Zimbabwe’s New Leader Drops 2 Ministers After Public Outcry

Emmerson Mnangagwa (L) is sworn in as the new Zimbabwe’s president in Harare, on November 24, 2017 during the Inauguration ceremony. Zimbabwe’s ousted vice president was set to be sworn in as president on November 24, 2017, marking the final chapter of a political drama that toppled his predecessor after a military takeover.
Marco Longari / AFP

Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa on Saturday dropped two ministers he had appointed to his new cabinet just a day earlier, a move widely seen as a response to a public uproar over the nominations.

Mnangagwa, 75, named his cabinet on night Thursday, and is expected to appoint two vice presidents following a special ZANU-PF congress in mid-December.

But he quickly replaced education minister Lazarus Dokora with Paul Mavima, a professor and also a lawmaker in the governing ZANU-PF party.

Professor Clever Nyathi was dropped as labour minister in favour of Petronella Kagonye, also a ZANU-PF lawmaker, though Nyathi will remain as special advisor on national peace and reconciliation.

A government statement said the changes were necessary to “ensure compliance with the constitution and considerations of gender, demography and special needs.”

But Mnangagwa has come under fire for recycling officials from the era of ousted president Robert Mugabe, and for naming two military allies to top positions in his new cabinet.

Dokora, who had served in Mugabe’s government since 2013, has faced heavy criticism for introducing changes to the country’s education curriculum which were widely seen as threatening the once-revered school system.

Sibusiso Moyo, a major general who on November 15 went on state TV to announce the military’s takeover — a power grab which led to the 93-year-old Mugabe quitting the presidency a week later — is the new foreign affairs minister.

The new lands minister is the airforce boss Air Marshal Perence Shiri, who had previously headed a special North-Korean trained unit that is alleged to have committed atrocities during a crackdown on a rebellion in the western Matabeleland province in the early 1980s in which an estimated 20,000 people were killed.

Information minister and war veterans leader Christopher Mutsvangwa will assume the role of special advisor to the president.

Mnangagwa is set to swear in his cabinet on Monday after taking over from Mugabe, who ruled the southern African country for 37 years.


Trump Again Insists ‘No Collusion’ With Russia

WASHINGTON, DC – DECEMBER 01: Michael Flynn, former national security advisor to President Donald Trump, leaves following his plea hearing at the Prettyman Federal Courthouse on December 1, 2017 in Washington, DC. Special Counsel Robert Mueller charged Flynn with one count of making a false statement to the FBI. Astrid Riecken/Getty Images/AFP Astrid Riecken / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP

President Donald Trump insisted again Saturday that there no collusion between his campaign and Russia during his bid for the White House.

“No collusion,” Trump said a day after his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, pledged to cooperate with special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia’s meddling into the election.

Flynn also pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts he had with the Russian ambassador.


Barca Slip In Celta Thriller Offers Real, Atletico Hope

Barcelona’s Argentinian forward Lionel Messi (bottom) looks at the ball shot by Barcelona’s Spanish defender Jordi Alba (R) during the Spanish league football match FC Barcelona vs RC Celta at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on December 2, 2017. PAU BARRENA / AFP

Celta Vigo breathed life into La Liga’s title race becoming the first team this season to take points off Barcelona at the Nou Camp in a thrilling 2-2 draw on Saturday.

Iago Aspas gave Celta an early lead, but an inspired display from Lionel Messi appeared to have earned Barca another three points as he immediately equalised and then helped tee up Luis Suarez to put the hosts 2-1 in front.

However, the excellent Aspas set up Maxi Gomez 20 minutes from time as Barca centre-back Samuel Umtiti suffered what could be a costly injury.

Barca’s slip-up is a boost for Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, who can close to within six points with victories over Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad respectively later on Saturday.

Celta have been a bogey side for Barca in recent years, beating the Catalans once in each of the past three seasons.

And a positive start from the Galicians on Celta boss Juan Carlos Unzue’s return to the Camp Nou, where he spent three years as Luis Enrique’s assistant, was rewarded 20 minutes in.

