Kabul bomb kills 80, wounds hundreds

A powerful bomb hidden in a sewage tanker has exploded in the morning rush hour in the centre of the Afghan capital, killing at least 80 people, wounding hundreds and damaging embassy buildings.

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The bomb, one of the deadliest in Kabul and coming at the start of the holy month of Ramadan, exploded close to the fortified entrance to the German embassy, killing a security guard and wounding some staff, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said on Twitter.

Basir Mujahid, a spokesman for city police, said the explosives were hidden in a sewage tanker but suggested that the German Embassy might not have been the target of the blast which sent clouds of black smoke into the sky near the presidential palace.

“There are several other important compounds and offices near there too,” he told Reuters.

The blast, which shattered windows and blew doors off their hinges in houses hundreds of metres away, was unusually strong.

The NATO-led Resolute Support (RS) mission in Kabul said Afghan security forces had prevented the vehicle from entering the heavily protected Green Zone that houses many foreign embassies as well as its headquarters, suggesting it may not have reached its intended target.

A public health official said at least 80 people had been killed and more than 350 wounded. The victims appear mainly to have been Afghan civilians.

The French, Turkish and Chinese embassies were among those damaged, the three countries said, adding there were no immediate signs of injuries among their diplomats. The BBC said one of its drivers, an Afghan, was killed driving journalists to work. Four journalists were wounded and treated in hospital.

The Australian embassy was put into lockdown but a Defence Department spokesman said all Australian personnel deployed to Afghanistan had been accounted for.

Video shot at the scene showed burning debris, crumbled walls and buildings and destroyed cars, many with dead or injured people inside.

At the Wazir Akbar Khan hospital a few blocks away, there were scenes of chaos as ambulances brought in wounded and frantic relatives scanned casualty lists and questioned hospital staff for news.

“It felt like an earthquake,” said 21-year-old Mohammad Hassan, describing the moment the blast struck the bank where he was working. His head wound had been bandaged but blood still soaked his white dress shirt.

The Taliban denied responsibility and said they condemned attacks that have no legitimate target and killed civilians.

Media CEOs demand complete reform package

Heads of Australia’s biggest media companies have combined forces to call on federal parliament to pass the government’s media reform package in its entirety.

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The CEOs of News Corp Australia, Fairfax Media and the Seven, Nine and Ten television networks are among those behind the united call for reforms they say are needed to allow local companies to compete with online giants such as Facebook and Google.

“Change is crucial to bring media regulation into the digital age and preserve the future viability of the sector, which supports more than 30,000 jobs,” the media companies said in a statement released on Wednesday night.

“Australian media operators must be allowed to compete more effectively against multinational internet giants that are taking hundreds of millions of advertising dollars out of Australia.”

A forum in Canberra on Wednesday night was attended by 28 CEOs of national, metropolitan, regional and online news organisations to put the industry’s case for support of the legislative reform package unveiled by the federal government.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull also attended the forum, along with Communications Minister Mitch Fifield.

The package includes abolition of the 75 per cent “reach rule” and the two-out-of -three ownership rule that restricts companies operating in print, radio and TV in any one market.

Federal Labor is opposed to scrapping the two-out-of-three rule but Mr Fifield has rejected calls to separate the measure, saying he wants the package to pass without alteration.

Media bosses say the reforms, which also scrap license fees in favour of lower spectrum usage fees and restrict gambling advertising, are needed to ensure local content can be created in future.

“Media CEOs call on Parliament to preserve Australian content, voices and jobs by supporting the passage of the broadcast and media reform package in its entirety,” the statement said.

Gloomy outlook prevails for retailers

The slump in consumer spending is expected to continue throughout the year as a major headwind for retailers across the country.

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Commonwealth Bank research says weak wages growth is the single biggest factor weighing on the retail sector as households devote a greater portion of their wallet to health, utilities and education.

“Consumers have a fine amount of disposable income and even with the assistance of a falling savings rate, record low wages growth has weighed significantly on the discretionary parts of retail trade,” CBA senior economist Gareth Aird said in a report on the retail sector.

“Soft total retail trade growth is largely down to a lack of spending growth on consumer durables and clothing.”

Mr Aird said demand for clothing and other discretionary goods has been week for the past two years, as seen in falling department store sales and the collapse of a string of apparel retailers.

Herringbone, Marcs and David Lawrence, Pumpkin Patch, Rhodes and Beckett are among a recent spate of largely high-end clothing retailers to have fallen into voluntary administration.

Overseas clothing giant Topshop has revealed its Australian business is struggling, while department store chain Myer has been warning “challenging trading conditions” continue to hurt its sales.

The market value of retailers on the ASX have also come under pressure as investors sell down retail stocks following sales warnings and profit downgrades.

