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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Apparent North Korea nuclear blast as quake rocks test site

By Giles Hewitt
Seoul (AFP)
Jan 6, 2016

North Korea appeared to have carried out a nuclear test Wednesday -- its fourth -- with seismologists detecting a 5.1 magnitude tremor next to its main atomic test site in the northeast of the country.

The website of the China Earthquake Network Center described the seismic activity, which came just two days before North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's birthday, as a "suspected explosion".

North Korea state radio said Pyongyang would make a "special announcement" at 12:00 Pyongyang time (0330 GMT). It gave no details of the content.

The Korea Meteorological Administration told AFP that initial analysis suggested the quake was "artificial," while the Japanese government said there was a strong possibility that "this might be a nuclear test".

The US Geological Survey said the epicenter of the quake -- detected at 10:00 am Pyongyang time (0130 GMT) -- was in the northeast of the country, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) northwest of Kilju city, placing it right next to the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

Any confirmed test will trigger widespread international condemnation of North Korea, which has already conducted three nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 -- all at Punggye-ri.

It would certainly result in a tightening of international sanctions imposed after the North's previous nuclear and ballistic missile tests.

In Seoul, the presidential Blue House called an emergency meeting of the National Security Council, as officials scrambled to confirm the precise nature of the tremor.

Last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un had suggested Pyongyang had already developed a hydrogen bomb -- although the claim was greeted with skepticism by international experts.

A hydrogen, or thermonuclear device, uses fusion in a chain reaction that results in a far more powerful explosion.

North Korea has hinted before at the possession of "stronger, more powerful" weapons, but Kim's remarks were believed to be the first direct reference to an H-bomb.

Researchers at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said last month that recent satellite images showed North Korea was excavating a new tunnel at Punggye-ri.

"While there are no indications that a nuclear test is imminent, the new tunnel adds to North Korea's ability to conduct additional detonations over the coming years if it chooses to do so," they said at the time.

A nuclear test would be seen as major slap in the face to the North's chief ally China and extinguish any chance of a resumption of six-country talks on North Korea's nuclear program that Beijing has been pushing for.

After its last nuclear test in 2013, the North restarted a plutonium reactor that it had shut down at its Yongbyon complex in 2007 under an aid-for-disarmament accord.

The Yongbyon reactor is capable of producing six kilograms (13 pounds) of plutonium a year -- enough for one nuclear bomb Pyongyang is currently believed to have enough plutonium for as many as six bombs, after using part of its stock for at least two of its three atomic tests to date.

It is still unclear whether the 2013 test used plutonium or uranium as its fissile material.

A basic uranium bomb is no more potent than a basic plutonium one, but the uranium enrichment path holds various advantages for the North, which has substantial deposits of uranium ore.

Uranium enrichment carries a far smaller footprint than plutonium and can be carried out using centrifuge cascades in relatively small buildings that give off no heat.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Apparent_North_Korea_nuclear_blast_as_quake_rocks_test_site_999.html.

Japan to deliver 12 amphibious aircraft to Indian Navy

Washington (UPI)
Jan 5, 2016

Japan is scheduled to deliver 12 Utility Seaplane Mark 2 amphibious search-and-rescue aircraft to the Indian Navy.

The delivery is part of a $1.65 billion deal reached between both governments to facilitate the export of the aircraft. The deal was signed following Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to India, where leaders from both countries agreed to further their cooperation on procuring defense and security equipment, according to The Hindu Business Line.

The "agreement provides a framework to enhance defense and security co-operation by making available to each other, defense equipment and technology necessary to implement joint research, development and production," sources told The Hindu.

The Utility Seaplane Mark 2 is the basis for the model known as the US-2i for India. It has the same capability as the US-2, with some equipment modifications specific to India's requirements. The plane, crewed by 11, is capable of carrying 20 passengers or 12 stretchers for search-and-rescue missions.

The first two US-2i will be imported, while the remaining 10 are scheduled to be manufactured in India.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Japan_to_deliver_12_amphibious_aircraft_to_Indian_Navy_999.html.

For Ukraine's rebel east, 2016 promises more tension

December 30, 2015

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — The holiday market in the central square of Donetsk, the principal city of rebel-held eastern Ukraine, has all the trappings of a celebratory time — shiny ornaments, colorful toys and a cartoon-faced kiddie train on a meandering track. But the aura is more forced than festive, as the region's people face a new year that gives little promise.

While full-scale fighting in the war between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists died down in 2015, true peace appears a distant prospect. Shooting and shelling erupts sporadically despite repeated cease-fires called under an internationally mediated peace agreement. The latest truce was declared last week by the Contact Group negotiators from Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but the antagonists each have claimed violations by the other side since then.

It's an emotional whipsaw for Donetsk's residents. "A feeling of peace? Sometimes there is. But when they start to shoot, you don't feel any kind of peace," said Alexandra Kirichenko, an 18-year-old student, walking down a street where apartment windows shattered by fighting were blocked off with plywood sheets.

In the central square, a middle-aged woman named Galina was trying to sell toys for parents to give their children on New Year's Eve, the main day for presents in much of the former Soviet Union. Her mood was as grim as the toys were merry, her words as terse and direct as a telegram from the front lines.

"Uncertainty; you live from day to day; constant tension, fear," said Galina, who declined to give her last name. Even if the fear abates for a few hours or days, the region's economic difficulties make life a constant grind. The Ukrainian government has halted payment of pensions and social stipends to the rebel-held areas and cut off business contacts. The isolation brings both high prices for scarce goods and high unemployment.

"It's harder and harder to sell anything," said Galina, whose stock of toys was compiled before the war, which has killed more than 9,000 people, started in April 2014. If the fighting is less intense than it was a year ago, the issues behind it remain just as passionate and resistant to resolution as ever.

