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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

UNICEF: 310,000 Syrian children are enrolled in Turkish schools

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Of the 1,400,000 Syrian children living in Turkey, 310,000 are enrolled in Turkish schools, UNICEF announced yesterday.

In a statement issued, the organization said: "UNICEF strives to provide high-quality educational opportunities for Syrian children who fled from the horrors of war in their country."

"The number of schools that the UNICEF have contributed to in collaboration with the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Department and the Turkish Ministry of Education rose to 41 schools in 12 Turkish states," stressing that it is determined to continue its support for the establishment and restoration of other schools, caring for teachers, and providing for the needs of children.

The statement stressed on the focus on children's psychological and social well-being, pointing out that 50,000 children have benefited from psychological and social programs.

It added that it also supports Syrian volunteer teachers in Turkey.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/europe/24428-unicef-310000-syrian-children-are-enrolled-in-turkish-schools.

Trafficked Nepali, Bangladeshi women trapped in Syria

Murali Bhanjyang, Nepal (AFP)
March 13, 2016

Nepali villager Sunita Magar thought she was heading to a safe factory job in Kuwait, but only when she landed in Damascus did she realize "something had gone very wrong".

Frequently beaten with a baton and given only one meal a day, Magar says she spent 13 months working as a maid for a Syrian household and pleading to be allowed to go home.

"I was just in shock, I couldn't stop crying," the single mother-of-two told AFP.

Magar is among scores of poor Nepali and Bangladeshi women who traveled to the Middle East on the promise of a good job, only to be trafficked into Syria, wracked by five years of civil war.

Nepal's top diplomat in the region said nationals from the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries, which, like Nepal and Bangladesh, have large migrant labor populations, stopped working in Syria because of the dangers involved.

"Since then traffickers have been targeting Nepalis," said Kaushal Kishor Ray, head of Nepal's diplomatic mission based in Cairo.

"The numbers have gone up hugely in recent years, we estimate there must be around 500 Nepali women in Syria," Ray told AFP.

In nearby Bangladesh, Shahinoor Begum lies in a Dhaka hospital bed recovering from her seven-month ordeal after being trafficked into Syria as a sex slave.

"I was sold to a Syrian man who tortured and raped me every day, sometimes along with his friends," Begum, also a single mother-of-two, said.

"I begged for mercy, but they didn't have any. Instead they used to beat me so badly that I broke my arms," she told AFP.

Accompanied by labor agents, the 28-year-old and several other women left Bangladesh on the promise of working as maids in Jordan.

But they too were taken to Syria, where fighting between the regime and rebel forces has left more than 260,000 dead and displaced more than half the population.

Begum eventually developed kidney disease, prompting traffickers to contact her ageing mother to demand money for her safe return home.

Lieutenant Colonel Golam Sarwar said his team from Bangladesh's elite Rapid Action Battalion are investigating her case and two others -- although families of 43 other women have lodged similar complaints.

"Bangladesh is apparently a soft target for the traffickers," Sarwar told AFP.

- 'Always afraid' -

Criminal networks target nationals from Nepal and Bangladesh in part because their governments have little diplomatic influence in the region and no embassy in Syria.

A Nepal government ban on migrant workers travelling to Syria has failed to stop the traffickers, an International Labor Organization (ILO) official said.

"Nepal's government thinks a ban is the easiest solution, it basically allows them to wipe their hands of the issue," said Bharati Pokharel, ILO national project coordinator in Kathmandu.

"India has much more diplomatic clout than Nepal or Bangladesh and traffickers are aware of this. They know Nepal is weak and that they will face no legal action for their activities," Pokharel told AFP.

Illiterate, trusting and desperate to dig herself out of poverty, Magar didn't hesitate when a labor broker approached her with a promise of a well-paid job in Kuwait. The 23-year-old says she didn't realize she had been duped until the plane landed in Damascus.

"I was always exhausted, always hungry, always afraid," Magar said of working 20 hours a day for no pay and sleeping on her employer's penthouse balcony.

At night, she listened to Nepali songs to try to drown out occasional sounds of gunfire and bombs and chase away thoughts of suicide.

- Corrupt officials -

When a massive earthquake hit Nepal last April, Magar stepped up pleas to her employers, who had confiscated her passport, to return home.

They contacted the broker who then demanded payment from Magar's family to ensure her release. Her mother then highlighted the case to local newspapers, kicking off a social media campaign. Expat Nepalis as far afield as Finland and Hong Kong raised $3,800 to pay off her employers.

Magar, who finally arrived in Kathmandu in August, counts herself among the lucky few to have escaped.

Rohit Kumar Neupane's aunt was trafficked to Damascus last spring. She alerted her family via Facebook a few months later, prompting Neupane to repeatedly seek help from government officials without success.

