Tory conference 2014: Prime minister has made a bold pledge to raise the higher rate tax threshold to £50,000 – but how will this tax cut be paid for?
Prime Minister David Cameron during his keynote speech to delegates at the Conservative Party annual conference in the International Convention Centre, Birmingham.
It’s been the classic bad cop, good cop routine. From George Osborne on Monday, Britain received the depressing news that austerity was going to continue deep into the next parliament. More cuts were on the way, the chancellor said.
Today, it was time for the prime minister to be a bit more cheerful. Provided the deficit kept coming down, David Cameron said there would be tax cuts to come under a future Conservative government. And not just little tax cuts either.
Rabbit number one was the promise to raise the income tax personal allowance from £10,500 to £12,500 during the next parliament. The idea is to show that the Conservatives are on the side of those on low incomes, since the move will mean that someone working 30 hours a week on the minimum wage will not pay any tax. This is not a particularly well targeted move, since it will help all taxpayers. It will also be pretty costly, since raising the personal allowance by £500 to £10,500 next April will cost almost £2bn a year.
Rabbit number two was for the middle-class voters the Conservatives need to woo back in order to win next year’s election. During the course of this parliament, the number of people paying income tax at 40% has increased by an estimated two million to more than five million.
This has happened because the threshold at which the 40% rate is paid has not been increased in line with inflation. Cameron not only promised to put an end to this stealth tax affecting teachers and police officers, he pledged to raise the threshold by more than 20% – from £41,900 to £50,000.
This was a pitch for the votes of Middle England in the marginal seats the Conservatives need for victory next May.
How are these expensive tax pledges to be paid for? The prime minister made it clear that the £25bn of savings demanded by the chancellor will come entirely from spending cuts. If that means even deeper cuts in welfare payments, including tax credits, that will offset some of the benefits to the low paid of raising the personal allowance.
A second issue is whether the government is now sending out mixed messages: austerity needs to continue from Osborne; happy days are here again from Cameron.
Clearly that is a risk. But provided the economy continues to grow at a decent lick – always an important proviso – it is feasible that the next parliament will see the deficit falling faster than forecast, opening up scope for tax cuts.
Importantly, though, the prime minister did not specify exactly when the tax cuts would be delivered, other than to say they would be in the next parliament. That provides a degree of wriggle room should things not go as planned. In the meantime, Cameron has just launched the Conservative tax manifesto for May 2015.
Protesters take part in a rally on a street outside of Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong.
by David Stout, Rishi Iyengar and Helen Regan
Wednesday marks the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China
Tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators continued to clog central Hong Kong on Tuesday, as the movement’s leaders vowed to maintain their campaign of civil disobedience until the city’s Chief Executive (CE) resigns.
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In speeches before the teeming crowd in ritzy Admiralty district, leaders of the Hong Kong Students Federation and Occupy Central threatened to expand the protests if Leung Chun-ying, who holds a position similar to mayor, refuses to step down. “[Leung Chun-ying] is not in control anymore,” Alex Chow, the leader of the student federation, told the press.
The groups also raised the possibility of increased labor strikes, in an escalation of their confrontation with the governments of both Beijing and Hong Kong. “The protests are accelerating because the government is doing less and less,” said Chan Kin-man, one of the leaders of Occupy Central, as he addressed the crowd. Behind him lay several umbrellas painted with the phrases “popvote” and “join us.”
The groups on Tuesday also urged their throngs of supporters to continue the sit-in until their demands are met, contradicting an earlier statement by Chan, who had told TIME the previous evening it’s “unrealistic” to expect protesters to continue to occupy key downtown locations for much longer.
Although Chan backtracked Tuesday, the confusion demonstrates the movement is made up of stakeholders with “different interests and aspirations,” says Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Center for China Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He cautioned that protesters “cannot afford to fight amongst themselves because they face a very powerful enemy.”
