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Committees seek documents related to President Trump’s Ukraine phone call

Under the scanner: President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a news conference in New York.APEvan Vucci

Democrats charged aggressively into an impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump on Friday, ordering Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to turn over Ukraine-related documents and scheduling testimony for witnesses to alleged abuse of power by the U.S. leader.

Three House committees gave Mr. Pompeo one week to produce the documents, saying multiple State Department officials have direct knowledge of Mr. Trump’s efforts to enlist the Ukraine government’s help in his U.S. campaign for re-election.

“The Committees are investigating the extent to which President Trump jeopardised national security by pressing Ukraine to interfere with our 2020 election and by withholding security assistance provided by Congress to help Ukraine counter Russian aggression,” they said.

Release of complaint

Public support is growing for impeachment after the release of an anonymous whistleblower’s complaint on Thursday, reportedly made by a CIA analyst who had worked in the White House. It accused Mr. Trump of pressuring Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky in a July 25 phone call to supply dirt on former Vice-President Joe Biden.

The complaint also revealed that White House aides sought to hide the record of the call in a highly secure computer system normally used only for the country’s most top-secret intelligence.

Congressional investigators on Friday announced interviews starting next week with five State Department officials, including former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, whom Mr. Trump reportedly forced out earlier this year for resisting his efforts to pressure Kiev to probe Mr. Biden.

Envoy to Ukraine resigns

The list also includes U.S. special representative on Ukraine Kurt Volker, who resigned on Friday after being ordered to answer questions in the impeachment investigation, said a source familiar with the matter.

The whistleblower complaint said Mr. Volker met senior Ukrainian officials on how to “navigate” Mr. Trump’s demands of Mr. Zelensky.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared that the impeachment investigation would move quickly, saying evidence from the whistleblower’s complaint against Mr. Trump of abuse of power and an attempted cover-up was unambiguous. “The clarity of the President’s actions is compelling and gave us no choice but to move forward,” Ms. Pelosi said.

In a series of tweets, Mr. Trump attacked Democrats — including Adam Schiff, the lawmaker named by Ms. Pelosi to lead the impeachment probe — calling them liars, while also taking aim at the “partisan” whistleblower and the “Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party”.

In a video leaked from a private gathering Mr. Trump held on Thursday with U.S. diplomats in New York, Mr. Trump made clear he was battling for his survival. “We’re at war. These people are sick,” Mr. Trump ays in the video obtained by Bloomberg.

Mr. Schiff said on Friday his committee will issue more subpoenas next week and conduct a closed-door briefing with the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, the official who conducted a preliminary probe into the whistleblower complaint and deemed it credible.

Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah are the main rivals

Low turnout: Afghan women arriving to cast their votes in the presidential election in Kabul on Saturday.REUTERSMOHAMMAD ISMAIL

Afghans voted in presidential elections amid tight security on Saturday, even as insurgents attacked polling centres in a series of blasts and clashes across the country that left at least two people dead.

The first-round vote marks the culmination of a bloody election campaign that, despite a large field of candidates, is seen as a close race between President Ashraf Ghani and his bitter rival Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s Chief Executive.

Wary authorities placed an uneasy Kabul under partial lockdown, flooding streets with troops and banning trucks from entering the city in an effort to stop would-be suicide bombers targeting residents as they cast their votes.

Two-hour extension

Polls closed at 5 p.m. after a two-hour extension due to long queues of people still waiting to vote, the Election Commission said.

Compared to previous elections, the initial toll appeared relatively light, though authorities provided little information about reported blasts and ongoing armed clashes with the Taliban in various provinces.

A security official said that two civilians had been killed and 27 wounded in Taliban bombings and mortar attacks at polling centres across the country.

Serious security incidents were reported in several provinces, including Kunduz, Nangarhar, Kabul, Bamiyan and Kandahar.

The Taliban, who unleashed a string of bombings during the two-month election campaign, claimed to have conducted hundreds of attacks against Afghanistan’s “fake elections”.

Mr. Ghani, having voted at a Kabul high school, said the most important issue was finding a leader with a mandate to bring peace to the war-torn nation.

“Our road map (for peace) is ready, I want the people to give us permission and legitimacy so that we pursue peace,” said Mr. Ghani, who is seeking a second term.

Some 9.6 million Afghans are registered to vote, but many lack faith that after 18 years of war any leader can unify the fractious country.

Observers from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said turnout appeared to be low, especially among women.

Still, many voters braved insurgent attacks and long queues to cast a ballot.

Wildlife authorities suspect poisoning, launch probe

The body of one of the elephants in Sigiriya.AFPSTR

As many as seven elephants have been found dead in the north-central part of Sri Lanka, prompting wildlife authorities to launch a probe into what they say appears to be a case of poisoning.

“We suspect that the animals have been poisoned. We are conducting post-mortem examinations to establish the cause of their death,” said Chandana Sooriyabandara, Direct-General of the Wildlife Department. On Friday, locals who found elephant carcasses in Habarana, in Anuradhapura district, alerted authorities and by Saturday, the toll went up to seven. All of them were female elephants, Mr. Sooriyabandara told The Hindu.

