Saturday, December 23, 2017

Russian foreign ministry: Moscow ready to cooperate with U.S. on Afghanistan

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Moscow stands ready to cooperate with the United States on Afghanistan, Russia's Foreign Ministry official said in an interview with RIA state news agency published on Saturday.

Russia maintains contacts with U.S. acting Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells, said Zamir Kabulov, special representative to the Russian president on Afghanistan and the head of Asian region department at the Foreign Ministry

Moscow: U.S. arms supply to provoke Kiev to use force in eastern Ukraine

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The U.S. decision to supply weapons to Ukraine is dangerous as it will encourage Kiev to use force in eastern Ukraine, Russian officials said on Saturday.

The U.S. State Department said on Friday the United States would provide Ukraine with "enhanced defensive capabilities" as Kiev battles Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country.

Supplies of any weapons now encourage those who support the conflict in Ukraine to use the "force scenario," Russia's RIA state news agency cited Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin as saying on Saturday.

Franz Klintsevich, a member of the upper house of parliament's security committee, said Kiev would consider arms supplies as support of its actions, Interfax news agency reported.

"Americans, in fact, directly push Ukrainian forces to war," Klintsevich said.

After Moscow's annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine and Russia are at loggerheads over a war in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces that has killed more than 10,000 people in three years.

Kiev accuses Moscow of sending troops and heavy weapons to the region, which Russia denies.

The Russian foreign ministry said the U.S. decision once again undermines Minsk agreements, TASS state news agency reported on Saturday.

Minsk agreements intended to end the fighting in Ukraine were signed by Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France in the Belarussian capital in early 2015.

Trump Weighs Action on North Korea

WASHINGTON — A year of erratic U.S. rhetoric and steadily escalating diplomatic and economic pressure has failed to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, leaving the frustrated Trump administration to reconsider its options going into 2018 as the world wonders whether it’s on the edge of war.

We’re not committed to a peaceful resolution — we’re committed to a resolution,” President Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, told BBC News this week.

“We want the resolution to be peaceful, but as the president said, all options are on the table. And we have to be prepared, if necessary, to compel the denuclearization of North Korea without the cooperation of that regime,” McMaster said. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watching the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile, Sept. 16, 2017. (Photo: KCNA via Reuters)

Inside the administration and in Congress, officials are looking at a wide range of options for dealing with the regime of Kim Jong Un. Some are conventional, like continuing to pressure countries to fully enforce international sanctions meant to starve North Korea of cash and isolate it diplomatically. Some are less so: Two U.S. officials said Trump could consider taking the largely symbolic step of naming a retired military official to coordinate North Korean policy across all of government. That job currently falls to the special representative for North Korea policy, career diplomat Joseph Yun. Some in Congress want the administration to take a much harder line on businesses and countries that flout sanctions.

“We are not on the same sheet of music, when it comes to North Korea, in the U.S. government,” a senator’s senior foreign policy aide who tracks the issue closely told Yahoo News.

And there are more radical options short of an all-out war, including a one-off strike that a former senior U.S. official referred to as “the bloody-nose option” to try to force Pyongyang to negotiate.

In that scenario, the United States would hit a target relevant to North Korea’s missile or nuclear programs, far from civilians, Dennis Wilder, the top East Asia expert on George W. Bush’s National Security Council, told Yahoo News in an interview on December 15. It would be consciously modeled on Trump’s decision to order airstrikes on a Syrian airfield in April in response to the regime’s chemical weapons attack on civilians. President Trump is briefed about a military strike on Syria from his national security team, April 6, 2017. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

“They have a belief that they can do this,” Wilder said of the administration. “Call it ‘the kick in the shin,’ or ‘the bloody nose option’ — you take a single strike, you make sure that the Chinese, the Russians, everybody knows that it’s a single strike.”

That would reduce, though not eliminate, the likelihood of escalation, Wilder said, adding: “You could take that facility out and say, ‘Enough, Mr. Kim, it’s time for you to come and talk.’”

Another option, two congressional officials and one former White House official told Yahoo News, would be for the United States to show it’s serious about interdicting ship-to-ship smuggling. That tactic, aimed at getting around international sanctions, involves North Korean ships swapping cargoes with foreign vessels, usually bearing refined petroleum products.

“I expect we’re going to see more pressure from the U.S., in the form of harsher sanctions (both multilateral and unilateral) and increased maritime interdictions,” Abraham Denmark, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia under Obama, told Yahoo News via email. Kim Jong Un guides the second test-fire of intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14, July 29, 2017. (Photo: KCNA via Reuters)

Washington has already imposed unilateral sanctions on ships that visit North Korean ports. But now, the sources said, some administration officials advocate boarding ships suspected of carrying contraband. The United States would invoke the principles of the Proliferation Security Initiative, a global post-9/11 program to prevent the spread of dangerous technologies. But Washington would have to tread extremely carefully: China never joined the PSI, and boarding a Chinese firm’s ship without Beijing’s at-least-tacit approval would test Sino-U.S. relations. And just who would do the boarding is another extremely sensitive question.

Regional tensions have steadily built over the past few months, with North Korea testing its most powerful nuclear weapon yet and firing its most advanced missile to date — a rocket widely believed to be able to reach anywhere on U.S. soil. From a technical perspective, it’s not clear yet whether the regime has a guidance system reliable enough to hit a specific desired target, or whether it has perfected the technology needed for its warhead to survive the heat of reentry into the atmosphere

Meanwhile, the Trump administration successfully wrangled 15-0 U.N. Security Council votes to toughen sanctions, returned North Korea to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, cheered as nations like Singapore and Sudan cut economic ties with the regime in Pyongyang, and successfully encouraged allies — like Germany — to reduce diplomatic engagement with the secretive Stalinist prison state. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson publicly suggested North Korea would be welcome at the negotiating table without needing to agree to preconditions, then seemed to rescind the invitation. Tillerson also surprised longtime observers of Asian power politics by revealing that the United States and China — Pyongyang’s de facto patron — had discussed in considerable detail how to secure North Korea’s nuclear weapons in the event the regime collapsed. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the U.N. (Photo: Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

At home, the administration has stepped up its campaign to paint North Korea as a bad actor. First, there was a late-November op-ed by senior State Department official Brian Hook in the New York Times that compared Kim’s elite entourage to intestinal parasites. Then, on Tuesday, Trump homeland security adviser Tom Bossert publicly blamed North Korea for the WannaCry “ransomware” attack that disabled computers around the word in May — an unusual step, given how difficult it can be to definitively determine the authorship of online attacks.

“North Korea has done everything wrong as an actor on the global stage that a country can do,” Bossert later told reporters in the White House briefing room. “President Trump has used just about every lever you can use, short of starving the people of North Korea to death, to change their behavior. And so we don’t have a lot of room left here to apply pressure to change their behavior.”

In a little-noticed section of the White House’s new National Security Strategy (NSS) — a nonbinding document that lays out the president’s view of the world — the administration effectively laid claim to the right to preemptively and unilaterally disrupt future North Korean missile launches. Tom Bossert, homeland security adviser to President Trump, accuses North Korea of unleashing the so-called WannaCry cyberattack, Dec. 19, 2017. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

“The United States is deploying a layered missile defense system focused on North Korea and Iran to defend our homeland against missile attacks. This system will include the ability to defeat missile threats prior to launch,” the document says.

