Thousands of civilians have fled the besieged Syrian rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta, in what is believed to be the largest exodus in one day in the country's seven-year war, as new round of peace talks open in Astana.
Faced with the prospect of more government bombardments, thousands of civilians abandoned the town of Hamouriyah, which has been at the center of fighting between rebels and military forces.
Between 12,000 and 13,000 people have reportedly fled the area east of Damascus overnight and into Friday, according to news reports.
Grabbing what they could carry and loading it into their vehicles, desperate civilians streamed out of their homes, fleeing to areas controlled by the government.
Images posted online showed elderly women in wheelchairs and children carried by their parents as they walked amid the ruins.
Once controlled by rebels, Hamouriyah is now being surrounded by government forces.
"There is no water, no medicine that could be provided to our children, not even food," an evacuee said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said as many as 20,000 people have abandoned their homes, with many still waiting to be transported to safe zones.
Al Jazeera's Alan Fisher, reporting from Gaziantep in Turkey, said the exodus was expected after the Syrian forces cut off supplies.
After nearly four weeks of relentless bombardment, which has left more than 1,250 civilians including children dead, government forces are inching closer to capturing the rest of the enclave, forcing civilians to flee. Regime forces have already split the enclave, under siege since 2013, into three sections.
Rebels, however, claimed that they have retaken Hamouriyah, one of the districts in Eastern Ghouta.
Meanwhile, some 25 trucks of food aid were allowed into Eastern Ghouta's Douma district, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
It is unclear how long the food supply would last in an area believed to be populated with as many as 125,000.
The aid does not include medical supplies.
The entire Eastern Ghouta is home to 400,000 people, and it has been under a government siege since mid-2013.
The area is one of the last major remaining strongholds under the armed opposition, who are aiming to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
The enclave is the current major battleground in Syria's war, which entered its eighth year on Thursday.
According to UNHCR figures, there have been nearly 500,000 people killed and over 11 million displaced in the war.
Meanwhile, dozens of Syrian civilians, including children, have been killed, as Turkish troops and its allied armed groups bombarded the city of Afrin in Syria's Kurdish region.
The Syrian Observatory, a monitoring group based in the UK, said on Friday that the continued push by Turkish forces into Afrin have forced as many as 30,000 civilians to flee since Wednesday.
Meanwhile, foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, on Friday to continue negotiations on how to end the civil war in the Middle East country.
The agenda at the meeting also included how to maintain security in the established de-escalation zones as well as political and humanitarian issues.
The next round of talks is expected in the middle of May.


Russia is set to expel British diplomats in retaliation for Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to kick out 23 Russians as relations with London crash to a post-Cold War low due to an attack with military-grade nerve agent on English soil.
After the first known offensive use of such a weapon in Europe since World War Two, May blamed Moscow and gave 23 Russians who she said were spies working under diplomatic cover at the London embassy a week to leave.
Russia has denied any involvement, cast Britain as a post-colonial power unsettled by Brexit, and even suggested London had fabricated the attack in an attempt to whip up anti-Russian hysteria.
Asked by a Reuters reporter in the Kazakh capital if Russia planned to expel British diplomats from Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov smiled and said: “We will, of course.”
Britain, the United States, Germany and France jointly called on Russia on Thursday to explain the attack. US President Donald Trump said it looked like the Russians were behind it.
Russia has refused Britain’s demands to explain how Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet military, was used to strike down Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, in the southern English city of Salisbury.
Skripal, a former colonel in the GRU who betrayed dozens of Russian agents to British intelligence, and his daughter have been critically ill since March 4, when they were found unconscious on a bench.
A British policeman who was also poisoned when he went to help them is in a serious but stable condition.
President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy who is poised to win a fourth term in an election on Sunday, has so far only said publicly that Britain should get to the bottom of what has happened.


