Terrorism & Security
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
World leaders are scrabbling for purchase, calling an emergency meeting in Geneva as the Syrian conflict descends into a full-fledged war. With President Bashar al-Assad's pronouncement two days ago that the conflict is now a war, it seems any modicum of restraint is likely over.
The United Nations Security Council (the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China) and Turkey will gather in Geneva this weekend for a meeting to discuss a plan for an interim government in Syria that was hastily announced late yesterday by UN/Arab League special envoy to Syria Kofi Annan.
Human rights monitors say that the past week has been the bloodiest in the 16-month uprising-turned-civil-war. Almost 160 were killed yesterday alone, according to Agence France-Presse.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed to the meeting after speaking with Mr. Annan about his plan and determining that it provided a good foundation for talks, State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, according to CNN. Negotiations have so far mostly ended in deadlock between Russia and the US, Britain, and France (with China following Russia's lead). A peace plan crafted by Annan earlier this year has been left in shreds.
Ms. Nuland would not disclose any details about the negotiations or address whether Russia has softened its opposition to either a political transition directed by outside powers or further action against the Assad regime. She said only that "our litmus test for whether we thought this meeting should go forward, as we've been saying for many days now, was that we expected we could make concrete progress," according to CNN.
Ms. Clinton will travel to Russia tomorrow to meet with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The two countries have been on opposing sides on just about every element of an international response to Syria's uprising. To Washington's consternation, Moscow has continued its arms sales to Syria, defending them as being based on pre-existing contracts and/or only for defensive purposes.
The two most recently clashed over the list of countries invited to the Geneva meeting. Russia wanted Iran, a key ally of Assad, in attendance, which the US rejected. Saudi Arabia, whose presence was desired by the US, seems to have been left out in a concession to Russia, who has insisted in equanimity in negotiations. As the logic goes, if Iran is to be excluded by the US for backing Assad, then Saudi Arabia, which has been widely accused of arming the rebel forces, should also be left out.
Annan said last week that he considered Iran's participation essential, decrying the rivalries between the US and Russia and Saudi Arabia and Iran that have so far blocked it, Tony Karon writes in Time Magazine. “I have made it quite clear that I believe Iran should be part of the solution,” Annan said in Geneva last Friday. “If we continue the way we are going and competing with each other, it could lead to destructive competition and everyone will pay the price.”
Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, was careful to say that Moscow's agreement to attend the meeting was not a guarantee that it would accept Annan's plan – only that it agreed to it as a basis for discussion, according to AFP.
Annan's interim government would include officials for both sides. Concrete details beyond that are either undisclosed or undecided, although a UN diplomat told AFP that it would not include any officials whose inclusion "might jeopardize the transition 'or undermine efforts to bring reconciliation'."
"The language of Annan's plan suggests that Assad could be excluded but also that certain opposition figures could be ruled out," a second UN diplomat told AFP, noting that there isn't anything in the plan to specifically exclude him either.
A senior member of the Syrian opposition said today that the opposition would only agree to a transition plan if it explicitly requires Assad to leave power before the unity government is formed, Reuters reports.
"The proposal is still murky to us but I can tell you that if it does not clearly state that Assad must step down, it will be unacceptable to us," said Samir Nashar, an executive member of the international Syrian National Council. "If the proposal said Assad must step down, then the idea of allowing other members of the current government to participate could be open to discussion."
But those fighting on the ground took a harder line. A Free Syrian Army fighter in Homs told Reuters that they could not accept the plan, period, and that the time for peace-making was long past. "This is just a new labyrinth. It is new silliness for us to get lost in and haggle over who can participate and who can't," said the fighter, Ahmed.
Mr. Karon writes in Time that the US-Russia antagonism leaves little room for optimism about the Geneva talks bringing about any change, or even ending with anything concrete. There are no signs that either party will change elements of its position that the other considers a deal breaker.
Indeed, the parties that will meet with Assad in Geneva have different ideas on resolving the crisis, but none appears to have decisive leverage to bring to bear in order to shape its preferred outcome. The U.S. insists that the conflict can’t be resolved while Assad remains in power; the Russians point out that Washington has no credible plan for dealing with the fallout that would follow the regime’s precipitous collapse. For much of the past year, officials in Washington have speculated that Russia might break with Assad, but the passage of time has made those claims look Pollyannaish.
