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Explosion near chemical plant in China kills 22

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China

Beijing | A huge explosion outside a chemical plant in China’s northern Hebei province on Wednesday killed at least 22 people and left as many others injured, the second major industrial accident in the country in the last four days.

The blast occurred outside the Hebei Shenghua Chemical Industry in Zhangjiakou, Qiaodong district around 12:40 am, igniting a fire that engulfed nearby vehicles, the officials were quoted as saying by thepaper.cn, a Shanghai-based website.

An industrial safety official, identified only as Wu, said that one of the trucks lined up outside the plant to deliver chemicals had exploded, setting off a chain reaction that engulfed other trucks.

Chinese news reports, and images from the scene, indicated that a fiery explosion near the plant had set around 50 vehicles ablaze, including dozens of trucks, and sent a dark plume of smoke into the night sky. The fire has now been contained, and a search operation is underway, authorities said. The injured have been taken to a nearby hospital. Employees at the Shenghua plant said operation has been suspended out of safety concern.

Shenghua is affiliated with China Haohua Chemical Group, a subsidiary of State-owned ChemChina, which is ranked 167th among Global Fortune 500 enterprises. Fu Jianhua, the vice-minister of emergency management, has led a team to the site to guide relief work, the report said.

Zhangjiakou, a city about 156 km northwest of Beijing, is set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics alongside the capital. Industrial safety is a major concern in China, where requirements for the storage and transport of chemicals and other dangerous products are often weakly enforced.

This is the second major industrial explosion in China in the last four days. Two people were killed and 57 injured in a warehouse explosion in northeast China’s Jilin Province on November 24. A total of 370 houses have been damaged, with 15 having collapsed.

A massive explosion in 2015 traced to improperly stored chemicals killed at least 173 people in Tianjin, about an hour east of Beijing.

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China’s top trade negotiator to visit US January 30-31

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China

Beijing | China’s top trade negotiator will travel to the United States to resume talks later this month ahead of a March deadline to avoid bruising tariff hikes, the commerce ministry said on Thursday.

Vice Premier Liu He will visit Washington on January 30-31 for the negotiations, the ministry said, following up on talks by lower-level officials in Beijing earlier this month.

US President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed to a three-month trade war truce in December, suspending US plans to increase tariffs on billions of dollars in Chinese goods to give negotiators space to find a solution.

Liu and US officials will “hold negotiations on economic and trade issues and work together to push forward and implement the consensus” reached by Xi and Trump, ministry spokesman Gao Feng told reporters.

China’s senior negotiator will travel at the invitation of US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Gao said. Without a resolution, punitive US duty rates on USD 200 billion in Chinese goods are due to rise to 25 per cent from 10 per cent on March 2.

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Indian-American Raja Krishnamoorthi 1st South Asian to serve on powerful committee on intelligence

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Raja Krishnamoorthi

Washington | Indian-American Democratic lawmaker Raja Krishnamoorthy has been appointed as a member of a Congressional committee on intelligence, becoming the first South Asian to serve in the powerful body tasked to strengthen America’s national security.

Krishnamoorthy, 45, who represents Illinois’s 8th congressional district in the House, was chosen along with Congresswoman Val Demings of Florida, Sean Patrick Maloney of New York and Peter Welch of Vermont as the four new Democratic members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) for the 116th Congress.

The HPSCI is tasked with overseeing the activities and budget of the 17 intelligence agencies of the US. Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi appointed Krishnamoorthi Wednesday.

Pelosi said, “Our new members of the Intelligence Committee bring exceptional judgment, expertise and determination to our mission to honour that oath and, guided by the strong, principled leadership of Chairman Adam Schiff, will restore the long tradition of bipartisanship and integrity of this critical committee. “We look forward to the many contributions these new members will bring to Democrats’ work to strengthen America’s national security and defend our democracy”.

Krishnamoorthi, after Pelosi announced his appointment, said: “It is very humbling to be chosen to serve on the Intelligence Committee in this Congress, and I am ready to join with my colleagues in preserving the safety and security of our nation”.

“The intelligence challenges and international threats facing our country today are vast, ranging from terrorism to cyberwarfare to investigating Russia’s previous and continuing attempts to sabotage our democracy.

“I am honoured that the Speaker and Caucus have placed their trust in me and the contributions I’ll make to the Committee. When I took the oath of office, I swore to protect and defend the Constitution from all threats, foreign and domestic, and I know that the work we do under the leadership of Chairman Adam Schiff will fulfil that solemn duty,” Krishnamoorthi said.

Born into a Tamil-speaking family in New Delhi, his family moved to Buffalo, New York when he was three months old. Krishnamoorthi attended Princeton University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He also attended Harvard Law School.

Early this week, Pelosi appointed Indian-American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal to the House Education and Labour Committee.

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US tells Taliban it must talk to Afghan government

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Aghan Taliban

Kabul | The US envoy in Afghanistan has said on Wednesday that a peaceful end to the 17-year conflict requires the Taliban to engage in direct talks with the Afghan government, which they have consistently refused.

Zalmay Khalilzad spoke to reporters in Kabul on his latest visit to the war-torn country, where he is at the centre of a flurry of diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the conflict which began with the US invasion of 2001.

“The road to peace will require Taliban to sit with other Afghans, including the government,” Khalilzad said.

“There is a consensus among all regional partners on this point,” he added, according to quotes sent to the US embassy in Kabul.

The insurgents have long refused to hold direct talks with the Kabul government, which they dismiss as a puppet of Washington.

Taliban representatives have met several times with US officials in recent months, but earlier this week threatened to suspend the fledgling peace efforts, accusing the US of changing the agenda of the talks and “unilaterally” adding new subjects.

“If the Talibs want to talk, we can talk, if they want to fight we can fight. We hope that the Talibs want to make peace,” Khalilzad said in response to the threat.

The envoy arrived in Kabul on late Tuesday, where he met with the country’s political leaders. On his third tour of the region since his appointment in September, he had previously travelled to India, the United Arab Emirates and China. He is expected next in Pakistan.

His tour comes shortly after US officials said in December that President Donald Trump intends to withdraw as many as half of the 14,000 US troops deployed in Afghanistan.

Khalilzad Wednesday said that if the Taliban choose to continue fighting, “The United States will stand with the Afghan government and the Afghan people and support them”.

He dismissed reports the US wanted to maintain military bases in the country.

“We have never said we want permanent military bases in Afghanistan,” he said.

“What we want is to see this conflict end through negotiation, and to continue our partnership with Afghanistan, and to ensure no terrorist threatens either of us.” In the long run, the US is seeking a military, diplomatic and economic relationship with Afghanistan, he added.

Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan, said he hopes for fresh talks with the Taliban “very soon”.

The US is not the only country dancing around talks with the militants. Russia and Iran have held meetings with the Taliban in recent months, while China has also made overtures. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan are all participating in the US efforts.

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