Terrorism & Security
A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues.
A political ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has publicly challenged his handling of intensifying protests, suggesting a crack in the strong support base the embattled leader inherited from Hugo Chávez.
With antigovernment protests entering their third week and reports of violence escalating, there is no sign yet that Maduro's government is in danger of collapsing. But the willingness of a key associate to break party ranks is being seen as a worrisome sign for Maduro, who has failed to capture the kind of popular devotion the late President Chávez commanded.
In a radio interview on Monday, the governor of Táchira state, José Vielma Mora, was sharply critical of his president. "I am against putting down a peaceful protest with weapons," he told Caracas-based Onda radio Monday. "No one is authorized to use violence."
Táchira, in western Venezuela, is where the country's increasingly debilitating demonstrations began. They quickly spread across the country, with participants reaching beyond their original focus of better security to voice deep discontent over the world’s highest inflation rates and shortages of basic goods.
Mr. Vielma described as excessive the government’s deployment of armed forces and fighter jets. He also cited the rough tactics of a National Guard general who allegedly beat detained protesters in Táchira.
"It's a matter of peace; all of those in jail for political motives should be sent home," Vielma said.
The criticism was particularly striking given its source. Last weekend, retired Army general Angel Vivas caused a stir by standing armed on his balcony and denouncing Maduro’s calls for his arrest (he allegedly helped protesters stretch wire across streets as part of lethal barricades). But Mr. Vivas was already viewed as a somewhat rare vocal opponent of the government within the military ranks.
Mr. Vielma, a military officer like Mr. Chávez, participated in the failed uprising that made Mr. Chávez a household name. Six years later, Mr. Chávez won the presidency, sweeping his leftist movement and close allies—among them Mr. Vielma—into power with him.
The governor stressed that he hadn't broken away from the government but said he was in a difficult situation.
According to Reuters, “Socialist Party leaders have for years avoided making comments that could appear to be diverging from the party line, making Vielma's comment all the more uncommon.”
Venezuela’s protests are the biggest challenge so far to Maduro’s nearly 10-month-old administration. The death toll climbed to 13 on Monday as protests continued to flare nationwide, and Maduro announced a five-day public holiday beginning on Thursday in an effort to diffuse tensions, reports the Los Angeles Times.
The government says 529 people have been charged over the protests, with most given warnings. Roughly 45 people have been put behind bars.
Vielma’s comments – which also included condemning the government’s arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez on Feb. 18 – were well received by protesters nationwide.
"Look, the members of their own government are doing an about-face," José Luiz Nuñez, a chauffer in Caracas told The Wall Street Journal. "The government knows that this country is a disaster. They are scared."
Over the weekend both Maduro and opposition leader Henrique Capriles called for peace and discourse. But on Monday, Mr. Capriles declined an invitation to meet government officials at the presidential palace.
"This is a dying government .... I'm not going to be like the orchestra on the Titanic," he said, according to Reuters. "Miraflores [the presidential palace] is not the place to talk about peace, it's the center of operations for abuses of human rights."
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Ukrainian authorities in Kiev announced that they have issued an arrest warrant on charges of murder for ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, continuing the rapid reversal of fortunes that saw him impeached and in flight from the capital as his political allies abandoned him.
The Kyiv Post reports that acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced on his Facebook page this morning that Mr. Yanukovych and “other [former] government officials” are wanted for “mass killings of civilians.”
Though the charges do not name the alleged victims, the Post writes that it is "presumed that the investigation centers on whether Yanukovych hired snipers or ordered riot police to shoot EuroMaidan [Independence Square] demonstrators in January and February." At least 100 people have been killed in Ukraine's political turmoil, including at least 75 in the past week.
The apparent manhunt is the latest blow to Yanukovych, who just a week ago sought to use force to crush the protests on Kiev's Independence Square, or Maidan. Protesters have occupied the Maidan since late November, when Yanukovych decided against signing an association agreement with the European Union, which would have set Ukraine on a course that could ultimately result in EU membership.
Yanukovych instead sought support from the Kremlin, which retains strong influence over the eastern half of Ukraine and views the onetime Soviet republic as part of its sphere of influence. Russia eventually offered Yanukovych's government a $15 billion loan to keep Ukraine from toppling into economic crisis.
