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Saturday, October 15, 2016

North Korea hails 'successful' nuclear test

09 September 2016 Friday

North Korea said it has carried out a successful "nuclear warhead explosion" test to counter what it called US hostility, North Korean state TV reported, angering neighbors and the United States.

An earthquake with a magnitude of 5.3 was detected in the country's north on Friday morning, South Korea's meteorological agency said, in what officials said was the biggest ever such blast.

A state TV presenter said: "Scientists [from] ... the DPRK carried out a nuclear explosion test for the judgment of the power of a nuclear warhead newly studied and manufactured by them at the northern nuclear test ground."

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is the North's official name.

"The Central Committee of the [ruling] Workers' Party of Korea sent warm congratulations to nuclear scientists ... of the northern nuclear test ground on the successful nuclear warhead explosion test," the presenter said.

The test would also enable the North to produce "as many as it wants [of] a variety of smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear warheads of higher strike power", she said.

The UN nuclear watchdog said the test was in "clear violation of numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions" and disregarded repeated demands from the international community.

"It is a deeply troubling and regrettable act," International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano said in a video on the IAEA's website. He added that the IAEA is ready to resume verification activities in North Korea once a political agreement had been reached among the countries concerned.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg "strongly condemned" the "very disturbing" development, telling Pyongyang it must drop all nuclear and ballistic missile activities.

"I strongly condemn these consistent provocations and violations of binding UN Security Council resolutions which undermine regional and international security," he said in a statement.

The tremor, detected by the US Geological Survey and Japan's Meteorological Agency's earthquake and tsunami observations division, happened near a known nuclear test site.

In January, North Korea detonated its fourth nuclear device at the same site.

The USGS said the explosion was detected at 9:30am local time at the surface. Its epicentre was 18km northeast of Sungjibaegam, the USGS said.

Tariq Rauf, head of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's disarmament programme, told Al Jazeera: "North Korea is the only country carrying out nuclear tests in the 21st century. That in and of itself is a problem issue.

"On the other hand, there are also provocations from North Korea's point of view. US and South Korean military exercises are becoming larger and more aggressive."

'Fanatic recklessness'

South Korean President Park Geun-hye called the test an act of "fanatic recklessness" in clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

US President Barack Obama and Park spoke by telephone about the event, South Korea's presidential office said. The 15-minute conversation took place as the US leader was on Air Force One returning to the US from a regional summit in Laos, according to the South Korean presidential office.

Obama said any provocative actions by North Korea would have "serious consequences", reiterating a US commitment to the security of its allies in Asia and around the world.

Japan's chief government spokesman said that Tokyo would consider further unilateral sanctions against North Korea...

Source: al-Jazeera.
Link: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/09/north-korea-earthquake-nuclear-test-160909031720481.html.

North Korea executes vice premier in latest purge: South

Wed Aug 31, 2016

By Ju-min Park

North Korea has executed its vice premier for education and rebuked two high-ranking officials, South Korea said on Wednesday, which, if true, would mark a new series of measures by leader Kim Jong Un to discipline top aides.

Kim took power in 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, and his consolidation of power has included purges and executions of top officials, South Korean officials have said.

South Korea's Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee said the government had confirmed the execution of the education official, Kim Yong Jin, "through various channels" but declined to provide details.

Kim Yong Chol, the influential head of the North's United Front Department which handles inter-Korean relations, was made to undergo "revolutionary measures," Jeong told a briefing.

Another ruling party official in the propaganda department was also reprimanded, Jeong said.

It is difficult to independently verify news about top officials in the North or the inner circle around the leader. Some previous reports of executions and purges in the reclusive state have proven inaccurate.

Vice Premier Kim Yong Jin was executed for not keeping his posture upright at a public event, a South Korean government official later told Reuters. Kim Yong Chol was punished for his overbearing demeanor, the official added, but gave no details.

The execution, by firing squad, took place in July and Kim Yong Chol was re-educated at a rural farm for a month until mid-August, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency said.

The South's comments follow a news report on Tuesday that the North had executed two high-ranking officials for disobeying leader Kim Jong Un.

Kim Yong Jin was promoted to vice premier in 2012 after serving as education minister, according to a South Korean government database on key officials of the North.

Army general Kim Yong Chol headed the North Korean intelligence agency before taking his current position this year.

News of the reclusive state's new purges comes after the South said North Korea's deputy ambassador in London had defected and arrived in the South with his family, dealing an embarrassing blow to Kim's regime.

North Korea rarely announces purges or executions, although state media confirmed the 2012 execution of Kim's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, widely considered the country's second most powerful man, for factionalism and crimes damaging to the economy.

A former defense minister, Hyun Yong Chol, is also believed to have been executed last year for treason, according to the South's spy agency.

(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Source: Reuters.
Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-execution-idUSKCN11605I.

Taiwan president says won't bow to Beijing, calls for talks

October 10, 2016

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwan's new president Tsai Ing-wen said Monday her self-ruled island will not bow to Beijing's pressure and that China should recognize her government's existence and engage with it in talks, in remarks likely to further anger China.

Speaking in a National Day address, Tsai acknowledged that ties between Taiwan and China in recent months have been bumpy. "But we will not bow to pressure, and we will of course not revert to the old path of confrontation," she said at a ceremony outside the Presidential Office Building in central Taipei attended by 11,000 people, including more than 360 foreign guests.