The NSS did not spell out whether this ability would involve traditional military force — like cruise missile strikes — or high-tech capabilities like hacking or the introduction of a virus. It also does not lay out how the United States would determine whether a missile poses a threat, or to whom.

The warning about possible preemptive U.S. action doesn’t come as a major surprise. U.S. officials, past and present, have discussed that possibility for years. The New York Times reported in March that former President Barack Obama waged clandestine cyberwar on North Korea’s missile launches.

“The president has made it clear that he would not tolerate a North Korean capability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons, and it is highly possible that North Korea may attempt to cross that threshold in 2018,” said Denmark, the Obama official. “President Trump’s response will be the critical moment in this crisis and will define geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come.”

The blustery talk from Washington — threatening to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea, or “totally destroy” it, or suggesting North Korean leaders “won’t be around much longer” — while playing down the value of negotiations has made some wonder whether the administration is giving diplomacy a shot.

Amid talk of war, another North Korea expert predicts that the Trump administration would be “muddling through” 2018 without dramatic shifts on policy.

“The risk of ending program militarily is enormous compared with the risk of managing it,” Mike Green, who preceded Wilder as the top Asia hand on Bush’s National Security Council, told Yahoo News.

“If they shoot back, it’s tens of thousands killed in a conventional war and potentially millions if they use chemical or biological weapons, or target Tokyo with a nuclear missile,” he added.

Still, Green said, “living with North Korea, it’s not going to be comfortable. The term ‘live with’ actually sounds too comfortable.” Instead of the mutual deterrence of the Cold War, Washington needs to prepare to counter a nuclear North Korea’s efforts “to blackmail, intimidate, threaten” in a kind of “ugly deterrence” he said.

Still, there are some things that could be a prelude to armed conflict, like the withdrawal of U.S. government officials or their relatives from South Korea, as happened in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“If there’s an evacuation, that means I was wrong,” Green said.

Another clue could be how big business, including firms with ties to China, operates in South Korea.

“Keep an eye on companies. Do corporations visibly start pulling out dependents, or changing their supply chains?” Green said.

Pyongyang has a say in the standoff, of course.

“Look at what — and when and where — the North Koreans test,” Green said. “Do they demonstrate their capability undeniably by blowing up something in the atmosphere?”

There are other things to watch as well, Green said, like whether and how the United States helps South Korea and Japan develop offensive military capabilities – and whether and how Washington tries to calm skittish allies in the region.

Another open question is “does Tillerson stay in office, and does he get enough of a leash to try diplomacy,” Green said.

The next few months will also provide a clue as to “instability within North Korea – answering the question of just how stable is the regime under sanctions pressure, and as sanctions ramp up,” said Green.

But the most important factor to watch is Trump himself.

“The real question is if the president will use military force to prevent North Korea from crossing the threshold of achieving a credible nuclear deterrent,” said Denmark. “If that happens, there is no prediction what happens next.”

Russian submarines are making NATO nervous.

Russian submarines have dramatically stepped up activity around undersea data cables in the North Atlantic, part of a more aggressive naval posture that has driven NATO to revive a Cold War-era command, according to senior military officials.

The apparent Russian focus on the cables, which provide Internet and other communications connections to North America and Europe, could give the Kremlin the power to sever or tap into vital data lines, the officials said. Russian submarine activity has increased to levels unseen since the Cold War, they said, sparking hunts in recent months for the elusive watercraft.

“We are now seeing Russian underwater activity in the vicinity of undersea cables that I don’t believe we have ever seen,” said U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Andrew Lennon, the commander of NATO’s submarine forces. “Russia is clearly taking an interest in NATO and NATO nations’ undersea infrastructure.”

NATO has responded with plans to reestablish a command post, shuttered after the Cold War, to help secure the North Atlantic. NATO allies are also rushing to boost anti-submarine warfare capabilities and to develop advanced submarine-detecting planes.

Britain’s top military commander also warned that Russia could imperil the cables that form the backbone of the modern global economy. The privately owned lines, laid along the some of the same corridors as the first transatlantic telegraph wire in 1858, carry nearly all of the communications on the Internet, facilitating trillions of dollars of daily trade. If severed, they could snarl the Web. If tapped, they could give Russia a valuable picture of the tide of the world’s Internet traffic.

“It’s a pattern of activity, and it’s a vulnerability,” said British Air Chief Marshal Stuart Peach, in an interview.

“Can you imagine a scenario where those cables are cut or disrupted, which would immediately and potentially catastrophically affect both our economy and other ways of living if they were disrupted?” Peach said in a speech in London this month.

The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment about the cables.

The Russian sea activity comes as the Kremlin has also pressed against NATO in the air and on land. Russian jets routinely clip NATO airspace in the Baltics, and troops drilled near NATO territory in September.

Russia has moved to modernize its once-decrepit Soviet-era fleet of submarines, bringing online or overhauling 13 craft since 2014. That pace, coming after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula set off a new era of confrontation with the West, has spurred NATO efforts to counter them. Russia has about 60 full-size submarines, while the United States has 66.

Among Russia’s capabilities, Lennon said, are deep-sea research vessels, including an old converted ballistic submarine that carries smaller submarines.

“They can do oceanographic research, underwater intelligence gathering,” he said. “And what we have observed is an increased activity of that in the vicinity of undersea cables. We know that these auxiliary submarines are designed to work on the ocean floor, and they’re transported by the mother ship, and we believe they may be equipped to manipulate objects on the ocean floor.”

That capability could give Russia the ability to sever the cables or tap into them. The insulated fiber-optic cables are fragile, and ships have damaged them accidentally by dragging their anchors along the seabed. That damage happens near the shore, where it is relatively easy to fix, not in the deeper Atlantic, where the cost of mischief could be far greater.

Lennon declined to say whether NATO believes Russia has actually touched the cables. Russian military leaders have acknowledged that the Kremlin is active undersea at levels not seen since the end of the Cold War, when Russia was forced to curtail its submarine program in the face of economic turmoil and disorganization.

“Last year we reached the same level as before the post-Soviet period, in terms of running hours,” said Adm. Vladimir Korolev, the commander of the Russian Navy, earlier this year. “This is more than 3,000 days at sea for the Russian submarine fleet. This is an excellent sign.”

The activity has forced a revival of Western sub-hunting skills that lay largely dormant since the end of the Cold War. Lennon said NATO allies have long practiced submarine-hunting. But until the last few years, there were few practical needs for close tracking, military officials said.

In recent months, the U.S. Navy has flown sorties in the areas where Russia is known to operate its submarines, according to aircraft trackers that use publicly available transponder data. On Thursday, for example, one of the planes shot off from Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, headed eastward into the Mediterranean. It flew the same mission a day earlier.

The trackers have captured at least 10 missions carried out by U.S. submarine-tracking planes this month, excluding trips when the planes simply appeared to be in transit from one base to another. November was even busier, with at least 17 missions captured by the trackers.

NATO does not comment on specific submarine-tracking flights and declined to release data, citing the classified nature of the missions. But NATO officials say that their submarine-tracking activities have significantly increased in the region.

