Terrorism & Security
Two female, Western journalists were shot in eastern Afghanistan in a disturbing trend of violence against media workers as the country prepares to elect a new president tomorrow.
One of the journalists, Anja Niedringhaus, a German photographer with the Associated Press, died in the attack; Kathy Gannon, a Canadian reporter for the AP, is seriously injured, Baryalai Rawan, a spokesman for the governor in Khost Province, told Bloomberg News.
The incident occurred in the eastern town of Khost, near Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, as the two traveled with a convoy of election workers delivering ballots. As they waited for the convoy to move, a police unit commander approached their vehicle, reportedly uttering "God is Great" before firing bullets. Afghanistan’s interior ministry said the shooter has been detained.
Before this attack, Reporters Without Borders had condemned violence against journalists reporting on the election. This attack follows the death of Sardar Ahmad last month, an Agence France-Presse reporter who was killed when Taliban gunmen assaulted a major Kabul hotel where he was dining. Earlier last month, a Swedish journalist, Nils Homer, was shot on the streets of the capital.
“The fact that these two attacks occurred in places in the capital with a reputation for being safe can only have a dissuasive impact on media preparing to cover the election,” said Réza Moïni, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Iran-Afghanistan desk.
“This violence is partly responsible for the withdrawal of certain foreign election observer missions, making the election’s transparency more dependent on the presence of Afghan and foreign journalists."
The Taliban said they would use suicide bombs to target voters and officials, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said in an April 2 statement, according to Bloomberg. Afghanistan has dispatched 200,000 troops to secure the election, in what the BBC's Afghanistan correspondent David Loyn says is the biggest military operation since the fall of the Taliban.
Many Afghans are attending rallies and appear engaged in the vote despite the threats and attacks.
“The spike in violence has increased fear among Afghans and foreigners,” reports The Christian Science Monitor from Kabul. “But for some, it has also prompted new defiance in the face of an insurgency that has only grown bolder as US and NATO forces prepare to withdraw later this year, and President Hamid Karzai steps down after 12 years in power.”
Reporters Without Borders said it remained optimistic this week that the media were also resolute in sustaining their reports on the election. “Most of the media stepped up their efforts to provide good coverage of the election campaign and seemed determined to take the necessary preventive measures on 5 April. We reiterate our support for the media and we encourage them to continue prioritizing the safety of their reporters.”
The two AP journalists are being honored by their colleagues in the wake of the attack. "Anja and Kathy together have spent years in Afghanistan covering the conflict and the people there. Anja was a vibrant, dynamic journalist well-loved for her insightful photographs, her warm heart, and joy for life. We are heartbroken at her loss," said AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll in New York.
Ms. Niedringhaus was no stranger to violence. The German photographer has covered the major hotspots from Iraq to Pakistan, reports The Local, an English-language newspaper in Germany. In 1997 her foot was crushed by a moving police car during demonstrations in Belgrade. A year later, in Kosovo, she was blown out of a car by a grenade, and a year after that was part of a group of journalists bombed, mistakenly, by NATO.
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The latest US-led peace effort appeared to hit a wall yesterday as Palestinian leaders applied to join several international conventions in an act of defiance. But Secretary of State John Kerry still considers the peace process alive – even if he has played all his cards.
Speaking from Algiers today, he said he planned to talk with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas this afternoon and urged the two to "lead," the Associated Press reports.
“You can facilitate, you can push, you can nudge, but the parties themselves have to make fundamental decisions and compromises,” he said. “The leaders have to lead and they have to be able to see a moment when it’s there.”
He recalled the old adage that you can lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink.
“Now is the time to drink,” Kerry said. “The leaders need to know that.”
Citing the Washington Post and the New York Times, Barak Ravid, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, writes that US officials say Mr. Kerry has "maximized his potential as peace mediator and sees no chance for progress if the sides refuse to make major decisions on their own."
But the way many Palestinians see it, Mr. Abbas's decision to leave the talks and seek international recognition was a moment of leadership. He has long been pushed to stand up to Israel, and criticized for bowing to Israeli and US pressure at the negotiating table, as The Christian Science Monitor notes.
