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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Romania: Former Mossad agents arrested on suspicions of espionage

Wednesday, 06 April 2016

Four Israeli citizens are being investigated on alleged charges of espionage, Romanian sources reported this morning. Romania Insider reported that the four are being investigated on charges of spying on the Chief Prosecutor of Romania's National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), Laura Kovesi Codruta.

Two of the suspects are former Mossad agents Avi Yanus and Dan Zorella, who are co-founders of intelligence firm Black Cube.

Israeli reports noted that former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan has cooperated with Black Cube and was an honorary president of the firm until his death last month.

According to sources in the Romanian prosecution, Zorella and Yanus, along with other Black Cube employees, including Ron Weiner and David Geclowicz, organised a group that committed cyber attacks against the head of Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate.

It has also become evident that these two former agents, who are still under arrest, also hacked into the emails of three of Codruta’s close aides.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/europe/24874-romania-former-mossad-agents-arrested-on-suspicions-of-espionage.

Poland honors late president and other plane crash victims

April 10, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The leader of Poland's ruling party on Sunday blamed the government of then-Prime Minister Donald Tusk for the 2010 plane crash in which President Lech Kaczynski, and 95 others were killed.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the twin of the late president, said those guilty should be punished, at least in the moral sense. He was speaking during state ceremonies honoring the victim of the plane crash in Russia and marking its sixth anniversary.

"Regardless of the causes of this tragedy, someone has the responsibility, at least the moral responsibility for it, Kaczynski told thousands gathered for the ceremony. "The previous government is responsible, the one led by Donald Tusk."

Tusk and his ministers have denied previous similar allegations. Tusk is now the European Council president in Brussels. Kaczynski's conservative Law and Justice party took all power in Poland last year and is reviving allegations that the crash was a conspiracy by Russia and by Tusk's government which did not get along with the president.

Earlier Sunday, President Andrzej Duda said that all facts should be revealed in a new probe. "We owe (the victims) an honest and thorough examination of what happened then, without unnecessary political quarrels," President Andrzej Duda said during the observances. "Let the experts do it in peace and in a sense of responsibility."

Kaczynski and his followers claim that Tusk and his government neglected the security of the president and later failed to conduct a proper, international investigation. The party also claims that Tusk's team failed to properly honor the fallen president and other members of the nation's elite.

"The Smolensk tragedy and the events before and after it were a dramatic evidence of the poor quality of our state, of poor management, of mistakes," Duda said about Poland under Tusk. They also claim they have evidence that "almost certainly" proves that the president's plane fell into pieces in midair from an attack as it was preparing to land at Smolensk airport. Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz has said the crash was an act of terrorism perpetrated by Russia.

The theory is fueled by Moscow's refusal to return the wreckage to Poland, while Russia's prosecutors say they are trying to determine whether anyone is guilty of the crash. Moscow has denounced the terrorism allegations as "absurd" and official investigations by Poland's and Russia's aviation experts have concluded that the crash was an accident caused by errors of the crew trying to land in heavy fog.

A team of Polish lawmakers recently opened a new probe intended to name those responsible for the crash which was the country's worst national disaster since World War II. Kaczynski's opponents say he is launching a witch hunt.

On Sunday, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, other government officials, victims' families and thousands of Poles were taking part in prayers and wreaths' laying at the victims' graves and memorials. Observances were also held at the crash site in Russia.

Among the victims were lawmakers from various political parties, armed forces' commanders and the last president of the Polish government-in-exile, Ryszard Kaczorowski. They were flying to Russia for observances honoring Polish officers killed in the forest of Katyn and elsewhere by the Soviet secret police in 1940. For five decades, Moscow refused to acknowledge responsibility for those crimes, and the subject was also taboo under Moscow-backed communist rule in Poland until 1989.

Italy recalls envoy to Egypt over torture-slaying of student

April 08, 2016

ROME (AP) — Keeping up its press for the "truth" in the torture and slaying of an Italian graduate student in Cairo, the Italian government on Friday announced it was recalling its ambassador from Egypt for urgent consultations after Italian prosecutors expressed disappointment over Egyptian cooperation.

Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni was recalling Ambassador Maurizio Massari from the Egyptian capital for "urgent evaluation of more opportune initiatives to relaunch the commitment aimed at determining the truth about the barbarous murder of Giulio Regeni," a ministry statement said.

The 28-year-old student, who was researching Egyptian labor movements, disappeared on Jan. 25, the fifth anniversary on the Egyptian uprising, when police and other Egyptian security personnel were out in force in Cairo to discourage protests. His body was found near a Cairo highway on Feb. 3.