China should "face up to the reality" of the Taiwanese government's existence and of the island's democracy, Tsai said, adding the two sides should "sit down and talk as soon as possible." China claims Taiwan is its own territory, to be brought under its control by force if necessary. Tsai's election in January upended Beijing's strategy of using economic inducements to convince Taiwanese that political unification is not only inevitable but also in their best interests.

In her address, Tsai said her government wants to maintain the status quo — referring to the state of tense but stable peace and robust economic exchanges between the sides, which split amid China's civil war in 1949.

However, China has said it isn't satisfied with that position and demands she endorse Beijing's formulation that the two are part of a single Chinese nation that was embraced by her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou, who was seated on the stage at the ceremony.

Tsai's reluctance to do so, and risk alienating her party's supporters, clashes with her hopes for renewed talks between the sides that Beijing cut off shortly after her May inauguration, said Liu Yi-jiun, a professor of public affairs professor at Taiwan's Fo Guang University.

"So far I just don't see anything happening at this time," Liu said. "(Tsai) really wants her counterparts to sit down and find some solution. That's something positive. But I don't think these kinds of words will turn the situation around."

Whether Taiwan's public likes the speech is hard to say because it covers "nothing" new," Liu said, adding that China "will just carry on." Tsai's reference to the need to maintain progress made since a breakthrough 1992 meeting between the sides — and her use of Taiwan's official name, the Republic of China, could be seen by Beijing as a positive sign that she intends no radical moves toward formal independence, said Nathan Liu, an international affairs professor at Ming Chuan University in Taipei.

If China instead insists on maintaining the current stalemate, "that's not going to help," he said. There was no immediate response to the speech from Beijing. However, in a statement issued Thursday, a spokesman for the government's Taiwan Affairs Office said Beijing would not budge from its bottom line demands and would oppose any steps toward Taiwanese independence.

"No force, no person should underestimate the steadfast determination of the 1.3 billion people of the (Chinese) mainland," An Fengshan was quoted as saying. Taiwan prison authorities declined to let former Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian out of house arrest to attend the event. Chen, elected to office in 2000 as the candidate of Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party, is serving a sentence for corruption. China despised Chen for his pursuit of greater independence for Taiwan.

Formations of troops outside the presidential office at Monday's ceremony were lighter than in previous years when large amounts of military hardware rolled past the Presidential Office Building in a gesture of strength to China.

Elsewhere in her speech, Tsai discussed plans to strengthen the island's high-tech, export-dependent economy and improve opportunities for young people.

Pro-democracy Hong Kong lawmakers defy China in oath taking

October 12, 2016

HONG KONG (AP) — A swearing-in ceremony to kick off Hong Kong's legislative session descended into farce Wednesday as newly elected pro-democracy lawmakers intentionally mangled their oaths in a show of defiance against Beijing.

They displayed flags declaring that Hong Kong is not a part of China and called out for "democratic self-determination" for the semiautonomous Chinese city the oath taking session. The antics foreshadow what's expected to be a chaotic term for Hong Kong's legislature after a group of youthful candidates were elected in September, adding to the opposition's numbers in the semi-democratic Legislative Council.

The freshman lawmakers represent some of the new wave of grassroots groups that emerged from the wake of 2014's massive pro-democracy street protests. Sixtus Leung, 30, of the Youngspiration party draped a blue flag with the words "Hong Kong is not China" over his shoulders and crossed his fingers as he held a Bible while he spoke. His colleague Yau Wai-ching laid the same flag on the table in front of her when it was her turn.

They recited the oath in English but appeared to deliberately mispronounce the word China as Shina , an old fashioned Japanese term for the country that some see as derogatory. Yau, 25, also appeared to insert a curse word into her oath.

The legislative clerk admonished them for not sticking to the proper wording and refused to accept their oaths. Another lawmaker, Lau Siu-lai, who founded her own party, Democracy Groundwork, recited the oath very slowly. She took about 10 minutes to repeat the declaration, which has less than 100 words, by pausing for a few seconds after each word, as the rest of the council chamber listened in silence.

IS drone kills Kurdish fighters, hurts French troops

Washington (AFP)
Oct 12, 2016

A remote-controlled jihadist hobby plane rigged with hidden explosives killed two Kurdish fighters and injured two French special operations troops near Mosul, French and US sources confirmed Wednesday.

While the Pentagon has previously said the Islamic State group uses simple, commercially available drones to conduct surveillance and carry small explosives, this was the first known deadly case.

According to a US defense official, the incident unfolded October 2 when a small plane with a styrofoam body was either shot down or crashed in Erbil in northern Iraq.

Two local Kurdish peshmerga fighters grabbed it and took it back to their camp to inspect and photograph it, when it blew up.

"It looks like the explosive charge was hidden inside of what appeared to be a battery on some sort of a timer," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter.

A French source earlier confirmed the use of a "booby-trapped drone in Iraq," while another confirmed that two French soldiers were hurt in the incident.

One of the French soldiers has life-threatening injuries. Both have been flown back to France for treatment.

The French military declined to comment.

Colonel John Dorrian, a spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, described the incident as a "Trojan Horse-style" attack.

"There was an improvised device on a drone. And when that was brought back to the camp, it exploded," he said.

