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Sunday, February 21, 2016

Saudi Arabia to supply Syrian opposition with SAMs

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Saudi Arabia announced on Friday that it is planning to supply the moderate Syrian opposition with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), AlKhaleej.com has reported. Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir made the announcement during an interview with the Germany weekly Der Spiegel; his comments were then reported widely by other media outlets.

“We believe that introducing surface-to-air missiles in Syria is going to change the balance of power on the ground,” he told Der Spiegel. “It will allow the moderate opposition groups to neutralize the helicopters and aircraft that are dropping chemicals and have been carpet-bombing them.” He noted that something similar happened previously in Afghanistan.

Al-Jubeir repeated his calls for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad “to step down in order to enable a political solution to the five-year-long war.” He suggested that Russian interference does not help the Assad regime in the long term.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/24046-saudi-arabia-to-supply-syrian-opposition-with-sams.

Spain Agrees to Purchase Predator Drone System With Four Planes

Moscow (Sputnik)
Feb 19, 2016

The Spanish military decided to purchase a Predator B drone system consisting of four planes and two ground control stations with satellite links, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) said in a press release on Wednesday.

The Predator B is capable of remaining in the air for 27 hours at a maximum altitude of 50,000 feet. The system can be used to monitor borders, help direct rescue efforts following natural disasters and support Spain's military missions worldwide, the release noted.

"GA-ASI is proud to partner with the Spanish Armed Forces to offer our operationally proven Predator B RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] to fulfill Spain's emerging multi-mission requirements," Chief Executive Officer Linden Blue said in the release.

SENER, a leading engineering company in Spain, will provide technical support for the project, according to the release.

"Reaper will contribute significantly to strengthen our country's Defense and Security system and will provide increased protection to our forces," SENER Vice President Andres Sendagorta said in the release.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Spain_Agrees_to_Purchase_Predator_Drone_System_With_Four_Planes_999.html.

Tokyo Rising: Japan Seeks Expanded Role in 'Global Defense and Security'

Moscow (Sputnik)
Feb 19, 2016

Despite its pacifist constitution, Japan plans to play a larger role in "global defense and security." The move comes amid pressure from the United States, and likely won't sit well with Japanese citizens already fed up with the administration's new military adventurism.

"The world faces growing security international threats and Japan wants to play a leading role in combating this," Keiichi Katakami, Japan's ambassador to the EU, said in Brussels this week.

"Japan and the rest of the world are facing fresh challenges by those who choose to use force and intimidation."

Katakami's comments refer partly to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent approval of a $41.4 billion defense budget. This marks the most Tokyo has spent on defense since the end of World War II, when Japan adopted a pacifist clause into its constitution.

That money will go toward acquiring new ship-borne interceptors, and the upgrading of two of Japan's existing Aegis ships. The government is also considering buying the land-based Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system from the United States.

Japan's Ministry of Defense has also compiled a hefty shopping list of new military hardware. This includes 11 AAV7 amphibious assault vehicles, 17 Mitsubishi SH-60K anti-submarine warfare helicopters, four Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, three RQ-4 Global Hawk drones, six F-35A Lightning II fighters, one Kawasaki C-2 military transport aircraft, and 36 new combat vehicles.

Tokyo's increased interest in military strength comes at the behest of the United States, which has urged Japan to play a more active role in combating China's growth in the Pacific. Speaking during the same Brussels briefing, Luis Simon of the Institute for European Studies stressed that "Japan is the cornerstone of US defense strategy and force posture in the Asia-Pacific."

"When it comes to security in the Asia-Pacific and, more specifically, in Northeast Asia, Japan and the US are concerned pretty much about the same issues," Simon said. "One issue is, of course, the growing nuclear and missile threat posed by the DPRK [North Korea].

"But arguably the broader, and more systemic geostrategic concern for the US-Japan alliance is the geopolitical and strategic rise of China and its potential to alter the balance of power in the region."

Washington has repeatedly criticized Beijing's construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea. While China maintains that it has every right to build within its own territory, and that the islands will be used primarily for humanitarian purposes, the US has launched aggressive military patrols through the region.

"In order to survive, the US-Japan alliance must adapt to the changing geostrategic landscape," Simon said. "This means a greater, joint effort in the realms of missile defense, undersea warfare and cybersecurity."

Not everyone agrees with the Abe administration's plans, however. Plans to expand the US military presence on Okinawa have been met with widespread protest. The island already hosts 32 American military facilities, enough to cover 20% of Okinawa's total landmass.

The government has also seen massive opposition to its passing of a controversial bill which allows Tokyo to deploy forces outside of Japan in an aggressive military posture. Approximately 40,000 people demonstrated against the bill outside of the parliament building last September.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Tokyo_Rising_Japan_Seeks_Expanded_Role_in_Global_Defense_and_Security_999.html.

Kiev demonstrators attack Russian banks

February 20, 2016

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Nationalist demonstrators in Ukraine have attacked two offices of Russian banks in the capital amid observances of the second anniversary of the protests that brought down the Russia-friendly president.

Demonstrators on Saturday threw rocks through windows at the offices of Alfa Bank and Sberbank and damaged furniture and equipment inside. Protesters also vandalized the offices of the holding company of Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov.

Tens of thousands of people in the Ukrainian capital came to various observances of the "Day of the Heavenly Hundred." The term refers to those who died during the months of protests in Kiev that culminated with President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing.

Saturday is the second anniversary of the bloodiest day of the protests, when more than 50 people died from sniper fire.

Another faction quits Ukraine's governing coalition

February 18, 2016

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Ukraine sank deeper into political turmoil Thursday as the governing coalition lost its majority in parliament after a second faction bailed out. The move by Samopomich (Self Help), which has 26 seats in the 450-seat parliament, leaves the coalition partners with 217 votes. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's faction withdrew from the coalition a day earlier.

The failure to create a new majority coalition may lead to early parliamentary elections, something President Petro Poroshenko has sought to avoid, fearing it could further destabilize the nation. The two factions remaining in the coalition are led by Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. They have been uneasy partners, with members of Yatsenyuk's and Poroshenko's blocs engaging in fierce spats which have strained public patience and eroded the confidence of the West.