Submarines are particularly potent war-fighting craft because they can generally only be heard, not seen, underwater. They can serve as a retaliatory strike force in case of nuclear war, threaten military resupply efforts and expand the range of conventional firepower available for use in lower-level conflicts.

The vessels are a good fit for the Kremlin’s strategy of making do with less than its rivals, analysts say: Russia’s foes need vast resources to track a single undersea craft, making the submarines’ cost-to-mischief ratio attractive. Even as Russia remains a vastly weaker military force than NATO, the Kremlin has been able to pack an outsize punch in its confrontation with the West through the seizure of Crimea, support for the Syrian regime and, according to U.S. intelligence, its attempts to influence the U.S. election.

“You go off and you try to add expense for anything that we’re doing, or you put things at risk that are of value to us, and submarines give them the capability to do it,” a senior NATO official said of the Russian approach, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence assessments.

Russian military planners can say, “I can build fewer of them, I can have better quality, and I can put at risk and challenge and make it difficult for NATO,” the official said.

Still, some analysts say the threat to cables may be overblown.

“Arguably, the Russians wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they couldn’t threaten underwater cables. Certainly, NATO allies would not be doing theirs if they were unable to counter that,” said Adam Thomson, a former British ambassador to NATO.

Russian military planners have publicized their repeated use of submarine-launched Kalibr cruise missiles during their incursion into Syria, which began in fall 2015. (In Syria, the missiles have not always hit their targets, according to U.S. intelligence officials, undermining somewhat the Russian claims of potency.)

NATO’s hunts — which have stretched across the Baltic, Mediterranean and Atlantic — have mobilized submarine-tracking frigates, sonar-equipped P8 Poseidon planes and helicopters, and attack submarines that have combed the seas.

“The Russians are operating all over the Atlantic,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. “They are also operating closer to our shores.”

Russia’s enhanced submarine powers give urgency to NATO’s new efforts to ensure that it can get forces to the battlefront if there is a conflict, Stoltenberg said. In addition to the new Atlantic-focused command, the alliance also plans to create another command dedicated to enabling military forces to travel quickly across Europe.

NATO defense ministers approved the creation of the commands at a November meeting. Further details are expected in February. The plans are still being negotiated, but they currently include the North Atlantic command being embedded inside the U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, which would transform into a broader NATO joint force command if there was a conflict, a NATO diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss plans that have not been finalized.

“Credible deterrence is linked to credible reinforcement capabilities,” Stoltenberg said. “We’re a transatlantic alliance. You need to be able to cross the Atlantic.”

Friday, December 22, 2017

Palestinian killed in renewed clashes over Jerusalem status

JERUSALEM (AP) — A Palestinian was killed in renewed clashes with Israeli forces, Gaza's Health Ministry said Friday, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged France and Europe to play a stronger role in peace efforts, as fallout over President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital continues.

The fresh violence came a day after the U.N. General Assembly resolution denouncing President Donald Trump's decision.

Abbas on a visit to Paris urged France and Europe to play a stronger role in peace efforts, insisting he'll no longer accept any U.S. plans for Mideast peace because of the Trump's position on Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as the administration siding with Israel on the most sensitive issue in the conflict.

Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra said a 24-year-old man was killed after being shot in the chest in clashes along the border with Israel. Another four Palestinians sustained moderate wounds, he said.

The Israeli military said thousands of Palestinians participated in "violent riots" along the Gaza border and across the West Bank "hurling firebombs and rocks and rolling burning tires" at Israeli forces. It said troops responded with tear gas and deployed live fire "selectively toward main instigators."

Palestinians have been clashing with Israeli troops since Trump's Jerusalem announcement on Dec. 6. Nine Palestinians have been killed and dozens more wounded so far.

In Bethlehem on Friday, some Palestinian protesters held anti-Trump banners reading "Mr. Trump, it's not your land to decide to whom it belongs, Jerusalem is ours and it belongs to us,"and "Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine."

The U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly Thursday to denounce Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, largely ignoring Trump's threats to cut off aid to any country that went against him.

The nonbinding resolution declaring U.S. action on Jerusalem "null and void" was approved 128-9 — a victory for the Palestinians, but not as big as they predicted. Amid Washington's threats, 35 of the 193 U.N. member nations abstained and 21 were absent.

The Trump administration made it clear the vote would have no effect on its plan to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The United States and Israel had waged an intensive lobbying campaign against the U.N. measure, with U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley sending letters to over 180 countries warning that Washington would be taking names of those who voted against the U.S.

Trump went further, threatening a funding cutoff: "Let them vote against us. We'll save a lot. We don't care."

Speaking in Paris, Abbas said the United States is "no longer an honest mediator in the peace process."

Abbas also denounced the U.S threat to cut financial aid for countries who voted to back the U.N. resolution.

In a Christmas message, sent by his office as he met with French President Emmanuel Macron, Abbas said Trump's move disqualified the U.S. from continuing in its traditional role as mediator in peace talks.

"The U.S. chose to be biased. Their future plan for Palestine will not be based on the two-state solution on the 1967 border, nor will it be based on International Law or UN resolutions," Abbas said in the written message.

Trump's announcement departed from decades of U.S. policy that the fate of Jerusalem should be decided through negotiations. East Jerusalem is home to sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites and the fate of the territory is an emotionally charged issue at the heart of the conflict.

The Palestinians seek east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war from Jordan, as the capital of their future state. Israel says the entire city, including east Jerusalem, is its eternal capital.

Trump said his decision merely recognizes the fact that Jerusalem already serves as Israel's capital and is not meant to prejudge the final borders of the city.

Putin accuses U.S. of plotting to break landmark arms control pact

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday accused the United States of plotting to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty, which bans short and intermediate-range land-based nuclear and conventional missiles.

Both Russia and the United States have accused each other of breaking the landmark arms control treaty that helped end the Cold War and have said its existence is now under threat.

May 'aware' of reports of Russian spy in No 10

Theresa May has said she is "aware" of claims that a Russian spy who visited Downing Street has been arrested in Ukraine.

The Prime Minister made the admission in a news conference in Poland a day after a picture emerged on social media showing the man in Number 10.

He has been named by Sky's Alistair Bunkall as Stanislav Yezhov, the official translator for the Ukrainian Prime Minister.

Ukraine's security service, the SBU, says he was recruited by the Russians while working abroad.

He previously served in the Ukrainian Embassy in the United States.

Bunkall said he was told Mr Yezhov was in the room with Theresa May for private bilateral talks last July because the Ukrainian PM does not speak good English.

"Bilateral meetings are an opportunity for leaders to be frank and honest with one another in a way they wouldn't be in public. I understand Theresa May and her Ukrainian counterpart discussed sanctions against Russia and British military support to Ukraine, amongst other things.

"It's not inconceivable that Theresa May revealed how far Britain was or wasn't willing to go in its support for Ukraine. This sort of detail could be very valuable to Moscow," he said.

Mrs May, when asked if she was concerned about reports of a Russian spy she was photographed alongside in Downing Street, said: "I'm aware of the reports in relation to the Ukrainian individual who attended Downing Street earlier in the summer.