Chinese Solutions for Party Systems

Saturday, 17 March 2018 01:47

Recently, Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, met with members from the China Democratic League, China Zhi Gong Party and the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese as well as non-partisans who gathered in Beijing to attend the First Session of the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China’s top political advisory body. During the meeting, Xi stressed that China must unremittingly consolidate and improve the multi-party cooperation and political consultation system under the leadership of the CPC and tap into the unique potential of multi-party cooperation to provide practical advice and pool wisdom and strength for advancing socialist democratic politics.
After nearly 69 years of painstaking construction and reforms since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has developed a political party system unlike any other country around the world—a system featuring multi-party cooperation under the leadership of the CPC, in which the CPC is the ruling party and other political parties participate in the discussion and management of state affairs. This political party system was born in China, so it has distinct Chinese characteristics: With supreme leadership of the CPC as the prerequisite, the new type of party system aims to achieve unity, cooperation and win-win integration. In China, various non-Communist parties are not rivals or opposing parties, but friendly parties that participate in the operation of state affairs. The system has absorbed various innovations of world civilizations and is rich in democratic values.
Moreover, the new type of political party system respects the will of the people and uses a democratic decision-making mechanism. China’s major policies and decisions are not made by any single political party, but are designed through democratic consultation and scientific deliberation between the CPC and all other political parties. They pool their wisdom to draw the blueprint for the future of the Chinese nation and unite to smoothly handle state affairs. China’s new type of political system has avoided shortcomings of one-party rule such as a lack of democratic supervision as well as the political upheaval caused by vicious competitions among multiple parties vying for the chance to rule.
What constitutes this new type of political system?
First, the system combines theory and practice. The theoretical choice of the CPC-led multi-party cooperation and political consultation system is rooted in the history of modern and contemporary China after the Opium War in the 19th century. It is the choice of the Chinese people, of their own will, in the pursuit for salvation of the nation. The system is an outcome of the blending of Marxist party theory and China’s actual conditions. The development of a political consultation system combining the strength of the CPC, non-Communist parties and non-party personages has resulted in a great political invention. The history and achievements of the People’s Republic of China have shown that a new type of political system that integrates theory and practice can authentically, broadly and persistently represent and pursue the fundamental interests of Chinese people of all ethnic groups.
Second, the CPC-led multi-party cooperation and political consultation system integrates democracy and republicanism. All political parties work together for the common goal of building a stronger country and improving the people’s lives. They understand and communicate with each other to effectively avoid vicious competitions between parties.
Third, China has built a more rational and efficient decision-making mechanism: consultative democracy. In a broad sense, democracy could be categorized as either electoral or consultative. Considering its huge population, China needs an efficient and rational decision-making mechanism. Political consultation emphasizes the role of the system and respects procedures while avoiding social fragmentation caused by disagreements between multiple political parties. The political consultation system advocates concepts like “the whole world is one community,” “inclusiveness” and “seeking common ground while shelving differences” and represents an important contribution to human political civilization.
The CPC-led multi-party cooperation and political consultation system is a unique innovation forged in China. It is rooted in the soil of China. Benefiting from achievements in the progress of human politics, it breaks the set pattern of party alterations and widens mankind’s vision. It also showcases China’s latest achievements in party politics and erects a monument in the development of world politics. China’s new type of political party system provides a “Chinese solution” for mankind to create a democratic, harmonious and beautiful political and social life.

The author is a research fellow at the Party Building Base of Beijing Municipal Party Committee School and the Coordination and Innovation Center for the Research of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in Beijing Colleges and Universities.

(This content is provided by Beijing-based China Pictorial.)


March 3, 2018: The First Session of the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) opens at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China. The CPC-led multi-party cooperation and political consultation system is a basic Chinese political system and a new type of party system sprouting from the nation’s soil. by Duan Wei

The UN secretary-general urged Security Council members to "end the suffering" of residents in besieged Eastern Ghouta, as the US threatened to "act if we must" as a ceasefire continues to be ignored by Syrian and Russian forces.
Antonio Guterres' remarks on Monday came as government forces continued for a third week to launch air strikes and advance a ground offensive into the Damascus suburb that has been under rebel control since mid-2013.
Several attempts to halt the deadly operation have proved futile, with a war monitor reporting more than 1,022 civilians have been killed in Russian-backed Syrian government attacks over the last three weeks.
"I am deeply disappointed by all those ... who allowed this to happen," Guterres said in his address at the UN headquarters in New York.
"There should be only one agenda for all of us: to end the suffering of the Syrian people and find a political solution to the conflict.
"Particularly in Eastern Ghouta, the air strikes, shelling, ground offensive intensified after the adoption of the resolution," he said, referencing UNSC resolution 2401, which passed on February 24.
Resolution 2401 called for an immediate ceasefire, the evacuation of civilians, and the delivery of aid supplies.
Guterres also expressed his disappointment at the prevention of desperately needed food and medical assistance from being delivered to some of the 400,000 residents trapped inside the enclave.
United States ambassador to the UN Nikki Hailey denounced the failure to implement the resolution, and said her country was drafting a new one with "no room for evasion". Haley warned the US "remains prepared to act if we must".
"It is not the path we prefer, but it is a path we have demonstrated we will take, and we are prepared to take again," Haley told the 15-member Security Council. "When the international community consistently fails to act, there are times when states are compelled to take their own action."
Russian UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzya told the council on Monday the Syrian government has "every right to try and remove the threat to the safety of its citizens".
He described the Damascus suburb as a "hotbed" of "terrorism".
The destruction from the military onslaught has exacerbated an already dire humanitarian crisis, with more than 1,000 people in urgent need of medical evacuation.
Last week - amid reports of negotiations taking place between rebel groups and the Syrian government - a number of fighters and their families were evacuated from the enclave, state media reported.
President Bashar al-Assad has vowed to continue the offensive until all "terrorists" are removed from the district.
The Syrian government has divided Eastern Ghouta into three sections: Douma and its surroundings; Harasta in the west; and the rest of the towns further south.
Government forces have surrounded Douma, one of the enclave's main towns.


