Iran’s attorney general orders probe into oil tanker collision
Iran’s Attorney General Mohammad Ja’far Montazeri ordered a full investigation into the cause of a tragic incident of collision between an Iranian oil tanker and a Chinese freighter in the East China Sea.
The incident led to the death of 30 Iranian and two Bangladeshi crew members of the tanker, Sanchi, which sank in the sea on Sunday, IRNA reported.
A Chinese salvage team on Saturday recovered two bodies from the tanker. Another body, presumed to be one of the Sanchi’s sailors, was found on Jan. 8 and taken to Shanghai for identification.
Iranian officials said on Sunday the remaining 29 crew members and passengers of the tanker were presumed dead.
The salvage team recovered the Sanchi’s voyage data recorder, or “black box” from the bridge of the tanker, Xinhua said on Saturday. But the team was forced to leave the ship after just half an hour because the wind shifted and “thick toxic smoke” had complicated the operation.
“Finding the black box will be helpful for all parties in correctly determining the reasons for the accident,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said on Monday.
Large oil slick
The stricken Iranian tanker that sank in the East China Sea in the worst oil ship disaster in decades has produced a large oil slick, Chinese media and Japanese authorities said on Monday, as worries grew over damage to the marine ecosystem.
The tanker Sanchi had been adrift and ablaze after crashing into the freighter CF Crystal on Jan. 6. Strong winds had pushed it away from the Chinese coast, where the incident happened, and into Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Reuters reported.
The Japan Coast Guard said oil had spread over an area 13km (8.1 miles) long and 11km (6.8 miles) wide, although it said the slick was shrinking as patrol boats battled to contain it.
The guard said the fire on the sea surface was put out at around 0200 GMT on Monday, although according to other authorities and Chinese state TV CCTV black smoke continued to billow from the site of the sinking for several more hours.
A cleanup effort has begun and rescue teams have called a halt to the large-scale search for survivors, reducing it to “normal” operations, CCTV said.
The incident marks the biggest tanker spill since 1991, when 260,000 tons of oil leaked off the Angolan coast.
The East China Sea is known for its rich, although already polluted, marine ecosystem that includes whales, porpoises and seabirds, said Rick Steiner, a US marine scientist with experience of oil spills.
Greenpeace said in a statement the explosion and sinking had occurred in “an important (fish) spawning ground”.
The blazing vessel, which had been carrying 136,000 tons – almost one million barrels – of condensate, an ultralight, highly flammable crude oil, sank on Sunday after several explosions weakened the hull.
The Shanghai Maritime Bureau, under China’s Ministry of Transport, said shortly before 0800 GMT on Monday there was no more heavy smoke at the scene.
Japanese authorities lost track of the tanker as of 0840 GMT on Sunday, a spokesman for Japan’s Coast Guard said. The ship’s last confirmed location was about 315km (195 miles) west of Sokkozaki on the island of Amami Oshima, one of the northern islands in the Ryukyu island chain that includes Okinawa.
Experts worry the ship’s sinking is potentially more damaging to the marine ecosystem than letting the condensate oil burn off. The sinking will likely expel the remaining condensate and the tanker’s bunker fuel, or the heavy fuel oil that powers a ship’s engines, contaminating the surrounding waters.
Bunker fuel is the dirtiest kind of oil, extremely toxic when spilled, though less explosive. Condensate is poisonous to marine organisms.
Close to 40m tons of petchems produced in nine months
Domestic Economy Desk
Totally 39.9 million tons of petrochemicals were produced by 57 Iranian companies during March 21-December 21, 2017.
Of this figure, 14.76 million tons were produced by petrochemical companies located in Mahshahr port in the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan, according to a report by National Petrochemical Company, Shana reported.
The annual nominal production capacity of the petchem complexes located in this zone stands at 25.6 million tons. They are expected to produce 21 million tons of petrochemicals by March 21, 2018.
Close to 16.85 million tons of the total output by Iranian petchem companies in this period were produced by 16 complexes located in Assalouyeh in the southern Iranian province of Bushehr. These complexes’ nominal output capacity amounts to 32.7 million tons per annum.