Since British colonial rule ended in 1997, Hong Kong has been run according to the “one country, two systems” principle and enjoys various freedoms and considerable autonomy compared with mainland China. However, many in the Special Administrative Region accuse Beijing of increasingly meddling in the territory’s affairs.
On Wednesday, China celebrates the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. Although this day of pomp is also typically one of popular protest in Hong Kong, the sheer scale of the current demonstration, and intractable nature of its demands, is clearly exacerbating an already strained relationship.
“In China people think Hong Kong belongs to China. But people in Hong Kong think that Hong Kong is part of China, but belongs to the world,” Julian Lam, a 20-year-old student, tells TIME.
Chao Seng, a 57-year-old private chauffeur, says the Hong Kong government just “wants to polish China’s shoes,” adding that he accepted the governing style of the British and does not approve of Chinese rule. “I’m not from China, I’m from Hong Kong. Every year when they enjoy [National Day], I have no feeling.”
Though protest leaders now say that their principal demand is for Leung to step down, they reiterated that their secondary objective is for Beijing to let Hong Kongers choose their CE by a popular vote in 2017 — and so reversing an Aug. 31 decision by the Communist Party’s Standing Committee that insisted all candidates must be approved by a committee widely perceived as loyal to Beijing.
“If CY Leung steps down it will be a big change,” says student Natalie Chan, 26. “The universal suffrage is something we can’t [control] because the Communist Party is very powerful.”
On Tuesday, Leung insisted that he would not resign and that Beijing would not budge in its insistence of vetting future holders of his job. “The central government will not rescind its decision,” he said.
As the protest leaders addressed the crowd Tuesday, with a huge orange banner reading “Can U Hear The People Sing” hanging nearby, thousands of demonstrators in black T-shirts roused from listlessness, ending their naps and putting packages of crackers aside. One group of students popped their laptops closed and put away the schoolwork they’d brought out.
The protests, which began with a student class walkout last Monday, now represent a mosaic of Hong Kong society. Asked for how long he would support the students, the 65-year-old Eddie Wong replied, “Forever,” adding, “I will be here, I will support this always.”
Numbers swelled after local people grew incensed that police fired 87 tear gas canisters at protesters on Sunday. “To be honest, I didn’t really support this, since I’m not really into politics,” says university student Stephanie Cheung, 20. “But then I saw how the police reacted to unarmed protesters. Now I’m here fighting against violence and how the government treats people.”
Late Tuesday, the heavens opened and umbrellas, adopted as the symbol of the protests, resumed their usual function — yet the seasonal downpours failed to dampen the anyone’s spirits, and the resilient crowds chanted “We will stay here until the end despite the weather!”
Over the last few days, supplies donated by well-wishers — including water, chocolate cake and bananas — piled in the protest’s multiple hotspots have not dwindled, but grown. Jimmy Lai, a Hong Kong media mogul and frequent critic of Beijing, told TIME that he did not see the demonstrations ceasing anytime soon. “There’s no compromise for anyone involved,” he said.
By RAHIM FAIEZ and AMIR SHAH
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai was sworn in Monday as Afghanistan’s new president, replacing Hamid Karzai in the country’s first transfer of power since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban.
A senior adviser to President Barack Obama said the change in leadership would allow Kabul to sign a long-awaited security pact on Tuesday permitting U.S. forces to remain in the country past the end of the year.
Moments after Ghani Ahmadzai took the oath, he swore in his election challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, as chief executive, fulfilling a political pledge he had taken to share power and defuse election tensions that had threatened to spark violence between the country’s north and southeast.
In his first speech, Ghani Ahmadzai called on the Taliban and other militants to join the country’s political process and lay down their weapons. However, insurgent violence on Monday killed at least 12 civilians and police officers.
“We are tired of war,” Ghani Ahmadzai said in a televised address. “Our message is peace, (but) this doesn’t mean we are weak.”
Ghani Ahmadzai, a former World Bank official and Afghan finance minister, wore a dark black turban popular in the country’s south as he swore in his two vice presidents and then Abdullah.
