World briefs: Protest by Abdullah puts Afghanistan vote count under cloud

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s presidential election was cast into crisis on Wednesday as one of the candidates, Abdullah Abdullah, announced a broad-based protest against the electoral process, accusing his opponent and President Hamid Karzai of engineering massive fraud in the runoff vote on Saturday.

Rejecting the process laid out under Afghan electoral law, Abdullah called on the election commission to halt all vote counting and immediately investigate and identify inflated ballot totals — steps that are designed to come after partial vote results are announced in the next few weeks. Abdullah also withdrew his observers from the vote-counting process and suspended his cooperation with the election commission, which his campaign says is biased.

“We are asking for the counting process to be stopped immediately because this is not a legitimate process,” Abdullah said. “The fraud was engineering in such an exceptional way that it left no choice for us but to make this announcement today and wait for the response and correction of this.”

Abdullah’s stand immediately cast into doubt an election that Western and Afghan officials alike have considered crucial to the country’s stability now that Western troops are leaving. Also hanging in the balance are the continuation of international aid and small-scale military assistance to the Afghan government after 2014, both of which hinge on a new legitimately elected Afghan administration.

There was no immediate response from the other candidate, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, or from the president’s palace, both of which have denied fraud accusations by Abdullah’s campaign in recent days.

The Afghan election commission signaled that, at least for now, the counting and announcement schedule would proceed as planned. The election center “continues its tally and data entry process of the votes with presence of the national and international observers,” said Noor Ahmad Noor, a spokesman for the independent election commission.

Palestinian leader defends cooperation with Israel

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian president on Wednesday defended his policy of security cooperation with Israel in a politically risky speech to senior Arab officials, even as Israeli forces escalated their most extensive West Bank crackdown in years in response to the apparent abduction of three Israeli teenagers.

President Mahmoud Abbas’ comments were quickly condemned at home and shined a light on one of his most controversial policies — working with the Israeli military to keep the Hamas militant group, which Israel accuses of carrying out the kidnapping, in check.

The three youths, Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship, who disappeared late Thursday while hitchhiking home from Jewish seminaries in the West Bank. Accusing Hamas of being behind the apparent abduction, Israel has launched a widespread crackdown on the group, arresting scores of members while conducting a feverish manhunt for the missing youths.

In a speech to Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Abbas condemned the kidnapping, saying it had caused heavy damage to the Palestinians and that his forces were helping search for the missing teens.

Iran eases key demand in nuclear talks, boosting chances for a deal

VIENNA — Iran is easing a key demand in negotiations with world powers over its disputed nuclear program, boosting prospects for the top-priority agreement that diplomats are racing to finish within a month.

Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, acknowledged amid a week of negotiations in Vienna that Tehran now accepts the principle that as part of the deal sanctions on its economy would be gradually eased as Iran gradually complies with limits on its nuclear activities.

Iran’s official line has been that it would require an immediate lifting of all of the sanctions at the time the deal is signed. The economic penalties have choked off its oil exports and limited its trade, and the Iranian government needs to have them lifted as soon as possible to help restore its teetering economy.

“It’s a big deal,” said Cliff Kupchan, an Iran specialist at the Eurasia Group risk consulting firm. “Iran is recognizing that lifting sanctions will be tough and take time here. Araqchi’s statement lifts one barrier, a significant one, to a deal.”

Iranian and Western officials continue to stress that many differences remain between the two sides, led by disagreements over how much sensitive nuclear equipment Iran could retain under the deal.

Japan bans child porn possession

TOKYO — Yielding to years of pressure to fall in line with the rest of the developed world, Japan’s Parliament outlawed the possession of child pornography on Wednesday, though it left a loophole for the nation’s thriving industry of sometimes sexually explicit manga comics.

By an overwhelming margin, lawmakers from the governing and opposition parties joined to pass a bill that will strengthen a 1999 law that had banned the production and distribution of child pornography, but not its possession. The new law, which is expected to go into effect next month, will give violators a one-year grace period to get rid of pornographic images before they will be prosecuted.

However, in a concession to the nation’s powerful publishing industry, the new law will exempt illustrated images of sex acts involving children found in manga as well as anime cartoons and computer graphics.

Still, passage of the new law appeared to be a victory for conservative politicians, who had lamented the fact that Japan was the only member of groups of developed nations like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, that still allowed the possession of child pornography.

Social pressure had also built up, as the Japanese police blamed the continuing legality of child pornography for a surge in criminal cases involving its production and circulation. Across Japan, the number of such criminal cases has jumped tenfold since 2000, to 1,644 cases last year, according to the National Police Agency.

China-Vietnam meeting does little to ease territorial tensions

HONG KONG — China and Vietnam exchanged sharp views Wednesday in their dispute over a Chinese oil rig deployed in contested waters in the South China Sea near Vietnam’s coast and appear to have made little headway in cooling tensions, according to a summary of a top-level meeting in Hanoi released by China’s Foreign Ministry.

China’s state councilor, Yang Jiechi, accused Vietnam, which has sent ships to the area, of conducting “unlawful interference” in the operations of the rig and told Vietnam that China would “take all necessary measures to safeguard its national sovereignty,” the ministry said in the statement.

The uncompromising language was unusual for a diplomatic statement describing discussions between two communist countries and reflected China’s unyielding position since it sent the rig last month to a position 120 miles off the coast of Vietnam and close to the Paracel Islands, which both countries claim.

Yang, China’s most senior diplomat and a former foreign minister, met in Hanoi with Vietnam’s Foreign Minister, Pham Binh Minh, and then with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and the general secretary of the Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong.

To back up its claim to the Paracels, China recently released a 1958 letter from Pham Van Dong, then the prime minister of Vietnam, to Premier Zhou Enlai of China. It said that Vietnam recognized China’s sovereignty over the islands. Vietnam has argued the letter has no validity because it was written under duress.

In an effort to discourage China’s claims, Vietnam has threatened to launch an international lawsuit against Beijing. The Philippines, a U.S. ally, recently opened an arbitration case in the U.N. against China over competing claims in the South China Sea, an action that has infuriated the Chinese government.

Google breakup isn’t an option, Merkel ally de Maiziere says

BERLIN  -- The European Union has to rely on antitrust and privacy rules to curb Google Inc.’s search-engine dominance and can’t just break up the company, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said.

In an interview at his ministry in Berlin, de Maiziere also said former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden would face extradition proceedings if he came to Germany and that Merkel and other government officials can’t expect their mobile phones to be “totally secure” from spying.

The comments by de Maiziere, an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel who served as her first-term chief of staff, are a rebuff to critics in Germany and Europe who say the European Union needs to take more radical steps to curb the power of U.S. technology and Internet companies.

“Europe can’t dismantle Chinese, American, Indian or South American companies,” de Maiziere, 60, said yesterday when asked about Mountain View, California-based Google, the world’s biggest search provider. “What kind of a legal system is that? That’s not going to work.”

Google commands more than 90 percent of the market in countries including Germany and is broadening its services to areas such as self-driving cars, thermostats and Web infrastructure. The expansion is prompting calls by publishers, phone companies, politicians and data-protection officials in Europe to rein in the company’s reach.


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