Climbers missing on ‘Killer Mountain’

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FILE - In this undated file photo, the snow-capped mountain of Nanga Parbat is seen in northern Pakistan. A Pakistani mountaineering official says military helicopters could not drop off four Spanish rescuers to search for a missing pair of European climbers because of heavy snowing. (AP Photo/Musaf Zaman Kazmi, File)

FILE - In this undated file photo, the snow-capped mountain of Nanga Parbat is seen in northern Pakistan. A Pakistani mountaineering official says military helicopters could not drop off four Spanish rescuers to search for a missing pair of European climbers because of heavy snowing. (AP Photo/Musaf Zaman Kazmi, File)

Pakistani military helicopters search for missing climbers


Associated Press

Monday, March 4

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani army aviation helicopters which took off Monday with four Spanish rescuers onboard found no trace yet of a missing pair of European climbers on Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth highest mountain, official said.

Italian Daniele Nardi and Briton Tom Ballard, whose mother died on K2 in 1995, have been missing for a week on the summit known as “Killer Mountain.”

Bad weather had foiled search plans on Sunday but as the skies cleared on Monday, two military helicopters took off from the northern town of Skardu with four Spanish rescuers onboard.

Karrar Haidri, secretary of the Alpine Club of Pakistan, said Spaniard Alex Txikon and his three colleagues, including a physician, would try and help find the missing climbers.

They joined Pakistani mountaineer Ali Sadpara who is already at base camp waiting for the search to begin, Haidri said, adding that he hopes the improved weather allowed the team to undertake the search during the day.

“Unfortunately, no sign of climbers or a camp site was found during the aerial reconnaissance,” Haidri said.

Earlier, Haideri had told The Associated Press, “It’s very difficult to survive in that condition” and that “It’s a big challenge for (a) mountaineer to climb in winter.”

Rescuers also plan to use a drone in their search efforts amid the harsh winter weather, Haidri said.

Italian Ambassador Stefano Pontecorvo, who has been following the search, tweeted on Monday that the army helicopters took off from Skardu to drop Txikon and the rescue team at Camp-1 on Nanga Parbat.

Pontecorvo told The Associated Press that the climbers are “two tough guys” and he hopes they can be found alive.

Citing past examples of missing climbers found alive, the Italian diplomat said, “It’s been a week, there are known cases of mountaineers who had survived for a longer than that.” But he also acknowledged that the summit is a “very difficult” one.

He added that two Pakistani mountaineers were with the missing pair but at certain point decided to turn back because they thought it was too dangerous. He also thanked Pakistani authorities and the military for their search efforts.

Later Monday, Haidri said aerial reconnaissance with Txikon on board searched the area for about an hour. He was accompanied by Rehmat Baig, who was with Nardi and Ballard during the initial phase of their expedition.

Despite being dubbed “Killer Mountain” because of its dangerous conditions, the summit of Nanga Parbat has long drawn thrill-seeking climbers. Located in Pakistan’s Gilgit Baltistan area, it is the ninth highest mountain in the world with height of 8,126 meters (26,660 feet).

Nardi and Ballard set out on the climb on Feb. 22, making it to the fourth base camp by the following day. The pair last made contact on Feb. 24 from around an elevation of some 6,300 meters (nearly 20,700 feet) on Nanga Parbat.

Pakistan dispatched search helicopters last week despite the closure of its airspace amid tensions with neighboring India over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir but didn’t manage to find the climbers.

Sadpara, who joined the search team, saw a snow-covered tent of the climbers on Thursday. Nardi’s team had said in a Facebook post that traces of an avalanche were evident in the area.

Nardi, 42, from near Rome, has attempted the Nanga Parbat summit in winter several times in the past. Ballard, 30, is the son of British climber Alison Hargreaves, the first woman to scale Mount Everest alone. She died at age 33 while descending the summit of K2. Ballard in 2015 became the first person ever to solo climb all six major north faces of the Alps in one winter.