Italian officials said an Italian autopsy found signs of "protracted" torture over several days, and that Regeni appears to have died on Feb. 1 or 2. Premier Matteo Renzi told reporters that decision was made "immediately" after Italian prosecutors gave their assessment of two days of meetings that wrapped up Friday with visiting Egyptian investigators they had hoped would deliver useful evidence.

"Italy, as you know, made a commitment to the family of Giulio Regeni naturally, to the memory of Giulio Regeni, but also to the dignity of all us, saying we'd only stop in front of the truth," Renzi said. Recalling the ambassador to Rome "means Italy is confirming this commitment to itself, to the family," the premier said.

A statement from the Rome prosecutors' office said it was still pressing the Egyptians for turn over a list of Regeni's cellphone traffic "in very brief time." The Italian news agency ANSA said the Egyptian investigators didn't bring to Rome the surveillance camera video from near the metro station where Regeni was last seen. Italian prosecutors, and Italian police who had gone to Cairo, had repeatedly requested the images.

For its part Italy turned over the results of the Italian autopsy and what was found on Regeni's computer, the Rome prosecutors' office said. Egypt's Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu-Zeid said the ministry "hasn't been officially notified of the recalling of the Italian ambassador to Egypt to Rome for consultation or the reasons behind it."

"The Foreign Ministry is waiting for the return of the Egyptian team to listen to its evaluation" of what came out of the two days of meetings between both sides' investigators, he said in a statement.

Italy has expressed mounting impatience with various Egyptian's attempts to explain Regeni's death, including a latest one blaming the slaying on a robbery gang. The Rome prosecutors in their statement referred to that version, reiterating the "conviction that there are no elements indicating direct involvement by a band of criminals in the torture and death" of Regeni.

Egyptian authorities recently produced Regeni's passport and student IDs they said had been in the possession of a criminal gang they contend were abducting foreigners for robbery purposes. The gang members were killed in a shootout with Egyptian police, Egyptian authorities said.

Shortly after Regeni's body was found, Egyptian authorities attributed the death to a road accident. The Italian ministry didn't suggest what other initiatives the government might take against Egypt, which is a big trading partner as well as an ally in anti-terrorism efforts. Italian energy company ENI has decades-long extensive dealings with Egypt.

Last week, Regeni's anguished parents urged the Italian government to declare Egypt "unsafe" for Italians to visit, saying their son was only one of many torture victims in the north African country. Egypt's Red Sea resorts for decades had been a popular destination for Italian tourists.

The head of the Italian Senate foreign affairs commission, Pier Ferdinando Casini, said recalling the ambassador not only had "high symbolic value," but also shows "Italy strongly defends its national decorum and dignity."

Maggie Michael contributed from Cairo.

Iceland fisheries minister says he's the country's new PM

April 07, 2016

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — Iceland's fisheries minister emerged from the president's residence Thursday and announced he has become the island nation's new prime minister after days of political turmoil.

Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson told reporters that he had secured President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson's formal backing after his predecessor resigned because of embarrassing links to an offshore account. "This is a good thing" that will allow the center-right governing coalition to continue its policies, he said.

"This is of course an exciting opportunity, but it's under bizarre circumstances," said Johannsson, a 53-year-old who has combined his work as a veterinarian with his political career. "It is me as prime minister, but it's important to be humble. It is a big task ahead to boost the confidence in politics and politicians. "

Johannsson said he doesn't think the offshore accounts scandal brought on by a massive leak of financial documents held by a Panamanian law firm has damaged Iceland's reputation. "We have been in bad cases before and we got through it," he said.

But his coalition faces a stiff challenge in parliament from opposition parties that are demanding an immediate election. The opposition introduced a no-confidence measure Monday aimed at then-Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, who has since resigned, but now propose a vote against the entire coalition government.

Gunnlaugsson has denied doing anything illegal and said he and his wife — also linked to the offshore account — paid all their taxes. He plans to remain in parliament and keep his post as party chairman.

A small group of protesters gathered outside the president's residence Thursday while the new prime minister and other Cabinet ministers were inside — but there was no sign of the rousing protests held in Reykjavik for the last three days.

Johannsson to seek approval to become Iceland's next PM

April 06, 2016

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — Iceland's fisheries and agriculture minister Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson said Wednesday he will seek the president's approval to become the country's next prime minister after the previous leader resigned because of revelations he had offshore accounts.

Johannsson said Iceland's center-right governing coalition remains intact despite the turmoil that started Sunday after a massive leak of documents from a Panamanian law firm showed it created offshore accounts for Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson and his wife. Gunnlaugsson stepped down two days later.

Johannsson is expected to meet President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson on Thursday, but the opposition opposes the move and is planning to pursue a vote of no confidence in parliament. "We will still push forward a proposal to dissolve parliament and hold earlier elections," said Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson, a legislator with the Pirate Party, which has high popular support.