The fighting began after separatists in the primarily Russian-speaking Donetsk and Luhansk regions seized government buildings, saying they wanted no part of the new government formed after Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych fled in the face of mass protests in the capital Kiev. The separatists alleged the new government was so Ukrainian nationalist that it was effectively fascist and would run roughshod over the east.

The Minsk peace agreement signed in February — a second try after the first agreement of five months earlier failed to get traction — calls for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to remain part of Ukraine, but with ill-defined "special status." That lack of clarity obstructs real resolution, and the continuing fighting and economic suffering only reinforce the stalemate.

"To return to what existed before — to a unified Ukraine, etc. — is already impossible. You can't wash away our citizens' memories of what Ukraine did in this period," said Denis Pushilin, the head of the rebel parliament in Donetsk.

For Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, the situation is equally difficult. Granting amnesty to the separatists and giving them special status, as envisioned by Minsk, could be politically ruinous, angering nationalists who reject any concessions to the rebels.

"The Minsk agreement exists only on paper. And so, especially on the border, it doesn't make any difference — shooting with them continues," a rebel who declined to provide his name told The Associated Press.

Russia, which Kiev and the West allege is supplying troops and weapons to the rebels, has brushed off the separatists' drive to be annexed by Moscow and says it is committed to fulfilling the Minsk agreement. Russia last week announced that a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, former parliament speaker Boris Gryzlov, had been named the new Russian representative to the Contact Group.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the appointment of such a prominent figure indicates Russia is intensifying its commitment to the Minsk agreement "despite the fact that efforts to implement this document now unfortunately are in a pretty deplorable state."

Ukrainian political analyst Vadim Karasev said Russia's interest in resolving the conflict may be more a matter of pragmatism than principle and that Ukrainian authorities see it similarly. "The alternative to the Minsk agreement is war, and that's too expensive for Kiev and for the Kremlin," he said.

Associated Press writers Yuras Karmanau in Minsk, Belarus, and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story.

Germany rethinking arms sales to Saudi Arabia

Berlin (UPI)
Jan 5, 2016

The German government is evaluating its sale of military equipment and arms to Saudi Arabia in response to escalating tensions between the kingdom and Iran.

The response came in an announcement by German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who condemned Saudi Arabia's decision to execute 47 prisoners at the start of 2016.

"We must now review whether in future we should take a more critical stance on defensive armaments which we have so far sold to Saudi Arabia for its national defense," Gabriel said.

The Saudi executions included Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr and three other Shiite Muslims, which prompted protests and the attacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Iran and Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties after the attack.

German newspaper Handelsblatt reports Germany has halted the sale of tanks and G36 Heckler and Koch assault rifles to Saudi Arabia, however continues to sell other defensive weapons to the country.

German officials approved several arms trade agreements with Gulf region countries in early 2015, which included the sale of 15 patrol boats to Saudi Arabia, despite criticism of the countries' human rights records.

Germany is the world's fourth-largest arms exporter, with sales valued at roughly $4 billion in the first half of 2015.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Germany_rethinking_arms_sales_to_Saudi_Arabia_999.html.

French journalist leaves China after being forced out

December 31, 2015

BEIJING (AP) — A French journalist left China after being denied press credentials and facing heavy criticism from the Foreign Ministry and state media over her reporting.

Ursula Gauthier, a longtime journalist for the French news magazine L'Obs, left on a flight out of Beijing shortly after midnight Friday. She was the first foreign journalist forced to leave China since 2012, when American Melissa Chan, then working for Al Jazeera in Beijing, was expelled.

The Chinese government refused to renew Gauthier's press credentials, without which she could not obtain a new visa. It demanded that she apologize publicly and express contrition over what it said was anti-Chinese bias.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Monday that Gauthier was no longer "suitable" to be allowed to work in China because she had supported "terrorism and cruel acts" that killed civilians and refused to apologize for her words.

Gauthier said Thursday that she would never apologize for what she wrote, even if it meant not returning to China. She earlier called the accusations absurd and said China should prosecute her if it truly believed she supported terrorism.

The French foreign ministry issued a statement of regret over China's refusal to renew her visa, while the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said it was "appalled" by the decision and expressed concern that the government was using the accreditation and visa process to threaten foreign journalists.

Gauthier was also subject to a harsh media campaign for writing in a Nov. 18 article, shortly after the attacks in Paris, that Beijing's expression of solidarity with Paris was partially a bid to gain international support for its contention that ethnic violence in China's northwestern Muslim region of Xinjiang is linked to global terrorism.

Gauthier wrote that some violent attacks in Xinjiang involving members of the minority Uighur (pronounced WEE-gur) community showed no evidence of foreign links — an observation that has been made by other many China-based journalists, along with numerous foreign experts on security and on Xinjiang's ethnic policies and practices.

Advocacy groups have argued that the violence is more likely to be a response to Beijing's heavy-handed rule, mass migration by Chinese from other parts of the country to the region, and restrictions on Uighur religious and cultural life.

A Xinjiang court last year sentenced a Uighur scholar critical of China's ethnic policies in Xinjiang to life in prison. In December, a Beijing court convicted a prominent lawyer of fanning ethnic hatred based on his comments that Beijing should rethink its Xinjiang policies.

In her article, Gauthier focused on a recent deadly attack in a mine in Xinjiang portrayed by China as an act of terrorism committed with the collusion of overseas groups. She described it as more likely an act by Uighurs against mine workers from China's majority Han ethnic group over what the Uighurs perceived as mistreatment, injustice and exploitation.

"I don't believe it yet, there is something in me which says no, it can't be true," she said about her departure. "It can't be true, all this because of one stupid article which isn't even my best article. So there's something really ridiculous, crazy, silly. I just cannot understand it."

Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen contributed to this report.

After 1 million migrants, Europe's borders are back

January 03, 2016

STOCKHOLM (AP) — Since it opened in 2000, the Oresund bridge between Sweden and Denmark has been a towering symbol of European integration and hassle-free travel across borders that people didn't even notice were there.

