Philippines expands US access to military bases

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr (left) greets US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin before a meeting at the Malacanang Palace in Manila

Manila (AFP) - The United States and the Philippines announced a deal Thursday to give US troops access to another four bases in the Southeast Asian nation, as the longtime allies seek to counter China's military rise.

The agreement to expand cooperation in "strategic areas of the country" was made during a visit by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

It comes as the countries seek to repair ties that were fractured in recent years. Previous Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte favoured China over his country's former colonial master, but the new administration of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has been keen to reverse that.

Beijing's growing assertiveness on Taiwan and its building of bases in the disputed South China Sea have given fresh impetus to Washington and Manila to strengthen their partnership.

Given its proximity to Taiwan and its surrounding waters, the Philippines' cooperation would be key in the event of a conflict with China, which a four-star US Air Force general has warned could happen as early as 2025.

"We're pleased to announce today that President Marcos has approved four new (Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement) locations and that brings the total number of EDCA sites to nine," Austin said during a news conference with his Philippine counterpart Carlito Galvez.

Talks were ongoing for a potential 10th site, a senior Philippine official told AFP earlier.

The announcement came as the United States reopened its embassy in the Solomon Islands, after a 30-year hiatus, as it competes with China for influence in the South Pacific.

The United States and the Philippines have a decades-old security alliance that includes a mutual defence treaty and the 2014 EDCA pact, which allows US troops to rotate through five Philippine bases, including those near disputed waters.

It also allows the US military to store defence equipment and supplies on those bases.

The EDCA stalled under Duterte, but Marcos has sought to accelerate its implementation.

Galvez told reporters the location of the new sites would be made public after local communities and officials had been consulted.

But it has been widely reported that most of the new locations will be on the main island of Luzon -- the closest Philippine landmass to Taiwan -- where the US already has access to two bases.

The fourth will reportedly be on the western island of Palawan, facing the Spratly Islands in the hotly contested South China Sea, taking the number of sites there to two.

'Illegitimate claims'

Austin said the allies were committed to "strengthening our mutual capacities to resist armed attack", as he accused China of making "illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea".

Manila refers to waters immediately west of the country as the West Philippine Sea. 

The United States is also seeking to bolster alliances with other nations to counter China's rapid military advances, including its AUKUS partnership with Australia and Britain.

Australia has agreed to step up the pace of military interactions with the US, while Japan is planning to enter joint exercises with both countries.

While Marcos has sought to strike a balance between China and the United States, he has insisted he will not let Beijing trample on Manila's maritime rights.

About 500 US military personnel are currently in the Philippines, with others rotating through the country for joint exercises as required. 

Protest against EDCA

Around 100 protesters rallied outside Philippine military headquarters on Thursday, calling for EDCA to be scrapped. 

"Allowing US use of our facilities will drag us into this conflict (over Taiwan) which is not aligned with our national interests," said Renato Reyes of the leftist alliance Bayan. 

The US military presence has long been a sensitive issue in the Philippines. 

The United States previously had two major bases in its former colony, but in 1991 the Senate voted to terminate the lease agreement after growing nationalist sentiment.

Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and has ignored a ruling at The Hague that its claims have no legal basis.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also have overlapping claims to parts of the sea.

China also claims self-ruled, democratic Taiwan as part of its territory, to be reclaimed one day, by force if necessary.

"Looking at the location of the proposed sites, it seems pretty clear that these sites are in relation to a Taiwan contingency," said Greg Wyatt of PSA Philippines Consultancy. 

Tears and anger as US police beating victim Tyre Nichols laid to rest

US civil rights leader Al Sharpton, pictured with RowVaughn Wells and Rodney Wells, the mother and stepfather of police violence victim Tyre Nichols, during his funeral in Memphis

Memphis (AFP) - Civil rights leaders, family and friends came together in a Memphis church Wednesday to bid farewell to Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old African American whose fatal beating by police shocked the nation -- and triggered urgent calls for reform.

"We mourn with you, and the people of our country mourn with you," Vice President Kamala Harris told the young man's family during a rousing service punctuated by gospel music and emotional speeches.

Anger is still simmering over Nichols' death on January 10, three days after he was beaten and kicked in a traffic stop by five Black police officers -- rekindling a national debate about brutality in law enforcement.

Calling out the officers over the deadly "act of violence," Harris urged Congress to pass a stalled reform bill named for George Floyd, whose murder by police in 2020 ignited waves of unrest across the country and beyond.

Speaking though tears, Nichols' mother RowVaughn Wells joined Harris in calling on lawmakers to act -- flanked by the veteran civil rights leader Al Sharpton who delivered the eulogy for her son.

"We need to take some action," Wells said. "Because if we don't, the next child that dies -- that blood is going to be on their hands."

During the ceremony, Nichols was remembered as "a beautiful soul, a son, a father, a brother, a friend, a human being, gone too soon," in the words of Reverend J. Lawrence Turner.

Mourners were shown pictures shot by the young man, a keen photographer, as well as clips of him skateboarding -- another passion.

"All I want is my baby brother back," said Keyana Dixon, his older sister, who noted that even as he was being beaten by police her brother remained polite asking them to "Please stop."

Another relative read a poem inspired by the excruciating footage of his fatal encounter with police, titled "I'm Just Trying To Go Home."

In a sign of the far-reaching resonance of Nichols' death, Harris was joined at the funeral by the director Spike Lee, and by relatives of other Black victims of police violence, including George Floyd's brother Philonise Floyd.

Also present was Tamika Palmer, the mother of Breonna Taylor, who was killed in a botched raid on her Kentucky home in 2020.

Like Floyd, Taylor has since become one of the icons of the Black Lives Matter movement seeking police reform and racial justice.