Opposition lawmakers have said Gunnlaugsson's offshore accounts revealed a significant conflict of interest with his official duties. They now accuse the government of trying to cling to power. Earlier Wednesday, hundreds of people staged a noisy protest in the rain outside parliament in Reykjavik — the third consecutive day of demonstrations calling for a new government in the North Atlantic island nation.

Gunnlaugsson has denied wrongdoing. His center-right Progressive Party is in a coalition government with the Independence Party. Arni Pall Arnason, leader of the Social Democratic Alliance, said the two parties in the governing coalition are desperately trying to hang on to power without public support.

"What I think the government parties are trying to do is to cling onto power while doing the absolute minimum of changes in order to escape the public," he said. "The government doesn't want to confront the issue or face the public."

Hundreds hurt as migrants confront Macedonian border police

April 10, 2016

IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — Migrants waged running battles with Macedonian police Sunday after they were stopped from scaling the border fence with Greece near the border town of Idomeni, and aid agencies reported that hundreds of stranded travelers were injured.

Macedonian police used tear gas, stun grenades, plastic bullets and a water cannon to repel the migrants, many of whom responded by throwing rocks over the fence at police. Greek police observed from their side of the frontier but did not intervene.

More than 50,000 refugees and migrants have been stranded in Greece after Balkan countries closed their borders to the massive flow of refugees pouring into Europe. Around 11,000 remain camped out at the border with Macedonia, ignoring instructions from the government to move to organized shelters as they hold out hope to reach Western Europe.

Clashes continued in the afternoon as migrant groups twice tried to overwhelm Macedonian border security. The increasing use of tear gas reached families in their nearby tents in Idomeni's makeshift camp. Many camp dwellers, chiefly women and children, fled into farm fields to escape the painful gas.

Observers held out hope that evening rainfall, which began about seven hours into the clashes, would dampen hostilities. The aid agency Doctors Without Borders estimated that their medical volunteers on site treated about 300 people for various injuries.

Achilleas Tzemos, deputy field coordinator of Doctors Without Borders, told the AP that the injured included about 200 experiencing breathing problems from the gas, 100 others with cuts, bruises and impact injuries from nonlethal plastic bullets. He said six of the most seriously injured were hospitalized.

Macedonian police said 23 members of the country's security forces were injured, including 14 police officers and nine soldiers. Five of the police officers sustained serious injuries. The clashes began soon after an estimated 500 people gathered at the fence. Many said they were responding to Arabic language fliers distributed Saturday in the camp urging people to attempt to breach the fence Sunday morning and "go to Macedonia on foot."

A five-member migrant delegation approached Macedonian police to ask whether the border was about to open. When Macedonian police replied that this wasn't happening, more than 100, including several children, tried to scale the fence.

Greece criticized the Macedonian police response as excessive. Giorgos Kyritsis, a spokesman for the government's special commission on refugees, said Macedonian forces had deployed an "indiscriminate use of chemicals, plastic bullets and stun grenades against vulnerable people." But he said blame for Sunday's trouble had to be shared with those in the camp spreading rumors of border openings.

Kyritsis said the Idomeni campers should "not believe the false rumors spread by criminally irresponsible individuals and to cooperate with Greek authorities that guarantee their safe transfer to organized temporary hospitality locations."

Many migrants expressed confusion over the situation, unaware that European Union governments support Macedonia's decision in early March to block the migrant flow from northern Greece. They expressed reluctance to accept Greek offers of better accommodation far away from their often muddy, cold border encampment.

"Europe tells everyone to come, but Macedonia has shut down its borders," said Hassan Mohamed, a 19-year-old Kurd from Aleppo, Syria, who has been at the Idomeni camp for two months alongside his mother, sister and brother.

He dismissed the idea of taking Greece's offer of accommodation elsewhere as "too slow." Abd Ahmad, 27, an Iraqi Kurd who is traveling with his wife and their 1-year-old daughter, said life in the Idomeni camp was "difficult for the child" — but not nearly as dangerous as conditions back home. He said Islamic State militants killed a 7-year-old sister and 11-year-old brother in Iraq, while another brother already had reached Germany and another sister was in Finland. He remained hopeful that eventually, Macedonian authorities would relent and allow them through.

Greece remains committed to enforcing the EU-Turkey agreement that requires most migrants currently in Greece to be deported back to Turkey. Besides Idomeni, Greece is trying to clear makeshift camps by the end of April at three other locations containing a total of more than 10,000 people: a gas station 17 kilometers (11 miles) south of Idomeni, the port of Piraeus, and the site of Athens' defunct former airport.

