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Terrorism & Security

A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Pro-Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms arrange a position on top an armored personnel carrier near a Ukrainian marine base in the city of Feodosia, Crimea, March 23, 2014. On Sunday, the Russian Defense Ministry said the Russian flag was now flying over 189 military facilities in Crimea. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

Russia seizes another Crimean base as G-7 emergency summit convenes (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.24.14

A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues.

Russian troops seized a Ukrainian military base this morning, the third such capture in Crimea since Friday. President Barack Obama and other Group of Seven (G-7) leaders are set to hold an emergency summit today in The Hague to discuss how to respond to Russian policy in Eastern Europe.

Citing Ukraine's Defense Ministry, Interfax-Ukraine news agency reports that Russian forces stormed the Feosodia marine base in eastern Crimea in the early hours of Monday morning. Using stun grenades and automatic weapons, the Russian troops captured scores of Ukrainian soldiers, including the base commander.

From 60 to 80 Ukrainian Marines have currently been detained and are actually in the captivity of Russian military at the Feodosia maritime port. Constant psychological pressure is being exerted on them.

According to the servicemen of the Marines battalion, "the main demand of the Russian invaders is the forced removal from Crimea to the mainland Ukraine of officers of the Ukrainian military unit, and only after that other representatives of the personnel will be released from captivity."

The base had been surrounded by Russian troops for some time before its capture today. Two other Ukrainian bases, including the Belbek airbase near Sevastopol, were seized on Friday. Their capture follows Russia's annexation of the peninsula, backed by a March 16 referendum in support of the move, which the West regards as illegal.

The BBC reports that shortly after the Feosodia base's capture, interim Ukrainian President Olexander Turchynov announced "a redeployment of military units stationed in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea," including sending soldiers' families to the mainland.

The events in Ukraine come as President Obama prepares to meet with the other leaders of the G-7 – Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan – in the Netherlands to discuss how to deal with Russia. The G-7 is essentially the G-8 minus Russia, which joined the grouping in 1998. Today's meeting is being held on the sidelines of an international nuclear security summit in The Hague that Russia is attending. 

Last week the US and the European Union announced a slate of sanctions against Russia over its seizure of Crimea, including individual sanctions against members of President Vladimir Putin's inner circle. Agence France-Presse reports that Obama has warned that further sanctions could be necessary: "And if Russia continues to escalate the situation, we need to be prepared to impose a greater cost."

AFP adds that the US has also floated the possibility of ousting Russia from the Group of Eight, which it currently chairs, as punishment for operations in Crimea.

Bloomberg reports that while Mr. Putin is enjoying immense popularity in Russia for his annexation of Crimea, Russia is already suffering the cost of Western sanctions. The ruble has weakened considerably and credit agencies appear set to downgrade Russia's investment rating. Russia will probably enter a recession later this year as “domestic demand is set to halt on the uncertainty shock and tighter financial conditions,” according to Moscow-based VTB.

Russia may shun foreign debt markets in 2014 because of higher borrowing costs, according to Finance Minister Anton Siluanov. He expressed frustration at disruptions to MasterCard Inc. and Visa services for cards issued by banks on or linked to persons on the U.S. sanctions list.

“Some people say these sanctions won’t affect Russia’s financial system but they already are,” he said March 21.

Maintaining the pressure may hinge on the EU's backing for new sanctions, a decision not lightly made due to the interdependence of the European and Russian markets. But Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels, told Bloomberg that he believes increased sanctions are likely should the Americans decide on this approach.

“I’m convinced sanctions will escalate and the main decision-maker will be Barack Obama," he said. "If he escalates the EU will almost have to follow.”

Two men at a pro-Russian rally in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, earlier today. That's a statue of Lenin behind them. (Sergei Grits)

NATO sounds alarm as Russian forces build on Ukraine border

By Staff writer / 03.23.14

A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues.

Ukraine's acting Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya said this morning that the likelihood of war between his country and Russia is growing as Russian troops continued to seize Ukrainian military bases in the annexed Crimea region. 

Mr. Deschchytsya told ABC that "we don't know what (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has in his mind... that's why this situation is becoming even more explosive than it used to be a week ago."

NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove told a conference in Brussels that the Russian force along the Ukrainian border "is very, very sizable and very, very ready" and that "Russia is acting much more like an adversary than a partner." Gen. Breedlove said of particular concern is the breakaway Moldovan region of Trans-Dniester, which could become a potential target for Russia. Separatists in the region have said they'd welcome union with the country, much as Russian-speaking Crimeans favored the annexation that took place last week.

Meanwhile, a senior Obama administration official said NATO's ability to deter a possible Russian incursion is limited. Speaking on CNN, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said the US is considering providing military assistance to Ukraine but it's "unlikely to prevent an invasion" of the country if that is Putin's objective. 

Earlier today, Russia's Defense Ministry said that its troops had taken control of most of Ukraine's military installations with Crimea, with the Russian flag now flying over 189 former Ukrainian bases. One of the latest Ukrainian bases seized was at Belbek, which fell yesterday. Two Washington Post reporters were on the scene:

With a burst of automatic weapons fire and stun grenades, Russian forces in armored personnel carriers on Saturday broke through the walls of one of the last Ukrainian military outposts in Crimea, then quickly overpowered Ukrainian troops armed only with sticks.

... In Belbek, the Ukrainians put up no resistance on the orders of the base commander, Col. Yuli Mamchur, who has become a symbol of Ukrainian spirit for his steely defiance of repeated Russian demands that the tactical air wing surrender and relinquish all weapons.

Most of the 200 or so troops on the base have weapons, but Mamchur was determined to avoid casualties. So when four Russian personnel carriers drove through a concrete wall and rammed down the wrought-iron front gate after an hours-long standoff, Mamchur’s men were waiting with sticks that appeared to have been fashioned from broken broom handles, tree branches, railing dowels, table legs and croquet mallets.

Russian continues to insist that it is not interested in further conflict, going so far as to say that there is no troop buildup along Ukraine's eastern border. Kremlin outlet RT cited a statement from Deputy Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Antanov, in which he said Russia had informed US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other foreign counterparts that Russia "has no intention" to concentrate troops in the areas where NATO says it is concentrating troops.

The US insists the sanctions imposed on some Russian businessmen and officials last week are exacting a cost on the country - Mr. Blinken mentioned weakness in the ruble and declines in the Russian stock market as evidence - but others say sanctions at this level are unlikely to shift Putin's view of Russia's interests. And they may even help him in the short term.

Lilia Shevtsova at the Moscow Carnegie Center argues in a blog this weekend (excerpts from which were translated by The Interpreter Magazine) that the chance of sanctions returning the situation to the status quo ante vanishingly unlikely and:

Second, she writes, “Western sanctions regarding Russia confirm the absence in the West of a single position and decisiveness to inflict real harm on the Russian regime.” Third, “even in that situation, the fact of applying sanctions to Russia complicates the integration of the representatives of the Russian ruling class into Western society. [Instead] their gradual distancing from Western life begins.”

And fourth – and this may be her most important point – “sanctions create for the Kremlin an additional impulse for the isolation of Russia from the external world,” although this self-isolation given Putin’s policies appears to be “inevitable even if there are no sanctions imposed.”

(Photo by Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

A general view of the Serena Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 21, 2014, a day after it was attacked by gunmen. The Taliban attack that killed nine people, including four foreigners, at a luxury hotel that is popular with tourists and foreign diplomats dramatically raises security concerns for international observers ahead of national elections next month. (Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

Kabul hotel attack: will it deter foreign observers of Afghan election? (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.21.14

The Taliban attack on an upscale hotel in Kabul Thursday night that is popular with tourists and foreign diplomats dramatically raises security concerns for international observers ahead of national elections scheduled for April 5.

The attack came as guests at Kabul’s highly fortified Serena Hotel gathered to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian new year, which is observed in Afghanistan. Nine people were killed, including a couple and their two daughters, ages 4 and 5, who were shot in the head.

It follows by just weeks a commando-style assault at a Kabul restaurant that killed 21 people, more than half of whom were foreigners. Both attacks, in establishments catering to expatriates, represent a “new trend,” Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told the Washington Post.