Aspas sprung Barca’s offside trap and crossed for the unmarked Gomez who was denied by an incredible save by Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

However, the rebound fell for Aspas to slot home his ninth goal of the season.

Celta’s lead lasted two minutes, though, as Messi latched onto Paulinho’s pass to fire low under Ruben Blanco for his first goal since late October.

Messi then took control of the game as Barca pressed to go ahead before half-time.

A sensational pass from the Argentine was smashed home by Suarez, only for the Uruguayan to be wrongly flagged offside.

Messi then hit the outside of the post and Paulinho headed too close to Ruben Blanco from Ivan Rakitic’s pinpoint cross.

Paulinho had an even better chance at the start of the second period when he rounded Blanco only to fire into the side-netting.

It seemed a matter of time before Celta’s resistence was broken and Barca’s second duly arrived just after the hour when great work by Messi and Jordi Alba teed up Suarez for his first goal at the Camp Nou in nearly three months.

Blanco then kept Celta in the game with a sensational stop from Messi’s close-range header.

An end-to-end encounter swung back Celta’s way in a double blow for Barca.

Umtiti pulled up with what looked like a hamstring problem as he chased Aspas down the right and the Spanish international then patiently picked out Gomez to fire into an unguarded net.

Thomas Vermaelen was brought on for Umtiti, who has shone this season but could now miss Barca’s El Clasico trip to Real Madrid on December 23.

It was Barca’s other stalwart centre-back who should have restored the hosts’ lead when Gerard Pique hit the outside of the post from another defence-splitting Messi pass.

Unfortunately for Barca, Messi’s best chance of a winner was with his head as he nodded wide when Denis Suarez’s blocked shot fell his way.

Yet, Barca also had their goalie to thank as Ter Stegen’s outstretched hand denied Pione Sisto the winner two minutes from time.


Looted Angkor Jewellery Returned To Cambodia

A set of returned Angkorian-era gold jewellery is displayed to the public behind protective glass during a ceremony in front of the National Museum upon its arrival in Phnom Penh on December 2, 2017. A set of ancient Angkorian gold jewellery was returned to Cambodia on December 2 with an elaborate procession through the capital, decades after the precious pieces were looted from a famed jungle temple during the kingdom’s civil war. TANG CHHIN SOTHY / AFP

A set of ancient Angkorian gold jewellery was returned to Cambodia Saturday with an elaborate procession through the capital, decades after the precious pieces were looted from a famed jungle temple.

The 10-piece set, which includes a crown, earrings, armbands and a chest ornament, was stolen from Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple during the kingdom’s civil war in the 1970s and was discovered in the online catalogue of a London art dealer last year.

The items are thought to date back to the Khmer Empire, a once-mighty dynasty that sprawled much of modern-day Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos between the ninth and 15th centuries.

After the pieces turned up in Britain, the Cambodian government lobbied for their return and with the help of specialists spent more than a year inspecting the items to make sure they were genuine.

Officials proudly welcomed the jewellery back to the country Saturday as the items were accompanied from the airport by hundreds of people and flanked by security guards.

“This is a successful mission of all Cambodians, including diplomats and people who love the arts and antiques. Everyone is happy,” Chuch Phoeun, secretary of state at Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, told AFP.

He said they are believed to have been pillaged during Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, though the exact date is not known.

London’s Jonathan Tucker Antonia Tozer Asian Art dealership agreed in April to return the jewellery, which was proudly displayed behind protective glass Saturday and will now be appraised by experts in Cambodia.

The pieces will soon be designated as national heritage items, and will join scores of stolen artefacts that have made their way back to the country in recent years — many that had been on display in western museums or for sale by dealers.

The Hindu-Buddhist Khmer Empire built what were then some of the world’s mightiest cities and temples, including the famous Angkor Wat complex.

But decades of French colonialism and civil war saw vast swathes of Cambodia’s architectural and religious heritage looted and sold overseas.

Last year, an American museum sent a 10th-century sandstone sculpture of the Hindu god Rama, still missing its head, arms and feet, back to Cambodia after it was stolen in the 1970s.