But after last week's deadly violence, Yanukovych's grip on power quickly began to crumble. On Friday, he signed an EU-brokered deal with opposition leaders to reform the Constitution – reducing presidential powers – and hold early elections in December. But the Rada, Ukraine's parliament, quickly moved to go even further, voting Yanukovych's top enforcer, the interior minister, out of office; repealing the ministry's "antiterrorist" campaign, which was seen as the facade for an antiprotester crackdown; and freeing Yanukovych's top political rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
And over the weekend, Yanukovych's political support virtually disappeared. The Rada on Saturday voted unanimously to impeach him for "massive human rights violations and abandonment of his duties," the Post reported, replacing him temporarily with Oleksandr Turchynov, a Tymoshenko ally, until elections in May. In a statement on its website, Yanukovych's Party of Regions denounced his apparent flight from the capital as "cowardice," and stated, "All responsibility for [the recent violence] lies with Yanukovych and his close entourage."
But The Christian Science Monitor's Kiev correspondent reports that despite Yanukovych's apparent departure from the stage, Ukraine is not out of the woods. The country's eastern population, whose support put Yanukovych in power in an election regarded by independent observers as free and fair, remains deeply concerned over events in Kiev.
“Voters in the east and west are very disappointed in that fact that Maidan in Kiev has won,” said Konstantin Bondarenko, a political analyst with the Institute for Ukrainian Policy. “In the worst-case scenario, there could be a split in the country by federalization, which would be ruled by separate powers.”
Under this scenario, Russia could support pro-Moscow eastern regions and a political party of Yanukovych supporters, said Zurab Alasaniya, the editor in chief for Mediaport.com, a news website in Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine.
It also remains unclear how the opposition will move ahead. Despite their unity against Yanukovych, the opposition is a divided group without a single leader steering its political ship. The now-released Ms. Tymoshenko is perhaps the best placed of the opposition leaders to take the country's helm, but she is also regarded as part of the Ukrainian elite from whom the country needs to break.
Protesters complain that Tymoshenko, a natural-gas tycoon, is part of the old guard of corrupt oligarchs and, for all her populist rhetoric, not so different from Yanukovych.
“We need someone completely unrelated to all this past, someone that has nothing to do with these people who got us in to this horrible situation in the first place,” said Vladimir Nichiporenko, a driver from Kiev who joined the protests.
Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych announced that all-night talks between the government, protesters, European Union foreign ministers, and representatives from Russia have led to a deal to end violence that has rocked this post-Soviet nation.
Diplomats told Reuters that a compromise "involved appointing a transitional government, with a reformed constitution by September reducing presidential powers, and fresh elections by the end of the year."
It comes as the European Union finally agreed to issue sanctions against members of the Ukrainian government.
“Negotiations on the settlement of the political crisis in Ukraine between President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych, leaders of the opposition, EU, and Russian representatives have finished,” a statement from the president’s office said. A deal could be signed as early as Friday morning local time.
In a separate announcement posted four hours later, President Yanukovych said that he is moving ahead with initiating early elections and a return to the 2004 constitution, as well as the creation of "the government of national trust."
"The opposition wants to consult with some of its members, which is entirely understandable," Mr. Fabius said on Europe 1 radio Friday morning. “In this sort of situation, as long as things haven't really been wrapped up, it's important to remain very cautious.”
On Twitter, Germany’s Foreign Ministry said that talks are underway.
But even if a deal is reached, it’s unclear if it will be accepted and respected. "This is just another piece of paper. We will not leave the barricades until Yanukovich steps down. That's all people want," Anton Solovyov, an IT worker protesting in the central square of Kiev, told Reuters.
Thursday marked the bloodiest day in a confrontation that began in November, after Mr. Yanukovych walked away from an association agreement with the EU, bowing to Russian pressure. Just hours earlier, a truce had been declared between protesters and government authorities who have battled for control of the country.
The dramatic escalation of violence this week moved the EU to issue sanctions on Thursday, after weeks of resistance. The sanctions would target Ukrainian officials believed to be behind the widespread violence.
The EU's decision comes a day after the US revoked visas for 20 Ukrainian officials. In a White House statement, the US said: “We are outraged by the images of Ukrainian security forces firing automatic weapons on their own people."
For some, EU sanctions came too late. “Sanctions would have been more effectual if EU member states would have agreed some weeks ago on using the sanctions threat as a diplomatic tool in order to deter the regime from using large-scale violence against protesters, something it did yesterday,” Ulrich Speck, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, told The Christian Science Monitor.
The EU is using a two-thronged approach – sanctions and diplomacy – in its efforts to bring both sides in Ukraine to a deal. But Mr. Speck says this might not be enough. He says the EU and US must come together in a more targeted effort to counter Russian pressure in Ukraine.
“There is a chance that a common transatlantic push might convince Moscow to give up support for Yanukovych. But this has to be done at the highest levels in Washington and Berlin. The West must be ready to send a clear warning to Moscow, or accept that Ukraine is going to slip further into violence,” he says. “This is a new geopolitical game, and so far the Western response has been limited to a day-to-day reaction to events on the ground in Ukraine. EU powers and the US must forge a joint approach, work out a plan, and get ahead of the curve.”