A foreign ministry official said Neupane's request had been forwarded to its overworked embassy in Cairo, which covers nine countries including Syria.

"Frankly, we are not in a position to manage these cases from Cairo...what we need is precautionary action to prevent them from coming to Syria in the first place," said diplomat Ray.

But an apparent nexus between local labor brokers involved in trafficking and corrupt Nepali officials means they operate freely, according to experts.

"Even in the rare instance that a case is filed, it will just drag on with no possibility of resolution or a guilty verdict," said Krishna Gurung, project coordinator at Kathmandu's Pourakhi emergency shelter house for female migrant workers.

In her village of Murali Bhanjyang in central Nepal, Magar has little hope of seeing the traffickers brought to justice.

"I still have nightmares about that time...I start crying in my sleep," she said.

"Sometimes it feels like none of this is real, like I am back on that balcony in Syria, dreaming of Nepal."

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Trafficked_Nepali_Bangladeshi_women_trapped_in_Syria_999.html.

Lebanon running out of space to bury the bodies of Syrian refugees

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Syrian refugees are struggling to find space in Lebanon to bury their dead, according to Sheikh Wesam Anuz, chairman of the displaced file for Lebanon’s Religious Edicts Authority in the Bekaa Valley.

Anuz said in a statement that although there are no official figures on the number of deaths among displaced Syrian refugees, the number is on the rise.

He explained that villages in the Bekaa Valley welcome the refugees and are happy to have the dead buried in their local cemeteries but he said there is a lack of space in the area.

Anuz explained that on three occasions Syrian refugees have had to abandon the bodies of their loved ones outside the offices of the Religious Edicts Authority in the Bekaa Valley because they had nowhere to bury them.

Anuz said that the majority of the dead are elderly people, while others have died as a result of road accidents, fires or during snowstorms.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/24421-lebanon-running-out-of-space-to-bury-the-bodies-of-syrian-refugees.

N. Korea's Kim warns of impending nuclear and rocket tests

March 15, 2016

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has warned of impending tests of a nuclear warhead explosion and ballistic missiles capable of carrying atomic warheads, state media reported Tuesday, in an escalation of threats against Seoul and Washington.

The warning came as North Korea said it had made a breakthrough in its pursuit of a long-range missile capable of striking the U.S. mainland. South Korea says the North has yet to develop a functioning inter-continental ballistic missile.

Kim issued the order for the tests "in a short time," according to the Korean Central News Agency. The KCNA report did not say if Kim gave specific dates for the tests. It is not clear if the tests would happen soon, given that any tests would likely invite harsher international sanctions after the country was hit by the toughest U.N. Security Council sanctions in two decades in early March for a nuclear test and long-range rocket launch conducted earlier this year.

Some of the North's recent rhetoric was seen intended for a domestic audience to display government strength ahead of a major meeting of the ruling party in May. In the past, North Korea has typically conducted nuclear tests and rocket launches every three to four years.

Even if the tests happen, analysts in Seoul said the nuclear warhead explosion that Kim referred to will likely be just a test of a warhead containing only a trigger device but lacking plutonium or uranium. They said the North could also launch shorter-range missiles, but not one with an intercontinental range.

Pyongyang, known for its trademark fiery rhetoric in times of tension with the outside world, has been stepping up its threats after Washington and Seoul last week began annual military drills that the North views as an invasion rehearsal. The drills, set to run until late April, are the largest ever.

Last Wednesday, North Korea's main newspaper printed photos of what appeared to be a mock-up of nuclear warhead. State media on Friday quoted Kim as having ordered more nuclear explosion tests but again didn't say when they would occur.

Kim said "a nuclear warhead explosion test and a test-fire of several kinds of ballistic rockets able to carry nuclear warheads will be conducted in a short time to further enhance the reliance of the nuclear-attack capability," KCNA reported.

He made the comments while guiding a successful simulated test of a re-entry vehicle, which is needed to return a warhead safely back into the Earth's atmosphere from a long-range missile launch. Information from secretive, authoritarian North Korea is often impossible to confirm and there is virtually no way to check how genuine its claims are on developing re-entry vehicle technology.

Seoul's Defense Ministry described North Korea's claims as "unilateral," saying the country has not developed re-entry vehicle technology. Spokesman Moon Sang Gyun said the assessment is based on an analysis of South Korean and U.S. intelligence. He declined to elaborate.

Analyst Lee Choon Geun at South Korea's state-funded Science and Technology Policy Institute said the North might put an empty warhead on a rocket and test-fire it to see if the warhead survives the re-entry and detonates as planned.

While the North might test-fire shorter-range missiles with ranges of 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) or less, it is unlikely that it would test a rocket with intercontinental range as that would probably have to fly over neighboring countries, said Jin Moo Kim, an analyst at the government-funded Korea Institute for Defense Analysis in Seoul.

Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.