Indeed, Russia’s willingness to push back against U.S. plans for tackling the Syrian crisis were evident in its effort to support Iran being invited to Annan’s conference. The U.S. nixed that idea, meaning that the conference that will be held in Geneva will be more limited in its scope and ambition. And nobody is expecting an outcome that makes much difference what even Assad himself now calls a “state of war” in Syria.
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last night pronounced his country to be in a state of war and told a new government to spare no effort in achieving a victory.
"We live in a real state of war from all angles," Mr. Assad said in a speech broadcast on state television, according to Reuters. "When we are in a war, all policies and all sides and all sectors need to be directed at winning this war."
The comment, made during a speech to his newly appointed cabinet, is Assad's first pronouncement of war; he has previously dismissed Syria's conflict as an armed insurgency led by foreign militants. News organizations and international leaders, including some at the United Nations, began describing the conflict as a civil war weeks ago.
But the rebel forces now number between 10,000 and 15,000, according to US estimates, and they have stepped up their campaign, staging bolder, higher-impact attacks, CNN reports. They've also benefited from several high-level defections from the Syrian Army.
Today, gunmen stormed the headquarters of pro-government TV station Al-Ikhbariya south of Damascus, leaving seven people dead and kidnapping several more before blowing up station buildings, the Associated Press reports. "What happened today is a massacre, a massacre against the freedom of the press," Information Minister Omran al-Zoebi said in comments broadcast on state-run Syrian TV. "They carried out a terrifying massacre by executing the employees."
Meanwhile, the outskirts of Damascus are home to the site of some of the fiercest fighting the capital area has seen. Violence so close to the center of the capital – roughly five miles from the city's oldest open air markeplace and downtown – has been rare. Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told the Globe and Mail that today's fighting marked the first time the regime forces have used artillery in such proximity to Damascus.
The fighting happened close to bases of the elite Republican Armed Guard units. That rebel forces were willing to fight so close to their main bases is "unprecedented" and possibly an "indicator of increasing prowess," according to The Globe and Mail.
But US intelligence officials told Reuters that despite the military defections and the rebels' growing strength, Assad's "inner circle" remains strong and they see no sign that the regime will fall anytime soon. The more likely scenario is that the conflict, already ongoing for 15 months, will continue.
"Our overall assessment ... would be that we are still seeing the military regime forces fairly cohesive, they've learned some lessons over the last year and a half about how to deal with this kind of insurgency," an official said. "Both sides seem to be girding for a long struggle. Our sense is that the regime still believes it can ultimately prevail or at least appears determined to try to prevail and the opposition at the same time seems to be preparing for a long fight."
The head of United Nations peacekeeping operations said yesterday that the situation remained too dangerous for the UN monitoring mission in Syria, which suspended its work earlier this month, to resume operations, Syria's Day Press News reports.
Russia agreed yesterday to attend a meeting in Geneva with the rest of the permanent UN Security Council members and Kofi Annan, the UN-appointed mediator for Syria. Mr. Annan has been attempting to broker an end to the fighting for months. He crafted a peace plan that failed rapidly and spectacularly, despite the fact that both the government and rebels agreed to its terms.
That Moscow – which has been at loggerheads with Britain, the US, and France for remaining an ally of the regime – agreed to attend gives the Geneva meeting some substance, the Globe and Mail reports. Iran, another Assad ally, could also be invited. If the US accepted Tehran's involvement – something it has not supported so far – it would signal a new level of concern about the situation on the ground in Syria.
Indian authorities have arrested a man believed to have been remotely directing the terrorists who carried out the 2008 Mumbai attack that killed 166 people.
Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari, who is also known as Abu Jundal, was arrested after officials in Saudi Arabia deported him at the request of the Indian government. Mr. Ansari is believed to be the only Indian who took part in the attack, orchestrated by Pakistan-based terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Indian officials say that since his arrest on June 21, Mr. Ansari has played a critical part in potentially revealing the role of the Pakistani government and intelligence service in the attack. In custody, the LeT member has reportedly already told Indian authorities that officials from the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and military participated in planning the three-day attack on Mumbai.
India has long accused Pakistan of involvement in the attack, something that officials in Islamabad have denied. If Indian authorities verify Ansari’s claims, it is likely to strain relations even further between the two neighbors and isolate Pakistan on the international stage.