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Violent clashes between protesters and riot police erupted again in central Kiev Thursday morning, breaking an hours-long truce and casting doubt on the efforts of European negotiators in Kiev today.
Gunfire broke out in Kiev’s Independence Square early Thursday morning, leaving at least 22 people dead, as smoke continued to billow from burning barricades, according to the BBC. Eyewitnesses said they saw the bodies of some two dozen protesters, and officials said a police officer was killed.
The bloodshed jeopardizes the efforts of European officials who arrived in Ukraine Thursday in an attempt to broker talks between Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders. The foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Poland were expected to threaten sanctions and to pressure Mr. Yanukovych to hold early elections, The New York Times reports. The meeting was initially delayed due to security concerns, but the German Foreign Office confirmed on Twitter that it was under way.
The truce failed just after dawn, the Times reports, when “young men in ski masks opened a breach in their barricade near a stage on the square, ran across a hundred yards of smoldering debris and surged toward riot police officers who were firing at them with shotguns.”
Protesters pushed back the police in a continual racket of gunshots and by around 10 a.m. had recaptured the entire square, but at the cost of creating a scene of mayhem.
Yanukovych's office released a statement blaming the resumption of violence on the protesters. The Wall Street Journal reports that it wasn’t immediately clear who first broke the truce, and the Guardian reports seeing government snipers shooting at protesters.
One protester, Anatoly Volk, told the Times that "protesters had decided to try to retake the square because they believed a truce announced around midnight was a ruse. The young men in ski masks who led the push, he said, believed it was a stalling maneuver by President Viktor F. Yanukovych, to buy time to deploy troops in the capital after discovering that the civilian police had insufficient forces to clear the square."
“A truce means real negotiations,” Mr. Volk said. “They are just delaying to make time to bring in more troops. They didn’t have the forces to storm us last night. So we are expanding our barricades to where they were before. We are restoring what we had.”
Ukraine has been roiled by protests since November, when Yanukovych announced he would not sign an association agreement with the European Union – a pact his government had been under pressure from Russia to drop. It’s not immediately clear how European and Russian officials will respond to this week’s violence, which is the sharpest since the protests began.
The European leaders who are in Ukraine today said yesterday that they would be advocating for early elections as a measure to diffuse the violence, and would be holding out the threat of sanctions.
The purpose of the trip is “to make an attempt to bring the two sides to the table,” European Parliament President Martin Schulz said on Germany’s ZDF television, according to Bloomberg. “If that process doesn’t happen, we will have to think about sanctions,” including account freezes and travel curbs for Ukrainian government officials, he said.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that “when there is a situation as blocked as this, you need to turn to the people,” and that elections were the only option, according to The Wall Street Journal.
“Early elections, either presidential or parliamentary ones, are basic points to unlock the crisis and put an end to the violence in Ukraine,” an anonymous European diplomat told the Journal.
The European leaders were scheduled to return for a 3 p.m. local time meeting in Brussels with the rest of the EU foreign ministers to address Ukraine and the possibility of sanctions.
On the Russian side, officials have warned that they will delay their promised aid until after the situation calms down, the Journal reports.
Shortly after the gunfire erupted on Thursday morning, the Kremlin’s chief spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Russia would continue providing economic aid to Ukraine but would wait until the situation stabilized first.
Russia had offered Ukraine $15 billion in financial aid late last year and had already disbursed the first $3 billion tranche. A second tranche of $2 billion was planned to come this week, but has been postponed, officials said.
Russian leaders Wednesday repeated previous assurances that they will not intervene in Ukraine. But experts say the Kremlin is using all its leverage behind the scenes to convince Ukrainian authorities to forcibly restore order, and may be rethinking its options if beleaguered President Viktor Yanukovych loses power to his outspokenly anti-Russian opponents amid an increasingly violent standoff in downtown Kiev.
"It seem absolutely clear that the three attempts Yanukovych has made to bring harsh pressure on the protesters occupying Kiev's Maidan square over the past three months, with the toughest being last night, were discussed and agreed in advance between Putin and Yanukovych," says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics. "Unlike most Ukrainian players, whose interest is mainly in maintaining the status quo and muddling through without any radical breaks, Putin wants to win. He is absolutely interested in the scenario we see unfolding, with the opposition being crushed by force."
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Twin suicide bombings near an Iranian cultural center in Beirut today, the latest in a string of violent attacks linked to the war in Syria, underscore the challenge facing Lebanon’s new government.
The Al Qaeda-linked Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility after two vehicles rigged with bombs exploded simultaneously during morning rush hour in a largely Shiite neighborhood. The blasts, which went off about 50 meters from an Iranian cultural center, killed at least five people and injured more than 100.
