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China's brazen landing of nuclear-capable bombers on an island in the disputed South China Sea is a bold power play to bolster its territorial claims while rivals are divided and the US distracted by North Korea, analysts say.

China attracted diplomatic protests after long-range H-6K bombers carried out landing and takeoff drills at an unidentified island airstrip on Friday.

But Beijing has long brushed aside such condemnation, denying that it was militarising the region even though it has installed an array of airstrips, radar systems and naval facilities on a string of islands it has reclaimed in contested areas since 2013.

The planes are believed to have landed on Woody Island, China's largest base in the Paracel Islands which is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, according to Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

An H-6K long-range strategic bomber deployed to Woody Island could reach almost the entire South China Sea and many countries surrounding it, according to a CSIS analysis.

The steady buildup of military assets in the waterway -- believed to have significant oil and natural gas deposits -- allows China to "influence its weaker neighbours in peacetime", Glaser said.

"Through the use of a large number of law enforcement ships, for example, it can pressure Vietnam and the Philippines not to unilaterally extract energy in waters that China claims jurisdictional rights," she said.

"In wartime, China's military assets on these islands will increase the risk to the US of intervening militarily."

Earlier this month China deployed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles on the disputed Spratly Islands off the Philippine coast, CNBC reported, citing sources close to US intelligence.

Beijing claims virtually all the South China Sea and has ignored partial counter-claims from the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.

The Pentagon condemned Friday's bomber drills as a sign of "continued militarisation" of disputed islands while Vietnam said the move violated its sovereignty and raised tensions in the region.

The Philippines, which has largely backed off from the sea dispute under China-friendly President Rodrigo Duterte, said it was taking "appropriate diplomatic action".

- 'Largely symbolic' -

Despite the rhetoric, experts say little has been done to prevent China from solidifying its vast maritime claims.

Beijing has managed to weaken regional resistance by courting some members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

While US warships have conducted "freedom of navigation" operations near Chinese-claimed features, they have not deterred Beijing.

The bombers were deployed while US President Donald Trump is focused on preparing for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next month.

"I think there is an obvious political motivation for the timing," said Euan Graham, director of the international security programme at the Australian think tank the Lowy Institute.

"Because the US is mainly engaged in the North Korea files... there is a window of opportunity where the US reaction is likely to be restrained."

China's foreign ministry has repeated denials that the region was being militarised, saying the islands belong to Beijing and the bombers were conducting "normal training".

The latest exercises were "largely symbolic" and not a significant military development, Graham said.

To deploy from Woody Island, China would have to install logistics infrastructure to operate aircraft, refuel them, store weapons and house crews, he said.

"Just landing an aircraft doesn't make it an operational space," Graham said.

It would be more significant if and when China starts flying combat aircraft to the Spratlys, he said, because that would bring northern Australia into missile range.

- Submarine bastions -

Nearly a third of global trade passes through the South China Sea and Beijing has bigger commercial and military ambitions for this strategic sea area, said William Choong, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.

China could create an air defence identification zone to spot incursions into its claimed sovereign airspace, something it did in the East China Sea in 2013 amid a dispute over the Senkaku islands with Japan, Choong said.

Beijing could also establish a base for nuclear submarines as the deep waters around the Spratlys "provide a good hiding place", he said.

Despite the looming threat, the international community -- including India, Japan, the US and Australia -- has failed to achieve a united front against China's island-building spree, Choong said.

"Apart from the freedom of navigation missions and the strong rhetoric, the US hasn't been able to corral together a coalition of the willing, to effectively to get China to stop the militarisation of the South China Sea."

Foreign journalists headed to North Korea on Tuesday to witness the promised destruction of its nuclear test site, a move seen as a goodwill gesture before a planned summit with the United States.

Dozens of reporters from China, the United States and Russia departed on a charter flight from Beijing, according to Chinese state broadcaster CGTN which is part of the contingent. It showed the journalists board a small plane emblazoned with the North's flag.

The journalists will cover the demolition of the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site inside a mountain in the northeast of the country, which is scheduled to take place between Wednesday to Friday.

Agence France-Presse and some other major media organisations were not invited to cover the event.

The North has staged all six of its nuclear tests there beginning in 2006. The latest and by far the most powerful in September last year was said by Pyongyang to have been a hydrogen bomb.

The North previously said South Korean journalists would be allowed to attend this week's ceremony, as part of a series of ice-breaking diplomatic moves following a summit between the two country's leaders last month.

But Pyongyang refused at the last minute to accept a list of South Korean journalists. It has railed against the ongoing "Max Thunder" military aviation exercise involving the United States and South Korea, calling it "an act of provocation."

Pyongyang has also threatened to cancel a summit between US President Donald Trump and its own leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12, despite weeks of tentative rapprochement.

The North has accused the US of cornering it with a unilateral demand for denuclearisation.

A Tibetan who has campaigned to preserve his region's ancestral language was jailed for five years in China on Tuesday for "inciting separatism" in a case Amnesty International denounced as "beyond absurd".

Tashi Wangchuk was featured in a New York Times documentary that followed him on a trip to Beijing, where he attempted to get Chinese state media and courts to address what he describes as the diminishing use of the Tibetan language.

A court in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in the northwestern province of Qinghai sentenced him on Tuesday morning, according to his lawyer.

The court could not be reached for comment.

Tashi had been detained in his home town of Yushu without access to his family since January 2016, not long after the New York Times published its story and documentary video about his activism.

"Tashi plans to appeal. I believe he committed no crime and we do not accept the verdict," lawyer Liang Xiaojun told AFP.

Tashi had pleaded not guilty at his trial in January.

But nearly every case that goes to trial in China -- especially on sensitive state security issues -- ends with a guilty verdict.

Liang told AFP the short documentary was the main evidence used by the prosecution.

In the video, Tashi complained of a "systematic slaughter of our culture".

In the New York Times stories Tashi notably said he wants to use Chinese law to build his case and praised President Xi Jinping.

Beijing says it "peacefully liberated" Tibet in 1951 and insists it has brought development to a previously backward region.

