Terrorism & Security
A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues
Militants in Gaza launched a fresh barrage of rocket fire into southern Israel today after overnight Israeli airstrikes, underscoring the fragility of an unofficial 16-month ceasefire with Hamas. The latest escalation in tensions began yesterday when Islamic Jihad, another Gaza militant group, fired rockets into Israel.
No Israeli casualties were reported from either of the rocket attacks that targeted the towns of Ashkelon and Ashdod. But the exchange has stirred new fears of escalating tit-for-tat violence at a time when the US is brokering peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The crisis began on Tuesday, when an Israeli airstrike killed three members of Islamic Jihad, according to Reuters. The group retaliated Wednesday by firing more than 60 rockets at southern Israel, which in turn precipitated the bombing of 29 sites in the Gaza Strip by the Israeli Air Force.
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This week’s chain of strikes and counter-strikes closely follows Israel’s seizure of a cargo ship last week, which Israel said was transporting Iranian-supplied weapons to Gaza. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the weapons, if delivered to Gaza militants, could put Israel in Gaza’s range:
The shipment, which was expected to be unloaded in Sudan and then make its way overland through Egypt and the Sinai peninsula to Gaza, contained some variation of M302 rockets. Such missiles are quite accurate and could have put about 4 million Israelis in danger if fired from Gaza, according to Vice Admiral Eliezer Marom, the commander of the Israeli navy from 2007-11. He emphasized the ongoing role of Iran in sponsoring terrorist organizations against Israel.
Yet there are hopeful signs that this week’s crisis will not escalate further, writes The New York Times, noting that “both sides seemed to be making some effort to limit the fallout.” The rockets fired from Gaza were not long-range, and strikes from both sides appeared to be aimed at open areas.
It is also significant that Hamas has stayed out of the confrontation, which has involved Islamic Jihad and its armed wing, the Quds Brigade, reports Agence France-Presse.
“Hamas is not joining in at this stage and that’s a good thing," former National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror told the news agency.
An unnamed Palestinian official told Reuters that Egypt -- which controls the critical Rafah border crossing with Gaza, which depends heavily on the crossing for essential goods -- has stepped in to help restore peace.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel warned that Israel would retaliate "with great force" against its opponents. "If there is no quiet in the south then it will be noisy in Gaza, and that's an understatement,” Reuters reported him as saying.
But on Thursday Mr. Netanyahu also appeared to call for a defusing of the tensions. “We have a range of responses, a range of options, and the goal is to bring quiet,” a spokesman for the Prime Minister said Thursday, according to the New York Times. “If there can be quiet, that’s obviously a good thing. The question is: Can there be quiet?”
A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues
All flights to and from Crimea’s main airport – except for those from Moscow – are suspended, reports Agence France-Presse, which says that pro-Kremlin militants took over air traffic control yesterday. CNN reports that flights from Kiev, Istanbul, and a few other unnamed cities have been suspended for the rest of the week.
The Crimean deputy prime minister confirmed the flight limitations today, telling Voice of Russia that the decision was made “bearing in mind the possible influx of provocateurs,” and that “all limitations will be lifted after March 17.”
Pro-Russian forces – “a mixture of civilians wearing red armbands, Cossacks, and policemen loyal to the new pro-Russian regime” – are also checking bags and passports of travelers on Crimean roads and train stations, according to a separate AFP report.
The snap referendum in Crimea has escalated tensions between Russia, which has indicated that it will accept a Crimean vote for annexation, and the Kiev government and its Western backers, who call the vote illegal and illegitimate, in what is being called the worst East-West conflict since the cold war.
Underscoring the geopolitical stakes, the interim prime minister of Ukraine, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, is in Washington today to appeal for more economic and diplomatic aid. He is due to meet President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and congressional leaders. He will address the United Nations tomorrow.
While US officials have been clear that they will not intervene militarily in the area, Mr. Yatsenyuk will likely push for military aid. Before he left Kiev, Yatsenyuk told the Ukrainian parliament that "he wanted the United States and Britain, as guarantors of a 1994 treaty that saw Ukraine give up its Soviet nuclear weapons, to intervene both diplomatically and militarily to fend off Russian ‘aggression,’ ” according to Reuters.