In two decades of peacemaking, Mr. Abbas and his predecessors have never drawn a firm line on issues such as an Israeli settlement freeze, the release of Palestinian prisoners, or lack of implementation of previous peace agreements, says Diana Buttu, a former member of the Palestinian negotiating team.
“As much as they say it’s a red line, it turns into a gray line,” Ms. Buttu says. “[Abbas’s decision] for me was good because it established for the first time that there is indeed a red line.”
“The Israelis and the Americans even believed that Abu Mazen didn’t have the courage to do so. And they don’t care about his requests,” says Hafez Barghouti, a Palestinian author and former editor of the PA daily newspaper al-Hayat al-Jadida. “So when Abu Mazen took this step, lots of people are supporting him and his popularity is up, because it’s a kind of dignity for the Palestinians.”
Certainly Abbas will receive a chunk of the blame for the talks' failure for walking away from them – as Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg notes – but Netanyahu will as well. Larry Derfner, a columnist for the left-leaning Israeli commentary website +972, says the criticism leveled at both the Israelis and the Palestinians is a victory for the Palestinians.
The Palestinians have “won” the Kerry peace initiative: The Obama administration is blaming both sides for its likely failure, not just the Palestinian side, which is the most they could have expected. The New York Times editorial goes one better: It points the finger pretty squarely at Netanyahu, which is radical for a Times editorial. So the Palestinians, having the clear sympathy of Europe and the rest of the world as the aggrieved party, can go to the UN after the talks run out on April 29 and be able to say: “We are seeking our independence here because Israel refused to give it to us.”
So the Palestinians and their supporters – whose success is Israel’s success, regardless of their intentions – have a great opportunity. Politically, now is the time for the UN, for The Hague, for BDS, for unarmed “popular resistance.” Politically it’s the only option...
Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev predicts that international public opinion will blame Israel for the collapse of the talks, even if it has the US on its side, and that Israel will turn inward, making any peace agreement a distant illusion.
The verdict is in and the outcome is a foregone conclusion. No matter how much effort and creativity Israel puts into its [propaganda] campaign, and even it were to present a truly compelling case against Mahmoud Abbas’, the international jury is certain to find for the his side. It’s best to prepare yourself in advance.
Of course, once Israelis and many Diaspora Jews understand that international public opinion is blaming them rather than the Palestinians, despite what they perceive to be the overwhelming and incontrovertible evidence on their side, they will only grow more insular, more isolated and more convinced not only that the “world is against us,” as their leaders keep telling them, but that it is inherently Jew-hating as well.
And once the Palestinians begin to gain acceptance to international organizations and the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions starts to really take off, Israelis will increasingly pin the blame on traitors in their midst, informers from within, Jewish back-stabbers bought and paid for by hostile money from malevolent foreigners abroad. And they will dig in their heels even more.
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"This is a very large and very capable and very ready force," NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, US Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove told Reuters, referring to the estimated 40,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine. General Breedlove said the situation was “incredibly concerning,” and that Russia had the means – including aircraft, field hospitals, and electronic warfare capabilities – to "accomplish its objectives in between 3 and 5 days if directed to make actions.”
The motivation for an incursion could be to create easier land access to Crimea, and possibly beyond that to Ukraine’s Black Sea port, the NATO commander said.
On Tuesday, the 28-nation NATO alliance suspended its working relationship with Russia in protest of its annexation of Crimea last month. Russia protested the decision, which included drawing up heightened security plans in Eastern Europe, saying the move would only serve to hurt joint efforts to battle terrorism.
“It’s not hard to guess who will benefit from halting the joint work of Russia and NATO in countering modern threats,” the Foreign Ministry said on its website, according to Bloomberg. “In any case, it certainly won’t be Russia and the members of NATO.”
