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Reverend Billy Graham became a spiritual advisor to several
US presidents and millions of American via
their television sets (AFP/File / TIMOTHY A. CLARY)

Reverend Billy Graham, the influential Southern preacher who became a spiritual advisor to several US presidents and millions of Americans via their television sets, has died, his family said Wednesday. He was 99.

The one-time backwoods minister who eventually became the world's foremost Christian evangelist, spread a message of spiritual redemption at tent and stadium revival meetings, in a career that spanned decades.

"Billy Graham is the closest thing to a national pope that we shall ever see," journalist Garry Wills once wrote in The Washington Post.

The Southern Baptist preacher was close to the family of President George W. Bush, who once said that a private meeting with Graham in 1985 helped him quit drinking.

More recently his role as a sometime spiritual adviser to the young Queen Elizabeth II as she confronted the burdens of rule was featured in the Netflix mini-series "The Crown."

Graham was a pioneer of "televangelism" to convert souls to Christianity as television got off the ground in the 1950s.

Born on November 7, 1918, he was raised as one of four children on a dairy farm in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Graham had a spiritual awakening in 1934 that changed the course of his life. He subsequently attended the Florida Bible Institute, now Trinity College of Florida, and was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1939.

In 1950, he founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in Minneapolis, Minnesota and launched a weekly "Hour of Decision" radio program.

- Adviser to US presidents -

His ministry led him to preach the gospel around the country -- and the world.

Over the course of his career, he was consulted by presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. For a time he was Richard Nixon's chaplain and golf partner. President George H.W. Bush invited him to pray at the White House in 1991 for guidance through the first long day of the Gulf War.

Reacting in a tweet, President Donald Trump called him a special man.

He wrote: "The GREAT Billy Graham is dead. There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man."

But of all the US leaders -- almost all of whom have claimed to be practicing Christians -- Graham found only Jimmy Carter to match him in dedication to his faith.

"Carter alone among the presidents ... taught the Bible throughout his life, wrote books of religious meditations, and needed no help with Scripture or its challenges," wrote authors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy in a Graham biography, "The Preacher and the Presidents" published in August 2007.

Graham also has been credited with helping hasten the end of segregation in his native south by refusing to preach to segregated audiences after 1953.

Graham and his wife Ruth Bell Graham -- the daughter of a missionary surgeon who grew up in China -- had five children.

These include Anne Graham Lotz, a Christian author and speaker, and two sons, who like their famous father became ministers.

One son, William Franklin Graham III is now the head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

His wife Ruth, although married for nearly 64 years to the world's most famous Baptist preacher, remained a lifelong Presbyterian. She died in June 2007 at the age of 87.

Seen as a comforting presence during times of crisis, Graham led a national prayer service for the September 11, 2001 attacks. He also presided at graveside services for president Lyndon Johnson in 1973 and spoke at Nixon's funeral in 1994.

His participation in a record number of presidential inaugurations underscored his legendary political connections. He was the author of 31 books, most of which have been translated into several languages.

His most recent include "The Heaven Answer Book" (2012) and "Nearing Home" (2011).

- "I belong to Christ" -

While he never snagged the top spot, Graham was on Gallup's list of most admired men more than any other -- 55 times since 1955, the polling institute said in December 2011.

Among his many honors, he was presented with an honorary knighthood in 2001 and received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1996.

"My greatest comfort comes from knowing that I belong to Christ, and that no matter what happens, he will never leave me or forsake me. He will be with me as long as I'm on this Earth, and some day I will go to be with him in heaven forever. I look forward to that day," he once told the Minneapolis Tribune.

Graham had his detractors: noted Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr challenged his preaching as far too simple and not reflecting the complexity of human existence.

And one-time associate Charles Templeton, a former evangelist turned atheist, wrote: "I disagree with him profoundly on his view of Christianity and think that much of what he says in the pulpit is puerile nonsense."

But he added: "There is no feigning in him: he believes what he believes with an invincible innocence. He is the only mass evangelist I would trust."

No other religious figure in America has had Graham's impact. Through a newspaper column, he answered thousands of questions about spirituality.

Unlike other high-profile evangelists, Graham managed to escape sex and money scandals by keeping a meticulous watch over his staff and finances.

"My greatest fear is that I'll do something that will bring disrepute on the Gospel of Christ before I go," Graham said in a 1991 interview.

He suffered from a host of ailments late in life, including Parkinson's disease and prostate cancer. In 1995, weakened by illness and old age, he turned over operation of his ministry to his eldest son.

