Four arrested over Brussels bomb attack

Belgian authorities say that police have detained four people in a series of raids in Brussels linked to the failed bombing at a rail station this week by a man shouting “Allahu akbar.

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The federal prosecutor’s office said that the four were picked up during searches in the Molenbeek neighbourhood, as well as in Anderlecht and Koekelberg.

The attacker in Tuesday’s violence at Brussels Central Station was a 36-year-old Moroccan national also living in Molenbeek, but he wasn’t known to authorities for being involved in extremist activities.

Many of the suspects linked to attacks in Brussels and in Paris in November 2015 lived in or passed through the Molenbeek neighborhood

Prosecutors said in a statement that the four suspects allegedly linked to the latest incident in Brussels were “taken in for thorough questioning” and that an investigating judge would decide whether to keep them in custody.

Authorities didn’t say whether anything had been seized in the raids, and declined to provide further details.

The raids are among several launched since Tuesday’s attempted attack at Brussels Central Station in which the man blew up a device that didn’t fully detonate.

He was then fatally shot by soldiers after charging at them while shouting “Allahu akbar,” the Arabic phrase for “God is great.”

No one else was hurt.

Belgium has been on high alert since suicide bombers killed 32 people at the Brussels airport and a subway station last year.

Authorities said the quick shooting of the attacker averted fatalities. He had been trying to detonate a larger nail bomb.

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Hanson defends comments about children with autism

Senator Hanson, speaking during debate on schools funding on Wednesday, raised the prospect of autistic children being segregated from mainstream classrooms in order to receive special attention.

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She said it was no good allowing kids with autism to feel good about themselves without considering the impact it was having on other children around them.

Her comments have sparked outrage among parents of autistic children and she has come under fire from Labor and Greens senators.

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But Ms Hanson refused to back down and dug in behind her original speech at a press conference in Canberra on Thursday.

“I will not take away back my comments.”

She continued: “If I upset people, that was not my intention. My intention is to raise these issues, speak about them openly, honestly, on the floor of Parliament.”

She labelled criticism of her position as political point scoring, saying her comments had been misrepresented.

Federal Labor MP Emma Husar, who has a child with autism, has demanded an apology from Ms Hanson.

“She owes an apology to every single autistic child in this country, every one of the parents who are like me – because we’ve got better things to do than defend our kids,” Ms Husar said.

0:00 Emma Husar responds to Pauline Hanson Share Emma Husar responds to Pauline Hanson

Greens leader Richard Di Natale described the remarks as some of the most “hateful, outrageous” and “disgraceful” comments towards young children in need of extra support.

Ms Hanson said every child deserved an education, but students with autism needed special attention and could be taught in special classrooms.

“The rest of the time they are allowed to mix with the other kids in the playgrounds and sporting events. Whatever.”

She said parents and “teachers around the country” had thanked her for her frank comments and she read a letter from a 15-year-old boy who said he hated being at a mainstream school.

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France’s Plisson back for Boks rugby Test

Jules Plisson has been restored at five-eighth as one of three backline changes by French coach Guy Noves for Saturday’s third and final Test against South Africa at Ellis Park.

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France are seeking a consolation win having been well beaten in the first two Tests, and Noves has made a further six changes in a revamped bench.

Plisson started the first game in Pretoria and has been preferred in the No.10 jersey to Francois Trinh Duc, who is named among the replacements.

The other two changes to the starting XV are also in the backline, as Brice Dulin comes in for South African-born Scott Spedding at fullback and Nans Ducuing gets a first Test start ahead of Yoann Huget, who suffered a cut last weekend to his mouth.

In changes on the bench, prop Xavier Chiocci comes in for Eddy Ben Arous, lock Paul Jedrasiak is preferred to Julien le Devedec, flanker Loann Goujon is in for Bernard le Roux, halfback Maxime Machenaud takes over from Antoine Dupont, Trinh-Duc features instead of Jean-Marc Doussain and Vincent Rattez takes the place of Ducuing.

South Africa won the first test 37-14 and followed that with a 37-15 victory last weekend in Durban. They have never beaten France at Ellis Park, though, losing all four previous Tests.

FRANCE:

Brice Dulin, Nans Ducuing, Damian Penaud, Gael Fickou, Virimi Vakatawa, Jules Plisson, Baptiste Serin, Louis Picamoles, Kevin Gourdon, Yacouba Camara, Romain Taofifenua, Yoann Maestri, Rabah Slimani, Guilhem Guirado (capt), Jefferson Poirot.

Res: Clement Maynadier, Xavier Chiocci, Uini Atonio, Paul Jedrasiak, Loann Goujon, Maxime Machenaud, Francois Trinh Duc, Vincent Rattez.

France’s Emmanuel Macron gears up for first EU summit

France’s new President Emmanuel Macron heads to his first EU summit pledging to breathe new life into the bloc after Britain’s shock Brexit decision and to bolster European defences in the face of Donald Trump’s “America First” policy.

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The 39-year-old takes his place among fellow European Union leaders in Brussels flush from emphatic electoral victories at home, although his post-election honeymoon was upset this week by a high-level cabinet reshuffle that saw the departure of his justice minister Francois Bayrou, a key ally.

Macron was quick to bond with the doyenne of the EU, Germany’s Angela Merkel, making a point of visiting her on his maiden foreign trip the day after his May 7 election.