"The action that has been taken is a matter for the Ukrainian authorities."

The Kyiv Post, Ukraine's main English language newspaper, said Yezhov had been detained on suspicion of espionage for Russia on Wednesday.

He has served as the deputy head of the protocol for the Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman.

The SBU has opened a case investigating whether he has committed treason after he is suspected of collecting inside information about the activities of Ukrainian cabinet ministers.

He also previously worked for Ukraine's Slovenia embassy and ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, amid allegations of political corruption.

The Ukrainska Pravda news agency claimed government sources said Yezhov had been under surveillance for months.

The meeting that Mr Yezhov attended to translate involved discussions on "the importance of maintaining sanctions on Russia to keep up political pressure until the full implementation of the Minsk Agreement" and "the importance of improving the capability of the Ukrainian armed forces", Downing Street said.

It came as the Press Association reported bizarre scenes in the Commons earlier when a mystery man was ejected from the public gallery for "filming and taking pictures" during a debate on Russian interference in UK politics.

Iran v Saudi Arabia conflict has entered 'UNPREDICTABLE' phase

Developments in the conflict between Yemeni Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia amid Yemen’s civil war, in which the Saudis have backed the government, could destabilise the region, a leading analyst has said.

The ongoing conflict, widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, could become even more volatile in the wake of a missile fired at Riyadh earlier this week.

The attempted attack, which was intercepted mid-air over the south of the Saudi capital, targeted Saudi leaders in a royal palace.

Previous attacks have led the Saudis to accuse Iran of acts of war, as Tehran has backed the Houthi rebels and is accused of supplying their missiles.

Marcus Chevenix, Middle East analyst at TS Lombard, said the Saudis’ conflict with Iran had become “unpredictable” as the conflict continued.

He told CNBC: “I really struggle to predict what's going to happen next.

“This is the first time for a very long time that there hasn't been an external arbiter in the Middle East who basically defines everyone's diplomatic relationships.

“For a long time it was America and Russia, then it was just America and now there's no one.

“So there's a power vacuum and that power vacuum is pretty recent. The Iranians saw it first and Saudi Arabia has only really been engaging in this kind of rivalry for the last five years.”

Mr Chevenix explained that after the death of former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, the conflict had become “a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran”.

Houthi rebels killed Saleh, who they supported after he was deposed by an uprising in 2011, when he decided to end his allegiance with them in November.

He said: “That makes it much more troublesome and it makes it a lot more about Saudi. I would expect to see a lot more missiles coming out of Yemen.”

Rebels claimed the December 19 attempted attack on the royal palace signalled a “new chapter” in the conflict.

Witnesses described hearing a blast and seeing a plume of smoke over the Saudi capital as the missile was shot down before it could reach its target.

Saudi palaces, military and oil facilities are within range of such missiles fired from Yemen, the Houthis said, according to a statement distributed via their television channel al-Masirah.

Their statement appeared to back up Mr Chevenix’s suggestion that there will be further missile attacks - making the region all the more volatile

Thursday, December 21, 2017

US commandos train to capture North Korean nukes

U.S. military forces reportedly trained earlier this month for a mission that would put them on North Korean soil, with the objective of “infiltrating" and "removing weapons of mass destruction," according to foreign military sources.

Revealing photos of a recent exercise, dubbed Warrior Strike IX, show a U.S. military unit known as "The Black Jack Brigade" training alongside their South Korean counterparts at Camp Stanley, in Korea. The pictures were featured in a post on the unit's Facebook page.

The images show soldiers training with night-vision equipment, armored vehicles and full-face protective gear, including gas masks. Descriptions of the event suggest soldiers practiced for eventualities such as transporting injured comrades and capturing combatants.

According to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, which quoted anonymous military sources, the combined exercise was designed to simulate "infiltrating North Korea and removing weapons of mass destruction in case of conflict." An Army spokesperson stationed in South Korea declined to comment.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has suggested repeatedly that one of his main goals in Korea was to avoid sending U.S. forces into North Korean territory. But he also seemed to concede last week that is a scenario that might need to be addressed.

On Dec. 13, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert reiterated to reporters what Tillerson has described as the four things he won’t do when it comes to North Korea – a list he calls the “four no’s.”

"We are not seeking the collapse of the North Korean regime. We are not seeking regime change. We are not seeking the accelerated reunification of the Korean Peninsula. And we are not seeking an excuse to send our military north of the [border with South Korea]," according to Nauert.

She was responding to a question concerning remarks Tillerson had made a day earlier. Speaking to an audience at the 2017 Atlantic Council-Korea Foundation Forum on Dec. 12, Tillerson was asked about concerns China could experience a mass influx of refugees in the event of a regime collapse in Pyongyang.

While acknowledging those concerns, Tillerson noted refugees wouldn't be the most pressing problem.

"The most important thing to us would be securing those nuclear weapons they’ve already developed and ensuring that they – that nothing falls into the hands of people we would not want to have it.” He added the Chinese have apparently been privy to some of the planning that's been done for this eventuality, which includes the crossing of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), otherwise known as the 38th Parallel.

"We have had conversations that if something happened and we had to go across a line, we have given the Chinese assurances we would go back and retreat back to the south of the 38th Parallel when whatever the conditions that caused that to happen," Tillerson said.

In rare remarks before the U.N. Security Council on Dec. 15, North Korea's ambassador suggested his nation's pursuit of nuclear weapons is a direct response to "nuclear blackmail" on behalf of the United States.

John Bolton, a former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and a Fox News contributor, dismissed the North Korean speech as "propaganda.” He added one of the only solutions he sees when it comes to North Korea's nuclear arsenal is to convince China to support a regime change in Pyongyang.

If that solution doesn't pan out, however, Bolton suggested the U.S. could soon be forced to make a difficult decision.

"We're either going to have to kind of play it using military force, or accept that North Korea will be the nuclear arms sale center of the world - to Iran, to terrorist groups, to other third-world countries that have nuclear aspirations,” Bolton said. “That is not a future I look forward to," he added.

The notion of "regime change" is a frequent topic of conversation. It can mean everything from putting pressure on allies to support a transition of power to actually removing political leaders by force - sometimes referred to as a political "decapitation."

As Fox News reported over the summer, a South Korean lawmaker suggested the country's intelligence agency had determined North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is so terrified of being targeted that he travels incognito, and is now "obsessed with collecting information about the 'decapitation operation' through his intelligence agencies."

According to that South Korean lawmaker, Kim is so frightened that he now disguises his movements, travels primarily at dawn, and in the cars of his henchmen. Public appearances and jaunts in his prized Mercedes Benz 600 have been curtailed.

North Korea’s U.N. representative referenced the “beheading operation” in a sternly worded, 2016 letter to the Security Council, suggesting the joint military operations regularly conducted by the U.S. and South Korea “constitute a grave threat to [North Korea], as well as international peace and security.”

By January of this year, there were reports South Korea was speeding up the creation of a specialized unit designed for this mission, initially slated to be ready by 2019.

During this year's Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises with South Korea, one of the largest annual military exercises in the world, members of U.S. Navy SEAL teams reportedly participated in decapitation drills with South Korean counterparts for the first time.

