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UN envoy 'deeply concerned' by Yemen ceasefire violations

GENEVA: The United Nations special envoy for Yemen has voiced alarm at widespread violations of a fragile ceasefire, but insisted the ongoing peace talks between the warring sides in Switzerland would continue.

Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed “is deeply concerned at the numerous reports of violations of the cessation of hostilities,” his office said in a statement issued late Friday.

The comment came after Yemen’s ceasefire, which took effect on Tuesday, appeared to have collapsed as government forces seized two towns from rebels and their Saudi-led Arab coalition allies accused insurgents of escalating the conflict by firing ballistic missiles.

The special envoy “urges all parties to respect this agreement and allow unhindered access for the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the most affected districts of Yemen,” the statement said.

It was issued after a fourth day of rocky peace talks, during which the special envoy “held several sessions with the participants,” the statement added.

The discussions “focused mostly on security issues in Yemen, in light of the alarming developments on the ground,” it said, stressing that both sides had “renewed their commitment for a ceasefire.”

“A coordination and de-escalation committee was created to strengthen adherence to the cessation of hostilities,” the statement said.

On Friday, the two sides in the talks had hinted the discussions were struggling, with a member of the government delegation telling AFP that the opposing rebel delegation failed to show up for a scheduled joint meeting.

A member of the rebel delegation, which represents both the Iran-backed Huthi Shiite rebels and renegade troops still loyal to wealthy ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, said their side had “protested because the UN is not capable to impose a ceasefire.”

But the rebels insisted they had not pulled out of the talks.

And Ould Cheikh Ahmed’s office said both “bilateral and group consultations” would continue Saturday “to build on what was agreed upon in previous days and continue efforts to find an urgent political resolution to the crisis in Yemen.”

The UN announced a first breakthrough in the talks Thursday, saying the sides had agreed to “allow for a full and immediate resumption of humanitarian assistance” in the flashpoint Yemeni city of Taez.

Also on Thursday, pro-government forces and rebels completed an exchange of hundreds of prisoners in the southern province of Lahj.

Going forward, the UN has said discussions would include developing a plan for a sustainable ceasefire and further prisoner releases.

Yemen’s conflict began in September 2014, when the Huthis advanced from their northern strongholds to occupy the capital Sanaa.

It has escalated dramatically since Saudi-led air strikes against the rebels began in March, with more than 5,800 killed and more than 27,000 wounded since then, according to the UN.

Rockets guard Lawson gets two-game drink driving ban

NEW YORK: Houston Rockets guard Ty Lawson has been suspended two games without pay by the NBA for drink driving, the league announced on Friday.
Former Denver Nuggets guard Lawson was charged last January with drunken driving, speeding and other violations. He pleaded guilty last month in Colorado to driving while impaired and faces up to 180 days in jail when sentenced next month.

After another drink driving arrest last July in Los Angeles, Lawson was ordered to complete a rehabilitation program. He was also traded from the Nuggets after six seasons in Denver to Houston.

Lawson, 28, begins his suspension on Saturday when the Los Angeles Clippers visit Houston. He will also miss Houston’s home game Monday against Charlotte before returning next Wednesday at Orlando and ahead of a December 25 home game against San Antonio.

At 13-14, the Rockets are seventh in the Western Conference but nine games behind the pace-setting Spurs in the Southwest division.

Lawson is averaging 5.9 points, 4.2 assists, 1.9 rebounds and 1.0 steals a game. For his NBA career, Lawson is averaging 13.7 points, 6.5 assists and 2.8 rebounds a game.

18 migrants drown as boat sinks in the Aegean Sea: Turkish media

AFP | Dec 19, 2015, 02.04 PM IST

ANKARA: Eighteen people drowned overnight when their boat sank in the Aegean Sea as it was heading for the Greek island of Kalymnos, Turkish media reported early Saturday.

Another 14 people, among them Syrians, Iraqis and Pakistanis, were pulled to safety by the Turkish coastguard, the Dogan news agency reported.