In 2015 a statue of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman which had been looted from the same temple as the Rama torso was returned by the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Two other 10th-century Khmer-era statues known as the “Kneeling Attendants”, which had also been taken from the same temple complex, were returned from the United States in 2013.

On Saturday, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son Hun Many said it was an honour to have the jewellery back on home soil.

“As a Cambodian, I am so proud to be part of this process to bring our ancestors heritage back home,” Many, a lawmaker who helped to secure its return, told AFP.


Murder Threatens Already-Fragile Confidence In Baltimore Police

The funeral procession for Baltimore Detective Sean Suiter, who was fatally shot while investigating a previous killing in West Baltimore earlier this month, arrives at Delaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium, Maryland, on November 29, 2017. JIM WATSON / AFP

The mournful drone of bagpipes resounded and motorists moved aside as the funeral procession for a slain detective marched through Baltimore this week, the stars and stripes of the American flag punctuating the sea of blue-clad officers gathered to pay respects to one of their own.

In the procession from a Baltimore church service to a graveside ceremony, a police motorcade escorted the hearse of Sean Suiter, who was fatally shot in the head while pursuing a suspect in November, an unsolved murder that threatens to undermine already fragile public confidence and trust in the police here.

More than 3,000 people, most of them police officers from around the state, had packed the church in west Baltimore to attend the service for the 43-year-old detective — who had been set to testify in the trial of officers accused of corruption.

The killing of a police officer “leaves a stain on our city,” said Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, leader of the largest city in Maryland with a long history of violent crime fueled by poverty and drug trafficking.

As of November 30, The Baltimore Sun recorded 319 homicides this year, more than the 318 in 2016, and approaching the record 344 in 2015.

That year, the city of 620,000 people — some two thirds of them African American — was hit by rioting and looting following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who suffered a severed spine while being transported in a police van in a case that caused widespread outrage.

– Suspicion of conspiracy –

Suiter — who had served on the force for 18 years as well as in the Army — “lived and died a hero,” Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan said during the ceremony, while making note of the “countless unanswered questions” surrounding his death.

The detective was killed with his own weapon, which was found at the scene, and police have not identified any suspects, despite offering a $215,000 reward for information.

Suiter was set to testify the following day in a court case against seven officers from the elite Gun Trace Task Force accused of extortion and theft during searches.

He had worked with at least three of the defendants in the course of his career.

But police have denied any link between his death and the trial.

“I understand the speculation that exists… It’s our responsibility really to follow the evidence and there’s no evidence whatsoever,” Baltimore police commissioner Kevin Davis said last week.

The killing and the lack of progress in identifying the perpetrator pose significant problems for the Baltimore Police Department, said University of Baltimore criminologist Jeffrey Ian Ross.

With no arrest, it “only increases the suspicion among the public and other observers that there may be some sort of conspiracy going on,” Ross said, adding it “was not a bad idea” to entrust the investigation to another police department or the FBI.

– ‘Vicious cycle’ –

The Baltimore Police Department has already experienced cases of internal corruption, but “this one is major and we will pay attention to the outcomes,” he said.

Suiter’s murder also came some two months after an epilogue to the Freddie Gray case, when the US Justice Department announced that it would not pursue charges against six police officers involved in his death due to “insufficient evidence.”

Gray’s death prompted a 14-month investigation into the BPD, which concluded that officers had disproportionately and illegally stopped, searched and arrested black people for years.

A federal judge then approved a consent decree mandating Baltimore’s police department to implement sweeping reforms — which Ross suggested makes officers “reluctant to get out of their car and initiate street stops.”

“They worry that it can lead to the next Freddie Gray incident,” he said, saying the situation creates “a vicious cycle.”

At Suiter’s funeral, fellow detective Jonathan Jones read a passage from the Bible’s 23rd Psalm, alluding to the challenges officers face: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

“As homicide detectives,” he said, “we go through the valley, we stay in the valley and we bring those out of the valley who are sometimes lost.”