Pakistan-India train service resumes as border tensions ease


Associated Press

LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — A key train service with neighboring India resumed and schools in Pakistani Kashmir opened Monday in another sign of easing tensions between the two nuclear-armed rivals since a major escalation last week over the disputed Kashmir region.

Pakistan Railways spokesman Ejaz Shah said the train service, known as the Samjhauta Express, left the eastern city of Lahore for India’s border town of Atari, with some 180 passengers on board.

Pakistan suspended the train service last week as tensions escalated following India’s airstrike on Tuesday inside Pakistan. India said it targeted militants behind a Feb. 14 suicide bombing in Indian-controlled Kashmir that killed 40 Indian troops.

Pakistan retaliated, shooting down a fighter jet the next day and detaining its pilot, who was returned to India two days later.

Also Monday, schools in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir opened after seven days of closure amid the heightened tensions.

Raja Jaleel, head teacher at a secondary school in Chakothi, which is close to the Line of Control border in the disputed region, said classes resumed but attendance was thin.

He lauded the courage of the students who attended, as many of the area’s parents are keeping their children home for their safety.

“We have started our day with prayers for peace,” said the head teacher, adding that the students also chanted slogans in support of the army.

Schools were closed when Indian and Pakistani troops were trading fire across the Line of Control. At least eight civilians and two soldiers have been killed in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir since tensions soared following India’s airstrike last Tuesday.

The reopening of schools on the Pakistani side of Kashmir and the resumption of the train service amid the lull in the crossfire for the second consecutive day suggests that the two nuclear-armed rivals have heeded international calls to exercise restraint. But Pakistan hasn’t yet opened its airspace for flights to or from the east.

Senior civil aviation official Aamir Mahboob said that there was “no change yet in our aviation policy toward east but the west corridor is open for all flights.”

After the suicide bombing on Feb 14 in the Pulwama district of Indian-controlled Kashmir, Indian jets crossed into Pakistani Kashmir and then into the Balakot section of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where they dropped bombs. India claimed its jets struck the militants behind the Pulwama attack. Pakistan denied that any such militant base existed in the area or that was hit by jets. Next day Pakistan shot down two Indian jets and detained a pilot who landed on the Pakistani side. He was handed back to India in a gesture of peace two days later.

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since their independence from British rule in 1947. Both countries claim the territory in its entirety and have fought two of their three wars over it. The rivals struck a cease-fire deal in 2003 but regularly trade cross-border fire.

Mughal reported from Muzaffarabad, Pakistan. Associated Press writer Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.

Xi firmly in charge as China turns to legislative season


Associated Press

Monday, March 4

BEIJING (AP) — A year since effectively making himself China’s leader for life, Xi Jinping appears firmly in charge, despite a slowing economy, a trade war with the United States and rumbles of discontent over his concentration of power.

As China’s president and head of the ruling Communist Party, Xi wields more authority than any leader since Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s and looms large over the annual legislative session that starts Tuesday.

Since assuming the party helm in 2012, Xi has eliminated rival factions, gutted civil society and brought the party under his firm control by way of a sprawling anti-corruption campaign and the opening of party committees in private businesses and foreign companies.

Still, with the economy’s go-go years firmly in the past and local governments mired in debt, the horizon remains littered with challenges.

“Global sources of turmoil and risks have increased and the external environment is complicated and grim,” Xi told officials in a speech last month.

This year’s legislative session is expected to be considerably less dramatic than last year’s, when Xi’s move to amend the constitution to remove term limits on the presidency opened the way for him to remain head of state for as long as he wants.

The move reversed a trend toward greater restraint on the leadership, advertising Xi’s willingness to upend what tenuous rules and structures the party had institutionalized in recent decades.

Chief among them is the tradition that, by his second five-year term, the leader should begin pointing to a likely successor. Xi has made no moves in this area while arrogating to himself ever-greater authority over government, from the economy to foreign policy and the military. As party general secretary, Xi is head of its all-powerful seven-member Politburo Standing Committee.