More Than a Dozen Injured as Muslim Terrorist Deliberately Plows Into Melbourne Crowd

A man rammed a car into pedestrians and Christmas shoppers in a bustling area of Australia’s second-largest city on Thursday, injuring at least 18 other people in an act police said was deliberate.

Police in Melbourne said they arrested the 32-year-old male driver of a white four-wheel-drive Suzuki at the scene, along with another man. Four people were critically wounded, said Premier of Victoria state Daniel Andrews, and another 15 including the driver are in stable condition. Police said the incident was likely not terrorism.

The unnamed driver was alone in the car and is Australian of Afghan descent, with some history of assault, drug use and mental illness, Shane Patton, acting chief commissioner of the Victoria state police, said at an evening media briefing.

“He is under arrest for what we allege is a deliberate act,” Mr. Patton said, adding that the incident is being treated as an isolated event. “At this time we do not have any evidence for any intelligence to indicate there is a connection with terrorism. However, we continue to support this investigation without counterterrorism command to ensure that there isn’t that connection and that there is no ongoing threat.”

The second man, 24, was in possession of a bag containing three knives and remains in custody after being seen filming the events on his phone at the scene. But Mr. Patton said it was unlikely he had any relation to the driver.

Witnesses said the vehicle accelerated after running a red light and plowing into pedestrians at high speed adjacent to Flinders Street Station, one of Melbourne’s busiest transportation hubs.

Mr. Patton said the Suzuki pulled on to tram tracks running parallel to the train station, drove through an intersection and into the pedestrians. The driver was captured by an off-duty police officer soon after his car crashed into a post next to a tram stop in the center of the street.

Both the officer and the driver—who Mr. Patton said resisted arrest—were taken to a city hospital for treatment.

“To describe this as a lone wolf incident is not probably not apt,” Mr. Patton said. “This is an horrific incident where a person drove directly at pedestrians. It is a crime and we will be fully exploring that. One of the key aspects we are exploring is in respect to mental health backgrounds and drug use in respect of this individual.”

Commander Russell Barrett of Victoria Police told reporters earlier in the day that while police believed the act was deliberate, a motivation was unclear.

A witness who gave his name as Lachlan told Australian media that he saw a man he believed to be the driver as he was detained by police, dressed in blue jeans and a white T-shirt and appearing nearly unconscious.

“The police arrived and dragged him from the car. There was a cop with a big gun, an [assault rifle] pointed at him,” Lachlan said.

The site will remain an active crime scene, state police said. Victoria Police said it would provide a strong presence into the night in central Melbourne.

The attack occurred near the location of a similar events in January, when a driver plowed through a pedestrian mall, killing four people and injuring 20 others. That act wasn’t terrorism-related.

The January incident, coming after terrorist attacks in Europe and the U.K. in which attackers used vehicles to mow down pedestrians, prompted Australia’s government and police countrywide to strengthen defenses in an effort to guard against vehicle-based attacks. Concrete or metal poles were erected at popular locations and more armed police have been patrolling the nation’s streets.

Earlier this month, police in Sydney began patrolling with military-style rifles for the first time. Other deterrent measures have included fences and additional installations of CCTV cameras, as well as improved screening procedures across the country.

Heavily armed officers had parts of central Melbourne locked down after Thursday’s incident, which occurred at the start of rush hour at about 4:30 p.m. local time, during the busy Christmas shopping period.

An ambulance-service spokesman said at least 13 people had been transported to hospitals.

“The intersection was full of pedestrians and he just plowed through,” one bystander, who gave his name only as Jim, told Australian television. “The only thing that slowed him down was him hitting pedestrians. There was no braking, there was no slowing down.”

Another witness, liquor-store attendant Elton Hindoli, said the incident occurred near a tram stop and that one man dragged from the car by police appeared to be unconscious.

“He hit the people, then crashed into the tram area in the middle of the road,” he told Melbourne radio.

“What occurred on Flinders Street this afternoon was an act of evil and an act of cowardice,” Premier Andrews said.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Twitter: “As our federal & state police & security agencies work together to secure the scene and investigate this shocking incident our thoughts & prayers are with the victims & the emergency & health workers who are treating them.”

N. Korean soldier flees to S. Korea via DMZ: military

A North Korean soldier fled to South Korea through the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the inter-Korean land border, Thursday, followed by gunfire from both sides, the South's military said.

The "low-ranking" soldier appeared in front of a guard post on the mid-western front at around 8:04 a.m. amid thick fog, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).

After the defection, the North's border guards approached the military demarcation line (MDL) apparently in search of the defector, a JCS official told reporters.

In response, the South's troops fired some 20 warning shots at around 9:30 a.m., he said.

Roughly 40 minutes later, there was the sound of several gunshots from the North but no bullets were found to have crossed the border, he added.

In a separate announcement, the Unification Ministry said two North Korean people aboard a small wooden boat defected to the South on Wednesday.

"The Navy found it in waters about 100 kilometers north of Dokdo during a patrol mission," a ministry official said at a press briefing. "A joint probe into the details of their identities is under way."

The North Korean men expressed their intent to defect and agreed to abandon the aged and apparently damaged ship, added the official.

Last month, a North Korean soldier made a successful dash to the South via the truce village of Panmunjom after suffering multiple gunshot wounds fired by the communist nation's border guards.

An official tally of the JCS shows that 15 North Korean people, including four soldiers, have fled to the South this year, versus one soldier and four civilians in 2016.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

South Korean coast guard fires 250 rounds at Chinese fishing ships

South Korea's coast guard said it fired almost 250 rounds of ammunition from a machine gun and other weapons during a confrontation with dozens of Chinese fishing vessels Tuesday.

More than 40 Chinese ships crossed into South Korean waters near Gageodo Island, off the country's southwest coast, the coast guard said. They were intercepted and ordered to leave.

Coast guard ships fired "warning shots at the bows of the Chinese ships," including 180 rounds from an M-60 machine gun, and almost 70 rounds from assault rifles and shotguns, the South Korean coast guard said in a statement.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Wednesday expressed Beijing's "serious concern" over the incident.

"China has always attached great importance to the management of overseas fisheries and have actively taken effective measures in relevant waters to maintain fishery production order," she said.

"We hope the South Korean side will handle the relevant issue properly, avoid taking excessive actions that could jeopardize lives during law enforcement, earnestly ensure the safety and legitimate rights of Chinese fishermen, and strengthen communication with the Chinese side."

In the statement Wednesday, the South Korean coast guard said the Chinese ships attempted to rush coast guard vessels.

"Chinese ships equipped with steel bars and wire mesh ignored the eviction warning broadcasts from (the coast guard) and rushed towards the patrol boat," the statement said.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which both China and South Korea are parties, coastal states can claim an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) up to 200 nautical miles from their coastline.

This creates overlapping claims in the seas between the Korean Peninsula and China, and the two countries signed a bilateral fishing agreement in 2001.

According to the South Korean coast guard, the Chinese ships were one nautical mile within the fisheries agreement line, and were ordered to retreat back to international waters.

South Korea has reacted forcefully in the past when fishing ships have crossed the line. According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), the coast guard first used machine gun fire to scare away ships in November 2016.

