or drowsiness

* Confusion or disorientation

* Dizziness

* Irritability or agitation

* Sore throat

Meningitis Only Symptoms:

* Severe headache

* Stiff neck

* Sensitivity to light

* A rash

Septicaemia Only Symptoms:

* Fever with cold hands and feet

* Muscle or joint pain

* Pain in chest or abdomen

* Pale, grey or blotchy skin

* Rapid breathing

* Diarrhoea

* Rash may start off as a spot, scratch mark or blister

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Accusations fly as French run-off looms

Allegations of fake news and hacking attempts are dominating the end of France’s tense presidential campaign, as centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right rival Marine Le Pen try to win over voters before Sunday’s run-off.


Paris prosecutors launched a preliminary investigation on Thursday into whether fake news was being used to influence the voting, as frontrunner Macron and populist Le Pen held their last big campaign events.

There has been intense anxiety in France over the possibility viral misinformation or hackers could influence the vote, as in the 2016 US presidential election.

Those fears have largely failed to materialise.

Then Thursday, Macron’s campaign filed suit against unknown source “X” after Le Pen suggested during their debate on Wednesday that the former banker could have an offshore account.

“I hope we won’t find out you have an offshore account in the Bahamas,” Le Pen said.

She appeared to be referring to two sets of apparent forgeries, published just hours before the TV debate, purporting to show Macron was involved with a Caribbean bank and a firm based on the island of Nevis.

On France Inter radio, Macron blamed Le Pen for spreading “fake news” and said he had never held a bank account “in any tax haven whatsoever”.

In a subsequent twist, Le Pen’s campaign said a far-left hacker was arrested this week and confessed to repeatedly targeting its website.

Le Pen gave a fiery speech in a field in northern France on Thursday, with an emotional appeal to desperate farmers, the jobless and the disillusioned.

Painting herself as the “voice of the people”, she said her rival would continue the painful status quo.

“Don’t let them steal the election,” she warned, summoning voters to join Sunday’s “rendez-vous with history”.

Macron, meanwhile, was on France’s southern edge in the Pyrenees town of Albi, visiting disgruntled factory workers before holding his last rally in which he called on voters from the left and the right to choose his reformist, pro-European platform.