US defense officials said the military was deploying additional anti-drone technologies to the theater, including systems that provide electronic jamming.

"We don't just let the enemy develop a capability that threatens our forces and those forces of our allies and partners and leave that threat unaddressed," Dorrian said.

France is part of the international coalition fighting IS, which is preparing for a major offensive to dislodge the jihadist group from Mosul, which lies 85 kilometers (53 miles) from Erbil.

Around 500 French soldiers are based in Iraq, where they advise the peshmerga and train Iraqi elite forces in Baghdad. About 5,000 US troops are in Iraq.

US defense officials stressed IS drones would have zero strategic impact on the upcoming battle to wrest control of Mosul from IS.

"The implications of this are certainly not an existential threat and not something that's militarily significant in that it's going to stop anything that needs to happen from happening," Dorrian said.

The unnamed defense official said the biggest implication was guidance being issued across the coalition to not pick up any drones.

"Treat them as unexploded ordinance," he said.

"You see a drone sitting on the ground, don't pick it up," and call a bomb disposal expert, he added.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/IS_drone_kills_Kurdish_fighters_hurts_French_troops_999.html.

Bashir promises supporters a new tribe-free Sudan

October 12, 2016

Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir has promised his supporters what he called a “new Sudan without tribalism,” Anadolu has reported. He made the promise in a speech to thousands of his supporters in Green Square, Khartoum. They had gathered to declare their support for the recommendations of the National Dialogue, which was approved on Monday.

Removing the tribal checkbox on official papers is one of the highlights of the recommendations. The dialogue was boycotted by the main opposition factions. According to the president, “From now on, our identity is just Sudanese, with no tribal references as part of it.” He repeated his call to opponents to sign up to the National Dialogue.

Identity is one of the six themes covered by the dialogue sessions. Many Sudanese associate it with the country’s civil wars since its independence from British rule in 1956.

South Sudan, made up mainly of African groups with a majority of Christian and local religions in addition to a Muslim minority, was separated from the north — dominated by Muslim Arabs — in 2011. A national referendum agreed to a peace agreement signed in 2005 to bring an end to decades of devastating civil war.

Bashir launched an initiative for dialogue in early 2014, but its sessions only started this month. Opposition factions boycotted the initiative after Bashir rejected their conditions, especially the release of political detainees and convicts, the abolition of laws restricting freedoms, and an independent mechanism to manage the process, which was held under the president’s chairmanship.

Foreign mediation saw the signing of a road map resulting in negotiations between the government and rebel movements last August, before the talks were suspended for an indefinite period. In the past few days, government officials asserted that they would not get engaged in a new dialogue, and the opposition factions should sign-up only for the recommendations in order to be part of the implementation process. The opposition announced that it does not care about the recommendations and threatened to resort to a popular uprising.

On Tuesday, Sadiq Al-Mahdi, the leader of the National Party, the largest opposition party in the country, said that the opposition factions are “united in their position, and refuse to engage in the regime and its allies’ dialogue.” He stressed that the opposition is committed to a comprehensive dialogue through the road map and the supervision of the African Mechanism, led by the former President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161012-bashir-promises-supporters-a-new-tribe-free-sudan/.

Despite anti-India protests, Kashmiris seek police jobs

October 09, 2016

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — When massive anti-India protests erupted in Indian-control Kashmir three months ago after the killing of a charismatic militant leader, Aqib Mir was among tens of thousands of Kashmiris who defied curfew and clashed with government forces.

He chanted for freedom from Indian rule. He hurled abuses and sometimes rocks at police and paramilitary soldiers. Three months later, he joined thousands of other young Kashmiris to try and get a job with the local police.

"Unemployment, what else," the 24-years-old Mir said when asked why he had lined up inside a soccer stadium in Kashmir's main city of Srinagar to appear for a physical fitness test to become a cop. "We want freedom from India, that's our fundamental right. But we also have to earn livelihood."

He's among some 20,000 young people, the majority of them men, who are trying out for 8,000 jobs advertised by the state police in the troubled Himalayan region that is wracked by rampant unemployment.

With limited job opportunities and an economy crippled by decades of conflict, the state police force is one of the largest employers in Kashmir. According to government data, unemployment in the state stands at over 5 percent for a population of 12 million.

But being a police officer in Indian-controlled Kashmir is both shameful and dangerous, a place where anti-India sentiments are high. Most candidates hid their faces from the photographers covering the recruitment event, highlighting the discomfort Kashmiri police face in their work.

Many residents view the local police as traitors and tools of the Indian government bent on suppressing widespread demands for the Muslim-majority region's independence or merger with neighboring Pakistan.

One candidate insisted that he had only come to watch the recruitment "drama," even though his name was on the list of candidates. "I was getting bored at home," he said. Since July 8, when the most recent rounds of independence protests erupted, many police officials have faced increasing hostility from locals as dozens of civilians have been killed and thousands injured when police and paramilitary troops fired live ammunition and shot gun pellets.

The size of Kashmir's police department has swelled from just 18,000 officials in early 1990s, when armed rebellion against Indian rule peaked, to more than 100,000 today. A top police officer speaking on a customary condition of anonymity said that despite public suspicion, the candidates are lured by hopes of getting a government job as it offers a steady paycheck.

"This is nothing but compulsion. We're forced to think through our belly," Mir said. "There are two wars we have to fight: one is for freedom and the other is for employment."