Yesterday, Russia’s Gazprom hiked natural gas prices in Ukraine, a tactic that The New York Times reports is commonly used by the state-controlled company to punish or pressure former Soviet countries at odds with the Kremlin’s politics. Gazprom stated that prices went up in Ukraine because of unpaid debts, and Kiev does owe the company billions in gas payments.
If Russia attempted any further annexations, NATO would need to rethink its “force positioning” and readiness, said Breedlove.
But not everyone is so sure Russia is prepared to repeat a Crimea-like takeover. The Christian Science Monitor’s Fred Weir reported this week that while there is little reason to trust Russia when it says it has no plans for further invasions – it said the same thing before entering Crimea – "Analysts say the numbers being bandied about by NATO do not jibe with Russian military doctrine."
"Any attempt to occupy eastern Ukraine would be far more complicated and on a much greater scale than the operation to secure Crimea was," says Alexander Golts, deputy editor of the liberal Yezhednevny Zhurnal, a leading military expert, and a critic of Putin. "At a very minimum the generals would want 100,000 troops."
Mr. Golts says that what NATO is observing is probably the "vestige" of Russia's big operation earlier this month to take Crimea…
Viktor Litovkin, a military expert with the official ITAR-Tass agency, says the Russian Army is more active than it was a few years ago, and it is not unusual to see troops and equipment moving around the countryside, staging exercises, in any part of Russia these days. "Armies are supposed to exercise, and that's what ours does year round," he says.
Another perspective comes from journalists who've toured Russia's borderland searching for the invasion army, and so far found no sign of it.
An NBC camera crew headed by veteran correspondent Jim Maceda covered 1,000 miles, or almost the full extent of the troubled Russo-Ukrainian frontier last week, often taking to back roads and poking their noses into spaces that might be suitable for hiding an armored division or two. The only troops they reported finding were located in established military bases and doing routine things like "latrine duty" and holding a "wrestling match."
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Following an exchange of live fire early Monday with North Korea along its disputed maritime border with South Korea, Seoul says it found an unmanned drone that crashed into an island near the border. If confirmed to be a North Korean drone, the discovery could exacerbate already stressed relations on the peninsula.
"The temperature is rising at present on the Korean Peninsula, and this worries us," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei. China is the North’s main supporter. "We hope that all sides can remain calm and exercise restraint."
In recent days, North Korea has taken steps to raise military tensions on the Korean Peninsula. It said Sunday it would carry out a “new form” of nuclear test, something observers suspect could mean testing a nuclear device small enough to be carried by ballistic missiles, according to The New York Times.
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On Monday the North fired 500 shells into the Yellow Sea, with about 100 crossing into the disputed maritime border with South Korea. Seoul fired back its own barrage: a defense spokesman told CNN, “We are not shooting at North Korea, just shooting into the sea."
The shelling was the first to take place since South Korea’s Joint Chief of Staff approved “new rules of engagement that call for an immediate strike against a North Korean attack,” reports South Korean Yonhap News Agency. Previous protocol “prevented the South Korean military from retaliating unless there [was] an absolute need.”
The discovery of a crashed drone on the South Korean island of Baengnyeong has Seoul looking into the North’s espionage operations, reports Reuters.
South Korea's defense ministry believes North Korea has deployed drones along its southern border in the past, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The North has displayed drone-like aerial vehicles during its military parades and in March last year its state media reported dictator Kim Jong Un guided a drill of “super precision drones.”
South Korea has been eager to bolster its own capabilities to spy on North Korea with reconnaissance drones. In March, Seoul confirmed an $817 million military procurement deal to secure Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles from Northrop Grumman Corp.
The US and South Korea are currently participating in joint military exercises, which are slated to end on April 18. Bruce Bechtol, a Korea expert and professor at Angelo State University in Texas told USA Today that North Korea’s firing into South Korean territory “was really aimed at [US] policymakers, Republic of Korea policymakers, and Japan.”
The official Korean Central News Agency that North Korea's actions Monday were necessary self-defense moves taken “to cope with the grave situation created by the US’s hostile policy,” reports USA Today.
