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Russian soldiers patrol in a small Syrian village near the city of Hama on May 4, 2016 (AFP/File / Vasily Maximov)

Russia became the world's third largest military spender in 2016 despite low oil prices and economic sanctions, as the global expenditure rose for a second consecutive year, a study said on Monday.

Russia's military spending was $69.2 billion (around 64 billion euros) in 2016, a 5.9 percent rise over 2015, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said in a report, adding this was the highest proportion of its GDP since it became an independent state.

"This increased spending and heavy burden on the economy comes at a time when the Russian economy is in serious trouble due to low oil and gas prices and the economic sanctions imposed since 2014," (by the West over the Ukraine conflict), SIPRI said.

Saudi Arabia was the third largest spender in 2015 but dropped to fourth place in 2016 as its expenditure fell by 30 percent to $63.7 billion, "despite its continued involvement in regional wars", it added.

"Falling oil revenue and associated economic problems attached to the oil-price shock has forced many oil-exporting countries to reduce military spending," SIPRI researcher Nan Tian said, adding Saudi Arabia had the largest drop in spending between 2015 and 2016.

The US remained the top spender as its expenditure grew by 1.7 percent between 2015 and 2016 to $611 billion while China boosted its expenditure by 5.4 percent to $215 billion, a lower rate than in previous years.

SIPRI said the rise in US military spending in 2016 "may signal the end of a trend of decreases in spending" caused by the 2008 economic crisis and the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

On April 13 the US dropped its largest ever non-nuclear bomb, hitting Islamic State group positions in a remote area of eastern Nangarhar province in Afghanistan.

US dominates military spending

"Future spending patterns remain uncertain due to the changing political situation in the USA," Aude Fleurant, Director of the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure (AMEX) programme, said in a statement.

Hit by a series of terror attacks since 2015, Western Europe raised its military expenditure for the second consecutive year, up by 2.6 percent in 2016.

Overall military spending in Central Europe jumped by 2.4 percent in 2016.

"The growth in spending by many countries in Central Europe can be partly attributed to the perception of Russia posing a greater threat," said senior SIPRI researcher Siemon Wezeman in the statement.

"This is despite the fact that Russia's spending in 2016 was only 27 per cent of the combined total of European NATO members," he added.
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Gospel and Rock Town sensation, Frank Edwards has released a new single titled "Very Big God".
"Here is a new country music that tells the testimonies of real people like you . I pray that as you listen, you too shall receive your own blessing and tell your own story of our Very Big God". – Frank Edwards

Listen, share and download here!
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Coldflames and talented Afro-Pop/Rock singer, Clay is back with a new song "Ochukwu" form her upcoming EP “ROAD LESS TRAVELED”. 
"I am back with new music “Ochukwu” from my upcoming EP “ROAD LESS TRAVELED”. It basically say a lot about how I feel". - Clay
Watch video and download this track here 
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Far-right leader and candidate for the 2017 French presidential election, Marine Le Pen, surrounded by bodyguards, celebrates with supporters while holding a bunch of flowers after exit poll results of the first round of the presidential election were announced at her election day headquarters in Henin-Beaumont, northern France, Sunday, April 23, 2017. Polling agency projections show far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron leading in the first-round French presidential election. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

By JOHN LEICESTER and LORI HINNANT | AP

PARIS — Centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right populist Marine Le Pen advanced Sunday to a runoff in France's presidential election, remaking the country's political landscape and setting up a showdown over its participation in the European Union.

French politicians on the left and right immediately urged voters to block Le Pen's path to power in the May 7 runoff, saying her virulently nationalist anti-EU and anti-immigration politics would spell disaster for France.

"Extremism can only bring unhappiness and division to France," defeated conservative candidate Francois Fillon said. "As such, there is no other choice than to vote against the extreme right."

The selection of Le Pen and Macron presents voters with the starkest possible choice between two diametrically opposed visions of the EU's future and France's place in it. It sets up a battle between Macron's optimistic vision of a tolerant France and a united Europe with open borders against Le Pen's darker, inward-looking "French-first" platform that calls for closed borders, tougher security, less immigration and dropping the shared euro currency to return to the French franc.

With Le Pen wanting France to leave the EU and Macron wanting even closer cooperation among the bloc's 28 nations, Sunday's outcome means the May 7 runoff will have undertones of a referendum on France's EU membership.

The absence in the runoff of candidates from either the mainstream left Socialists or the right-wing Republicans party — the two main political groups that have governed post-war France — also marked a seismic shift in French politics. Macron, a 39-year-old investment banker, made the runoff on the back of a grassroots campaign without the support of a major political party.

With 90 percent of votes counted, the Interior Ministry said Macron had nearly 24 percent, giving him a slight cushion over Le Pen's 22 percent. Fillon, with just under 20 percent, was slightly ahead of the far-left's Jean-Luc Melenchon, who had 19 percent.

The euro jumped 2 percent to more than $1.09 after the initial results were announced because Macron has vowed to reinforce France's commitments to the EU and euro — and opinion polls give him a big lead heading into the second round.

While Le Pen faces the runoff as the underdog, it's already stunning that she brought her once-taboo party so close to the Elysee Palace. She hopes to win over far-left and other voters angry at the global elite and distrustful of the untested Macron.

With a wink at his cheering, flag-waving supporters who yelled "We will win!" in his election day headquarters in Paris, Macron promised to be a president "who protects, who transforms and builds" if elected.

"You are the faces of French hope," he said. His wife, Brigitte, joined him on stage before his speech — the only couple among the leading candidates to do so Sunday night.