On Monday new travel restrictions imposed by Sweden to stem a record flow of migrants are transforming the bridge into a striking example of how national boundaries are re-emerging. A year of clampdowns on migration and terrorism has all but killed the idea of a borderless Europe where you could drive or train-hop from Spain in the south to Norway in the north without ever having to show your passport.

"We're turning back the clock," said Andreas Onnerfors, who lives in Lund, on the Swedish side of the bridge. An associate professor in intellectual history, he said he's benefited from the free flow of people and ideas across the bridge — he's studied on both sides and taught students from both Sweden and Denmark.

"We're going back to a time when the bridge didn't exist," he said, referring to the ID checkpoints being set up Monday on the Danish side for train passengers wishing to cross over to Sweden. The move is meant to stop undocumented migrants from reaching Sweden, which abruptly reversed its open-door policy after receiving more than 160,000 asylum-seekers last year, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

It follows the reintroduction of border checks in Germany, Austria, France, Belgium and other countries in what's supposed to be a passport-free travel zone spanning 26 nations. The moves are supposedly temporary, but are likely to be extended if Europe's migrant crisis continues in 2016.

"It's basically every country for itself now," said Mark Rhinard, an expert on the European Union at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. Citing exceptional national circumstances related to security, terrorism and public order, several European countries have suspended EU rules that required them to keep their borders open to each other.

It's a significant development that strikes at the very heart of the EU project — the free movement of goods and people across borders. The Bruegel think tank in Brussels says that in 2014 there were almost 1.7 million cross-border commuters in the passport-free zone known as the Schengen Area, after the Luxembourg town where it was created in 1985. Abolishing it would affect their daily lives, but the consequences for Europe would go deeper, given the "visible and powerful symbol of European integration that Schengen represents," Bruegel researchers Nuria Boot and Guntram Wolff wrote in December.

Whether the temporary reintroduction of borders also means rebuilding mental boundaries between EU citizens remains to be seen. But the migrant crisis is becoming an even bigger challenge to European unity than the cracks emerging in recent years over the bloc's common currency, the euro.

EU nations demonstrated starkly different views on how to deal with the 1 million migrants that crossed the Mediterranean in 2015. Germany and Sweden, until recently, said refugees were welcome, while Hungary built a fence to keep them out. The Danish government took a series of measures to discourage migrants from going there, including a proposal to seize their jewelry to cover their expenses in Denmark.

Common rules requiring refugees to seek shelter in the first EU country they enter collapsed, as Greece and Italy were overwhelmed by sea arrivals and countries further north just waved the migrants through to their intended destination, often Germany or the Scandinavian countries.

Meanwhile the EU's efforts to spread refugees more evenly across the bloc met stiff resistance from member states. By November only about 150 of 160,000 refugees had been relocated from Greece and Italy under an EU plan.

The crisis underlines structural flaws in the EU, showing how it has implemented common rules that it just can't enforce once the external pressures become too great, said Karl Lallerstedt, co-founder of Black Market Watch, a Switzerland-based non-profit group focusing on cross-border smuggling.

"It's not a strong federal state that can overrule its members," he said. "At the same time individual states have obligations to the EU. So you're in this sort of half-way house." Any hope of a quick return to a borderless Europe was crushed by the deadly Paris attacks in November, after which France declared a state of emergency and beefed up border controls with neighboring countries.

However, if bottlenecks build up at the borders, EU citizens and companies moving goods in trucks will eventually get fed up, said Rhinard, of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. "As soon as it starts to bite economically, people are going to start to ask: 'Is this the right solution to the problem?'" Rhinard said.

That question is already being asked by companies and commuters opposed to new ID checks at the 8-kilometer (5-mile) Oresund bridge-and-tunnel, known to European TV viewers as the focal point of the Swedish-Danish crime series "The Bridge."

Train networks on either side have been integrated to allow thousands of commuters to cross the bridge daily, essentially incorporating the southern Swedish cities of Malmo and Lund into suburban Copenhagen.

But the new ID checks mean there will be no more direct railway service from Copenhagen's main station to Sweden. Travelers heading to Malmo will have to switch trains at Copenhagen Airport after going through the checkpoints there, adding an estimated half an hour to the 40-minute commute.

To avoid the hassle, Sweden's national railway company SJ cancelled service to Denmark altogether, leaving only Danish and regional Swedish operators with service across the bridge. "This is what happens when national states put down their foot down and say security is most important," said Onnerfors. "It collides with the freedom (of movement) they've been talking about for 20 years, which was the reason we joined the EU to begin with."

Associated Press writers Raf Casert in Brussels, Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Barry Hatton in Lisbon, George Jahn in Vienna and Collen Barry in Milan contributed to this report.

As 2016 dawns, Europe braces for more waves of migrants

January 01, 2016

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Bitter cold, biting winds and rough winter seas have done little to stem the seemingly endless flow of desperate people fleeing war or poverty for what they hope will be a brighter, safer future in Europe. As 2016 dawns, boatloads continue to reach Greek shores and thousands trudge across Balkan fields and country roads heading north.

More than a million people reached Europe in 2015 in the continent's largest refugee influx since the end of World War II — a crisis that has tested European unity and threatened the vision of a borderless continent. Nearly 3,800 people are estimated to have drowned in the Mediterranean last year, making the journey to Greece or Italy in unseaworthy vessels packed far beyond capacity.

The European Union has pledged to bolster patrols on its external borders and quickly deport economic migrants, while Turkey has agreed to crack down on smugglers operating from its coastline. But those on the front lines of the crisis say the coming year promises to be difficult unless there is a dramatic change.

Greece has borne the brunt of the exodus, with more than 850,000 people reaching the country's shores, nearly all arriving on Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast. "The (migrant) flows continue unabated. And on good days, on days when the weather isn't bad, they are increased," Ioannis Mouzalas, Greece's minister responsible for migration issues, told The Associated Press. "This is a problem and shows that Turkey wasn't able — I'm not saying that they didn't want — to respond to the duty and obligation it had undertaken to control the flows and the smugglers from its shores."

