US Federal Reserve raises rates amid growing confidence

The US Federal Reserve has raised interest rates for the second time in three months, a move spurred by steady economic growth, strong job gains and confidence that inflation is rising to the central bank’s target.

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The decision to lift the target overnight interest rate by 25 basis points to a range of 0.75 per cent to one per cent marked one of the Fed’s most convincing steps yet in the effort to return monetary policy to a more normal footing.

However, the Fed’s policy-setting committee did not flag any plan to accelerate the pace of monetary tightening. Although inflation is “close” to the Fed’s two per cent target, it noted that goal was “symmetric”, indicating a possible willingness to allow prices to rise at a slightly faster pace.

Further rate increases would only be “gradual” the Fed said in its policy statement, with officials sticking to their outlook for two more rate hikes this year and three more in 2018. The Fed lifted rates once in 2016.

Business investment “appears to have firmed somewhat”, the Fed said in language that reflected a stronger sense of the economy’s momentum.

Fresh economic forecasts released with the statement showed little change from those of the December policy meeting and gave little indication the Fed has a clear view of how Trump administration policies may impact the economy in 2017 and beyond.

The Fed’s projections showed the economy growing by 2.1 per cent in 2017, unchanged from the December forecast. The median estimate of the long-run interest rate, where monetary policy would be judged as having a neutral effect on the economy, held steady at three per cent.

Sinn Fein wants N.Ireland vote

Northern Ireland’s largest Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein says it wants a referendum on splitting from the United Kingdom “as soon as possible”, hours after Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon demanded a new independence vote.

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Sinn Fein has been regularly calling for a vote for Northern Ireland to leave the UK and unite with the Republic of Ireland since Britain voted to leave the European Union last June while most voters in Northern Ireland voted to remain.

Under a 1998 peace deal that ended 30 years of sectarian violence in the province, the British government can call a referendum if it appears likely a majority of those voting would seek to form part of a united Ireland.

But Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State James Brokenshire said in July last year that he did not believe the conditions for calling a referendum had been met.

Opinion polls in the past have shown a majority of people in Northern Ireland want to remain part of the United Kingdom – in an IPSOS-MORI poll in September, only 22 per cent of 1000 voters questioned said they would support a united Ireland while 63 per cent said they would prefer to remain part of the UK.

However, there has been no poll in recent months and Sinn Fein saw a surge in its support at assembly elections a week ago.

“Brexit will be a disaster for the economy, and a disaster for the people of Ireland. A referendum on Irish unity has to happen as soon a possible,” Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill told reporters in Belfast.

Fifty-six per cent of voters in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union in June last year, but 52 per cent of the United Kingdom as a whole voted to leave.

The British government “are continuing to refuse to listen to the majority view and they are refusing to honour their commitments and agreements,” O’Neill said.

Dutch-Turkish ties at lowest point in four centuries

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed The Netherlands “will pay a heavy price” for its treatment of his Family Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya.

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The minister was expelled from the country on Saturday after defying a ban on attending a Rotterdam rally to drum up support among expat voters for April’s referendum on boosting Erdogan’s powers.

“Certainly in recent history it’s the biggest diplomatic crisis between the two countries,” said Erdogan Aykac, a researcher in Turkish foreign relations at Groningen University.

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Although it was unclear whether Turkish threats included economic sanctions, Ankara would “suffer far more than The Netherlands” from such a move, said Erik-Jan Zurcher, professor of Turkish studies at Leiden University.

“The Dutch economy is in excellent shape and very resilient, while the Turkish economy has been in crisis mode since the middle of last year. It’s extremely vulnerable at the moment to any kind of shock,” Zurcher told AFP.

Diplomatic spats

Diplomatic relations – cordial since they were first launched in 1612 – took a turn for the worse 400 years later in 2012 and have steadily deteriorated since then, experts said.

Even while then Turkish prime minister Erdogan shook hands with Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte during an official visit in March 2012, events were overshadowed by a spat over a Turkish boy adopted by Dutch lesbian parents.

Dutch newspapers reported the couple went into hiding with then nine-year-old Yunus because of attempts in Turkey to have him returned and apparent disquiet in the Turkish community.

Last year Turkish-Dutch journalist Ebru Umar was arrested and briefly detained after she tweeted comments critical of Erdogan. Umar later returned to The Netherlands after diplomatic efforts, but lives at a secret address for her own safety.

The Netherlands is home to some 400,000 people of Turkish origin.

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Thousands of pro-Erdogan demonstrators took to the streets in big Dutch cities after the failed coup in July. At the time, journalists said they were attacked by pro-Erdogan supporters in Rotterdam, and the president’s opponents say they were threatened.

The incidents were widely condemned in the Dutch parliament.