“To my mind, the most important question now is: Which norm is the next to fall?” Carl Minzner, a professor at Fordham Law School in New York City and author of a recent book on Chinese politics, said in an email.

For now, though, more immediate concerns predominate.

At a wide-ranging news conference Monday, congress spokesman Zhang Yesui reiterated Beijing’s desire to find a mutually acceptable resolution to the tariff dispute with the U.S. and touted the advantages of a draft law that he said would mark a “fundamental change” in how China manages foreign investment.

While the foreign investment law is the only item on the congress’ agenda, Zhang said its standing committee would be taking on new legislation in the areas of drug regulation, veterans’ affairs and protection of the Yangtze River, China’s most important internal waterway.

The standing committee meets every two months to deal with the bulk of the congress’ legislative chores.

As with last year, Zhang declined to disclose the planned increase in China’s defense budget, the world’s largest behind the U.S., but appeared to indicate it would continue the trend of single-digit percentage growth in place since 2016.

“When it comes to whether a country poses a military threat to other countries, the key is that country’s military and foreign policies, not how much its defense budget increases,” Zhang said.

“China’s limited defense spending is for safeguarding the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of the country. It is not a threat to other countries,” he said.

China’s armed forces have undergone a thorough expansion and modernization program in recent years, raising concerns in Washington and among its neighbors, particularly those sharing overlapping territorial claims in the strategically vital South China Sea. China also claims ownership of East China Sea islands controlled by traditional rival Japan and threatens to attack self-governing Taiwan to take control of what it regards as a breakaway Chinese territory.

Xi has cast himself as an ardent nationalist and foreign policy hawk, protecting himself from accusations of being too soft toward the West.

Yet while he appears solidly in control, University of Oxford China specialist Patricia Thornton says discontent lies under the surface, citing criticism over the removal of term limits and Xi’s heavy-handed management of foreign policy and trade, along with reports showing an erosion of confidence in the economic outlook.

“There have been signs of discontent brewing among political and socioeconomics elites that could translate into some backpedaling on current central policies,” Thornton said.

Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution says Xi finds himself in a “delicate situation” and may make a show of including others in the decision-making process, as long as his leadership isn’t challenged.

“He will not change the way he is already above the Standing Committee,” Li said. “But in some of the other things, Xi may give other leaders more chance.”

Independent commentator and veteran observer of Chinese politics Zhang Lifan questions whether Xi may have overplayed his hand, leaving him open to more direct criticism.

“Xi’s power peaked at the time of the constitutional revision last year, but the centralization of power may not be as complete as he thinks,” Zhang said.

“As more and more problems crop up, questions about his governing ability held in private will be placed on the table,” he said.

As with every year, this week’s meetings have brought a sweeping security crackdown, with neighborhood committees mobilized to patrol for trouble and construction work suspended to avoid accidents. Known government critics were confined to their homes or taken on what are euphemistically called “holiday trips” by the security forces to ensure they couldn’t be contacted.

Such concerns may be heightened because this year marks several sensitive historical dates, including the 70th anniversary on Oct. 1 of the founding of the People’s Republic and the 60th anniversary this month of an uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet.

June will see the 30th anniversary of the military’s crushing of the 1989 pro-democracy protests centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and the 10th anniversary of deadly anti-Chinese riots in Xinjiang that has led to the interment over the past two years of an estimated 1 million members of Muslim minority groups.

Colleges’ program with China comes under Senate’s crosshairs

A bipartisan report from Congress is urging U.S. colleges and universities to sever ties with the Confucius Institute, a program that allows the Chinese government to help teach language classes on American campuses but that, according to critics, poses a threat to national security and academic freedom.

The report, released Wednesday, found that federal agencies have failed to monitor the program and the $158 million it has sent to the United States since 2006. The panel says the program should “not continue in the United States” unless Chinese officials provide full transparency and offer the U.S. equal opportunities for cultural outreach in China.