Many have expressed concern that the events will deter foreign observers from supporting next month's election, which would mark the first democratic transition of power as the nation elects a successor to President Hamid Karzai.

The Wall Street Journal reports that at least one observer mission withdrew from the country Friday morning, while other groups said they would be assessing their plans.

A UN spokesman told Reuters that the organization, which counted 18 employees at the hotel during Thursday’s attack, would stay on.  "This doesn't deter us from our commitment to assist the Afghan people and support them in the election," said Ari Gaitanis. 

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid took responsibility for the attack in an email published by the Washington Post, saying it had information that “occupying countries” would be at the hotel, as well as Afghan government officials and “corrupt” lawmakers celebrating the new year. In a phone call with Bloomberg Friday, Mr. Mujahid also said the Taliban targeted the Serena because it served alcohol to guests enjoying the holiday.

Four Taliban, estimated to be about 18 years old, carried out the attack, getting past security with pistols tucked in their socks at about 6 p.m. on Thursday. They hid inside the hotel until about 9:15 p.m., at the height of the dinner celebration, before opening fire on guests inside the restaurant. They were shot dead by police. Hotel guests crouched in darkened rooms and in the basement as the gunfight pursued.

"I never heard an explosion or anything. Only firearms and possible rocket-propelled grenades," one senior UN official said in a text message, according to Reuters. All UN staff members at the hotel were alive, a UN official told the wire service. The dead include a local reporter for Agence France-Presse, Sardar Ahmad, and his family. The foreign victims came from Canada, India, New Zealand, and Pakistan.

The attack came on the same day as the Taliban attacked a police compound in Jalalabad, as part of their promise to destabilize the country ahead the race, reports the Christian Science Monitor. 

The Taliban appear to be turning their attention increasingly toward foreigners. In January, the attack on a Lebanese restaurant represented the deadliest on non-Afghan citizens since 2001, reports Bloomberg. Those killed included the International Monetary Fund’s senior official in Afghanistan, three United Nations workers, and two foreign employees of the American University of Afghanistan. 

Last week, a Swedish journalist was shot dead on a street of central Kabul.

Kabul’s Serena Hotel, despite having been targeted previously, is considered one of the safest spots for foreigners in Afghanistan. It was booked solid, two weeks before the election, reports the Los Angeles Times.

This is the deadliest attack to have occurred on its premises. Mr. Seddiqi told a news conference that hotel security had been “a failure,” and that authorities would investigate whether the hotel’s guards were complicit in the incident.  “When you get to the hotel there are lots of security guards and lots of checks,” Seddiqi said. “They have the necessary equipment to find where those pistols were hidden.”

(Photo by Rahmat Gul/AP)

Afghan Army soldiers and police search the surrounding area after the Taliban staged a multi-pronged attack on a police station in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Thursday, March 20, 2014. Taliban insurgents staged the attack, using a suicide bomber and gunmen to lay siege to the station, government officials said. Two remotely detonated bombs also exploded nearby. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

Deadly Taliban attack underscores threat to disrupt Afghan elections (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.20.14

A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues

The Taliban's pledge to disrupt Afghan elections next month appears to be holding strong with today's attack on a police compound in Jalalabad, one of the country's largest cities. 

The multipronged attack started when an explosives-laden car was driven through the compound gate. Several individual suicide bombers followed, kicking off a battle that lasted three hours, The New York Times reports. At least 10 police officers were killed, including the district police chief. 

The Taliban claimed responsibility, as they did for a fatal attack in Faryab Province on March 18. Their threats and assaults have turned the election campaign into a test of nerves for the candidates, who have continued to hold rallies and other events. Assuming it proceeds as planned, the April 5 presidential poll would be Afghanistan's first democratic transition of power. Voters are also due to elect provincial councils. 

The Taliban wrote on Twitter that after the police compound, they moved on to other targets – including the provincial governor's office, according to Stars and Stripes.

The March 18 attack in Faryab Province killed at least 16 people, mostly civilians, at a bazaar. Referring to incident, Naqibullah Fayeq, a member of parliament from Faryab Province, told The New York Times that “We believe today’s bombing was part of efforts to scare people. Today’s attack had only election motives.”