The Hindustan Times adds that cooperation between Saudi and Indian intelligence officials has increased markedly over the past two years as the Gulf state sees India’s rich potential as a growing oil market. Traditionally, Saudi Arabia has been a strong ally of Pakistan.
B. Raman, a retired Indian intelligence official, writes in Outlook India that despite India’s initial excitement over Ansari’s arrest, authorities still must confirm his identity. In addition to his Abu Jundal alias, he is believed to also have gone by the name, Abu Hamza. Mr. Raman explains that Abu Hamza has long been a popular nickname for LeT members dating back to the 1990s, making it difficult to confirm identities.
He is presently in police custody. But India’s anti-terrorism squad, however, says it is confident it can identify whether Ansari is the Abu Hamza and Abu Jundal wanted for the Mumbai attacks once he is in their custody.
As the only Indian national, Ansari is said to have relocated to Pakistan and played a critical role in training the attackers how to operate in Mumbai. According to Indian detectives, Ansari coached the gunmen of the Mumbai attacks on how to make the terrorist plot appear to be homegrown by saying they were Indian Muslims from the Tolichowki area of Hyderbad, reports The Guardian. The gunmen were also instructed to say the attack was revenge for the treatment of Muslims in Kashmir.
“He knows a lot. He claims that they prepared for years for the 26/11 attack and every person was assigned a separate task. Being a Maharashtrian, he was given the task to familiarize the killers with local dialect as well as Mumbai's topography. He instructed the gang on how to ask for directions and what to say if checked and quizzed,” said an Indian official familiar with the details of the interrogation according to the Times of India.
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
The group included 33 soldiers and their families – a total of 224 people, including at least three with a rank of colonel or higher. One of those three may be a general, but reports on the rank of the third high-level defector remain inconclusive.
Defections among low-level Syrian conscript soldiers remain relatively common but such high-level defections have been relatively rare so far. If a general were among those who fled their posts in the Syrian Army, as some reports suggest, it would mark the 13th general to defect to Turkey since the uprising began about 16 months ago, reports Al Jazeera. Turkey is now host to nearly 33,000 Syrian refugees, the government announced last week.
RELATED – Who's who in Syria: 5 key factions
While Assad loyalists still have plenty of weapons to inflict serious damage on rebel forces in Syria, the recent defections are bad news for Assad's regime. And they come at a time of worsening relations between Syria and Turkey, after a Turkish jet was shot down by Syria.
With international actors loath to launch a military intervention in Syria, such defections – if they become more widespread – are seen as one of the only actions that could lead Assad's regime to collapse.
“The military defections become more and more important for Assad's future as it appears that there will be no military response from Turkey, NATO, or the European Union after Syria shot down a Turkish jet. If the attack on Turkey isn't enough to warrant Western intervention, it seems that the only way Assad's regime will fall is if it crumbles from the inside,” writes the Atlantic’s Dashiell Bennett.
Separately, another three Syrian officers, all of them fighter pilots, defected to Jordan yesterday with their families. This came after another Syrian pilot flew his plane into Jordan seeking asylum on June 21.
“The three pilots have entered Jordan in an illegal way and they are currently held by the Jordanian security authorities who are taking them through the regular routine procedures,” reported Al Arabiya’s Ghassan Abu Louz.
Amid the defections, Syria is also facing increased regional pressure as anger mounts among Turkish officials about the downed fighter jet. While the jet reportedly accidentally crossed into Syrian airspace during a training exercise, Turkish officials contend that it was shot down 13 nautical miles outside Syria.
“No one should try to test the capacity of Turkey,” wrote Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in his Twitter feed, reported the New York Times. “Turkey has never acted alone concerning Syria. Has always been part of regional and intl initiatives.”
Turkey has called for a meeting with NATO tomorrow to discuss the incident. Still, it remains unlikely that the incident will change the international stance toward Syria. Britain’s Daily Telegraph, reported that the incident would not “fundamentally alter the situation in Syria,” citing an interview with the UK’s foreign secretary, William Hague.
“I don't think it illustrates a different phase. It's very important that we increase the pressure with additional sanctions,” said Mr. Hague. “Other countries will be very active in arguing for a new resolution from the [United Nations] Security Council.”