“Sean was the epitome of that.”


Coaches Hail Tantalising World Cup Draw

File photo

The coaches of the 2018 World Cup favourites welcomed a draw that keeps most of them apart in the group phase — with the exception of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and 2010 winners Spain.

Ronaldo’s Group B battle against Spain and many of his Real Madrid teammates in Sochi on June 15 will be an early highlight of a tournament that was mapped out by Friday’s draw in the Kremlin.

“They are the champions of Europe, they have fantastic players and we are talking about the highest level,” Spain coach Julen Lopetegui told Spanish TV station Cuatro.

Spain, clicking into gear again after underperforming in recent years, were seen as the team to avoid after missing out on a place among the top seeds.

When the hand of Diego Maradona dipped into the glass bowl and pulled out England in Belgium’s Group G — avoiding Brazil, Argentina and Portugal — the English press termed it “the day the Hand of God made amends”. In the 1986 World Cup, the Argentinian infamously scored against England using his hand — and claimed divine intervention had played a role.

Perennial under-achievers England still face a tough encounter with a free-scoring Belgian side featuring Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard, both of whom play in England. Tunisia and debutants Panama complete the group.

“We’ve been good at writing teams off and then getting beat. We’ve got to be prepared for every game,” said England manager Gareth Southgate.

England could in theory find themselves on a collision course with Germany and Spain if they do not win the group.

Harry Kane and his teammates begin against Tunisia in Volgograd — in a stadium built on one of the main sites of the World War II Battle of Stalingrad — on June 18.

World Cup newcomers Iceland were meanwhile handed a match against Lionel Messi and Argentina on June 16 — a draw coach Heimar Hallgrimsson described as “romantic”.

He said he had already spoken to his scout in Argentina.

“He told me just one thing — number 10,” a laughing Hallgrimsson said in reference to Messi’s number.

– Tantalising prospects –

The glitzy draw, featuring a short speech from Russian President Vladimir Putin, also laid out potential routes to the final, revealing tantalising prospects such as a Spain v Argentina quarter-final, and possible semi-finals of Spain against Germany or France versus Brazil.

Ronaldo will be 33 come next year’s finals, meaning this will probably be his last shot at World Cup glory.

Reigning world champions Germany, the much-fancied Brazil of Neymar, and France will all be delighted with their draws, but the prospects appear tougher for Argentina.

Apart from Iceland, they will come up against Croatia and Nigeria in Group D as Messi looks to make up for losing the 2014 final to Germany.

The Barcelona man turns 31 during the tournament, meaning this is probably also his last chance to win the World Cup.

Germany were placed with Mexico, Sweden and South Korea in Group F as Joachim Loew’s men try to become the first nation to retain the title since Brazil in 1962.

“I am certainly not scared,” Loew told ZDF television, but he warned the chasing pack was closing in.

“Other countries have been watching us over the last few years and they have progressed and they have great players. This will be an exciting World Cup.”

Five-time winners Brazil, eager to exorcise the demons of 2014 and their 7-1 semi-final humiliation against Germany on home soil, will expect little trouble in progressing from Group E ahead of Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia.

France coach Didier Deschamps will be confident of winning Group C ahead of Australia, Peru and Denmark.

“Whatever the group, the French team have to qualify for the knockout round and have to finish first in the group,” Deschamps told BeIN Sport.

Australia have been in disarray since qualifying and are now searching for a new coach following the resignation of Ange Postecoglou.

The Socceroos’ assistant coach Ante Milicic was optimistic though.

“Although it’s a difficult group, we believe in ourselves and definitely we can advance from the group,” he said.

– Avoided Spain –

Japan face a tough task to finish in the top two of Group H that features Robert Lewandowski’s Poland, Senegal and Colombia.

Japan’s veteran coach Vahid Halilhodzic vowed to avenge his side’s humiliating 4-1 thrashing by Colombia at the 2014 World Cup.

“The Colombia game will be key. For Japan it will be chance to get revenge for the last World Cup,” the firebrand Franco-Bosnian said.