In Ukraine’s parliament yesterday, both the acting president and acting defense ministers issued warnings about Russian strength and depicted Ukraine as outmatched by its giant neighbor's forces, according to Reuters:
In parliament, the acting defence minister said that of some 41,000 infantry mobilised last week, Ukraine could field only about 6,000 combat-ready troops, compared with more than 200,000 Russians deployed on the country's eastern borders. The prime minister said the air force was outnumbered 100 to one.
Acting president Oleksander Turchinov warned against provoking Russia, saying that would play into Moscow's hands, as he announced plans to mobilise a National Guard, though he gave little detail of its size or expected functions.
In Washington, lawmakers are focused on economic aid for Ukraine and penalties for Russia, rather than military support. Mr. Kerry has confirmed $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine, which the House has passed legislation to authorize. Yesterday, the House passed a nonbinding resolution that declares support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia, The New York Times notes.
The Christian Science Monitor’s Moscow correspondent warns that “the prospects for a diplomatic solution to what some are calling Europe’s worst crisis of the 21st century are growing dimmer by the day”:
If Russia did annex Crimea, it could mean a significant escalation of the crisis. In the past, Russia has supported breakaway territories such as Transnistria in Moldova and Nagorno Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Following its brief war with Georgia in 2008, Russia recognized the independence of two Georgian territories, Akhazia and South Ossetia, sundering a sovereign country. Western powers did something similar in 2008 by granting independence to Kosovo, which had been wrested from Serbia by NATO in a 1999 war.
But to actually bite off and swallow a chunk of sovereign territory is much rarer. Until now, Russia's effective seizure of Crimea has been relatively bloodless and enjoys widespread local support. But any move to annex it would likely spark intense global condemnation of Russia and turn a temporary crisis into a permanent bone of contention between Moscow and the West.
A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues
In their first explicit threat to Afghanistan's presidential elections, the Taliban called upon their forces to attack the infrastructure of next month's poll, calling it a "plot" of foreign "invaders."
Agence France-Presse reports that the Taliban have targeted every Afghan election since 2004. So far, this year's campaign ahead of the April 5 vote to decide on a successor to President Hamid Karzai has been "relatively peaceful." But the militant group, in a statement released today, promises more violence to come.
"We have given orders to all our mujahideen to use all force at their disposal to disrupt these upcoming sham elections -- to target all workers, activists, callers, security apparatus and offices," the Taliban said in an emailed statement.
"It is the religious obligation of every Afghan to fulfil their duty by foiling the latest plot of the invaders that is guised in the garb of elections." ...
The statement added that "the actual election has already taken place in the offices of the CIA and Pentagon and their favourite candidate has already won", without mentioning any candidate by name.
The Associated Press notes that the Taliban have already carried out several attacks related to the elections in the past month, including the murder of a campaign worker for presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah; a failed suicide attack on vice presidential candidate Ismail Khan; and the murder of a member of the Independent Election Commission.
The security of the impending election has long been a source of concern. In January, the chief of the IEC admitted to The Christian Science Monitor that the safety of the elections was obviously under threat, despite upbeat reports from the Interior Ministry that said some 95 percent of polling stations would be up and running for the vote.
“The IEC relies on the Afghan governmental security organizations to tell us what areas are secure, but it’s obvious that in some areas we will be trying to conduct elections in the middle of fighting [between antigovernment groups and the Afghan and international security forces],” says IEC Chief Electoral Officer Ziaulhaq Amarkhil.
Nonetheless, Mr. Amarkhil and others say that the Afghan government has no choice but to move forward with the election plans.
“This is our time. The security won’t get better in two months or six months. There is no other way for political transition because Afghans are used to elections now and they won’t accept anyone choosing their leader for them,” says Amerkhil.
And the Monitor's Dan Murphy predicts that the election will not be fair regardless, noting that the 2009 presidential election and the last parliamentary election were both "marked by rampant fraud. The country's independent election monitoring commission hasn't been allowed to become very independent, or to do much effective monitoring. Though the US has preferred in the past to refer to Afghan elections as 'messy' rather than acknowledge they are fraud fests, the reality can't be glossed over."
The Washington Post, reporting from the region of Nabahar, 200 miles south of the Afghan capital of Kabul, suggests that enthusiasm for the election is low, with Afghans afraid of voting for fear of Taliban reprisals. When Afghan government soldiers recently visited the region, the Post writes, "many locals dismissed the soldiers as no more than a temporary presence, a reaction that frustrated some commanders."
“The Taliban will return in the spring, and they will beat us if we vote,” said Abdul Rauf, a farmer in one village.