“We learned that schools in the United States — from kindergarten to college — have provided a level of access to the Chinese government that the Chinese government has refused to provide to the United States,” said Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who leads the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

More than 100 U.S. colleges host Confucius Institutes through partnerships with Hanban, an affiliate of China’s Ministry of Education. Hanban provides teachers and directors from China, along with textbooks and startup funding of $100,000 to $200,000. Schools have to sign a contract with Hanban and agree to split the cost.

The investigation by Portman’s panel found that the deals give Chinese authorities too much control over programs on U.S. soil.

Many colleges told investigators they don’t know how Hanban selects its teachers or if its process aligns with campus hiring policies. Teachers sent by Hanban sign contracts saying they will “safeguard national interests” for China. As a result, the Senate found, the program often depicts China as “approachable and compassionate” while leaving out critical views of the country.

The report adds to mounting scrutiny of a program that has been dogged by criticism for years. Professors have said China’s control of the program encourages schools to avoid events or speakers that might be seen as controversial by China.

The Confucius Institute U.S. Center did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

At least 10 schools have announced plans to close Confucius Institutes since the start of 2018, including the University of Michigan, Texas A&M University and the University of Minnesota.

Last April, the Texas A&M University system closed its Confucius Institutes at the request of two Texas congressmen who called the program a threat to national security. The system’s chancellor, John Sharp, said at the time he didn’t question the lawmakers’ judgment.

The University of Rhode Island closed its institute in January to preserve federal funding for its Chinese language program after a 2018 national defense bill explicitly barred schools from using Defense Department money on Chinese language programs if the school hosts Confucius Institutes.

The Senate panel acknowledged that there are mixed views on the institutes. While some school officials told investigators they had concerns about China’s influence, others reported no concerns about academic freedom or undue control.

The congressional report called for increased oversight of the program.

At the State Department, officials have been ramping up oversight, the report found. Last year, the U.S. revoked 32 visas for Chinese nationals who said they were coming for research but were found to be teaching at Confucius Institutes. This year the department plans to take a close look at more campuses.

At the same time, the report found that the State Department doesn’t collect information on Confucius Institute employees and doesn’t know how many are in the U.S. The Education Department tells schools to report foreign gifts of more than $250,000, but the Senate found that 70 percent that received that amount from Hanban didn’t properly report it, and the agency didn’t catch it.

Through its own investigation, the Senate found that Hanban has sent more than $158 million to more than 100 U.S. schools since 2006.

Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the investigations panel, said that while there’s no evidence of illegal activity, U.S. officials must “have our eyes wide open about the presence of these institutes in our schools and around young, impressionable students,” especially since the program is tied to “a much different worldview than ours.”

In response to the early success of the Confucius Institutes, the State Department launched its own American Cultural Center program in 2010, paying more than $5 million to set up 29 outposts at Chinese universities. But China has routinely interfered with the program and its activities, the Senate found.

But the program was ended in October 2018 after the State Department’s internal watchdog found that it was ineffective, the report revealed.

The panel encouraged colleges to continue partnering with Chinese universities in other ways. “Partnering with foreign universities offers students unique international learning experiences and enhances research opportunities,” it said. “U.S. schools, however, should never, under any circumstances, compromise academic freedom.”

(Colleges’ program with China comes under Senate’s crosshairs. Associated Press. February 27, 2019.)

China accuses detained Canadians of stealing state secrets


Associated Press

TORONTO (AP) — China accused two detained Canadians on Monday of acting together to steal state secrets, just days after Canada announced it will proceed with a U.S. extradition request for a senior Chinese tech executive.

China arrested the two Canadians on Dec. 10 in what was widely seen as an attempt to pressure Canada to release Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies, who was arrested in Vancouver on Dec. 1 at the request of U.S. authorities.

Meng’s arrest set off a diplomatic furor and has severely strained Canadian relations with China.

The U.S. is seeking the extradiction of Meng, who is also the daughter of Huawei’s founder, to face charges she misled banks about the company’s business with Iran.

China’s official Xinhua News Agency cited unidentified Chinese authorities as saying former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig violated Chinese laws by acting as a spy and stealing state secrets and intelligence with the help of Canadian businessman Michael Spavor. It was the first time the two men’s cases have been linked.