Iraq PM hits back in war of words with Turkey's president

Baghdad (AFP)
Oct 11, 2016

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hit back on Tuesday against dismissive comments by Turkey's president, mocking his appeal to the nation via video call during a failed coup attempt.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Abadi earlier in the day to "know your place," and said that he is "not on my level" -- another escalation in the war of words between the two sides over Ankara's deployment of troops in Iraq's north.

"We will liberate our land through the determination of our men and not by video calls," Abadi's official Twitter account said.

Erdogan made a desperate appeal via video calling application FaceTime for citizens to resist a July attempt to overthrow the government, rallying resistance that helped to thwart the coup.

Abadi's spokesman Saad al-Hadithi told AFP that Erdogan, with his latest remarks, was "pouring oil on the fire," adding that Turkey's responses had made an issue of law and security into a "problem of a personal nature".

"It seems that Turkey is not serious about solving the problem with Iraq," Hadithi said.

Abadi has repeatedly called on Turkey to withdraw troops deployed near the northern city of Mosul, and said that they will not play a role in the operation to retake it from the Islamic State jihadist group.

Turkey has ignored these requests and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said last week that the country's forces would stay "no matter what the Iraqi government in Baghdad says."

The dispute has now lasted for almost a year, and was reignited by the Turkish parliament's decision to extend a government mandate, thereby allowing Turkish troops to remain in Iraq.

Turkey has had forces deployed in northern Iraq since the 1990s in areas that are part of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, which also currently controls the area near Mosul where the Turkish troops are deployed.

Kurdish security forces are in practice not under Abadi's command, meaning that appealing for their withdrawal and pushing for allies to help is his main recourse at the moment.

Iraq has called for an emergency session of the UN Security Council to discuss the dispute, which threatens to complicate plans to recapture Mosul from IS.

Iraqi forces are currently preparing for the operation to seize the city from IS, which overran it and other areas in 2014 but has since lost significant ground in the country...

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Iraq_PM_hits_back_in_war_of_words_with_Turkeys_president_999.html.

Daesh retakes territory in Iraq

October 8, 2016

Daesh fighters have successfully managed to retake territory from the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) after a brief yet “large and powerful” assault last night forced the ISF to withdraw entirely from villages under their control, Iraqi military sources have confirmed.

The clashes occurred just south of Shirqat, a district that was recaptured last month from Daesh by the ISF and with the support of the US-led coalition’s air power. The Iraqi government touted Daesh’s rout from Shirqat as a significant “stepping-stone” for the upcoming operation to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and Daesh’s last major urban stronghold in Iraq.

Iraqi military sources confirmed that Daesh managed to infiltrate their positions after advancing from the eastern bank of the Tigris River that flows by Shirqat and the Makhoul mountains where Daesh has a presence.

Daesh fighters then managed to surprise and assault ISF positions in a “rapid and aggressive manner.” The ISF was then forced to withdraw, allowing Daesh’s subsequent control over the village of Khanouga which lies just ten kilometers south of Shirqat.

As a precautionary measure against further Daesh attacks, ISF troops evacuated Khanouga and also imposed a curfew on the town of Shirqat in order to monitor potential threats. This was reportedly followed by Iraqi government airstrikes, but not that of the international coalition.

This is not the first time that Iraqi forces have been forced to flee after the US-led coalition focused its air power on a different sector.

Earlier today, 13 ISF soldiers were killed and a further 24 wounded after Daesh assaulted their positions in the western Iraqi Anbar Province. This could demonstrate that, without foreign air power, Iraqi forces would be incapable of fighting Daesh effectively.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161008-daesh-retakes-territory-in-iraq/.

Daesh retakes territory in Iraq’s Anbar

October 1, 2016

Daesh launched a largescale assault against an Iraqi military position in the western Anbar Province last night, managing to inflict heavy losses on Iraqi forces and to retake territory it had lost last summer, Al Jazeera reported today.

Iraqi military sources confirmed that Daesh’s attack occurred near the provincial capital of Ramadi that was retaken by forces loyal to Baghdad in February this year.

According to sources, Daesh attacked government positions in the Albu Dhiyab region and recaptured the village of Albu Judai marking the second time that the village has changed hands in less than a year.

Daesh reportedly made use of five suicide bomb attacks against troops before attacking with other units, which led the Iraqi military to respond with close-air support from helicopters in an attempt to force Daesh to withdraw.

The Iraqi army claimed to have killed 11 Daesh militants in reprisal attacks, yet suffered severe losses of 27 soldiers and allied militiamen killed in the same area just two days ago.

Daesh’s renewed activity in areas of Iraq that were thought to be cleared of the extremist organisation suggests that they are already transitioning back into a guerrilla campaign as they progressively lose ground to the Iraqi government backed by the US-led coalition.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161001-daesh-retakes-territory-in-iraqs-anbar/.

UN warns of 'disaster' once Iraqi troops take on IS in Mosul

September 29, 2016

GENEVA (AP) — A looming Iraqi military operation against the Islamic State group in Mosul could spark "one of the largest man-made disasters" in years, the U.N. refugee agency's top official in Iraq warned Thursday, urging the international community to keep up support for displaced Iraqis before a battle that could mark a turning point for the war-ravaged country.