But many Tibetans accuse it of exploiting the region's natural resources and encouraging an influx of the majority Han ethnic group which critics say is diluting the native culture and Buddhist faith.

China's constitution protects free speech but critics say in reality there is little room for any opinions that challenge government policies. Rights groups have accused Xi's government of an escalating crackdown on expression.

Amnesty International said the sentence was "a gross injustice".

"He is being cruelly punished for peacefully drawing attention to the systematic erosion of Tibetan culture. To brand peaceful activism for Tibetan language as 'inciting separatism' is beyond absurd," said Joshua Rosenzweig, its East Asia research director.

"The documentary underscores that Tashi Wangchuk was merely trying to express his opinions about education policy through entirely legitimate means," Rosenzweig said in a statement.

The video ends with Tashi discussing the many Tibetans who have self-immolated in protest at China's policies over the years, while adding what he would do if he is "locked up or they force me to say things against my will".

"I will choose suicide," he said.

A deadly virus carried by fruit bats has killed at least five people in southern India and more than 90 people are in quarantine, a top health official said Tuesday.

The death toll rose from three overnight and authorities ordered emergency measures to control the outbreak.

"We can confirm that five people have died from the Nipah virus," Kerala state health surveillance officer K.J. Reena told AFP.

Nine people have been admitted to hospital with symptoms resembling the virus, which the World Health Organisation says is fatal in 70 percent of cases, Reena added. One of the nine has tested positive for Nipah.

"We traced 94 people who had come in contact with the ones who died and they have been quarantined as a precaution," Reena added.

There is no vaccination for Nipah which has killed more than 260 people in Malaysia, Bangladesh and India in outbreaks since 1998.

The virus induces flu-like symptoms that lead to an agonising encephalitis and coma.

Media reports said 10 people had died in Kerala but officials told AFP the cause of other suspicious deaths was still being confirmed.

Three members of the same family are among the fatalities. Dead bats were found in a well of the family's house in Kozhikode district, previously known as Calicut.

Masked health workers sealed off the well with fluorescent nets.

A nursing assistant who had treated the infected persons and was among those who died has been hailed as a hero by authorities.

Lini Puthussery, a mother of two, was cremated even before her family members could bid a final goodbye because of fears the virus could spread.

In a final note she scribbled for her husband in a hospital isolation unit, Puthussery urged her husband to take care of the children.

"I don't think I will be able to see you again. Sorry. Please take care of our children," she said according to the News18 TV network.

Ten men from the same family vanished after jihadists invaded the Philippine city of Marawi a year ago -- each day since, their wives have prayed their bones do not lie in its devastated landscape.

The women have been told to accept their husbands were likely among the 1,200 killed in the five-month battle that flattened swathes of the city, but they refuse to move on until they know for sure.

"I am hoping he will come home. All of us are hoping they will return. Even if my family says I am crazy, I told them my husband will come back," Melgie Powao said of her spouse Victor.

One year after the battle, reconstruction work is due to begin and the authorities say jihadists are far from mounting another such attack.

Yet, the families of the scores still missing are the overlooked victims of the Philippines' deadliest confrontation with Islamists.

The fighting left behind hundreds of corpses, with more likely to be found in the conflict area which has yet to be completely cleared of unexploded bombs.

The Powao men -- fathers and brothers, cousins and uncles -- from neighbouring Iligan city were in Marawi for construction jobs when clashes with Islamic State-aligned fighters broke out on May 23 last year.

In the fighting that ensued, government airstrikes on Marawi and house-to-house fighting left neighbourhoods in ruins that have been compared to battlegrounds in Syria or Iraq.

Only one of the Powao group -- the eleventh man -- escaped and it was from him the wives learned that an airstrike may have killed some of them, while jihadists herded others into a van.

"Until I see their bodies, I won't believe they are dead," 31-year-old Alma Tome said of her husband Rowel and the others.

The Powaos are among 78 people officially listed as missing, though possibly hundreds more disappeared.

Some families were hesitant to file reports out of fear they could be targeted by authorities hunting for anyone with links to jihadists.

- 'Bury them and grieve' -

Many of Marawi's 200,000 residents fled their homes, including more than 10,000 people from the so-called "ground zero".

However so many explosives were left behind after the shooting stopped that even a year later thousands of residents have been allowed to visit -- but not return to -- their shattered homes.

The Powaos' ordeal began on the first day of the siege, which was the last time they heard from their men. In a shaking voice, Melgie's husband told her over the phone not to worry.

But after months of waiting the women made a search trip to Marawi. They even visited funeral homes but could not bear looking at the corpses' faces.

"We were running out of pictures as we gave them to authorities to try to get help, but we went home without any news," said Melgie, 24.

The women gave DNA samples to police in October to check against recovered corpses, but have heard nothing yet.

Allan Tabell, who heads the group identifying the remains, told AFP that authorities are doing their best.

"We're not expecting it to be done overnight. It's a long process but we have to respect that it's a process... we cannot afford any mistakes," he said.

The testing will go on as the rebuilding of the city creaks into action. Philippine authorities estimate it will cost $987 million to put Marawi right again. The work is expected to start in June.

Four Chinese companies and one Malaysian firm put in bids to handle the project that will involve the huge task of carting away hundreds of tonnes of debris, and which is expected to take years.

In the meantime the Powao women will continue to seek answers, struggling with the gaping absence in their lives.

Alma, with her two-year-old son in her arms, said the boy sometimes picks up her ringing phone thinking his dad is on the other end. He calls out "papa" when a car stops in front of their house.

"The pain is double," said Alma, who also has a one-year-old toddler.

Melgie says the Powao women don't need aid, just answers.

"All we want is to see the DNA results. Even if they are just bones, at least we can bury them properly and grieve," she said.

A decades-old abortion ban that activists say endangers women -- even if it is only sporadically enforced -- will be challenged in South Korea's supreme court this week.