“Today’s killings will never stop the people of Faryab from casting their votes,” Mr. Fayeq continued. “People understand that the only way to free themselves from this government is the election.”

The Taliban gave notice on March 10 of their intent to disrupt national elections:

"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."

They are going to great lengths to discourage voters from going to the polls on April 5. In a tweet from their English-language account, they announced another attack targeting the election:

Nangarhar Province includes Jalalabad. The polling station attack could not be verified. 

The stakes are high for the presidential election, and the United States is watching the effort closely. A key issue for the US is President Hamid Karzai's refusal to sign an agreement that would allow US and NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014. The US hopes that whoever is elected will take that step, which the US considers essential to maintaining at least the level of stability the US and US-supported Afghan National Army have managed to bring.

Last month, the top US commander in Afghanistan spelled out the importance of the bilateral security agreement – and the election. The New York Times reports:

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the commander, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., said that as long as a new president of Afghanistan was in place by August, he was confident that a new security agreement would be signed to allow American and international troops to leave a residual force in the country, as military commanders would like, and as President Obama has said is his preferred option.

But General Dunford warned that if Afghanistan’s coming elections did not produce a new president by August, the residual force and the long-term stability of Afghanistan would be threatened.

“The risk to an orderly withdrawal begins to get high in September, because of the number of tasks that need to be accomplished,” General Dunford said. “We still have plenty of flexibility to adjust in July.”

General Dunford insisted that if American forces went down to zero, it would be only a matter of time before the Taliban retook Afghanistan. “The deterioration of the Afghan forces begins to happen fairly quickly in 2015,” he said. “Units would run out of fuel, pay systems would not be completely operable, spare parts would not be available for vehicles and so we’d start to see decreased readiness in the Afghan security forces.”

A senior official from Pakistan, which shares a lengthy border with Afghanistan, warned of "mayhem" if US troops do not remain past 2014, The Christian Science Monitor reports. 

The departure of US forces would likely create “mayhem” in the country, which could ultimately prompt one-third of Afghan security forces to desert their posts in the Army and police, the official said in remarks at the Center for Media and Security in Washington, D.C.

“The zero option means a civil war in Afghanistan,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Regardless of whether the BSA is signed, 2015 is likely to be a difficult year in Afghanistan, the Pakistani official added. 

Afghan security forces still need a great deal of training, as they have yet to become “a mature fighting machine,” the official said.

Without more training in the wake of a US force departure, Afghan troops are likely to desert, the official adds, even as insurgent groups rush in “to fill that vacuum.”

A member of a Pro-Russian self-defense force reaches for a knife as he takes down a Ukrainian Navy flag at the Ukrainian Navy headquarters in Sevastopol, Crimea, Thursday. (Andrew Lubimov/AP)

Pro-Russian forces capture Ukrainian naval base in Crimea without firing a shot (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.19.14

A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues

Pro-Russian forces overran Ukraine's naval headquarters in Crimea today, ratcheting up tensions in Ukraine a day after Russian and Crimean leaders signed a treaty paving the way toward annexation. 

Russian troops and unarmed militiamen stormed the naval headquarters in the port city of Sevastopol, according to Reuters, and raised the Russian flag. No shots were reported fired, and unarmed Ukrainian servicemen were seen leaving the building in civilian clothing an hour later.

“This morning they stormed the compound. They cut the gates open, but I heard no shooting,” Ukrainian Navy Cpt. Oleksander Balanyuk told Reuters. "This thing should have been solved politically. Now all I can do is stand here at the gate. There is nothing else I can do.”

Ukraine's government in Kiev, which refuses to recognize Crimea's annexation, took a firmer tone, vowing today not to withdraw its military from Crimea, according to The Washington Post.

The naval base seizure follows the deaths of two soldiers yesterday, the first casualties in Crimea since Russian forces flooded the territory three weeks ago. A Ukrainian soldier and a Russian soldier were killed when pro-Russian forces took over another Ukrainian military base near Simferopol, Crimea, the Post reports.