Europe's response to the crisis has been fractured, with individual countries, concerned about the sheer scale of the influx, introducing new border controls aimed at limiting the flow. The problem is compounded by the reluctance of many migrants' countries of origin, such as Pakistan, to accept forcible returns.

"If measures are not taken to stop the flows from Turkey and if Europe doesn't solve the problems of the returns as a whole, it will be a very difficult year," Mouzalas warned. Along the Balkan migrant route, an undetermined number of men, women and children considered economic migrants have found themselves stranded, their hopes of reaching prosperous northern EU countries dashed by recent border closures. Greece, with thousands of miles of coastline, is the only country that cannot feasibly block people from entering without breaking international laws about rescuing those in distress at sea.

"It's a bad sign, this unabated flow that continues," Mouzalas said. "It creates difficulties for us, as the borders have closed for particular categories of people and there is a danger they will be trapped here."

The number of those estimated to be stuck in Greece runs in the thousands. Mohammed Abusaid is one of them. A baby-faced 27-year-old Moroccan electrician, Abusaid left home with dreams of finding work in Germany or even the United States.

Like tens of thousands before him, he made his way with a group of friends to Turkey and then braved the short but perilous sea crossing to the Greek island of Lesbos in early November. From there, they headed north only to discover the Macedonian border was open only to those from war-wracked Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. The young Moroccans now spend their nights huddling for warmth in a tent beneath a straggly tree outside Athens' old airport.

"I'm living here like a tramp. But I'm not a tramp," Abusaid said quietly. "I'm single, my parents are old. I want to look for work. We don't cause trouble, we just want to work." But Abusaid finds himself trapped in a country battered by a five-year financial crisis that has left unemployment hovering around 25 percent. Desperate, cold and hungry, two of his friends have opted for the voluntary repatriation scheme offered by the International Organization for Migration and are heading home this month. Abusaid says he's pondering following suit.

But he still hopes to make it to northern Europe for a better life, and dreams of America. "I wish I could fly like a bird and go there." Inside the old airport complex, a shelter has been set up in a former Olympic Games hockey venue but access is limited to vulnerable groups, particularly after theft, looting and fights were reported among groups of men.

"We realize it is very difficult for the new government to handle all these elevated numbers," said Chrysanthi Protogerou, director of the Greek Council for Refugees aid organization. "We were not well prepared and we continue not being well prepared."

She called for "better coordination, to make an even bigger effort, because the problem is becoming huge." Battered on the one side by a massive wave of desperate people risking their lives to reach its islands and on the other by border restrictions, Greece is struggling.

"It's a situation to which we are being subjected without bearing any responsibility for it and without being able to control it," said Mouzalas. "Whatever measures we take here, if on the Turkish side the smugglers increase the flows, we can't cope."

"We have a vast sea and countless islands," he added. "If a ground intervention occurs in Syria, we can't deal with this wave of refugees." The problem, the beleaguered minister said, "is happening in Greece but it is a European problem and the solution must be a European one."

Nearly all new arrivals are aiming for wealthy northern European countries, with Germany and Sweden the favorites. Both stood out for trying to maintain a generous welcome even as numbers swelled, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously proclaiming "we will manage it."

Germany received about 1 million asylum-seekers this year and Sweden more than 150,000. However, toward the end of the year even those two shifted course. Germany introduced border checks in September and Sweden in November. Sweden is now taking steps to keep people from even reaching the border and as of Monday will require passengers boarding Sweden-bound trains in neighboring Denmark to show ID. The crisis has strained relations between the Scandinavian neighbors.

Further down the migrant trail, refugees trickle steadily into Macedonia and Serbia, although authorities say numbers have decreased "drastically." In a Serbian refugee center in Presevo near the Macedonian border, a baby wearing a yellow cap and oversized gloves blinked in the winter sun while a woman slowly combed a girl's long, black hair.

Although trains and buses are still crowded, Macedonia's border controls seem to be working. "The number of migrants going through has drastically declined," said Presevo camp deputy manager Slobodan Savovic. "That means the numbers have more than halved when compared to September, when we had as much as 10,000 people per day."

Karl Ritter in Stockholm, Sweden, Marko Drobnjakovic in Presevo, Serbia and Raphael Kominis in Athens contributed.

Flooding continues in England as new storm hits Scotland

December 30, 2015

LONDON (AP) — Heavy rains and gusty winds are causing more problems for residents in large swaths of Britain. Officials say 5,500 homes in Scotland lost power Wednesday as gale-force winds hit.

About 3,000 homes in England and Wales were also reported to be without electricity. However, the number of "severe" flood warnings has dropped as many rivers in northern England are receding from record-high levels.

Environmental officials warn that the ground remains heavily saturated, making it likely that more rains could quickly lead to flooding. Officials also asked the public to stay away from parts of Tadcaster, 205 miles (330 kilometers) north of London, where a bridge said to date from around 1700 collapsed on Tuesday because of rising water in the River Wharfe.

Experts help divided Cyprus figure out economics of peace

December 31, 2015

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — A peace accord cobbling Cyprus back together again after over four decades of ethnic division is possible in 2016 and will bring opportunity and economic growth, officials say. But sorting out the financial side of reunification will be a huge task.

The challenges of melding the economies of an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south that enjoys European Union membership and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north that relies heavily on Turkey's financial support are coming into sharp relief as the rival leaders press on with tough negotiations into the new year.

That's why experts from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have been recruited to help Nicos Anastasiades, the island's Greek Cypriot president, and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci to navigate the economic labyrinth of a hoped-for reunification deal that both men say they want to clinch in 2016.

Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup aiming to unite the island with Greece. Only Turkey recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence and continues to maintain around 35,000 troops in the north.

The experts this month made the first of many trips to Cyprus to sort out the mechanics of a unified economy before a peace deal is agreed. The benefits are clear: economic growth and rising wealth is needed to make a new federation work and help sell the deal to a long-divided and skeptical people.

"If the settlement talks were conducted in a purely political fashion, without regard to the ensuing economic implications of decisions made, or if these were relegated to a later stage, significant opportunities would be lost for kick-starting the economy of a post-settlement Cyprus," the United Nations spokesperson's office told The Associated Press. The person spoke only on condition of anonymity in line with department rules.

The experts will focus on issues including post-settlement public finances in a federated Cyprus, keeping banks stable, taxation and switching the north's currency to the euro and applying EU law there.

"It's very symbolic that the IMF is involved for the first time," said East Mediterranean University Provost Ahmet Sozen. But as is often with Cyprus peace talks, optimism is tempered by reality. A key challenge to a pact's political and economic success is dealing with private property lost during the conflict. In particular, experts need to figure out the cost of compensating property owners and where that money will come from.

"Well managed, a solution should be able to pay for itself in the long perspective, due to a higher growth rate, but it will still need external support up front in order to be properly implemented," the UN spokesperson said.

Most property in the north belongs to Greek Cypriots who fled in the face of advancing Turkish troops. But Turkish Cypriots insist any peace accord should ensure that they hold on to the majority of property in their future administrative zone and remain the majority in population as well.

Sozen said Turkish Cypriots take the issue very seriously because it's tied to their sense of security and that Akinci, the Turkish Cypriot leader, is "very firm on this." Turkish Cypriots see doling out cash for property as the primary way of dealing with the issue, as it would avoid displacing a large number of Turkish Cypriots who have since moved in.

There is no figure on how much this will cost, but the European Union and the U.S. and other countries have offered financial support, according to the U.N. Many Greek Cypriots see the 'compensation-first' tack as curtailing their property rights and coming in direct conflict with EU principles that both sides say should be the bedrock of any agreement.

Parliamentary Speaker Yiannakis Omirou blasted Turkish Cypriot positions as "legalizing the invasion's outcome." In a terse statement, Cypriot government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides said Akinci's remarks on the issue show that "there's plenty of work yet to be done."

Showdown brews as Venezuela opposition takes over congress

January 05, 2016

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Forget the ceremonial gavel passing and group photos. Venezuela's new congress, now dominated by opponents of the socialist administration, is being sworn in Tuesday amid dueling street demonstrations, mutual accusations of subverting democracy and a looming potential for violence.

With the seating of the newly elected National Assembly, it will be the first time in 17 years that opponents of the socialist revolution begun by the late President Hugo Chavez will control any institution in the South American country.

Incoming opposition lawmakers are promising to use their new muscle to make sweeping changes, while the socialist party of current President Nicolas Maduro has been equally adamant that the legislature will not be allowed to roll back Chavez's revolution.

The Supreme Court last week barred three opposition lawmakers from taking their seats, responding to a challenge by supporters of the socialists who accuse the opposition of stealing the Dec. 6 legislative election. That ruling could snatch away the opposition's two-thirds majority, which it will need to make any major move, such as firing top officials or rewriting the constitution.

On Monday, the incoming congress president, Henry Ramos, reiterated his promise to swear in all lawmakers and said Maduro should consider resigning to save Venezuela from a political crisis, echoing a call hard-liners made in 2014 when they launched a street protest movement that resulted in dozens of deaths.

"The people put their trust in us, and we can't just go home and knit booties to avoid conflict," the 72-year-old Ramos told reporters. "We must wield our power." Such acerbic statements are a trademark of Ramos, a wily, pre-Chavez era politician whose promotion to the top spot in congress over a fresher face has exposed internal rifts that will dog the opposition.

The coalition's more moderate wing has lambasted the hard-liners' strategy of trying to force Maduro from office and wants to take pragmatic steps to wrench the oil-dependent economy out of a tailspin marked by triple-digit inflation and the world's deepest recession.

The factions have agreed on a basic agenda that includes granting amnesty to dozens of jailed leaders that human rights groups consider political prisoners, pushing for the release of central bank data and giving Maduro a six-month deadline to fall in line with the opposition's economic program.

Incoming lawmakers are also promising to use the National Assembly as a tool for accountability, holding investigative hearings and commissioning audits of government agencies. Jennifer McCoy, a longtime observer of elections in Venezuela for the pro-democracy group founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, said the coming weeks will tell whether the government and opposition can put aside their mutual bloodthirst.

"This is the moment when both sides need to determine how to move forward: whether they are going to work together or engage in a battle royal," said McCoy, who is now director of the Global Studies Institute at Georgia State University

The socialists began fighting the new congress almost as soon as it was voted in. Outgoing lawmakers appointed new Supreme Court judges and changed the ownership of the National Assembly's TV station. Maduro on Monday issued decrees limiting congress' power over the central bank.

In Washington, the U.S. State Department said Monday that it was concerned by the Maduro government's attempts to interfere with the new congress, drawing a sharp rebuke from Venezuela's president. The opposition planned a march to the National Assembly building Tuesday morning. The downtown district in the shadow of the presidential palace rarely sees opposition rallies and is newly covered with pro-government graffiti.

Maduro was conciliatory in a national television address Monday, saying he had instructed the military to guarantee the opposition access to the neoclassical National Assembly building downtown so it can be seated peacefully.

But pro-government militias, dubbed by Chavez as "the armed wing of the revolution," called on their supporters to stage a counter protest, raising the threat of clashes. "The revolution must be defended in the streets," read one pro-government call circulated Monday. "A bourgeoisie congress will never do anything but legislate the slavery of the people."

Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Bogota contributed to this report.