Some respected reformers have resigned recently, citing their disenchantment with the government's cronyism and corruption. Poroshenko has urged Yatsenyuk to step down amid economic troubles and political infighting, but the premier has refused to do so. Lawmakers failed to oust his Cabinet in a vote of confidence on Tuesday.

Samopomich leader Oleh Bereziuk said the botched attempt to dismiss the Cabinet marked was a victory for "kleptocracy and oligarchy." Poroshenko now needs to quickly attract new coalition partners in order to regain a majority and avoid snap elections. Oleh Lyashko, the leader of the Radical Party that has 21 seats and left the governing coalition last fall, signaled that it could move back in.

"We won't allow the country to be thrown into instability, chaos, lack of foreign support for reforms," Yatsenyuk said, adding that he would consult with Poroshenko, the Radical Party and others. Viktor Zamyatin, an expert with the Razumkov Center, a Kiev-based think-tank, said avoiding an early vote would be the top priority for Poroshenko. "New elections would trigger a new round of tensions inside the country and spook key Western creditors, the U.S. and the IMF," he said.

Yatsenyuk became prime minister after Ukraine's former Russia-friendly president was chased from power in February 2014 following massive street protests. Poroshenko was elected several months later with broad support and approval from Western leaders.

The White House said in a statement Thursday that Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Poroshenko on the phone and commended him and the government for the passage this week of anti-corruption legislation.

"The Vice President urged President Poroshenko to continue on this positive trajectory, to include successful implementation of the new legislation and continued visible progress on anti-corruption reforms," the statement said.

Ukraine has remained locked in conflict with Moscow, which annexed the Crimean Peninsula and has supported a pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine. Fighting there has killed more than 9,000 people since April 2014 and devastated the nation's industrial heartland.

Last week, International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde threatened to halt the delivery of another installment of Ukraine's $17.5 billion aid package, which the country needs to keep the economy afloat.

Serbia: 2 hostages killed in US airstrikes in Libya

February 20, 2016

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Two Serbian embassy staffers held hostage since November died in Friday's U.S. airstrikes on an Islamic State camp in western Libya that killed dozens, Serbian officials said Saturday.

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said there was no doubt that Sladjana Stankovic, a communications officer, and Jovica Stepic, a driver, were killed in the American bombing. They were snatched in November after their diplomatic convoy, including the ambassador, came under fire near the coastal Libyan city of Sabratha.

"Apparently, the Americans were not aware that foreign citizens were being kept there," Vucic told reporters. Speaking at a news conference in Belgrade earlier, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said information about the deaths was given to Serbia by foreign officials but had not been confirmed by the Libyan government.

"We got the information, including photos, which clearly show that this is most probably true," Dacic said. American F-15E fighter-bombers on Friday struck an Islamic State training camp in rural Libya near the Tunisian border, killing dozens, probably including an IS operative considered responsible for deadly attacks in Tunisia last year, U.S. and local officials said.

Dacic said Serbia had known where the hostages were and had been working to get them back, adding that Libyan troops were considering an operation to free them. "I believe we had been close to the solution for them to be freed. Unfortunately, as a consequence of the attack against ISIS in Libya, the two of them lost their lives," Dacic said. "We will seek official explanation from both Libya and the United States about the available facts and the selection of targets."

He said, according to the information received by the Serbian security services, a criminal group believed to be linked to IS had demanded ransom for the hostages, who they were holding at the site that was bombed.

"On the other hand, the American administration said it was an (ISIS) training camp," Dacic said. "This is information that has to be checked." He did not specify the amount of ransom demanded of the families, saying only it was "impossible to pay."

"It wasn't in the interests of the people who held them to kill them, because there were no other demands but financial," Dacic said. A Libyan armed group calling itself the Special Deterrent Forces announced on Facebook that the two bodies had been delivered to Tripoli's Matiga Airport. The group posted pictures showing two green coffins inside a hearse, and another of one of the coffins sitting on a tarmac next to a small plane.

The Special Deterrent Forces are loyal to the militia-backed government that now controls Tripoli. The group's posting did not indicate when the bodies would be flown to Serbia. In November, gunmen in Libya crashed into a convoy of vehicles taking Serbia's ambassador to neighboring Tunisia and then kidnapped the two embassy employees. Serbian ambassador Oliver Potezica escaped unharmed along with his wife and two sons.

"The attack happened when one of the embassy cars was hit from behind. When the driver came out to check what happened, he was dragged into one of the attackers' cars," Potezica told Tanjug news agency at the time.

Since the 2011 overthrow of Libya's longtime autocrat Moammar Gadhafi, the sprawling North African nation has fractured into warring camps backed by a loose array of militias, former rebels and tribes.

Libya's internationally recognized government has been forced out of the capital, Tripoli, and now operates out of the eastern cities of Tobruk and Bayda. Another government, backed by Islamist-affiliated militias known as Libya Dawn, controls Tripoli and much of western Libya. U.N.-brokered efforts to form a unity government continue to falter.

The chaos has provided fertile ground for Islamic extremist groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group to flourish.

AP writers Jovana Gec, Ashraf Khalil and Maggie Michael contributed.

Kosovo opposition lawmakers block Parliament with tear gas

February 19, 2016

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Despite security checks at the entrance, Kosovo opposition lawmakers on Friday again used tear gas to block work from being done in Parliament to pressure the government into renouncing deals with Serbia and Montenegro.

The session, delayed for about 50 minutes, was temporarily suspended Friday after a tear gas canister was launched from opposition lawmakers' seats. A resumed session an hour later was suspended again for the same reason.

After the use of the tear gas for the third time, Speaker Kadri Veseli, himself wearing an anti-gas mask, could not keep his governing lawmakers from leaving the hall due to the gas. Then police forcefully brought out all opposition lawmakers. One of them, Albulena Haxhiu, fainted while trying to re-enter and clashed with policemen guarding the main entrance.