The incident Tuesday afternoon began when unidentified assailants “stormed” the base, said Vladislav Seleznyov, a spokesman for the Ukrainian military. It’s unclear whether they were part of the Russian military or a volunteer militia.

He said guns were fired into the air, and it is unclear whether the two victims were struck by stray bullets or if they were fired at directly.

In response, the government in Kiev authorized its soldiers in Crimea to use live fire in self-defense. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyul said the crisis had moved “from a political to a military phase.”

Sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union have not deterred Russia’s moves to lay claim to Crimea, which was gifted to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet rulers in Moscow. Australia today also authorized sanctions on 12 Russian and Ukrainians, according to the Guardian.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pushed back against sanctions yesterday, threatening “consequences” over them in a phone call with US Secretary of State John Kerry, according to the BBC.

After Mr Lavrov spoke to Mr Kerry, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement: "(Crimea) republic residents made their democratic choice in line with the international law and the UN charter, which Russia accepts and respects.

"The sanctions introduced by the United States and the European Union are unacceptable and will not remain without consequences."

It did not spell out what those consequences might be.

An editorial today by the Kremlin mouthpiece RT, titled “Solving the Crisis in Ukraine,”  said that “rhetoric and punitive measures and threats of further sanctions against Russia [...] will merely harden Russia’s resolve, forcing Moscow to take counter-measures which could be devastating to an already fragile European and global economy.” The editorial said the priority should be to hold talks on how to rebuild Ukraine’s economy and reframe its constitution, while describing Ukraine's interim government as "fascists." 

A key concern for Moscow is ensuring that minorities (or Russians) were protected:

Finally, the ethnic and religious minorities in Ukraine see themselves, to a large extent, under assault from an intolerant putsch government in Kiev that would like nothing more than to marginalize them completely, if not force them out of the country. The ideology of the fascist groups, which see Ukraine’s multiethnic character as a negative rather than a positive asset, must be reconciled with the political and social reality. Of course, there can be no future in Ukraine for these ethnic and religious groups, unless they are guaranteed protection from a government they recognize as legitimate. 

Statements like those have raised concerns that Russia could move to annex territory in eastern Ukraine, but President Vladimir Putin pledged that would not be the case in his speech yesterday accepting the annexation of Ukraine, according to The Christian Science Monitor:

But in what might be interpreted as a concession to Ukraine, Putin pledged that Russia would not seek to grab any more territory from its restive and largely Russian-speaking eastern regions. "Don’t believe those who say Russia will take other regions after Crimea. We don’t need that," Putin said.

The Monitor’s correspondent in Moscow writes that the effects of Western pressure against Russia may not be immediate but will likely have a lasting effect: 

Still, Russians are liable to wake up to a new world in the next few months, as international opposition to the Crimea annexation hardens, and as sanctions imposed by the West possibly deepen and start to bite.

"This will not go well. Russia will strengthen Crimea while the West will feel free to make the rest of Ukraine its protectorate," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.

The consequences will almost certainly include efforts by Europe to diversify its energy supplies away from reliance on Russia, as well as other measures that will drag down Russia's already stagnating economy, he says.

And the domestic political consequences of USSR-like isolation are likely to be dire as well, he adds.

"We are already seeing a change in the tone of domestic politics. Those few who opposed Crimea being joined to Russia are openly called 'traitors.' Opposition that criticizes the authorities from outside the system are going to face a lot of new problems," he adds.

(Photo by Apichart Weerawong/AP)

Anti-government protesters dismantle the sandbag barriers, blocking roads near Lumpino park in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, March 18, 2014. Thailand's government is lifting a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas after violence related to the country’s political crisis eased. (Apichart Weerawong/AP)

Thailand lifts state of emergency in Bangkok as protesters pull back

By Staff writer / 03.18.14

A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues

Thailand is lifting a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding provinces following months of antigovernment protests marred by deadly violence. But the move does not necessarily signal an end to demonstrations – or further violence.

The state of emergency was invoked two months ago amid opposition marches against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government and her influential brother and self-exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra. An estimated 23 people have died and hundreds have been injured in the protests, which have quieted down in recent days.