China to establish international maritime judicial center

Beijing (AFP)
March 13, 2016

China will establish an international maritime judicial center, a report from the country's top court said Sunday, as it seeks to shore up territorial claims to the South and East China Sea at the center of a growing regional dispute.

The decision comes as an international tribunal prepares to decide a case related to the country's claims in the South China Sea, where it has built a series of artificial islands capable of hosting military facilities.

Beijing has refused to participate in the arbitration brought by the Philippines in hopes of settling competing territorial claims in the region, where China has made sweeping assertions of sovereignty.

The new maritime judicial center will help China "implement its strategy of becoming a powerful maritime country", Zhou Qiang, head of the Supreme People's Court, said in a report to the annual session of the Communist-controlled National People's Congress (NPC) legislature.

The center, Zhou said, will "resolutely defend" China's "national sovereignty, maritime rights and interests, and other core interests".

The country already has a system of maritime courts, which have adjudicated more than 225,000 cases since 1984, the Supreme Court's spokesperson said last year.

Zhou's comments provided no details about how the new center would differ from the existing institutions.

China has long-standing disputes over maritime territory in the East and South China Sea, where it has aggressively pursued its claims through an increasingly muscular military posture.

In recent years, the waters of the South China Sea have become the stage for a tussle for dominance between Beijing and Washington, the world's two largest economic and military powers.

China has never clearly defined its claims to the strategic region through which about a third of all the world's traded oil passes.

The Philippines and several other littoral states have competing claims in the region, as does Taiwan.

Manilla's decision to take its dispute with China to an international tribunal based in the Hague has infuriated Beijing, which insists the matter is outside the court's remit.

A ruling on the matter is expected before May.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/China_to_establish_international_maritime_judicial_centre_999.html.

Ukrainians rally to demand Russia release Savchenko

March 06, 2016

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — About 2,000 people rallied on Independence Square in Kiev on Sunday to demand that Russia release Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, with hundreds then marching to the Russian Embassy to vent their anger by throwing eggs and rocks at the building.

Savchenko was captured in June 2014 while fighting with a Ukrainian volunteer battalion against Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. She is now on trial in Russia, accused of acting as a spotter who called in coordinates for a mortar attack that killed two Russian journalists and several other civilians.

After Sunday's rally, several hundred protesters reached the Russian Embassy, where they burned a Russian flag and threw eggs at the building and at an effigy of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which had a sign reading "killer" around its neck. One man wearing camouflage climbed over the fence and threw a rock through the window above the door.

Police were on the scene, but didn't intervene. On Saturday night, the Russian Embassy said it was attacked by men in camouflage armed with baseball bats, who badly damaged three embassy vehicles and threw smoke bombs. The embassy said it sent a formal note of protest to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry.

Savchenko declared a hunger strike on Thursday after the judge adjourned the trial for a week without allowing her to give her final statement. Her sister, Vera Savchenko, said at the rally they are monitoring her condition.

Prosecutors have asked for Savchenko to be found guilty and sentenced to 23 years in prison. A verdict is expected later this week.

Poles protest as govt refuses to accept adverse court ruling

March 12, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Thousands rallied in Warsaw and other Polish cities Saturday to protest the conservative government's refusal to accept a constitutional court ruling that strikes down government changes that have paralyzed the court.

A woman shows a copy of Poland's constitution as thousands of protesters gathered in front of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal to protest government moves that have paralyzed the nation’s highest legislative court. in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, March 12, 2016.

The protests come amid a deepening political crisis, with international organizations and the Constitutional Tribunal faulting Poland's new government for centralizing its power. The Law and Justice party government, however, insists it has a mandate from voters for its actions.

In the capital, a large crowd rallied in front of the Constitutional Tribunal and then marched across town to the presidential palace with a banner reading, "Let's bring back the constitutional order." City Hall estimated that 50,000 people took part while police put the number at 15,000.

The protests, also staged in Poznan and Wroclaw, aimed to show support for the beleaguered court and to urge the government to roll back changes that have undermined the court's ability to act as a check on government power.

Critics call the government's moves an attack on Polish democracy, which was won thanks to years of struggle by Lech Walesa and his Solidarity movement in the 1980s. But the government, which remains popular with conservative voters, announced Saturday it still is refusing to publish a ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal that struck down the amendments passed in December that have blocked the court. The move prevents the ruling from becoming binding.

The announcement by spokesman Rafal Bochenek indicates a resolution is still nowhere in sight. The left-wing Together party, which has protested in front of the prime minister's office for several days, was holding a public reading of the constitution later Saturday.

On Friday, the Venice Commission, an expert body with the Council of Europe human rights group, said Poland's democracy is being threatened by government moves that have "crippled" its constitutional court. It said refusing to publish the court's ruling violates the rule of law.