Veseli said the session will resume, despite the problems. Outside the Parliament a few hundred opposition supporters were gathered shouting anti-government slogans. Opposition lawmakers said they are determined not to allow normal operations at the Parliament, demanding the government's resignation and fresh elections.

Since September, the opposition has disrupted Parliament with tear gas, pepper spray, whistles and water bottles. They reject a deal between Kosovo and Serbia, reached last year, which gives more powers to ethnic Serbs in Kosovo. They are also against a border demarcation deal with Montenegro.

In December, Kosovo's Constitutional Court decided that part of the deal with Serbia was not in line with the constitution. Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci of the governing Democratic Party of Kosovo said the government is determined to continue its daily agenda, considering the use of tear gas as "ugly."

"Opposition reaction may continue but they should get used to the idea that they cannot come to power by violence," Thaci said. Kosovo's Western backers have denounced the violence, calling on the opposition to resolve the political crisis in Parliament.

Kosovo's 2008 independence has been recognized by 111 countries, including the U.S. and major European Union nations. But it is rejected by Serbia, with support from Russia, which has blocked Kosovo from becoming a U.N. member.

Kosovo and Serbia are holding EU-mediated talks to try to overcome their differences.

Gresa Kraja in Pristina, Kosovo, and Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed to this report.

Greek, German, French leaders meet about migrant crisis

February 19, 2016

BRUSSELS (AP) — The leaders of Germany and France are meeting Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras amid growing worry about Greece's lack of control over thousands of migrants crossing its borders into the European Union every week.

Tsipras, Chancellor Angela Merkel and France's Francois Hollande are talking on the sidelines of a European Union summit in Brussels on Friday. Six hours of talks the night before highlighted still-deep divisions across the continent about how to deal with the EU's worst-ever refugee crisis.

Officials said leaders at Thursday's talks argued over conflicting national reactions to the migrant influx, and the potential collapse of Europe's border-free travel. The EU's executive Commission has given Greece three months to restore order on its borders, but few believe Athens will be able to meet the deadline.

What's in the historic agreement on the UK's place in the EU

February 20, 2016

LONDON (AP) — Prime Minister David Cameron says a historic deal agreed by all 28 European Union leaders gives the U.K. "special status in Europe." The agreement, won after two days of wrangling in Brussels, makes changes in four areas where Britain sought a less intrusive relationship with the bloc. Here are the key points:


Britain sought, and got, protections for it and the other eight EU countries that don't use the euro single currency. The leaders' agreement says moves by the 19 eurozone countries to bring their economies closer together are voluntary for the other member states, and stresses that businesses in non-eurozone countries must not face disadvantages within the EU's single market.

The deal also says financial regulation in non-eurozone countries is a matter for those countries' own authorities — a guarantee Cameron had sought for the Bank of England. Non-eurozone countries can also seek a debate in the EU if they think eurozone economic measures are a problem. Countries including France had warned that could give Britain an effective veto on eurozone financial decisions.


The EU leaders stressed that free movement of people is a key principle of the bloc. But because Britain's economy has been a magnet for hundreds of thousands of EU migrants in recent years, the U.K. is allowed to impose temporary restrictions on the benefits paid to EU workers in Britain.

After a tug of war between Britain and eastern European nations — who supply most of the U.K.'s migrants — it was agreed that new workers coming to Britain from the EU will have to wait four years before receiving benefits such as tax credits and child payments. The exemption lasts for seven years, less than the 13 years Britain had sought.

Child benefit payments for children who live in their parents' home countries will be indexed to the cost of living there, rather than to costs in Britain.


The EU's treaty commitment to an "ever closer union" among the people of Europe is a particular bugbear for Britain, where politicians often raise the specter of a "European super-state." This new deal makes it explicit that "references to ever-closer union do not apply to the United Kingdom."


In one of the least-controversial sections of the deal, EU leaders vowed to strengthen the EU's internal market and improve regulation by lowering taxes and paperwork for small and medium-sized businesses and cutting red tape.

Cameron: Britain's referendum on EU membership to be June 23

February 20, 2016

LONDON (AP) — A historic referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union will be held on June 23, Prime Minister David Cameron announced Saturday, even as he declared his belief that the U.K. would be "safer and stronger" if it remained in the 28-nation bloc.

Cameron spoke in front of his 10 Downing Street office after holding a rare Saturday Cabinet meeting and winning its agreement to recommend that Britain remain part of the EU rather than strike out on its own.

Despite that support, some Cabinet figures will back the "leave" campaign that wants Britain to carve its own path outside of the EU bureaucracy in Brussels. Cameron said if Britons decided to remain in the EU, he would seek continued reforms to address their concerns about job losses and benefit payments to EU migrants seeking work in Britain.

"I don't love Brussels, I love Britain," he said, emphasizing that Britain can have "the best of both worlds" if it remains in the EU under a reform deal he reached Friday night with EU leaders. The June vote will come as the EU struggles to deal with a sustained immigration crisis that last year brought more than 1 million people fleeing war and poverty to its shores.

Cameron is poised to lead the campaign for Britain to remain in the bloc in what is expected to be a closely fought referendum — yet still faces skepticism from within his own Conservative Party. Justice Secretary Michael Gove was the first to publicly oppose continued EU membership after Saturday's meeting, saying Britain would be better off on its own. He said it pained him to break ranks with Cameron.

Two strong future Conservative party leadership contenders, Home Secretary Theresa May and Treasury chief George Osborne, indicated support for staying within the EU, as did Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon.

London Mayor Boris Johnson, another influential Conservative figure seen by some as a possible future party leader, has so far kept his intentions to himself. Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said he will support Britain's continued membership in the EU, though he said Cameron's vaunted "renegotiation" of the terms of its relationship with the EU will have little impact.

Much of the opposition to EU membership comes from the UK Independence Party led by Nigel Farage and from skeptical members of Cameron's own party. The deal Cameron agreed upon Friday with 27 other EU leaders protects Britain from taking part in an "ever closer union" with European nations and makes clear that Britain will not adopt the euro currency shared by 19 EU nations. Cameron says it also protects British interests and restricts British welfare payments to migrants from other EU nations.