Bruno Geddo of UNHCR says more than 1 million people could be displaced by the campaign to retake the largest IS-held city, which has an estimated population of 1.2 to 1.5 million. The Iraqi government has pledged to retake Mosul this year, but has not announced a date for the operation — and has been gearing up with support from the United States and other allies.

Speaking Thursday to reporters after meetings with donors in Geneva, Geddo said UNHCR is preparing as well, but faces constraints in obtaining land for camps, erecting them in time, and winning full funding for its plans. He said UNHCR and partners are planning to provide tents, water, medical support and other services to the estimated 700,000 people who might flee Mosul.

The military operation in the city "has the potential to be one of the largest man-made disasters for many, many years." However, he said the agency is better prepared to act than before a similar government operation lasting 6-1/2 months to liberate Fallujah, west of Baghdad, in May and June, and noted lessons that UNCHR learned from that operation.

"The first lesson is: It is too late when you receive funding when the crisis hits the television screens, which has normally been the pattern in the past in dealing with humanitarian crises," Geddo said. "We need funding to prepare in advance of the emergency."

"This time, whereas Mosul may have dramatic — in the worst case apocalyptic — proportions, in a way we are in a better position because we know that it is coming," and funding was coming together in part, he said.

Plans are, for example, to pre-position tents closer to the theater of operations, in case people flee before camps are ready. "In an ideal situation, we should be able to provide a roof on every family within 24 hours," he said. "It is going to be a huge challenge but we are planning to try our best to meet this."

Geddo noted that the extremist IS group had deployed tactics like using civilians as human shields, and aired concerns about how Shiite militia groups allied with Iraqi troops had reportedly mistreated civilians fleeing Fallujah as suspected IS accomplices.

He said sustained international support was essential to help Iraq's government overcome IS and stabilize the country. "The Iraqi people deeply are traumatized. This war now, 2016-2017, might with luck mark a turning point for the country," he said. "The international community should not succumb to fatigue, should stay the course, should continue to support Iraq as much as we can, so that Iraq can mark the turning point."

Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.

Iraq forces launch push on strategic town held by IS

Tuesday 20 September 2016

Iraqi forces launched an operation on Tuesday to retake a northern town from the Islamic State (IS) group in the latest move to prepare a broad offensive on the militant’s bastion in Mosul.

Army and tribal forces pushed towards Sherqat, which IS militants captured more than two years ago when they swept across Iraq's Sunni Arab heartland.

The town lies on the west bank of the Tigris river in Salaheddin province, 260 kilometers (160 miles) northwest of Baghdad and around 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Mosul.

Iraqi forces have already reconquered other towns north of Sherqat on the way to Mosul, but the question of Shia militia involvement in military operations there had held up the push.

"The operation to liberate Sherqat started at 5:30 am (0230 GMT) from several directions... with the support of coalition forces," Joint Operations Command spokesman Yahya Rasool said.

"We are making good progress," he told AFP. "Sherqat is important, we can't move on Mosul and have terrorists control Sherqat."

Colonel Mohammed al-Assadi, an Iraqi security spokesman, said the country's forces had retaken villages around Sherqat and were about five kilometers (three miles) from the town.

Colonel John Dorrian, the spokesman for the US-led operation against IS, said coalition forces had carried out 19 air strikes over the past two weeks to set the stage for the Sherqat operation.

Sherqat is "in close proximity to their supply lines," Dorrian said, referring to routes by which Iraqi forces move troops and material for operations against IS.

"Clearing that area makes sure that their supply lines are protected," he said.

Ahmed al-Assadi, the spokesman of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) paramilitary forces, said operation "Sherqat Dawn" aimed to "finish expelling those terrorist gangsters from usurped Iraqi land".

The Hashed al-Shaabi, which has played a big part in retaking IS-held areas since 2014, is nominally under the control of the prime minister but dominated by Tehran-backed Shia militia.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, speaking from New York where he met US President Barack Obama, said the same operation also included efforts to flush out IS militants from desert areas near Ramadi and Heet in the western province of Anbar.

While most towns and cities in Anbar are now under government control, IS militants are still able to move across parts of the vast arid province and have continued to harass Iraqi forces.

Iraqi forces have been moving northwards from Baghdad for almost two years, gradually retaking areas over which IS declared its "caliphate" in June 2014.

The militants have also lost ground in Syria and Libya.

Iraqi forces have left some pockets of IS militants on the way however - such as in Hawijah or in the Hamreen mountains - and priority was given to Qayyarah, a town farther north which will be used as a launchpad for an offensive on Mosul.

Speaking before talks with Abadi, Obama said he could see quick progress in the battle for Mosul, the last major IS stronghold in Iraq since government forces retook Fallujah in June.

"We feel confident that we will be in a position to move forward fairly rapidly," Obama said, vowing to fight "right at the heart of the (IS) operation in Mosul".

Source: Middle East Eye.
Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/iraq-forces-launch-push-strategic-town-held-374790713.

Residents begin returning to Iraq's Fallujah

September 17, 2016

BAGHDAD (AP) — Families have begun returning to Fallujah three months after the Iraqi city was declared fully liberated from the Islamic State group, an Iraqi official said Saturday. Forty families were cleared to return after they passed background checks and their neighborhoods were deemed safe, Suhaib al-Rawi, governor of the western Anbar province, said.