- 'Thugs' -

Nichols was arrested by members of a special police unit called Scorpion in Memphis on January 7 for what police said was a traffic violation.

He was beaten viciously, as recorded in body camera and security camera footage that triggered national outrage when it was made public last week. 

The five officers involved have been fired and are facing murder charges. Two others along with three firefighters have been suspended as the investigation continues.

In his eulogy, Sharpton said the officers had betrayed the spirit of the movement led by Martin Luther King, who was shot dead in a racist attack in Memphis in 1968.

African Americans would never have been hired by Memphis police without the campaign led by King, said Sharpton.

"People had to march and go to jail and some lost their lives to open the doors for you. And how dare you act like that sacrifice was for nothing?" 

"You don't fight crime by becoming criminals yourself," he said. "You don't stand up to thugs in the street becoming thugs yourself." 

Sharpton also argued that Nichols' race was a factor in how police treated him, saying the officers would not have subjected a white person to such a beating.

City data published by The New York Times showed that while Black residents make up two-thirds of the population of Memphis, since 2016 they had accounted for 86 percent of encounters in which police used force.

President Joe Biden had also reached out to Nichols' family ahead of the funeral, declaring himself "outraged and deeply pained" by his death.

Like Harris, the president has renewed calls for police reform -- which he is set to discuss at the White House on Thursday with members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

As Nichols' funeral took place, a new uproar was building over a bystander video from Los Angeles that appears to show the moments before police officers shot dead a double amputee, an African American, as he fled on his stumps.

The officers involved said they were responding to reports of an unprovoked stabbing carried out by a man in a wheelchair.

US says Russia not complying with last remaining nuclear treaty

Russian soldiers run along Red Square on September 29, 2022 prior to a ceremony announcing the incorporation of Ukrainian territories into Russia

Washington (AFP) - The United States said Tuesday that Russia was not complying with New START, the last remaining arms control treaty between the world's two main nuclear powers, as tensions soar over the Ukraine war. 

Responding to a request from Congress, the State Department faulted Russia for suspending inspections and canceling talks but did not accuse Moscow of expanding nuclear warheads beyond agreed limits.

"Russia is not complying with its obligation under the New START Treaty to facilitate inspection activities on its territory," a State Department spokesperson said, charging that Moscow's refusal "threatens the viability of US-Russian nuclear arms control." 

"Russia has a clear path for returning to full compliance. All Russia needs to do is allow inspection activities on its territory, just as it did for years under the New START Treaty, and meet in a session of the Bilateral Consultative Commission," he said, referring to the formal talks set up under the treaty. 

"There is nothing preventing Russian inspectors from traveling to the United States and conducting inspections." 

Moscow announced in early August that it was suspending US inspections of its military sites under New START. It said it was responding to American obstruction of inspections by Russia, a charge denied by Washington.

Diplomacy between the two powers has ground to a bare minimum over the past year as the United States leads a drive to punish Russia economically for its war against Ukraine and arm Kyiv with billions of dollars in weapons.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, reviving Cold War era fears of an apocalyptic war.

Russia indefinitely postponed talks under New START that had been due to start on November 29 in Cairo, accusing the United States of "toxicity and animosity." 

'Make the world safer'

President Joe Biden shortly after taking office extended New START by five years until 2026, giving time to negotiate while preserving what the Democratic administration sees as an important existing treaty. 

The previous administration of Donald Trump had ripped up previous arms control agreements and had been hesitant to preserve New START in its current form, saying that any nuclear treaty must also include China, whose arsenal is rapidly growing but still significantly below those of Russia and the United States. 

The Biden administration indicated that it wanted to preserve New START. The State Department spokesperson said the treaty was meant "to make the world safer." 

Republican lawmakers, who took control of the House of Representatives in January, had asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken to report by Tuesday whether Russia was in violation. 

A group of Republicans active on defense policy responded that Biden had "naively" extended New START and said that Russia "cannot be trusted to abide by any international agreement."

"We urge President Biden to direct the Department of Defense to prepare for a future where Russia may deploy large numbers of warheads, well in excess of New START treaty limits," said a statement by Republicans including Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

New START, signed by then president Barack Obama in 2010 when relations were warmer, restricted Russia and the United States to a maximum of 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads each -- a reduction of nearly 30 percent from the previous limit set in 2002. 

It also limits the number of launchers and heavy bombers to 800, still easily enough to destroy Earth.

At California gun fair, few speak of recent massacres

Familes browse at the Crossroads of the West Gun Show at the Convention Center in Ontario, California, on January 28, 2023

Ontario (United States) (AFP) - With ammunition, rifles and bullet-proof vests on display, business is brisk at a Los Angeles area gun show -- so much so you'd never know a mass shooting unfolded nearby just days ago.

Thousands of people turned out this weekend in the city of Ontario in California to view dozens of stands at the trade fair called the Crossroads of the West Gun Show.

Women pushing baby strollers looked at small pistols while strapping young men examined military-style semi-automatic riles that can handle several calibers of ammo. The vibe is cheerful. Kids under 12 get in free.

Most people did not want to address the elephant in the room, though, even as the state mourns. 

A mass shooting at a dance hall in Monterey Park, a 30-minute drive away, left 11 dead on September 21. Two days later, another shooter killed seven more people at farms in Half Moon Bay, near San Francisco. In both cases the shooters were elderly Asian men.

"Nobody talks about these incidents, but there is a spike in purchases this week," said a vendor at the show, Crystal Markanson.

"Every time that the media talks about a mass shooting, people buy guns because they're afraid that they'll get taken away."

Self-defense

The latest chapter in America's relentless gun violence crisis reignited an old debate on firearms control.