Blast walls were set up at the cultural center in anticipation of such an attack after the Iranian Embassy in Lebanon was targeted late last year, reports The Associated Press.
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The militant group that claimed the attack said it was a response to Hezbollah and Iran's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to Reuters. Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite militant group, is backed by Iran, and the two have been critical allies of Mr. Assad. Al Qaeda and other militant Sunni groups in Lebanon back the Syrian rebels.
"We will continue – through the grace of God and his strength – to target Iran and its party in Lebanon (Hezbollah) in all of their security, political and military centers to achieve our two demands: One, the exit of all fighters from the Party of Iran in Syria. Two, the release of all our prisoners from oppressive Lebanese prisons," the Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades said on Twitter.
Wednesday's attacks come “just days after Lebanon announced a new coalition government, breaking 10 months of political stalemate,” reports The Los Angeles Times. The continued violence has tempered hopes that a more stable government could curb sectarian violence.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam formed a new cabinet over the weekend after almost a year of political deadlock. Mr. Salam said that today’s blasts were a message from terrorists trying to spread death and violence in his country.
"We got the message and we will respond to it with solidarity and our commitment to peace," Salam said.
Al Qaeda is not formally operating in Lebanon, writes The Christian Science Monitor’s Nicholas Blanford. However, the recurring attacks claimed by affiliate groups there over the past nine months has raised concerns that the terrorist group has enough support to expand its operations to Lebanon.
“In 2006, [Sunni] people [in Lebanon] were not very interested in Al Qaeda, but now it has become a legend among the youth,” Sheikh Omar Bakri, a Salafist cleric, told the Monitor. “If Al Qaeda wants to move, there would be many people here who would support them.”
Lebanese Sunnis historically have avoided Islamist militancy and tend to favor mercantile enterprises in the coastal cities of Beirut, Tripoli, and Sidon over picking up a gun.
But Sunni discontent has risen in recent years at the growing influence in Lebanon of the powerful Hezbollah, a sentiment that has been further aggravated by the war in Syria where Hezbollah fighters battle rebel groups. In the poorer Sunni areas of Lebanon, such as the Bab Tebbaneh neighborhood in Tripoli, the black flag of Al Qaeda has become a common sight.
“We are softer than other [Salafists] because Lebanon is an open society. You cannot compare us to Iraqis or Afghans,” says Abu Bara’, a Sunni Salafist cleric and commander of a local militia in Bab Tebbaneh, using his nom de guerre. “But the reason [for increasing militancy among Lebanese Sunnis] is that the Sunnis feel under pressure because of the war in Syria and because of Hezbollah. We feel our backs are to the wall.”
Lebanon's proximity to Syria, and the steady stream of fighters and refugees moving across its border have led to Beirut becoming a “secondary front of the Syrian war,” The Los Angeles Times reports.
The ongoing string of bombings linked to the Syrian war has left Lebanon on edge and raised international concern about security in this strategically situated nation of 4 million, wedged between Syria and Israel along the Mediterranean. Lebanon is also home to more than one million refugees from war-ravaged Syria….
Lebanon is officially neutral in the Syrian war, but various Lebanese factions have lined up on different sides of the almost three-year-old conflict. The war has exacerbated tensions among Lebanon’s Sunni and Shiite Muslim populations.
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A day after the United Nations released a damning report on crimes against humanity by North Korea – abuses that it warned China may be "aiding and abetting" – Beijing dismissed the UN effort as "unreasonable criticism."
"We believe that politicizing human rights issues is not conducive towards improving a country's human rights," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a briefing on Tuesday, underscoring the view of many diplomats that North Korea's ally is unlikely to support any action by the UN Security Council.
The report, released Monday, warns of "unspeakable atrocities" within North Korea at the hands of Kim Jong-un's regime, “The gravity, scale and nature of [which] reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”
The nearly 400-page report documents a litany of crimes, including "extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation."
In the DPRK [North Korea], international crimes appear to be intrinsic to the fabric of the state. The system is pitiless, pervasive and with few equivalents in modern international affairs. The fact that such enormous crimes could be going on for such a long time is an affront to universal human rights. These crimes must cease immediately. It is the duty of the DPRK and, failing that, the responsibility of the international community to ensure that this is done without delay.
The UN commission, which consisted of officials from Australia, Serbia, and Indonesia, advised that the UN should refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, and implement sanctions against those deemed most responsible for the ongoing abuses – potentially including Mr. Kim.
The commission also warned China that it should stop forcibly repatriating North Koreans fleeing their country, and extend them refugee status. The report found that most of those repatriated end up in the North's massive work camps, where the worst abuses take place.