Online giant Amazon’s impending arrival in Australia will also put more pressure on retailers to sacrifice more profits for lower prices.

Myer’s shares are at an all-time low of about 86 cents, while JB Hi-Fi and Harvey Norman have suffered selldowns largely linked to the Amazon threat.

CBA also warned that the effectiveness of lower interest rates is close to being exhausted and only a lift in wages’ growth will lead to an increase in retail spending.

However, it said given the significant amount of slack in the jobs market, an increase in wages growth is not expected to happen in 2017 and as a result, retailers will remain under pressure throughout the year.

Online retailers are also feeling the pressure.

National Australia Bank data shows online retail sales fell 0.8 per cent in April compared to a year ago, reversing growth seen in March.

NAB estimated consumers to have spent around $22.37 billion in the year to April which is equivalent to about seven per cent of spending at traditional bricks and mortar retailers.

Retail trade figures for April will be released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on Thursday and while economists forecast a slight rise after two negative months, the consensus warns that the underlying trend in spending remains weak.

Turkey says US arming of Syrian Kurdish militia ‘extremely dangerous’

“Such steps are extremely dangerous for Syria’s unity and territorial integrity,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, after the United States began providing small arms to the Kurdish fighters.

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“If we are looking for stability in Syria, we should row back from those mistakes,” he told a press conference with Slovenian counterpart Karl Erjavec.

The Pentagon on Tuesday said it had begun to transfer small arms and vehicles to the Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-Syrian Arab alliance fighting the Islamic State group and containing Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) fighters.

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The weapons include AK-47s and small-caliber machine guns, Pentagon spokesman Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway said.

Turkey views the YPG as a “terror group” linked to Kurdish separatists waging an insurgency inside Turkey since 1984 that has killed more than 40,000 people.

But Washington believes the YPG is the most effective fighting force against IS jihadists in Syria, thus causing tensions between the NATO allies.

The US’ weapons transfers began ahead of an upcoming offensive to recapture Raqa, the last major bastion for IS in Syria.

The SDF have now advanced to within a few miles of Raqa on several fronts, and this month captured the strategic town of Tabqa and the adjacent dam from the jihadists.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with US counterpart Donald Trump in Washington for the first time where the issue of US support for the YPG was discussed on May 16, the Turkish foreign minister said.

Less than a week before Erdogan’s visit, Trump approved arming fighters from the YPG.

“The president clearly expressed our position and concerns during his Washington visit. It was stressed how risky and dangerous the support given to the YPG was,” Cavusoglu said.

“These weapons could be used against all humanity, not just Turkey.”

Merkel stresses US ties after Trump tweet

US President Donald Trump has called Germany’s trade and spending policies “very bad”, intensifying a row between the longtime allies and immediately earning himself the moniker “destroyer of Western values” from a leading German politician.

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As the war of words threatened to spin out of control, Merkel and other senior German politicians stressed the importance of Germany’s Atlantic ties, with Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel suggesting the spat was just a rough patch.

Trump took to Twitter early on Tuesday in the United States to attack Germany, a day after Chancellor Angela Merkel ramped up her doubts about the reliability of Washington as an ally.

“We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for US This will change,” Trump tweeted.

Later in the day, Trump’s spokesman and the US ambassador to the United Nations said there were no problems in relations with Merkel or NATO.

The tit-for-tat dispute escalated rapidly after Trump, at back-to-back summits last week, criticised major NATO allies over their military spending and refused to endorse a global climate change accord.

On Sunday, Merkel showed the gravity of her concern about Washington’s dependability under Trump when she warned, at an election campaign event in a packed Bavarian beer tent, that the times when Europe could fully rely on others were “over to a certain extent”.

Those comments, which caused shock in Washington, vented Europe’s frustration with Trump on climate policy in particular.

And while German politicians sided with Merkel, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel signalled that it was time for cooler heads to prevail.

“The United States are older and bigger than the current conflict,” he said, adding that relations would improve. “It is inappropriate that we are now communicating with each other between a beer tent and Twitter,” he said in Berlin.

Merkel had already begun finessing her message on Monday, stressing that she was a “convinced trans-Atlanticist”, a message she repeated after a meeting with visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Berlin.

But Martin Schulz, leader of Gabriel’s centre-left Social Democrats, was less emollient earlier in the day when he told reporters Trump was “the destroyer of all Western values”.

In Washington, Trump administration officials on Tuesday appeared to try to soften the message underlying Trump’s tweet with comments emphasising the importance of US-European ties.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer, asked about the president’s relationship with Merkel, told a news briefing: “They get along very well. He has a lot of respect for her. … And he views not just Germany but the rest of Europe as an important American ally.”