Early this month, Brussels unveiled a Franco-German blueprint for the creation of a European defence fund with an annual budget of 5.5 billion euro ($6.1 billion).

Macron’s office said Paris and Berlin, traditionally the twin engines of European integration, hoped their partners would sign off on the defence plan at the two-day summit.

0:00 Queen’s Speech on European Union Share Queen’s Speech on European Union

The idea for the fund, which would finance joint military hardware projects including drones as well as pooled research and development, is to help Europe stand alone as a global military power in the face of US President Trump’s “America First” policy.

Trump berated his European partners on military spending at a raucous NATO summit in Brussels last month.

Macron has called for a permanent European defence headquarters that would plan and monitor defence operations in close cooperation with NATO command centres in the 22 countries that are both EU and NATO members.

Merkel, who herself faces elections in September, said the two core European powers would work to give “new momentum” to the Franco-German axis – whose hand is strengthened by Britain’s shock Brexit decision last year.

‘Awakening ambitions’

On Tuesday, she said she was prepared to consider additional Macron proposals, which include a finance minister and parliament for the eurozone, “if the circumstances are right”.

“We could also consider a euro-budget if it is clear that we are really strengthening the structure of the economy and doing sensible things,” she added, backing another suggestion by the French leader.

But Merkel’s support comes at a price: she will expect Macron to adhere more closely to the EU’s Stability Pact budget rules for countries in the eurozone.

Paris already on notice from the EU Commission that France is on course to overshoot its deficit limit once again in 2017.

The macro-economic straitjacket was all too familiar to Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande, whose attempts to comply helped make the Socialist leader one of the most unpopular French presidents in the postwar era.

During his electoral campaign, Macron put forward ideas for reforming the eurozone, noting that the 19-nation currency bloc cannot go on as it is if it wants to avoid falling prey to protest and populism.

“We need Europe, so we will remake it,” Macron said on the campaign trail. “I will be the president of the awakening of our European ambitions.”

With the European Union under attack from eurosceptics such as his presidential rival Marine Le Pen, Macron made support of the EU the cornerstone of his campaign.

In contrast, the far-right Le Pen, whom he defeated by a 20-point margin in May, had vowed to scrap the euro and call a referendum on EU membership.

The EU summit will be the third top-level international meeting for Macron after a NATO gathering and a Group of Seven summit in Sicily.

‘High expectations’

The young new leader, a former Rothschild banker and economy minister, has impressed with self-assured appearances, including staring down Trump in a high-profile handshake.

“There are pretty high expectations among his partners (but) the wind is at his back,” said Francois Heisbourg, president of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

A senior EU diplomat told AFP in Brussels that Macron was in a line of French presidents going back six decades who have “promised reforms and a total revamp”.

He said if Macron succeeds, “the Franco-German engine will start running, and running very fast.”

But he warned: “If the engine works too well, it is not always good for the EU … Let’s hope Paris and Berlin know how to control their speed.”

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Twenty casualties as car bomb hits bank in south Afghanistan

Twenty people were killed Thursday when a powerful car bomb struck a bank in Afghanistan’s Lashkar Gah city as government employees were queueing to withdraw salaries, the latest bloody attack during the holy month of Ramadan.

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At least 50 wounded people were rushed to hospital after the bombing at New Kabul Bank which upturned vehicles, left the area littered with charred debris and sent a plume of smoke rising in the sky.

No group has claimed responsibility for the brazen attack, but it comes as the Taliban ramp up their nationwide spring offensive despite government calls for a ceasefire during Ramadan.

“The blast killed 20 people and left 50 others wounded, both civilians and military officials,” government spokesman Omar Zwak said, warning that the toll could rise.

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The bomb tore through a queue of civilians and government employees who had lined up outside the bank to collect their salaries. The bank is believed to have been especially crowded ahead of the Eid holidays marking the end of Ramadan.

For years Helmand province, of which Lashkar Gah is the capital, was the centrepiece of the Western military intervention in Afghanistan, but it has recently slipped deeper into a quagmire of instability.

The insurgents control vast swathes of the province, blighted by a huge opium harvest that helps fund the insurgency, and have repeatedly threatened to seize Lashkar Gah. 

The Taliban effectively control or contest 10 of the 14 districts in Helmand, the deadliest province for British and US troops over the past decade.

Intensified fighting last year forced thousands of people to flee to Lashkar Gah from neighbouring districts.

Since they launched their spring offensive in late April, the Taliban have been mounting lethal assaults on the Afghan army and police outposts in Helmand.

Washington is soon expected to announce an increase in the US military deployment to bolster Afghan forces as they struggle to contain the insurgency. American military commanders in Afghanistan have requested thousands of extra boots on the ground.

US troops in Afghanistan now number about 8,400, and there are another 5,000 from NATO allies, a far cry from the US presence of more than 100,000 six years ago. They mainly serve as trainers and advisers.

Pentagon chief Jim Mattis this month acknowledged that America still is “not winning” in Afghanistan nearly 16 years after the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime.

Mattis said he will present a new US military strategy for Afghanistan, along with adjusted troop numbers, in the coming weeks to President Donald Trump.

The Afghan conflict is the longest in American history, with US-led forces at war since the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001.