They plan to produce 26.5 million tons of petrochemicals by mid-March 2018.
Production by 21 petchem complexes located in the central regions reached 8.29 million tons in the nine-month period to mid-December, 2017. The annual nominal capacity of these complexes is 13.7 million tons, a target of which 11.4 million tons are estimated to be achieved by March 2018.
Iran’s total petrochemical output during November 22-December 21, 2017, stood at 4.3 million tons.
In this period, Iran’s largest producers were Bisotoon Petrochemical Plant, Ghaed Bassir Petrochemical Products Company, Shimibaft Petrochemical Company, Lorestan Petrochemical Company, Orumieh petrochemical company, Iran Carbon, Mehr Petrochemical Company, Laleh petrochemical company, Mahabad petrochemical company, Nouri Petrochemical Company, Khorasan Petrochemical Company, Shazand Petrochemical Company and Kermanshah polymer Company, respectively.
The annual nominal output capacity of these 57 petrochemical complexes is about 62 million tons. They plan to reach a production of 60 million tons by March 21, 2018.
Russia urges US to ‘recognize reality’ on Iran
Lavrov: Moscow won’t support bid to change nuclear deal
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday called on the United States to “recognize reality” on the Iran nuclear deal, saying Moscow will not back US attempts to change the Iran nuclear deal.
“We will continue to work with the aim of the United States recognizing reality,” Lavrov said at an annual press conference in Moscow on Monday.
He added that US statements to end the deal “do not add optimism or stability.”
Lavrov spoke days after US President Donald Trump said he would waive nuclear sanctions against Iran for the last time to give Washington and its European allies a chance to “fix the deal’s disastrous flaws.”
But Lavrov said Moscow will not support attempts by Washington to modify the 2015 nuclear deal.
“We will not support what the United States is trying to do, changing the wording of the agreement, incorporating things that will be absolutely unacceptable for Iran,” he said.
Lavrov said it was “hard to say” what position European countries will have.
“They are starting to somehow, I believe, call on looking for compromises. This will be a slippery slope in a very dangerous direction,” he said.
Russia’s top diplomat, who stressed that Russia will work to preserve the existing Iran nuclear deal, also warned that the agreement’s collapse could be detrimental to dialogue with North Korea.
Lavrov suggested Pyongyang would look at how Iran had been treated by Washington and wonder if any deal it did with the United States on its own missile and nuclear programs would hold or also be called into question.
“If this arrangement is taken away and Iran is told: you remain within the framework of your obligations and we will reimpose sanctions – then put yourself in North Korea’s place,” he added.
Under the hard-won 2015 deal with Russia, the US, China, France, Britain, Germany and the EU, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for lifting a raft of international sanctions.
America’s allies see the accord as a victory for diplomacy.
Iran on Saturday rejected any modification of the deal after Trump’s comments.
AFP and Reuters contributed to this story.
South Korea’s Iranian oil imports up over 29% in 2017
South Korea’s imports of Iranian crude oil during 2017 jumped by 29.1 percent, customs data showed on Monday.
For the whole of 2017, South Korea’s oil imports from Iran rose 29.1 percent to 18.07 million tons, or 362,884 bpd, versus 14 million tons in 2016, reported Reuters quoting customs data.
South Korea, the world’s fifth-largest crude importer in December, brought in 1.08 million tons of Iranian crude, or 255,081 barrels per day (bpd), down 30.6 percent from 1.55 million tons a year earlier.
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Abbas: Palestinians to ‘slap back’ for Trump Beit-ul-Moqaddas move
The Palestinian president railed at US President Donald Trump in a fiery, two-hour-long speech on Sunday, saying “shame on you” for his treatment of the Palestinians and warning that he would have no problem rejecting what he suggested would be an unacceptable peace plan.
The speech by Mahmoud Abbas ratcheted up what has been more than a month of harsh rhetoric toward Trump since his recognition of Beit-ul-Moqaddas as Israel’s capital. Relations between Washington and the Palestinians have sunk to a new low, boding poorly for a peace plan the White House has promised to present.