Yet again, President Joe Biden called for a federal ban on military-style assault rifles, the kind of gun often used in these mass killings.

But with Republicans in Congress steadfastly opposed, the idea has no chance of becoming law.

"Targeting specific styles of guns is not the right answer," said Brett Reeves, a 34-year-old air conditioning salesman who wore a cowboy hat.

In California, which has some of the country's toughest gun laws, assault rifles have been banned for more than 30 years.

"And yet we keep hearing about mass shootings," Reeves added.

The self-described libertarian owns a dozen or so guns, from pump action rifles to pistols, and none of them are registered with authorities. He has built them himself with gun parts he buys at shows like this one he is taking in now.

Reeves said he was not surprised to learn the gun used in the Monterey Park shooting was illegal. That is because it is considered an assault weapon.

"Restrictions are only pushing people to go underground," said Reeves, who described himself as big on guns for self-defense.

"And crazy psychos are going to continue targeting innocent people," he added.

Texas is a lot safer than California because there in the Lone Star State, Reeves insisted, it is easier to carry a gun out in the open.

"You have to be able to protect yourself against those crazy people," said Reeves.

'Need to stop'

Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, said: "Our laws are working. California's rates of gun violence are much lower than in the rest of the country."

But he noted that the country is awash with 400 million guns. The US population is about 330 million.

Unlike other places in the US, you can't just buy a gun at the Ontario show and take it home.

Buyers must prove they are at least 21, undergo a background check and, if they clear, wait 10 days to take delivery of the weapon.

Thanks to restrictions like these, compared to citizens of other states, Californians are about 25 percent less likely to die in mass shootings, says the Public Policy Institute of California.

"These tragedies need to stop. People should be safe and not get shot," a man named Adolfo Garcia said as he left the fair after stocking up on bullets for his semi-automatic rifle.

'Drought' has New Yorkers asking: 'Where's the snow?'

New York's Bryant Park on a snowy day in December 2020

New York (AFP) - The idea of New York in wintertime conjures up images of Manhattan's Times Square and Central Park shrouded in snow. Not this year.

The city is forecast Sunday to surpass a 50-year record for the latest first snowfall of the season.

It is also close to recording its highest number of consecutive days without any measurable flakes.

The snowless streak has New Yorkers puzzled, some questioning their love-hate relationship with the white stuff.

"It's really sad," said retired teacher Anne Hansen. "Basically, we don't like to see the snow. But now we're sorely missing it," she told AFP.

The Big Apple usually gets its first dusting around mid-December. Last season it arrived on Christmas Eve.

A heavy load often results in "snow days," beloved by children and office workers who gets days off school and work.

Kids grab their sleds and head to the nearest grassy slope. Adults cross-country ski around the main parks.

"You stay home, you drink hot cocoa; it's beautiful and the dog loves it," filmmaker Renata Romain told AFP.

Joy turns to despair fairly quickly though, as the snow turns yellowy-brown, trash piles up on the sidewalk and trips to the launderette become hazardous.

"The snow is pretty to look at the first day, but afterwards it's dirty and I don't like it. It's slushy. It's nasty," added Romain.

Meteorologists define snowfall in NYC as snow that measures at least 0.1 inches in Central Park. Some flakes fell last Wednesday but not enough to count.

The longest residents have had to wait for measurable snow is January 29, a record set in 1973, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).

No snow Sunday will mean the longest wait since records began in 1869.

New York is also approaching its longest streak of consecutive days without snow. The current record is 332, which ended on December 15, 2020.

Sunday would be day 326. Accuweather has called the period a "snow drought."

"It's very unusual," NWS meteorologist Nelson Vaz told AFP, saying the global La Nina weather pattern was responsible for keeping colder fronts further north and west.

Up to 40 inches (one meter) of snow fell in Buffalo, New York state, near the Canadian border, in December, killing at least 39 people.

But a few hundred miles southeast, in NYC and surrounding Atlantic coastal areas, the precipitation has meant lots of rain amid mild temperatures.

Only 1932 had a warmer first 25 days of January in New York than 2023, according to Weather.com.

Scientists say climate change is causing winters to be warmer and shorter.

"It's disconcerting," Hansen said of recent balmy days that have felt more like fall.

New York has never gone a whole cold season without measurable snow.

And with February usually its snowiest month, a white blanket could soon envelope the Big Apple yet.

"That's what makes New York, New York, right?" said Romain.

Blinken heads to Middle East as violence erupts

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, seen speaking to the US Conference of Mayors on January 18, 2023, hopes to ease tensions in the Middle East

Washington (AFP) - US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due Sunday in Egypt at the start of a Middle East trip on which he will look to use US influence to notch down Israeli-Palestinian tensions after an eruption of violence.

Blinken, who will travel Monday and Tuesday to Jerusalem and Ramallah, had long planned the visit to see Israel's new right-wing government, but the trip takes on a new urgency after some of the worst violence in years.

A Palestinian gunman on Friday killed seven people outside a synagogue in a settler neighborhood of east Jerusalem, and another attack followed on Saturday.

On Thursday, nine people were killed in an Israeli army raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank in one of the deadliest such operations in years. Israel said it was targeting Islamic Jihad militants and also hit the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire.

Blinken will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas and call "broadly for steps to be taken to de-escalate tensions," State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters as he condemned the "horrific" synagogue attack.

The violence is also likely to figure in talks between Blinken and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose country's traditional role as a Middle East mediator has helped him remain a key US partner despite President Joe Biden's criticism of his human rights record.

The United States, with its close relationship to Israel, has historically taken a lead on Middle East diplomacy. 

But experts questioned whether Blinken could achieve any breakthroughs.