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
Wrapping up months of testimony, the lawyer defending Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik said in closing arguments today that his client should be considered sane, but acquitted for killing 77 people last summer in a nationalist terrorist attack.
Breivik has admitted to bombing government buildings in Oslo, killing eight, and going on a shooting spree at a Labor party youth camp, killing 77, in July 2011. However, he has pleaded not guilty to charges of voluntary homicide and committing acts of terror, claiming that he did so to protect his country from the Labor party's policies promoting immigration and multiculturalism, which he says are undermining Norwegian society.
Because Breivik has admitted to the attacks, at the crux of this case is not whether he did it but whether he was sane when he did. He insists he was, and is fighting to be declared sane "so that, as he says, his political ideas can stand stronger," The Christian Science Monitor reports.
“When other revolutionaries break the law, they don’t put a diagnosis on them,” Breivik said in court earlier in the trial. “This case seems easy after weeks of witnesses that show this case is about ideology.”
If judges determine Breivik to be mentally ill, his maximum sentence would be commitment to a mental asylum as opposed to 21 years in prison. Breivik's lawyer, Geir Lippestad, has requested that the judges dismiss the prosecution's claim that his client is mentally ill, however. He said in court today that his client should be acquitted of charges on the grounds of "necessity" – that he had to do it – and that if he couldn't be acquitted, he should at least get the lightest possible sentence, CNN reports.
Determining Breivik's mental health has been a drawn-out, convoluted process, with lawyers soliciting the opinions of many psychiatrists and the defense bringing in political and religious extremists to shore up its argument that Breivik is sane. Two conflicting reports from the Norwegian Forensics Board – the first finding him paranoid schizophrenic, the second sane – further complicated the process.
The prosecution's claim that Breivik was insane is based on the first report. A spokeswoman from the prosecutor's office told CNN that if Breivik is declared sane by the court, it will seek a prison sentence of 21 years instead of compulsory mental care.
Mr. Lippestad grounded his closing arguments in Breivik's long history of political activism, including his development of extremist political ideology, which he wrote about online. "The central criterion for insanity is that the ability of realistic assessment of one's relationship to the outside world is largely abolished," he said in court today, according to CNN. "Is it violent fantasy that is the mother of these actions, or is it his political opinion?"
Lippestad also argued that Breivik had chosen his targets politically, noting that he didn't attack nonpolitical people like the captain on the boat to Utoya, and the youngest children on the island.
"Breivik knew that killing was wrong, but it's what any classic terrorist does," he said. "This will not be understood unless you know the extreme right."
The lawyer told the court he shared the prosecutor's view that the attacks, which he called "a cruel act of terrorism," were almost too horrible to be true.
But, he said, the key question for his client was whether he acted under the legal principle of "necessity."
The psychiatrists behind the second forensics board report, which found him sane and considered more heavily the role of Breivik's extremist political ideology, testified earlier this week. “[His] political beliefs are extreme, but not reality-bursting in the psychotic sense,” said psychiatrist Terje Tørrisen, according to the Monitor.
The prospect that Breivik might be judged insane and committed to a mental asylum has led to a reconsideration of laws regarding the detainment of insane criminals.
The government recently amended the Norwegian Mental Health Care Act "to strengthen the security measures relating to a small group of particularly dangerous patients" because as it stands the law carries "too great a risk for escape, hostage-taking, and severe violence against patients and staff," CNN reports.
Under the new legislation, a high-security mental health unit could be opened within a prison, allowing those deemed dangerous to be placed there instead of a mental asylum. The law goes into effect July 1.
The judges' verdict in Breivik's case will be delivered either July 20 or August 24.
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues. (Editor's note: The original headline on this story has been changed to more accurately reflect the CIA's role.)
The Syrian conflict is becoming more intractable as rebels, bolstered by weapons from Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, are turning into a more effective adversary against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
According to a report today by The New York Times, the CIA is helping to funnel the arms to rebel groups, vetting potential recipients to avoid arming Al Qaeda-affiliated groups. The weapons include automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition, and some antitank weapons, according to the report, which cited unnamed American officials and Arab intelligence officials.
Nearly 100 people were killed across Syria yesterday alone – 35 of them Syrian Army soldiers, showing that rebel forces are becoming a fighting force to rival the actual military, according to data from the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights cited by Agence France-Presse.