Concerns over perceived Turkish interference in Dutch internal affairs reached breaking point on Saturday, experts said.

Dutch officials said the government had drawn “a line in the sand” when it refused Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s plane permission to land near Rotterdam.

A few hours later, Dutch police expelled family minister Kaya, driving her back to the German border.

“Everybody who lives in The Netherlands… must have the freedom to make their own choices and not allow a foreign power to come and tell them how they should live their lives,” Dutch deputy prime minister Lodewijk Asscher said Monday.

“We have to defend all Dutch citizens,” he told the NOS public broadcaster.

‘Painful for both sides’

Bilateral trade between Turkey and the Netherlands amounted to almost eight billion euros in 2016, according to the Dutch central statistics office.

But that number falls behind the top Dutch bilateral trading partner Germany, which amounted to 98.2 billion euros in 2016.

“It remains to be seen whether economic sanctions will indeed manifest themselves,” Dutch economic broadcaster RTLZ said.

But “seeing that trade relations with Turkey have improved over the last decade, it’s clear it wouldn’t be painless for either side,” it said.  

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More states moves to block Trump’s ban

Washington state has moved to block President Donald Trump’s revised travel ban, filing a new complaint in federal court and asking a judge to stop the executive order from going into effect on Thursday.

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It was the latest legal move in a series of court challenges to a new travel order signed by Trump last week that temporarily blocks refugees and travellers from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

His order replaced a more sweeping ban issued on January 27 that caused chaos and protests at airports due to its abrupt implementation.

The first order was halted by US District Judge James Robart in Seattle after Washington state sued, claiming the order was discriminatory and violated the US Constitution.

Trump revised his order to overcome some of the legal hurdles by including exemptions for legal permanent residents and existing visa holders and taking Iraq off the list of countries covered by the order. The new order still applies to citizens of Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen but has explicit waivers for various categories of immigrants with ties to the United States.

Washington state went back to Robart to argue that the new ban is essentially the same as the first one and that the emergency halt, which was upheld by a federal appeals court, should still apply.

The second executive order reinstates “provisions of the First Executive Order already enjoined by the Court”, Washington state said in court papers filed on Monday. The state requested a hearing in the case on Tuesday.

The Department of Justice said it was reviewing the filings and would respond to the court.

California’s attorney general said on Monday that it would be joining Washington in its lawsuit; other states like Minnesota, New York and Oregon have also signed on to the challenge.

“The Trump Administration may have changed the text of the now-discredited Muslim travel ban, but they didn’t change its unconstitutional intent and effect,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement.

Separately, Hawaii has sued over the new ban as well.

In response to Hawaii’s lawsuit, the Department of Justice in court papers filed on Monday said the president has broad authority to “restrict or suspend entry of any class of aliens when in the national interest.” The Justice Department said the brief suspensions will allow the country to review its screening process in an effort to protect against terrorist attacks.

‘You work for a fascist’: Sean Spicer confronted in Apple store

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was shopping at an Apple store in Washington DC last weekend when progressive education activist Shree Chauhan spotted the Trump administration spokesperson and bombarded him with loaded questions.

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“How does it feel to work for a fascist?” the 33-year-old woman asked with her phone set to live-stream on Twitter.

“We have a great country” Mr Spicer responded.

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“We have a great country? Have you helped with the Russia stuff? Are you a criminal as well? Have you committed treason too, just like the president?” Ms Chauhan said.

“It’s such a great country, that allows you to be here,” Spicer responded, before moving on to speak with another person and then leaving the store – continuously peppered with further questions from Ms Chauhan.

Ms Chuahan, who is of Indian descent, later said she found Mr Spicer’s response racist and a threat against her citizenship.

“That is racism and it is an implied threat,” she wrote in a blog post about the incident.

“Think about the sheer audacity of Mr Spicer to say that to my face with a smile, knowing that he that he is being recorded on video and the position of power he holds in our government.”

She strongly rejected the interpretation that Mr Spicer was referring to her ability to ask him questions openly and publicly.

“Don’t tell me what he probably meant,” she told the Daily Mail.

“He could’ve said, ‘Such a great country that allows dissent,’ – there’s a lot of ways that could’ve been said.”

Fascism isn’t a viewpoint to be tolerated Andrew. 长沙桑拿,长沙SPA,/pDfRdJhzSE

— Shree ✊🏾❤️🇺🇸 (@shreec) March 13, 2017

In the video, Ms Chuahan continued to confront Mr Spicer as he was leaving the store.

 “You know you work for a fascist, right? You work for a fascist – How do you feel about that? How do you feel about destroying our country?” she said.

“Do you feel good about the decisions you’re making. About lying to the American people? Do you feel good about lying to the American people?”