In total 236 families returned Saturday to Fallujah and surrounding suburbs, his added. Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, had a pre-conflict population of more than 300,000 people. Fallujah was declared "fully liberated" in late June after a monthlong operation by Iraqi forces aided by U.S.-led airstrikes. Fallujah had been the first Iraqi city to fall to IS, in January 2014.

The nearby city of Ramadi was also retaken from IS earlier this year, but remains largely uninhabitable due to destruction caused by the fighting and explosives left behind by IS. More than a hundred civilians were killed by explosives planted by IS in Ramadi as they initially tried to return. Iraqi authorities then began turning many people away for safety reasons.

"Today's homecoming ended up being far less of a tidal wave of returnees than we had hoped," said Jeremy Courtney, the founder of an aid group active in Anbar called Preemptive Love. "We had prepared welcome home food and supplies for 1,200 people," he added.

IS still controls the northern city of Mosul, Iraq's second largest. Iraqi leaders hope to take it back this year, but those plans could be delayed by preparations for a parallel humanitarian operation. The U.N. says up to a million civilians could flee Mosul once the push to retake the city begins.

Ruling Bosnian Serbs, pro-EU group face-off in local votes

September 30, 2016

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Bosnians will vote Sunday in local elections marked by a battle over who will run the municipalities in the part of the country run by Bosnian Serbs — a pro-European Union coalition or the already ruling separatist party with close ties to Russia.

(1 of 11) Bosnian Serb Milorad Dodik, President of the Bosnian Serb region of Republic of Srpska, attends a pre election rally of the "Alliance of Independent Social Democrats" party in the Bosnian town of Banja Luka, 240 kms northwest of Sarajevo, Bosnia, on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016. Bosnians will vote in local elections on Sunday Oct. 2.

Municipal councils and mayors will be chosen throughout the country, but the main contest will take place in Republika Srpska region between the party of regional President Milorad Dodik — the Alliance of Independent Social-Democrats — and a coalition called The Alliance for Changes.

Dodik advocates secession from Bosnia and has promised Bosnian Serbs a 2018 referendum on independence — something many of them have been seeking since Yugoslavia collapsed during the 1990s. The equally nationalistic coalition sees the future Republika Srpska as a semi-autonomous region within a Bosnia that is an EU member.

The coalition led by the Serb Democratic Party focused its pre-election campaign on bread and butter issues, but also published details of Dodik's alleged corruption and accused him of throwing the region into poverty during his decade in power.

However, Dodik managed to shift voter's attention away from the accusations by holding, a week before the regional elections, a divisive Bosnian Serb referendum over a disputed Republika Srpska holiday that the country's constitutional court had banned because it discriminates against non-Serbs.

The court also banned the referendum, but Dodik conducted it anyway and portrayed the court's actions as an attack on Serb autonomy. Voters overwhelmingly approved the holiday, although non-Serbs mostly boycotted the vote.

The opposition says the "unnecessary" referendum cost taxpayers 750,000 euros ($840,000) and was used as a ploy by Dodik to divert attention from serious issues facing the region. Each of Bosnia's two regions — Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat Federation — has its own government, president and parliament, but the two are linked by a shared state-level government, parliament and a three-member presidency comprised of a Muslim Bosniak, Christian Orthodox Serb and Roman Catholic Croat.

In general elections two years ago, Dodik's party lost the Serb posts in the state elections to the opposition coalition, but retained power in the regional parliament and government. Since his opponents joined the central government, Bosnia made progress toward obtaining EU membership and begun major socio-economic reforms. Dodik has called them Serb traitors.

A poor showing for Dodik's party in Sunday's municipal elections, following the loss at the national level, would be a sign of his diminished popularity among Bosnian Serbs after more than a decade in which he has gone unchallenged.

Bosnian Serbs vote in referendum banned by top court

September 25, 2016

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Bosnian Serbs on Sunday voted in a referendum banned by the country's constitutional court, risking Western sanctions against their autonomous region and criminal charges against their leaders.

The vote was whether to keep Jan. 9 as a holiday in Republika Srpska, commemorating the day in 1992 that Bosnian Serbs declared the creation of their own state, igniting the ruinous 1992-95 war. It comes despite the top court's ruling that the date, which falls on a Serb Christian Orthodox religious holiday, discriminates against Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats in Bosnia.

Authorities said turnout was between 56 and 60 percent. Preliminary results after 30.76 percent of the ballots were counted say 99.8 percent of the voters were in favor of the holiday. The vote has raised tensions and fears of renewed fighting as Bosniaks and Croats see the referendum as an attempt to elevate the Serb region above the country's constitutional court. It is also a test for a more serious referendum that Bosnian Serb leaders have announced for 2018 — one on independence from Bosnia.

During the 1992-95 war that killed 100,000 people and turned half of the country's population into refugees, Bosniaks and Croats were persecuted and almost completely expelled from Republika Srpska territory.

After the war, Republika Srpska ended up not independent but an autonomous region of Bosnia. Bosniaks and Croats who returned there view the holiday as a celebration of their expulsion. Republika Srpska, a region of 1.2 million, marks the day with religious ceremonies, hinting the region is still meant just for Serbs.

The constitutional court has banned both the holiday and the referendum, a ruling that Bosnian Serbs see as an attack on their autonomy. The West has urged that the illegal referendum not be held, but Bosnian Serbs are backed by Russia. Western officials said they might consider halting projects in the mini-state or impose travel bans on its leaders and freeze their assets.