The planned deportation of 6,750 migrants on Greek islands back to nearby Turkey has been suspended because Greek officials, too few in number, have been overwhelmed by the volume of asylum applications.

Tear gas, clashes mar French protests over labor law reforms

April 09, 2016

PARIS (AP) — French police clashed with protesters rejecting labor law changes in several cities Saturday, sending clouds of tear gas across the Place de la Nation in Paris and torrents of water against demonstrators in Nantes.

Several rallies were marred by violence amid nationwide protests against the labor reforms being championed by the country's Socialist government. Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Paris to protest the changes to the rules governing layoffs and France's 35-hour workweek. Officials hope the changes will inject some flexibility into the country's stagnant labor market but many workers fear it will do little more than weaken the nation's generous social protections.

Local media counted at least 200 demonstrations across France, including a march in Paris kicking off from Place de la Republique, home to a round-the-clock Occupy Wall Street-style sit-in in reaction to the reforms.

Paris police said three officers were injured in the clashes. French television broadcast scenes from the western cities of Nantes, where authorities deployed a water cannon to disperse protesters, and Rennes, where police faced off against gas mask-wearing, shield-wielding rioters clad all in black, firing flash-bangs and sound grenades.

Continued unrest over the labor plans is piling the pressure on France's ruling Socialists, who have already been forced to retreat over security plans to pull the citizenship of dual nationals convicted of terrorism.

Afghan migrant flown to Lithuania after social media plea

April 06, 2016

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — An Afghan man who worked for Lithuanian troops in Afghanistan has been transferred to the Baltic country from a migrant camp in Greece after pleading for help on social media.

Abdul Basir Yousofy arrived in Vilnius late Wednesday after the government gave him a five-day visa and paid for his airfare from Greece. The 22-year-old touched the hearts of many Lithuanians with a recent online video in which he asked the country's president and people for help in getting out of the Greek camp. He spoke in broken Lithuanian, which he had picked up working for Lithuanian troops in Afghanistan's Ghor province.

He can now formally apply for asylum in Lithuania, which has pledged to accept just over 1,100 refugees by 2017 under a European Union plan.

Fujimori leads Peru election first round, heads to runoff

April 11, 2016

LIMA, Peru (AP) — The daughter of jailed former President Alberto Fujimori held a strong lead in preliminary results from the first round of Peru's presidential election and appeared headed to a showdown with another center-right candidate in a June runoff.

With 40 percent of the ballots counted late Sunday, Fujimori had 39 percent of the vote, while former World Bank economist Pedro Kuczynski held 24 percent. Leftist congresswoman Veronika Mendoza, who had made a late surge in pre-election polls, was in third at 17 percent.

Final results were not expected until sometime Monday, but Kuczynski's supporters celebrated in the streets outside his campaign headquarters in Lima after two unofficial quick counts indicated he would edge out Mendoza for the right to face Fujimori on June 5. Such counts have been reliable predictors of results in previous Peruvian elections.

The center-right Fujimori was the runaway front-runner for months and looked poised to outdo even the most-optimistic first round scenarios in polls published on the eve of voting. But she will face an uphill battle in the second round because of how polarizing a figure former President Fujimori remains among Peruvians.

While her father is remembered fondly by many, especially in the long-overlooked countryside, for defeating Maoist-inspired Shining Path rebels and taming hyperinflation, he is detested by large segments of the urban middle class for human rights abuses and his order for the military to shut down Congress. Almost half of Peruvians surveyed said they would never vote for anyone associated with the former leader and thousands took to the streets a week ago to warn that Keiko Fujimori's election could bring back authoritarian rule.

In a bid to project a more moderate image, Fujimori promised during her campaign not to pardon her father, who is serving out a 25-year sentence for authorizing death squads during his decade-long rule starting in 1990. On Sunday night, she told supporters it was time to bury the past.

"Peruvians want reconciliation and don't want to fight anymore," she told supporters while standing on a truck parked outside a luxury LIMA HOTEL. If Kuczynski holds on to the No. 2 spot, it will ensure Peru continues along a free-market path after Mendoza's rise in the polls spooked investors. It also represents another setback for South America's left, which after sweeping into power across much of the region during the past decade's commodities boom has suffered a string of electoral losses in Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela.

After finishing a strong third in the 2011 election, Kuczynski threw his support behind Keiko Fujimori in that year's runoff. He later said he regretted that decision but considered it necessary in trying to prevent the election of leftist Ollanta Humala, who held close ties to socialist Venezuela and had led an army rebellion in his youth. Once in office, however, Humala kept up a pro-business policy framework. The constitution barred him from seeking a second, consecutive term.