“You can’t bring security here,” said Atiqullah, another villager, who like many Afghans goes by only one name.
And when told who they could vote for in the elections – a ballot including several veteran Afghan politicians, some of whom are widely regarded as warlords with blood on their hands – the villagers showed "little enthusiasm — or even recognition."
“These people don’t know what elections are or what the president is,” Afghan army Capt. Hussain Jan said after speaking to one group of men.
Two of the passengers reportedly listed on board Malaysia Airlines MH370 – which disappeared Saturday – are not on the flight. Both say their passports were stolen.
Italian Luigi Maraldi and Austrian Christian Kozel have confirmed that they were not on the flight. Both also reported their passports stolen.
Austria’s foreign ministry spokesman, Martin Weiss, told media outlets on Saturday that the Austrian citizen - without naming Kozel – was safely living in Austria and had his passport stolen two years ago during a visit to Thailand.
Mr. Maraldi has told media outlets that his passport was stolen a year ago. The Guardian reports that the Italian embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, told its reporter that Luigi Maraldi is an Italian national living in Phuket who was recently given a new passport but did not get on the flight.
The stolen passports may be indicative that the Boeing 777 was infiltrated by terrorists or criminals. It's a thin thread of evidence and it may be premature to leap to such a conclusion.
But the sudden disappearance of the aircraft off radar screens, with no radio contact or mayday call, also indicates that whatever brought the aircraft down occurred quickly.
Malaysia Air Traffic Control said that it lost radar contact with the plane when it was 120 nautical miles off the coast of Kota Baru, Malaysia, and was reported missing at 2.40 a.m. Saturday, two hours after take-off, reports the Malay Mail.
The plane "lost all contact and radar signal one minute before it entered Vietnam's air traffic control," at 1:30 a.m. Lt. Gen. Vo Van Tuan, deputy chief of staff of the Vietnamese army, said in a statement.
The Malay Mail reports that Deputy Transport Minister Datuk Aziz Kaprawi acknowledged the news report on the Italian’s allegedly stolen passport and said the authorities are now investigating the possibility of foul play. “The information is still under review,” he said.
Malaysia's Department of Civil Aviation’s director-general Datuk Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said that airport authorities are now examining security footage of the passengers and the baggage.
Asked whether terrorism was suspected, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said, "We are looking at all possibilities, but it is too early to make any conclusive remarks."
Two large oil slicks have been spotted off the southern tip of Vietnam by the Vietnamese Air Force aircraft searching for the downed Boeing 777.
The oil slicks were each between 10 kilometers (6 miles) and 15 kilometers (9 miles) long, the Vietnamese government said in a statement. There was no confirmation that the slicks were related to the missing plane, but the statement said they were consistent with the kinds that would be produced by the two fuel tanks of a crashed jetliner, reported The Associated Press.
Search and rescue efforts continue.
But the bloc fell short of matching US asset freezes and bans on travel for individual Russians, most likely due to the resistance of one country: Germany.
The EU's European Council announced in a statement that it was freezing talks with Russia on a wide-ranging economic agreement and on granting Russian citizens visa-free travel within the EU, reports the Associated Press.
The council also threatened harsher actions, including "travel bans, asset freezes, and the cancellation of the EU-Russia summit" if Russia fails to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine. The statement added that any move by Russia to aggravate tensions would have “severe and far reaching consequences.”
Europe stepping up
Overall, the EU has taken a new, harsher tone in a crisis described as the most serious in Europe in a century. The Economist notes that the specificity of sanctions had until now just been vague threats.
Until the evening of March 5th, when foreign ministers were meeting in Paris to try to set up (a) contact group, it seemed unlikely the Europeans would move so far.… But Russia’s action is forcing EU leaders to set aside their qualms. As one diplomat put it, more than one leader came to the summit thinking their task was to defend their economic interests from the threat of sanctions, and left thinking the security of Europe was at stake.
But Europe’s inability to go as far as the US, which imposed visa restrictions on individual Russians, highlights the divergent views within the 28-nation bloc over how to deal with Russia.
Some countries in the EU see Russia and its vast energy industry as opportunity: Russia is the third-largest trading partner of the EU and the EU is the largest trading partner of Russia, according to the European Council. But to others along the bloc's eastern border and who view it through a post-Soviet lens, Russia is still a threat.
Still, even among those who are wary of the Kremlin's motives and want harsh sanctions, the EU response is stronger than originally anticipated.