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Glory inside ring, ignominy outside for Indian boxing

NEW DELHI: The administration of the sport itself remained in a state of paralysis but Vijender Singh’s stunning professional plunge and Shiva Thapa’s World Championships medal lifted the gloom to an extent for the rudderless ship called Indian boxing in the year going by.

Vijender, the country’s first ever Olympic and World Championships medallist, took the entire Indian boxing fraternity by surprise with his decision to turn professional during, what was called, a training trip to the UK.

Certainly not the first Indian to try his luck in the more lucrative and glamorous world of professional boxing but Vijender’s move was the most talked-about given that none before him had accumulated the amateur achievements that he did.

So, to turn pro just a year before the Olympic Games, where he was seen as a strong medal contender in the middleweight category, was met with some applause, some criticism and a lot of skepticism.

But he has managed to prove the naysayers wrong with his confident performances so far, including a couple of knockout wins.

With Vijender’s departure to the pro circuit, the slot for India’s No.1 amateur boxer fell vacant and though there is no particular contender in sight right now, the year 2015 did throw up some exciting talent, which had been around for a while but gained in maturity and confidence.

This breed includes Shiva (56kg), Mandeep Jangra (69kg) and Vikas Krishan (75kg) among a few others. Shiva shone a shade brighter than the rest by becoming only the third Indian boxer ever to win a medal at the World Championships.

It was a brilliant year for the 22-year-old Assamese during which he won a bronze at the Asian Championships before the historic bronze at the World Championships in Doha.

The only blip was his failure to book an Olympic berth, for which the World Championships was a qualifying event.

In fact, no Indian boxer could fetch an Olympic quota place in Doha but given the administrative mess, which led to the national federation’s suspension for the second time in three years, it was no small achievement to clinch a medal at the showpiece tournament.

In women’s boxing, it was all about the return of L Sarita Devi, the former world champion who had been serving a one-year ban for her emotional outburst at the 2014 Asian Games medal ceremony.

The Manipuri came back into the reckoning with some good performances in a training-cum-competition trip to China.

While the boxers remained focussed on doing what they are best at, the administrators of the sport also carried on doing what they never get tired of — politicking.

Barely a year after a new federation took charge in the form of Boxing India, a revolt from state units forced the ouster of its President Sandeep Jajodia and Secretary Jay Kowli in May.

As was expected, a bewildered and livid International Boxing Association (AIBA) provisionally suspended Boxing India and ordered that a new body take shape but did not set a deadline for the process.

The world body, instead, handed over the administration of the sport to an ad-hoc committee headed by Kishen Narsi, India’s representative in the AIBA. It also mandated the committee to find a suitable group to form a new federation.

The ad-hoc committee now also has a coordination committee to assist it, following intervention by the Sports Ministry but there is no end in sight to the administrative quagmire.

Amid the din in amateur administration, professional boxing made an unobtrusive entry into the Indian market following Vijender’s move.

Currently two bodies — the Professional Boxing Organisation of India (PBOI) and the Indian Boxing Council (IBC) — are trying to gain a foothold by handing out licenses to interested boxers besides conducting stand-alone bouts.

Vijender is registered with the IBC, which has sought affiliation from the WBC as well as the WBA.

The entry of two bodies for professional boxers could herald a new era in Indian boxing and open up good financial avenues for second or third-rung pugilists in the amateur circuit.

In fact, one Indian boxer has already made quite a splash in the AIBA-backed semi-professional league — the World Series of Boxing.

Gaurav Bidhuri (52kg), who won three of his five bouts for Italia Thunders last season, became the only Indian to be picked by a team in the WSB season-opening draft, signed by the USA Knockouts.

The next year brings with it the second and final round of Olympic qualifiers in March followed by the Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Although the road to Rio is fraught with difficulties, the Indian boxers have time and again shown themselves to be tougher than the circumstances they have faced.

And it is this steely resolve which fuels the hopes for an Olympic medal next year.

Beijing on pollution 'red alert', but smog not as severe as forecast

BEIJING: China’s capital Beijing was bracing for four days of choking smog starting Saturday, but residents said the haze was less severe than forecast, with some questioning why the government had issued its highest air pollution alert.