"The absolute best they can do is to keep things stable to avoid another May 2021," said Aaron David Miller, a veteran US negotiator, referring to more than two weeks of fighting between Israel and Hamas that ended with an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire.

Ghaith Al-Omari, a former Palestinian official now at The Washington Institute, expected Blinken to repeat traditional US positions rather than break new ground.

"The trip itself is the message," he said.

"Blinken will ask Abbas to do more but it is not clear what they can do," he said, referring to the Palestinians.

'Flooding the zone' with Netanyahu

Blinken's visit is part of an effort by the Biden administration to engage quickly with Netanyahu, who returned to office in late December leading the most right-wing government in Israel's history.

Israel's longest-serving prime minister had a fraught relationship with the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, as Netanyahu openly sides with his Republican adversaries against US diplomacy with Iran.

Biden's national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, visited earlier in January to discuss Iran after Biden's efforts to restore a 2015 nuclear accord -- despised by Netanyahu -- effectively died.

"I've never seen such an intense flurry of high-level contacts under any administration as you're watching right now," said Miller, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The Biden team is looking "to avoid confrontation with Netanyahu," Miller said, noting the strong support for the Israeli leader among Republicans who now control the House of Representatives.

David Makovsky, also at the Washington Institute, said he also understood that CIA Director Bill Burns has been visiting the region.

"It looks a little like flooding the zone," he said.

Netanyahu has hailed as a key achievement the normalization of relations in 2020 with the United Arab Emirates, which has moved full speed ahead on developing ties despite public concerns over the new government’s moves.

Blinken is expected on his trip to reiterate US support for a Palestinian state, a prospect that few expect to advance under the new Israeli government.

The State Department said Blinken would also call for the preservation of the status quo at the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is holy both to Jews and Muslims. 

Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right ideologue who holds a security post in Netanyahu's government, in early January defiantly visited the site, which Jews call the Temple Mount.

In Egypt, Blinken is also expected to discuss regional issues such as Libya and Sudan, the State Department said.

Egypt remains one of the top recipients of US military assistance, but the cooperation faces scrutiny from parts of Biden's Democratic Party due to Sisi's rights record.

Authorities released hundreds of political prisoners last year, but rights groups estimate some 60,000 remain in detention, many facing harsh conditions and overcrowded cells.

Trump hits 2024 stump dogged by political, legal woes

Former US president Donald Trump launches his campaign at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, on November 15, 2022 -- but he hasn't held any public events since

Washington (AFP) - Donald Trump hits the campaign trail Saturday for the first time in a stuttering third bid for the US presidency overshadowed by intensifying criminal investigations and a firestorm of political controversy.

The twice-impeached Republican, whose party lost the White House and both chambers of Congress during his term, makes his case for another four years with appearances in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Some 650 days ahead of the next election, Trump remains the Republican frontrunner, but his grip on the rank-and-file has loosened during his two years in the wilderness since exiting the Oval Office.

"Mr Trump's conduct since announcing his candidacy for the 2024 Republican nomination has weakened his credibility within his party," Brookings Institution senior fellow William Galston said in a recent commentary.

The 76-year-old Trump has been unusually low-key since announcing his latest presidential run on November 15, cocooned at his Mar-a-Lago beach home in south Florida and declining to hold a single public event.

But he heads onto the stump facing simmering discontent over midterm elections that saw a series of extremist candidates he had backed rejected in crucial battleground states.

The former reality TV star also has riled establishment Republicans over a dinner he hosted in Florida with a notorious Holocaust denier and the anti-Semitic, Hitler-admiring rapper formerly known as Kanye West.

His continued election denialism and a call in December for the termination of the Constitution to reinstate him to office also sparked a chorus of opprobrium.

'Narrow path'

Trump will address Republicans in the New Hampshire commercial hub of Salem on Saturday morning, before leading a rally in South Carolina's capital, Columbia.

His first two locations are no accident: the states hold outsize influence as two of the first in every presidential election year to hold nominating contests -- known as "primaries" or "caucuses," depending on local custom.

Both cemented Trump's frontrunner status in 2016 after a lukewarm start while South Carolina rescued Democratic President Joe Biden's floundering campaign in 2020.

In Congress and around the country, some Republicans are openly suggesting the party is ready for a younger, fresher face -- someone who is less polarizing and unencumbered by the constant drip of scandal.

Two South Carolina Republicans in their 50s -- Senator Tim Scott and former governor Nikki Haley -- are believed to be eyeing potential presidential runs, and neither is expected to show up on Saturday.

Galston said while Trump still has a "narrow path" to victory in 2024, the former president was "increasingly seen as a loser -- and rightly so" after the midterms.

But the battle for the nomination could wind up a two-horse race between Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who would be unlikely to announce until after the Sunshine State's legislative session ends in May.

If DeSantis does run, he will be hoping for a more successful launch than Trump, who saw no polling bump after his November announcement.

Hush money

Mounting legal woes still appear however to be the biggest roadblock for Trump, whose company was convicted on 17 counts of tax fraud and related offenses the week before he announced his run.

He is facing criminal probes in Atlanta and New York over election interference allegations and a hush money payment to a porn star. 

Federal prosecutors are scrutinizing his handling of misappropriated government secrets, his role in the 2021 assault on the US Capitol and his attempts to overturn his election defeat.

He is also defending lawsuits in New York over a mid-1990s rape accusation and an alleged fraud that misled lenders, insurers and tax authorities over a period of years.

But counting out the perennial comeback kid could yet prove to be a mistake, say those who point to the success of Trump's brand as an insurgent who doesn't play by the rules.