Kuczynski, 77, is now urging Peruvians to turn the page on the widespread corruption and human rights violations associated with the Alberto Fujimori years. But with an elite pedigree, heavily accented Spanish and until recently a U.S. passport, he may face a hard time connecting with regular Peruvians, especially in rural areas where the older Fujimori is still revered.

Sunday's elections were marred by the worst guerrilla attack in Humala's presidency. On Saturday, Shining Path rebels killed eight soldiers and two civilians as they were traveling in a caravan to a remote village to provide security during the vote.

Maritza Sacsara, one of the many rural voters who cast votes for Fujimori, called her "a born leader" and credited the candidate with campaigning fiercely in small towns and villages often ignored by Peruvian politicians.

Fujimori's Popular Force party secured an estimated 60 seats in the 130-member congress, while five other parties split the remaining seats. Sunday's elections provided notable defeats for traditional politicians. Two former presidents, Alejandro Toledo and Alan Garcia, finished near the bottom of the 10-candidate field, while the congressional slate for Garcia's almost century-old APRA party barely got by the minimum 5 percent threshold to hold onto its legal standing.

Adding bitterness to the race, two candidates, including Fujimori's strongest rival, were barred from the race by Peru's electoral tribunal for campaign violations or technicalities, decisions questioned by the Organization of American States.

Associated Press writers Rodrigo Abd in Peru's Ayacucho region and Joshua Goodman in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.

Body of slain woman found buried in Bolivian prison cell

April 07, 2016

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — An inmate apparently killed his ex-wife and buried her beneath his cell in Bolivia's largest prison — with nobody taking notice for nearly a year, officials said Thursday. Chief prosecutor Gomer Padilla told The Associated Press that the body was found after a fellow inmate confessed to helping bury Kenia Hidalgo Cespedes.

The prosecutor said the alleged killer, Marco Antonio Ramirez, apparently failed to pay the conspirator an agreed-on $278 to keep silent. "There are some investigations pending but all elements show that the skeletal remains belong to the ex-wife of this man who was already sentenced for murder," Padilla said.

Ramirez is serving a 30-year sentence for killing another former girlfriend. His former wife apparently visited to discuss the sale of a jointly owned apartment. Bolivian law allows inmates to have unsupervised visits.

Padilla said investigators are probing the responsibility of personnel at the notorious Palmasola prison, which Pope Francis visited last year. The case highlights the chaos at the badly overcrowded prison on the outskirts of the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz. Inside its walls, inmates run the prison, drugs are cheaper than on the street and money buys survival.

During a 2013 struggle for control of the cellblock holding Palmasola's most violent inmates, one gang attacked its rivals with machetes and home-made flamethrowers. The 36 fatalities included a 1-year-old. It was modern Bolivia's deadliest prison riot.

SpaceX cargo arrives at crowded space station

By Kerry Sheridan
Miami (AFP)
April 10, 2016

SpaceX's unmanned Dragon cargo ship, carrying lettuce seeds, lab mice and an inflatable pop-up room, arrived Sunday at a crowded International Space Station where six spacecraft are now docked.

British astronaut Tim Peake reached out with the station's robotic arm and grappled the Dragon, carrying its nearly 7,000 pounds (3,175 kilograms) of gear, at 7:23 am (1123 GMT).

"We show load is safe, and it looks like we've caught a Dragon," said Peake.

Four Russian spaceships -- two Progress cargo carriers and two Soyuz capsules which ferry astronauts -- are docked at the space station, along with Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo ship and SpaceX's Dragon.

Not since 2011, during the final flight of the space shuttle Discovery, have there been six vehicles parked at the ISS at the same time, NASA said.

Included in the Dragon's cargo is an expandable room that will be temporarily attached to the orbiting outpost.

Known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), the habitat is not scheduled for use until the end of May, but will stay at the ISS for two years so astronauts can test how it stands up to space debris and solar radiation.

The module can expand to about 10 feet (three meters) in diameter by 13 feet (four meters) long.

Astronauts plan to enter the room "for a few hours several times a year to retrieve sensor data and assess conditions," NASA said.

The cargo also contains Chinese cabbage seeds which astronauts will grow in space, and lab mice that will test whether certain drugs can help prevent muscle and bone loss in microgravity.

SpaceX's Dragon is currently the only spaceship capable of returning cargo to Earth.

It is expected to splash down in the Pacific Ocean on May 11, carrying science experiments including biological samples from astronaut Scott Kelly's one-year mission which ended in March.

- Landing success -

The Dragon blasted off on Friday from Cape Canaveral, Florida, atop a Falcon 9 rocket.

Minutes after launch, the first stage portion of the Falcon 9 rocket successfully landed on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.