China had warned residents across a large part of its north on Friday to prepare for a wave of severe smog arriving over the weekend, the worst of which would hit Beijing, prompting the capital to issue its second ever “red alert”.

A red alert is triggered when the government believes air quality will surpass a level of 200 on an air quality index that measures various pollutants for at least three days. The US government deems a level of more than 200 “very unhealthy”.

But on Saturday morning, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center was showing an air quality reading of 104.

“Today I have to work. And where is the smog?” posted one Beijing resident on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent.

“The smog is not so bad. Why do they have driving restrictions?” said another Weibo user in the capital.

The Beijing city government issued its first “red alert” last week following criticism that previous bouts of smog had failed to trigger the highest warning level.

In Beijing, a red alert means around half the vehicles are removed from the roads with an odd-even licence plate system enforced. Schools are recommended to close and outdoor construction is banned.

The Beijing environment bureau had said the red alert would last from 7 a.m. Saturday to midnight on Tuesday.

But with the haze not as severe as predicted, the National Meteorological Centre only issued a yellow alert for the city and many surrounding areas on Saturday. Yellow is the second level on China’s four-tier colour-coded pollution alert system.

The weather observatory said that areas including southern Beijing, central Hebei, north Henan and west Shandong would be affected by heavy smog, which would start to dissipate from Wednesday.

It advised the public to take protective measures and those that suffer from respiratory diseases were urged to stay indoors or wear face masks if they needed to go out.

Barthelemy defeats Shafikov to claim IBF lightweight title

LOS ANGELES: Unbeaten Cuban Rances Barthelemy won a 12-round unanimous decision over Denis Shafikov to claim the vacant International Boxing Federation lightweight world title Friday in Las Vegas.

Russian southpaw Shafikov was aggressive early, throwing punches from all angles.

But he was troubled by a bad cut over his right eye suffered in the seventh round, which had the ringside doctor taking a look in the eighth before letting the fight continue.

Barthelemy, who improved to 24-0 with 13 wins inside the distance, stepped up his attack in the eighth and gained the decision by scores of 119-109, 116-112 and 116-112.

He claimed the lightweight belt won by American Mickey Bey with a split decision over Mexico’s Miguel Vazquez last year.

Bey vacated the title rather than make a mandatory defense against Shafikov in July.

The triumph cemented Barthelemy’s arrival in the lightweight ranks. Owner of the IBF super featherweight world title last year, he dropped the belt to move up in weight.

The 29-year-old said before the bout he wanted the lightweight crown to be the second of “four or five” titles in different weight classes.

“That’s my ultimate goal,” he said.

For Shafikov, who fell to 36-2-1 with 19 knockouts, it was another defeat in a world title bid. In his only prior world title fight he dropped a unanimous decision to Vazquez.

US school district shut after threats over Arabic homework

WASHINGTON: The homework assignment at a US high school asked students to reproduce a sample of classical Arabic handwriting, to help broaden their appreciation of its “artistry.”

Instead, it sparked an uproar — and even threats of violence — that led officials on Friday to temporarily shut down the entire school district.

It underlined simmering anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States following last month’s shooting massacre in California by a married Muslim couple who drew inspiration from the Islamic State group.

The teacher, Cheryl LaPorte, asked students in her World Geography class at Riverheads High School in Staunton, Virginia to copy by hand an example of religious Arabic script.

But a furor erupted as news about the homework task spread on social media.

The backlash was enough of a concern to prompt school officials to cancel classes — keeping all 10,000 of the county’s students at home and suspending school sports and other activities this weekend.

The passage students were asked to transcribe was an expression of faith from the koran — a detail, once it became widely known, which elicited even further public outrage.

“While there has been no specific threat of harm to students, schools and school offices will be closed Friday,” Augusta County school officials wrote in a press release.

“We regret having to take this action, but we are doing so based on the recommendations of law enforcement and the Augusta County School Board out of an abundance of caution.”

The assignment had aimed to give students “an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy.”

“In the space below, try copying it by hand. This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy,” said the homework task.