North Korea "is fully ready for next-stage steps which the enemy can hardly imagine in case the US considers them as a 'provocation' again," the statement read. "It would not rule out a new form of nuclear test for bolstering up its nuclear deterrence. The US had better ponder over this and stop acting rashly."
As a separate NewYork Times article notes, “after trading fire,” the Koreas “trad[ed] insults” this week. South Korean President Park Geun-hye made a speech last week, promising a host of measures including increased aid and investment in the North in return for giving up its nuclear program. The so-called "Dresden Declaration" wasn't well-received in the North.
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Today, according to The New York Times:
[T]he state-controlled North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun scoffed at Ms. Park’s speech, calling the unmarried South Korean leader an “eccentric old spinster” and “a frog in a well.” It said her overture was “full of deception” and “filth” and was aimed at destroying the North Korean government.
South Korea immediately responded, condemning North Korea for using “expressions even street ruffians would refrain from.”
“North Korea must realize that by the way it is behaving, it will attain nothing and will only deepen its isolation,” the government in Seoul said in a statement.
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North Korea, which had advised Seoul of its intent to hold live-fire drills off the peninsular's west coast, fired about 500 artillery shells into the ocean. Of these, some 100 fell south of the Northern Limit Line, the maritime border claimed by the South but not recognized by the North. In response, South Korea scrambled fighters and fired 300 shells of its own into waters claimed by Pyongyang in retaliation, Reuters reports.
China expressed "concerns" over the exchange of fire, Yonghap News reports, and urged both sides to "exercise restraint."
The Northern Limit Line has long been a flashpoint for the two Koreas, most significantly in November 2010, when North Korea shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians and injuring several others.
Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group told Reuters that "It's up to the two militaries either to recognize or reject their own claimed line, and challenge the other's – this goes back and forth, so this is probably another episode of that."
The Northern Limit Lane dates back to 1953, when United Nations troops occupied parts of the peninsular. But it didn't become a point of contention for North Korea until 1973, according to an analysis by the Woodrow Wilson Center.
The latest exchange of fire follows South Korean President Park Geun Hye's "Dresden Declaration" last week, which proposed a plan to prepare for reunification of the Koreas; it also coincides with the ongoing joint military exercises in the South.
Kim Yong Hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, told Bloomberg News that the North's artillery barrage was a direct comment on President Park's proposal. “North Korea is refusing to be dragged into plans led by the South, and is indirectly saying that Park’s plan won’t be easy to implement,” he said.
Similarly, Time Magazine calls the barrage "a rather pointed reminder that Park Geun-hye’s diplomatic efforts in Europe, including her speech in Dresden, are very much at odds with North Korea’s plans. Peaceful reunification is not on their agenda, and they do not wish to see things move ahead on her terms."
However, Paik Hak-soon, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, had a different take. "The threats seem to have little to do with the Dresden Declaration," he told the Korea Times. Rather, he says, it's part of North Korea's objection to the US-South Korean military exercises. "North Korea would have carried out similar maneuvers even if Park did not come up with the statement.”
Time adds that, regardless of the particular trigger of the North Korean barrage, "the goal, presumably, is to bring the focus back to stalled [nuclear] talks with the US and others."
If the past is any guide, we can probably expect the North to push ahead with tests, including, potentially, a fourth nuclear test. They said as much on Sunday, warning the world, obliquely, that they may have a “new form” of test in the works.
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Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement that Western states used the "the full force of the unspent potential of the cold war-era propaganda machine" to push through the vote, which passed Thursday.
"It is well-known what kind of shameless pressure, up to the point of political blackmail and economic threats, was brought to bear on a number of [UN] member states so they would vote 'yes'," the statement said, according to Reuters. "This counterproductive initiative only complicates efforts to resolve the domestic political crisis in Ukraine."
At issue is the referendum earlier this month in which Crimeans, the majority of whom are ethnic Russians, expressed their wish to leave Ukraine for Russia. Ukraine, which is readying for May elections, declared it illegitimate.
