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‘It’s over, we’re finished. The rebels have handed over Syria,’ says boy who sparked the civil war

“It’s over, we’re finished. They’re giving up Syria,” read the late-night message from a fighter with the Free Syrian Army.

Mouawiya Syasneh had vowed to battle on until victory, or death. But the boy credited with helping spark the civil war with a small act of defiance with teenage friends in 2011 – spraying anti-Bashar al-Assad graffiti on the walls of his school – was now preparing for defeat.  

The rebels in the southwestern province of Deraa agreed over the weekend to a surrender deal with the Syrian government’s Russian allies. The army has since laid siege to the city and say they are poised to regain complete control.

The fall of the birthplace of the uprising against the president …

Donald Trump lists Russia, EU and China as ‘foes’ ahead of Putin summit in Helsinki

Donald Trump on Sunday described the European Union as top of his list of global foes while downplaying expectations of his summit with Vladimir Putin, which takes place in Helsinki on Monday.

During an interview with US TV network NBC, filmed at his Turnberry golf course in Scotland at the end of his UK visit, the US leader was asked to identify his "biggest competitor, his biggest foe".

To the surprise of many, he listed the EU ahead of both Russia and China.

Mr Trump said: "Well, I think we have a lot of foes. I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us on trade. Now, you wouldn’t think of the European Union but  they’re a foe.

"I respect the leaders of those countries but in a trade sense, they’ve really taken advantage of us. And many of those countries are in NATO and they weren’t paying their bills."

His comments came hours before he was due to leave the UK for Helsinki for his one-to-one with Mr Putin. Mr Trump said Russia was also a foe "in many respects" and also called China an "economic foe".

At the Finnish Presidential Palace, which will host Mr Trump and Mr Putin, last minute preparations were underway as at least 2,000 protesters gathered outside. 

Yet as the clock ticked down, it was still unclear what would be on the agenda for discussion between the pair.

Mr Trump said he was going into the meeting with "low expectations" but insisted "nothing bad" would come of it.

He remained vague about his goals but did say he may ask about the extradition of 12 Russian spies indicted by the US Attorney General’s office on Friday for hacking into the Democratic National Committee.

"I go in with low expectations. I’m not going with high expectations. I think that getting along with Russia is a good thing but it’s possible we won’t."

When questioned about his objectives, he said: "I’ll let you know after the meeting."

And when asked if he would seek extradition of the Russians suspects, he remained equivocal.

"Well, I might," he said."I hadn’t thought of that. But I certainly, I’ll be asking about it."

Meanwhile John Bolton, his National Security Adviser, said yesterday (Sunday) that subject areas up for discussion remained fluid.

"We have asked, and the Russians have agreed, that it will be basically unstructured. We are not looking for concrete deliverables," he told US media on Sunday.

He later added it was "hard to believe" that Mr Putin did not know about his regime’s meddling in the 2016 US election but said extradition was unlikely as there is no treaty between the two countries and that it would be "silly" of the president for ask for something he couldn’t get.

In a string of tweets before boarding Air Force One, Mr Trump said: "Heading to Helsinki, Finland – looking forward to meeting with President Putin tomorrow.

"Unfortunately, no matter how well I do at the Summit, if I was given the great city of Moscow as retribution for all of the sins and evils committed by Russia over the years, I would return to criticism that it wasn’t good enough — that I should have gotten Saint Petersburg in addition!”

"Much of our news media is indeed the enemy of the people and all the Dems know how to do is resist and obstruct! This is why there is such hatred and dissension in our country – but at some point, it will heal!"

Seagram heiress arrested as part of case against Nxivm ‘sex cult’

A multimillionaire heiress to the Seagram liquor empire has been arrested and charged with running a criminal enterprise, as part of proceedings against members of the Nxivm “sex cult”.

The group garnered headlines for an initiation ritual that reportedly included branding founder Keith Raniere’s initials on women, attempts to recruit celebrities, and accusations by prosecutors that members were turned into sex slaves for Mr Raniere.