“Not everyone will be satisfied with the decision, but I should say that we did much more together than one could have expected several hours ago," said Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, according to the AP, after the emergency meeting yesterday.
British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed, hinting that countries are overcoming their hesitation to take Russia on.
"Of course there are consequences for Britain if you look at financial services. Of course there are consequences for France if you look at defense. Of course there are consequences for some European countries if you look at energy," he said. But he said the EU had to take tough action to counter what he called "the most serious crisis in Europe this century."
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that if Russia continues to spark tensions, “then we will see a far-reaching change in our relationship with Russia, which can also include a broad array of economic measures,” she said. "We don't wish for that to happen."
Still, some say that her wish – that nothing should happen – could be playing too large a role in Germany's diplomacy. Poised to be the biggest power broker for Europe in the debate, Germany is the reason, some experts say, that the EU hasn’t reacted more sternly. Instead, it has pushed for a dialogue over confrontation – part of its tradition of “ostpolitik” with the East since the cold war.
"Germany is the main brake on a tougher stance toward Russia," Stefan Meister of the European Council on Foreign Relations told the Agence France-Presse. "What we see at the moment is the limits of German influence on Russia, the limits of the collaborative approach that Germany has maintained for many years."
A new poll showed that Germans largely support Berlin's stance on Ukraine. Only 38 percent of those polled want to impose sanctions on Russia, according to the survey carried out by Infratest Dimap for German public broadcaster ARD.
Nearly three-quarters of Germans want to provide financial support to Ukraine, while 62 percent want to up the political pressure on Russia.
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A NATO airstrike on Thursday morning killed at least five Afghan soldiers and injured at least eight others in a tragic incident of friendly fire that is likely to further inflame the battered Washington-Kabul relations.
The strike, which hit an Afghan National Army outpost in the country’s volatile Logar Province, located about 50 miles from Kabul, came from a drone, according to The New York Times. It was most likely “the result of poor coordination between the people on the ground and the operators of the drone,” the Logar provincial spokesman told the newspaper. A Logar provincial spokesman described the outpost as the “the front line against Taliban,” the Washington Post reported.
The development is a fresh blow to the fragile and increasingly fractious relationship between Washington and Kabul. The US has struggled to reach a security deal with outgoing Afghan president Hamid Karzai for continued US presence in the country after the international troops are pulled out in late 2014. NATO airstrikes – and Afghan ability to prosecute them for civilian deaths – are the key sticking point, and today’s events stand certain to widen the rift further.
The US-led Afghanistan International Security Assistance Force said in a statement that it has launched an investigation “to determine the circumstances that led to this unfortunate incident…. We value the strong relationship with our Afghan partners, and we will determine what actions will be taken to ensure incidents like this do not happen again.”
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Based on preliminary reports, the airstrike appears to have been conducted without request from the Afghan troops, the Washington Post reported, citing a Logar Afghan military spokesman. The US frequently undertakes airstrikes at the request of Afghan forces during intense clashes with the Taliban, but also maintains the ability to strike high-level targets unilaterally.
"The post is totally destroyed," Khalilullah Kamal, the Charkh district governor, told Agence France-Presse after visiting the site. "The Americans used to be in that post but since they left, the ANA [Afghan National Army] took over. The post is on a hilltop. The attack was conducted by drones."
Mr. Karzai, who cannot run for reelection, has often used botched airstrikes to slam the US, leveling increasingly vehement criticism at the American-led war effort as the April 5 presidential election approaches. Most of the leading candidates have indicated that they’d be willing to consider reviving negotiations of the battered bilateral security agreement in Washington.
The agreement would allow for 8,000 to 12,000 US troops to stay in Afghanistan and continue training the Afghan National Army, as well for billions of dollars in aid to be delivered, after the NATO combat mission ends in the end of 2014, according to the AFP.
A continued US presence would help strengthen government troops, but would generate continued controversy at home following the outcry against US actions in large part fueled by Karzai’s criticism.
The US currently has around 33,600 troops in Afghanistan, according to Deutsche Welle, which is down from the 2010 high of 100,000.
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A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues
Chinese state media offered an explanation today for the train station attack that they’ve dubbed ‘China’s 9/11’: The attackers wanted to leave the country to participate in jihad, but lashed out in China instead when they were unable to do so.
“[They] originally wanted to participate in ‘jihad,’ ” Qin Guangrong, the Communist Party chief of Yunnan, the province where the incident occurred, told Xinhua and other state-run media, according to the South China Morning Post.