US President Donald Trump has sacked Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, citing differences, and replaced him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
"Mike Pompeo, director of the CIA, will become our new secretary of state. He will do a fantastic job," Trump tweeted on Tuesday. "Thank to Rex Tillerson for his service!" the president added.
According to the Washington Post, Trump asked Tillerson to leave the post last Friday.
Tillerson cut short his trip to Africa on Monday and returned to Washington, DC prompting questions about his future at the State Department.
In a statement on Tuesday, Trump said that "a great deal has been accomplished over the last 14 months" with Tillerson as the US' top diplomat.
Trump also said on Twitter that Deputy CIA Director Gina Hapsel will replace Pompeo as the head of the agency. He added that she is "the first woman so chosen".
The move by Trump is the biggest shakeup of his cabinet since taking office.
Reports surfaced last October that Trump was looking to replace the embattled Tillerson with the CIA director.
Tillerson, a former top executive for the energy giant Exxon, took office on February 1, 2017.
The US president and now-outgoing secretary of state have not seen eye-to-eye on a number of issues including the Iran nuclear deal and the Gulf crisis.
"We disagreed on things," Trump told reporters outside the White House on Tuesday, adding that the pair "were not really thinking the same".
Tillerson has criticized Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt - which cut diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar on June 5, 2017 - from the onset.
He urged the Gulf states to ease the blockade, which contradicted what appeared to be Trump's initial support for the move.


A senior Russian military official says NATO has a new priority of creating a “military Schengen” to enable the rapid deployment of military forces and hardware near Russian borders.
“The new priority of the military-political leadership of NATO is the improvement of the logistics and transport infrastructure within Europe, and the creation of the so-called ‘military Schengen’ area,” Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Alexander Fomin said in an interview with the daily Krasnaya Zvezda on Monday.
“The essence of the ‘military Schengen’ is to move troops to Russian borders within the shortest period of time possible,” Fomin said, adding that that was the conclusion of the Russian military leadership.
He said stocks of weapons, ammunition, and foods were being prepared for the rapid deployment of an additional NATO contingent of troops to various parts of Europe.
Currently, the US-led military alliance has coordination centers in Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, and Slovakia.
The American commander-in-chief of NATO forces in Europe claimed last week that Moscow was engaged in an attempt to “change the world order.”
“Russia is working hard to change the world order, divide NATO, and undermine US leadership in order to defend its regime. Russia aspired to maintain dominance over its neighbors, and to achieve greater control around the world,” said US Army General Curtis Scaparrotti while testifying at a hearing before the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee on March 8.
He accused Russia of having “the willingness and capability” to interfere in countries that neighbor it.
Relations between the West and Russia nosedived to their lowest since the days of the Cold War after armed conflict began in Ukraine in 2014. Western countries have been brandishing the so-called “Russia threat” ever since to justify the deployment of forces on NATO’s so-called eastern flank, i.e. near Russia’s western borders.
Russia has viewed such military activity with concern, saying that Western countries seek to encircle it.