Uganda's Yoweri Museveni wins disputed polls; rival detained

February 20, 2016

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — Long-time Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni was declared the winner of the presidential election, with more than 60 percent of the votes, but the main opposition party rejected the results as fraudulent.

Museveni's nearest rival, opposition leader Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change party, got 35 percent, according to final results announced by the election commission. Besigye himself was under house arrest as Museveni was declared the winner, with heavily armed police standing guard near his residence on the outskirts of the capital, Kampala.

Museveni's ruling party, the National Resistance Movement, urged "all candidates to respect the will of the people and the authority of the electoral commission and accept the result. We ask all Ugandans to remain calm and peaceful and not to engage in any public disruptions." The party released the statement shortly after the results were announced.

However Besigye's opposition party appealed to "all Ugandans and the international community to reject and condemn the fraud that has been committed and to expose it to the fullest extent possible. Clearly what we are witnessing in the choreographed announcements of the fraudulent results is part of a creeping political coup d'état."

The election on Thursday was marred by lengthy delays in the delivery of polling materials, some incidents of violence as well as a government shutdown of social media which is ongoing. The election was marked by an "intimidating atmosphere, which was mainly created by state actors," said the European Union observer mission. Uganda's election commission lacks independence and transparency and does not have the trust of all the parties, EU mission leader Eduard Kukan told reporters Saturday. Opposition supporters were harassed by law enforcement officials in more than 20 districts, according to the EU's preliminary report.

Police on Friday surrounded the headquarters of the FDC opposition party as Besigye met with members and a helicopter fired tear gas at a crowd outside. Police then moved in and took away Besigye, a 59-year-old doctor. He was later taken to his house which was guarded by police who prevented access to journalists.

After Besigye's arrest on Friday, his supporters took to the streets. Riot police lobbed tear gas and stun grenades at them and fired warning shots from automatic rifles, then chased them through narrow alleys, arresting some.

Besigye's party is alleging massive vote rigging and accuses the government of deliberately stalling voting in opposition strongholds in Kampala and the neighboring Wakiso district. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by phone with Museveni "to underscore that Uganda's progress depends on adherence to democratic principles in the ongoing election process," the State Department said. Kerry urged Museveni to rein in the security forces.

The 71-year-old Museveni took power by force in 1986 and pulled Uganda out of years of chaos after a guerrilla war. He is a key U.S. ally on security matters, especially in Somalia. Critics fear he may want to rule for life and they accuse him of using security forces to intimidate the opposition.

Besigye was Museveni's personal physician during the bush war and served as deputy interior minister in his first Cabinet. He broke with the president in 1999, saying Museveni was no longer a democrat.

Uganda opposition leader under house arrest amid tensions

February 20, 2016

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — Uganda's security forces on Saturday put the main opposition candidate under house arrest to prevent him from leading protests as the country awaited the results of a disputed election.

Police took "preventive measures" against Kizza Besigye to stem further unrest, police spokesman Fred Enanga told The Associated Press. The elections on Thursday were marred by late delivery of polling materials, sporadic violence and a government shutdown of social media. Partial results from about 75 percent of the vote show long-time President Yoweri Museveni leading with over 60 percent against Besigye's 35 percent.

The final tally is expected later on Saturday. Police on Friday surrounded the headquarters of Besigye's party, the Forum for Democratic Change, as Besigye met with party members, and a helicopter fired tear gas at a crowd outside. Police then moved in and took Besigye, a 59-year-old doctor, to an unknown location. He was later taken to his house overnight.

Besigye's party has alleged massive vote rigging, and has accused the government of deliberately stalling voting in areas seen as opposition strongholds and orchestrating violence. "We have to contain the situation," Enanga said. "We have reasonable cause to prevent him from promoting actions of violence."

Police prevented journalists from accessing Besigye's home on the outskirts of the capital, Kampala. After Besigye's arrest on Friday, his supporters took to the streets. Riot police lobbed tear gas and stun grenades at them and fired warning shots from automatic rifles, then chased them through narrow alleys, arresting some.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by phone with Museveni "to underscore that Uganda's progress depends on adherence to democratic principles in the ongoing election process," the State Department said. Kerry urged Museveni to rein the security forces.

The 71-year-old Museveni took power by force in 1986 and pulled Uganda out of years of chaos after a guerrilla war. He is a key U.S. ally on security matters, especially in Somalia. Critics fear he may want to rule for life, and they accuse him of using security forces to intimidate and harass the opposition.

Besigye was Museveni's personal physician during a war and served as deputy interior minister in his first Cabinet. He broke with the president in 1999, saying Museveni was no longer a democrat.

Voting in Uganda plagued by delays; social media shut down

February 18, 2016

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — After delays blamed on slow delivery of voting materials, Ugandans cast ballots Thursday in presidential elections amid a shutdown of some social media sites. Even at noon, five hours after voting was supposed to start, some polling stations in the capital, including a major one, still had not received any voting papers. People had formed long lines and ballot boxes had arrived mid-morning, but still there were no ballots, so no one could vote.

President Yoweri Museveni faces a strong challenge from Kizza Besigye, who has called Museveni a dictator and said he doubts that voting will be free or fair. Many people complained of an apparent shutdown of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook when they couldn't open those sites on their computers and phones.

Godfrey Mutabazi, the head of the Uganda Communications Commission, said the network failure was likely due to an ongoing operation to contain a security threat. "It's a security matter and I cannot answer on behalf of security," he told The Associated Press.

Some observers suspected it was to keep people from publicly griping about the late delivery of voting materials. More than 15 million people are registered to vote, for members of parliament as well as president.

Some ballot boxes had missing lids. Voting officials frantically made calls. "We are late simply because the lids for ballot boxes are not here. The boxes and the lids should have arrived at the same time," said Moses Omo, an official who was presiding over voting at a Catholic church in the central Ugandan district of Wakiso.

Many of those waiting said they would not leave without voting. "This is very disappointing but I am going to stay here under the sun until it is my turn to vote," said Fred Mubiru, a taxi driver. "Nothing will discourage me."

