Dutch parliament votes to ban burqas, niqabs

AMSTERDAM (Reuters): The Dutch parliament voted on Tuesday to ban face veils in some public places, a law the government said was essential for security but which opponents said pandered to anti-Muslim sentiment.

The law bans veils and other items that hide the face such as ski masks and helmets, in places where identifying the wearer is considered essential, including government buildings, public transport, schools and hospitals.

Few women in the Netherlands wear face veils, but a ban has long been a demand of Geert Wilders' anti-Islam opposition Freedom Party which is leading in polls ahead of elections in March. Full and partial face veils such as burqas and niqabs divide opinion in Europe, setting religious freedom advocates against secularists and those who say that the garments are culturally alien or a symbol of the oppression of women.

France and Belgium have completely banned wearing face veils in public and some other European countries have local or regional restrictions. Violating the Dutch law would incur a fine of 405 euros ($430).

"Everyone has the right to dress as he or she wishes," the government said in a statement announcing the law.

"That freedom is limited only where it is essential for people to see each other, for example to ensure good service or security."

Opponents of the law have accused centre-right Prime Minister Mark Rutte of pandering to the anti-Muslim vote in a bid not to be outflanked by Wilders.

Long seen as one of Europe's most tolerant countries, the Netherlands has seen racial tensions mount since the turn of the century, with the 2006 murder of controversial film-maker Theo van Gogh by a militant widely considered a turning point.




Iranian vessel points weapon at US helicopter

WASHINGTON (Reuters): A small Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard vessel pointed its weapon at a US military helicopter in the Strait of Hormuz on Saturday, two US defence officials have told Reuters, an action they described as "unsafe and unprofessional." The incident is the latest in a series of similar actions by Iranian vessels this year, but the first reported since Republican Donald Trump won the US presidential election on Nov. 8. During his campaign, Trump vowed that any Iranian vessel that harassed the US Navy in the Gulf would be "shot out of the water," if he was elected. Trump is due to take office on Jan. 20.  There was no immediate Iranian comment on the incident. Trump's transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the incident took place when a Navy MH-60 helicopter flew within half a mile (0.8 km) of two Iranian vessels in international waters. One of the vessels pointed a weapon at the helicopter, the US officials said.

"The behavior by our standards is provocative and could be seen as an escalation," the officials said. At no point did the crew of the helicopter feel threatened, they added.

It was not immediately clear what type of weapon was pointed at the US aircraft.

Years of mutual animosity eased when Washington lifted sanctions on Tehran in January after a deal to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions. But serious differences still remain over Iran's ballistic missile program, and over conflicts in Syria and Iraq. A number of similar incidents have taken place this year.

In September, a US Navy coastal patrol ship changed course after an Iranian fast-attack craft came within 100 yards (91 meters) of it.

"When they circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats and they make gestures at our people that they shouldn't be allowed to make, they will be shot out of the water," Trump said at the time.




Ukraine moves giant safety dome over Chernobyl

CHERNOBYL (AFP): Ukraine on Tuesday unveiled the world's largest moveable metal structure over the Chernobyl nuclear power plant's doomed fourth reactor to ensure the safety of Europeans for future generations. The gigantic arch soars 108 metres (355 feet) into the sky - making it taller than New York's Statue of Liberty - while its weight of 36,000 tons is three times heavier than the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The 2.1-billion-euro ($2.2-billion) structure sponsored by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has been edged into place over an existing crumbling dome that the Soviets built in haste when disaster struck three decades ago. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was visibly proud at his impoverished and war-torn country's ability to deal with one of the worst vestiges of its Soviet past. "Many people had doubts and refused to believe that this was possible," Poroshenko told the festive ceremony.

Radioactive fallout from the site of the world's worst civil nuclear accident spread across three-quarters of Europe and prompted a global rethink about the safety of atomic fuel.

Work on the previous dome began after a 10-day fire caused by the explosion was contained but radiation still spewed out of the stricken reactor.

"It was done through the super-human efforts of thousands of ordinary people," the Chernobyl museum's deputy chief Anna Korolevska told AFP. "What kind of protective gear could they have possibly had? They worked in regular construction clothes."

About 30 of the cleanup workers known as liquidators were killed on site or died from overwhelming radiation poisoning in the following weeks.

The Soviets sought to try to cover up the accident that was caused by errors during an experimental safety check and its eventual toll is still hotly disputed.