Myanmar is building military bases over flattened Rohingya villages, an international rights group said.
Security forces have bulldozed houses and started constructing at least three new security facilities in Myanmar's western Rakhine state, said Amnesty International's Remaking Rakhine State report, which was published on Monday.
The report, which said construction of the three army outposts began in January, is based on satellite imagery and witness statements from Rohingya refugees.
"What we are seeing in Rakhine state is a land grab by the military on a dramatic scale. New bases are being erected to house the very same security forces that have committed crimes against humanity against Rohingya," Tirana Hassan, Amnesty's crisis response director, said.
"The new construction is entrenching the already dehumanizing discrimination they have faced in Myanmar."
Nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since last August as a result of a government crackdown launched in the wake of deadly attacks on military posts by members of the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA).
Eyewitnesses told Amnesty that Rohingya in Buthidaung township had been forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for the development. Al Jazeera was not able to independently verify those claims.
Myint Khine, a government administrator in Rakhine, told Al Jazeera the developments were not a "military land grab".
"We have been using bulldozers for building roads and construction ... not for military [purposes]," Khine said.
Hundreds of Rohingya villages have been torched and at least 55 settlements completely bulldozed, since the ongoing crisis began, according to Human Rights Watch.
The majority of those displaced have sought refuge in neighboring Bangladesh.
According to the UN, the exodus marks the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world.
Ro Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist, told Al Jazeera that Myanmar will "never allow" the Muslim minority to return to Rakhine state.
"It is clear that as a part of genocide they have destructed the Rohingya homes and confiscated everything," Lwin said. "They will never allow the Rohingya to return to their original villages."
The Rohingya, one of the most persecuted communities in the world, are not recognized as citizens of Myanmar and have for decades faced widespread discrimination from authorities.
Prior to the current exodus, tens of thousands of Rohingya have already been living as refugees in several neighboring countries.
Myanmar and Bangladesh announced a repatriation deal in January, but rights groups and Rohingya have raised concerns about the agreement, saying it does not guarantee full citizenship or safety for those who return.
Laura Haigh, Amnesty's Myanmar researcher, told Al Jazeera the demolition of their villages has created an "atmosphere of panic" among the Rohingya.
"What we need to see is the Myanmar government saying this is Rohingya land and saving it for them," Haigh said.
"[Instead] there's a growing sense this [militarization] is going to be a threat to safety and security, and there's worry about violence happening again."
Although the Amnesty report refers to the construction of three security bases, in the Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, there is growing evidence more facilities are being developed, Haigh added.
"Every time we go back to look at specific locations, we are seeing changes on a day-to-day basis. It's not just about the scale of change, it's also about the pace," she said.


The administration of US President Donald Trump says it will increase aid to states that want to arm school employees following last month’s massacre of 17 people at a high school in Florida.
US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Sunday that arming school staff is part of a "pragmatic plan to dramatically increase school safety.”
But the controversial idea to put weapons in schools has drawn little support from educators.
“We are committed to working quickly because there's no time to waste," DeVos said in a conference call with reporters.
The Trump administration will also provide technical assistance to states preparing temporary "risk protection orders" that allow for guns to be removed from certain individuals, said Andrew Bremberg, a presidential assistant who heads the Domestic Policy Council at the White House.
The White House is urging Congress to pass legislation that will strengthen background checks for gun buyers and implement violence prevention programs.
The measures come during a reignited national debate on gun violence that was revived by survivors of last month's massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a former student with a semi-automatic rifle gunned down 14 students and three staff.
The United States loses around 33,000 people to gun violence every year.
On Friday, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed into law a gun control bill that was passed by the state’s legislature. The new law raises the minimum age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21 and extends the waiting period to three days, a dramatic turnaround in one of the most gun-friendly states in America.
The National Rifle Association (NRA), the nation’s powerful gun lobby, immediately filed a lawsuit at a US federal court in Florida after the gun control bill was signed into law, arguing that it violates the US Constitution.
The NRA has become the focus of a growing movement by activists who are demanding that US politicians stop accepting political donations from the gun lobby.
Trump was endorsed by the NRA in his 2016 presidential election campaign. The president and his fellow Republicans in Congress strongly support Americans’ constitutional right to own guns.


A Bangladeshi airliner with 71 people on board crashed on Monday while coming in to land at the airport in the Nepali capital, Kathmandu, killing at least 50 people, officials said.
The plane, operated by US-Bangla Airlines, was on a flight from Dhaka when it hit an airport fence and burst into flames, said Raj Kumar Chettri, general manager of the hill-ringed airport, which is prone to bird strikes and other hazards.
“We have recovered 50 dead bodies so far,” said army spokesman Gokul Bhandari. Several people had been rescued from the burning wreckage of the Bombardier Q400 series aircraft but nine people were still unaccounted for, he said.
The aircraft burst into flames and came to rest in a field near the tarmac of Tribhuvan International Airport.
Many of the bodies that lay on the tarmac covered by cloth were charred, witnesses said. Thick plumes of smoke could be seen from the aircraft.
Later, photographs showed the fire had been put out, with army personnel and rescue workers at the scene.
Data from tracking website showed the aircraft was 17 years old. The aircraft descended to an airport altitude of 4,400 feet and then ascended up to 6,600 feet before crashing about two minutes later, the website said.
Mountainous Nepal has had a poor air safety record. Small aircraft ply an extensive domestic network and often run into trouble at remote airstrips.
A Thai Airways flight from Bangkok crashed while trying to land in Kathmandu in 1992 killing all on board.
US-Bangla Airlines is a unit of the US-Bangla Group, a U.S. Bangladeshi joint venture company. A spokesman for the airline in Dhaka had no immediate comment.
The Bangladeshi carrier launched operations in July 2014 and operates Bombardier and Boeing (BA.N) aircraft.