The feat was hailed as a big step forward for SpaceX CEO Elon Musk's mission to make rockets as reusable as airplanes, an innovation that he says will bring down the cost of spaceflight.

Currently, sophisticated rocket parts costing tens of millions of dollars are jettisoned into the sea after launch.

Blue Origin, headed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has also managed to land its rockets on solid ground after launch, but these flights have been suborbital and did not fly to the same heights -- or travel as fast -- as SpaceX's Falcon 9.

Musk said about half of the time, the Falcon 9 rocket will need to return to the ocean, so perfecting the technique of touching down on a floating platform is important.

US President Barack Obama congratulated SpaceX for landing its rocket at sea.

"It's because of innovators like you & NASA that America continues to lead in space exploration," Obama said on Twitter.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/SpaceX_cargo_arrives_at_crowded_space_station_999.html.

SpaceX lands rocket on ocean platform for first time

By Kerry Sheridan
Miami (AFP)
April 8, 2016

After four failed bids SpaceX finally stuck the landing Friday, powering the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket onto an ocean platform where it touched down upright after launching cargo to space.

Images of the tall, narrow rocket gliding down serenely onto a platform that SpaceX calls a droneship sparked applause and screams of joy at SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California.

"The first stage of the Falcon 9 just landed on our Of Course I Still Love You droneship," SpaceX wrote on Twitter, after launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 4:43 pm (2043 GMT).

NASA spokesman George Diller confirmed that the rocket had successfully landed, just minutes after the Falcon 9 propelled the unmanned Dragon cargo craft to orbit, carrying supplies for astronauts at the International Space Station.

SpaceX has once before managed to set the rocket down on land, but ocean attempts had failed, with the rocket coming close each time but either crashing or tipping over.

Speaking to reporters afterward, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that being able to return costly rocket parts for repeated use, instead of jettisoning them into the ocean after each launch, will make spaceflight less expensive and less harmful to the environment.

"It is just as fundamental in rocketry as it is in other forms of transport such as cars or planes or bicycles or anything," said Musk, who also runs Tesla Motors.

Musk said it costs around $300,000 to fuel a rocket, but $60 million to build one.

"If you have got a rocket that can be fully and rapidly reused, it is somewhere on the order of a 100-fold cost reduction, in marginal costs," he said, adding that he hoped his competitors would follow suit.

- Obama leads praise -

President Barack Obama led the praise, tweeting: "Congrats SpaceX on landing a rocket at sea. It's because of innovators like you & NASA that America continues to lead in space exploration."

Also on Twitter, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield said: "Landed! That is amazing! World-leading ability, proven.

"Opens the imagination to what is possible."

Friday's breakthrough came after a closely watched return-to-flight mission, SpaceX's first cargo delivery since June 2015, when the Falcon 9 exploded just over two minutes after liftoff, destroying the rocket and the supply ship.

SpaceX blamed the blast on a faulty strut in the Falcon 9's upper booster, which allowed a helium bottle to snap loose, causing the explosion of the rocket, cargo ship and all its contents.

It has since upgraded its Falcon 9 rocket and changed its protocol to avoid a repeat.

This time, the gumdrop-shaped capsule was packed with nearly 7,000 pounds (3,100 kilos) of supplies for the astronauts living in orbit.

The Dragon's cargo includes an inflatable space room astronauts will test in microgravity.

Known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, the chamber will be temporarily attached to the space station.

Lab mice for experiments and lettuce seeds for growing at the orbiting outpost were also included in the spacecraft, which should arrive at the International Space Station early Sunday.

- 'Proven it can work' -

Musk said the rocket was being welded onto the droneship with metal shoes, so as not to tip over as it made its way back to land.

Next, the booster will undergo a series of tests, including 10 static fires on the launchpad, before engineers decide if it is in good enough shape to fly again.

If so, the next launch of the same booster could be in the next two to three months, Musk said.

"In the future, hopefully we will be able to relaunch them in a few weeks."

In the meantime, SpaceX will keep working on perfecting its landing techniques, whether on ocean or solid ground, since both options need to be available to suit different types of missions.

Musk said about half of SpaceX's rockets will need to land at sea, and it might take a few years to work out all the kinks.

"But I think it is proven that it can work," he said.

"We will get it to a point where it is routine to bring it back and the only changes to the rocket are to hose it down, give it a wash, add the propellant and fly it again."

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/SpaceX_lands_rocket_on_ocean_platform_for_first_time_999.html.