The UN measure, sponsored by Ukraine and supported by the US and the European Union, did not specifically mention Russia but clearly criticized Moscow’s actions, calling on all countries to “desist and refrain from actions aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” reports the Los Angeles Times. It says the referendum has “no validity” and thus “cannot form the basis for any alteration of the status” of Crimea.
But after the UN General Assembly passed the resolution Thursday – with 100 votes in favor, 11 against, and 58 abstentions – Russian envoy Vitaly Churkin said the results showed that Russia wasn't isolated, despite Western insistence to the contrary.
“Very many countries complained that they were undergoing colossal pressure on the part of Western powers to vote in support of that resolution,” Mr. Churkin told journalists after the vote. “Some countries voted grudgingly, shall I say, and complained to us about the strong pressure they had experienced.”
Reuters reports, citing information from Western diplomats, that Russia's UN envoy “led an aggressive lobbying campaign against the resolution in what they said showed how seriously Moscow took the UN vote.”
A blog in The Washington Post, which lists the countries that voted against the resolution, illustrates global sentiment about Russia's actions. Those that voted against include Armenia, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, North Korea, Nicaragua, Russia, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.
The resolution is similar to a text Moscow vetoed earlier this month in the UN Security Council, the wire service reports.
But will the vote make a difference? Probably not in Crimea, but it could serve as a preventive measure, as the Los Angeles Times summarizes:
“Although President Obama has conceded publicly that the Russians are not likely to give up their hold on Crimea, the US and its allies hope that international isolation, along with economic sanctions, will discourage Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading other parts of eastern Ukraine that have large numbers of Russian speakers.”
The resolution passed as the International Monetary Fund announced a $14 billion to $18 billion bailout for Ukraine to stave off a debt crisis. It will require a tough reform agenda. Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was released from prison last month, has indicated she might be up for the task: She announced yesterday her intent to run for president in the country’s elections planned for May 25.
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When US President Barack Obama visited both NATO and European Union headquarters in Brussels yesterday, discussion of a response to Russia's moves in Ukraine was not just about the right strategy, but what NATO is even capable of today.
The Obama administration has repeatedly voiced concerns about Europe's declining contributions to NATO, criticizing its members for "subcontracting" their defense to the United States even as the US decreased its own overall commitment to NATO. But US warnings received little response; NATO was on its way out of Afghanistan, and it appeared the need for a strong military force was declining.
An era of sharp austerity in Europe has also curtailed any interest on the Continent in boosting defense forces, reports the Washington Post:
... for the moment, there appears to be little appetite among European leaders to bust their recession-scarred budgets or buck their war-weary populations in order to shore up thinly stretched armed forces.
Military spending across Europe fell dramatically after the Cold War, then ramped up for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in the five years since the global financial crisis, it has been cut sharply again -- even as Russia’s defense spending has surged by more than 30 percent.
More European cuts are on the way, even as leaders hurl a daily dose of tough rhetoric toward Moscow.
Last year, only a few countries, which include the US, met NATO's requirement to spent 2 percent of GDP on defense. The prospect of deeper conflict with Russia was not on anyone's radar. Now, the 28-member international force is unsure if it is formidable enough to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin if he pursues territory beyond the annexation of Crimea.
“The limited ground forces in Europe are not designed to suddenly project power against Russia in a number of days,” Anthony H. Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The New York Times. “Basically, the most constructive thing you can do is not create such a challenge that Russia would feel compelled to respond.”
The New York Times compares the NATO of 2014 with the NATO of the cold war:
During the height of the Cold War, United States troops in Europe numbered around 400,000, a combat-ready force designed to quickly deploy and defend Western Europe — particularly what was then West Germany — against a potential Soviet advance.
Today there are about 67,000 American troops in Europe, including 40,000 in Germany, with the rest scattered mostly in Italy and Britain. The Air Force has some 130 fighter jets, 12 refueling planes and 30 cargo aircraft. At the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, it had 800 aircraft in Europe.