While Mr Spicer didn’t respond at the time, he later said he was open to anyone asking questions.

“It’s a free country,” he said in a press briefing on Monday.

“I speak with individuals all day – 99 per cent of whom are pleasant, even people who may not agree with our philosophy.”

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Ireland, Wales in World Cup seeding tussle

Going into the final round of Six Nations matches on Saturday, however, they stand on the verge of a remarkable rise into the top four.

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Wales’ 22-9 victory over Ireland in their last match gave them a significant rankings boost and the prospect of a smoother run to the World Cup knockout stages.

Another victory over France in Paris, where they have won on their last two visits, coupled with an English success over Ireland in Dublin would put the Welsh among the top seeds for the World Cup draw in Kyoto on May 10.

That would mean avoiding world champions New Zealand, Australia and England in the pool stages of the competition, with all three of those sides assured of a place in Pot 1.

Ireland will stay in their current fourth position in the rankings if they do not lose to England regardless of what happens in other matches, a significant carrot for them as they seek to end the 18-game winning run of Eddie Jones’s side.

With Wales no longer in danger of slipping out of the top eight, it is France and Scotland who now face that prospect.

It was a fate that befell Wales before the 2015 World Cup, in which they ended up in a pool with Australia and England.

The loss of one of the game’s major powers in the opening round, in that case tournament hosts England, was a blow to the image of the sport.

France would need to lose by more than 15 points in Paris to slip below ninth-placed Argentina, which is the same scenario for Scotland against Italy at Murrayfield.

If both lose by more than 15 points it is the Scots who would be the lower ranked side.

(Reporting by Nick Said, editing by Ed Osmond)

Record number of Syrian kids killed: UN

A record number of children were killed in Syria last year, more than a third of them in or near a school, the UN children’s agency says ahead of the sixth anniversary of the war.

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More than 850 children were also recruited to fight – more than double the number in 2015 – with some used as executioners and suicide bombers, UNICEF said on Monday.

“The depth of suffering is unprecedented. Millions of children in Syria come under attack on a daily basis,” the agency’s regional director Geert Cappelaere said in a statement from Homs in Syria.

“Each and every child is scarred for life with horrific consequences on their health, well-being and future.”

At least 652 children were killed last year, up by 20 per cent from 2015, the agency said.

The figures – collected since 2014 – only represent formally verified casualties, meaning the true toll could be higher.

UNICEF also said there were at least 338 attacks against hospitals and medical personnel last year.

Half of Syria’s pre-war population has been uprooted in the conflict whose six-year anniversary falls on March 15.

Around 6.5 million people are displaced within Syria and nearly 5 million have sought shelter in neighbouring countries where conditions are getting increasingly desperate.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said nearly one million were trapped in besieged areas inside Syria with almost no aid.

It said siege and starvation continued to be used as weapons of war and called for an immediate end to all obstacles preventing civilians accessing aid.

UNICEF said many children were also dying from preventable diseases with the fighting making it difficult to access medical care and lifesaving supplies.

The agency added that Syrian families across the region were taking extreme measures to survive, often forcing children out of the classroom and into early marriage and child labour.

Ash Barty upsets Bouchard at Miami Open

Australian tennis comeback star Ashleigh Barty has stretched her winning streak to eight matches by beating former top-five player Eugenie Bouchard at the Miami Open.

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The Australian wildcard prevailed 6-4 5-7 6-3 on centre court, continuing the rich form that earned her a first WTA Tour title at the Malaysian Open and setting up a first-ever clash with countrywoman Sam Stosur in the second round.

“I love Miami,” said Barty. “It’s the first time I’ve played singles here, so it’s really exciting for me. It’s certainly nice to play on a beautiful centre court like this.”

Barty, 20, was off the tour for about 18 months, including a stint playing cricket but has come back better than ever and is ranked a career-high 91st after triumph in Kuala Lumpur.

Her match up against 23-year-old Canadian Bouchard, ranked 56, was a battle of past junior Wimbledon champions.

Bouchard reached No. 5 in 2014, the year she was the runner-up at Wimbledon and reached the semi-finals at two other grand slam tournaments.

But her recent form has gone in the opposite direction to Barty’s and she exited in the first round for a fourth straight tournament.

“I think I was able to be very aggressive on returns and use my forehand,” said Barty.

“It came with a few errors as well but I knew I needed to be aggressive to give myself a chance and I think I did that today.

She was looking forward to a clash with former US Open champion Stosur, who has slipped to No.91 in the world following patchy poor form this year.

“It’ll be nice to play Sam. We’ve practiced a lot together in the past but never played against each other.

“It’s very similar – I’m going to have to be very aggressive off returns and try and take her serve away from her, then I think it might be a little bit of a battle of the forehands from us.”