Along with Ireland, which holds a referendum on reforming strict abortion laws on Friday, South Korea is one of the few industrialised nations where the procedure is illegal except for instances of rape, incest and when the mother's health is at risk.

Women who terminate a pregnancy face a fine and a year in jail, while doctors who carry out terminations can get up to two years behind bars.

In reality, the 1953 law rarely results in prosecutions.

But there are growing calls for change as activists argue criminalisation leaves women vulnerable to unsafe procedures and the changing whims of politicians as well as blackmail from their partners.

"It's anachronistic," Kim Dong-sik, a researcher at the state-run Korean Women's Development Institute, told AFP. "We are still stuck in 1953."

Calls to repeal the law have gained traction in recent years with more than 230,000 people signing a petition to legalise abortion last year.

On Thursday the Constitutional Court is due to review a challenge from a doctor who was prosecuted for performing nearly 70 abortions.

But opposition is staunch in a country that remains conservative towards female sexuality and highly influenced by evangelical Christianity.

Historically, enforcement of the law has been patchy as South Korea morphed from an impoverished nation to one of Asia's wealthiest economies.

"The country has a history of tacitly encouraging abortion and contraception when it needs to reduce population, and when low birthrate became an issue, it clamped down on abortion," said Jay Kim, from the non-profit advocacy group Womenlink.

In the 1960s when South Korea was poorer, Kim said, abortion buses roamed the streets as authorities fretted about overpopulation and pushed a semi-official "one child per family" policy.

- Underground doctors -

The court hearing on Thursday comes a day before Ireland holds a referendum on whether to repeal its even more restrictive abortion ban that forces women to head overseas to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

In contrast, abortions are commonplace and obtainable in South Korea.

A survey conducted by the Korean Women's Development Institute last month found one in five women who have been pregnant have had an abortion. Only one percent said they had a legal reason to terminate the pregnancy.

In these instances, women need "proof" that they were raped, or -- in the case of their health being at risk -- need permission from their partner. The procedure must be carried out within the first six months of the pregnancy.

The ban also increases health risks, with women forced to seek surgery from underground physicians and unable to claim reimbursement on their health insurance.

"They have to sign a contract saying they won't hold the doctor responsible for any legal matters or complications," explained Yoon Jung-won, an obstetrician at Green Hospital in Seoul.

The law also means the vast majority of terminations are carried out surgically, Yoon added, at a cost of around $5,550, despite the availability of less invasive options.

"It's been 30 years since abortion pills were invented but they have yet to be introduced (here)," she said.

Many women also live in fear they might be reported to the authorities by their partners after break-ups.

- Religious opposition -

South Koreans are deeply divided over the issue, with religious groups leading the charge against overturning the ban.

A group of university professors -- mostly devout Catholics -- filed a petition last month demanding the ban remain in place.

"There is nothing in the world that comes before the life of a human being," they said.

South Korea is home to multiple megachurches, many of them evangelical and deeply influenced by anti-abortion campaigns in the United States.

In 2012, the Constitutional Court dismissed a case challenging the law.

The judges were split and for a law to be determined unconstitutional, it needs a majority of six justices on the nine-member bench.

But activists who favour changing the law know they now have a rare opportunity.

The court, now under a more liberal government, boasts a string of new justices while several judges -- including its chief justice -- have publicly shown a willingness to reconsider the law.

Even if the bid fails, rights activists say there are steps the government can take to ease the burden on women who fall pregnant.

Lawyer Lee Han-bon says authorities could start by raising the welfare single mothers receive.

"It's unfair to legally punish women for making the hard choice of terminating her pregnancy when not a penny is provided for single mothers," he said.

Many Kurds in Syria may dream of self-rule, but for business owners in the semi-autonomous region in the country's north, it now comes with a painful pinch: double taxes.

For several months, traders in the self-proclaimed "federal region" in northern Syria have had to pay dues to both Kurdish authorities and the central government in Damascus.

"We don't even know who we're paying anymore," said Afasta, a 29-year-old pharmacist wearing a black face veil who did not give her second name.

"We used to make a 50 percent profit, but it's changed since we started paying two sets of taxes," she said, as she handed medicine to a client in her pharmacy in the Kurdish-majority town of Qamishli.

Syria's conflict broke out in 2011 and, in an effort to appease the country's Kurds, government troops withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas the following year.

Autonomous administrations were established there that steadily built up their own institutions: schools, police forces, and hospitals.

The central government maintained a limited security presence in two areas, Qamishli and the provincial capital of Hasakeh further south, but it continued to levy taxes.

Business owners were paying between 17,000 and 25,000 Syrian pounds yearly to the Damascus regime, which amounts to a range of about $40 to $60.

But late last year, the autonomous Kurdish administration also piled on its own progressive tax scale for businesses in their area of control.

- Follow the money -

"This double taxation is weighing heavily on us, especially since our profits were already slim and with economic activity at a low," said Nabil Adam, 34, who sells women's clothes in Qamishli.

The taxes are calculated according to a gradual profit scale with 13 different categories.

Businesses making under 1.2 million Syrian pounds (around $2,760) a year pay a symbolic 1,000 pounds (about $2).

Those bringing in a gross profit of between five and seven million pounds, or between $11,500 and $16,100, are taxed at seven percent.

The highest rate -- 24 percent -- is for operations making a gross profit of more than 100 million pounds, or about $230,000 annually.

Since it was introduced in October and until April, the tax has already brought in 349 million Syrian pounds or around $800,000, said Khaled Mahmud, who co-manages the autonomous region's financial affairs.

"The autonomous administration wants to improve its service provision, so it needs more revenues for the budget," he told AFP.

With more resources, local authorities would be able to develop the quality of basic services like electricity and water, create jobs, and even provide healthcare, said Mahmud.

But Fayyez Abbas, 35, has been unimpressed by service provision and said he found little incentive to pay more.

"Water, electricity, healthcare, basic services like education -- we don't have any of it," said Abbas, who peddles beauty products in Qamishli's covered market.

"We would be prepared to pay even more -- if the services were actually provided," he added.

"We have a right to know where the money goes."