Rwandan president announces he will seek 3rd term

January 01, 2016

KIGALI, Rwanda (AP) — Rwandan President Paul Kagame declared Friday he will run for a third term in office after his second seven-year term expires in 2017, a move opposed by the U.S., a key ally.

The announcement in his end-of-year message follows last month's constitutional referendum in which 98 percent of Rwandans voted to approve a revised Constitution to allow Kagame to extend his tenure in office.

"You requested me to lead the country again after 2017. Given the importance and consideration you attach to this, I can only accept," Kagame said Kagame became president in 2000 after being Rwanda's de facto leader since the end of the country's genocide in 1994. He is credited with stabilizing the country and promoting economic growth after the mass killings, but critics say he is an authoritarian ruler who does not tolerate opposition and he is accused of human rights abuses.

Rwanda's political opposition criticized the referendum as undemocratic and the U.S., a key Rwandan ally, has opposed Kagame's bid to stay in power. Appearing to address that, Kagame said "even misguided or deliberately harmful criticism can be the start of a conversation ... what is important is that we respect each other."

Other leaders in East and Central Africa have prolonged their rule. In 2005, Ugandan lawmakers changed their Constitution, allowing President Yoweri Museveni to seek re-election in 2006 and 2011. He is running again in 2016.

Burundi has political violence that started in April when President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for and won a third term that many oppose. There have also been protests in Congo over efforts by President Joseph Kabila, who has been in power for 15 years, to prolong his time in office.

Top Gun: Why Nothing Comes Close to Russia's Vulkan Missile

Moscow (Sputnik)
Jan 06, 2016

It wasn't until the early 1970 that western arms makers finally realized the advantages offered by cruise missiles. The Americans developed the Harpoon anti-ship missile, the French followed up with the Exocet and 1981 saw the entry of America's famous Tomahawk cruise missile.

Not to be outdone, the Soviet Union focused on the development of a missile that would be stealthier and deadlier than its foreign analogues. Development of the P-1000 Vulkan long-range anti-ship missile began in 1979 and less than a decade later it entered active service with the Soviet Navy.

Intended as the replacement for Bazalt missiles, introduced in the early 1970s, the Vulkan features improved supersonic speed of Mach 2.8, an estimated range of 700 kilometers and may be equipped with a 350-kiloton nuclear warhead. The purpose of this dreadful missile system is to allow Russian submarines and missile cruisers to engage aircraft carrier strike groups from safe ranges.

Just like its predecessor, the Vulkan covers much of the distance to its target at a high altitude and swoops down to just over 10 meters during the final stage of the flight which makes it virtually invisible to enemy radar.

Boasting a cruising speed of over 600 meters a second and in excess of 1,000 meters when nearing the target, the Vulkan remains steps ahead of the subsonic Harpoons and Tomahawks. Its 500 kg warhead carries enough punch to severely damage a destroyer, a cruiser or even an aircraft carrier.

The guidance system combines midcourse autopilot, terminal radar seeker, digital computer and improved performance against electronic countermeasures with the ability to select a target in the terminal phase of the flight. Experts say that even though the Vulkan missile came along in the late 1980s, it still remains a top gun no one has yet been able to beat.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Top_Gun_Why_Nothing_Comes_Close_to_Russias_Vulkan_Missile_999.html.

Iranian protesters damage Saudi embassy in Tehran

January 03, 2016

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Protesters in Iran, angered by the execution by Saudi Arabia of a prominent Shiite cleric, broke into the Saudi embassy in Tehran early Sunday, setting fires and throwing papers from the roof, Iranian media reported.

The semiofficial ISNA news agency said the country's top police official, Gen. Hossein Sajedinia, rushed to the scene and police worked to disperse the crowd outraged by the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Shiite leaders in Iran and elsewhere across the Middle East swiftly condemned Riyadh and warned of a sectarian backlash.

Saudi Arabia's execution Saturday of 47 prisoners, which also included al-Qaida detainees, threatened to further inflame Sunni-Shiite tensions in a regional struggle playing out between the Sunni kingdom and its foe Iran, a predominantly Shiite nation.

While Saudi Arabia insisted the executions were part of a justified war on terrorism, Iranian politicians warned that the Saudi monarchy would pay a heavy price for the death of al-Nimr. The Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the Saudi envoy in Tehran to protest, while the Saudi Foreign Ministry later said it had summoned Iran's envoy to the kingdom to protest the critical Iranian reaction to the sheikh's execution, saying it represented "blatant interference" in its internal affairs.

In Tehran, the crowd gathered outside the Saudi embassy and chanted anti-Saudi slogans. Some protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the embassy, setting off a fire in part of the building, Sajedinia told the semi-official Tasnim news agency.

"Some of them entered the embassy. Currently, individuals who entered the embassy have been transferred out (of the building). However, a large crowd is still there in front of the embassy," Sajedinia told ISNA early Sunday.

Some of the protesters broke into the embassy and threw papers off the roof, and police worked to disperse the crowd, Sajedinia told ISNA. He later told Tasnim that police had removed the protesters from the building and arrested some of them. He said the situation outside the embassy "had been defused."

Al-Nimr's execution promises to open a rancorous new chapter in the ongoing Sunni-Shiite power struggle playing out across the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia and Iran as the primary antagonists. The two regional powers already back opposing sides in civil wars in Yemen and in Syria. Saudi Arabia was also a vocal critic of the recent Iranian agreement with world powers that ends international economic sanctions in exchange for limits on the Iranian nuclear program.

The cleric's execution could also complicate Saudi Arabia's relationship with the Shiite-led government in Iraq. The Saudi embassy in Baghdad reopened for the first time in nearly 25 years on Friday. Already on Saturday there were public calls for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to shut the embassy down again.

Al-Abadi tweeted Saturday night that he was "shocked and saddened" by al-Nimr's execution, adding that, "peaceful opposition is a fundamental right. Repression does not last." Hundreds of al-Nimr's supporters also protested in his hometown of al-Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia, in neighboring Bahrain where police fired tear gas and bird shot, and as far away as northern India.