Bochenek said the commission's opinion would be sent to parliament so all political sides could seek a resolution. The government, however, denies that democracy is threatened. "Democracy is fine, very fine," said Beata Kempa, a leading official in the government of Prime Minister Beata Szydlo. "We don't send police with bullets against people. They are allowed to express their views here."

US, Colombian militaries eye a post-conflict future

Bogota (AFP)
March 13, 2016

Now that a historic peace accord with leftist FARC guerrillas could be signed within weeks, Colombia's government is eager to ensure ties to the US military endure in a post-conflict future.

President Juan Manuel Santos this week rolled out the red carpet for the Pentagon's top officer, General Joe Dunford, honoring him with three ceremonies during a brief visit to Bogota.

The question looming over the fanfare is how the relationship between Colombia and its top military partner will evolve after Bogota and the FARC finally strike a deal ending five decades of conflict.

Since 1999, a US program called Plan Colombia has seen about $10 billion in military aid flow to Colombia's security services, fortifying the state against well-armed and well-funded drug cartels and rebel groups, chief among them the FARC.

US military academies have trained Colombian troops, and major arms deals have ensured the Colombian military is a well-equipped, modern fighting force.

Speaking to reporters after his trip Thursday, Dunford said Colombia's leaders stressed the importance of military ties.

"Their main message today was, 'Hey look, you can't look past us, it's not over,'" Dunford said on a flight from Colombia to the US military's Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) in Florida.

"Please don't think now you can take your eye off of Colombia, the most important part of the campaign is winning the peace, and that starts with the accord, it doesn't end," Dunford recounted his Colombian partners as saying.

- 'Peace Colombia' -

US President Barack Obama last month announced a $450 million plan to fund Colombia's peace process, highlighting a new focus on post-conflict realities.

A March 23 deadline had been set for the peace talks to conclude, designed to bring to an end a five-decade conflict that has killed more than 260,000 people and displaced 6.6 million others. But Santos on Thursday said more time was needed.

Hailed in Washington as a bipartisan success story, Plan Colombia was launched by president Bill Clinton and continued by his Republican successor George W. Bush.

Colombia had been so plagued by drug violence and corruption that officials say it was almost a failed state, and they credit Plan Colombia with an instrumental role in its turnaround.

"If you look at where Colombia was in the mid-1990s and you look at where they are today... they are a solid democracy in South America, they are a force for stability in the region and they are now also contributing broadly in the international community ... so yes, it was worth it," Dunford said.

But the policy has also been fiercely criticized inside Colombia and by rights groups, who say it made internecine conflict bloodier and left a trail of abuses.

Obama wants to recast Plan Colombia as "Peace Colombia."

Cash would still be available for the military and counternarcotics, but the focus will shift to demobilizing rebels and reintegrating them into society, as well as clearing mines from vast tracts of remote land and boosting humanitarian assistance.

Colombia plans on increasing from 14 to 196 the number of military platoons -- each with about 40 troops -- dedicated to removing mines from an area the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined.

SOUTHCOM expert William Clark said the mines are hard to find because they are not usually made of metal.

"These are improvised mines, these are plastic bottles with chemicals -- with a syringe and a pressure plate -- so when you step on it, the chemicals mix and explode," Clark said.

The United States is also casting a wary eye over recent increases in cocaine production, and the fate of some 7,000 FARC fighters after peace takes hold.

Some will join drug trafficking groups, but Colombia has developed a reintegration program in which FARC fighters -- many of whom were kidnapped as children and know only guerrilla life -- receive an education and job training.

"Quite frankly, they don't know how to operate in a modern society. But they do know how to kill for what they want and they are extremely efficient at it," SOUTHCOM spokesman Master Sergeant Joshua Hobson said.

"That's why building partner capacity is so important to us."

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/US_Colombian_militaries_eye_a_post-conflict_future_999.html.

Netanyahu vows to close Palestinian satellite channels

Monday, 14 March 2016

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday vowed to close Palestinian satellite channels, accusing them of inciting against Israel.

At the opening of the Israeli Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said: "We are working against satellite channels that encourage the killing of Israelis, so I spoke over the weekend with the French President Francois Hollande on this subject."

Netanyahu added: "I previously requested from the French president to stop broadcasting Al-Aqsa TV channel which broadcasts through French satellite, and the channel was indeed removed from these satellites, but this channel returned to broadcasting through another satellite, we are working in other places and through other channels in order to halt these broadcasts."

Al-Aqsa TV announced last Friday that the Eutelsat ceased its broadcast before announcing its new frequency on the same satellite.

The offices of the satellite channel Palestine Al Yawm were shut down early on Friday by the Israeli army. The office manager was arrested.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/24484-netanyahu-vows-to-close-palestinian-satellite-channels.

Permanent Lunar Colony Possible in 10 Years

Moscow (Sputnik)
Mar 15, 2016

Living on the Moon may become a reality sooner than anticipated as astrophysicists have assessed that a permanent lunar base is logistically feasible for humans - and could be built in less than a decade.