The tournament kicks off when host nation Russia take on Saudi Arabia on June 14 in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, which will also host the final on July 15.

“I cannot say whether I’m happy or not,” Russia coach

Two Mass Graves Found In Yazidi District Of Iraq

Iraqi paramilitary forces have uncovered two more mass graves containing the bodies of 140 civilians, including women and children, in an area home to the Yazidi religious minority, they said Saturday.

In 2014, IS killed thousands of Yazidis in Sinjar and kidnapped thousands of women and girls from the community to abuse them as sex slaves.

The Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary alliance said it had found “a mass grave with the bodies of 20 women and about 40 children in the village of Kabusi, south of Sinjar.”

Elsewhere, “in the Jazira residential complex, also south of Sinjar, 80 other bodies, mostly Yazidis, were discovered,” it said.

Kurdish fighters backed by the US-led coalition against IS captured Sinjar from the jihadists in November 2015 before Iraqi security forces took control of the region in October.

As government troops have advanced across Iraq they have uncovered dozens of mass graves holding hundreds of bodies in areas that fell under the jihadists’ brutal rule.

Iraqi officials said on 22 November they had found a mass grave in Sinjar containing the bodies of dozens of members of the minority killed by the Islamic State group.

Sinjar mayor Mahma Khalil said that since 2015, around 40 mass graves have been discovered in the region and that “all the victims were Yazidis”.

The Yazidis are Kurdish-speaking but follow their own non-Muslim faith that earned them the hatred of the Sunni Muslim extremists of IS.

Yazidis believe in one God who created the world and entrusted it to seven Holy Beings, the most important of which is Melek Taus, or the Peacock Angel.

Australia Grind Out Tough World Cup Final Win

Ben Currie of England (C) fights off a tackle by Cameron Smith (L) and Aaron Woods (2nd L) of Australia during the rugby league World Cup men’s final match between Australia and England in Brisbane on December 2, 2017. Patrick HAMILTON / AFP

Boyd Cordner’s first half try ensured the Australians clinched the title for the 11th time in a low-scoring but enthralling final in front of 40,000 fans.

The Kangaroos went into the match as firm favourites after going through the preliminary rounds largely untroubled.

And for large parts of the match they looked certain to overrun England, particularly in the first half and the opening 10 minutes of the second.

But the English were resolute in defence as they slowly came back into the final and could have upset the more fancied Australians if they had shown some more composure in attack.

In a pulsating and at times brutal first half, the home side shaded both possession and territory, with much of the game played in England’s half.

The two sides were evenly matched and neither was able to breach the strong defensive lines in the opening exchanges.

But on the 15 minute mark, the Australians spread the ball wide and second rower Boyd Cordner steamed onto a flat pass to crash over beside the posts.

Cameron Smith converted to make it 6-0 to the Kangaroos.

England had few chances to threaten the Australian line in the opening 40 minutes, but when they did they appeared to panic and lost the ball early in the tackle count.

The Australians began to make some easy metres out wide towards the end of the half as the English began to tire.

They continued to dominate at the start of the second half and thought they had scored seven minutes after the restart when Michael Morgan darted over under the posts.

However, the television match official ruled there had been some obstruction in the lead-up and the try was disallowed.

England took advantage of the reprieve and enjoyed a good 20-minute spell, at last able to put the Australians under some sustained pressure.

They went close with 15 minutes to go when centre Kallum Watkins broke clear and made a run for the line, only to be brought down by a desperate Josh Dugan ankle tap.

Australia then had the chance to seal the match when Valentine Holmes took an intercept but the winger, who scored five tries in the semi-final win over Fiji, knocked the ball on with the line wide open.

As the clock wound down the increasingly desperate English threw everything at the Australians but the Kangaroos held firm to claim the World Cup.


Zimbabwe’s Former VP Returns Home After Mugabe Ouster

Army General Constantino Chiwenga Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence and Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP

Zimbabwe’s former vice president, who was on a trip abroad during last month’s military takeover that led to Robert Mugabe’s resignation, has returned home, local media reported Saturday.