- Costly complaints -

Syria's Kurds control around a fourth of the country, but large parts of that land borders Turkey to the north, which has sealed off the border.

There is little trade with the rival Syrian rebels who are present to the west or with regime forces to the south.

The economy in northern Syria has always been rooted in agriculture, and Kurds have recently begun extracting and refining crude oil.

Even local officials have criticised the hurried implementation of the new tax, which was originally meant to be introduced in 2019.

"The financial authority has rushed to implement the taxes to try to cover the cost of it twice increasing public salaries," said Dalbrin Mohammad, a member of the Kurdish legislative council.

"The level of economic activity and people's financial situations simply don't allow for its implementation," said Mohammad.

But even lodging a formal complaint with Kurdish authorities has a price tag: precisely 5,000 Syrian pounds or $12, in fact.

"We've been forced to pay a lot of taxes this year," said Rifaat Mohammad, who owns a shoe store in Qamishli.

"They said I have to pay 39,000 pounds ($90), but it should be much less than that since we have lots of discounts and losses," he said.

"I don't know how they calculate these taxes. They don't appreciate the situation we're in."

Kidnappings are proliferating in Cameroon's violence-torn English-speaking region, where officials, foreigners and locals alike are finding themselves targeted for abduction.

Since anglophone separatists declared independence last October, dozens of people have gone missing -- on average, a fresh case is reported by the local media every week.

"At least 50 people have keen kidnapped," Felix Agbor Ngonkho, of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, told AFP. Many more abductions are probably not even been reported, he added.

"It has become impossible for a Cameroonian car carrying foreigners or bearing the licence plate of a French-speaking region to travel through the English-speaking regions without being attacked by armed men emerging from the forest," a human rights activist said.

Kidnappings, say commentators, have been adopted as a tool for separatists to enforce discipline in anti-government protests and instil fear among French-speaking officials, almost regardless of rank.

"The separatists have a guerrilla mentality that involves control of the region and the population," said Hans De Marie Heungoup, Central Africa analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank.

"The kidnappings are part of this logic, a tool to enforce allegiance to those who haven't taken up the separatist cause."

The presence of a large English-speaking minority -- about a fifth of Cameroon's population of 22 million -- dates back to the colonial period.

It was once a German colony that after World War I was divided between Britain and France.

In 1960, the French colony gained independence, becoming Cameroon, and the following year, the British-ruled Southern Cameroons was amalgamated into it, becoming the Northwest and Southwest Regions.

For years, resentment built among anglophones, fostered by perceived marginalisation in education, the judiciary and the economy at the hands of the French majority.

Demands for greater autonomy were rejected by 85-year-old President Paul Biya, in power for more than 35 years, leading to an escalation that last October 1 led to the declaration of the self-described "Republic of Ambazonia".

- 'Dirty war' -

Clashes are now an everyday occurrence, leading to scores of fatalities among separatists and police and military alike.

But in what local people are calling a "dirty war," civilians are also suffering badly, at the hands of the security forces -- accused by the US last week of "targeted killings" and the burning and looting of villages -- and of the separatists.

In one instance, a teacher was gunned down at a school in the town of Muyuka, in the Southwest Region, when three armed men riding motorcycles fired gunshots as they sped past.

Two Tunisians working near Kumba in the Southwest were abducted in late March. One of them was later killed.

The following month a group of Western tourists were briefly kidnapped in the same region.

Separatist fighters have torched numerous school buildings and early this month kidnapped a priest who was headmaster of a Catholic boarding school.

The priest was seized the day after St Bede's College received a televised visit from the regional governor.

It was the first time the church had been pulled into the regional struggle.

The abducted priest was freed the following day and the Catholic church has called on all parties to avoid "a useless and unwarranted civil war".

- Favoured targets -

But officials and symbols of Yaounde's centralised power remain the favoured targets for the separatists.

Last month, the head of the appeal court in the Southwest Region was kidnapped then released a few days later.

Two local officials seized in February in the Northwest Region remain missing.

"There are kidnappings for ransom, with the separatists seeking 20,000, 30,000 francs ($35-$54) from the families. And there are others, those they keep," said a local human rights activists who didn't want to be named.

Nine employees of a construction company have been missing since December. Only the burned-out shells of the vehicles they were travelling in have been found.

"We live with the anxiety. If they have been killed, then let us know so we can mourn. If they are being held captive somewhere, then we want their captors to tell us what it will take to get them released," said Oumarou, a brother of one of the missing men.

French public sector staff will join rail workers in striking Tuesday to protest reforms proposed by President Emmanuel Macron, with the country braced for possible major disruption.

The stoppages are part of a series of demonstrations by public sector employees against Macron, who has pledged to reduce public spending, trim jobs and overhaul large parts of the vast French state.

All unions representing civil servants have backed Tuesday's strike, a rare show of unity which was last seen around 10 years ago.

Their walk-out, which will affect schools, public kindergartens, flights and some energy infrastructure, is the third stoppage since Macron's election in May 2017.

"Thanks to the civil service, all of the unions in this country will be together," said labour leader Bernadette Groison from the FSU union. "That shows how high the stakes are."

The centrist government plans public sector reforms next year which would lead to the greater use of contract workers for some state services and a cut of 120,000 jobs by 2022 out of 5.6 million.

Many civil servants fear that the government plans to scrap their special status and job-for-life privileges, a measure that has already been announced for new recruits on the state railways, the SNCF.

That move on the railways, though generally supported by the French public, has sparked one of the longest strike sequences ever on the network which began at the beginning of April.

Workers have been downing tools every two days out of five since April 3 and will begin a new round of stoppages on Tuesday which has seen high-speed services and commuter trains badly affected.

But Macron has vowed to be uncompromising and promised to deliver on his rail reform promise and cuts to France's public spending, which was part of his election manifesto.

France has one of the biggest public sectors in Europe relative to the size of its economy and the country has not balanced its budget since the 1970s, leading to a public debt equivalent to nearly 100 percent of GDP.