Although opinion polls had shown Museveni to be ahead of his opponents, analysts expect this election to be his toughest yet, citing the massive crowds Besigye attracted across the country. Museveni, 71, remains popular in some parts of rural Uganda, where he is seen as a father figure and is beloved by those who remember his time as a guerrilla leader fighting a dictatorship.

He came to power in 1986 and pulled Uganda out of years of chaos. He is widely credited with restoring peace and presiding over economic growth, and is a key U.S. ally on security matters, especially in Somalia. But his critics worry that he may want to rule for life, and accuse him of using the security forces to intimidate the opposition.

Besigye, 59, is running for the fourth time against Museveni. He campaigned on a promise to run a more effective government, vowing to stem official corruption. He said he will continue "the struggle" in other ways if he loses, suggesting a protest movement similar to the one that followed the last election in 2011. That movement was violently put down by security forces.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said a weak "human rights situation seriously undermines the prospects of free and fair elections and the ability of Ugandans to exercise fundamental human rights such as free expression, assembly, and association."

The Committee to Protect Journalists has also reported "a worsening pattern of harassment and intimidation of journalists" in Uganda. Ahead of the polls, there has been a heavy security presence in Kampala, with heavily armed police patrolling the streets and armored vehicles parked at key junctions.

In Central African Republic, refugees await vote results

February 19, 2016

KAGA-BANDORO, Central African Republic (AP) — It's been more two years since Therese Waima fled for her life with her five children after Muslim rebels shot her husband to death. While adjusted to a new normal inside a sprawling camp home to thousands of others, she still dreams of going home.

Yet even as she cast a ballot this past week in Central African Republic's historic presidential runoff vote, she knows it is still too dangerous to return to her village, where she wants to resume selling peanuts and manioc to support her family.

"I hope to leave one day, but we can't right now so long as there is still insecurity," she says as she washes laundry in a plastic bucket outside the thatched hut where her family stays with thousands of other Christians in the town of Kaga-Bandoro.

Sunday's election, even with its problems, marked a rare success in a country where more leaders have come to power through coups than through elections since independence from France in 1960. Though there was no major violence, many here in this town 330 kilometers (200 miles) north of the capital, Bangui, know the guns haven't disappeared altogether.

"We ask the new president to make disarmament his first priority," said Fidel Magonda, 48, as he collected cornmeal and split peas at a food distribution organized by the U.N. World Food Program and its local partners this week.

The church pastor has spent the past two years at a displacement camp with his wife and seven children in Kaga-Bandoro after Seleka fighters burned their home to the ground. And his concerns underscore the challenges that will face whoever ultimately wins the presidency: simmering tensions in the north, and hundreds of thousands of people displaced not only inside the country but living in camps in neighboring Chad, Cameroon and Congo.

The north of Central African Republic has long been a fief of Muslim rebel groups, each with its own four-letter French acronym. In 2013, several of them joined together as Seleka — the word for alliance in the local Sango language. They ultimately overthrew the president of a decade but their leader was forced to step aside after rebels committed scores of atrocities against Christian civilians during their brutal reign in power.

By late 2013, a largely Christian militia known as the anti-Balaka had arisen in opposition to Seleka forces, carrying out brutal attacks on Muslim civilians. The conflict has displaced nearly 1 million people — about half internally including those who have fled to Kaga-Bandoro from surrounding villages in the countryside.

"There needs to be a base level of security," said Lewis Mudge, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. "People need to have the security and the confidence to start to regain their lives. And most people that I am speaking to know that is not going to come simply with an election. The elections are not going to be the silver bullet that everyone wants them to be."

Hundreds of Seleka fighters regrouped here in Kaga-Bandoro along with Muslim civilians after fleeing the capital two years ago. Many ex-Seleka have reformed into a new group known by its French acronym — FRPC, or Popular Front for the Rebirth of Central African Republic — under the leadership of a former top Seleka official named Noureddine Adam.

Adam is believed to be in neighboring Chad despite being on a U.N. sanctions list that includes a travel ban and a freeze on his assets. These days his followers here are more likely to wear jeans and sandals than military gear.

His followers say they want to live in peace with Christians and the refugees should feel safe going home. But he says his men are tired of the country's north being marginalized by the government in Bangui, a complaint that has fueled rebellions long before the Seleka overthrow of the government.

Moussa Aboua Maoloud Baret, a local leader of the FRPC, says he sees little difference between the two candidates — both Christians, both former prime ministers who served under governments that didn't address the problems of the north.

"We are awaiting the results of this election that was imposed by the international community," he says. "We have no problems with the Christians — there are plenty of churches here and none have been destroyed. But we don't want to be marginalized. That is the problem."

Associated Press journalist Andrew Drake contributed to this report.

Blatter era ends as scandal-hit FIFA set to elect new leader

February 21, 2016

GENEVA (AP) — The Sepp Blatter era at FIFA is set to finally end Friday when soccer's scandal-scarred world body picks a new president after nine months of crisis. An election meeting designed to give FIFA a fresh start with a new leader could yet be overshadowed by its criminally corrupt past.

Voters return to Zurich this week unsure who is the next target of federal law enforcement agencies in the United States and Switzerland, who have sent FIFA into meltdown with waves of arrests, extraditions and guilty pleas.

Swiss prosecutors could decide this week is best to meet key witnesses in their widening case. Many soccer officials are making possibly their last working trip to Switzerland until May 2019, when the next scheduled FIFA election should be held in Zurich.

At the last election in May, Blatter won a fifth presidential term two days after FIFA's favored five-star hotel in Zurich and its own headquarters were raided. The pressure of criminal investigations soon forced Blatter from his beloved FIFA in his 41st year on the payroll.

Now, leaders of FIFA's 209 member federations visit the tiny Swiss city again to elect a successor for the now-banned 79-year-old who has been president since 1998. The winner will be just the fourth elected FIFA chief in more than 50 years.

Two front-runners have emerged in a five-candidate contest: Asia's soccer leader, Sheikh Salman of Bahrain, and Gianni Infantino, the Swiss general secretary of European governing body UEFA. The other candidates are: Former FIFA vice president Prince Ali of Jordan, who lost to Blatter in May; former FIFA official Jerome Champagne of France; and South African businessman Tokyo Sexwale, once an inmate of Robben Island prison with Nelson Mandela.