Le Pen, in a chest-thumping speech to cheering supporters, declared that she embodies "the great alternative" for French voters. She portrayed her duel with Macron as a battle between "patriots" and "wild deregulation" — warning of job losses overseas, mass immigration straining resources at home and "the free circulation of terrorists."

French centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron thumbs up as he addresses his supporters at his election day headquarters in Paris , Sunday April 23, 2017. Macron and far-right populist Marine Le Pen advanced Sunday to a runoff in France's presidential election, remaking the country's political system and setting up a showdown over its participation in the European Union. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
"The time has come to free the French people," she said at her election day headquarters in the northern French town of Henin-Beaumont, adding that nothing short of "the survival of France" will be at stake in the presidential runoff.

Her supporters burst into a rendition of the French national anthem, chanted "We will win!" and waved French flags and blue flags with "Marine President" on them.

France is now steaming into unchartered territory, because whoever wins on May 7 cannot count on the backing of France's political mainstream parties. Even under a constitution that concentrates power in the president's hands, both Macron and Le Pen will need legislators in parliament to pass laws and implement much of their programs.

France's legislative election in June now takes on a vital importance, with huge questions about whether Le Pen and even the more moderate Macron will be able to rally sufficient lawmakers to their causes.

In Paris, protesters angry at Le Pen's advance — some from anarchist and anti-fascist groups — scuffled with police. Officers fired tear gas to disperse the rowdy crowd. Two people were injured and police detained three people as demonstrators burned cars, danced around bonfires and dodged riot police. At a peaceful protest by around 300 people at the Place de la Republique some sang "No Marine and no Macron!" and "Now burn your voting cards."

Macron supporters at his election-day headquarters went wild as polling agency projections showed the ex-finance minister making the runoff, cheering, singing "La Marseillaise" anthem, waving French tricolor and European flags and shouting "Macron, president!"

Mathilde Jullien, 23, said she is convinced Macron will beat Le Pen.

"He represents France's future, a future within Europe," she said. "He will win because he is able to unite people from the right and the left against the threat of the National Front and he proposes real solutions for France's economy."

Fillon said he would vote for Macron on May 7 because Le Pen's program "would bankrupt France" and throw the EU into chaos. He also cited the history of "violence and intolerance" of Le Pen's far-right National Front party, founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was trounced in the presidential runoff in 2002.

In a defiant speech to supporters, Melenchon refused to concede defeat before the official count confirmed pollsters' projections and did not say how he would vote in the next round.

In a brief televised message, Socialist Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve urged voters to back Macron to defeat the National Front's "funereal project of regression for France and of division of the French."

Socialist presidential candidate Benoit Hamon, who was far behind in Sunday's results, quickly conceded defeat. Proclaiming that "the left is not dead," he also urged supporters to back Macron.

Voting took place amid heightened security in the first election under France's state of emergency, which has been in place since gun-and-bomb attacks in Paris in 2015. On Thursday, a gunman killed a police officer and wounded two others on Paris' iconic Champs-Elysees boulevard before he was fatally shot.

___

Associated Press writers Elaine Ganley and Alex Turnbull in Henin-Beaumont; Chris den Hond in Le Touquet; Angela Charlton, Raphael Satter, Samuel Petrequin, Nicolas Vaux-Montagny, Sylvie Corbet, Nadine Achoui-Lesage and Philippe Sotto in Paris; and Brian Rohan in Cairo contributed to this report.
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U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, second from right, greets an airman as he board a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster for a day trip to a U.S. Military base in Djibouti from Doha, Qatar, Sunday, April 23, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool photo via AP)

By ROBERT BURNS | AP

DJIBOUTI — U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis on Sunday visited Djibouti to bolster ties with the tiny and impoverished African country that is home to an important base for U.S. counterterrorism forces, including drones.

Mattis, the first Trump administration official to visit Djibouti, planned to meet with President Ismail Omar Guelleh and greet U.S. and French troops. He was accompanied by Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, head of U.S. Africa Command.

The U.S. operates drone aircraft from Djibouti for surveillance and combat missions against al-Qaida-affiliated extremists in Somalia and elsewhere in the region.

China is building a military base in Djibouti, a former French colony in the Horn of Africa.

For years the U.S. has operated a fleet of armed drones, initially from Djibouti's Camp Lemonnier, where French troops also are based, and now from a separate airfield. Djibouti took on added importance to the U.S. military after the Sept. 11 attacks, in part as a means of tracking and intercepting al-Qaida militants fleeing Afghanistan after the U.S. invaded that country in October 2001.

The U.S. has a long-term agreement with Djibouti for hosting American forces; that pact was renewed in 2014.

Djibouti has a highly prized port on the Gulf of Aden. The country is sandwiched between Somalia and Eritrea, and also shares a border with Ethiopia.

Mattis is using the early months as defense secretary to renew or strengthen relations with key defense allies and partners such as Djibouti, whose location makes it a strategic link in the network of overseas U.S. military bases.

Djibouti also has been instrumental to international efforts to counter piracy over the past decade.

Mattis' predecessor at the Pentagon, Ash Carter, never visited Djibouti during his two years as President Barack Obama's defense secretary.

Over the past week Mattis has met with leaders in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt and Qatar. In Doha, Qatar's capital, he told ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on Saturday that he would personally tend to the relationship.

"Your highness, relationships get better or weaker, and I'm committed to making it better from our side," Mattis said.

The U.S. has a fleet of fighter, bomber, transport, surveillance and refueling aircraft at Qatar's al-Udeid air base, which also is home to an operations center that coordinates U.S. air missions throughout the Mideast and in Afghanistan.