The area surrounding Habarana is among the main elephant habitats of the country, adjoining the Minneriya National Park and Polonnaruwa. Sri Lanka currently has an elephant population of nearly 5,500 and the authorities’ suspicion that the seven elephants were poisoned has raised alarm over a heightening human-animal conflict in the island. Official data points to nearly 300 elephant deaths in 2018 due to electrocution, railway track accidents, ‘hakka patas’ or traps made of explosives, and gunshots. Animal welfare activists also criticise the use of elephants in temple processions. Earlier this week, Tikiri, the skinny 70-year-old elephant that sparked a social media uproar after being forced to take part in an annual Buddhist pageant, died.

Serious blow

Experts consider the loss of seven elephants this week a serious blow to the country’s elephant population. All seven animals found dead were said to have been 10 to 15 years old, “in the prime of their lives”, according to Jayantha Jayawardena, managing trustee of the Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust, an NGO.

“It takes 22 months for an elephant to give birth to a calf and usually, elephants take a four- to five-year break before conceiving again,” he said. Much of the conflict, in his view, arises as villagers’ homes have been built on corridors that elephants use for internal migration. “Elephants generally walk about 12 miles a night to find food on the way. Now, when they find paths blocked by these house, they break in and then stumble upon crops. It is like a buffet for them,” explained Mr. Jayawardena, who has been studying Asian elephants for 40 years. All the same, he argues that while the villagers’ actions against the animals might seem harsh, they were “fully justified”. “No villager would like to see an elephant killed, but when the animal damages their crops, they are affected badly.”

“They lose their entire income, what can they do,” he said, suggesting that the animal and the villagers were both victims.

Its seizure was seen as a tit-for-tat move after the capture of an Iranian vessel

Coast is clear: Staff of Stena Impero signing papers before leaving Iran’s Bandar Abbas port on Friday.ReutersWANA NEWS AGENCY

The British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero docked in on Saturday after sailing from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas where it was held for more than two months, according to pool footage and a tracking website.

The vessel docked at Port Rashid in Dubai on Saturday after halting off the coast overnight, according to data from ship tracking website MarineTraffic.com.

Pool reporters at the commercial port confirmed the ship had moored, while video images showed the Swedish owned vessel docked and surrounded by several small boats, including at least one flying the United Arab Emirates flag.

The ship’s seizure back in July was widely seen as a tit-for-tat move after authorities in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar detained an Iranian tanker on suspicion it was shipping oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions. Tehran repeatedly denied the cases were related.

The Stena Impero sailed from Iran and into international waters of the Gulf on Friday morning, according to local authorities.

Photos released by the Iranian agency Fars News on Saturday showed the black and red-hulled tanker sailing from Bandar Abbas in southern Iran the previous day.

The images also showed the captain apparently signing the ship’s release documents before it left port, and the crew — dressed in red overalls and safety gear — lifting anchor ahead of the journey.

Drone strike killed 17 militants in an unidentified location, says the Pentagon’s Africa Command

In this August 2016 photo, Libyan forces allied with the UN-backed government fire at IS positions in Sirte.REUTERSISMAIL ZETOUNI

For the third time in a week, the U.S. military carried out an airstrike on Thursday against Islamic State (IS) fighters in southern Libya amid indications that the terrorist group was seeking to exploit the country’s civil strife to increase its recruitment. The Pentagon’s Africa Command said in a statement on Friday that the strike — which other officials said was carried out by an Air Force Reaper drone based in neighbouring Niger — killed 17 militants in an unidentified location in southwest Libya.

No safe haven

“We will continue to pursue ISIS-Libya and other terrorists in the region, denying them safe haven to coordinate and plan operations in Libya,” Rear Adm. Heidi Berg, the command’s director of intelligence, said in the statement, noting that the strike was coordinated with the Libyan government in Tripoli.

The strike was the latest in a flurry of attacks in a largely ungoverned portion of the country. Earlier, the Africa Command said that on September 19, an airstrike killed eight IS fighters in a compound in Murzuq, Libya, nearly 600 miles south of Tripoli, the capital. Five days later, the military said it killed 11 more fighters in an airstrike in the same area.

Taken together, the three missile attacks were the first U.S. airstrikes this year in Libya against IS or Qaeda fighters, after the military conducted six aerial attacks last year, most recently in November 2018.

Nathan Herring, a spokesman for the Africa Command at its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, declined to provide further details about the latest strike, saying analysts were still assessing its results.

Clandestine networks

Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya, cited social media reports in Libya saying that the strikes had targeted Malik Khazmi, a major IS facilitator and recruiter from Bani Walid.

Mr. Wehrey, who last visited Libya in June, said that Khazmi had been an important IS recruiter and architect of its clandestine fighter networks since 2014, surfacing in pivotal combat areas like Derna, Tripoli and Sirte, before fleeing into the southern desert.

Until a drone strike against al-Qaida fighters in southern Libya in March 2018, the Pentagon had focussed its counterterrorism attacks in the country almost exclusively on IS fighters and operatives farther north. Over several months in 2016, the military conducted nearly 500 airstrikes in the coastal city of Sirte to destroy the Islamic State’s stronghold there.

Many IS leaders, like Khazmi, fled south before the fall of Sirte, and from there have been trying to exploit the country’s security vacuum and civil strife to increase recruiting and reconstitute an effective guerilla force, analysts said. Mr. Wehrey cautioned that in the remote and politically fractured landscape of southern Libya, the line between who is a militant or terrorist or militiaman is frequently blurred, and there is the potential for these strikes to err and inflame ethnic and tribal tensions. “There’s been collateral damage in the past,” he said. NY Times

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