“They couldn’t get out [of] Yunnan so tried to get out in other places, but they also couldn’t leave Guangdong, so once again they returned to Yunnan.”
When the group failed to escape through southern Yunnan’s Honghe county – which borders Vietnam – they hatched the plan to target either the frontier area or Kunming’s transport terminals, the report quoted Qin as saying.
Earlier in the week, Chinese authorities blamed the incident on eight people from China’s restive Xinjiang Province in western China, four of whom were shot during the attack and four of whom were later captured, according to Reuters.
Beijing has long spoken out against what it says are militant Islamists from Xinjiang who want an independent state called East Turkestan. The province is home to most of China’s ethnic Uighurs, who are Muslim and have a different language and culture than the majority Han population.
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But the response of authorities to the attack hints at their delicate balancing act.
Authorities blamed the attack on “separatist forces” from Xinjiang, and have vowed to respond aggressively. Today, Premier Li Keqiang vowed during his speech at the National People’s Congress that “we will firmly crack down on all violent crimes of terrorism,” and “we will ensure the safety of people’s lives and property.”
But officials have cautioned against “words or actions” that would inflame tensions, as they fear backlash over the attack could lead to a recurrence of clashes between Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese that killed more than 200 people in 2009.
President Xi Jinping said yesterday that “we will build a ‘wall of bronze and iron’ for ethnic unity, social stability, and national unity,” according to Xinhua, who described his statements as “resolute opposition to any words and actions that damage the country’s ethnic unity.”
In a briefing on China’s Uighurs, the Monitor's Beijing bureau chief explained that “Beijing's fear of "splittists" undermining national unity is so deep that it is hard to imagine the authorities taking a more relaxed view of local customs, culture, and religion.”
Uighurs complain that the influx of Han settlers over the past 50 years has made them strangers in their own land, where they now make up less than half the population. Most of the good jobs created by economic growth go to Han, not to Uighurs who mainly do menial tasks. Uighurs fear that their culture is being stifled and their Muslim religious practice curtailed as the Chinese government fights to stamp out separatism; young men under age 18 are banned from mosques, for example, and essential school classes are taught in Mandarin, not Uighur. Economic development is all very well, a Uighur trader once told me, but it comes at a price: "They give us bread," he said, "but they take away our hearts."
Uighurs outside of Xinjiang have expressed concern that there will be backlash against them. Abdurehmen Kadir, the owner of a Xinjiang-style pancake restaurant in Dashuying, told The Wall Street Journal that he was afraid of a repeat of the 2009 clashes.
"I tell my people not to go out at night, and when they do go out, to be more careful," he said. "People had a bad impression of Xinjiang people before, they think we are pickpockets, thieves and dishonest."
Police have been careful not to inflame tensions in their searches in Kunming, the site of the attack, the Journal reported.
The officers were polite in questioning him, said Mr. Shawuti, a 48-year-old chef. Plainclothes officers returned Monday in force, swarming the predominantly Uighur neighborhood in an apparent search for suspects.
The carefully even-handed police response in Kunming's small Muslim enclave of Dashuying reflects the challenges facing Chinese authorities in confronting violence that is spilling beyond Xinjiang to the rest of China.
All that remained of the police presence in Dashuying on Tuesday were regular patrols by police cruisers and two black tactical squad vans parked at the main intersection in the neighborhood, a convergence of three narrow streets lined with mostly three- or four-story shophouses.
Even with the restrained police response, Mr. Shawuti and others in his neighborhood said they were concerned that resentment over the attack among Han Chinese, who make up a majority of China's population, might fester.
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A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues.
(The headline on this piece was changed after posting).
An Egyptian court banned all Hamas activity in the country today, the latest step in Cairo’s drive to expel organizations it considers threatening to national security, which has been undermined by a building Islamic insurgency.
Relations with Hamas have nosedived since the military overthrow of democratically elected president and Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi last July. Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt's Brotherhood, which the new government declared a terrorist organization in December.
According to the Associated Press, Cairo believes “Hamas is playing a key role in the insurgency by militants in the northern region of the Sinai Peninsula, which borders Hamas-ruled Gaza and Israel.” Hamas has been accused of interfering in Egyptian affairs (many of its leaders are based in Cairo, a relic of the Brotherhood’s time in power) and colluding with militants that have orchestrated attacks on Egyptian security forces, according to BBC.
Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the United States, took power in Gaza in 2007 after a brief civil war with the more moderate Palestinian party Fatah, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, and Egyptian officials have since turned to Fatah for help weakening Hamas, Reuters reports. Furthermore, since July, Egypt's military has destroyed more than a thousand tunnels running underneath the Gaza border. The tunnels are a lifeline for Gazans, who use them to smuggle food, building supplies, and books, but also weapons. Egypt controls Gaza’s only border crossing not controlled by Israel.
According to The Christian Science Monitor, Hamas viewed Mr. Morsi’s rise to power in Egypt as a triumph that could help end Gaza’s economic and political isolation.
They were half-right. Hamas never had a better year in Gaza than Morsi's year in power, although his government kept Gaza cut off from Egypt much as [former President Hosni] Mubarak had in an attempt to keep up ties with Israel and the United States. But Morsi also promised a broader economic opening to the enclave, and there was a new spirit of optimism among Hamas stalwarts on the ground.
The honeymoon period came to an abrupt end, however, when the Egyptian military removed Morsi on July 3, leaving Hamas to deal with a new-old enemy after 12 euphoric months under the Muslim Brotherhood. The military's animosity toward Hamas is such that when it detained Morsi, one of the accusations made against the former president was that he had contact with the group during his escape from prison in 2011.
Since the Hamas takeover in 2007, the Egyptian Army has consistently accused it of meddling in Egyptian internal affairs and of being behind militant operations in the Sinai Peninsula that have destabilized the region and killed scores of Egyptian soldiers. It did not take long for the military to begin anew its battle with Hamas.
Senior Hamas official Izzat Rishq condemned today’s ruling, calling it a “political decision” by Egypt against the resistance of the Palestinian people, according to the AP. Hamas offials say they are suffering "unprecedented media and political campaign of incitement and defamation" in Egypt, according to Ahram Online.
In addition to banning all Hamas activity in Egypt, today’s case, which was brought by a group of Egyptian lawyers soon after the Muslim Brotherhood was ruled a terrorist organization in December 2013, calls for the shuttering of Hamas office space in the country. However, the judge did not declare Hamas a terrorist group because the court does not have the jurisdiction for that, according to Reuters.
Sergei Lavrov, speaking at a UN human rights meeting in Geneva, said today that Ukraine's Russian-speaking population was facing "ultra-nationalist threats" from forces that ousted and impeached former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych last month.
Mr Lavrov said: "The victors intend to make use of the fruits of their victory to attack human rights and fundamental freedoms of minorities.
He said the "violence of ultra-nationalists threatens the lives and the regional interests of Russians and the Russian speaking population."
As such, Mr. Lavrov said, Russia would maintain control "until the normalization of the political situation," reports the BBC. Reuters notes, however, that Lavrov maintained the Kremlin line that Russian President Vladimir Putin has not yet decided to send troops into Ukraine, despite widespread evidence that the soldiers who now control most of the Crimean peninsula are Russian.
The BBC notes, however, that Lavrov's comments contrasted sharply with an earlier version submitted to journalists, which said that "military interventions on the pretext of civilian protection produce the opposite effect."
The Associated Press reports that, according to US officials, some 6,000 Russian troops are now in Crimea, giving the Kremlin complete control of the region. And reports suggest that additional troops may be inbound. Soldiers speaking Russian and driving vehicles with Russian license plates have seized the ferry terminal in the Ukrainian city of Kerch, at the eastern tip of Crimea, just a few miles across the Straight of Kerch from Russia.
For its part, Ukraine has begun mobilizing its military by calling up reserves, nominally 1 million soldiers, though The Telegraph notes that most observers don't see it as a viable match for Russia. Furthermore, the Ukrainian military appears to have divided loyalties. Over the weekend, the head of the Ukrainian Navy, Denis Berezovsky, defected to the "Autonomous Republic of Crimea." And Russian news agency Itar-Tass claims that 3,000 more soldiers and security officers have sworn allegiance to Crimea as well.
Western options so far appear to be limited to diplomatic overtures and rebukes. British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned that "there will be consequences and costs" for Russia's actions in Ukraine, reports Agence France-Presse. Mr. Hague, who is in Kiev today, said that military intervention "cannot be the way in the 21st century to conduct international affairs." Yet he ruled out any military response to Russia.