Infantino acknowledged that police could hit FIFA for the fourth time in nine months. "They know what is best for their work to be done in the most efficient way," Infantino told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "If I'm elected president of FIFA, what they can count on (is) not 100 but 200 percent with me to clean and to put anyone in jail who has done anything bad for football."

The three previous strikes — arresting seven men, including two FIFA vice presidents, on May 27; interrogating Blatter and former protege Michel Platini on Sept. 25; arresting two more FIFA vice presidents on Dec. 3 — were on days that FIFA's discredited executive committee met. It meets again Wednesday.

Sheikh Salman suggests government agencies have tried to influence FIFA politics. That view is shared by Blatter and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who claimed the U.S. wants the 2018 World Cup taken from his country.

"Choosing the time and place during an election or an (executive committee) meeting," Sheikh Salman told the AP this month of previous police raids, "I think this raises a lot of doubts on why, and leave people a bit suspicious on the intentions."

The Bahraini royal was "absolutely" sure FIFA did enough since May to deserve being left in peace this week. FIFA also hopes so, and aims to persuade the U.S. Department of Justice that it is a victim of systemic corruption and should not be indicted.

So, on Friday, the 209 members can also vote through wide-ranging reforms to restructure FIFA. These would dilute the president's authority, empower FIFA's staff and increase oversight by independent experts.

If FIFA was indicted, it would join 41 soccer and marketing officials, plus marketing agencies, who have been charged or pleaded guilty so far in the sprawling U.S. case. Blatter, who cannot be extradited from Switzerland, is a confirmed target.

American investigators have focused on bribery in North and South America valued at $200 million for awarding commercial rights for continental competitions. They also alleged cash-for-votes paid through a FIFA account linked to 2010 World Cup host South Africa.

Swiss prosecutors began by searching for money laundering in the 2018-2022 World Cup bid contests won by Russia and Qatar. Liaising with American counterparts, they went far beyond that brief to target all FIFA business.

Last September, a Swiss criminal case was opened against Blatter for mismanagement of FIFA money. It led FIFA's ethics committee to ban both Blatter and Platini for eight years. Verdicts in their appeals are expected Monday.

Even if barred from the election hall, Blatter has been an election factor taking calls from voters seeking advice, he told a French radio station this week. "Vote with your conscience. Vote for who you find good," said Blatter, who has criticized Infantino in interviews. They were born in neighboring villages in the Valais region.

Infantino's campaign has tempted voters with more: Expanding the World Cup from 32 to 40 teams to increase FIFA's $5 billion tournament income; bigger annual grants to national and continental bodies; new money for small regional groups.

Salman's manifesto is closer to Blatter's thinking though he promises a hands-off leadership style. Still, there is genuine warmth between the favorites. "I get along very well with him," Sheikh Salman said of Infantino. "He's a great guy."

Infantino has not directly criticized the sheikh, who led Bahrain's soccer federation during Arab Spring protests in 2011. Prince Ali did attack, saying Sheikh Salman cannot gain respect because he failed to protect Bahrain national team players who were detained for attending pro-democracy events. They later alleged torture by security forces.

In a potentially tight race, one theory has Prince Ali's voters holding the balance of power. A plausible scenario sees Sheikh Salman and Infantino with significant support in the first-round ballot, yet short of up to 140 votes needed for outright victory, and maybe fewer than the 105-plus tally which could persuade rivals to concede ahead of a second vote.

A late campaigning opportunity was in Manhattan on Sunday, at the draw for Copa America Centenario. That 16-nation tournament is central to bribery allegations in the DoJ indictment. By Wednesday, the election show is in downtown Zurich where FIFA will also open its $200 million museum this week.

Perhaps police and Blatter will join them.

Hubble Directly Measures Rotation of Cloudy 'Super-Jupiter'

Baltimore MD (SPX)
Feb 19, 2016

Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have measured the rotation rate of an extreme exoplanet by observing the varied brightness in its atmosphere. This is the first measurement of the rotation of a massive exoplanet using direct imaging.

"The result is very exciting," said Daniel Apai of the University of Arizona in Tucson, leader of the Hubble investigation. "It gives us a unique technique to explore the atmospheres of exoplanets and to measure their rotation rates."

The planet, called 2M1207b, is about four times more massive than Jupiter and is dubbed a "super-Jupiter." It is a companion to a failed star known as a brown dwarf, orbiting the object at a distance of 5 billion miles. By contrast, Jupiter is approximately 500 million miles from the Sun. The brown dwarf is known as 2M1207. The system resides 170 light-years away from Earth.

Hubble's image stability, high resolution, and high-contrast imaging capabilities allowed astronomers to precisely measure the planet's brightness changes as it spins. The researchers attribute the brightness variation to complex clouds patterns in the planet's atmosphere. The new Hubble measurements not only verify the presence of these clouds, but also show that the cloud layers are patchy and colorless.

Astronomers first observed the massive exoplanet 10 years ago with Hubble. The observations revealed that the exoplanet's atmosphere is hot enough to have "rain" clouds made of silicates: vaporized rock that cools down to form tiny particles with sizes similar to those in cigarette smoke. Deeper into the atmosphere, iron droplets are forming and falling like rain, eventually evaporating as they enter the lower levels of the atmosphere.

"So at higher altitudes it rains glass, and at lower altitudes it rains iron," said Yifan Zhou of the University of Arizona, lead author on the research paper. "The atmospheric temperatures are between about 2,200 to 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit."

The super-Jupiter is so hot that it appears brightest in infrared light. Astronomers used Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 to analyze the exoplanet in infrared light to explore the object's cloud cover and measure its rotation rate. The planet is hot because it is only about 10 million years old and is still contracting and cooling. For comparison, Jupiter in our solar system is about 4.5 billion years old.

The planet, however, will not maintain these sizzling temperatures. Over the next few billion years, the object will cool and fade dramatically. As its temperature decreases, the iron and silicate clouds will also form lower and lower in the atmosphere and will eventually disappear from view.