The state of emergency will be lifted Wednesday, and replaced by a less harsh law called the Internal Security Act, reports Agence France Presse. Under this law, authorities can still impose state-mandated curfews, set up security checkpoints, and restrict the movement of protesters.

Lifting the state of emergency should “improve the state’s image because rights groups tend to view the emergency law as draconian,” political analyst Kan Yuenyong of Siam Intelligence Unit told Reuters. Ms. Yingluck said the move was meant to “build confidence in the economy and the tourism sector” after more than 4 months of political unrest.

But Mr. Kan warns that, “ultimately, no law can help the government contain the protests if they flare up again.”

According to Reuters, “the threat of further violence remains real.” One factor is that a new, more militant politician now leads the pro-Thaksin "red shirts" and has promised to fight "tooth and nail" to defend Yingluck. 

Opposition leader Suthep Thaugsuban had started drawing down protesters' presence about three weeks ago, according to The Christian Science Monitor.

He said the move was tactical and designed to allow demonstrators to concentrate on disrupting government ministries. Insiders say it was also motivated by spiraling costs and safety fears after a spate of grenade attacks and shootings in which four children were killed and scores injured….

But if the streets are returning to normal in the capital of Southeast Asia’s second largest economy, the chances of a resolution to Thailand’s political crisis have not significantly increased. Rather than retreating, the core of Mr. Suthep’s followers have merely regrouped inside Bangkok’s largest park, where they insist they still have the numbers to topple the government. Observers say the chances of Prime Minister Yingluck Shiniwatra being forced out of office by the courts – widely seen as sympathetic to the protest movement – is looking increasingly likely. Meanwhile, signs of a truce across Thailand’s bitterly divided political lines are yet to materialize.

Despite the positive implications of lifting the emergency law and a reduced protester presence in the capital, the BBC reports that Yingluck’s government still has several legal challenges to take on, including charges of negligence and corruption in a government rice subsidy program. Furthermore, the Election Commission has yet to announce results from a Feb. 2 snap election and parliament hasn’t been able to assemble, “breaking the rules of the constitution according to a group of Thai scholars,” reports the Monitor.

In an opinion piece for Al Jazeera, Charles Keyes, professor emeritus of anthropology and international studies at the University of Washington, questioned how Thailand will ultimately weather this period of ongoing political unrest.

For nearly a decade there have been large-scale protests, primarily in the capital, Bangkok, with supporters of royalist elites confronting those who favor representative democracy.

The current protests calling for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s resignation began in November. Amid fears of impending civil war, tensions have eased in March through a combination of pressure from the army and negotiations between representatives of the protesters and the government. Nonetheless, the deep divisions in Thai society will continue. At stake is whether Thailand can remain a democracy and, if so, what kind of democracy….

The current stalemate threatens to degenerate into tit-for-tat violence ... The civil society is deeply polarized. There is a lack of moderating voices with moral authority that can transcend the political schism. Several Buddhist monks led by the respected Phra Paisal Visalo have called for the end of hatred and revenge.

At the moment, the standoff has mostly moved from the streets to the courts. Regardless of the legal outcomes, which could mean the removal of Yingluck from office or the arrest of Suthep and other protest leaders, the street confrontations could well resume.

A participant in a pro-Russian rally waves a Russian flag in front of a statue of Lenin in Simferopol March 17, 2014. Crimea formally applied to join Russia on Monday after its leaders declared a Soviet-style 97-percent result in favor of seceding from Ukraine in a referendum condemned as illegal by Kiev and the West that will trigger immediate sanctions. (Sergei Karpukhin/REUTERS)

Crimea to Russia: We're ready to be annexed (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.17.14

A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues

Crimea's parliament voted to request formally today that Russia annex the breakaway Ukrainian region, after its electoral commission announced that nearly all Crimeans were in favor of such a move. But the West remains opposed to annexation of the Ukrainian territory by Russia, and promises consequences for Russia should the Kremlin act to recognize the improbable vote.