Abdullah, a former foreign minister, spoke first and thanked Karzai for his service and the people of the country for casting votes in the millions despite the threat of attack from Taliban militants who tried to thwart the election process.
“We are committed as one in the national unity government,” Abdullah said. “Our commitment will be fulfilled together as unified team to create national unity.”
Ghani Ahmadzai then congratulated Karzai for a peaceful and democratic transition of power, and he thanked Abdullah for making the national unity government possible. The new president also promised to confront the country’s endemic corruption.
“We want to be held accountable. I am your leader but I am no better than you. If I make mistakes, you should hold me accountable,” Ghani Ahmadzai said.
The change in presidents will allow Afghanistan to sign a deal Tuesday to allow American soldiers to remain in the country past the end of the year, said John Podesta, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama. U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham was to sign the agreement, while it was not immediately clear if Ghani Ahmadzai or a lower member of government would sign it.
The deal will allow about 10,000 American troops to stay in the country after the international combat mission ends Dec. 31. Karzai had refused to sign it despite U.S. threats of a full withdrawal in the absence of legal protections for American forces. U.S. officials have said that the delay in the deal’s signing does not affect plans for next year.
Karzai — the only president Afghanistan and the West have known since the invasion — wore a wide smile as he greeted his presidential guards upon entering the palace. Karzai has said he is glad to be stepping down after more than a decade of what the U.S. ambassador recently said was one of the most difficult jobs in the world.
The inauguration caps a nearly six-month election season that began when ballots were first cast in April. A runoff election in June between Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah stretched on for weeks as both sides leveled charges of fraud. The United Nations helped carry out what it said was the most thorough recount in its history, a count that reduced Ghani Ahmadzai’s vote percentage from 56 percent to 55 percent, but still gave him the win.
But the real power struggle took place in marathon talks between the two sides, often brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. officials. The political deal they agreed to created the new position of chief executive that Abdullah will now fill.
The inauguration took place eight days after the political deal was signed between Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah. Though Kerry played a big role in reaching the agreement, the short notice of the inauguration date and events elsewhere in the Middle East did not allow him to attend.
Instead, the U.S. was represented by Podesta, counselor to President Barack Obama. Other notable guests included Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain and Indian Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari.
As the inauguration unfolded in the heavily guarded presidential palace, two bomb attacks took place on the road connecting the country’s main airport with the palace. One roadside bomb did not result in any deaths or injuries, but a second attack about a kilometer (half mile) from the airport by a suicide bomber killed six or seven people, police officer Abdul Latif said.
A bigger attack took place in the eastern Paktia province. Police Capt. Mohammed Hekhlas said that a car bomb exploded near a government compound as gunmen attacked, sparking a battle that killed seven Taliban militants. Another police official, who gave his name as Azimullah, said four police officers and two civilians also were killed.
The violence and insecurity remained one of the top concerns of Afghans watching the inauguration.
“I hope Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai can bring peace and the rule the law in Afghanistan as former Afghan President Hamid Karzai could not bring peace,” said Abdul Rahman, a 30-year-old police officer. “Our people have been suffering from the instability and poverty.”
A protester (C) raises his umbrellas in front of tear gas which was fired by riot police to disperse protesters blocking the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, September 28, 2014. REUTERS-Tyrone Siu
1 OF 15. A protester (C) raises his umbrellas in front of tear gas which was fired by riot police to disperse protesters blocking the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, September 28, 2014.
BY DONNY KWOK AND CHARLIE ZHU
Hong Kong police fired volleys of tear gas to disperse pro-democracy protests on Sunday and baton-charged a crowd blocking a key road in the government district in defiance of official warnings against illegal demonstrations.
Chaos had engulfed the city’s Admiralty district as chanting protesters converged on police barricades surrounding more demonstrators who had earlier launched a “new era” of civil disobedience to pressure Beijing into granting full democracy.