Political scientist Jeff Broxmeyer told AFP that while the midterms had likely eroded Trump's mainstream support, his scandals had done him little harm among his base.

"Perpetual legal suits and coalition building with far-right figures are central features of Trump's appeal to Republican primary voters -- not obstacles to it," the University of Toledo professor said. 

US on edge over video of fatal police beating

Memphis (AFP) - The southern US city of Memphis braced itself for unrest Friday as authorities prepared to release a video depicting the fatal assault of a Black man by five police officers who, the victim's mother said, "beat him to a pulp."

The police officers, who are also Black, were charged with second-degree murder in the beating of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, who died in hospital on January 10, three days after being stopped on suspicion of reckless driving.

"They had beat him to a pulp," Nichols's mother RowVaughn Wells told CNN, sobbing as she described him in hospital. "He had bruises all over. His head was swollen like a watermelon. His neck was bursting because of the swelling."

"I knew my son was gone," Wells said.

Memphis police chief Cerelyn Davis said the graphic video, which will be released after 6:00 pm Central time (0000 GMT Saturday), shows Nichols crying out for his mother.

"What I saw on this video was more of a groupthink sort of mentality. And no one took a step to intercept or intervene," Davis said. "And that's why the charges are as severe as they are."

Davis compared the video to footage of the 1991 Rodney King beating, which sparked days of riots in Los Angeles that left dozens dead.

"I was in law enforcement during the Rodney King incident, it's very much aligned with that same type of behavior," Davis said. "I would say it's about the same, if not worse."

Police brutality

Nichols's death at the hands of police drew immediate comparisons with the May 2020 killing of George Floyd, another Black man whose suffocation by a white police officer in Minneapolis was caught on film.

Video of Floyd's death spread rapidly, sparking a massive wave of at times violent protests nationwide and beyond, and reviving scrutiny of race relations and a culture of police brutality in the United States.

President Joe Biden, anticipating protests after the Memphis video's release, called for calm, saying "outrage is understandable, but violence is never acceptable."

The police officers were taken into custody following a rapid internal investigation that found them to have deployed excessive use of force and to have failed to render aid.

In addition to second-degree murder charges, the officers are also facing indictments for aggravated assault and aggravated kidnapping.

Four of the five were released from jail after posting bail, US media reported Friday, citing jail records.

Police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder over Floyd's death, in what was seen as a landmark case.

Chauvin, a white veteran of the Minneapolis police force, knelt on Floyd's neck for nearly 10 minutes, indifferent to his cries and the warnings of distraught passersby.

In another of a long series of police killings, an officer was found guilty in 2021 of manslaughter after she shot dead young African American man Daunte Wright, claiming she mistook her gun for her taser during a traffic stop in a suburb of Minneapolis.

Murder charge

RowVaughn Wells on Friday accused police of initially trying to cover-up her son's beating, coming to her door to say he had been arrested for drunk driving and pepper-sprayed and tasered after being hard to handcuff.

They said he was being treated by paramedics and would be taken to hospital but that she could not visit him.

Doctors called days later to say he was in cardiac arrest and his kidneys were failing, and that she needed to visit as soon as possible.

"People don't know what those Black police officers did to our family," Wells said.

"They have brought shame to their own families. They brought shame to the Black community."

A lawyer for one officer, Desmond Mills, said his client was innocent of second-degree murder.

"That requires that they prove that Mr Mills acted with a reasonable degree of certainty with regard to his actions, that his actions were certain to cause death. And that's just simply not the case," said Blake Ballin.

UK teen jailed for far-right videos linked to US killings

A British teenager was on Friday sentenced to more than 11 years in prison for videos promoting racist violence that have been linked to two mass killings in the United States.

Judge Patrick Field called Daniel Harris, 19, "highly dangerous" and a "propagandist for an extremist right-wing ideology".

"You were in close touch with other right-wing extremists online and there can be little doubt that you shared ideas between you," Field told Harris in court.

Harris was found guilty in December of five counts of encouraging terrorism and one count of possession of material for terrorist purposes, for trying to make a gun with a 3D printer.

The judge at Manchester Crown Court in northern England sentenced Harris to 11 and a half years, with a further three years under supervised probation.

The court heard that the teenager from Derbyshire in central England posted videos online for over a year, from the age of 17.

Harris reportedly posted under the name BookAnon on a platform called World Truth Videos.

His videos were shared by self-declared white supremacist Payton Gendron, who has pleaded guilty to murdering 10 black people in the United States.

'Exterminate sub-humans'

Field told Harris "at the very least, the material you produced and published has had some influence upon the young man (Gendron)".

Gendron was 18 when he shot dead his victims in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York in May 2022.

Prosecutors said a link was also found between Harris's videos and Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, the sole suspect in a shooting in a gay nightclub in the US city of Colorado Springs in November 2022.

The prosecutor said that one of Harris's videos was posted on a "brother site" to one showing a livestream of Aldrich before the attack, which left five people dead.

The court was told one of Harris's videos, titled "How to Achieve Victory", called for "total extermination of sub-humans once and for all".

Another video paid homage to the white supremacist murderer of British MP Jo Cox in 2016.

He also praised the Australian white supremacist who murdered 51 Muslim people in New Zealand mosques in 2019 as a "saint".

Harris was arrested by counter-terrorism police at his home in the town of Glossop last May, two days after the attack in Buffalo.

He had been previously convicted for vandalizing a Manchester memorial to George Floyd, whose suffocation by a white police officer in Minneapolis triggered the worldwide "Black Lives Matter" protests.

'Radicalizing others'

Harris was placed in a government deradicalization program, but Counter-Terrorism Policing detective inspector Chris Brett said he continued to post extremist material.