But unions accuse Macron, a former investment banker, of wanting to destroy public services which are a vital source of employment and a pillar of communal life in many areas of the country.

Around 130-140 demonstrations have been organised by civil servants on Tuesday with unions hoping turnout will be higher than the last day of action on March 22 when an estimated 300,000 gathered nationwide.

EU ministers Tuesday will refine a last-ditch bid to persuade US President Donald Trump to back off stiff tariffs on metals imports from Europe and win the bloc a similar break as handed China.

Europe was hit by the shock tariffs in March, part of the protectionist president's threat of an "America First" trade war with Washington's closest partners, including Canada, Mexico and Japan.

The European Union has said it refuses all trade talks with the United States unless Washington grants a permanent exemption from the painful steel and aluminium tariffs that are set to kick in on June 1.

However, trade ministers from the bloc's 28 member states will discuss a plan laid out by EU leaders for a limited EU-US trade deal as well as opening up the European market to US natural gas -- if the exemption is granted.

"The EU is ready to talk about trade liberalisation with our American friends but only if the US decides an unlimited exemption from steel and aluminium tariffs," EU President Donald Tusk told reporters after the conclusion of a summit in Sofia on Thursday.

The ministers will take encouragement from the US-China development on Sunday with Washington and Beijing backing off from tit-for-tat tariffs after reaching an as-yet specified accord on slashing the massive American trade deficit with China.

Europe's incentives come with a threat to retaliate against the US with European tariffs on American imports, including iconic items such as Harley-Davidson motorbikes and bourbon whiskey.

These counter-measures will officially become enforceable on June 20, but Europeans have committed to not use them as long as talks with the US are ongoing.

Trump announced the duties of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminium in March, but has twice accepted to suspend their effect as talks with key allies continued.

EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, who handles trade negotiations on behalf of the bloc, has held a series of talks with US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, a stalwart of Trump's hardball tactics.

"My impression is that there will be a permanent decision in one direction or another," Malmstrom told German weekly Der Spiegel.

- 'Deepen relations' -

Any attempt to negotiate a trade deal, no matter how small, requires a mandate from member states, which the ministers are expected to discuss over lunch on Tuesday.

The "limited" deal would focus in particular on cars, a strategic sector that Trump has brought sharp attention to in several tweets that specifically targeted Germany -- an auto powerhouse on its own.

US cars sold in the EU are slapped with 10 percent tariffs, while Washington imposes 25 percent duties on European pick-ups and trucks.

However, customs duties between the two blocs remain low overall, at an average of three percent.

Export powerhouse Germany is very much in favour of getting a deal while France is more reticent in the face of the US pressure tactics.

Whatever the case, EU leaders insist that there is no chance of relaunching the very unpopular TTIP talks, the major EU-US trade agreement torpedoed by Trump when he entered office last year.

At the request of the United States, Europeans are also ready to "deepen relations" in energy matters, in particular in the field of liquefied natural gas.

As a result of the shale gas boom, the US is avidly seeking new export markets and wants to compete with Russia and Norway, the EU's current main gas suppliers.

Developing LNG, which is transported by ship and is more expensive than pipelines, would require reducing existing barriers between the EU and US.

"We have an interest in diversifying our sources of supply," a European source said.

Europe has also raised the possibility of backing a drive to reform the World Trade Organization, the international trade watchdog that Trump accuses of being soft on China and harmful to US interests.

Donald Trump holds a high-stakes meeting with South Korea's president at the White House Tuesday, talks that could decide whether the US president's much-vaunted summit with the North's leader Kim Jong Un goes ahead.

Moon Jae-in jets into Washington on a mission to salvage a rare diplomatic opening between the US and North Korea that is in trouble almost before it begins.

Trump had agreed to meet inscrutable "Supreme Leader" Kim in Singapore on June 12, but the first-ever US-North Korea summit is now in serious doubt, with both sides expressing reservations.

South Korea -- worried about Kim's bellicose weapons testing and Trump's similarly bellicose warnings about a looming war -- was instrumental in convincing the two Cold War foes to sit down and talk.

Moon sent his own national security advisor to the White House in March, carrying an offer of talks and word that North Korea may be willing to abandon nuclear weapons, an enticing prospect.

Trump surprised his guests, his own aides and the world by summarily accepting the meeting, seeing an opportunity to "do a deal" and avoid military confrontation.

Pyongyang is on the verge of marrying nuclear and missile technology allowing it to hit the continental United States with a nuke, a capability Washington sees as wholly unacceptable.

Since then, there has been a landmark series of intra-Korean meetings, two trips to Pyongyang by Mike Pompeo -- first as CIA director then as America's top diplomat -- and three American citizens have been released from the North.

But after several Trumpian victory laps, North Korea's willingness to denuclearize is now in serious doubt.

Earlier this month, North Korea denounced US demands for "unilateral nuclear abandonment" and cancelled at the last minute a high-level meeting with the South in protest over joint military drills between Seoul and Washington.

Trump responded by saying the meeting may or may not take place.

"The president has said, right now it's still on. If that changes you'll find out about it," a noncommittal Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said Monday.

- 'We'll see what happens' -

But Trump also surprised many by offering Kim an upfront security guarantee, allowing him to stay in power, and suggested that Kim's apparent about-face may have been at the behest of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

"It could very well be that he's influencing Kim Jong Un," Trump said, citing a recent meeting between the pair, their second in a month's time. "We'll see what happens."

Analysts saw North Korea's perceived slow peddling as evidence of what they feared all along, that Pyongyang may have been playing for time -- hoping to ease sanctions and "maximum pressure" or of South Korea overtorquing the prospects of a deal.

"The current episode of tension reflects a wide and dangerous expectation gap between the United States and North Korea," said Eric Gomez of the CATO Institute.

"Denuclearization is not off the table for the North, but it expects the United States to end the so-called 'hostile policy' as a precondition for denuclearization."

It is far from clear what that means concretely, but it could include the forced withdrawal of 30,000 US troops from the Korean peninsula.