Phelekezela Mphoko was the second deputy appointed in 2014 by longtime strongman Mugabe, along with current President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Mphoko had flown to Japan on official business the day before the army took over the country in an operation that culminated in Mugabe’s ouster after a 37-year rule.

But instead of returning home at the end of his mission, Mphoko sought sanctuary in Botswana, where he remained until Friday.

“Mr Mphoko and his family arrived at the Zimbabwean side of the border at 1:15 pm (1115 GMT) aboard a Zimbabwe department of immigration minibus accompanied by Botswana immigration officials,” The Herald newspaper reported.

He was with his wife Laurinda, son Siqokoqela and seven other family members, the paper added.

According to The Herald, Mphoko spoke to Mnangagwa by phone and got “the necessary assurances that he was free to come back to Zimbabwe”.

The former vice president and longtime diplomat — less well-known in the country than popular Mnangagwa — was reportedly a member of a faction in the ruling ZANU-PF which rallied behind Mugabe’s wife Grace and backed her bid to replace her husband as president.

They were reportedly expelled from the party for “engaging in activities meant to destabilise the Government”.

Former finance minister and alleged member of the faction, Ignatius Chombo, was last week the first Mugabe loyalist to be charged by the new government on fraud charges dating from 2004-2009, when he held a different ministerial role.

Other senior members of the so-called G-40 faction are believed to be in hiding.

Mnangagwa, 75, named his cabinet overnight Thursday and he is expected to appoint his two vice presidents following a special ZANU-PF congress in mid-December, according to a government statement issued Saturday.

But he has come under fire for naming two military allies to top positions in his new cabinet, including Sibusiso Moyo, a major general who on November 15 went on state TV to announce the military’s takeover — a power grab which led to the 93-year-old Mugabe quitting the presidency a week later.

Another cabinet minister is the airforce boss — Air Marshal Perence Shiri, who had previously headed a special North-Korean trained unit that is alleged to have committed atrocities during a crackdown on a rebellion in the western Matabeleland province in the early 1980s.

An estimated 20,000 people were killed during the campaign known as Gukurahundi.

Mnangagwa was also criticised for recycling ministers from Mugabe’s discredited era.

Following public outcry, he dropped Lazarous Dokora as education minister on Saturday, replacing him with professor Paul Mavima, another ZANU-PF legislator.



Yemen Rebel Ally Saleh Says Open To Talks With Saudis

Shiite Huthi fighters walk outside in front of al-Saleh mosque in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on November 30, 2017. MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP

Yemeni rebel ally Ali Abdullah Saleh said Saturday he was open to talks with the Saudi-led coalition battling on the side of government, following deadly insurgent infighting in the capital.

“I call on our brothers in neighbouring countries … to stop their aggression and lift the blockade … and we will turn the page,” the former president said in a televised speech.

The coalition, which has fought Saleh and the Iran-backed Huthi rebels since 2015, imposed a total blockade on the impoverished country last month after a rebel missile was shot down near Riyadh.


German Far-Right Meets To Pick New Leaders Amid Pro-Refugee Protests

A protester is evacuated by riot policemen during a demonstration against the Alternative for Germany (AfD) far-right party during the party’s congress on December 2, 2017 near the congress center in Hanover, northern Germany. Peter Steffen / DPA / AFP

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) gathered Saturday to vote in new leadership after its triumphant turnout in September’s general election, as hundreds staged street protests against the anti-migrant, anti-Islam party.

The AfD captured nearly 13 percent of the vote and almost 100 seats in parliament — a watershed moment in post-war German politics that left Chancellor Angela Merkel as the winner but still searching for a ruling coalition.

However a festering row between radical nationalists and more moderate forces has roiled the AfD’s top brass, with co-leader Frauke Petry abruptly quitting just days after the election to form her own breakaway party.

Some 600 delegates at the two-day congress in the northern city of Hanover will vote on a replacement for her as well as a new board, determining the ideological direction of the party.