Since 2012, after completing a period of preliminary growth and a period of rapid growth, China’s economy has entered a third, more prosperous period. Meanwhile, a “new normal” has arrived, marking a shift from high-speed growth to high-quality development, from a middle-income society to a high-income country, and from “some get rich first” to “common prosperity.” The country has since ushered in a new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics.
On March 5, 2018 at the First Session of the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC), Premier Li Keqiang unveiled projected targets for development this year in the Report on the Work of the Government: GDP growth of around 6.5 percent, CPI increase of around 3 percent, at least 11 million new urban jobs, urban unemployment rate within 5.5 percent and basic parity in personal income growth and economic growth.
These targets consider the need to secure decisive victory in the construction of a moderately prosperous society in all respects by 2020 and are designed to align with China’s economic transition from a phase of rapid growth to a stage of high-quality development.
In 2017, China’s economy continued growing steadily and healthily, achieving better-than-expected performance. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the reform and opening up that began in 1978, as well as a crucial year for achieving the 2020 development goals and implementing the 13th Five-Year Plan. This year will herald efforts to put the guiding principles of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) into action. In this new stage of development, China needs solid progress in all aspects of economics to achieve high-quality development that is more innovative, coordinated, environmentally friendly, open and fair.
First, China needs to strengthen innovation-driven economic development and maintain continuous improvement of the quality of economic growth. Innovation capacity is the fundamental driver of high-quality development. Wider implementation of an innovation-driven development strategy will further enhance overall labor productivity, total factor productivity and potential growth rate and further promote the trend of technology-driven development. This year, major measures to help innovation play the lead role in vitalizing the real economy include full implementation of a plan to develop strategic emerging industries, progress in fostering emerging industries to create stronger new momentum for economic development, acceleration of the upgrade of traditional industries and vigorous promotion of advanced manufacturing to nudge made-in-China towards middle and high ends. Additional new policies will accelerate the development of modern service industry and services trade and strengthen the construction of infrastructure networks concerning water conservancy, railways, highways, water transportation, aviation, pipelines, power, information and logistics.
Second, China needs to design new, effective mechanisms to promote more coordinated economic development. The coordinated development philosophy is crucial to tackling imbalanced growth hindering high-quality development. In 2018, China needs to further optimize its economic structure and fully unleash the potential of service consumption and green consumption in driving economic growth to achieve a more balanced economic structure. China will continue implementing the coordinated regional development strategy to make the regional development occur more rationally. China will also accelerate the construction of beautiful special towns and beautiful countryside areas and promote integrated urban-rural development.
Third, China needs to focus on green development and advance its ecological progress. The green development philosophy is important to achieving harmonious coexistence between man and nature, which is a characteristic of high-quality development. This year is crucial to comprehensive improvement of environmental quality. To achieve this goal, China needs to reform the system to build an ecological civilization and improve the functional area system. It needs to promote an energy production and consumption revolution to create a clean, low-carbon, safe and efficient energy system. Moreover, the country needs to launch low-carbon pilots and demonstrations, play an active role in international cooperation on climate change and make Chinese contributions to global environmental governance.
Fourth, China needs to make its economic development more open and develop new advantages in international cooperation. The open development philosophy is essential for China to increase its economic strength and overall national strength. It is expected to solve problems related to interactions with the outside world along the road to high-quality development. This year, China needs to improve the structure, institutions and mechanisms for opening up to create a new and more comprehensively open landscape. In the process, it needs to lighten market access in an orderly manner, fully implement the management model of pre-establishment national treatment and a negative list, improve laws concerning foreign investment and strengthen the protection of intellectual property rights. China will continue improving the business environment to attract foreign investment and expand the scope of non-financial foreign direct investments. China will promote the orderly, healthy development of outbound investment and gradually form a global trade, investment, financing, production and service network.
Fifth, China needs to realize fairer economic development and let all people enjoy the new fruits of development. Enhancing living standards is the ultimate goal of development. To safeguard and improve the people’s livelihood, it requires solving the most specific problems of utmost and immediate concern to the people. The government must do all it can within its capacity and accurately define the most prominent issues and their root causes. In 2018, China needs to improve the level and quality of public services and take correct measures in areas like education, employment, income, social security, medical care and senior care to meet the public’s growing demand for better living standards—and enable people from all walks of life to share the fruits of reform and development.

(This content is provided by Beijing-based China Pictorial.)