Reuters reports that Mikhail Malyshev, the chairman of the regional government commission overseeing the referendum, announced that 96.77 percent of Crimean voters opted in favor of annexation by Russia. The vote, which took place as Russian troops occupy much of the peninsula, is expected to be recognized by the Russian parliament "in the very near future," according to Sergei Neverov, the Russian parliament's deputy speaker.

But the official tally in favor of joining Russia appears dubious on its face. Crimean officials put the total turnout at 83 percent, meaning more than 8 out of every 10 eligible voters on the peninsula opted in favor of annexation. But Crimea's ethnic Russian majority is estimated to number only about 6 out of 10, with the remainder being ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars, both groups which largely opposed annexation.

Even if every Russian voter opted in favor of annexation, majorities of the Ukrainian and Tatar populations would also have had to vote to meet the 83-percent participation figure. And nearly all of those Ukrainian and Tatar voters would have had to have supported annexation for the 96.7-percent in-favor result to be accurate. Given Ukrainian and Tatar resistance to the move, such a result seems unlikely.

Crimea's Tatars largely boycotted the vote in protest, calling it illegal. The Tatars, a Muslim Turkic ethnic group, have a particularly negative view of Russia, having been forced out of their homeland in the hundreds of thousands by Soviet premier Joseph Stalin in 1944. They were allowed to return to Crimea only in the 1980s.

At one polling place in a Tatar neighborhood, less than 10 percent of eligible voters cast ballots as of midday yesterday, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

Across the street from the dilapidated, Soviet-era building, several Tatar men stood by and watched as a few voters trickled in.

“This referendum is a bad joke,” said Ayder Abibialayev, who abstained from voting. “You can’t hold a referendum in 15 days. This was organized by the Kremlin, and they’re having us vote with a gun to our head.”

The European Union is considering sanctions against Crimean and Russian officials directly involved in the referendum, which the EU said illegally threatens the integrity of Ukraine. Ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers, British Foreign Minister William Hague said that "I am confident we will agree some sanctions – some travel bans, some asset freezes on individuals in Russia," the Guardian reports.

...These are measures we are taking today and for the coming months, but for years to come if Russia does not find some way to de-escalate this – to directly negotiate with Ukraine, to work with other nations – there will be important costs for Russia. There will be a speeding up by the EU to make itself less energy-dependent on Russia."

He predicted: "There will be a real resolve across western nations, including with the US, to take wider trade, financial and economic sanctions if Russia moves into eastern Europe. We have to be very clear that annexation cannot be the way in the 21st century to conduct affairs, as opposed to negotiation and the rule of law."

The US also dismissed the referendum, even before it was completed, as illegal under international law and held under "threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention," reported the Associated Press.

[The White House] said "no decisions should be made about the future of Ukraine without the Ukrainian government" and noted that Russia had rejected the deployment of international monitors in Crimea to ensure the rights of ethnic Russians there were protected.

"Russia has spurned those calls as well as outreach from the Ukrainian government and instead has escalated its military intervention into Crimea and initiated threatening military exercises on Ukraine's eastern border," the White House said.

An Israeli tank is positioned outside the northern Gaza Strip March 13, 2014. Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired rockets at Israeli cities on Thursday in the second day of a cross-border flare-up that has drawn Israeli warnings of a tough military response. (Amir Cohen/REUTERS)

Gaza militants fire more rockets into Israel after overnight air strikes (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.13.14

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.

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.

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?”

(Photo by Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)

Armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, stand guard outside a Ukrainian military unit in the village of Perevalnoye outside Simferopol, Tuesday, March 11, 2014. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)

Russia puts security stranglehold on Crimea as referendum nears (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.12.14

A daily roundup of terrorism and security issues

Security is tightening around Ukraine's Crimean peninsula ahead of Sunday’s referendum on whether to join Russia or become an independent state. 

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.

Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai's wife Rula Ghani walks on the stage as she prepares to speak during a campaign rally for women a day after International Women's Day in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, March 9, 2014. Ten Afghan presidential candidates are campaigning in the presidential election scheduled for April. (Massoud Hossaini/AP)

Taliban tell Afghan voters to stay home ahead of presidential election

By Staff writer / 03.10.14

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.

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