The sheikh's brother, Mohammed al-Nimr, said in a telephone interview that Saudi authorities told the family they had already buried the body, but didn't tell them at which cemetery. The family had hoped to bury his body in his hometown. His funeral would likely have attracted thousands of supporters, including large numbers of protesters. Instead the family planned to hold prayers and accept condolences at the mosque in a village near al-Qatif, where the sheikh used to pray.

A spokesman said in a statement that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was "deeply dismayed" over the Saudi Arabia executions, including that of Al-Nimr. Germany's Foreign Ministry said the cleric's execution "strengthens our existing concerns about the growing tensions and the deepening rifts in the region."

State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that the U.S. is "particularly concerned" that al-Nimr's execution risked "exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced." He said the U.S. is calling on Saudi Arabia to ensure fair judicial proceedings and permit peaceful expression of dissent while working with all community leaders to defuse tensions after the executions.

Al-Nimr's death comes 11 months after Saudi Arabia issued a sweeping counterterrorism law after Arab Spring protests shook the region in 2011 and toppled several longtime autocrats. The law codified that the kingdom could prosecute as a terrorist anyone who demands reform, exposes corruption or otherwise engages in dissent or violence against the government.

The convictions of those executed Saturday were issued by Saudi Arabia's Specialized Criminal Court, established in 2008 to try terrorism cases. The executed al-Qaida detainees were convicted of launching a spate of attacks against foreigners and security forces a decade ago.

To counter Arab Spring rumblings that threatened to spill into eastern Saudi Arabia, the kingdom sent troops in 2011 to crush Shiite protests demanding more political powers from the Sunni-led, fraternal monarchy of Bahrain. More security forces were also deployed that year to contain protests in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich east, where al-Nimr rallied youth who felt disenfranchised and persecuted.

A Saudi lawyer in the eastern region told The Associated Press that three other Shiite political detainees were also executed from among the 47. The lawyer spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Saudi Arabia says all those executed were convicted of acts of terrorism. Al-Nimr and the three others mentioned had been charged in connection with violence that led to the deaths of several protesters and police officers.

Saudi Arabia's top cleric Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh defended the executions as in line with Islamic Shariah law. He described the executions as a "mercy to the prisoners" because it would save them from committing more evil acts and prevent chaos.

Islamic scholars around the world hold vastly different views on the application of the death penalty in Shariah law. Saudi Arabia's judiciary adheres to one of the strictest interpretations, a Sunni Muslim ideology referred to as Wahhabism.

Saudi Arabia carries out most executions through beheading and sometimes in public and has drawn comparisons to extremist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State group — which also carry out public beheadings and claim to be implementing Shariah. It strongly rejects the comparisons and points out that it has a judicial appeals process with executions ultimately aimed at combating crime.

The Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah issued a statement calling al-Nimr's execution an "assassination" and a "ugly crime." The group added that those who carry the "moral and direct responsibility for this crime are the United States and its allies who give direct protection to the Saudi regime."

In a press conference Saturday, Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki said the executions were carried out inside prisons and not in public, as is sometimes the case. The Interior Ministry, which announced the names of all 47 people executed in a statement, said a royal court order was issued to implement the sentences after all appeals had been exhausted.

Meanwhile, the execution of al-Qaida militants raised concerns over revenge attacks. The extremist group's branch in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, had threatened violence against Saudi security forces last month if they carried out executions of its fighters.

One of the executed was Faris al-Shuwail, a leading ideologue in al-Qaida's Saudi branch who was arrested in August 2004 during a massive crackdown on the group following the series of deadly attacks.

The executions took place in the capital, Riyadh, and 12 other cities and towns. Of those executed, 45 were Saudi citizens, one was from Chad and another was from Egypt. In announcing the verdicts, Saudi state television showed mugshots of those executed. Al-Nimr was No. 46, expressionless with a gray beard, his head covered with the red-and-white scarf traditionally worn by men in the Arab Gulf region.

Al-Nimr, who was in his 50s, never denied the political charges against him, but maintained he never carried weapons or called for violence. At his trial, he was asked if he disapproved of the Al Saud ruling family because of speeches in which he spoke out forcefully against former Interior Minister and late Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdelaziz, who is King Salman's elder brother.

"If injustice stops against Shiites in the east, then (at that point) I can have a different opinion," the cleric responded, according to his brother, who attended court sessions and spoke to The Associated Press just days before the Oct. 2014 verdict.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch's Middle East director Sarah Leah said "regardless of the crimes allegedly committed, executing prisoners in mass only further stains Saudi Arabia's troubling human rights record." She said al-Nimr was convicted in an "unfair" trial and that his execution "is only adding to the existing sectarian discord and unrest."

Al-Nimr's brother told the AP by telephone that the executions came as a "big shock" because "we thought the authorities could adopt a political approach to settle matters without bloodshed." He urged people to "adopt peaceful means when expressing their anger."

Saudi Arabia carried out at least 157 executions in 2015, with beheadings reaching their highest level in the kingdom in two decades, according to human rights groups.

Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Abdullah al-Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Jon Gambrell in Dubai, Maamoun Youssef in Cairo, Reem Khalifa in Manama, Bahrain, Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

Iran, Saudi step up war of words over executed Shiite cleric

January 03, 2016

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's top leader on Sunday warned Saudi Arabia of "divine revenge" over the execution of an opposition Shiite cleric while Riyadh accused Tehran of supporting terrorism, escalating a war of words hours after protesters stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.