Tomislav Stajcic, a resident of Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, compared the holiday with a birthday. "There is no force on this earth, political or divine or any other really, which can change the date of your birth," he said, calling the constitutional court's decision "senseless."

Opposition leaders have dismissed the idea of a new conflict, saying the Bosnian Serb ruling party scheduled the referendum a week before a local election to divert campaign topics from corruption to nationalism.

The Bosnian Serb member of the country's presidency and one of the opposition leaders in Republika Srpska, Mladen Ivanic, said he doesn't understand the "circus" about the referendum. "Who wants to celebrate it should and who doesn't does not have to," he said.

But the Bosniak member called for prosecutors to act, saying Bosnian Serbs have been pushing the limits for decades. "Now they reached a new level of spitefulness, exceeding all limits," Bakir Izetbegovic said.

"These people pull the rope until it snaps and then, of course, they land on their back."

Palestinian assassinated under mysterious circumstances in Kazakhstan

October 14, 2016

A Palestinian was assassinated in the Kazakh city of Almaty this morning while entering the building he lived in.

Diya’a Al-Bashiti, 45, who was one of the founders of the Palestinian community in the city was killed by unknown individuals.

According to a statement made by the Palestinian embassy, Al-Bashiti was shot at point blank range near his heart. He died 15 minutes later.

Palestinian Ambassador, Montaser Abu Zeid, mourned the loss of Al-Bashiti and stated that the embassy is monitoring “the investigation into this heinous crime and following up with the police and security agencies in Kazakhstan.”

Al-Bashiti is originally from Gaza. He is married to a Kazakh woman and has a child.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161014-palestinian-assassinated-under-mysterious-circumstances-in-kazakhstan/.

Peace is top priority for next UN chief Antonio Guterres

October 13, 2016

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Antonio Guterres pledged Thursday to make the pursuit of peace in a conflict-torn world his "over-arching priority" after being elected the next secretary-general of the United Nations.

The former Portuguese prime minister and U.N. refugee chief told the 193 members of the U.N. General Assembly who elected him by acclamation that the United Nations has "the moral duty and the universal right" to ensure peace — and he will be promoting a new "diplomacy for peace" advocating dialogue to settle disputes.

Gutteres said he will do his best before taking the reins of the U.N. from Ban Ki-moon on Jan. 1 to prepare "to act as a convener, an honest broker, someone trying to bring people together" in conflicts and crises from Syria and Yemen to South Sudan.

"It's high time to fight for peace," he said, and make people understand that whatever divisions exist it's more important to unite and end the suffering because of the risks for countries in conflict and the international community.

Guterres, who will become the ninth U.N. chief in the world body's 71-year history, said he is not only fully aware of the challenges the United Nations faces but the limitations surrounding the secretary-general.

"The dramatic problems of today's complex world can only inspire a humble approach, one in which the secretary-general alone neither has all the answers nor seeks to impose his views, one in which the secretary-general makes his good offices available ... to help find solutions that benefit everyone involved."

It was Guterres' strong performance answering questions before the General Assembly, and his executive experience as prime minister and as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees from 2005-2015 that propelled him to first place among the 13 candidates vying for the job in the informal polls in the Security Council. After last week's sixth poll, the council nominated him by acclamation.

At Thursday's meeting, General Assembly President Peter Thompson introduced the resolution to elect Gutteres, said members wanted it adopted by acclamation, and banged his gavel in approval as diplomats broke into applause.

Guterres "embodies the highest standards of competence, integrity and leadership," Thompson said. Secretary-General Ban, recalling Guterres' decade as the U.N.'s refugee chief, told the assembly that he is "best known where it counts most, on the front lines of armed conflict and humanitarian suffering."

Ban noted that Guterres' election was 10 years to the day after his own election in 2006, calling the ceremony "poignant for me." But he told Guterres: "the people of the world are all looking forward to your tenure with confidence and excitement."

Ambassador Samantha Power, speaking on behalf of the United States as the host country of the United Nations, called Gutteres "supremely qualified," saying he will use the office to be "an independent force to prevent conflict and alleviate human suffering."

She said the world's nations are challenging the United Nations and the secretary-general to do more than they have ever done before. For the U.N. to succeed, Power said, nation are asking Guterres to serve as a peacemaker, a reformer to streamline the U.N. bureaucracy, and an advocate rallying the world "to respond to humanitarian and man-made catastrophes, and defending the human rights of all people."

Power stressed the importance of U.N. unity in selecting Guterres, especially in the often divided Security Council — a view echoed by Guterres who expressed hope that this unity can be channeled to take decisions to bring peace.

He said that in a world which is more and more multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious, "diversity can bring us together not drive us apart." But Guterres said: "We must make sure that we are able to break this alliance between all those terrorist groups, or violent extremists on one side, and the expressions of populism and xenophobia on the other side. These two reinforce each other, and we must be able to fight both of them with determination."

Israel suspends ties with UNESCO

October 14, 2016

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett announced today that Israel is suspending all of its joint activities with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) after the organisation adopted a resolution that disregards the connection between Judaism and Al-Aqsa Mosque and casts doubt over the link between the religion and the Western Wall.