Controversial champ Fury to attend BBC award show

AFP | Dec 19, 2015, 12.25 PM IST

LONDON: World heavyweight champion Tyson Fury plans to attend the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award show despite the controversy over his nomination.
Fury is in the running to win the main award after the British fighter clinched the WBA, IBF and WBO titles in last month’s stunning victory against Wladimir Klitschko in Germany.

However, his comments comparing homosexuality and abortion with paedophilia, and saying a “women’s best place is on her back” led to a petition calling for Fury’s removal from the nominees for the awards reaching in excess of 130,000 signatures.

The BBC has been steadfast in its stance on Fury, with director general Tony Hall insisting he has been included on the list for his “sporting prowess”.

Now Fury’s promoter has confirmed the champion will be in attendance at the awards ceremony in Belfast this weekend.

Hennessy Sports said in a release: “Tyson Fury WILL attend this Sunday’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards, despite weeks of controversy surrounding his nomination.”

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Don't speak against India, Nawaz Sharif tells his ministers

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has stopped his ministers from giving anti-India statements so that the peace process is not hit, an official said.

A close aide to Sharif said on Friday that the ministers and senior officials had been asked not to issue any statement that could damage the peace process.

“There will be statements only that encourage the dialogue process rather than digging out the past. The PM has asked the close aides and cabinet members to promote peace,” The Nation quoted an official as saying.

He said Sharif was optimistic about better ties with India, which would benefit the whole region.

Sharif was annoyed by statements from India that New Delhi only wanted to discuss Pakistan occupied Kashmir in talks, but understands this is not Inidan government’s policy, the official added.

Sharif, the official said, wanted to give top priority to Kashmir, terrorism and trade when the two sides discuss peace.

Another official said Sharif and the military leadership were on the same page to make peace with India.

“There is no difference of opinion and both agree that there should be no compromise on the stated position on key issues,” he added.

An interaction between Sharif and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in Paris and subsequent meeting of the National Security Advisors in Bangkok set the pace for improvement in the bilateral ties.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj also visited Pakistan on December 8 to attend the Heart of Asia conference.

She met Sharif and his advisor on foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz on the sidelines of the conference.

It is expected that Sharif and Modi will meet again in Switzerland in January. The two leaders will be together on January 20 to attend the 46th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos-Klosters.

India’s outgoing High Commissioner to Pakistan TCA Raghavan on Thursday said the relations between the two countries were heading towards betterment.

Analysts said it was a positive development that Pakistan and India agreed to resume comprehensive dialogue to resolve all outstanding issues.

Hyuseinov's taunt: Vijender still hits like an amateur

NEW DELHI: Vijender Singh would be keen on another knockout victory when he takes on the experienced Bulgarian boxer Samet Hyuseinov in his next professional contest in Manchester on Saturday. This will be Vijender’s first six-round fight. Earlier, the Beijing Games bronze medalist thrashed Sonny Whiting and Dean Gillen to hold a 2-0 record in three-round fights. Vijender has completely dominated his rivals so far but the aggressive Bulgarian is not worried about that and wants to make a point when the two face off.

Hyuseinov’s journey has been nothing short of a Bollywood potboiler. His first fight was an act of self-defence against robbers when he was very young. Hyuseinov now has 14 fights under his belt with seven victories as a professional boxer.

“Where I live in Bulgaria, it was very tough. When I was young, I got into a fight with four older children who tried to rob me. I couldn’t fight properly then, but I fought for my life and knocked them down. A man saw me do this and said, ‘you fight like a boxer’. He took me to a club, I enjoyed it and carried on from there,” Hyuseinov told TOI.

Talking about his opponent, he said, “He will know what it is like to lose when I beat him. He has fought nobodies in his only two fights so far. I have not seen him fight so why would I be worried? I’m a fighter that is what I do. He has two fights and two wins. At some time he will get hit and see how he reacts then,” he added.

The build-up to the fight has seen heated exchanges between the two. Reacting to Vijender’s ‘not impressive career record’ comment on the Bulgarian, Hyuseinov said the Indian still hits like an amateur. “How can he judge my fights when he’s only had two fights himself? He is just ‘playing’, he wants to be a film star, just a pretty boy who doesn’t want to get punched in the face,” he said.