DBliss Media World
A picture taken on February 20, 2018 shows smoke plumes rising following
a reported regime air strike in the rebel-held town of
 Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on
 the outskirts of the capital Damascus (AFP)

Syrian and Russian air strikes on the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta enclave have killed more than 100 civilians for the second straight day and put another hospital out of service.

In a major development in Syria's complex seven-year war, Damascus also sent pro-regime fighters to the northern Afrin region, where they came under fire by Turkish forces attacking the Kurdish-controlled enclave.

On the outskirts of Damascus, air strikes, rockets and artillery fire have been battering the Eastern Ghouta enclave in apparent preparation for a government ground assault.

At least 250 civilians have been killed since the escalation began on Sunday, among them dozens of children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Bombardment on Tuesday killed 106 civilians, including 19 children, the Britain-based war monitor said.

It was the second straight day that the civilian death toll topped 100, after 127 were killed Monday in Eastern Ghouta's bloodiest day in four years.

The strikes left an important hospital out of action, further limiting the little medical aid that besieged civilians can access.

"The Arbin hospital was hit twice today and is now out of service," said Mousa Naffa, country director in Jordan for the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), which supported the clinic.

The Observatory blamed Russian warplanes, saying Moscow carried out its first strikes in three months on Eastern Ghouta.

The rebel-held region is nominally included in a "de-escalation" deal meant to tamp down violence, but President Bashar al-Assad appears to be preparing troops for a ground assault to retake it.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was "deeply alarmed by the escalating situation in Eastern Ghouta and its devastating impact on civilians," said spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert criticised the "siege and starve tactics" of the Assad regime and said: "The cessation of violence must begin now."

- Six hospitals hit -

Eastern Ghouta is home to more than 400,000 people living under crippling government siege, with little access to food or medical resources.

The United Nations said six hospitals had been hit in the region in the past 48 hours, in addition to the one in Arbin.

At least three were out of service and two were only partially functioning, said the UN's regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis.

"It's beyond imagination what is happening in East Ghouta today," he said.

"The untold suffering is intolerable and residents have no idea whether they will live or die. This nightmare in East Ghouta must end and must end now."

Hours before the Arbin hospital was bombed, a doctor there spoke of the casualties they had been treating.

"February 19 was... one of the worst days that we've ever had in the history of this crisis," Abu al-Yasar told AFP.

He described treating a one-year-old with blue skin and a faint pulse, rescued from under the rubble.

"I opened his mouth to put in a breathing tube and I found it packed with dirt," said Abu al-Yasar.

He pulled out the dirt as fast as possible, put in the breathing tube and managed to save the baby.

"This is just one story from among hundreds of wounded."

- 'No words' -

The bloodshed prompted the UN children's agency UNICEF to issue a largely blank statement saying "we no longer have the words to describe children's suffering."

Syria's main opposition group condemned the government onslaught as a "bloodbath" and a "war crime", saying it may pull out of UN-backed peace talks in protest.

Eastern Ghouta is mostly held by two hardline rebel groups that often fire rockets and mortar rounds into residential neighbourhoods of east Damascus.

On Tuesday, at least nine people were killed and 49 wounded by rebel fire on the capital, state media reported.

Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the government, said the bombing campaign "comes ahead of a vast operation on Ghouta, which may start on the ground at any moment."

The army already waged a ferocious five-day air assault on Eastern Ghouta earlier this month that left around 250 civilians dead and hundreds wounded.

- Turkey shells regime -

Syria's conflict erupted in 2011 with protests against Assad, but the ensuing war has carved the country into various zones of control among rebels, jihadists, the regime, and Kurds.

DBliss Media Business
Lloyds Banking Group said profit after tax jumped to £3.04 billion
 in 2017 from £2.0 billion a year earlier (AFP/File / BEN STANSALL)

Lloyds Banking Group on Wednesday said that its net profit soared 52 percent last year, when the UK lender returned fully to the private sector following a state bailout.

LBG, which was financially rescued by the UK government following the height of the financial crisis a decade ago, said profit after tax jumped to £3.04 billion ($4.26 billion, 3.45 billion euros) in 2017 from £2.0 billion a year earlier.

"2017 has been a landmark year in which the group has made significant strategic progress and returned to full private ownership," LBG chief executive Antonio Horta-Osorio said in the earnings release.

Underlining the bank's growing recovery in a "resilient" British economy despite Brexit, LBG added that it planned to return up to £1.0 billion to investors in a share buyback.

It also said it would press ahead with its digitalisation strategy.