The United States Navy, meanwhile, has dropped to 7,000 sailors and Marines, down from the 40,000 sailors who were stationed at nine major Navy bases during the height of the Cold War. Today, there are no American aircraft carrier groups based in the Mediterranean, although the Navy does have one destroyer deployed at Cádiz, Spain.
NATO, formed at the outset of the cold war, has struggled with the question of its relevance since the Soviet Union's collapse. The Ukraine crisis, particularly Putin's vow to protect ethnic Russians living outside Russia's borders, "has suddenly breathed new life into NATO’s raison d’être... NATO's historic mission as a counterweight to Moscow," The Christian Science Monitor reports.
“You could see how NATO was a bit in search of a mission post-Afghanistan ... and then Russia gave it an answer,” Nicu Popescu, an analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris, told the Monitor. “This militarization of politics, driven by Russia, has led to the rediscovery of NATO’s importance.”
There are two schools of thought about the path NATO should chart: one argues that NATO should return to its roots, while the other says it needs to focus on the new threat of global terrorism. Putin's moves in Crimea give a boost to the former.
NATO's diminished capacity is not the only thing holding back the US and Europe. As the Associated Press points out, the Obama administration's Russia "reset," a bid to bring Moscow more fully into the international community and normalize US-Russia relations, led to Russia becoming an integral part of several international diplomacy efforts that the US does not want to rupture.
But even as officials warn of curtailed ties with Russia, they’re seeking to insulate Obama’s most pressing foreign policy priorities from any major harm that might result.
Examples are plentiful and worrisome:
- Russia is part of the international negotiating team working with the U.S. to strike a nuclear deal with Iran.
- The Kremlin’s participation is crucial to keeping Syria on track with a plan to rid Damascus of its chemical weapons stockpiles.
- Russia also allows the U.S. to use an alternative to a supply route through Pakistan to bring military personnel and equipment out of Afghanistan as the war there comes to an end.
Then there’s the International Space Station and Russia’s agreement to ferry American astronauts to and from it. And the concern, more pointed in Europe but well-noted in the U.S., that a deeper rift with Russia could interrupt crucial energy supplies now flowing to European nations.
NATO's resolve could be tested soon, according to a US intelligence assessment that a Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine "is more probable than it was previously thought to be," CNN reports, describing Russia's military buildup as "reminiscent of Moscow’s military moves before it went into Chechnya and Georgia in both numbers of units and their capabilities."
American officials believe the more than 30,000 Russian forces on the border with Ukraine, combined with additional Russian forces placed on alert and mobilized to move, give Russian President Vladimir Putin the ability to rapidly move into Ukraine without the United States being able to predict it when it happens.
The assessment makes several new points including:
Troops on Russia’s border with eastern Ukraine – which exceed 30,000 - are “significantly more” than what is needed for the “exercises” Russia says it has been conducting, and there is no sign the forces are making any move to return to their home bases.
The troops on the border with Ukraine include large numbers of “motorized” units that can quickly move. Additional special forces, airborne troops, air transport and other units that would be needed appear to be at a higher state of mobilization in other locations in Russia.
There is additional intelligence that even more Russian forces are “reinforcing” the border region, according to both officials. All of the troops are positioned for potential military action.
Russian troops already on the border region include air defense artillery and wheeled vehicles.
The assessment expressed particular concern for Transnistria and the Baltic states, and predicted that in order to gain land access to Crimea, Russian forces would likely move toward three Ukrainian cities: Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk.
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Syrian rebels took parts of Latakia Province this week, securing their first coastal foothold and one in the heart of a regime stronghold. Latakia is President Bashar al-Assad's home province.
The offensive there began on Friday, when Islamist rebels took a Turkish border crossing and the nearby village of Kasab, Reuters reports. Latakia and neighboring Tartous Province are Syria's Alawite heartland. The Alawite faith, which the Assad family and many members of the regime inner circle belong to, is an offshoot from Shiite Islam.
The regime has responded to the offensive with reinforcements and airstrikes. Reuters cites the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as reporting that 14 regime fighters and six rebels were killed in fighting Tuesday and 75 wounded rebels were brought across the border to Turkey for treatment.