Scientific papers released after a 2014 high-profile astronomical workshop suggest that a fully operational base could be constructed by 2022. The base would be a breakthrough for space exploration and would open the pathway for the commercial development of space.

A key point, according to the papers, is that a permanent lunar base does not have to financially ruin a state or corporation. Experts estimate that putting humans on the moon would cost less than $10 billion, a surprisingly low amount considering the expense of space exploration in the past. The Apollo space program, for instance, was completed for some $150 billion, adjusted for inflation to today's dollars.

Chris McKay, a NASA astrobiologist and one of the organizers of the workshop, explained that price cuts are now possible due to the rapid development of new technologies, ending highly specialized and expensive development in the logistics of space exploration.

"The big takeaway," McKay said as cited by Popular Science, "is that new technologies, some of which have nothing to do with space - like self-driving cars and waste-recycling toilets - are going to be incredibly useful in space, and are driving down the cost of a moon base to the point where it might be easy to do."

In its first phase, the exploration would be fully automated, the papers suggest. Robots, whimsically dubbed "MoonCats," based on the ubiquitous Bobcat earth excavators, could be used to prepare landing pads and habitat. Other robots could be engaged in setting up solar panels.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket could be used for carrying small payloads and small crews to the moon. Over time, missions would steadily grow, eventually turning a station into a larger settlement, with room for hundreds of people.

To make a station habitable, technologies similar to the life support systems currently used on the International Space Station (ISS) can be implemented.

"We have access to sufficient life support technologies to support implementation of the first human settlement on the Moon today," one paper reads, referring to ISS life support systems that recycle water and balance oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.

Some necessary space exploration technologies are yet to be implemented, including SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, a rocket designed to lift large payloads, like lunar habitats, into orbit.

Major Challenges

Lunar colonists face many challenges, including power, communications, resources and surface mobility. Picking the right site for a base is particularly key, as there are no significant energy supplies during the regular two-week intervals of no sunlight. Most of the moon has 15 day-long "nights," that would be difficult to survive relying only on power batteries that use currently available technology. A possible option, according to the papers, would be to locate the base on one of the lunar poles, which receive increased sunlight.

Of the two poles, the north is more appealing, as it has smoother terrain more suitable for construction. Experts point to the rim of Peary Crater on the North Pole of the moon as a top spot to set up the first lunar station.

Another point in favor of this site is the proximity of many dark craters thought to contain frozen water.

Moon or Mars

Despite the feasibility of moon exploration, NASA is currently focused on its Mars program. Scientists behind the papers say that NASA resources would more appropriately be used in setting up a moon colony.

Paul Spudis, a senior scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute at the Universities Space Research Association, earlier suggested that a lunar base, with "transport vehicles, staging nodes, deep-space habitats, power stations and fuel depots" could be a blueprint for future Mars colonization.

Moreover, he suggested, a lunar base could pay for itself in a foreseeable future, and, if it is economically required, show a profit.

"Some of the possible export options include: water from the permanently shadowed craters, precious metals from asteroid impact sites, and even [helium-3] that could fuel a pollution-free terrestrial civilization for many centuries," one of the papers offered. "As transportation to and from the Moon becomes more frequent and cheaper, the lunar tourism mark should begin to emerge and could become a significant source of income in the future."

Additionally such major powers as China and Russia are actively exploring the moon and the US must keep up with them so as to not lose technological momentum.

Psychological Barrier

Organizations, including those of government and business, are not yet psychologically prepared to bring the resources to bear for the realization of a lunar colony.

"The biggest obstacle is getting everybody together, and getting a vision of a low-cost base as the starting point. If people think it's going to kill the budget, that just stops the conversation and brainstorming. If we can change the mindset, that starts the conversation and gets people thinking about how to make it a reality," McKay said.

Source: Moon Daily.
Link: http://www.moondaily.com/reports/Permanent_Lunar_Colony_Possible_in_10_Years_999.html.

Launch of Dragon Spacecraft to ISS Postponed Until April

Washington DC (SPX)
Mar 15, 2016

The launch of the Dragon free-flying spacecraft to the International Space Station has been postponed until April, Administrator of US National Aeronautics and Space Administration Charles Bolden said on Thursday.

The announcement was made during the NASA Fiscal Year 2017 Budget meeting, as Bolden testified at a hearing on the budget proposal.

Dragon is a spacecraft developed by SpaceX, a US private space transportation company. Dragon is launched into space by the SpaceX Falcon 9 two-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle.

Initially, the launch of the Dragon was scheduled for August 2015, but shortly before that a Falcon 9 rocket crashed during an attempt to send Dragon into orbit. Following the incident, Flacon 9 launches were resumed, but the Dragon mission has been repeatedly postponed.