Clare Bronfman, 39, a British-educated aspiring Olympic show jumper, was ordered by a judge in Brooklyn to be held under house arrest, on a $100 million bail.

Her lawyer, Susan Necheles, entered a not guilty plea on her behalf.

"Clare Bronfman did nothing wrong. Nxivm was not a criminal enterprise but instead was an organization that helped thousands of people," she said. 

"The charges against Clare are the result of government overreaching and charging an individual with crimes just because the government disagrees with some beliefs taught by Nxivm and held by Clare. 

“This is not how things should be done in America. 

“We are confident that Clare will be exonerated.”

She will appear in court again on Wednesday, before federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis.  Also appearing will be her fellow defendants Mr Raniere, arrested in Mexico in March, and Smallville actress Allison Mack, a senior figure in the group, who was detained in April.

They will be in the dock along with Miss Bronfman and three more women arrested on Tuesday – co-founder Nancy Salzman and her daughter Lauren, and their bookkeeper, Kathy Russell.

Miss Bronfman’s arrest marks a dramatic turn in her 15-year association with the organisation.

She was first introduced to Nxivm, which sells itself as a self-help and empowerment group, through her sister, Sara.

The sisters even managed to convince their father Edgar to join, and he initially praised the group.

He rapidly grew disillusioned, however – reportedly when he learnt that Miss Bronfman had lent the organisation $2 million.

In 2003 he told Forbes magazine that the organisation was “a cult” and he wished his daughters had never got involved.

“I think it’s a cult,” he said, adding that he was troubled about the “emotional and financial” investment in Nxivm by his daughters, to whom he hadn’t spoken in months. 

Miss Bronfman rose through the ranks, and in the summer of 2010 organised a seven-day celebration of Mr Rainere’s 50th birthday. The retreat, held in upstate New York, cost up to $2,120 and was billed as “the prototype and blueprint for a new era of civilized humanity.”

Miss Bronfman, the event coordinator, wrote that “the very purpose of VWeek is to get the chance to experience a civilized world… [and] craft for ourselves a more fulfilling, purposeful life.”

In November of the same year, Vanity Fair reported that as much as $150 million was taken out of the Bronfmans’ trusts and bank accounts and handed over to Nxivm.

The sums included $66 million allegedly used to cover Mr Raniere’s failed bets in the commodities market, $30 million to buy property in Los Angeles and around Albany, $11 million for a 22-seat private plane, and millions more to support a barrage of lawsuits across the country against Nxivm’s enemies.

Miss Bronfman’s father died in December 2013, aged 84.  Her British mother Georgiana had divorced their father in 1983, and is now married to actor Nigel Havers.

Miss Bronfman, according to the charges announced on Tuesday, allegedly committed identity theft of at least two women and illegally brought another woman into the country.

In 2017, Miss Bronfman defended Mr Raniere and Nxivm, calling him "a man dedicated to the betterment of the lives of others."

"There have been many defamatory accusations made and I have taken them seriously," she said. 

"Determining the truth is extremely important to me, and I can say firmly that neither Nxivm nor Keith have abused or coerced anyone."

Indictments unsealed on Tuesday also added 10 counts of racketeering to the sex trafficking charges already pending against Mr Raniere and Miss Mack, who prosecutors say helped Mr Raniere recruit sex slaves.

Miss Mack pleaded not guilty to federal charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labour last month. 

Mr Raniere’s lawyers also denied the allegations, adding that the 57-year-old was being persecuted by the "morality police."

Spanish language academy in row over eradicating gender bias from constitution

The Real Academia Española, the official arbiter of the Spanish language, has become embroiled in a dispute over gender equality after the government asked it to examine whether Spain’s Constitution could become more gender nuetral.

Spain’s deputy prime minister and equality minister, Carmen Calvo, said earlier this week she would ask the RAE to study updating the 1978 constitution with “inclusive” language.