"Harris was ultimately deemed not to have been groomed, rather his provocative words and inflammatory films were potentially radicalizing others," Brett said.

He warned other extremists that police would find them even if they "hide behind usernames, avatars and other technical blockers".

UK intelligence agencies, police and lawmakers have stepped up warnings about right-wing extremism.

Domestic security agents have been investigating teenagers as young as 13 with suspected white supremacist beliefs, MI5 chief Ken McCallum said last year.

Of 29 "late-stage" attack plots disrupted in the four preceding years, 10 were by extreme right-wingers, he said.

The House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee said in a December report that the online threat was driven by "predominantly young men, many of them still in their teens".

Few belong to organized groups and so are difficult to identify and monitor, the report said, and experts warn that online radicalization only worsened during pandemic lockdowns.

Harris's lawyer said he was withdrawn from mainstream schooling aged seven and said there had been "quite disgraceful failings" by his family and the local authority.

Sons of Panama ex-president released from US jail, family banned

Luis Enrique Martinelli (left) and Ricardo Martinelli Jr., sons of former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli, are expected to be arrested on their return to Panama

New York (AFP) - Two of former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli's sons were released from US prison Wednesday after serving sentences for corruption and flew back to their country, with Washington banning the family from re-entering the United States, authorities said.

Luis Enrique and Ricardo Martinelli were released slightly ahead of completing their three-year terms because of good behavior, a spokesperson for the federal Bureau of Prisons told AFP.

The brothers admitted receiving $28 million in bribes linked to disgraced Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, of which $19 million had passed through US accounts.

They pleaded guilty in December 2021 after being extradited from Guatemala to the United States.

In May last year, they were sentenced to three years behind bars. They served two and a half years in total, including time already spent in detention in Guatemala and the United States before their conviction.

Following their release, the brothers flew to Panama City on a commercial flight, their lawyer Carlos Carrillo told AFP.

Escorted by US agents, they arrived at the Tocumen airport in the Panamanian capital, where they were notified by justice officials of the charges they face and then released.

The brothers have been charged with money laundering and graft, but they had paid $14 million in bond to the Panamanian judiciary to remain free while their cases work their way through the courts.

In Washington, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that ex-president Martinelli and his immediate family members were being barred from entry into the United States.

"Accepting bribes for government contracts undermines the integrity of Panama's democratic institutions and fuels perceptions of corruption and impunity," Blinken said in a statement late Wednesday. 

"These designations reaffirm the commitment of the United States to combat corruption, which harms the public interest, hampers countries' economic prosperity, and curtails the ability of governments to respond effectively to the needs of their people," he added.

Odebrecht admitted in 2016 that it and affiliated entities had paid $788 million in bribes in efforts between 2001 and 2016 to win contracts for some 100 projects in Panama and 11 other countries. It agreed to pay US authorities $3.5 billion in penalties.

Martinelli, 70, who governed Panama from 2009 to 2014, seeks to run for his nation's presidency again in 2024 even though he has been summoned to stand trial on money laundering charges.

Grief grips Asian Americans after California mass shootings

FBI agents investigate the crime scene after a shooting in Half Moon Bay, California, January 24, 2023

Monterey Park (United States) (AFP) - Asian Americans were reeling Tuesday after two mass shootings in California targeting members of their community left 18 people dead -- with the alleged gunmen in both cases being older men of Asian descent.

The killings came in a span of just 48 hours -- so close together that California Governor Gavin Newsom was at a hospital meeting with victims of the first attack when he was pulled away to be briefed about the second.

"It is said all the time: only in America," a clearly exasperated Newsom told reporters Tuesday in Half Moon Bay.

"Only in America. Number one in gun ownership. Number one in gun deaths. It's not even complicated," he said.

"What the hell is wrong with us, that we allow these weapons of war and large capacity clips out on the streets and sidewalks?"

Another shooting occurred overnight in Washington state, where a gunman killed three people at a convenience store, in an act police said appeared to be random.

The carnage prompted President Joe Biden to renew calls for Congress to act quickly on an assault weapons ban. A group of senators on Monday reintroduced a federal assault weapons ban and legislation that would raise the minimum purchase age for assault weapons to 21.

Biden also said he would be dispatching Vice President Kamala Harris to California in the wake of the shootings.

"Our hearts are with the people of California," he said, calling the massacres "devastating."

Investigators were still probing the motives behind the two incidents, which stood out among the scourge of mass shootings in America both for the community impacted -- gun violence is usually seen as rare among Asians and Asian Americans -- and for the age of the suspects, 67 and 72.

The nonpartisan Violence Project says 79 percent of mass shooters from 1966 to 2020 were under age 45. It says a mere 6.4 percent of mass shooters in that time were Asian.

The Monday bloodshed occurred at two farms around Half Moon Bay, a rural coastal community south of San Francisco.

San Mateo County Sheriff Christina Corpus said Tuesday that five men and two woman -- a mixture of Hispanic and Asian -- were killed, and that 67-year-old Half Moon Bay resident Chunli Zhao had been taken into custody.

A semi-automatic handgun had been recovered.

"The only known connection between the victims and suspect is that they may have been co-workers," she said.

"All the evidence we have points to this being an instance of workplace violence."

The San Francisco Chronicle reported a former co-worker had been granted a restraining order against Zhao over violent behaviour.

"Mr. Zhao said to me, today I am going to kill you," Jingjiu Wang wrote in 2013 when the two worked at a San Jose restaurant together.

"He then took a pillow and started to cover my face and suffocate me."

The small community of Half Moon Bay was on Tuesday struggling to come to terms with the mass shooting.

"This is tragedy, and to happen on the New Year," Aily Li, whose family owns the China House restaurant, told AFP.