The Army has staged an assault on Qusayr, a town outside Homs, after being dealt losses by rebel fighters. Heavy fighting also erupted in Arman Az in Idlib Province after rebels attacked Army barracks. The town of Inkhel in Deraa Province was also shelled.
The International Committee of the Red Cross and its partner Syria Red Crescent are on standby outside Homs today, waiting for a temporary truce so that they can evacuate the wounded from the beleaguered city.
Homs has been under siege for two weeks, but government and rebel forces agreed yesterday to a two-hour pause in fighting to allow the humanitarian groups access to hundreds of civilians who have been caught in the crossfire. The shelling has continued, however, according to several news reports.
The BBC reports that logistics such as how many aid vehicles will be allowed into the city and where the wounded will be taken could also hold up the evacuation process and could take days or weeks to resolve. Hundreds of civilians are believed to have died during the assault on the city.
The Guardian reports that Christians trapped in the city – of which there are about 90 – are particularly vulnerable and they are concerned about being caught between rival Muslim groups, as Christians were in Iraq. There were three separate attempts to evacuate them from Homs, all of which failed. A local priest told the Guardian that he believes they are being kept in the city to use as a bargaining chip.
Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar Jaafari said that the government has tried unilateral cease-fires, but that the rebels used the lulls in fighting to gather more arms. He also accused Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey of intentionally undermining the observer mission.
"They are providing weapons, sending in al-Qaeda, giving them haven, allowing them to cross the border with Syria and then run back to neighboring countries, " Mr. Jaafari said, according to The Wall Street Journal. "This is becoming so blatant and flagrant, it is too much."
Indeed, violence appears to be continuing unrestrained since the UN observer mission was suspended last week. WSJ reports that a UN diplomat said that the observers had taken "direct fire" at least 10 times and were caught in the crossfire of fighting many more times.
The head of UN peacekeeping, Hervé Ladsous, delivered a sobering assessment of the Syrian conflict yesterday, telling the UN Security Council that "there were no good options" for the UN to bring an end to the fighting, WSJ reports. Deploying peacekeepers was not possible because such a mission needs the Syrian governments' approval, requires more troops, and risks upsetting the opposition for seeming to protect the "status quo," Mr. Ladsous said.
Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the observer mission, said that his campaign could only be restarted if there was a "significant reduction in violence."
After firing a shot, the hostage-taker demanded to speak to the elite police unit, RAID, behind Mr. Merah's death. Merah, a French citizen of Algerian descent who also claimed ties to Al Qaeda, killed three children and a rabbi at a local Jewish school and three French soldiers in a nearby town in March. He was killed by police in his apartment after a 32-hour siege.
Police are not sure yet whether the hostage-taker's Al Qaeda claims are real or "fantasy," according to the BBC. Police official Cedric Delage said the hostage situation evolved from a failed armed robbery at a bank that is only 330 feet from Merah's apartment. The bank is also very close to the barracks where RAID was based during the siege on the apartment.
Following Merah's death, the government investigated whether he had any accomplices. The BBC reports he was suspected of having one, and Associated Press reports that Merah's brother is in custody on preliminary charges of having had a hand in planning the March attacks.
In the wake of Merah's attacks, the French government cracked down on local militants. It staged raids across the country that targeted both "lone wolves" and militant networks such as the banned Forsanne Alizza, and deporting several Muslim preachers that the government believed were radicalizing local Muslims.
Merah's attacks and the subsequent raids took place in the midst of an intense presidential campaign. Then-president Nicolas Sarkozy, who trailed his rival François Hollande, had a reputation for being tough on security and was accused of capitalizing on the attacks, using them to gain ground in the polls. Mr. Hollande, who has built no such record on security issues, nonetheless won the election and the issue has since faded into the background, overshadowed by major economic concerns.
Little is known about today's hostage-taker at this point, but if he turns out to be a member of France's Muslim community, whether a native or an immigrant, it will shine an unwanted spotlight on a community that often feels unwelcome and under siege for the actions of a small number of radical individuals, as The Christian Science Monitor reported following the March attacks.