"I am delighted to announce today our strategy for the next three years which will transform the group for success in a digital world," Horta-Osorio said.

LBG plans to invest more than £3.0 billion in strategy initiatives, in part to "further digitise the group", the bank said.

It added that it would "deploy new technology to drive additional operational efficiencies that will make banking simple and easier for customers whilst reducing operating costs".

On the UK economy, LBG said it had "proven resilient", adding that the bank's projections "assume this performance continues" against a backdrop of the Bank of England steadily increasing its main interest rate from 0.5 percent to 1.25 percent by the end of 2020.

LBG also said it took an additional hit of £600 million in the fourth quarter to compensate customers over mis-sold insurance.

That brings the total to more than £19 billion -- far in excess of any other British bank caught up in the long-running scandal.

Lloyds meanwhile returned to full private ownership in May after the government had steadily offloaded its stake by returning about £21 billion to the taxpayer.

The British government bailed out Lloyds following the 2008 world financial crisis at a cost of about £20 billion, handing the state a 43-percent stake in the bank.

The government still owns around 70 percent of Royal Bank of Scotland, which was rescued with £45.5 billion of taxpayers' cash during the crisis in the world's biggest bank bailout.

In 2011, British banks lost a high court appeal against tighter regulation of payment protection insurance (PPI), which provides insurance for consumers should they fail to meet repayments on a credit product such as consumer loans, mortgages or payment cards.

Regarding PPI, the insurance product became widely known after it was revealed that many customers had been sold it without understanding that the cost was being added to their loan repayments. British authorities have since banned simultaneous sales of PPI and credit products.

DBliss Media World
Attacks on police are common in South Africa, which has one of the
 highest crime rates in the world (AFP/File / RODGER BOSCH)

An armed gang stormed into a rural police station in South Africa on Wednesday and stole firearms in an attack that left five officers and a soldier dead, police said.

The robbers entered the police station in the southern village of Engcobo shortly after midnight, opening fire on the officers and seizing two others, who were later shot and killed, police spokesman Vish Naidoo said.

"During the early hours of this morning six people were killed when robbers attacked Engcobo police station," Naidoo told AFP.

"Five of the six were on-duty police officers. Three police officers were killed at the police station when robbers attacked the station and randomly opened fire on the members."

Naidoo said the robbers made off with firearms and bundled two other officers into a police car. The bodies of the two were later found dumped on the side of a road.

The attackers also shot and killed a soldier as they fled.

Attacks on police are common in South Africa, which has one of the highest crime rates in the world.

At least 57 police officers were killed in the line of duty in the 12 months between April 2016 and March 2017, according to the latest crime statistics available.



DBliss Media Business
The Trump Organization has lent its brand to developments being built
with local partners in Kolkata, Mumbai and Pune (AFP/File / Dibyangshu SARKAR)

Donald Trump's presidency has cost the family firm "millions of dollars" in lost business, his son told an Indian newspaper during a visit aimed at drumming up sales of new luxury apartment complexes.

Donald Trump junior told the Times of India that the Trump Organization was turning down new business opportunities around the world because of his father's position.

"We are refraining from doing new deals while my father is in office," he said in an interview published on Wednesday.

"We are turning down deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars around the world."

Trump junior is in India to promote a series of luxury apartment developments being marketed under his father's name.

On Friday he will have dinner with dozens of people who have bought into a development in Gurgaon, a satellite of the capital where many major companies have their offices.

The 47-storey towers will comprise 250 homes and are expected to be completed by 2023, with price ranging from 55-110 million rupees ($850,000-$1.7 million).

The Indian developers say the high-rise apartment complex boasting floor-to-ceiling windows, state of the art amenities and a "lifestyle concierge" has already clocked up sales worth nearly $80 million.

Trump junior is on an unofficial visit to India, but will address a business conference on Friday on the subject of Indo-Pacific ties. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the keynote speaker at the event.

The US president has ceded control of the Trump Organization to his adult sons, but refused to divest his assets, sparking concerns about a conflict of interest.

Critics say the Trump family's continued involvement could allow the firm to profit from foreign governments eager to curry favour in Washington.

But Trump junior said the firm was focusing on existing developments rather than seeking new business opportunities in India, its biggest market outside the United States.

He praised Modi's economic reforms and said India was a better place to do business than regional rival China.

The Trump family earned $3 million in royalties in 2016 from ventures in India, according to a New York Times report.

The Trump Organization has also lent its brand to developments being built with local partners in Kolkata, Mumbai and Pune. It does not invest directly, but takes a share of the profits in return for the use of the Trump name.