It said Kovrig often entered China using an ordinary passport and business visas, and acquired information from Spavor, his “main contact.”

“Authorities stressed that China is a country ruled by law and will firmly crack down on criminal acts that severely undermine national security,” Xinhua said.

The same information was posted on the official news blog of the ruling Communist Party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission.

No other details were given and Xinhua said further judicial proceedings would “take place based on the case’s progress.”

“We are obviously very concerned by this position that China has taken,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said. “It is unfortunate that China continues to move forward on these arbitrary detentions.”

Kovrig is a former diplomat who was working as an expert on Asia for the International Crisis Group think tank. Spavor is an entrepreneur known for contacts with high-ranking North Korean officials, including leader Kim Jong Un.

“We are aware of the Xinhua report of 4 March but have heard nothing official about any charges being laid against our colleague, Michael Kovrig,” said Hugh Pope, a spokesman for the International Crisis Group.

“Michael’s work for Crisis Group has been entirely transparent and in the open as all who follow his work can attest. Vague and unsubstantiated accusations against him are unwarranted and unfair.”

After Meng’s arrest, a Chinese court also sentenced a Canadian to death in a sudden retrial, overturning a 15-year prison term handed down earlier. Kovrig and Spavor haven’t had access to a lawyer or to their families since being arrested.

Canada said Friday that it will allow court hearings for the U.S. extradition request for Meng to proceed.

David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said the new allegations against Kovrig and Spavor are a response to that action.

“Every step in the process will be matched by a step by China. The desire is to raise the raise the pressure to extent that we simply give in,” Mulroney said.

Meng is due in court on Wednesday to set a date for the extradition proceedings to start. It could be several months or even years before her case is resolved

Guy Saint-Jacques, also a former Canadian ambassador to China, said Beijing is clearly putting additional pressure on Canada.

“It’s a predicable escalation in the crisis,” he said. “They are probably hoping it will convince the prime minister to free Meng.”

Lawyers for Meng, who is staying at a property she owns in Vancouver after her release on bail, said Sunday she is suing the Canadian government, its border agency and the national police force, alleging she was detained, searched and interrogated before she was told she was under arrest.

Meng’s lawsuit alleges that instead of immediately arresting her, they interrogated her “under the guise of a routine customs” examination and used the opportunity to “compel her to provide evidence and information.”

Also Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang accused Canada and the U.S. of abusing their bilateral extradition treaty. He reiterated Beijing’s demand that Washington withdraw its accusations against Meng.

The U.S. has been lobbying its allies to shun Huawei’s products on national security grounds, saying Chinese law requires the company to provide the government with intelligence on its foreign clients whenever requested.

A Chinese government spokesman took issue Monday with the U.S. claims that Huawei poses a threat to other countries’ information security.

Spokesman Zhang Yesui said U.S. officials were taking China’s national security law out of context and “playing up the so-called security risks” associated with Chinese companies.

The 2017 law borrows from other countries’ experiences and is designed explicitly to “protect human rights and the lawful rights of individuals and organizations,” he said.

“This kind of behavior is interference into economic activities by political means and is against World Trade Organization rules. It disrupts an international market order that is built on fair competition,” Zhang told reporters. “This is a typical case of double standards that is neither fair nor ethical.”

Christopher Bodeen contributed to this report from Beijing.

FILE – In this undated file photo, the snow-capped mountain of Nanga Parbat is seen in northern Pakistan. A Pakistani mountaineering official says military helicopters could not drop off four Spanish rescuers to search for a missing pair of European climbers because of heavy snowing. (AP Photo/Musaf Zaman Kazmi, File) – In this undated file photo, the snow-capped mountain of Nanga Parbat is seen in northern Pakistan. A Pakistani mountaineering official says military helicopters could not drop off four Spanish rescuers to search for a missing pair of European climbers because of heavy snowing. (AP Photo/Musaf Zaman Kazmi, File)
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