Speaking to the Palestinian Central Council, a decision-making body, Abbas repeated the Palestinians’ opposition to Trump’s Beit-ul-Moqaddas recognition and censured Trump for accusing the Palestinians of refusing to negotiate.
Earlier this month, Palestinian leaders said they will not be “blackmailed” after Trump threatened to cut aid worth more than $300 million annually to force them to negotiate.
“He [Trump] said in a tweet: ‘We won’t give money to the Palestinians because they rejected the negotiations,’ ”
Abbas said, “May God demolish your house. Shame on you! When did we reject the talks? Where is the negotiation that we rejected?”
Trump infuriated Palestinians and Muslims around the world when he announced late last year that the US would recognize Beit-ul-Moqaddas as the capital of Israel and move its embassy there, upending decades of US policy and countering an international consensus that the fate of Beit-ul-Moqaddas should be decided in negotiations. Abbas has said that by siding with the Israelis on a sensitive issue, the announcement had destroyed Trump’s credibility as a Mideast peace broker.
“We can say no to anyone if things are related to our fate and our people, and now we have said no to Trump,” he said. “We told him the deal of the century was the slap of the century. But we will slap back.”
Abbas also said that the Palestinians have rejected a US request to halt payments to roughly 35,000 families of Palestinians killed and wounded in the conflict with Israel.
Abbas said the Palestinians will not accept the US as a sole broker, and believe a deal can only be reached if there are multiple parties. He also accused Israel through its actions of ending the 1994 Oslo peace accords that form the basis of Palestinian ties with Tel Aviv, saying the Palestinians would study all strategies for responding to it. “I am saying that Oslo, there is no Oslo. Israel ended Oslo,” he said, referring to persistent Israeli settlement building and other issues. Beyond that, Abbas attacked the US ambassadors to Israel and the United Nations, David Friedman and Nikki Haley, calling them a “disgrace.” Both Trump appointees have been strong supporters of Israel, with Friedman having backed Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
AP and AFP contributed to this story.
Turkey threatens to ‘drown’ US-backed Syria force
Turkey’s president on Monday denounced US plans to form a 30,000-strong Kurdish-led border security force in Syria, vowing to “drown this terror force before it is born,” as Russia and Syria also rejected the idea.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also warned US troops against coming between Turkish troops and Kurdish forces, which Ankara views as an extension of Turkey’s own Kurdish insurgency.
Turkey has been threatening to launch a new military operation against the main Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the People’s Defense Units, or YPG, in the Kurdish-held Afrin enclave in northern Syria.
Russia has also warned that the nascent US force threatens to fuel tensions around Afrin.
“The United States has admitted that it has created a terrorist force along our country’s border. Our duty is to drown this terror force before it is born,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.
Turkey sent troops into Syria in 2016 to prevent Syrian Kurdish militants from forming a contiguous entity along its border.
In recent days, Turkey said it would soon launch a new operation in Afrin and sent reinforcements to the border. Russia deployed military observers to Afrin last year in an effort to prevent Turkish-Kurdish clashes.
On Monday, Erdogan said preparations for the military assault on Afrin “are complete,” adding that an operation could start any moment. He said Turkish troops are already firing artillery at Afrin from the border.
“Don’t stand between us and these herd of murderers. Otherwise, we won’t be responsible for the unwanted incidents that may arise,” he said. “Tear off the insignia you have placed on the uniforms of the terrorists so that we don’t have to bury them (US soldiers) together with the terrorists.
Russia said Monday that the new force is a sign Washington “doesn’t want to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria.” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the nascent border force is “not helping calm the situation.”
The Syrian government also condemned the US plans for the border force, saying it would consider its members “traitors”.
“Syria strongly condemns the US announcement on the creation of militias in the country’s northeast, which represents a blatant attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity and unity of Syria, and a flagrant violation of international law,” said the Syria Foreign Ministry.
“Syria considers any Syrian who participates in these militias sponsored by the Americans as a traitor to their people and nation, and will deal with them on this basis.”
AP and AFP contributed to this story.
Madrid to keep control of Catalonia if Puigdemont tries to govern remotely
Spain’s prime minister warned Monday that Madrid would maintain unpopular direct control of Catalonia if the former regional leader Carles Puigdemont tries to govern again from exile in Belgium.