With just weeks to go and little clarity on what will be discussed or what happens if talks fail, some Korea watchers predict fireworks during Trump's talks with Moon.

"It increasingly looks like the Moon administration overstated North Korea's willingness to deal. Moon will probably get an earful over that," said Robert Kelly of Pusan National University.

Yonhap news agency quoted a Blue House official as saying Moon would "likely tell President Trump what to expect and what not to expect from Kim."

Music historians have long suspected that the inventors of the violin wanted to imitate the human voice, and a study out Monday shows how 16th to 18th century luthiers in Italy did it.

Researchers at National Taiwan University asked a professional violinist to play 15 antique instruments, including one from 1570 by Andrea Amati, the early 16th-century luthier from Cremony, Italy who is considered to be the father of the modern four-string violin.

Others played in the study were from the Stradivarius family, conceived by Antonio Stradivari, who improved upon Amati's design.

First, researchers recorded scales played on the 15 antique instruments played by a professional violinist and recorded at Taiwan's Chimei Museum.

Then, they recorded the voices of eight men and eight women, ranging in age from 16 to 30 years, who sang common English vowels.

Performing a thorough acoustic analysis, they found that an Amati violin dating to 1570 and a Gasparo da Salo violin dating to 1560 mimicked the basses and baritones of male singers, "raising the possibility that master violinmakers from this period may have designed violins to emulate male voices," said the report.

"In contrast, Stradivari violins were marked by elevated formants, making them relatively more similar to female voices," such as tenors and altos, the researchers added.

"These properties may explain the characteristic brilliance of Stradivari violins."

Russian television showed an interview on Monday with a woman purporting to be the mother of poisoned Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, demanding British authorities let her to speak to her son.

"I have not seen my son in 14 years. I want to meet him. I want to hold him close to me, to my heart," the woman, introduced as Elena Skripal, told broadcaster Pervyi Kanal.

"I am 90 years old. I do not pose a danger to anyone. Please, let me just make a phone call to my son," she added, shown sitting in a nightdress.

"Why don't they allow a call? Why? For what reason? After all, when he was at home we talked every week... I demand he be allowed talk to me," she said tearfully to a talk show.

Skripal is a former military intelligence officer who passed information on Russia's agents in Europe to British security services, resulting in imprisonment in his homeland.

He moved to Britain as part of a spy swap deal in 2010 and has lived there ever since.

Skripal and his daughter Yulia, visiting from Moscow, were discovered unconscious on a park bench in the southern British city of Salisbury on March 4.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons last month confirmed they had been poisoned with a toxic nerve agent.

Yulia Skripal, who spent several years living in Britain before returning to Russia, was released from hospital on April 11.

Sergei Skripal left hospital last Friday more than three months after the poisoning, which Britain blamed on Moscow.

Russia has denied responsibility, calling the accusations "unsubstantiated".

The case sparked a diplomatic crisis that saw Russia and the West expelling dozens of diplomats in tit-for-tat moves.

An influential right-wing group in Brazil has lashed out against a fact-checking campaign launched by Facebook, saying the measure amounts to censorship aimed at stifling political debate.

Facebook, which is embroiled in scandals over fake news, Russian election-tampering operations in the United States, and the hijacking of data belonging to nearly 90 million users, has ramped up its fact-checking efforts.

For example, the social media behemoth has a partnership with AFP in France and with the Associated Press in the United States, aiming to flag, though not delete, suspect news articles.

The Free Brazil Movement (MBL), a right-wing and libertarian pressure group, branded similar work in Brazil with the Lupa and Aos Fatos agencies "censorship."

"The term 'fake news' is currently applied to everything disliked by the system, whether leftist, progressive, revolutionary or politically correct," one of MBL's leaders, Arthur do Val, said in a YouTube video.

"They want to smother rights," said another MBL leader, Renan Santos.

Staff at Lupa and Aos Fatos, specialized agencies hired by Facebook last week, also say they have been threatened directly.

"Personal attacks and putting out threats is completely unacceptable," the head of Lupa, Cristina Tardaguila, told CBN radio Monday, without giving more details about the threats.

"Everywhere in the world this type of checking tool has been calmly introduced. We've heard of attacks in the Philippines but nothing like those here," she said.

Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the US-based International Fact-Checking Network, used a column in Folha de S.Paulo daily to criticize pressure against fact checkers.

"I feel great concern on becoming aware of the attacks," he wrote.

Brazil is considered a major battleground for disinformation and fake news ahead of October presidential elections in which a far-right former army officer is running strongly in polls still led by the imprisoned leftist former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Following the disputed re-election of Nicolas Maduro, the future looks bleak for Venezuela, already mired in the worst economic crisis in its history that has left dire shortages of food and medicines and led to violent protests.

Amid heightened instability, new international sanctions and escalating economic woes, here is what the immediate future could hold for the formerly wealthy oil-producing nation:

- 'Further instability' -

For Maduro, the biggest risk now is an "implosion" if government officials are cornered and pressed by the international sanctions, said analyst Luis Vicente Leon.

For now, the president can count on support from the military, but "the crisis is so severe that it could provoke either friction within the ruling civilian-military alliance or social breakdown on a much greater scale," said Phil Gunson, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

"It seems likely that the longer the government is unable or unwilling to tackle Venezuela's crisis, the more likely it is to provoke further instability, potentially even among civilian or military elites."

Analyst Diego Moya-Ocampos of London-based IHS Markit said "regime change is only possible in the unlikely event that the military, still loyal to Maduro, withdraws support given escalating protests."

For political analyst Michael Penfold the high abstention rate in the election is also evidence of "the collapse of the Chavist system... in the face of the people's discontent with Maduro."

According to the Venebarometro polling institute, 76 percent of Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro.

Meanwhile, the bitterly divided opposition has vowed to "up the pressure" on Maduro.

The first step may be to reconcile with Henri Falcon, Maduro's main rival in the election who distanced himself from the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) opposition coalition, which boycotted the "fraud" vote.