“We have a constitution in the masculine,” she said – noting that it referred to “ministers and deputies” with the male form of the noun – “which dates back to 40 years ago”.

The heart of the issue lies in the traditional Spanish use of male pronouns and noun forms to refer to both genders collectively. Some critics say that effectively makes women invisible, while defenders of the current linguistic format say the inclusion of women is implied and accuse feminists of whipping up fury over non-existent sexism.

When the new government’s majority female cabinet was sworn in in Juen, most members referred not to the “Consejo de Ministros” (Council of Ministers) but to the “Consejo de Ministras y Ministros”, a move that was largely applauded.

But the proposal to update the constitution has opened up divisions in the RAE and unleashed a backlash from some leading academics.

One RAE member, the writer and academic Arturo Pérez-Reverte, has already threatened to resign over the issue. When a user on Twitter suggested he should storm out in protest if the proposal went ahead, he replied “You have my word”, later confirming his position to Spanish media.

Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón, an academic and novelist who also holds an RAE seat, told El Pais the Academy should not "force the language" under political pressure. Fernando García de Cortázar, an award-winning historian, went further, describing it as an “absurd” idea resulting from a feminism that “crosses all red lines”. 

Others within the Academy have defended the idea, however. The philosopher Inés Fernández-Ordóñez said the RAE should be "open to the demands of society", saying that if it was possible to open a meeting with "señores y señoras" (ladies and gentlemen), ways could be found to "mark the female presence".

It is not the first time the RAE has been at the centre of a row over linguistic sexism. In March it was forced to remove the definition of an "easy woman" after months of public protest. And in June, when a Spanish factory refused delayed wages to three female workers on the grounds their contract used the masculine noun for workers, the RAE appeared to blame feminists, tweeting that “perhaps the insistence that the male noun makes women invisible has brought this lamentable confusion”. 

Spanish charity accuses Libyan coastguard of leaving a woman and toddler to die in the Mediterranean

A migrant aid group has accused Libya’s coast guard of abandoning three people in the Mediterranean Sea, including a woman and a toddler who both died, after intercepting 160 Europe-bound migrants near the shores of the North African nation.

Proactiva Open Arms, a Spanish rescue group, said on Tuesday that it had found one woman alive and another one dead, along with the body of a toddler, amid the drifting remains of a destroyed migrant boat.

Their dinghy was completely deflated, with the victims lying on the few wooden planks that remained afloat.

The survivor identified herself only as Josepha, saying she was 40 years old and from the West African state of Cameroon. The rescue ship’s medical team said she was in a stable condition but was traumatised, adding that she needed medical and psychological treatment "as soon as possible".

The Libyans had left the scene after the three refused to board their patrol ship, the charity said. The wrecked migrant boat was found 80 nautical miles from the Libyan coast.

The organisation posted images and videos of the wreckage and the dead bodies on social media, accusing both a merchant ship sailing in international waters and Libya’s coast guard for failing to help the three migrants.

Ayoub Gassim, a Libyan coast guard spokesman, had earlier said that a boat carrying 158 passengers including 34 women and nine children had been stopped on Monday off the coast of the western town of Khoms.

He said the migrants were given humanitarian and medical aid and were taken to a refugee camp.

Libya has emerged as a major transit point to Europe for those fleeing poverty and civil war in Africa and the Middle East. Traffickers have exploited Libya’s chaos following the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed Muammar Gaddafi.

Italy’s new populist government has vowed to halt the influx of migrants across the Mediterranean and has given aid to Libyan authorities to step up efforts to stem the flow.

Human rights activists have sharply criticised that assistance, saying migrants being returned to Libya are at risk of facing beatings, abuse, rape and slavery.

The head of Proactiva Open Arms, Oscar Camps, on Tuesday blamed the Italian government’s cooperation with Libyan authorities for the death of the woman and the toddler that his group found.

"This is the direct consequence of contracting armed militias to make the rest of Europe believe that Libya is a state, a government and a safe country," said Mr Camps, in a video posted on Twitter.