Police, in lines five deep in places and wearing helmets and gas masks, used pepper spray against activists and shot tear gas into the air. The crowds fled several hundred yards, scattering their umbrellas and hurling abuse at police “cowards”.
The demonstrators regrouped and returned however, and by early evening tens of thousands of protesters were thronging streets, including outside the prominent Pacific Place shopping mall that leads towards the Central financial district.
“If today I don’t stand out, I will hate myself in future,” said taxi driver Edward Yeung, 55, as he swore at police on the frontline. “Even if I get a criminal record it will be a glorious one.”
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a formula known as “one country, two systems” that guaranteed a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China. Universal suffrage was set as an eventual goal.
But Beijing last month rejected demands for people to freely choose the city’s next leader, prompting threats from activists to shut down Central in what is being seen as the most tenacious civil disobedience action since Britain handed over its former colony.
China wants to limit elections to a handful of candidates loyal to Beijing.
LEADER PLEDGES “RESOLUTE” ACTION
Police in full riot equipment later fired repeated rounds of tear gas to clear some of the roads in Admiralty and pushed the crowds towards Central. Health authorities later said some 30 people needed treatment.
Police had not used tear gas in Hong Kong since breaking up protests by South Korean farmers against the World Trade Organization in 2005.
“We will fight until the end…we will never give up,” said Peter Poon, a protester in his 20s, adding that they may have to make a temporary retreat through the night.
Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying had earlier pledged “resolute” action against the protest movement, known as Occupy Central with Love and Peace.
“The police are determined to handle the situation appropriately in accordance with the law,” Leung said, less than two hours before the police charge began.
A spokesperson for China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office added that the central government fully supported Hong Kong’s handling of the situation “in accordance with the law”.
Communist Party leaders in Beijing are concerned about calls for democracy spreading to cities on the mainland, threatening their grip on power. Such dissent would never be tolerated on the mainland, where student protests in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square calling for democracy were crushed with heavy loss of life on June 4, 1989.
On the mainland, the phrase “Occupy Central” was blocked on Sunday afternoon on Weibo, China’s version of twitter. It had been allowed earlier in the day.
Later, a Hong Kong government statement urged the Occupy organizers to bring an end to the “chaos” for the overall interest of Hong Kong.
A tearful Occupy organizer Benny Tai said he was proud of people’s determination to fight for “genuine” universal suffrage, but that the situation was getting out of control, RTHK reported. He said he believed he would face heavy punishment for initiating the movement.
Inside the cordon, thousands had huddled in plastic capes, masks and goggles as they braced for a fresh police attempt to clear the area before Hong Kong re-opens for business in the morning. The city’s financial markets are expected to open as usual on Monday.
“WE WILL WIN WITH LOVE AND PEACE”
Publishing tycoon Jimmy Lai, a key backer of the democracy movement, said he wanted as big a crowd of protesters as possible, after a week of student demonstrations, to thwart any crackdown.
“The more Hong Kong citizens come, the more unlikely the police can clear up the place,” said Lai, also wearing a plastic cape and workmen’s protective glasses. “Even if we get beaten up, we cannot fight back. We will win this war with love and peace.”
Pro-democracy Hong Kong lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan said three fellow legislators were among a small group of activists detained by police, including democratic leaders Albert Ho and Emily Lau.
Organizers said as many as 80,000 people thronged the streets in Admiralty, galvanized by the arrests of student activists on Friday. No independent estimate of the crowd numbers was available.
A week of protests escalated into violence when student-led demonstrators broke through a cordon late on Friday and scaled a fence to invade the city’s main government compound after a week of peaceful action. Police used pepper spray to disperse the crowd. The Hong Kong Federation of Students extended class boycotts indefinitely.
Police have so far arrested 78 people, including Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old leader of student group Scholarism, who was dragged away after he called on the protesters to charge the government premises.
Wong was released from police detention without charge on Sunday evening, the South China Morning Post reported. He told reporters that he planned to return to the protest site after resting.
His parents said in a statement the decision to detain him was an act of “political persecution”.