The border crossing adjacent to Kasab gives rebels easier access to regime territory from Turkey. Most of the border region is already under rebel control.
The Associated Press reports that the rebel push on the coastal region is an effort to draw regime power away from other parts of Syria where rebels have faltered:
Rebels were hoping that the clashes would draw more Syrian soldiers to the area, relieving some pressure on the opposition fighters who have been badly weakened elsewhere in the country, said an activist in Latakia who identified himself as Mohammed Abu al-Hassan.
"The thinking is to open a battle that will make the regime rush to fight," Abu al-Hassan said. "The regime can't imagine losing the sea (of Latakia). They will bring reinforcements, and that will lessen the pressure (elsewhere)."
The opposition recently lost its foothold in the Qalamoun region, adjacent to the Lebanese border, just north of Damascus. The defeat, which sent thousands of refugees and likely many rebel fighters fleeing into Lebanon, cut the Syrian rebels off from critical smuggling routes used both to send supplies to rebels and to ferry fighters back and forth.
Much attention has been given to Kasab, where support for the regime runs deep, borne out of fear of persecution by rebel elements. The village is made up largely of Armenian Christians, who had a fraught history in the region, particularly Turkey, long before the Syrian war broke out.
Christians in Syria typically back the regime, which, made up largely of members of the Alawite minority, has a reputation for protecting religious minorities, The Wall Street Journal reports:
For many of Kassab’s Armenian-Syrians, the Nusra Front occupies one side of the same coin the Turks do as well – an existential threat in a war where initial concepts like freedom and democracy have been sidelined by minorities’ concerns, steeped in thousand-year-old memories of past injustices perpetrated across the region. Better the devil you know, than the one you don’t, is the common Christian refrain.
Armenian-Syrians expressed outrage Sunday over radical Islamist rebels taking over Kassab, which they said would threaten the town’s Christian inhabitants, many supporters of President Bashar al Assad’s forces. Kassab residents cheered on Damascus in the fight against rebels this weekend, believing the alliance with Mr. Assad — an Alawite, another religious minority — a safer bet to protect their interests.
Armenian-Syrians blamed Turkey for rebel advances in Kassab — as Ankara has long turned a blind eye to rebels crossing their borders and weapons flows — and equated a win by Nusra with the Armenian genocide.
Islamist rebel groups have become notorious for brutal tactics and hardline Islamist rule, which has eroded their support among anti-Assad Syrians. However, perhaps cognizant of Kasab residents' fears, they released videos of fighters protecting a church and helping local elderly residents, Reuters reports.
The Associated Press reports that, according to antigovernment activists, the rebels also captured a coastal tourist area named Samra on Tuesday. It is tiny and lacks a port, so its capture is more symbolic than strategic -- the first holding with direct access to the Mediterranean. The rebels posted a video of themselves sitting by the sea.
Mr. Hassan, mentioned in the first AP report, said that Samra could be used to smuggle weapons, and that it has been a popular smuggling point for decades.
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US President Barack Obama brought together the sparring leaders of Japan and South Korea last night – but it was North Korea, thousands of miles away, that may have played the biggest role in helping the two countries find common ground.
At almost the exact moment that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye sat down with President Obama at The Hague, North Korea defiantly launched two medium-range ballistic missiles off its east coast toward Japan. According to an official from South Korea, the missiles traveled about 400 miles before crashing into the sea, far short of the distance they are capable of reaching, Reuters reports.
Relations between Japan and South Korea have been strained by the reemergence of disputes over Japan's wartime behavior and colonial rule, as well as a long-running tussle over islets in the Japan Sea, The Christian Science Monitor reports. This was the first face-to-face talk between Tokyo and Seoul's leaders since Abe took office in 2012.
North Korea's medium-range missile launches, its first in four years, may help improve cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul, according to a separate Reuters report. Along with the United States, the two Asian powers condemned the launch.
"I think it's very important for our three nations to display this kind of unity and shared determination," President Obama said following the meeting.