Last week, after four cancellations, a Falcon 9 rocket failed to perform a successful drone ship landing.

Late last year, NASA expanded its partnership with SpaceX by awarding five additional cargo missions to the ISS, adding to the 15 previous assigned missions.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Launch_of_Dragon_Spacecraft_to_ISS_Postponed_Until_April_999.html.

Rocket blasts off on Russia-Europe mission seeking life on Mars

Baikonur, Kazakhstan (AFP)
March 14, 2016

A joint European-Russian mission aiming to search for traces of life on Mars left Earth's orbit Monday at the start of a seven-month unmanned journey to the Red Planet, space agency managers said.

The Proton rocket carrying the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) to examine Mars' atmosphere and a descent module that will conduct a test landing on its surface had earlier launched from the Russian-operated Baikonur cosmodrome in the Kazakh steppe at 0931 GMT.

The spacecraft detached from its Briz-M rocket booster just after 2000 GMT before beginning its 496-million-kilometer (308-million-mile) voyage through the cosmos, the European Space Agency (ESA) said.

At 2129 GMT the probe and the lander, dubbed Schiaparelli, sent "signals confirming that the launch had gone well and that the space vehicle is in good condition" ESA said in a statement later Monday.

The TGO probe "is alive and talking," ESA said on Twitter.

The ExoMars 2016 mission, a collaboration between the ESA and its Russian equivalent Roscosmos, is the first part of a two-phase exploration aiming to answer questions about the existence of life on Earth's neighbor.

The TGO will examine methane around Mars while the lander, Schiaparelli, will detach and descend to the surface of the fourth planet from the Sun.

The landing of the module on Mars is designed as a trial run ahead of the planned second stage of the mission in 2018 that will see the first European rover land on the surface to drill for signs of life, although problems with financing mean it could be delayed.

'Nose in space'

One key goal of the TGO is to analyse methane, a gas which on Earth is created in large part by living microbes, and traces of which were observed by previous Mars missions.

"TGO will be like a big nose in space," said Jorge Vago, ExoMars project scientist.

Methane, ESA said, is normally destroyed by ultraviolet radiation within a few hundred years, which implied that in Mars' case "it must still be produced today".

TGO will analyse Mars' methane in more detail than any previous mission, said ESA, in order to try to determine its likely origin.

One component of TGO, a neutron detector called FREND, can help provide improved mapping of potential water resources on Mars, amid growing evidence the planet once had as much if not more water than Earth.

A better insight into water on Mars could aid scientists' understanding of how the Earth might cope in conditions of increased drought.

Schiaparelli, in turn, will spend several days measuring climatic conditions including seasonal dust storms on the Red Planet while serving as a test lander ahead of the rover's anticipated arrival.

The module takes its name from 19th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli whose discovery of "canals" on Mars caused people to believe, for a while, that there was intelligent life on our neighboring planet.

The ExoMars spacecraft was built and designed by Franco-Italian contractor Thales Alenia Space.

'Need more money'

As for the next phase of ExoMars, ESA director general Jan Woerner has mooted a possible two-year delay, saying in January: "We need some more money" due to cost increases.

The rover scheduled for 2018 has been designed to drill up to two meters (around seven feet) into the Red Planet in search of organic matter, a key indicator of life past or present.

ESA said the rover landing "remains a significant challenge" however.

Although TGO's main science mission is scheduled to last until December 2017, it has enough fuel to continue operations for years after, if all goes well.

Thomas Reiter, director of human spaceflight at ESA, said in televised remarks ahead of the launch he believed a manned mission to Mars would take place "maybe in 20 years or 30 years".

Russian-American duo Mikhail Kornienko and Scott Kelly earlier this month returned from a year-long mission at the International Space Station seen as a vital precursor to such a mission.

The ExoMars mission will complement the work of NASA's "Curiosity" rover which has spent more than three years on the Red Planet as part of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission.

Curiosity, a car-sized mobile laboratory, aims to gather soil and rock samples on Mars and analyse them "for organic compounds and environmental conditions that could have supported life now or in the past," according to NASA.

Space has been one of the few areas of cooperation between Moscow and the West that has not been damaged by ongoing geopolitical tensions stemming from the crises in Ukraine and Syria.

Source: Mars Daily.
Link: http://www.marsdaily.com/reports/Rocket_blasts_off_on_Russia-Europe_mission_seeking_life_on_Mars_999.html.

Putin orders start of Russian military pullout from Syria

March 14, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to withdraw most of its forces from Syria, timing his move to coincide with the launch of Syria peace talks Monday — an end game that allows the Russian leader to cash in on his gains and reduce his risks in the conflict.