Along with Hong Kong and Chinese officials, some of Hong Kong’s most powerful tycoons have spoken out against the Occupy movement, warning it could threaten the city’s business and economic stability.
Protest outside government building in Hong Kong
The final few dozen protesters were hemmed in by police before being removed.
Hong Kong police have cleared the main government compound of pro-democracy demonstrators who had occupied the area on Friday.
They arrested more than 60 people after a night of scuffles, with police using pepper spray to restore order. Nearly 30 people were hurt.
Reports suggest protesters remain in the area surrounding the compound.
Students and activists oppose Beijing’s decision to rule out fully democratic elections in Hong Kong in 2017.
The ruling has prompted a protest movement in the autonomous territory, spearheaded by a group called Occupy Central.
In statement issued on Saturday, Occupy Central alleged that pepper spray was used without warning, and condemned the use of “unnecessary force” against “peaceful protesters”.
“We strongly condemn such action which not only violates the police code of conduct but also tramples on people’s freedom of expression,” the group said.
Student leader held
The last of the protesters within the compound were removed on Saturday without resisting arrest, the South China Morning Post reported.
The students chanted the slogan: “No fear for civil disobedience” as they were led away, the Hong Kong-based newspaper said.
The break-in occurred just before 22:30 local time on Friday (15:30 BST), as protesters scaled security fences to get inside.
The protesters smashed barriers and scaled fences to occupy a forecourt outside government headquarters.
But police managed to restore a cordon around the building’s forecourt by late on Friday night before removing the final 50 on Saturday.
Police said they had arrested 61 people on suspicion of forcible entry into government premises and unlawful assembly.
A 27-year-old man was also arrested for possession of an offensive weapon.
The South China Morning Post describes the forecourt as a popular protest spot, to which access has been restricted since July.
School and university students have joined the protests in recent days, and one prominent student activist leader, Joshua Wong, was among those arrested on Friday night.
Mr Wong, 17, was dragged away in handcuffs, a student leader from Hong Kong University said.
On Thursday, about 2,000 university students held a night-time protest at the house of the Hong Kong leader, Chief Executive CY Leung.
The students’ boycott is seen as a prelude to a larger demonstration planned for 1 October, organised Occupy Central, which has vowed to block the financial district.
Hong Kong operates under a “one country, two systems” arrangement with Beijing, which means citizens are allowed the right to protest.
In August, Beijing decided that candidates for the 2017 chief executive election would first have to be approved by a nominating committee. Activists have argued that this does not amount to true democracy.
by Frank Bouc
The FBI has reportedly discovered the identity of “Jihadi John.” The British speaking ISIS militant had been involved in the beheading deaths of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines. FBI Director James Comey advised they have received information on the man. Additionally, a video has recently surfaced called Flames of War. The video, states Comey is narrated by a man who is also speaking English, but it is a “North American accented English.” Officials believe the narrator is located within the U.S., and is working diligently to locate him.
At this time neither of the men have been identified by name to the media or public. Comey states this is in the best interest of officials who are searching for the man.
The NY Times reports intelligence officers used voice-recognition technology, and additional records to identify the British ISIS radical. Initially, reports indicated a British rapper, Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, was the person behind the murders of the journalists and aid worker. U.S. officials said it appears the rapper is not behind the videotaped deaths.
In addition to hitting ISIS targets in Syria, Comey made mention of a small faction of senior al-Qaida fighters, known as the Khorasan Group. This group reportedly has instructions to start planning attacks on the West.
The Khorasan Group has a distinct process they look to complete. They purposely seek fighters in the U.S. with passports to plan destructive events within the U.S. Comey called the group a threat, and acknowledged rumors of an attack, but stated the agency is unaware if the group is planning one soon.
The FBI official reports there is approximately a dozen Americans who are fighting alongside ISIS, and potentially hundreds of European passport-holding citizens have also joined the violent ranks.