But Ms. Hua, of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, cautioned against going to the ICC.
"We believe that taking human rights issues to the International Criminal Court is not helpful to improving a country's human rights situation."
Hua would not answer what she said was a "hypothetical question" on whether China would use its veto powers if the report was brought to the U.N. Security Council for further action.
She also denied that North Koreans fleeing into China were refugees, instead calling them illegal immigrants who had crossed the border for economic reasons.
Pyongyang also denied the report's findings as "fabricated and invented," reports Al Jazeera. "The DPRK [North Korea] once again makes it clear that the human rights violations mentioned in the so-called 'report' do not exist in our country."
The Los Angeles Times notes that many of the atrocities cited in the report are well known in the human rights community, but "their inclusion in a comprehensive document compiled by a U.N.-appointed panel appears to be unprecedented." The Times adds that the North Korean abuses have gotten worse under Kim Jong-un, whom many had hoped would prove to be less oppressive than his father, Kim Jong-il.
However, the trend appears to have reversed, especially in recent months. The execution in December of Jang Song Taek, the leader's uncle and the most reform-minded in the top leadership, triggered a purge that has seen dozens of people, possibly hundreds, executed or summarily deported to prison camps. Some reports say that among the victims have been children who committed no offenses but were related to those accused of political crimes.
And North Korea expert Leonid Petrov told Agence France-Presse that regardless of the report's findings and recommendations, the issue of abuses "cannot be resolved unilaterally, nor swiftly, without transforming the political climate of the whole region."
[Such change] would require, he argued, formally ending the Korean War -- which concluded in 1953 with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty -- as well as diplomatic recognition of North Korea and the lifting of sanctions imposed for its nuclear programme.
Otherwise the North would remain in a "perpetual and assiduously cultivated state of emergency" in which human rights were sacrificed on the altar of regime survival.
"Without the goodwill of regional policymakers to address the problem of the Korean War especially, the issue of human rights in Korea is unlikely to be resolved," Petrov added.
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It has not been a promising 24 hours for mediation and humanitarian efforts in Syria. The UN's humanitarian chief lambasted the effort to provide aid to the Syrian city of Homs Thursday night, and today, UN special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi warned that the failure of ongoing negotiations was "staring us in the face."
Efforts to negotiate greater access for aid agencies and a political solution to the conflict are both deadlocked, with Russia standing with the Syrian regime on one side of the widening divide, and the rest of the international community remaining largely on the other.
The Syrian government and opposition, as well as a host of other parties, have been in Geneva for another round of peace talks. But mediators are hung up on the question of whether a political transition can be discussed while fighting continues – and which issue is a higher priority.
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The Syrian government and Russia, the only country present that can exert influence over President Bashar al-Assad, insist that halting "terrorism" needs to happen first. The opposition, as well as the United States, have called for discussions of a political solution to begin immediately. Russia has accused the US of pursuing "regime change."
The Wall Street Journal pinned any failure of the talks firmly on Russia, writing that "Russia upended talks on Syria's civil war Thursday by explicitly rejecting a proposal to begin discussing the possible removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power during any political transition."
Although many doubted the talks would yield an end to the war, Russia's position could spell the end of the talks, which have so far achieved only a modest measure of cooperation in providing aid to civilians in the besieged city of Homs. The person close to the talks said he didn't expect Mr. Brahimi to summon the sides back to Geneva for a third round of negotiations.
[Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady] Gatilov was then asked "point blank" whether Moscow supported discussing political transition in parallel to violent extremism, according to a person close to the talks.
"No," Mr. Gatilov responded, according to the person.
Mr. Gatilov then recited the Syrian government's long-standing position that the agenda of the negotiations must follow the so-called Geneva I communiqué line-by-line, beginning with the cessation of violence. Political transition is point six in the communiqué.
Russian intervention was seen by diplomats as perhaps the only gambit remaining in the negotiations that, after three weeks, appeared to be on their deathbed, diplomats said.
Even efforts to achieve temporary cease-fires for humanitarian access are deadlocked as the UN Security Council struggles to draft a resolution. UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos was unequivocally angry in her remarks to the Security Council:
The operational environment is more dangerous for our colleagues than ever. 15 more aid workers have lost their lives since October.
I told the Security Council that it is unacceptable that, four months since the members demanded action, international humanitarian law continues to be consistently and flagrantly violated by all parties to the conflict.
All parties are failing in their responsibility to protect civilians. We understand that a war is going on. But even wars have rules.
The UN brokered the cease-fire for the besieged Old City of Homs at the last round of Syria peace talks, something that has been described as the sole accomplishment of those talks. But the relief effort fell much too short of its goals, Ms. Amos said.