The United Nations estimated in 2005 that around 4,000 people had either been killed or were left dying from cancer and other related diseases. But the Greenpeace environmental protection group believes the figure may be closer to 100,000.

Authorities maintain a 30-kilometre-wide (19-mile) exclusion zone around the plant in which only a few dozen elderly people live.

One of the main problems of the Soviet-era response was the fact that it only had a 30-year lifespan.

Yet its deterioration began much sooner than that.

"Radioactive dust inside the structure is being blown out through the cracks," Sergiy Paskevych of Ukraine's Institute of Nuclear Power Plant Safety Problems told AFP.

Paskevych added that the existing structure could crumble under extreme weather conditions.

The new arch should be able to withstand tremors of 6.0 magnitude - a strength rarely seen in eastern Europe - and tornados that strike the region only once every million years.

Kiev has complained that European assistance was slow to materialise.

The EBRD found 40 state sponsors to fund a competition in 2007 to choose who should build the massive moveable dome.

A French consortium of two companies known as Novarka finished the designs in 2010 and began construction two years later.

The shelter was edged towards the fourth reactor in just under three weeks of delicate work this month that was interrupted by bad weather and other potential dangers.

It will later be fitted with radiation control equipment as well as air vents and fire fighting measures.

The equipment inside the arch is expected to be operative by the end of 2017.

"Only then will we begin to disassemble the old, unstable structure," State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine's head Sergiy Bozhko told AFP.

But he said no timeframe had yet been set for the particularly hazardous work of removing all the remaining nuclear fuel from inside the plant or dismantling the old dome.

Novarka believes that its arch will keep Europe safe from nuclear fallout for the next 100 years.




Thai parliament invites prince to become new king

BANGKOK (AFP): Thailand's parliament on Tuesday invited Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn to become the next king, resolving lingering anxiety over his accession following his father's death last month. The country has been plunged into mourning since widely revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej died on 13 October, ending a remarkable seven-decade reign and removing a key pillar of unity in a bitterly divided nation. Tuesday's move ends a period of uncertainty sparked by the junta making the surprise announcement after Bhumibol's death that the prince had asked to delay his official proclamation so he could mourn. "I will invite the Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn to succeed to the throne and become king of the Thai people," Pornpetch Wichitcholchai, head of the rubber stamp National Legislative Assembly said.  Lawmakers then stood up and replied: "Long live the king". The parliamentary endorsement came after Thailand's cabinet officially submitted Vajiralongkorn's name earlier in the day.

Prawit Wongsuwan, deputy prime minister and the junta's number two, said the prince's ascension was "proceeding step-by-step" according to the country's arcane succession rules.

According to protocol, the assembly speaker will now seek a royal audience with the prince to invite him to ascend the throne, the last step before being proclaimed the new monarch.

Prawit said that would likely happen "either tomorrow or the day after".

Vajiralongkorn, 64, has been the named successor to Bhumibol for more than four decades. He spends much of his time outside the kingdom, particularly in southern Germany where he owns property.

A military source told AFP the prince was still currently in Germany.

He will soon inherit one of the world's richest monarchies, an institution protected by a tough royal defamation law.

That law makes open discussion about the royal family's role all but impossible inside the kingdom and convictions have skyrocketed since generals seized power in 2014.

Officially Thailand's monarch has limited constitutional power. But over his seven-decade reign, Bhumibol built up a powerful network of alliances, especially within Thailand's military elite, and forged a reputation as an arbiter in times of crisis.

Yet the late king has left his son with a sharply divided country.

Thailand's last decade has seen a cycle of political protests, coups by an arch-royalist military while inequality has deepened.

Dubbed the "lost decade", Thailand's most recent period of political unrest coincided with Bhumibol's increasingly frail health and fewer public appearances.

Vajiralongkorn, a certified pilot, has yet to achieve his father's widespread adoration.

Rumours over his private life have also trailed him. He has had three high-profile divorces, while a recent police corruption scandal linked to the family of his previous wife allowed the public a rare glimpse of palace affairs.

Since Bhumibol's death, he has attended some of the daily funerary rites for his father but has made no public statements.

He has asked his younger sister, Princess Sirindhorn to oversee the organisation for Bhumibol's cremation, which will not take place until an official one year mourning period has ended. Historically, the new monarch in Thailand is only crowned once the previous monarch is cremated.

In a letter to parliament on Tuesday, junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha said one million Thais have now travelled to the Grand Palace, where the king's body is being held ahead of cremation, to pay their respects.