The agency is actively searching for Jihadi John, especially since they have uncovered the identity of the man. In response to the Khorasan Group, the U.S. is planning more airstrikes to target Khorasan strongholds.
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday in New York.
By SOMINI SENGUPTA
UNITED NATIONS — President Hassan Rouhani of Iran delivered a searing indictment of Western and Arab states on Thursday in his annual speech to the United Nations, blaming them for sowing the seeds of extremism in the Middle East with “strategic blunders” that have given rise to the Islamic State and other violent jihadist groups.
“Certain intelligence agencies have put blades in the hands of madmen, who now spare no one,” Mr. Rouhani said, adding that “all those who have played a role in founding and supporting these terror groups must acknowledge their errors” and apologize.
He also used the occasion to denounce the Western-led sanctions imposed on Iran’s nuclear program and reiterated his government’s desire to resolve Iran’s protracted dispute with the United States and other nations over the program.
He implied that the nuclear negotiations were linked to Iran’s cooperation in combating the Islamic State and its affiliates, saying that no security cooperation was possible until the sanctions were lifted. “The people of Iran, who have been subjected to pressures especially in the last three years as a result of continued sanctions, cannot place trust in any security cooperation between their government with those who have imposed sanctions and created obstacles in the way of satisfying even their primary needs, such as food and medicine,” he said.
Mr. Rouhani’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly, his second as Iran’s president, began by striking some of the same notes that his counterparts from the United States and Europe struck on Wednesday regarding the rise of the Islamic State, the militant group that now controls parts of Syria and Iraq. President Obama, in his speech on Wednesday, called on all nations to unite in a concerted effort to destroy the group, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Mr. Rouhani denied that Iran sought to control other nations in the region, calling that belief “delusional Iranophobia,” and reminded the world that Iran was among the first countries to assist Iraq in June, when Islamic State fighters invaded from neighboring Syria.
He said the extremist group and its affiliates, which have drawn recruits from around the world, do not represent the true teachings of Islam.
“I am struck that these murderous groups call themselves Islamic,” he said.
Regular and mini cans of Coke and Pepsi are pictured in this photo illustration in New York August 5, 2014.
BY ANJALI ATHAVALEY
The largest U.S. soda makers pledged on Tuesday to cut sugary drink calories by 20 percent in 10 years through education, marketing and packaging.
The American Beverage Association, whose members include Coca-Cola Co, PepsiCo Inc, and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group Inc, and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, announced the plan at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York. The alliance was founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation.
Soda makers plan to reach their goal by 2025 by educating communities to reduce the calories they are drinking, and offering more zero or low calorie drinks including bottled water.
The American Beverage Association will select an independent evaluator to monitor progress, but it is unclear how many calories a 20 percent reduction would entail.
The measure will likely be based on sales volume, calories per serving and the U.S. census population, said Susan K. Neely, president and chief executive of the American Beverage Association.
“It’d be hard to sustain the progress that has been made so far without this commitment,” Neely said in an interview.
Such calorie-cutting initiatives are not new. In 2006 the American Beverage Association and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation partnered to reduce beverage calories in schools.
In 2010, 16 of the biggest U.S. food and beverage companies, including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, pledged to remove 1 trillion calories from the U.S. marketplace by 2012 and 1.5 trillion by 2015. The companies are part of the CEO-led Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation formed in 2009 to reduce obesity.
In January, companies in the foundation said they had collectively sold 6.4 trillion fewer calories in the United States in 2012 than in 2007. But an analysis by University of North Carolina researchers, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine last week, showed that total calories from packaged goods sold to households with children by those companies did not change from 2011 to 2012.
Government data show that 34 percent of adults were obese in 2007-2008.
The guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea launches a Tomahawk cruise missile, as seen from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, in the Gulf, in this handout photograph taken and provided on Sept. 23, 2014.
U.S. forces and Arab allies hit dozens of targets in Syria early Tuesday, pounding Islamic State militant sites with war planes, remote drones and ship-launched cruise missiles, officials said.