Speaking to party members in Madrid, Mariano Rajoy said that Puigdemont had “to be physically present” in Catalonia to take office, and if that didn’t happen, the central government would maintain direct rule imposed after Catalan leaders declared independence in October, AFP wrote.
Puigdemont is the separatist camp’s favored candidate to lead Catalonia again after pro-independence parties won an absolute majority in December regional elections. But he is in self-imposed exile in Belgium and risks arrest on charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds for his role in the region’s failed independence bid if he comes back to Spain.
To be elected regional president, he should in theory be present at the parliamentary session where the vote takes place, but he wants to appear by video link or write a speech and have it read by someone else.
If that is allowed — and legal experts doubt this can be done — Puigdemont would then have to officially take office from Belgium and could try to govern the region remotely.
Direct rule on Catalonia is very unpopular in a region that enjoyed considerable autonomy before its leaders attempted to break away from Spain.
This prompted Rajoy to take control of the region, sack its government, dissolve its parliament and call the snap December elections.
Nadal, Dimitrov through; V. Williams knocked out of Australian Open
World number one Rafael Nadal powered into the Australian Open second round with a routine win over the Dominican Republic’s Victor Estrella Burgos.
The Spaniard, who had not played a tournament match since suffering a knee injury in November, won 6-1, 6-1, 6-1, BBC reported.
“I’m very happy to be back, it’s a very important beginning for me,” he said.
“I want to enjoy every moment I’m here on this court.”
Third seed Grigor Dimitrov and in-form Australian Nick Kyrgios also advanced, but eighth seed Jack Sock was one of 10 American men and women to lose.
Sock went down 6-1, 7-6 (7-4), 5-7, 6-3 to world number 41 Yuichi Sugita, and 16th seed John Isner lost 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 to Australia’s Matthew Ebden.
Nadal, aiming for a 17th Grand Slam title and a second in Australia, was hampered by a knee injury at the end of the 2017 season.
But the Spaniard, who was beaten by Roger Federer in last year’s final, got off to a perfect start and raced to victory over the 37-year-old in 94 minutes on Rod Laver Arena.
The world number one will play Leonardo Mayer of Argentina next.
Bulgarian Dimitrov, 26, went through with a 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 win over Austrian Dennis Novak in one hour 38 minutes.
Kyrgios, the top-seeded Australian in the men’s draw at 17, enjoyed a straightforward 6-1 6-2 6-4 victory over Brazil’s Rogerio Dutra Silva. Croatia’s sixth seed Marin Cilic beat Canadian qualifier Vasek Pospisil 6-2, 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (7-5).
Swiss Belinda Bencic sent an early shockwave through the Australian Open on Monday by toppling last year’s finalist Venus Williams on an opening day of carnage for American tennis.
With defending champion and new mum Serena absent, 20-year-old Bencic’s brilliant 6-3, 7-5 win under the Rod Laver Arena roof ensured there would not be a Williams sister in the second round of the tournament for the first time in over 20 years.
It also continued a bleak day for the United States, with three of their four women’s semifinalists from Flushing Meadows last year falling at the first hurdle.
US Open champion Sloane Stephens tumbled in three sets against China’s plucky Zhang Shuai, before 10th seed Coco Vandeweghe was sent packing in two by Hungary’s Timea Babos.
For former world number seven Bencic, victory was another step on an impressive comeback trail from a wrist surgery that saw her tumble out of the top 300 last year before her return in September.
“I think (before) I had a little bit too much respect, played a little bit careful and safe,” Bencic, who was a toddler when Venus won her first grand slam at Wimbledon in 2000, told reporters.
“This time, I really tried to come out and, you know, hit it big. Also tactically be smart on the court.”
Now ranked 78th, Bencic teamed up with Roger Federer to win the Hopman Cup for Switzerland in the lead-up and was thrilled to have the defending champion’s parents watching from her players’ box as she worked over Williams in less than two hours.
Federer’s parents are used to seeing wins and Bencic did not disappoint, playing the 37-year-old American to perfection.
Soaking up the fifth seed’s firepower, she counter-punched brilliantly to seal the match with a pair of rasping forehand winners.