Russia defends selling arms to both Azerbaijan and Armenia

April 09, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia on Saturday defended its policy of selling arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, whose military forces have faced off in a sharp escalation of fighting around separatist Nagorno-Karabakh.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said if Russia stopped selling arms, both countries would simply seek new suppliers. "They would buy weapons in other countries, and the degree of their deadliness wouldn't change," he told Russian state television following visits to the capitals of Armenia and Azerbaijan. "But at the same time, this could to a certain degree destroy the balance" of forces that exists in the South Caucasus region.

Both Azerbaijani and Armenian forces this month have used artillery, tanks and other weapons on a scale not seen since a separatist war ended in 1994. The war left Karabakh, officially part of Azerbaijan, under the control of local ethnic Armenian forces and the Armenian military.

The recent fighting has killed about 75 soldiers from both sides along with several civilians. A Russia-brokered truce went into effect Tuesday, but both sides accused the other of violating it daily.

The Russian arms sales to energy-rich Azerbaijan have angered many in Armenia, which has hosted a Russian military base and kept close security and economic ties to Russia. But the parallel arms sales reflect Russia's desire to expand its influence in the strategic region, a key conduit for energy resources from the Caspian Sea to the West.

Russia has joined the United States and France in acting as mediators in Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which have dragged on since 1994 with no visible results.

With the OSCE Minsk Group meeting Saturday in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, hundreds of demonstrators rallied on a central square to protest the lack of progress by the negotiators. They demanded that the Karabakh separatists be a party to the peace talks and for Russia to stop selling arms to Azerbaijan, said Marine Manucharyan, one of the organizers. Their demands were delivered to the Russian, U.S. and French embassies.

The Russian representative to the Minsk Group, Igor Popov, said the mediators met with the political and military leadership of both sides, which he said "demonstrated a readiness to preserve the truce" and understand the need to return to a political discussion.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said Saturday his country was committed to the peace process but had no intention of giving up territory and "would never allow the formation of a second Armenian state on Azerbaijani lands."

Avet Demourian in Yerevan, Armenia, and Aida Sultanova in Baku, Azerbaijan, contributed.

Massive fire kills at least 84 in south India temple complex

April 10, 2016

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India (AP) — A massive fire broke out during a fireworks display in a Hindu temple in south India early Sunday, killing more than 80 people and injuring at least 250 others, a top official said.

The fire started when a spark from the fireworks show ignited a separate batch of fireworks that were being stored at the Puttingal temple complex in Paravoor village, a few hours north of Kerala's state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, State Home Minister Ramesh Chennitala.

Thousands had been packed into the temple complex when a big explosion erupted around 3 a.m., officials said. The blaze then spread quickly through the temple, trapping devotees within. At least 84 people were killed, said a Kerala police official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to give his name to journalists.

Local TV channels broadcast images of huge clouds of white smoke billowing from the temple, as fireworks were still going off in the night sky. Successive explosions from the building storing the fireworks sent huge chunks of concrete flying as far as a kilometer (a half mile), according to resident Jayashree Harikrishnan.

"Chunks landed in our yard," she said. Krishna Das, a resident of Paravoor village, said he had started walking away from the temple as the fireworks display was about to end when a deafening explosion followed by a series of blasts went off.

"I had been in the temple just a few minutes before watching the fireworks," Das said. He said he saw scores of people running away, chased by fire and chunks of concrete and plaster from the temple building.

Das said as soon as the first explosion was heard, a power outage hit the complex. "It was complete chaos. People were screaming in the dark. Ambulance sirens went off, and in the darkness no one knew how to find their way out of the complex," he said.

He said that six ambulances had been parked outside the temple complex as a precaution. They were used to rush the injured to hospitals in the nearby cities of Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram. Local villagers and police pulled out the injured from under slabs of concrete after the building where the fireworks were stored collapsed.

By morning, firefighters had brought the blaze under control, officials said. Rescuers were sifting through the wreckage in search of survivors, while backhoes were clearing the debris and ambulances driving away the injured.

As day broke, thousands of anxious relatives reached the temple in search of their loved ones. Many wept and pressed police officials and rescue workers for information on their family members. Every year, the temple holds a competitive fireworks display, with different groups putting on successive light shows for thousands of devotees gathered for the last day of a seven-day festival honoring the goddess Bhadrakali, a southern Indian incarnation of the Hindu goddess Kali.

This year's competition was taking place even though there was no permission from district authorities, said Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. The state's High Court had earlier issued orders on how to safely store fireworks at temples to prevent accidental fires. The court says that the fireworks must be stored more than 100 meters (yards) away from the temple.

Such orders were flouted at the Paravoor temple, said Loknath Behera, a top police official. "We will be investigating how the orders were flouted and who was responsible for the decision to go ahead with the firework display," Chandy said.

State Labor Minister Shibu Baby John said that the victims will be compensated.