The attacks were the first time the United States hit the radical militant group in Syria, and they were the largest of their sort since President Barack Obama announced nearly two weeks ago that the U.S. would be stepping up its fight against the group.
It wasn’t immediately clear how many militants were killed Tuesday, though the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 120 Islamic State fighters were killed in strikes that hit at least 50 targets in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces in Syria’s east. Rami Abdulrahman, who heads the London-based group monitoring the Syria war, said at least 300 people, including members of the Islamic State and al-Qaida, were dead or wounded following the bombings.
U.S. Central Command said 14 airstrikes damaged or destroyed targets in four areas of eastern Syria, including in the Islamic State group’s main stronghold of Raqqa.
Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had either participated or supported the strikes, which involved jets, bombers, drones and ships firing cruise missiles, Central Command said.
“U.S. military and partner nation forces are undertaking military action against [Islamic State] terrorists in Syria using a mix of fighter, bomber and Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles,” Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Jeff Pool told VOA.
Tuesday’s action also pitched Washington for the first time into the three-year-old Syrian civil war, which has killed 200,000 people and displaced millions. U.S. forces have previously hit Islamic State targets in Iraq, where Washington supports the government, but had held back from a military engagement in Syria, where the United States opposes President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria said that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had told the Damascus government, hours before the airstrikes took place. However, Damascus, which had said any airstrikes on Syria must have its approval, did not condemn the attacks.
“The foreign minister received a letter from his American counterpart via the Iraqi foreign minister, in which he informed him that the United States and some of its allies would target [Islamic State] in Syria,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “That was hours before the raids started.”
The Sunni fighters, who have proclaimed a caliphate ruling over all Muslims, alarmed the Middle East by sweeping through northern Iraq in June. They shocked the West in recent weeks by beheading two U.S. journalists and a British aid worker, raising fears that they could attack Western countries.
Alleged plot disrupted
American forces also conducted eight airstrikes west of Aleppo against a group of former al-Qaida fighters known as the Khorasan Group. That action was in response to an “imminent” plot against U.S. and Western interests, Central Command said.
President Obama said Sept. 10 he had authorized the expanded use of airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State. The Sunni fighters, now equipped with U.S. weapons seized during their advance in Iraq, are among the most powerful opponents of Assad, who is a member of a Shiite-derived sect.
They are also battling against rival Sunni groups in Syria, against the Shiite-led government of Iraq and against Kurdish forces on both sides of the border.
In the past week, the militants’ advance has also included Kurdish areas in northern Syria, along the Turkish border, leading to more than 130,000 people crossing into Turkey.
Before Tuesday’s attacks, the U.S. had conducted 190 airstrikes, in an effort to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces push fighters from vulnerable populations and government infrastructure.
The addition of Arab allies in the attacks was crucial for the credibility of the American-led campaign. Some U.S. allies in the Middle East are skeptical of how far Washington will commit to a conflict in which nearly every country in the region has a stake, set against the backdrop of Islam’s 1,300-year-old rift between Sunnis and Shiites.
With the backing of Jordan and the Gulf states, Washington has gained the support of Sunni states that are hostile to Assad. It has not, however, won the support of Assad himself or his main regional ally, Shiite Iran.
Traditional Western allies, including Britain which went to war alongside the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, have so far declined to participate in the campaign. France has struck Islamic State in Iraq but not in Syria.
Australia welcomes strikes; Russia criticizes
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott praised the effort, saying an international effort was needed to combat the Islamic State threat. Australia has promised to contribute 600 troops and eight warplanes.
“This is a global problem,” Abbott told parliament Tuesday. “These are people who have been radicalized and brutalized, and could become potential terrorists in their home countries.”
Australian law enforcement this week conducted sweeping counter-terrorism operations in 25 locations in Sydney and Brisbane, after officials warned of imminent threats from people returning from conflicts in the Middle East. Intelligence officials have estimated 60 Australian nationals are fighting alongside radical groups.