The start of the negotiations in Geneva offers Putin an opportune moment to declare an official end to the 5½-month Russian air campaign that has allowed Syrian President Bashar Assad's army to win back some key ground and strengthen his positions ahead of the talks. With Russia's main goals in Syria achieved, the pullback will allow Putin to pose as a peacemaker and help ease tensions with NATO member Turkey and the Gulf monarchies vexed by Moscow's military action.

At the same time, Putin made it clear that Russia will maintain its air base and a naval facility in Syria and keep some troops there. Syria's state news agency also quoted Assad as saying that the Russian military will draw down its air force contingent but won't leave the country altogether.

The Syrian presidency said Assad and Putin spoke on the phone Monday and jointly agreed that Russia would scale back its forces in Syria. It rejected speculation that the decision reflected a rift between the allies and said the decision reflected the "successes" the two armies have achieved in fighting terrorism in Syria and restoring peace to key areas of the country.

The Syrian army said it would continue its operations against the Islamic State group, the Nusra Front and other terrorist organizations "with the same tempo." Announcing his decision in a televised meeting with Russia's foreign and defense ministries, Putin said the Russian air campaign has allowed Assad's military to "radically" turn the tide of war and helped create conditions for peace talks.

"With the tasks set before the Defense Ministry and the military largely fulfilled, I'm ordering the Defense Minister to start the pullout of the main part of our group of forces from Syria, beginning tomorrow," Putin said.

He also informed President Barack Obama of his move in a phone call, emphasizing the importance of U.S.-Russian coordination "for preserving the cease-fire, ensuring humanitarian aid deliveries to the blockaded settlements and conducting an efficient struggle against terrorist groups," according to the Kremlin, which added that the conversation was "business-like and frank."

Putin didn't specify how many planes and troops would be withdrawn. The number of Russian soldiers in Syria has not been revealed. U.S. estimates of the number of Russian military personnel in Syria vary from 3,000 to 6,000.

Russia has deployed more than 50 jets and helicopters to its Hemeimeem air base, in Syria's coastal province of Latakia, and they have operated at a frenetic pace, each flying several combat sorties on an average day. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to Putin that thanks to the Russian air support the Syrian military has extended its control to 400 towns and villages over an area of 10,000 square kilometers.

State TV quoted Assad as saying that the collaboration between Russian and Syrian forces has secured "victories against terrorism and returned security to the country." A White House statement said Obama welcomed Russia's move, but also noted continued sporadic violence and urged Putin to pressure the Syrian regime to stop offensive actions that could undermine the fragile truce.

The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who restarted peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition in Geneva on Monday, said he had no comment on Putin's announcement when contacted by The Associated Press.

Earlier in the day, he warned that the only alternative to the negotiations is a return to war, and described political transition in the country as "the mother of all issues." The Russian- and U.S.-brokered cease-fire that began on Feb. 27 has largely held, but both the Syrian government and its foes have accused one another of violations. The deal with Washington has achieved a key Putin goal: raising Russia's global profile to appear as an equal to the United States in mediating the Syrian conflict that has dominated global attention.

The Islamic State group and al-Qaida's branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, are excluded from the cease-fire and Russia has said it would continue its fight against the groups considered terrorists by the United Nations.

A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, said the Russians in recent days have been pounding IS targets in and around the western approaches to the city of Palmyra, which is firmly in IS control. Davis said this has been a Russian focus since the cessation of hostilities began.

Officials said Monday they saw no immediate sign of any pullout. Although Putin's announcement caught Pentagon officials by surprise, officials have said they had questioned how long the Russian air campaign would last based on the fact that they were not making regular troop rotations.

Syrian opposition spokesman Salem Al Mislet, in Geneva, cautiously welcomed Putin's move, but urged the Russian leader to withdraw his support for Assad. "If this step, this action will remove all Russian troops from Syria then it will be a positive step, I believe," he said, adding that Putin should follow up on that "by saying he is standing beside the Syrian people, not beside the Syrian dictatorship."

Moments before meeting with a Syrian government envoy in Geneva, de Mistura laid out both high stakes and low expectations for what is shaping up as the most promising initiative in years to end the conflict that moves into its sixth year on Tuesday. At least a quarter of a million people have been killed and half of Syria's population has been displaced, flooding Europe with refugees.

The truce, however, has helped vastly reduce the bloodshed and allowed the recent resumption of humanitarian aid deliveries to thousands of Syrians in "besieged areas" — zones surrounded by fighters and generally cut off from the outside world.

De Mistura laid out a stark choice for Syrian parties in the talks, saying: "As far as I know, the only plan B available is return to war — and to even worse war than we had so far." The two sides are deeply split on Assad's future. His foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said Saturday that any talk of removing Assad during a transitional period sought by the U.N. is "a red line," and rejected the international call for a presidential election to be held within 18 months — a key demand of the opposition.