Sophie Li, who works at Shiki Japanese Cuisine in the town, said guns were terrifying.

"Without a gun, we just argue. But if you have a gun, it gives you more power and then something will happen," she said.

"You deal with people who carry a gun and you never know what will happen. People got shot, right?"

Vengeful

That tragedy unfolded as detectives in southern California were still probing what drove 72-year-old Huu Can Tran to shoot dead 11 people gathered for Lunar New Year on Saturday night at a suburban dance hall.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna said Tran, who had been arrested decades earlier for unlawful possession of a firearm, fired 42 rounds in the attack in Monterey Park.

"What drove a madman to do this?" he said.

Luna confirmed officers had been told Tran may have been known to some of his victims.

Information about Tran remained unclear. CNN reported that, according to his marriage license, he had immigrated from China; the New York Times cited immigration documents saying he was a naturalized US citizen of Vietnamese origin.

A former friend described Tran as a vengeful loner.

"Two simple words that cover the whole thing: He's a person of distrust. He distrusts people around him. Second word is hate. He hates people around him, especially if he thought someone was doing bad on him," the friend said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"He would say, 'Someday I will get back at you, get even, get revenge.'

"I think his life was so miserable and desperate that he chose that day to end his life and meanwhile he wanted to get people he didn't like or hated to go with him," the man said.

Tom Hanks nominated for three 'Razzies'

Tom Hanks was short-listed by the tongue-in-cheek Razzies for his roles as Gepetto in Disney's 'Pinocchio' remake, and in 'Elvis' as the star's manager

Los Angeles (AFP) - His recent hit film "Elvis" is an Oscars frontrunner, but Tom Hanks was left all shook up Monday as he earned three nominations from the Razzies, which "celebrate" the year's worst films.

Hanks was short-listed by the tongue-in-cheek awards for his roles as Presley's manager in rock 'n' roll biopic "Elvis," and Geppetto in Disney's critically slated live-action "Pinocchio" remake.

A press release from organizers of the Razzies dubbed Hanks' "Elvis" role as "2022's most widely derided performance," and piled on a further nomination for "worst screen couple" to "Tom Hanks & His Latex-Laden Face (and Ludicrous Accent)." 

While "Elvis" and its star Austin Butler have generally received acclaim, Hanks' appearance as his exploitative manager Colonel Tom Parker was panned by many critics.

A New York Times review said Hanks appears "with a mountain of prosthetic goo, a bizarre accent and a yes-it's-really-me twinkle in his eyes," and portrays Parker as "part small-time grifter, part full-blown Mephistopheles."

"Disney's Pinocchio" was among five "worst picture" nominees for the annual Golden Raspberry -- or Razzie -- awards, as was the controversial Marilyn Monroe biopic "Blonde."

Also in the running were regular Razzies punching bag Jared Leto, and his Spider-Man spinoff "Morbius."

Just last year, Leto was named worst supporting actor for his flamboyant performance -- complete with a campy Italian accent and heavy prosthetics -- in "House of Gucci."

The Razzies are usually announced the day before the Oscars, serving to mock the following night's self-congratulatory Tinseltown back-slapping.

But last year, the Razzies themselves were left embarrassed, after jokingly creating a new category labelled "Worst Performance by Bruce Willis in a 2021 Movie" to accommodate all of the former "Die Hard" star's questionable output.

Organizers rescinded the prize after his family revealed Willis suffered from a cognitive illness called aphasia.

Nominations for this year's Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday.

US abortion rights 'war' rages on 50 years after now-defunct ruling

The annual National Women's March took on added significance as it also marked the 50th anniversary of the 1973 US Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision

Washington (AFP) - The fight for abortion rights "isn't over," US President Joe Biden said Sunday, 50 years after a landmark Supreme Court ruling had guaranteed that right, before the court reversed itself last June.

"Today should've been the 50th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade," the Democratic president said on Twitter, referring to the original ruling.

"Instead, MAGA Republican officials" -- supporters of former president Donald Trump, with his Make America Great Again slogan -- "are waging a war on women's right to make their own health care decisions."

Since the Supreme Court overturned the Roe ruling -- a reversal made possible with the votes of three conservative justices appointed by Trump -- some 20 Republican-led US states have passed laws banning or severely restricting abortion rights.

Biden added: "I haven't stopped fighting to protect women's reproductive rights – and I never will."

In a weekend of competing demonstrations from the two sides of the heated national debate, some 300 women in New York demonstrated Sunday for abortion rights, chanting slogans -- including "My body, my choice" -- like those heard at the time of the original 1973 Roe ruling. 

And Vice President Kamala Harris, speaking in Tallahassee, Florida, joined the calls to protect abortion rights.

"How dare they?" she asked in an impassioned address before a group of abortion-rights advocates.

To loud applause, she assailed recent abortion-limiting laws passed by "extremists, including in states like Florida," adding: "We will not back down."

'Movement is recharging'

Florida, whose Republican governor Ron DeSantis is considered a rising star on the American right, now bans abortions after 15 weeks, with no exceptions for incest or rape.

One in three American women now live in a state that has imposed severe restrictions on abortion, according to Planned Parenthood, an abortion advocacy group and women's health provider.

"While what’s happening to patients and providers is devastating, our movement is recharging," the group's president, McGill Johnson, said at the event with Harris.

"Rain or shine, we will show up and keep fighting. Every. Single. Day."

Biden's own powers in this area are relatively limited, with the battle mostly going on now at the state level.

And anti-abortion groups, with strong support on the religious right, have not lessened their pressure.

Nationwide, thousands of them marched Friday to demand a nationwide abortion ban. 