The sweeps resulted in two people being charged with serious offenses.
In Moscow, meanwhile, Russia said the attacks they should have been agreed upon with its ally Damascus and would fuel tension in the region.
“Any such action can be carried out only in accordance with international law,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“That implies not a formal, one-sided ‘notification’ of airstrikes but the presence of explicit consent from the government of Syria or the approval of a corresponding U.N. Security Council decision,” the statement said.
Thousands of Hong Kong students gather at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to protest Beijing’s decision to rule out fully democratic elections in the former British colony
Thousands of students gathered at Chinese University of Hong Kong today
Protesting Beijing’s decision to rule out fully democratic elections
Students launched a week-long boycott of classes, supported by academics
Beijing says candidates for city’s next leader bust be vetted by committee
Plans to occupy Central finance district over open nominations refusal
Strike coincides with senior business leaders’ trip to Beijing
There are expected to discuss politics with Chinese leader Xi Jinping
One in five are considering leaving Hong Kong over political concerns
By ALEX FINNIS
Thousands of students converged on a university campus in Hong Kong today, launching a week-long boycott of classes in protest against Beijing’s decision to rule out fully democratic elections in the former British colony.
Students from more than 20 universities and colleges streamed into the grounds of picturesque, bay-side Chinese University of Hong Kong, where they were greeted by banners that said: ‘The boycott must happen. Disobey and grasp your destiny.’
Some sat in a circle playing guitars, while others folded leaflets urging students to boycott classes in a protest which coincides with a trip to Beijing by some of Hong Kong’s most powerful business tycoons, who are expected to talk about government policies with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with a high degree of autonomy, but Beijing’s rejection of the right to freely choose the city’s next leader has prompted threats from activists to occupy and shut down the Central finance district as part of their pro-democracy campaign.
Beijing decided in August to rule out open nominations for candidates under proposed guidelines for the first-ever elections to choose the city’s top leader, which have been promised for 2017.
The National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, instead insists that candidates be vetted by an elite committee that is similar to the body of mostly pro-Beijing elites that has until now selected the city’s leaders.
Democracy groups reject such screening for loyalty to Beijing and demand elections that offer a genuine choice.
‘I believe on August 31, when the National People’s Congress made their decision, it crushed the dreams of some Hong Kong people who have been fighting hard for democracy for the past 30 years,’ said third-year student Hong Yuen.
Leading academics in Hong Kong have voiced support for the boycott, with some offering to record lectures and post them online for students who miss school to watch later.
About 380 academics and other school staff have signed a petition supporting the students, saying they should not ‘stand alone’.
‘At the minimum, [the strike] can provide a wakeup call to tens of thousands of university and secondary school students in Hong Kong,’ said Dixon Sing, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and one of the organisers of the signature campaign.
He added that the organisers are ‘trying to inspire many other fellow classmates to be aware of and be devoted to the democratic movement’.
The boycott is being organised by groups such as the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism.
A survey by the Chinese University showed more than a fifth of Hong Kong residents are considering leaving the city, spurred by concerns over its political future.
Residents overall feel pessimistic about the current political climate, according to the poll, released yesterday. On a scale of zero to 10, with zero being ‘extremely pessimistic’, the average response was 4.22.
However, about 46 per cent said they did not support the movement to occupy the Central finance district.
‘Hong Kong is on the brink of another wave of mass migration,’ said Sonny Lo, a professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education who is unaffiliated with the poll.
‘More and more people will leave in the next few years as the election for the chief executive approaches.’
The city saw waves of migration leading up to the transfer of sovereignty from the UK to China in 1997, when tens of thousands left every year.
Emigration also surged in the wake of the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, when Beijing violently suppressed protests by thousands of students calling for democracy.
Many went to Canada, Australia and the US, only to return later as the political and economic situation in Hong Kong stabilised.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule with freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland under a policy of ‘one country, two systems’. China is terrified those calls will spread to mainland cities, threatening the Communist Party’s grip on power.