Zhou and his team have also determined that the super-Jupiter completes one rotation approximately every 10 hours, spinning at about the same fast rate as Jupiter.

This super-Jupiter is only about five to seven times less massive than its brown-dwarf host. By contrast, our Sun is about 1,000 times more massive than Jupiter. "So this is a very good clue that the 2M1207 system we studied formed differently than our own solar system," Zhou explained. The planets orbiting our Sun formed inside a circumstellar disk through accretion. But the super-Jupiter and its companion may have formed throughout the gravitational collapse of a pair of separate disks.

"Our study demonstrates that Hubble and its successor, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, will be able to derive cloud maps for exoplanets, based on the light we receive from them," Apai said. Indeed, this super-Jupiter is an ideal target for the Webb telescope, an infrared space observatory scheduled to launch in 2018. Webb will help astronomers better determine the exoplanet's atmospheric composition and derive detailed maps from brightness changes with the new technique demonstrated with the Hubble observations.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Hubble_Directly_Measures_Rotation_of_Cloudy_Super_Jupiter_999.html.

Astronomers take images of an exoplanet changing over time

Tucson AZ (SPX)
Feb 19, 2016

Using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers at the University of Arizona have taken the first direct, time-resolved images of an exoplanet. Their results were published in The Astrophysical Journal.

The young, gaseous exoplanet known as 2M1207b, located some 160 light-years from Earth, is four times the mass of Jupiter and orbits a failed star, known to astronomers as a brown dwarf. And while our solar system is 4.5 billion years in the making, 2M1207b is a mere ten million years old. Its days are short--less than 11 hours--and its temperature is hot--a blistering 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit. Its rain showers come in the form of liquid iron and glass.

The researchers, led by UA Department of Astronomy graduate student Yifan Zhou, were able to deduce the exoplanet's rotational period and better understand its atmospheric properties--including its patchy clouds--by taking 160 images of the target over the course of ten hours. Their work was made possible by the high resolution and high contrast imaging capabilities of Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3.

"Understanding the exoplanet's atmosphere was one of the key goals for us. This can help us understand how its clouds form and if they are homogenous or heterogeneous across the planet," said Zhou.

Before now, nobody had ever used 26-year-old Hubble to create time-resolved images of an exoplanet.

Even the largest telescope on Earth could not snap a sharp photo of a planet as far away as 2M1207b, so the astronomers created an innovative, new way to map its clouds without actually seeing them in sharp relief: They measured its changing brightness over time.

Daniel Apai, UA assistant professor of astronomy and planetary sciences, is the lead investigator of this Hubble program. He said, "The result is very exciting. It gives us a new technique to explore the atmospheres of exoplanets."

According to Apai, this new imaging technique provides a "method to map exoplanets" and is "an important step for understanding and placing our planets in context." Our Solar System has a relatively limited sampling of planets, and there is no planet as hot or as massive as 2M1207b within it.

Steward Observatory Astronomer Glenn Schneider and Lunar and Planetary Laboratory Professor Adam Showman coauthored the study.

"2M1207b is likely just the first of many exoplanets we will now be able to characterize and map," said Schneider.

"Do these exotic worlds have banded cloud patterns like Jupiter? How is the weather and climate on these extremely hot worlds similar to or different from that of the colder planets in our own solar system? Observations like these are key to answering these questions," said Showman.

Zhou and his collaborators began collecting data for this project in 2014. It began as a pilot study to demonstrate that space telescopes like Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope, which NASA will launch in late 2018, can be used to map clouds on other planets.

The success of this study lead to a new, larger program: Hubble's Cloud Atlas program for which Apai is also the lead investigator. As one of Hubble's largest exoplanet-focused programs, Cloud Atlas represents a collaboration between 14 experts from across the globe, who are now creating more time-resolved images of other planets using the space telescope.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Astronomers_take_images_of_an_exoplanet_changing_over_time_999.html.

Russia plans return to Mars, Moon despite money woes

By Maria Antonova
Moscow (AFP)
Feb 19, 2016

Visitors are rare these days to the museum of Russia's Space Research Institute in Moscow even though it holds gems like the model of the Soviet Lunokhod, the first ever space rover to land on the Moon, in 1970.

While the Cold War space race fired such cutting-edge projects, Russia's planetary exploration has stalled for the past three decades -- until now.

Under an ambitious plan with the European Space Agency (ESA), scientists have new hope of again sending missions to the Moon and to Mars.

"The last decade was truly difficult for us," the institute's director Lev Zeleny told AFP.

Among the biggest blunders was the tragic Phobos-Grunt probe, which in 2011 failed to reach its planned course to one of the moons of Mars and crashed back to Earth over the Pacific Ocean.

"But now the program is entering a new stage for this decade."

Next month, a Russian Proton rocket is scheduled to launch the first of two missions under ExoMars, a joint venture with the ESA, to snoop out possible life, past or present, to the red planet.

Zeleny's hopes are high that this will return Moscow to its glory days of space exploration -- if the project actually gets off the ground.

In the first mission, an orbital spacecraft will search for traces of methane in the atmosphere of Mars -- possible evidence of biological activity.

For the second part in 2018, Russian engineers are to build a complex landing system to drop an ESA-built Martian rover to the planet's surface, a platform not only to ensure a soft landing but also to serve as "a science lab in itself" for inspecting the landing site, said Zeleny.

"If we manage this, it will be a major breakthrough," he said.

- Financial limbo -

The ambitious plan, however, has caused jitters among some observers and is dismissed as a pipe dream by others.

In January, the ESA already warned that the 2018 mission could be delayed due to cash flow problems.

With the economic crisis, the Russian government is likewise pressed to make budget cuts and space exploration is far from one of its priorities.

The Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, is itself in financial limbo but went ahead and announced its program for the next decade in January, though the plan has yet to be confirmed, said Igor Marinin, editor of Space News magazine.

"Now there is no plan, so there is no financing and Roscosmos is taking out loans just to pay salaries," he told AFP. "For this reason, I'm skeptical, and I don't think we will make a good landing platform in the time that's left."