While remarkable, the events in the Old City cannot serve as a model. Why? It was a success, given the difficult circumstances, but I find it difficult to describe as progress.
- Our people were under fire
- We evacuated 1,400 people: there’s nearly a quarter of a million people to go, if you look at all of those in besieged communities
- We provided food and medicines to 2,500 people: over three million people in hard-to reach communities. So yes to 2,500; no to three million.
I first raised the alarm about Homs 14 months ago. We cannot wait another 14 months to reach 1,400 more people. This is not only about the Old City of Homs. There are millions of people in dire need across Syria, their lives hanging in the balance.
The New York Times reports, however, that the top UN official in Syria said he hoped for similar deals elsewhere, indicating such deals could be a model if they included not only evacuations, but aid deliveries for those who chose to stay.
The Security Council is struggling to reconcile competing proposals, one spearheaded by Luxembourg, Australia, and Jordan, the other by Russia, according to The New York Times. The first draft called for punitive measures against those who obstructed aid delivery and named specific places in need of aid, both of which Russia's draft lacked.
Meanwhile, another crisis looms. The BBC reports that the UN is warning of a major influx of refugees to Lebanon as regime forces lay siege to the town of Yabroud, which lies between Homs and the Lebanese border. It is the last rebel foothold in the Qalamoun area, valuable to both sides for its proximity to the highway running between Damascus and Homs.
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Families torn apart by the Korean War might get the chance to reunite for the first time since 2010, after North Korea reversed course on its threat earlier this week to block the visits.
But while the apparent concession by Pyongyang could help thaw North-South relations on the Korean peninsula, efforts to put North Korea on the path to denuclearization remain hampered by disagreements between the US and China on how to move forward.
The New York Times reports that the apparent concession comes amid US Secretary of State John Kerry's fifth trip to Asia to tackle creeping concerns in the region, including North Korea’s nuclear program and the dispute between China and Japan in the South China Sea.
North Korea had threatened to walk away from earlier promises to let elderly relatives see one another, unless South Korea canceled military exercises with the United States. But Mr. Kerry rejected the demands, arguing that they have nothing to do with family reunification. If the visits are allowed to proceed, the Times reports, "the highly emotional family reunions would mark a notable sign that relations were thawing on the peninsula after years of high tensions triggered by the North’s nuclear and missile tests, which have resulted in United Nations sanctions."
But whether Kerry is able to make a difference on the nuclear front is unclear. His trip today to Beijing today is aimed at getting China to step up its role in the conflict. As a senior State Department official traveling with Kerry put it to The Washington Post: the trip is “an effort to translate ‘denuclearization’ from a noun to a verb.”
The official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name, said Kerry wants to “enlist greater and greater levels of Chinese cooperation in actually helping to achieve the goal of denuclearization, not just talking about it."
China has remained North Korea’s main ally, but ties between the two were dealt a blow last year after North Korea went ahead with a nuclear test despite China’s pleas that it not. The US has hoped China would take the lead on calming down Pyongyang.
“No country has a greater potential to influence North Korea behavior than China,” Kerry said during his visit in Seoul. “All of the refined fuel that goes in to move every automobile and airplane in North Korea comes from China. All of the fundamental, rudimentary banking structure it has with the world passes through China. Significant trade and assistance goes from China to North Korea.”
China seems to have brushed off Kerry’s pleas, however. Asked about his remarks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China is already doing significant diplomacy. "China as a responsible, big country has been actively promoting and resolving the nuclear issue and has played its due role," Mr. Hua said, according to Reuters. "We have, through different channels, worked on the North Korea nuclear problem through the six-party nuclear talks, and have maintained close communication with the parties."
American diplomacy with China on North Korea is also complicated by China’s territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific and calls that the US stay out of its disputes with its neighbors, particularly Japan. "The United States is not a party in the South China Sea dispute, and should ... be careful in its words and actions, and do more that will benefit true peace and stability in the region rather than the opposite," Hua said.
Those comments came as an editorial in China's official Xinhua news agency criticized US positions in the dispute, reports the Associated Press.
"The United States has to know that, while Beijing has always been trying to address territorial brawls with some neighboring countries through peaceful means, it will not hesitate to take steps to secure its key national security interests according to China's sovereign rights," Xinhua said.
"To dial down the flaring regional tensions, what Washington is expected to do right at the moment is not to blame China but press Japan to call off its provocative moves."
None of this bodes well for peace in the region, as the Economist points out. "North Korea, despite a little flurry of friendly gestures this week, is an ever-present, nuclear-armed threat to regional security. Indeed, worries about the stability of its regime are mounting," the author writes. "It would be in the interests of America, China, Japan and South Korea alike to agree on a strategy for dealing with the North. But they are too busy disagreeing among themselves."