AMTI analyst Lisa Collins said Chinese fishermen "take advantage of the standoff between North and South Korea to fish illegally" near the boundary line between the two countries.

"The potential for third-party interference by North Korea in these disputes, or the use of North Korean waters by Chinese fishermen to evade capture, adds a complex dimension to an already intractable problem," she said.

Three Chinese fishermen were reportedly killed in September when a flash grenade thrown by a coast guard officer sparked a fire in a room crew were hiding in.

In its statement, the Korean Coastguard cited Article 17 of the country's Maritime Security Act which says "if a ship or any other person uses a dangerous object such as a hull, weapon, or other items to attack or attempt to attack coast guards, weapons can be used."

Coast guard official Lee Sang-In said they would continue to deploy large numbers of vessels and officers "against illegal Chinese ships."

9,000+ civilians died in Mosul battle against Islamic State

MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — The price Mosul’s residents paid in blood to see their city freed was between 9,000 and 11,000 dead, a civilian casualty rate nearly 10 times higher than what has been previously reported. The number killed in the 9-month battle to liberate the city from the Islamic State marauders has not been acknowledged by the U.S.-led coalition, the Iraqi government or the self-styled caliphate.

But Mosul’s gravediggers, its morgue workers and the volunteers who retrieve bodies from the city’s rubble are keeping count.

Iraqi or coalition forces are responsible for at least 3,200 civilian deaths from airstrikes, artillery fire or mortar rounds between October 2016 and the fall of the Islamic State group in July 2017, according to an Associated Press investigation that cross-referenced independent databases from non-governmental organizations.

Most of those victims are simply described as “crushed” in health ministry reports.

The coalition, which says it lacks the resources to send investigators into Mosul, acknowledges responsibility for only 326 of the deaths.

“It was the biggest assault on a city in a couple of generations, all told. And thousands died,” said Chris Woods, head of Airwars , an independent organization that documents air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria and shared its database with the AP.

“There doesn’t seem to be any disagreement about that, except from the federal government and the coalition. And understanding how those civilians died, and obviously ISIS played a big part in that as well, could help save a lot of lives the next time something like this has to happen. And the disinterest in any sort of investigation is very disheartening,” Woods said, using an alternative acronym for IS.

In addition to the Airwars database, the AP analyzed information from Amnesty International , Iraq Body Count and a United Nations report. AP also obtained a list of 9,606 names of people killed during the operation from Mosul’s morgue. Hundreds of dead civilians are believed to still be buried in the rubble.

Of the nearly 10,000 deaths the AP found, around a third of the casualties died in bombardments by the U.S.-led coalition or Iraqi forces, the AP analysis found. Another third of the dead were killed in the Islamic State group’s final frenzy of violence. And it could not be determined which side was responsible for the deaths of the remainder, who were cowering in neighborhoods battered by airstrikes, IS explosives and mortar rounds from all sides.

But the morgue total would be many times higher than official tolls. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi told the AP that 1,260 civilians were killed in the fighting. The U.S.-led coalition has not offered an overall figure. The coalition relies on drone footage, video from cameras mounted on weapons systems and pilot observations. Its investigators have neither visited the morgue or requested its data.

What is clear from the tallies is that as coalition and Iraqi government forces increased their pace, civilians were dying in ever higher numbers at the hands of their liberators: from 20 the week the operation began in mid-October 2016 to 303 in a single week at the end of June 2017, according to the AP tally.

Abdel-Hafiz Mohammed, who kept his job as undertaker throughout the militants’ rule, has carved approximately 2,000 headstones for the al-Jadidah graveyard alone since October 2016, the month the battle began.

After the city fell to IS in 2014, undertakers like him handled the victims of beheadings and stonings; there were men accused of homosexuality who had been flung from rooftops. But once the operation to free the city started, the scope of Mohammed’s work changed yet again.

“Now I carve stones for entire families,” Mohammed said, gesturing to a stack of four headstones, all bearing the same name. “It’s a single family, all killed in an airstrike,” he said.,000-plus-died-in-battle-with-Islamic-State-group-for-Mosul

North Korea Executes Nuclear Test Site Chief

North Korea has dismissed the official responsible for the Punggye-ri nuclear test site and executed him, Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported, citing unconfirmed reports from an unidentified North Korean defector.

Park In Young—the name's spelling may be subject to changes depending on the translation and transcriptions—was the chief of North Korea’s Bureau 131, a division of the ruling party’s Central Committee charged with the supervision of military facilities such as the Punggye-ri underground nuclear test facility and the Sohae Satellite Launching Station.

The motive for the alleged exceution remains unclear. Asahi’s report mentions two potential reasons. One could be a delay in the execution of North Korea’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test to date, which happened on September 3 but was originally planned for the spring and was postponed due to delays in a tunnel construction.

Another reason may be that Park was held responsible for the collapse of a tunnel that, according to the Asahi TV channel sources, occurred in October and caused the death of around 200 people—a report North Korea vehemently denied.

The Asahi Shimbun also previously reported that North Korean soldiers and their families were treated in a military hospital for radiation exposure following the September hydrogen bomb test at the facility.

The hydrogen bomb test provoked a 6.3 earthquake which, according to reports mentioned in South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, destroyed building facilities in a nearby village, including a school with more than 100 children in it as the regime gave no warning of the test.

Geologists have warned that a series of small-scale earthquakes recorded in the area following the September test indicate the facility may have become too unstable to conduct a new test without risking a massive collapse and radioactive leaks.

South Korean intelligence officers told lawmakers at a closed-door briefing in November a new nuclear test is unlikely, but it could nonetheless occur should Kim desire it, as one of the tunnels at the site seems ready for use.

News of Park’s alleged execution follow reports of punishment of North Korea’s second most powerful official after leader Kim Jong Un. General Hwang Pyong So of the General Political Bureau has vanished from public view, missing significant party meetings and celebrations, sparking speculation that he had been executed.

At the November briefing, South Korea’s intelligence agency said Hwang and his deputy were punished for “impure” attitudes. A lawmaker speaking to the press after the briefing said he could not comment on the details of the punishment because it was confidential information.

Last week South Korean publication Korea JoongAng Daily quoted an unidentified source saying that Hwang was purged from the party for taking bribes and his deputy was sent to a prison camp.

10 people paraded, sentenced to death in China's 'City of Ice'

Twelve people convicted of murder, robbery and drug-related crimes were paraded in a “sentencing rally” this weekend in China. Their families were on hand to witness the spectacle, held at a sports stadium, and residents were invited by the court to attend. Ten of the 12 were executed, according to local media reports.

Seven of the 10 executed were charged with drug dealing. The city of Lufeng in Guangdong, China, has been dubbed the "City of Ice” with a reputation as a hotbed for illegal drug production.

According to videos of the trial posted on social media by state-run media, the death row inmates, flanked by multiple police officers and mourning family members, were brought onto a small platform temporarily set up on running tracks inside the stadium to have their sentences read in front of hundreds, if not thousands, of onlookers, some of whom were reportedly students.

“The Chinese authorities have once again displayed a blatant disregard for human life and dignity,” tweeted William Nee, a researcher at Amnesty International, who called the public trial a “sentencing rally.”