He said the two women and the toddler had refused to board the Libyan vessels with the rest of the intercepted migrants, and the three were abandoned in the sea after the Libyan coast guard destroyed the migrants’ boat.

He also said their deaths were the result of not allowing aid groups like Proactiva to work in the Mediterranean.

Both Italy and Malta have blocked aid groups from operating rescue boats, either by refusing them entry to their ports or by impounding their vessels and putting their crews under investigation.

Matteo Salvini, the Italian interior minister who is also the head of far-right League, is leading a high-profile campaign to exclude humanitarian ships from Italian ports. 

He says any rescue operations off the Libyan coast should be handled by Libya’s limited coast guard.

"Lies and insults from some foreign NGO confirm that we are in the right: reducing departures and arrivals means reducing deaths, and reducing the gains of those who speculate on illegal migration," he tweeted, adding: "I stand firm, ports closed and hearts open."

And he defiantly insisted Italy would continue its new policy of refusing to accept migrant boats.

"Two Spanish NGO ships have returned to the Mediterranean waiting to be loaded with human beings. They should save themselves time and money, they will only see Italian ports on postcards."

The UN migration agency, meanwhile, said the number of migrants and refugees who have arrived in Spain by sea this year has overtaken those who have reached Italy.

The International Organization for Migration said on Tuesday that Spain saw 18,016 migrants up to July 15, while 17,827 people landed in Italy during the same period.

Aid groups have reported a rise in the number of crossings to Spain and Greece compared to the previous year, while arrivals in Italy are down almost 80 per cent from 2017.

The overall number of migrants and refugees entering Europe by sea this year totals 50,872, less than half the 109,746 who came in by mid-July last year.

In 2016 during the same period, 241,859 migrants came to Europe. IOM also said 1,443 people are dead or missing in the dangerous Mediterranean Sea route up to July 15 this year.

Donald Trump’s intelligence chief says he meant no disrespect to president over Putin meeting

Dan Coats, US Director of National Intelligence, said on Saturday he in no way meant to be disrespectful toward President Donald Trump with what he called his "awkward response" to news of a second planned summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr Coats issued a statement seeking to control the damage from an interview he gave at the Aspen Institute security forum in Colorado on Thursday in which he expressed surprise when the news broke that Mr Trump was planning another summit with Mr Putin.

“Some press coverage has mis-characterised my intentions in responding to breaking news presented to me during a live interview. My admittedly awkward response was in no way meant to be disrespectful or criticize the actions of the president," hesaid.

"I and the entire intel community are committed to providing the best possible intelligence to inform and support President Trump’s ongoing efforts to prevent Russian meddling in our upcoming elections, to build strong relationships internationally in order to maintain peace, denuclearise dangerous regimes and protect our nation and our allies."

Mr Coats was on stage at the Aspen Institute taking questions when he was informed by Andrea Mitchell, the MSNBC anchor who moderated the event, about the second summit.

"Say that again. Did I hear you?" he asked, appearing amused. "OK, that’s going to be special."

The White House had no comment on Saturday about his new statement.

Mr Coats’ appearance at the Aspen Institute had generated some frustration at the White House. One source said there was a belief that if he had been in Washington instead of Colorado, he would not have been surprised by the news.

Mr Trump has drawn heavy criticism from Republicans and Democrats over his summit last Monday in Helsinki, Finland, with Mr Putin, when he seemed reluctant to blame Russia for meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.

Trump and Putin | In talks

Mr Trump later made clear he supported the US intelligence community’s findings about Russian meddling.

On Saturday, the Salt Lake Tribune published a letter from Jon Huntsman Jr, the US ambassador to Moscow, that appeared to reject a suggestion from a columnist for the newspaper that he resign after Mr Trump’s remarks in Helsinki.

"I have taken an unscientific survey among my colleagues, whom you reference, about whether I should resign. The laughter told me everything I needed to know," the letter said.

A State Department spokeswoman had no immediate comment on Mr Huntsman’s letter.