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The Afghan government released 65 detainees today that US officials say are responsible for attacks on US and NATO troops. The release drew sharp criticism from US officials and further complicates already tense efforts to negotiate an extension to the US military mission in Afghanistan.
The men were released from the Parwan jail, previously known as the Bagram jail, outside of Kabul. The facility is a point of contention between the US – who says it has extensive evidence against the detainees – and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who “insists there is not enough evidence” against the detainees. The president has called the jail a “Taliban-making factory,” according to the BBC.
The government let free 65 of 88 Afghan detainees in the facility. The men were seen leaving the jail in small groups this morning, according to The New York Times.
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The release is the latest of a series of acts by President Karzai that have inflamed tensions with the US government. Congress has threatened to withdraw the aid that Karzai’s government and the Afghan security forces depend on.
Until last year, Bagram was under the control of US and NATO forces, who then handed it over to Afghan authorities. US officials earlier this week warned Kabul that the detainees are likely to rejoin the Taliban and, rather than being set free, should be prosecuted in Afghan courts, the Wall Street Journal reports.
The US military today released a statement noting its “strong concern about the potential threats these detainees pose to coalition forces and Afghan security forces and civilians.”
“Detainees from this group of 65 are directly linked to attacks killing or wounding 32 US or coalition personnel and 23 Afghan security personnel or civilians,” the statement said.
The US Embassy in Kabul said the Afghan government would “bear responsibility” for the decision. It complained that it had requested a thorough review of each case. "Instead, the evidence against them was never seriously considered.”
An Afghan panel created to review the detainee cases found that there was not enough evidence against the prisoners and ordered their release, Abdul Shakor Dadras, a member of the panel, told the Times.
Earlier this week, congressional leaders in Washington warned Kabul that a prisoner release could jeopardize US aid:
In a congressional hearing Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), said he would introduce a resolution condemning the release of the detainees and would urge his fellow lawmakers to cut off all development assistance to Afghanistan until after the election.
"President Karzai, in my view, is single-handedly destroying this relationship" with Washington, Sen. Graham said.
Rep. Howard McKeon (R., Calif.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the release would be in "direct contravention" of a U.S.-Afghan agreement on detentions.
"I am, frankly, appalled by the Karzai Government's complete lack of respect for our troops, men and women who are fighting to keep Afghanistan standing," he said in a statement.
The prisoner release comes at a time when US officials are already frustrated with Karzai’s refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement that would allow the US to maintain a small military force in Afghanistan for training and counterterrorism missions after the bulk of its troops withdraw in 2014.
Karzai stunned the US by refusing to sign the agreement, despite negotiating with US Secretary of State John Kerry last fall and getting approval from an Afghan council of elders. As a result, Obama administration officials are increasingly open to withdrawing all troops at the end of the year, the Times reports.
Increasingly vexed by Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, Mr. Obama is trying to figure out what form a residual force might take after the bulk of American troops leave by December and what would happen if no Americans stayed behind at all. The debate has rekindled some of the tensions within the administration that divided it in its early days.
With Mr. Karzai reinforcing Washington’s view of him as an erratic ally, skeptics of the administration’s Afghan strategy are increasingly open to withdrawing entirely at the end of 2014. Some in Mr. Obama’s civilian circle suspect that his generals may be trying to manipulate him with an all-or-nothing approach to a residual force. Military officials say they are trying to leave options open and are themselves more ambivalent than ever about staying.
The internal dynamics involved in the review, described by a variety of current and former White House, administration and military officials, are complicating what could be one of the most important decisions Mr. Obama makes this year. The president wants to avoid a repeat of what has happened in Iraq, which is again under siege, and yet he considers extricating the United States from Afghanistan a signature achievement for his legacy.
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that the US military, who originally wanted the agreement signed by the end of 2013, has revised its plans to allow the Obama administration to wait until after the Afghanistan presidential elections this spring.
The U.S. military has revised plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan to allow the White House to wait until President Hamid Karzai leaves office before completing a security pact and settling on a post-2014 U.S. troop presence, officials said.
The option for waiting reflects a growing belief in Washington that there is little chance of repairing relations with Mr. Karzai and getting him to sign the bilateral security agreement before elections scheduled for the spring.
"If he's not going to be part of the solution, we have to have a way to get past him," said a senior U.S. official. "It's a pragmatic recognition that clearly Karzai may not sign the BSA and that he doesn't represent the voice of the Afghan people."
Peter Tomsen, writing for Politico, noted that those who wonder what Karzai is thinking should note his political motivations.