Roscosmos chief Igor Komarov last month admitted that Russia "does not have financial capabilities for advanced space projects."

He also complained that it was difficult to import some critical components, a problem caused by Western sanctions imposed over Moscow's intervention in Ukraine.

While sanctions "are not fatal," conceded Zeleny, they "are rather like an ant crawling under your collar -- they tickle and distract you."

Beyond the money issues, skeptics note that Russia has not carried out a Mars landing since the 1970s and a failure could destroy ESA's rover.

This would be disastrous since the ExoMars-2018 rover is "the most expensive European planetary spacecraft under development for almost two decades," said Anatoly Zak, the editor of RussianSpaceWeb.com, a website that tracks the country's space industry.

But if the landing does succeed, "it could serve as a model for the future cooperation with Europe in deep-space exploration," Zak said.

- Cooperation -

Zeleny has far-reaching plans for such cooperation, notably resuming Moon exploration which largely stopped in 1976 when the US and the Soviets focused on other parts of space.

He said Russia wants to help set up an international research base on the planet, where the absence of atmosphere or radio noise create perfect conditions for astronomers.

It hopes to launch a first mission by 2019 to explore the Moon's south pole, seen as a potential spot to set up a system of telescopes that humans would fly in and out to adjust in shifts. This would be "much like people working in the Arctic in Russia," said Zeleny, adding that some sort of "lunar dugouts" would have to be constructed to protect the moon visitors from cosmic rays.

Called Luna-25, the project would be the first such probe since Russia's Luna-24 discovered water on the Moon in 1976 -- and will pick up on the famous Soviet Luna series that was the first to land a spacecraft on the moon, in 1959.

Only the US landed men on the Moon, the first in 1969, and ended its program with the Apollo 17 space flight in 1972.

Back then, no expense was spared in the space race and "scientists reaped many benefits from the competition," Zeleny said.

But now the only way forward is to collaborate.

Zeleny said his institute recently resumed discussions with US colleagues about a joint mission to send "a long-term" landing craft to Venus, a project on hold since 2013 due to political frictions over Ukraine.

"Scientists have long been interested in this cooperation, but now it's finally supported by Roscosmos and NASA," Zeleny said.

Source: Mars Daily.
Link: http://www.marsdaily.com/reports/Russia_plans_return_to_Mars_Moon_despite_money_woes_999.html.

Fifty Drones Guarding Russian Nuclear Missile Assets

Moscow (Sputnik)
Feb 19, 2016

According to defense ministry, around 50 unmanned aerial vehicles are protecting the assets of Russia's Strategic Missile Forces.

Around 50 unmanned aerial vehicles are protecting the assets of Russia's Strategic Missile Forces (SMF), responsible for the country's nuclear arsenal, the defense ministry said Thursday.

"Around 50 UAVs are involved in operations to guard and protect SMF infrastructure," the Russian Defense Ministry press service told reporters.

The SMF command has identified measures to boost the security of Russia's nuclear stockpile against possible terrorist threats as a priority in 2016, the press office noted.

"To that end, an effort is being made to equip facilities with new security systems on a large scale," the ministry added.

Since 2013, Russian strategic missile facilities have been protected by a new mobile security robot called Taifun-M.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Fifty_Drones_Guarding_Russian_Nuclear_Missile_Assets_999.html.

Russian Helicopters strikes deals with China, Vietnam at Singapore Airshow

Changi, Singapore (UPI)
Feb 16, 2016

Russian Helicopters struck an agreement to sell nine helicopters to China and is reviewing helicopter repair and maintenance cooperation with Vietnam.

Under the signed contracts with China, Russian Helicopters will supply seven Ka-32A11BC and two Mi171 helicopters to various Chinese entities. The Ka-32A11BC is a multi-role helicopter designed to operate in urban, mountainous and forested environments. They can also be used for search-and-rescue and firefighting missions.

"Our multirole helicopters can perform any task in various climates and weather conditions," Russian Helicopters CEO Alexander Mikheev said.

In addition, Russian Helicopters is reviewing potential plans to conduct Mi-8/17 military helicopter repairs at the joint Russo-Vietnamese venture HELITECHCO. The company is scheduled to perform a technical audit of the venture to check its compliance to perform maintenance and repairs for the aircraft.

Russian Helicopters aftersales service deputy CEO Igor Chechikov says the operations will involve re-equipping the venture and more training for their specialists. HELITECHCO has been used to repair civilian helicopters since it was founded in 1994.

The company added that the Vietnamese delegation has also showed interest in purchasing the Ansat helicopters for training purposes.

The agreements were made during the 2016 Singapore Airshow, a biennial event where defense and aerospace contractors showcase their products. Russian Helicopters is part of the Russian state-owned Rostec corporation.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Russian_Helicopters_strikes_deals_with_China_Vietnam_at_Singapore_Airshow_999.html.

4 dead in protests for caste benefits in northern India

February 20, 2016

NEW DELHI (AP) — Hundreds of army and paramilitary soldiers on Saturday tried to quell protests by angry mobs demanding government benefits in a northern Indian state, with at least four people killed in clashes between security forces and protesters, officials said.

The violence raged for a second straight day, as protesters burned a railroad station and attacked shops and vehicles in several towns in Haryana state, said police officer Y.P. Singhal. Protesters also blocked a highway linking New Delhi to key northern cities, he said, adding that authorities ordered police to fire without warning at those instigating violence.

Authorities used helicopters to bring in army soldiers to the worst-hit districts of Rohtak, Bhiwani and Jhajjar, where curfews were in place, Singhal said. Four people were killed in clashes between security forces and protesters, said Federal Rural Development Minister Chaudhary Birender Singh. Police said 78 other people have been injured since Friday.

The protesters were driven by members of the Jat agricultural community, who are demanding benefits both at the federal and state levels, including guaranteed government jobs or university spots. Talks Friday between community leaders and state government representatives failed to lead to an agreement.

India's constitution includes a system of affirmative action for people in the lowest castes to help them overcome discrimination. The government has expanded the number of groups, including the Jat, qualifying for quotas.