Associated Press writers Nirmala George and Katy Daigle in New Delhi contributed to this report.

Candidates for next UN chief to face nations for first time

April 09, 2016

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — For the first time in the 70-year history of the United Nations, all the member states will get a chance to question the candidates for Secretary-General, in a move to make the usually secret selection process for the world's top diplomatic post more transparent.

Last year, the U.N. General Assembly responded to the strong demand from many countries that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's successor be chosen in a more open process, unanimously adopting a resolution allowing public hearings on how candidates would respond to global crises and run the U.N.'s far-flung bureaucracy.

The secretary-general is chosen by the 193-member General Assembly on the recommendation of the 15-member Security Council, according to the U.N. Charter. In practice, this has meant that the council's five permanent members — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France — have veto power over the candidates. That will not change in deciding whom to recommend to succeed Ban, whose second five-year term ends on Dec. 31.

But General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft said in a recent interview that the two-hour public discussions with each of the eight current candidates, starting Tuesday, are "potentially game-changing."

If a leading candidate emerges and a critical number of countries rally around him — or, in what would be a first, her — "I think it will be very difficult, and probably not possible, for the Security Council to come up with quite a different candidate," he said.

If the race is unclear, however, then the Security Council "will have a more deciding influence," Lykketoft said. The resolution adopted last September stresses the need for "gender and geographical balance while meeting the highest possible requirements."

By tradition, the job of secretary-general has rotated among regions. East European nations, including Russia, argue that they have never had a secretary-general and it is their turn. There has also never been a woman secretary-general and many countries support the idea of the first female U.N. chief.

The resolution invited all countries "to consider presenting women as candidates," but also stressed that the candidate must be highly competent. There are currently four women and four men who have thrown their hats in the ring — six from Eastern Europe, one from Western Europe and one from the Asia-Pacific region.

They are: former Macedonian Foreign Minister Srgjan Kerim; former Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pucic; former Montenegro Prime Minister and current Foreign Minister Igor Luksic; former Slovenian President Danilo Turk; UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova from Bulgaria; former Moldovan Foreign Minister Natalia Gherman; former U.N. refugee chief and ex-Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres; and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who heads the U.N. Development Program.

"I'm sure more candidates will be coming, that's for sure," Lykketoft said, "but how many, I don't know." There is no deadline for jumping into the race, but diplomats said the Security Council is expected to hold its first "straw poll" on the candidates in late July. The 15 council members will vote "encourage" or "discourage" on each candidate and the result will be made public.

Two women mentioned in U.N. corridors as possible strong late entries are German Chancellor Angela Merkel, though she reportedly isn't very keen on the job, and Kristalina Georgieva, another Bulgarian who is the European Commission's budget chief and a former top official at the World Bank.

The concentration of power in the five permanent members known as the P-5 often has produced U.N. chiefs with the appearance, some observers have said, of being more secretary than general. Natalie Samarasinghe, executive director of the United Nations Association-UK and one of the founders of the 1 for 7 Billion campaign for reform in the secretary-general selection process, said that throughout the U.N.'s history "the Security Council concern has always been, 'who's not going to rock the boat, and who's going to cause the least trouble for us.'"

That dynamic has changed somewhat with the new, more open selection process, which "is going to be impossible for the Security Council to completely ignore," she said. Britain's U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft, who encouraged more "credible candidates" to enter the race, said the interviews will be "very important" in the final decision.

"If a candidate does well in the hearings then clearly that is going to increase the prospects of Security Council members encouraging them through the process," he said. Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin was more cautious, saying the hearings "might" influence the P-5's decision.

"For us it's important that the next secretary-general enjoy the broadest possible support among members of the United Nations," he said. Ukraine's U.N. Ambassador Volodymyr Yelchenko, a council member, called it "a very useful exercise, although with many, many unclear questions of what will be the outcome, and what will be the final platform to judge the qualities of each of eight candidates."

The 1 for 7 Billion campaign, which Samarasinghe said is supported by 750 non-governmental organizations worldwide, is also calling for a single longer term to give the next secretary-general more independence from the major powers.

Lykketoft said the Nonaligned Movement, which represents over 100 developing countries, supports the idea but he doesn't know whether they will push for a General Assembly resolution on a single term, possibly seven years.

The interviews will continue through Thursday. Lykketoft said they will be followed by a second round for expected new candidates. Secretary-General Ban is staying away from the hearings but is "delighted" they are happening, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Friday.

Asked whether the U.N. chief had any advice for the candidates ahead of the hearings, Dujarric said that Ban always recalls the advice a middle school teacher in South Korea gave him: "Keep your feet firmly on the ground and your head in the clouds."