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
Standard Club, a British ship insurer, terminated insurance coverage of the Russian ship purported to be carrying arms after the company heard allegations about the cargo and destination, according to Russian news outlet RIA Novosti. The Russian ship is believed to be carrying refitted combat helicopters and antiship missiles to Tartous, Syria, where Russia has a naval base. Without insurance, however, ships cannot enter port.
The company told RIA Novosti that the British government did not influence its decision, but The Telegraph reports that British security officials told the Standard Club that providing insurance for the ship was likely a breach of European Union sanctions on Syria.
Russia has denied that the equipment could be used against Syrian civilians, insisting the materiel is for defensive purposes only. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also said that the helicopters were supplied during the Soviet-era and were merely being returned to Syria under an already existing contract, according to RIA Novosti.
Russia has been the subject of intense international criticism for its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and for blocking any international efforts to take stronger action.
Read this, too: Syria conflict: 5 warring factions
Some Syria observers see the shipment as undermining Russia's insistence that it opposes intervention in the conflict. The Telegraph's Middle East correspondent, Richard Spencer, writes:
"Russian arguments against direct involvement could now be strongly questioned by the British and Americans: 'Who is intervening in the crisis here? Who is pouring fuel on the flames? If you are providing attack helicopters to the Syrians how can you possibly say you are not intervening in the crisis?'"
Mr. Spencer speculated that this is likely to be followed with a stepping up of Western support for the rebels, perhaps through arms supplies.
Russia was also preparing to send military personnel and ships to its Tartous base, purportedly to secure it and to evacuate Russian nationals in case the conflict made it necessary, according to some reports. The US is reluctant to criticize the move because it often takes similar steps during international crises to protect its own defenses, reports The Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit yesterday. With this most recent spat, Syria was likely a top discussion topic, but the joint statement from the leaders contained only one paragraph addressing Syria:
We agree to cooperate bilaterally and multilaterally to solve regional conflicts. In order to stop the bloodshed in Syria, we call for an immediate cessation of all violence and express full support for the efforts of [United Nations]/League of Arab States Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan, including moving forward on political transition to a democratic, pluralistic political system that would be implemented by the Syrians themselves in the framework of Syria's sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity. We are united in the belief that the Syrian people should have the opportunity to independently and democratically choose their own future.
But their support for Mr. Annan's plan is no change from current positions, and the peace plan has had little effect on the violence there. The international community has largely deemed it a failure, and the UN observer mission to Syria was suspended last week out of concern for the safety.
Russia's intransigence has been convenient for the US, which has heaped blame for international inaction on Russia even while it has shown no appetite for intervening itself, according to the Associated Press.
… in many ways, Russia’s stance is convenient for Washington and its allies which have their own reasons for avoiding direct intervention in yet another Arab nation in crisis.
Not the least of them is the impending U.S. presidential election in November. Others are the uncertain outcome of a military commitment and the war-weariness of the U.S. public.
“The fact that Russia is not budging on Syria certainly helps Washington in its efforts to justify its inaction,” said Bilal Saab, a fellow and Syria expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
Russia plans to send two naval ships carrying a “large” number of marines to the Syrian port of Tartous where it maintains a naval base, according to a new report. The ships will reportedly protect Russian citizens and evacuate them, along with military supplies, if needed.
One of the ships can carry up to 150 landing troops and tanks, reports Agence France-Presse. Russians security officials have yet to confirm the report, which was originally published by Russia’s Interfax news.
“The crews of The Nikolai Filchenkov and The Tsezar Kunikov and SB-15 rescue tug together with marines on board are able to ensure security of Russian nationals and evacuate part of the property of the logistical support base if need be,” said a Russian official in the Interfax article, cited in an AFP article.
Russia has maintained a controversial, supportive relationship with the embattled Syrian regime, blocking international efforts to sanction the country and providing arms. In the past, Russian military advisers in Syria have trained the military how to use Russian weapons. Syria has traditionally served as Russia's main foothold in the Middle East, and Moscow is concerned about Islamist takeovers wiping away their longstanding relationships with leaders in Syria and the region.
If the ships deploy to Syria, it may raise suspicions among Western nations who’ve sought to reduce Russian support for Syria. At the UN, Russia has stymied efforts to pass tougher resolutions against the Syrian regime.