Vladimir Putin refuses to touch list of new election meddling indictments as he dismisses ‘utterly ridiculous’ Russia investigation

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday described the probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Moscow’s election meddling as "political games" that should not be permitted to interfere with US-Russia relations.

Asked in a Fox News interview about Mueller’s indictment Friday of 12 Russian intelligence agents for hacking Democratic Party computers in 2016, just three days before his summit with President Donald Trump, Putin said it was not his concern, but rather part of an "internal political struggle."

"I’m not interested in this issue a single bit," he said, speaking through a translator.

"It’s the internal political games of the United States."

"Don’t make the relationship between Russia and the United States, don’t hold it hostage of this internal political struggle," Mr Putin said.

Mr Putin was speaking shortly after his summit with Mr Trump in Helsinki, Finland on Monday, where the question of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race loomed large.

His response echoed Mr Trump’s stance on the Mueller probe, which is digging into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.

Mr Trump has repeatedly branded the Mueller probe a "witch hunt".

And in a press conference Monday with Putin at his side, Mr Trump dismissed his own intelligence chiefs’ conclusion that Putin himself oversaw the effort to damage Mr Trump’s Democratic election rival Hillary Clinton.

Mr Putin suggested Monday, like Mr Trump has done repeatedly, that Mr Mueller’s appointment as an independent prosecutor to pursue the investigation lacks legitimacy.

"It’s quite clear to me that this is just an internal political struggle and it’s nothing to be proud of for American democracy to use such dirty methods and political rivalry," Mr Putin told Fox.

Imran Khan has shown he can win the backing of Pakistan’s military – now he needs to prove he is his own man

Imran Khan appears on the cusp of leading his country in government, 26 years after he led it on the cricket field.

The former Pakistan captain and all-rounder is well ahead in unofficial results from the country’s general election and forecast to pick up around twice the seats of his party’s closest rival.

While he may still not have enough for an outright majority without coalition partners, and with rival parties saying they reject the results, he appears on course to be prime minister of the 210 million-strong, nuclear-armed nation.

His rallying cry of a new Pakistan without the venality of former governments has caught the imagination of younger voters who see him as a clean candidate in…

Germany running out of beer bottles as heatwave fuels demand

The summer heatwave is causing serious problems in Germany: the country’s brewers are on the verge of running out of beer bottles.

The situation is so acute that one local brewer has issued an emergency appeal to drinkers, calling for them to return their empties.

“We need your help!” the Moritz Fiege brewery in the city of Bochum wrote on Facebook. “Great weather + great beer = serious thirst. The catch: although we regularly buy new bottles, we’re running out. So before you go on your summer holiday, please be sure to return your Moritz Fiege empties to your local off license. Make your motto: first the empties, then the holiday!”

Germans do not approve of beer cans. They like their beer in bottles. And, environmentally conscious as they are, they recycle. But beer bottles are not simply thrown in the recycling bin with the other glass. 

Instead, every time you buy beer in Germany you pay a deposit of 8 to 15 cents (7p to 13p) a bottle. This is refunded when you bring the bottles back, and German supermarkets typically have long queues of people returning their empties.

The bottles are then returned to the brewers to be reused, cutting out the need for sorting and processing. But in the current heatwave the demand for beer is outstripping the pace at which bottles are being returned.

“This issue is causing an industry-wide drama,” Niklas Other, editor of a German brewing industry magazine, told the DPA news agency.

There are always delays getting bottles back in the summer months, but this year the problem is “particularly acute”, Marc-Oliver Huhnholz, a spokesman for the German Brewers Association said.

A spokesman for Veltins, one of Germany’s biggest brewers, said the company has ordered thousands of extra bottles. But with bottles usually ordered a year in advance, that isn’t an option for smaller brewers. 

It isn’t the first time this problem has surfaced. In 2012 it got so serious that Munich famous Hofbräu brewery would only sell beer to customers in exchange for empty bottles.

Things haven’t got that serious this year — yet.