“The AfD is unable to settle down, it is wrestling with the course it wants to take and power within the party,” news website Spiegel Online said.

“The fight over posts and the platform shows that the party is still divided on how sharply rightward it wants to go.”

Hundreds of demonstrators staged sit-ins to block roadways to the venue in the city centre, delaying the start of the congress by about 50 minutes.

After reporting minor scuffles with protesters, police deployed water cannon to remove some of the blockades.

– Merkel’s woes –

A large pro-refugee march was planned later Saturday supporting Merkel’s liberal border policy, which allowed in more than one million asylum seekers since 2015.

The GdP police union called for calm, following clashes with demonstrators in the western city of Cologne during the last AfD congress in April that left several officers injured.

“We expect all participants in the rallies to exercise their right of assembly peacefully,” union leader Dietmar Schilff said. “Any violence will lead to the forfeiture of that right.”

Launched as a populist anti-euro party in 2013, the AfD has veered sharply to the right since and campaigned for the September election with slogans such as “Bikinis Not Burqas”, “Stop Islamisation” and the ubiquitous “Merkel must go”.

It is now represented in 14 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments but has been shunned as a potential partner at the national level by the mainstream parties.

However the fractured political landscape has made it more difficult than ever for Merkel, in power for 12 years, to cobble together a ruling majority.

Talks to form a coalition spanning the political spectrum for her fourth and probably last term broke down in acrimony last month.

She is now trying to woo the centre-left Social Democrats back into a right-left “grand coalition” government.

If she is successful and averts a snap election, the AfD would become Germany’s largest opposition power, strongly boosting its profile.

– Syria safe for refugees? –

The AfD had two leaders until now, Petry and Joerg Meuthen, who has allied himself with the party’s radical nativist wing.

Delegates will debate a motion to have Meuthen as the AfD’s sole president.

Meanwhile more centrist forces in the party are backing the party’s Berlin chief, Georg Pazderski, a former army colonel, as co-leader.

However speculation was rife that the party’s powerful parliamentary group chief, Alexander Gauland, could mount a leadership challenge.

Gauland told AFP last week that the party was ready to capitalise on Merkel’s new weakness.

“It’s all downhill for Merkel now and that is partly our achievement,” Gauland said.

“Her time is up — we want her to leave the political stage.”

The list of motions to be debated in Hanover offered insights into the party’s priorities.

They include a call for Germany to ban circumcision of male babies targeting a common practice among Muslim and Jewish families, and a condemnation of a new definition of anti-Semitism adopted by parliament criticised as a “curb on free speech”.

The party recently sparked outrage by calling for the immediate return of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in Germany, claiming that “large parts” of the war-ravaged country were now safe.


Missing Bangladesh Catholic Priest Found Safe

Pope Francis is greeted as he arrives at the Church of the Holy Rosary complex, where the Mother Teresa House is part of, in Dhaka on December 2, 2017. Pope Francis arrived in Bangladesh from Myanmar on November 30 for the second stage of a visit that has been overshadowed by the plight of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees. VINCENZO PINTO / AFP

A Catholic priest whose disappearance in Bangladesh days before a visit by Pope Francis raised fears among minority Christians has been found safe and well, police said Saturday.

Walter William Rosario, a 40-year-old priest and school headmaster, went missing on Monday from a village in northern Bangladesh where suspected Islamist extremists last year hacked a Catholic grocer to death.

His disappearance followed a rise in Islamist extremism in the Muslim-majority country, where at least three Christians, including two converts from Islam, have been hacked to death in recent years.

Police said Rosario had been found in the northeastern city of Sylhet, adding the disappearance was likely for personal reasons.

“He has been found unscathed,” said Biplob Bijoy Talukder, police chief in Rosario’s home district of Natore.

The news came as Pope Francis met with Rohingya refugees in Dhaka at the end of a visit dominated by the plight of the Muslim minority who have fled ethnic unrest in Myanmar and taken refuge in Bangladesh.

Christians make up less than 0.5 percent of Bangladesh’s 160 million people.