The primary tool that the West appears to be able to wield against Russia is the ability to inflict economic repercussions. The Group of Seven top industrialized nations warned that it was halting preparations for the Group of Eight summit – consisting of the G-7 and Russia – scheduled this summer in Sochi, due to the Kremlin's intervention.
The statement was signed by the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States, and the presidents of the European Council and European Commission, and was released by the White House. It announced the leaders' resolution to “condemn the Russian Federation’s clear violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, in contravention of Russia’s obligations under the UN Charter and its 1997 basing agreement with Ukraine.”
“We call on Russia to address any ongoing security or human rights concerns that it has with Ukraine through direct negotiations, and/or via international observation or mediation under the auspices of the UN or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe,” the statement said.
The G7 also promised to press for financial aid for Kiev, which is facing an economic precipice, though it offered few details apart from expressing support for the necessary Ukrainian reforms required by the International Monetary Fund. "IMF support will be critical in unlocking additional assistance from the World Bank, other international financial institutions, the EU, and bilateral sources," the statement said.
The economic repercussions for Russia may also come through the market's own motions. Reuters reports that Russian assets dropped dramatically in today's trading over concerns about the Kremlin's Ukraine moves. The ruble dropped to all-time lows against the dollar and the euro. Russia's central bank issued a surprise increase in a key interest rate in response, to prevent "risks to inflation and financial stability associated with the recently increased level of volatility in the financial markets."
Britain’s surveillance agency GCHQ intercepted webcam images of millions of innocent Internet users, alleges the Guardian, which bases its report on leaked documents provided by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
The program, code-named Optic Nerve, includes still images from Yahoo webcam chats from 2008 to 2010. In a one-month period in 2008, images from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts, regardless of whether individuals were suspects or not, were collected. Much of it was sexually explicit, the newspaper reports.
As of publishing time, the Guardian piece has garnered more than 2,500 comments – an indication of how controversial the new allegations are both in Britain and across the globe.
Yahoo reacted angrily to the allegations, saying it was unaware of widespread surveillance. "We were not aware of nor would we condone this reported activity," a spokeswoman for the US technology firm told Agence France-Presse in an email statement. "This report, if true, represents a whole new level of violation of our users' privacy that is completely unacceptable. We are committed to preserving our users' trust and security and continue our efforts to expand encryption across all of our services."
Companies that operate Internet services send vast amounts of data — including video and webcam chats — through fiber-optic lines between their data centers around the world. After recent disclosures about government tapping of some of those lines, all three companies have said they are working to encrypt links between data centers. Yahoo has said that encryption will be in place for all of its services by March 31. Google has encrypted its video chat services since at least 2010.
GCHQ defended itself in the face of the latest allegations, all of which have emerged since Mr. Snowden, who remains in Russia with temporary asylum, began leaking documents to reporters last year. “It is a long-standing policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters," it said in a statement. "Furthermore, all of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorized, necessary, and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the interception and intelligence services commissioners, and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee.”
American politicians reacted angrily to the news. "We are extremely troubled by today's press report that a very large number of individuals — including law-abiding Americans — may have had private videos of themselves and their families intercepted and stored without any suspicion of wrongdoing," Senators Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, Mark Udall (D) of Colorado, and Martin Heinrich (D) of New Mexico said in a joint statement published by the AFP. "If this report is accurate, it would show a breathtaking lack of respect for the privacy and civil liberties of law-abiding citizens."
"It is becoming clearer and clearer that more needs to be done to ensure that 'foreign' intelligence collection does not intrude unnecessarily on the rights of law-abiding people or needlessly undermine the competitiveness of America's leading industries," the senators added.
The revelations have also prompted anger from Europe. Digital Rights Ireland chairman TJ McIntyre told the Irish Times that the documents highlight “in a vivid way the complaints we and other groups have been saying for a long time about indiscriminate mass surveillance,” he said. “It illustrates how governments – including the Irish Government – have become wedded to monitoring everyone’s communications at all times.”
The Guardian reported that Optic Nerve intended to, at least in part, identify users with automatic facial recognition software. But privacy issues, especially given the intimate material that was netted during the operation, has “echoes of George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ where the authorities – operating under the aegis of 'Big Brother' – fit homes with cameras to monitor the intimate details of people’s home lives,” reports the Associated Press.
“At least Big Brother had the decency to install his own cameras,” British media lawyer David Banksy said in a message posted to Twitter after the revelations broke, reports the AP. “We’ve had to buy them ourselves.”