While it is rare for modern-day China to have public-sentencing rallies like this, it is not an isolated case for Lufeng. On June 26, 13 people convicted of drug-related crimes were sentenced to death in the same stadium.

The public trials and sentencing come at a time when China is cracking down on synthetic drugs. According to Xinhua, the country’s official news agency, more than a third of the methamphetamine consumed in China is made in this region. President Trump has called on China to "do something" about its drug crisis.

In the U.S., nearly 64,000 people overdosed on opioids in 2016, making it the deadliest drug crisis in American history.

But many doubt if public trials are an effective, or even humane, warning to potential criminals.

“As many other countries have shown, the war on drugs more often than not ends in failure,” Amnesty International’s Nee told ABC News. “China should figure out more effective ways to deal with illegal drugs without perpetuating a needless and tragic cycle of violence."

Still, others in the country welcome the hard-line stance.

China doesn’t release death penalty records and considers the matter a state secret, but NGOs estimate that about 2,000 death sentences were carried out last year. All death sentences have to be reviewed and approved by the Supreme People’s Court.

Kim Jong-un is testing new warheads loaded with ANTHRAX

North Korea is conducting biological weapons experiments to test the possibility of loading anthrax-laden warheads on its intercontinental ballistic missiles, it has been reported.

Japan's Asahi newspaper reported on Wednesday, citing an unidentified person connected to South Korean intelligence, that North Korea was conducting biological weapons experiments to test the possibility of loading anthrax-laden warheads on its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The Asahi report said the U.S. government was aware of the tests, which were meant to ascertain whether the anthrax bacteria could survive the high temperatures that occur during warheads re-entry from space.

The news that North Korea may have been testing anthrax-laden warheads comes as South Korean President Moon Jae-in is seeking to soothe relations with China and the North before the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February.

He suggested on Tuesday he was prepared to postpone military drills with the United States.

Pyongyang sees the joint exercises as preparation for war, while Beijing is still angry about the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile system, commonly known as THAAD, by South Korea.

China believes the system's powerful radar can see far into its territory, but Seoul argues it needs it to guard against the threat posed by North Korea's missile and nuclear programmes.

Seoul has proposed the potential delay in drills to Washington, which was also discussed during a summit last week between Moon and Chinese President Xi Jinping, an official from the presidential Blue House in Seoul said on Wednesday.

China has in the past proposed a 'freeze for freeze' arrangement under which North Korea would stop its nuclear and missile tests in exchange for a halt to the exercises. However, Washington has rejected the idea and Pyongyang has shown little interest in negotiations.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Ottawa on Tuesday he was unaware of any plans to 'alter longstanding and scheduled and regular military exercises'.

North Korea has stepped up its missile and nuclear tests to an unprecedented rate this year, and any new provocation from the North would 'inevitably have an impact' on the exercises, the Blue House official said.

'It is a display of the president's strong message that North Korea must not conduct any provocation (during the Olympics),' the official told reporters.

North Korea has also been hit with increased international sanctions over its missile and nuclear tests this year.

The United States has given China a draft resolution for tougher U.N. sanctions on North Korea and is hoping for a quick vote on it by the U.N. Security Council, a Western diplomat said on Tuesday, however Beijing has yet to sign on.

Details of the draft given to China last week were not immediately available, but the United States is keen to step up global sanctions to pressure North Korea to give up a weapons programme aimed at developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States.

China resumed some restrictions on group tours into the South, South Korea's inbound travel agency said on Wednesday.

Missile attack escalates tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran

Tensions are escalating between Saudi Arabia and Iran following a missile attack on the Saudi capital Riyadh.

Saudi air defences intercepted the ballistic missile in the skies over the city in an incident that is jangling nerves across the region.

The attack comes the week after the Trump administration presented evidence it says shows Iran supplied another missile launched at Riyadh's international airport last month.

And it comes as a video has gone viral, apparently made in Saudi Arabia, which visualises open conflict between the two sides.

So what is going on?

Saudi Arabia and Iran back opposing sides in neighbouring Yemen's nasty civil war.

Saudi-led coalition air strikes aimed at shoring up the country's government have killed thousands of civilians and failed to dislodge a rebellion by Iranian-backed Houthis.

Houthis say they launched this missile in retaliation against that air campaign. They are thought to have a stockpile of older scud-style missiles.

But these two recent attacks have been surprisingly accurate and effective, reinforcing claims Iran is more directly involved.

Iran denies allegations it is supplying missiles to the Houthis. What is more likely is the involvement of Hezbollah.

The Shia militant organisation from southern Lebanon is a close ally of Iran and is reportedly sending advisers to assist the Houthis. Among them may be engineers and missile experts, drawing on Hezbollah's traditional field of expertise.

They could be supplying Houthis with missiles parts and more sophisticated guidance systems smuggled in from Iran.

Iran may be using its proxies to deter Saudi Arabia from deeper involvement in the Yemen civil war. Saudi Arabia has yet to show how it will respond to the Houthis' latest provocations.

There is though mounting concern about the escalating war of words between these two rival powers. Each side is talking tough and can ill-afford to show weakness.

Traditionally such tensions might have been eased by diplomatic efforts. Washington however has shown itself firmly on the side of the Saudis.

While there is no diplomatic process there is always a greater risk of escalation, misunderstanding and open conflict. Not a reassuring end to 2017.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Boeing's Secret Plane

Boeing's defence arm is set to unveil a mysterious new plane - and says it will 'change future air power'

The aerospace giant's defence arm teased the new craft, covered in a black cloth.

It is believed to be a radical new craft using electric 'hairdryer' to allow it to land and take off vertically.

Boeing will unveil their mystery aircraft on December 19th.

Speculation has so far said it could anything from a new spaceplane to an electric fighter jet.

Earlier this year Boeing bought Aurora Flight Sciences Corp, which is developing the autonomous, electric-powered and long-flight-duration aircraft for its commercial and military businesses.

Last year, Aurora won a contract for more than $89 million for the vertical take off and landing X-plane, beating Boeing in the process.

The engine would drive 24 ducted fans, nine integrated into each wing and three inside each canard.

Aurora, the firm behind the radical craft, previously told Defence One 'there's quite a bit of interest' in a laser-armed version of the drone, particularly for use in Marine Corps missions.

Aurora Flight Sciences said the subscale version proved the radical theory behind the craft.

The subscale aircraft weighs 325 pounds and is a 20% scale flight model of the full scale demonstrator Aurora will build for Darpa in the next 24 months.

Boeing, meanwhile, was developing its own VTOL, known as Phantom swift - and the new craft could be a hybrid of them both.

'The aerospace industry is going to be changing' and the acquisition positions Boeing strategically 'for whatever that future may be,' Boeing Chief Technology Officer Greg Hyslop said on a conference call with reporters.

The deal could face regulatory obstacles, but the company hopes to complete the purchase this year, Hyslop said.

Boeing's move could help Zunum Aero, a Seattle-area company aiming to bring a hybrid-electric regional airliner to market in 2022. Boeing and JetBlue Airways Corp have both made venture capital investments in Zunum.

Boeing will maintain Manassas, Virginia-based Aurora as a separate unit reporting through Boeing's engineering, test and technology division, which is headed by Hyslop.