Saudi Arabia announced the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday along with 46 others, including three other Shiite dissidents and a number of al-Qaida militants. Al-Nimr was a central figure in protests by Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority until his arrest in 2012, and his execution drew condemnation from Shiites across the region.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei condemned the execution Sunday in a statement on his website, saying al-Nimr "neither invited people to take up arms nor hatched covert plots. The only thing he did was public criticism." Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard said Saudi Arabia's "medieval act of savagery" in executing the cleric would lead to the "downfall" of the country's monarchy.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Ministry said that by condemning the execution, Iran had "revealed its true face represented in support for terrorism." The statement, carried by the official Saudi Press Agency, accused Tehran of "blind sectarianism" and said that "by its defense of terrorist acts" Iran is a "partner in their crimes in the entire region."

Al-Nimr was convicted of terrorism charges but denied ever advocating violence. Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran are locked in a bitter rivalry, and support opposite sides in the wars in Syria and Yemen. Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of supporting "terrorism" in part because it backs Syrian rebel groups, while Riyadh points to Iran's support for the Lebanese Hezbollah and other Shiite militant groups in the region.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry has summoned the Saudi envoy in Tehran to protest, while the Saudi Foreign Ministry later said it had summoned Iran's envoy to the kingdom to protest Iran's criticism of the execution, saying it represented "blatant interference" in its internal affairs.

In Tehran, the crowd gathered outside the Saudi Embassy early Sunday and chanted anti-Saudi slogans. Some protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the embassy, setting off a fire in part of the building, said the country's top police official, Gen. Hossein Sajedinia, according to the semiofficial Tasnim news agency. He later said police had removed the protesters from the building and arrested some of them, adding that the situation had been "defused."

Hours later, Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi said 40 people had been arrested on suspicion of taking part in the embassy attack and investigators were pursuing other suspects, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency.

The cleric's execution could also complicate Saudi Arabia's relationship with the Shiite-led government in Iraq. The Saudi Embassy in Baghdad reopened for the first time in nearly 25 years on Friday. Already on Saturday there were public calls for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to shut the embassy down again.

Al-Abadi tweeted Saturday night that he was "shocked and saddened" by al-Nimr's execution, adding that "peaceful opposition is a fundamental right. Repression does not last." Hundreds of al-Nimr's supporters also protested in his hometown of al-Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia, in neighboring Bahrain where police fired tear gas and bird shot, and as far away as northern India.

Also Sunday, the BBC reported that one of the 47 executed in Saudi Arabia, Adel al-Dhubaiti, was convicted over a 2004 attack on its journalists in Riyadh. That attack by a gang outside of the home of a suspected al-Qaida militant killed 36-year-old Irish cameraman Simon Cumbers. British reporter Frank Gardner, now the BBC's security correspondent, was seriously wounded in the attack and paralyzed, but survived.

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Joseph Krauss and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.

Accosted for her hijab, woman now teaches Muslim empowerment

December 31, 2015

When she was 16, Rana Abdelhamid was accosted on the streets of New York by a man who tried to pull off the head scarf she wears as a symbol of her commitment to her Muslim faith.

Rather than withdraw, as she'd seen other Muslim women do, she turned her anger into a program that is now working with young Muslim women to teach them self-defense while encouraging them to become leaders and role models for others in their communities.

Abdelhamid, a graduate of Vermont's Middlebury College who is now a student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, says the challenge facing Muslims in general and Muslim women in particular has been getting worse, especially since the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.

"It's unfortunate that it's becoming more needed and we're getting so many calls," said Abdelhamid, 22, who grew up in the Queens borough of New York. Robina Niaz, the executive director of the group Turning Point for Women and Families, an organization that works to end domestic violence in New York's Muslim community, said she first met Abdelhamid when she was in high school and participating in programs at the center.

"Rana is a living example of what one can accomplish when we invest in these young girls," Niaz said. "If we believe in them, if we support them, watch their back — they need just a little bit of nudging and mentoring and they are ready."

Muslim women in several cities across the country are organizing or taking self-defense classes, but Abdelhamid's organization, the Women's Initiative for Self-Empowerment, or WISE, goes beyond the physical self-defense skills to encourage the young women to become leaders and social entrepreneurs. The empowerment lessons can be as simple as showing the young women how to rent or reserve a room in a community center to tips on becoming a confident public speaker.

Abdelhamid said her efforts have not been universally well received by the Muslim community. "We have had some challenges and pushback from more traditionalist members of our community who don't necessarily see space for women in leadership, unfortunately," she said. "It's really, really disheartening because you want your allies to be within the community."

The program has grown since the first class was offered to about a dozen girls in the basement of a community center in Brooklyn. The basic program, called Mentee Muslimah (an Arabic word for Muslim women), is a 13-session summer camp attended in New York by about 50 young women of high-school age that follows a 100-page course outline Abdelhamid developed during an independent study course at Middlebury.

The organization relies heavily on donated space and volunteers, but it's also received donations and in some cases fees are charged to people taking the program to help defray expenses. She's in the process of setting up a formal non-profit group so WISE can have a permanent home and a budget. While an undergraduate at Vermont's Middlebury College, Abdelhamid used a grant from the school's Center for Social Entrepreneurship to expand her organization.

"What makes Rana really unique that we saw in her is that this is an issue that is connected to her identity and it drives her all the time," said Heather Neuwirth, the associate director of Middlebury's Entrepreneurship Center. "She took what could have been an experience that could have shut her down, she really realized the power in that and I think the way that she connects to others is deeply caring."

Abdelhamid sometimes travels to lead programs outside New York, but most are led by people who have taken the program and then been trained to teach it. The summer programs outside New York are held in Union City, New Jersey, Washington, Dallas, Madrid, and Edinburg, Scotland. She's working on setting up programs in Chicago, Dublin and Istanbul. Next month WISE also is planning a three-day program in Boston for Jewish women.

Nitasha Siddique, a 19-year-old student at Princeton, said she got involved with WISE after her junior year in high school when she was accepted into the New York summer programs. "There were a lot of really important conversations I'd never had before, but had the opportunity to have these conversations and have them with a group of girls who were close to me in age," she said.