Saudi Arabia begins screening films after decades-long ban lifted
Saudi Arabia began screening feature-length animated children’s films this weekend in a makeshift theater, after a 35-year-old ban on cinemas was lifted in the country.
The first permanent theaters could open as early as March, part of a liberalizing reform drive that has already opened the door to concerts, comedy shows and women drivers over the past year, Reuters reported.
For now, the authorities are sponsoring temporary settings, like the state-run cultural hall in the Red Sea city of Jeddah equipped with a projector, a red carpet and a popcorn machine.
“Until now, there is no infrastructure for movie theaters, so we are trying to take advantage of (alternative) venues to approximate the cinematic form,” said Mamdouh Salim, whose Cinema 70 brand organized the week-long screenings.
“We tried to use these films to be a starting point as the first cinematic screening after the decision on Dec. 11 to permit movie theaters.”
Cinemas were banned in the early 1980s as Saudi society turned towards a particularly conservative form of religion that discouraged public entertainment.
But reforms led by 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have eased many of those restrictions, as the government tries to broaden the economy and lessen its dependence on oil.
In a nod to conservatives, films will be censored to make sure they remain in line with the kingdom’s ‘moral values’.
After watching ‘The Emoji Movie’ with his wife and daughter on Sunday evening, 28-year-old Sultan al-Otaibi said Saudis are happy to see movies in the theater instead of staying at home.
“It’s more comfortable, more fun to have a change of scenery and an activity on the weekend. It is a step that was very late in coming but thank God it’s happening now.”
Thousands of Saudis currently travel to Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and other countries for entertainment. The government wants to retain the money spent on those trips.
The authorities expect to open 300 cinemas with 2,000 screens by 2030, building an industry it hopes will contribute more than 90 billion rials ($24 billion) to the economy and create 30,000 permanent jobs.
Regional and international cinema chains are also eying the Saudi market, keen to tap the spending power of the young people who make up roughly 70 percent of the population.
“I want to see everything because it is something new for Saudi,” said 30-year-old moviegoer Ibtisam Abu Talib. “I hope everything is available — action, romance, children’s films, comedy. Everything, God willing.”
North Korean orchestra to perform in South during Olympics
North Korea agreed during rare talks on Monday to send a 140-strong orchestra to perform during the Winter Olympics in South Korea next month, Seoul said. Officials from the two Koreas, technically still at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a treaty, met on the North side of the border truce village of Panmunjom to discuss North Korea sending performers – for the first time in 18 years – to the Olympics in Pyeongchang, Reuters reported.
The two sides agreed that the orchestra would stage performances in the capital, Seoul, and at Gangneung, near Pyeongchang, the South’s Unification Ministry said in a statement.
The North asked that the art troupe cross the border by foot via Panmunjom, located in the demilitarized zone.
The North will dispatch a preliminary inspection team “at the earliest possible time” to hammer out logistics such as the performance venue, stage conditions and the installation of equipment, according to a joint press release.
The decision to host the orchestra “contributes to improving relations and recovering the cultural homogeneity” between the two Koreas, the South’s ministry said.
The two Koreas separately agreed to hold working talks on Wednesday on the North’s athletes attending the Olympics, the ministry said. They will also hold talks hosted by the International Olympics Committee on Saturday.
“The IOC will have no say on the art team. That is something that has to be discussed between the two sides,” a North Korean diplomat in Geneva said.
Tension has been high as the North staged a flurry of nuclear and missile tests since last year and its leader Kim Jong-un traded threats of war and personal attacks with US President Donald Trump. But fears of war have eased after the first round of intra-Korean talks in more than two years last week, which Trump has welcomed.
Choi Moon-soon, governor for the Games’ host province, said the two countries’ orchestras may hold a joint concert.
The North’s orchestra, called the Samjiyon Band, is the country’s main art troupe along with the Moranbong Band, women who regularly stage musical performances and plays calling for loyalty to the leader.
North Korea is planning to send a large delegation to the Olympics in addition to the athletes and orchestra. South Korea is also seeking to form a united women’s ice hockey team with the North, according to media reports.