"Japan and South Korea both value freedom and democracy and are important neighbors.... It's extremely important for both countries and for the security of East Asia as a whole that we establish a future-oriented relationship," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told Agence France-Presse.
North Korea in recent weeks has set off a number of short-range missiles, launching an estimated 30 this past Monday. Annual military exercises between the US and South Korea are taking place on the peninsula, and are scheduled to continue until mid-April, reports The Los Angeles Times. The short-range missiles didn’t garner much attention. But today’s launch is considered a violation of a 2009 United Nations Security Council resolution that followed Pyongyang’s second nuclear test.
Several UN resolutions restrict ballistic missile launches, and some specifically prompt North Korea to "suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program and to re-establish a moratorium on missile launches," reports CNN.
“Our government is intensifying monitoring of North Korea’s military and preparing for all possible outcomes," said Kim Min-seok, spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, according to the Donga Ilbo newspaper.
"We call on North Korea to immediately cease all provocative behavior,” Mr. Kim said.
Prior to the missile launches, relations have appeared to be slowly warming between the two Koreas, reports The Los Angeles Times. Family reunions for those separated during the Korean war took place for the first time since 2010, for example.
However, today’s launches coincide with the four-year anniversary of the sinking of a South Korean warship that left more than 40 dead. Seoul blames North Korea for the sinking, which a team of international investigators found was caused by a torpedo, reports Time.
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With just 11 days left before a crucial presidential election in Afghanistan, an attack on an election commission office in Kabul laid bare the security challenge facing Afghan officials in organizing national polls that the Taliban has vowed to derail.
Several gunmen and suicide bombers stormed a regional elections office on Tuesday afternoon and engaged in a protracted gunfight with Afghan security personnel, Reuters reports. Although no casualties were immediately reported, the attack was brazen in both in its choice of location – next to the home of a presidential candidate, Ashraf Ghani – and its timing, staged less than a week after another strike killed nine in an upscale Kabul hotel.
And it brought to the fore, once again, the question of whether Afghanistan is adequately prepared to stage free and transparent elections in a safe environment.
The April 5 election is supposed to pave the way for Afghanistan’s first democratic transfer of power. Hamid Karzai, the president for more than 12 years, is barred from running for another term; three candidates are competing to succeed him. Afghans will also elect provincial council members on the same day.
Touted by United Nations and US officials as “Afghan-led, Afghan-managed and Afghan-owned," the elections are taking place amid a dramatically decreased international security presence across the country as US troops prepare for complete pullout in late 2014.
Afghan officials have claimed repeatedly that security can be "guaranteed" at most of Afghanistan's 6,845 polling stations, according to the Associated Press. But last week, an interior ministry spokesman told Central Asia Online, an online news site, that more than 2,000 stations remained under “medium” or “high” security threat.
Another interior minister spokesman told Voice of America last week that the government is confident in the readiness of 400,000 soldiers and policemen that will be deployed ahead of the vote. The spokesman added that only four districts across Afghanistan face serious security threats, and that the government was taking measures to address the threats to polling.
Today's attack underscored the vulnerability of election offices: about 20 election officials were trapped inside the building when the gunmen burst in after two blasts cleared their way, a staffer told the Associated Press. Several officials huddled in the bathroom as gunmen exchanged fire with government troops.
Also in jeopardy is the prospect of robust poll monitoring by international organizations, seen as essential to prevent a rerun of the discredited 2009 vote, when 20 percent of the ballots had to be thrown out.
Reuters reports that some groups have already started pulling their staff out of Afghanistan in response to last week’s bombing in Kabul’s Serena hotel, which is frequented by foreign nationals working in the capital. At least one of those killed in the attack was an elections observer for the US-based National Democratic Institute, which has since removed the rest of its observers from the country.
The Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), another organization assisting with poll monitoring, may also be in the process of pulling out, with some reports that its observers have already been moved from Afghanistan to Turkey. After last week's attack, "The European Union's international monitoring mission will be the only major one to remain in Afghanistan," according to Reuters.