Thursday, December 14, 2017

Islamic State threatens U.S. attacks over Jerusalem decision

CAIRO (Reuters) - Islamic State threatened attacks on U.S. soil in retaliation for the Trump administration's decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, one of the group's social media accounts reported on Thursday without giving any details.

In a message on one of its accounts on the Telegram instant messaging service titled "Wait for us" and "ISIS in Manhattan", the group said it would carry out operations and showed images of New York's Times Square and what appeared to be an explosive bomb belt and detonator.

"We will do more ops in your land, until the final hour and we will burn you with the flames of war which you started in Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Syria and Afghan. Just you wait," it said.

"The recognition of your dog 'Trump' (sic) Jerusalem as the capital of Israel will make us recognize explosives as the capital of your country."

Washington triggered widespread anger and protests across the Arab world with its decision on Jerusalem. The disputed city is revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, and is home to Islam's third holiest site. It has been at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades.

Islamic State was driven out of its Iraqi and Syrian capitals this year and squeezed into a shrinking pocket of desert straddling the border between the two countries.

The forces fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria now expect a new phase of guerrilla warfare there. Militants including people claiming allegiance to Islamic State have carried out scores of deadly attacks in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the United States over the past two years.

Kim Jong-Un’s death squads ‘executed second most powerful man in North Korea

A TOP aide of Kim Jong-un, once described as the "second-most powerful man in North Korea", has disappeared from public life, sparking speculation he may have been executed by death squads.

General Hwang Pyong-so once held the most senior military position in the hermit state as a Vice-Marshall after the supreme leader.

But now he has been expelled from the party for "taking bribes" and not been seen since October.
His deputy Kim Wong-hong is said to have been banished to a prison camp.

The South Korean JoongAng Ilbo reported: “If Hwang was indeed kicked out of the Workers’ Party, it would practically mean the end of his political career, and possibly his life, though it is unknown whether or not he is still alive."

Last week Kim visited Korea’s most mystical mountain, Mount Paektu – something he typically does before ordering the death of his top brass.

He was also there in April 2015, just before executing former defence chief Hyon Yong-chol, and in November 2013, before disposing of his own uncle Jang Song-thaek among other top officials.

“Kim Jong-Un is following in his father’s footsteps in visiting the mountain at times of important decisions regarding the state,” a South Korean government insider said to Korea Joongang Daily.

South Korean spooks believe Hwang's demise was orchestrated by another of Kim's trusted advisers Choe Ryong Hae.

Hwang has been accused of having an "impure attitude" towards the ruling party, amid allegations of bribery.

Both Hwang and Choe came to South Korea during the Asian Games in 2014 - the highest such visit by North Korean officials to their rival neighbours.

Michael Madden, an expert on North Korean at Washington-based 38 North, said Kim Jong-un has not shied away from punishing leaders who could threaten his grip on power.

"Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong-so could not have continued in the capacity that he was operating in, without it coming back to bite him," he said.

Choe was subjected to political "reeducation" himself two years ago.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Japan air force drills with U.S. bombers, stealth fighters near Korean peninsula

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese F-15 fighters on Tuesday held drills with U.S. B1-B bombers, F-35 stealth aircraft and F-18 multirole combat jets above the East China Sea, south of the Korean peninsula, Japan’s Air Self Defence Force (ASDF) said.

The exercise was the largest in a series aimed at pressuring North Korea following its ballistic missile tests. The latest launch, on Nov. 29, featured a new missile type the North said could hit targets in the United States, such as Washington D.C.

“The drill was meant to bolster joint operations and raise combat skills,” the ASDF said in a statement.

Two U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers flew from Andersen Air Force Base on the U.S. Pacific island territory of Guam, joined by six F-35s four F-18s and a tanker aircraft from U.S. bases in Japan.

The Japanese air force dispatched four F-15 jet fighters and a patrol aircraft.

North Korean defector describes forced abortion, said bodies fed to dogs in prison

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley held a meeting on the human rights situation in North Korea where one defector spoke about how she was forced to have an abortion following her repatriation from China.

The woman, Ji Hyeon-A, describes a harrowing scene of prison dogs eating dead bodies at her prison camp. She pleaded for the world to act.

The event was titled “The Terrifying experience of forcibly Repatriated North Korean women,” and was sponsored by the U.S. France, Japan, South Korea, Canada and the U.K.

Ji Hyeon-A was repatriated three times to North Korea after she was caught in China. She finally escaped to South Korea and spoke of her horrifying experiences.

She described how North Korean women who got pregnant in China were forced to have abortions.
“Pregnant women were forced into harsh labor all day,” she said. “At night, we heard pregnant mothers screaming and babies died without ever being able to see their mothers.”

North Korea does not allow for mixed-race babies, she said. At one detention center, she described how inmates starved to death. Their dead bodies, she said, were given to the guard dogs for food.

The third time Ji Hyeon-A got caught and sent back to North Korea she was three months pregnant. She tearfully described how she was forced to have an abortion without medication at a local police station.

“My first child passed away without ever seeing the world,” she said, “without any time for me to apologize.”

She finally reached South Korea in 2007 and has since been reunited with her mother, brother and her younger sister. She still has not heard news of her father.

Ji-Hyeon-A said that the North Korean soldier who recently escaped to South Korea “represents a dash toward freedom which is a dream of 25 million North Koreans.”

She said North Korea was “a terrifying prison and the Kim’s are carrying out a vast massacre and it takes a miracle to survive there.”

She criticized the Chinese government for sending North Koreans back to the regime, and urged the Chinese government to stop repatriating people back to the Hermit Kingdom, saying they know what will happen to them when they get there.

Ji-Hyeon-A urged the U.N. and world leaders to fight for North Korean defectors and especially those who are repatriated.

She recited a poem called “Is anyone there?” from a collection of poems she wrote.

“I am scared, is anyone there? I’m here in hell, is anyone there? I scream and yell but no one opens the door. Is anyone there? Please listen to our moans and listen to our pain. Is anyone there? People are dying, my friend is dying. I call out again and again but why don’t you answer. Is anyone there?

Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, Matthew Rycroft, praised Ji-Hyeon-A for speaking at the event, and said the crimes discussed, which included, “forced abortions, summary executions, hard labor, rape: those are conditions that amount to crimes against humanity,” he said.

Earlier in the day China had tried to stop a Security Council meeting convened by Japan on the human rights situation in North Korea. China only had the support of Russia and Bolivia and failed in its attempt to stop it from moving forward.

At the Security Council meeting, Haley said the full story of the North Korean people needed to be told.

“The regime is using that power to develop an unnecessary arsenal and support enormous conventional military forces that pose a grave risk to international peace and security,” she said. “Their menacing march towards nuclear weapons begins with the oppression and exploitation of ordinary North Korean people.”

Haley said the situation was made possible “through the export of workers abroad to earn hard currency and the use of forced labor at home, the regime uses its people to underwrite its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”

She said the Kim regime has imprisoned an estimated 100,000 people.

“The North Korean regime's system of guilt-by-association,” she said, “allows for up to three generations of family members to be imprisoned along with the accused.”