But de Mistura, keeping to language laid out in the U.N. Security Council resolution in December that paved the way for the talks, insisted that political change, including a timetable for new elections within 18 months, is the ultimate goal.

"What is the real issue — the mother of all issues? Political transition," he said. Angola's U.N. Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins, who currently holds the Security Council's rotating presidency, said council members appealed to de Mistura to make the negotiations "more inclusive," including adding Kurdish representatives, but do it moving forward so it won't affect the "kind of progress that we're seeing."

Asked if Putin discussed Assad's political fate in Monday's phone call with the Syrian leader, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it wasn't part of the conversation. Assad has announced that parliamentary elections in Syria will go ahead next month according to schedule. A Syrian official, Hisham al-Shaar, said the elections will be held only in areas under government control and there will be no polling stations in Syrian embassies abroad or in refugee camps.

The talks have shaped up as the best, if distant, chance in years to end a war that has created an opening for radical groups including Islamic State and the al-Qaida-backed Nusra Front to gain large swaths of land, and prompted at least 11 million people to leave their homes — many fleeing abroad to places like Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, as well as to Europe.

Keaten reported from Geneva. Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam in Beirut, Albert Aji in Damascus, Robert Burns in Washington, D.C., and Edith Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

Is Myanmar's new president just a puppet for Suu Kyi?

March 15, 2016

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's parliament elects a new president on Tuesday to head the country's first democratically elected government, but it won't be Aung San Suu Kyi, the face of the nation's decades-long struggle against military rule. Here's why:


The military has been in power in this Southeast Asian nation since 1962. Faced with unrelenting international pressure and a democracy campaign led by Suu Kyi, the junta began to pave the way toward a civilian government in 2011. Suu Kyi's nonviolent campaign won her the Nobel Peace Prize. But such was the antipathy of some generals toward Suu Kyi that they inserted a clause in the constitution to stymie her. The clause forbids anyone with a foreign spouse or child from becoming president. Suu Kyi's two sons are British, as was her late husband.


Her National League for Democracy party won the Nov. 8 parliamentary elections by a landslide. At that point, she had still hoped to convince the generals to allow the constitutional clause to be scrapped. The military, which controls a quarter of the seats in parliament, refused to relent during several rounds of negotiations with her. So the NLD had to nominate someone else as its candidate for president, who is chosen by members of parliament.


Foreseeing such an eventuality, Suu Kyi told the media before and after the election that she would be the real power in the government, and whoever becomes president would do her bidding. While her statement may sound undemocratic, she could argue that she was only reflecting the will of the people who voted for the party because of her. So she chose a trusted friend she has known for more than 60 years, a confidant who has been by her side for decades and an astute adviser all these years: Htin Kyaw, a 70-year-old former computer programmer and bureaucrat.


Experts say that Suu Kyi's position on being the real power will ensure that Htin Kyaw will be seen as a seat warmer, and therefore an easy target for military leaders keen to reassert control. It gives him little clout in making policy decisions, even among his own colleagues. Experts also warn that it is possible that foreign leaders and governments will bypass him and go directly to Suu Kyi, making him less relevant.

Htin Kyaw wins historic president vote in Myanmar parliament

March 15, 2016

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's parliament elected Htin Kyaw as Myanmar's new president Tuesday, a watershed moment that ushers the longtime opposition party of Aung San Suu Kyi into government. The 70-year-old Htin Kyaw, a longtime confidant of Suu Kyi, will take office April 1 to become Myanmar's first democratically elected leader after more than half a century of military rule.

Htin Kyaw's secured 360 votes from among 652 ballots cast in the bicameral parliament, winning a strong majority. The vote count was read aloud and announced by a parliament official. The military's nominee, Myint Swe, won 213 votes and will become the first vice president. Htin Kyaw's running mate from the National League for Democracy party, Henry Van Tio, won 79 votes and will take the post of second vice president.

Suu Kyi led her National League for Democracy party to a sweeping victory in Nov. 8 elections, a reflection of the widespread public support she earned during her decades-long struggle for democracy in Myanmar which was ruled for half a century by a military junta.

The Nobel laureate and longtime political prisoner is the party's unquestionable leader but is blocked from becoming president because of a constitutional clause that excludes anyone with a foreign spouse or children. Suu Kyi's two sons are British, as was her late husband. The clause is widely seen as having been written by the military with Suu Kyi in mind.

To assume the top post in her place, the NLD nominated Suu Kyi's trusted friend and adviser Htin Kyaw, the son of a national poet and the son-in-law of a founding member of the country's pro-democracy movement.

Myanmar's electoral system requires that the president be chosen from candidates put forward by each of the two houses of parliament, and a third nominee from the military, which retains a quarter of the legislative seats.

Myint Swe is seen as a close ally of former junta leader Than Shwe and remains on a U.S. State Department blacklist that bars American companies from doing business with several tycoons and senior military figures connected with the former junta.