And while he’s not running in the Afghan presidential campaign that began Monday, Feb. 3, he does seem to be maneuvering for future relevance, drawing on his period in office and on his tribal status as leader of the important Pashtun Popalzai tribe in southern Afghanistan. Karzai may see the predominantly Pashtun Taliban gaining strength after the U.S. withdrawal, reckoning that he has much to gain and little to lose by bashing America. And becoming a more vocal critic of the United States obfuscates the American support that lifted him into the presidency after 9/11.
All of the leading contenders to replace Karzai criticize his anti-American course. His former foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmay Rasoul; his former close advisor and finance minister Ashraf Ghani; and his older brother, Qayyum Karzai, have all declared that they would sign the troop deal with the United States. Each seeks to separate himself from the president, stressing that Afghanistan must maintain a strategic partnership with the West.
But Karzai’s unlikely to change direction. He is probably attempting to position himself as a future bridge between the Taliban and the next Afghan government. He may hope to be seen as an elder tribal leader and international statesman deserving respect and deference by the winning candidate, and by Afghan political, tribal, ethnic and religious leaders generally—including the Taliban. He might decide to tone his anti-Americanism down a notch now that the presidential campaign is underway and, constitutionally, he is a lame duck. And while the U.S.-led coalition should not count on it, Karzai might even deputize a cabinet minister to sign the troop agreement on his behalf before his successor takes office. But don’t expect him to keep quiet.
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In a reversal of its recent bellicose stance, North Korea is apparently the main instigator for rare high-level talks scheduled to be held Wednesday between the two Koreas.
There is no fixed agenda for the meeting, and the two countries – divided in the aftermath of World War II – are expected to discuss family reunions and annual South Korea-US military drills, reports Reuters. If the talks take place, they would be the weightiest official dialog between the Koreas since 2007.
That's a big "if." As Time reports, “the North is prone to sudden U-turns.” Earlier this month North Korea agreed to, then threatened to cancel scheduled family reunions, citing a US military sortie. And on Monday, it withdrew an invitation for a US official to travel to North Korea, potentially to secure the release of an American prisoner held there, Kenneth Bae. In September, a separate proposed round of reunions was canceled.
"It's premature to say whether this will lead to any breakthrough or policy change," Kim Yong-Hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, told Agence France-Presse. He noted that if the talks happen, regardless of their outcome, it would be "meaningful."
"A clearer answer will come after the meeting, but it will provide an opportunity for both sides to read the minds of their leaders," Mr. Kim said.
According to The Associated Press, “it's unlikely that North Korea will halt the reunions this time because it needs improved ties with South Korea to help attract foreign investment and aid.”
South Korea’s deputy national security adviser will attend Wednesday’s talks, while North Korea plans to send a senior Worker’s Party official. North Korea’s expected demands include resuming a joint tourism project, increasing humanitarian aid, and reduced US-South Korean joint military drills, a South Korean academic Yoo Ho-Yeol told the AP.
Pyongyang plays politics with family reunions: a sadistic heartbreaker for elderly Koreans yearning to see their long-lost kin, if only once and briefly.
But business seems to be another matter: Bring it on….
Yet, [North Korean leader Kim Jung-un] needs to depend less on China, so where else can he turn? Russia is iffy, despite the rail project – whose costs it seems keen to share. In 2012 Moscow finally wrote off North Korea’s accumulated Soviet-era debts of $10 billion. Another $1 billion is to be converted to 20-year loans for energy, education and healthcare, but nothing has been heard of this.
That leaves South Korea. Maybe the Young Marshal has finally grasped that fiery menaces and sabotaging Kaesong, as he did last spring, isn’t the most sensible approach to a richer cousin whose current leader is offering “trustpolitik”. Then again, the North’s persistent cynical game-playing over family reunions is a reminder how hard that trust will be to build.
The Christian Science Monitor noted last month that since taking power over “the world’s most secretive” nation in 2011, leader Kim Jung-un has yet to meet with any world leaders, and many North Korea observers are preoccupied by how little is known about Mr. Kim and what drives him.
“Purges in the North rose in the past year, and the number of public executions, which had been falling, doubled,” the Monitor reports.
To be sure, the 30-something leader (no one seems to know his precise age) faces a difficult conundrum. It is one he inherited from his grandfather and father: North Korea must open and reform to become economically viable. Yet real change will undercut the system of cult loyalty that provides the rationale for the Kim family's existence. Change could bring collapse.
"We don't know and maybe never knew what balance in the DPRK [North Korean ruling party] looks like, but we can now say this is not balance," says Scott Snyder at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, speaking of [Kim’s uncle] Mr. Jang's assassination. "A peaceful outcome is harder to see. North Korea is pushing the peninsula towards confrontation."