- Isolation and sanctions -

Venezuela is facing increasing international isolation, with a growing list of countries joining the United States in refusing to recognize the election result.

The 14 countries of the Lima Group, including Argentina, Brazil and Canada, said Monday they were recalling their ambassadors from Venezuela to protest what they called an illegitimate presidential election.

Several G20 countries announced on the sidelines of a meeting in Buenos Aires that they were mulling sanctions.

Hours after Maduro's victoy, President Donald Trump tightened financial sanctions against Venezuela, making it harder for the government to sell off state assets.

The financial response to the vote was accompanied with diplomatic efforts to further isolate Caracas.

London-based Capital Economics said that after Maduro's win "an escalation of US sanctions seems inevitable."

"The US State Department has already announced that it won't recognize the election result," it added. "With aggressive financial sanctions on Venezuela now in place, the obvious way to tighten the sanctions regime from here would be to impose restrictions on the oil sector."

- Escalating economic crisis -

The economic outlook is bleak for a country that is already isolated and ruined.

Venezuela is facing the worst crisis in its history: the IMF estimates its GDP will continue to shrink this year, with the inflation rate expected to reach 13,800 percent, the highest in the world. Its oil production is at its lowest level in 30 years.

"Real solutions to the economic and humanitarian crisis are unlikely to be forthcoming," said Capital Economics.

"At best, we are likely to see further cosmetic tweaks to the convoluted currency system."

And it predicted that "a full-blown debt default is only a matter of time."

For the Eurasia Group, the isolation, "along with collapsing oil production, hyperinflation, worsening scarcity and the resulting fragile social dynamics, will continue to undermine Maduro's ability to protect the privileges of key stakeholders, making it difficult for him to survive beyond next year."

The gunman accused of killing 10 people and wounding 13 at a Texas high school last week was in a state of mental confusion, his attorneys said Monday, as schools beefed up security for students returning to classrooms.

At least two of those wounded in Friday's mass shooting at Santa Fe High School were still hospitalized, including school police officer John Barnes, who remained in critical condition, said the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Dimitrios Pagourtzis, a 17-year-old student at the school, faces charges of capital murder and aggravated assault of a public servant. He is alleged to have used his father's legally owned shotgun and revolver in the rampage.

Pagourtzis's attorneys told reporters Monday that their client was "in a state."

"I think that there is definitely something going on in terms of mental health history," attorney Nicholas Poehl told NBC News.

"I still think he's very confused about the incident."

A statewide moment of silence was held in the morning to remember the eight students and two teachers killed. Mourners gathered at white wooden crosses planted in front of the school, with a victim's name and a red heart on each cross.

Recalling the attack on ABC television's "Good Morning America," student Trenton Beazely said the shooter "was playing music, making jokes, had slogans and rhymes he kept saying."

"Every time he'd kill someone he'd say, 'another one bites the dust.'"

- Tightened security -

Already frayed nerves were rattled in neighboring communities where three schools reported gun threats.

One student brought an unloaded gun to campus, while at another school a student brought a gun apparently to harm himself, and a student texted someone else asking them to bring a gun at a third school, according to local media.

All three were arrested.

Schools in Santa Fe were closed through Tuesday and a crisis hotline was set up for traumatized students and parents.

Several Texas school administrators announced new safety measures as nervous parents sent children back to school in neighboring communities.

"We will be increasing police visibility at each school through the remainder of the school year," Greg Smith, the superintendent of schools at Clear Creek, said in a letter.

Another school banned backpacks to prevent hidden weapons from slipping through, while others changed dress codes to forbid heavy clothing such as the trench coat Pagourtzis was said to be wearing to conceal his weapons.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, officially announced a series of town hall meetings to discuss schools safety. They will be held at the state capital starting Tuesday.

Texas, a conservative stronghold, has some of the most permissive firearm laws in the United States, and new gun restrictions are unlikely.

Abbott has focused on mental health issues and arming school personnel.

The Democratic mayor of Houston, while advocating for metal detectors at all schools, also called for tougher gun laws.

"There's nothing wrong with reasonable, pragmatic (gun) restrictions," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a news conference.

The compromise reached over the weekend between Washington and Beijing has reduced the threat of a trade war, but the Americans won few concessions from the Chinese side, with key disagreements far from being resolved.

Both sides said Saturday they were committed to reducing the soaring US trade deficit with China, one of President Donald Trump's central demands. To get there, China will "significantly" increase purchases of American goods and services and open its domestic markets wider.

Top White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow called the results a "big step."

"These are sort of like peace treaties in a sense," he told CNBC, adding that "the fine print, the details will come later."

Just days earlier, stock markets had been on tenterhooks at the possible approach of a trade war that could stymie global economic growth.

"It is striking that two rounds of intensive negotiations have resulted in at best a temporary truce, while the fundamental differences on trade and other economic issues remain unresolved," said Eswar Prasad, a professor of trade policy at Cornell University.

Edward Alden, a trade expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed.

"I think this is at best a very preliminary agreement," he said.

Both said President Donald Trump's administration appeared ready to declare victory because the Chinese had acknowledged the need to reduce the US goods deficit with China, which stood at more than $375 billion in 2017.

However, analysts pointed Monday to the glaring lack of details and dollar amounts.

In sum, according to Alden, Team Trump won a "vague Chinese commitment" to buy more American goods and services.

Louis Kuijs, chief Asia economist at Oxford Economics, likewise wrote in a research note that the Chinese had not succumbed to US pressure to agree to cut trade deficit by $200 billion, a demand he called "practically almost impossible."

- North Korea -

After announcing tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum in March, Trump raised the ante repeatedly in the following weeks, threatening tariffs on as much as $150 billion worth of Chinese imports.

For years, Trump has denounced the trade imbalance with China, calling it a threat to US workers and businesses. He has called on China to end allegedly unfair trade practices, in particular the forced transfer, or "theft," of technology and know-how that American companies say the can suffer as a condition of doing business in China.