Officially Russia says its longstanding support of Syria stems from its desire to avoid regime change, especially one supported by a Western military intervention as happened in Libya, writes an editorial in South Africa's Independent Online. Its concern is most likely that regime change could introduce a new, Islamist government that would be less stable and less warm to Moscow. This fear is likely to be magnified now that Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is the apparent victor in the country’s presidential election.
“Russia is obviously concerned about Islamic regimes and perhaps most important of all it is terrified of chaos,” said Mark Galeotti, who chairs the Center for Global Affairs at New York University in an article by the Independent Online. “Russia feels that the West doesn't know how to handle regime change and that the outcome is almost invariably the kind of chaos from which Islamic extremist movements arise.”
On Friday, Russia announced plans to send an advanced missile defense system to Syria, reported the New York Times.
“I would like to say these mechanisms are really a good means of defense, a reliable defense against attacks from the air or sea,” Anatoly P. Isaykin, the general director of the company, Rosoboronexport, said in an interview. “This is not a threat, but whoever is planning an attack should think about this.”
As for the ships, it remains uncertain when or if the ship will leave port for Syria, with Russia’s RT news channel saying the ship remains docked and unloaded. The Nikolai Filchenkov is presently docked in Sevastopol, where witnesses say that it is apparent because of the ship's draft that there is no cargo on board.
“The ship is ready for deployment just as any warship of the Navy on duty. There are no marines on board and we received no orders to set sail to Syria. The crews are engaged in their normal routines,” RT quoted a Russian naval officer as saying.
Meanwhile, inside Syria, opposition activists say that the government has intensified its shelling of rebel neighborhoods in Homs. The continued bombardment of Homs, comes just one day after the UN suspended its observer patrols due to worsening security conditions.
Japanese police ended a 17-year-long manhunt today with the arrest of the final suspect in a gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. The arrest closes a chapter on one of the worst acts of domestic terrorism in Japan’s history.
In 1995, members of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult killed 13 people and injured as many as 6,000 others when they released sarin nerve gas into the subway system during rush hour. The group’s founder and 12 followers are awaiting death sentences for their participation in the attack. Another 200 members have been convicted on charges related to the attack.
On Friday, police caught the remaining fugitive, Katsuya Takahashi, at a cafe in Tokyo after an employee tipped them off.
"The case has never been fully resolved," said Masaki Kito, a lawyer and Aum Shinrikyo watcher, according to the Associated Press. "He was a last piece of a jigsaw puzzle."
Police received a major breakthrough in the case about five months ago, after fellow cult member Makoto Hirata turned himself in for his involvement in the attack, giving new life to a case that had gone cold, reports The New York Times.
Mr. Takahashi is accused of delivering a fellow member of the group to the train station on March 20, 1995. That member then boarded a train and released the sarin gas, reports the Asahi Shimbun. Followers of Aum Shinrikyo believed the attack would trigger an apocalyptic battle with the government.
Japan’s Mainichi newspaper reports that Takahashi’s arrest represents a significant moment, as his testimony may provide new insights into the attack.
Takahashi has reportedly already confessed to authorities about his involvement.
"I did it under the instructions of high-ranking cult members," he told police, according to Mainichi.
Prior to his arrest, Takahashi had been using a fake name and working in construction south of Toyko, reports the Japan Times. About two weeks ago, authorities arrested Naoko Kikuchi, another suspect in the attack, and Takahashi went missing after it was reported in the news.
Police say Ms. Kikuchi told authorities that Takahashi had managed to elude arrest for so long by avoiding air travel and trains, as well as by mixing in with people in large cities.
“I don't want to take any chances of being caught. We should mix in with urban crowds, rather than living in a rural area," Takahashi told Kikuchi, according to police in an article by The Yomiuri Shimbun. “But we should avoid Tokyo, as there are too many police officers and security cameras.”
Japanese police say Kikuchi’s arrest also played a crucial role leading to Takahashi’s arrest. He had already fled when police raided the room where he lived while working in construction, but a search of his living quarters yielded a recent photo, reports the BBC. The photo, along with images from a bank surveillance video, was released to the public last week. A citizen recognized Takahashi and tipped off police.
Following the 1995 attack, the government revoked Aum Shinrikyo’s status as an officially recognized religion. On the eve of the attack, the cult had about 20,000 to 40,000 followers and about $1.5 billion in assets, reports Wired magazine. The group still exists today on a much smaller scale and is currently known as Aleph.