Biden, in his series of tweets Sunday, said that "a woman's right to choose is non-negotiable," and he called on Congress to pass legislation codifying the abortion rights laid out in the Roe case.

But with Republicans now in control of the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of Congress, such legislation has virtually no chance of succeeding.

Since June, Biden has had to settle for issuing relatively limited orders, such as authorizing Veterans Administration hospitals to provide abortion services.

The White House also wants to protect access to mifepristone-based pills, which can be used to end a pregnancy in the early weeks.

Residents of 'very safe' Monterey Park stunned by mass shooting

Tents from a Lunar New Year street market remained after the shooting

Monterey Park (United States) (AFP) - The "Year of the Rabbit" began in horror on Sunday for the inhabitants of Monterey Park, the largely Asian American suburb of Los Angeles where a mass shooting left 10 people dead.

In this city of 60,000 people, red lanterns and banners in Chinese characters celebrating the Lunar New Year still fluttered over a roadway.

But around the dance hall where the shooting unfolded, yellow police tape and heavily armed policemen supplanted any sign of festivities.

"This kind of thing doesn't happen here," said Wynn Liaw, a neighbor who came to this popular senior citizens' venue after hearing news bulletins. 

Liaw, a 57-year-old retired veterinarian, has lived the past four decades in Monterey Park.

She still finds it hard to believe that a massacre unfolded here, behind the white-and-green awning of the venue she passes daily to do her shopping.

"This is a very safe neighborhood, where I can walk alone at night and where I don't have to worry about gun violence," she told AFP as police helicopters whirred overhead.

On Saturday night, a gunman entered the ballroom and killed five men and five women, and wounding at least 10 others, authorities said.

The mass killing -- the deadliest US shooting since the Uvalde massacre, in which 19 children and two teachers were killed in an elementary school in Texas -- took Monterey Park by surprise.

Just a few miles east of downtown Los Angeles, Monterey Park is considered the city's "new Chinatown."

Residents here read newspapers in Mandarin, most business signs are in Chinese, and the majority of the inhabitants approached by an AFP journalist did not speak English.

"This area is one of the safest neighborhoods in Los Angeles County," said John McKinney, a local prosecutor in the sprawling Southern California metropolis.

'So many guns'

"You don't see much happening here," added Ken Nim, a 38-year-old IT worker walking his dog.

Nim said in the 20 years he's lived here, the only crime he's experienced is the theft of the catalytic converter from his car.

"It's a really sad thing, this country is getting crazy," Nam said. "We saw mass shootings in a lot of different cities and in other states, but now it is coming to us."

David Kwan, a Malaysian-born security guard, appeared stunned by the shooting.

"I'm often confronted with violence but in other areas of Los Angeles," Kwan said. "It's the first time that I see it in my own community."

Along the cordoned-off streets, inhabitants sought to make sense of the spasm of violence. On their phones, they saw photos of dead bodies lying on the ground in a room lit by multicolored spotlights.

At first, many feared that it was a hate crime. But the Asian origin of the suspect, confirmed in the morning by the sheriff, has cast doubt on that interpretation. 

"I feel like this is a personal story," said Jerry Liu, a 26-year-old truck driver, near the hundreds of white tents lined up at the Lunar New Year market.

A day earlier, thousands of people had crowded the main market site, between the meat skewer stands and the fairground. 

"There's a reason he targeted that ballroom. Otherwise he could have gone to the fair earlier during the day and killed a lot more people," Liu said.

In front of the police cordon, Chester Chong suggested a possible motive: the jealousy aroused in a man not invited to a party where his wife was enjoying herself.

"The problem is, we have so many guns in this country," said Chong, chairman of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles.

"It's so easy to grab a gun and do something stupid."

Ten killed in California mass shooting, says sheriff

Ten people have died and at least 10 others been wounded in a mass shooting in a largely Asian city in southern California, law enforcement said Sunday, with the suspect still at large hours later.

The gunman opened fire at a dance venue in Monterey Park, as the local community were celebrating Lunar New Year, police said.

Captain Andrew Meyers of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said officers had responded to emergency calls around 10:20pm on Saturday and found people pouring out of the premises.

"The officers made entry to the location and located additional victims," he said.

"The Monterey Park Police Fire Department responded to the scene and treated the injured and pronounced 10 of the victims deceased at the scene.

"There are at least 10 additional victims that were transported to numerous local hospitals and are listed in various conditions from stable to critical.

"The suspect fled the scene and remains outstanding."

Monterey Park, about eight miles (13 kilometers) east of downtown Los Angeles, is home to a large number of ethnic Asians.

Local resident Wong Wei told the Los Angeles Times his friend had been at the dance club, and had been in the bathroom when the shooting erupted.

When she emerged, she saw a man carrying a long gun and firing indiscriminately, as well as the bodies of three people, two of them women and one person who he said was the boss of the club.

The paper reported that Seung Won Choi, who owns a seafood barbecue restaurant near the scene said three people had run into his restaurant and told him to lock the door.

The three said there was a man with a semiautomatic gun who had multiple rounds of ammunition on him, and would reload every time he ran out, Choi told the paper.

The Times reported that tens of thousands of people had gathered earlier in the day for the two-day Lunar New Year festival, which is one of the largest in southern California.

Monterey Park is home to around 61,000 people, the majority of them Asian or Asian American.

Gun violence is a huge problem in the United States, which saw 647 mass shootings last year, according to the Gun Violence Archive website, defined as an incident with four or more people shot or killed, not including the shooter.

More than 44,000 people died from gunshot wounds in 2022, more than half of which were suicides.

The country has more weapons than people: one in three adults owns at least one weapon and nearly one in two adults lives in a home where there is a weapon.

© 2023 AFP