Observers said that on these points Saturday's White House statement was vague and general. Kuijs of Oxford Economics pointed out that the statement made no reference to China's industrial and technology policies, which are "highly controversial in the US (and elsewhere)."

If the Trump administration gets no further than Saturday's commitments from Beijing, "then this is a huge failure of the Trump administration," said Alden, who noted the discord between reality and the tweets that Trump posted Monday morning.

"China has agreed to buy massive amounts of ADDITIONAL farm/agricultural products," the president tweeted.

Alden said it was "ridiculous and absurd" to point to possible increases in US agricultural exports to China as a major victory. This was never the problem, he said. Technologies and the direction of technological development were, he said.

Alden said the "consensus" announced Saturday should be viewed in light of the possible June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. China is Pyongyang's principal ally.

"I do think the upcoming summit is a factor. Chinese cooperation is very important to any successful outcome in North Korea," he said. "So I think there is a desire not to escalate the trade conflict in advance of this summit."

A pair of identical, sportscar-sized satellites are poised to zoom around the Earth and track changes in water and ice, offering new insights into global warming and sea level rise, NASA said Monday.

Groundwater, oceans, lakes, rivers and ice sheets will be monitored by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO), a joint mission between the US space agency and German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ).

The satellites are scheduled to blast off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Tuesday at 12:47 pm Pacific time (1947 GMT).

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will propel the satellites to an orbit about 310 miles (500 kilometers) above the Earth.

The pair will fly 137 miles (220 kilometers) apart, or about the distance from Los Angeles to San Diego.

NASA has spent $430 million on the mission, and Germany has spent about $91 million.

The new pair of satellites will pick up where the first GRACE mission left off, having completed its 15-year mission in 2017.

The first GRACE mission gave scientists a trove of data about the ever-dwindling ice mass in Antarctica and Greenland, and contributed data for thousands of scientific papers, NASA said.

"Water is critical to every aspect of life on Earth ? for health, for agriculture, for maintaining our way of living," said Michael Watkins, GRACE-FO science lead and director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"You can't manage it well until you can measure it. GRACE-FO provides a unique way to measure water in many of its phases, allowing us to manage water resources more effectively."

An Argentine court sentenced a Catholic priest to 25 years in jail on Monday for sexually abusing seven children over a period of years.

Justo Jose Ilarraz had initially been held under house arrest until the 25-year sentence was confirmed on appeal.

Ilarraz, 57, carried out the abuse at a diocesan school in the city of Parana, 600 kilometers (400 miles) north of Buenos Aires, where he was in charge of discipline and spiritual guidance.

Prosecutors said the victims, aged 13 and 14, were boarders at the seminary school and cut off from their families, whom they saw once a month.

The boys were sexually abused by Ilarraz at the seminary between 1985 and 1993, the prosecution said.

Investigators said they believe there may have been other, younger, victims of Ilarraz who chose to remain silent.

"He guided them spiritually. He interacted with the seminarians in an informal way, as a way of establishing a link with them and making the abuse possible, and also as a way of keeping it secret for many years," prosecutor Juan Francisco Ramirez told Argentina's TN television.

Ramirez said the victims had remained silent for years, but went to prosecutors in 2010 after demanding the Catholic Church stop Ilarraz from practising as a priest.

"They did it after learning that the Church had not sanctioned him," he said.

Ilarraz was removed from the seminary in 2012 after an internal Church investigation, but he was allowed to continue practising as a priest in the northern Argentine province of Tucuman.

Seven of the victims testified during the month long trial held behind closed doors.

The priest denied the allegations, calling them a conspiracy.

Little-known lawyer and academic, Giuseppe Conte is set for a dramatic debut in the cut-throat world of Italian politics, as prime minister to lead an anti-establishment, far-right coalition government.

The elegant 54-year-old hails from the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) after reportedly turning his back on the country's left.

"I used to vote left. Today, I think that the ideologies of the 20th century are no longer adequate (for 21st century politics)," Conte has been quoted as saying by Italian media.

Five star leader Luigi Di Maio said he was "very proud to present this name" as he left the presidential palace on Monday afternoon.

"He will not be a burden for the Italian people," Di Maio said.

Di Maio had initially presented Conte as part of his team of ministers ahead of the March 4 general election, putting him in charge of simplifying the country's infamous bureaucracy.

That was the general public's first and so far only encounter with the discreet lawyer, who remained invisible in the government talks that saw Five Star and the far-right League party strike a coalition deal after inconclusive elections.

Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist and president of Rome's John Cabot University who knows Conte thanks to the PM candidate's position on the institution's board of trustees, told AFP that he is "a man of integrity".

"I don't believe that he will go against his own conscience. He's not a man who's going to make himself feel uncomfortable in terms of making decisions," said Pavoncello.

- 'Possible lack of authority' -

Born in 1964 in the tiny village of Volturara Appula in the southern region of Puglia, Conte has had an impressive career in law and academia.

His CV boasts study and research positions at some of the world's most prestigious universities, including Cambridge University, the Sorbonne and New York University.

He runs a law studio in Rome, and currently teaches private law courses in Florence and at Luiss University in the capital Rome.

The lawyer is separated from his wife with whom he has a 10-year-old son.

Without calling Conte's professional and intellectual attributes into question, the Italian press has raised concerns over his credibility as premier on the international scene.

Left-wing newspaper La Repubblica branded him "a prime minster who will not count" in an editorial Monday, asking: "What authority will he have when he goes to meet Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron?"

However Pavoncello doesn't believe that Conte will be pushed around.

"I would be surprised if he would passively accept everything without putting forward his own understanding of how things should be done," he said.

Conte is faced with the daunting scenario of having to contend with bullish League party chief Matteo Salvini and M5S head Di Maio, who are tipped to hold key ministerial posts within his cabinet.

"He's in a very difficult situation because he has to deal with two groups who have formed a difficult compromise," says Pavoncello.

"What remains to be seen is whether he's going to be able to control the various political directions in which this coalition was formed."

Media reported that his WhatsApp account displays a quote attributed to former US President John F. Kennedy: "Every success begins with the willingness to try."