In a message to UNESCO member states, Bennett said: “Your decision denies history and encourages terror. Those who give prizes to supporters of jihad in Jerusalem mere days after two Jews were murdered in the city, may very well be the next in line.”

“The western world stands before UNESCO and against terror, just as they oppose terror in Aleppo they must unite against diplomatic terror in Jerusalem. The next terrorist will gain legitimacy from yesterday’s sick decision. Cutting Jerusalem off from Israel will create a domino effect that will affect the entire Western world,” he said.

UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova spoke out today against the organisation’s executive board for its adoption of the aforementioned resolution.

In a statement, Bokova said: “The Al Aqsa Mosque [or] Al-Haram Al-Sharif, the sacred shrine of Muslims, is also the Har HaBayit – or Temple Mount – whose Western Wall is the holiest place in Judaism.”

“Jerusalem is the sacred city of the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is in recognition of this exceptional diversity, and this cultural and religious coexistence, that it was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list,” she added in the statement, which was made hours after Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, MK Carmel Shama-Hacohen, asked her to speak out against the motion, as she had done in April, when the UNESCO executive board voted in favour of a similar motion.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161014-israel-suspends-ties-with-unesco/.

Philippines' Duterte seeks money, respect in China

Manila (AFP)
Oct 13, 2016

Firebrand Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte heads to China next week seeking billions of dollars in investments and buckets of respect, as he pivots angrily away from traditional ally the United States.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to give the mercurial leader a warm welcome, after Duterte threatened to end a decades-long alliance with the United States and gave Beijing a timely boost in its quest for more control over the strategically vital South China Sea.

Duterte, 71, has said he is trying to wean the Philippines off an unhealthy reliance on its former colonial ruler, although he has signaled the shift is also due to his outrage at US criticism of his deadly war on crime.

Analysts believe Duterte's attraction to a rising China is typical of his ultra-pragmatic governing style, following repeated speeches from him highlighting what he believes is the United States' diminishing economic and military might.

"He is a results-oriented person, Machiavellian, too," University of the Philippines political science professor Clarita Carlos told AFP.

"The guy knows if he can find markets for our bananas, pineapples, and create employment, whether it's China, Russia or Mali, that's where we are going. Whatever works."

Duterte is bringing along a delegation of hundreds of businessmen, including many of the Philippines' most powerful tycoons, in a bid to capitalize on the warming of relations that have taken place due to his efforts to placate Beijing on the South China Sea row.

China claims nearly all of the strategically vital sea, even waters approaching the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations, and has in recent years built artificial islands in the disputed areas that are capable of hosting military bases.

- Chinese anger -

Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino, infuriated Beijing by challenging it on a range of fronts.

Aquino allowed American troops to be stationed in the Philippines, launched joint patrols in the sea, filed a legal case at a UN-backed tribunal, repeatedly raised the issue at regional summits and refused to hold direct negotiations with Beijing.

In July, 12 days after Duterte took office, the international tribunal handed the Philippines a surprisingly resounding victory, ruling that China's claims to most of the sea had no legal basis and that its artificial island-building was illegal.

But, instead of using the verdict to pressure China as Aquino would have done, Duterte sought to mend ties with Beijing.

He also launched a sustained verbal assault on the United States, scrapping the joint patrols as well as a series of annual war games.

During the election campaign, Duterte said he was willing to "set aside" the South China Sea dispute in return for China building a railway through the impoverished southern Philippine region of Mindanao.

He also said it was not in the nation's interest to insist on its claim over Scarborough Shoal, a fishing ground within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone that China seized in 2012.

"Let's just not dwell on Scarborough because we cannot fight them," Duterte said this week.

- Respect -

Duterte has also signaled he wants to go to Beijing to enjoy some respect, following relentless criticism from the West about alleged extrajudicial killings in his war on crime.

More than 3,300 people have been killed in the crackdown, and US President Barack Obama has been among the many critics to express concern about an apparent breakdown in the rule of law.

"Eventually I might in my term, break up with America. I would rather go to Russia or to China. Even if we do not agree with their ideology, they have respect for the people. Respect is important," Duterte said this month.

He also said he hoped to visit Russia soon after China.

Maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal warned Duterte's approach was a big gamble for the Philippines, with China the only sure winner at this stage.

Duterte "is taking a huge risk, betting all on China's goodwill and beneficence without the insurance provided by the diversified, multilateral support of historical and traditional friends and allies", Batongbacal, a University of the Philippines law professor, wrote this week.

Still, it is too early for China to claim victory, according to Richard Javad Heydarian, a regional expert at De La Salle University in Manila.

"I won't be surprised if at some point Duterte will hedge his bets and pivot back to the US if he fails to get any satisfactory concession from China," Heydarian said.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Philippines_Duterte_seeks_money_respect_in_China_999.html.

Tributes for Thai king as concern swirls over nation's future

Bangkok (AFP)
Oct 13, 2016

World leaders paid tribute to Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej as a champion of his people during a momentous seven-decade reign, as observers warned his death could plunge the country into renewed turmoil.

Bhumibol, whose reign witnessed regular bouts of political turmoil, coups and violent unrest, was revered as a serene and caring father of the nation, and a bulwark in troubled times.

His death Thursday at the age of 88, with Thailand under a military dictatorship, could cause fresh political tensions and economic hardship, analysts warned as his people come to terms with losing the only monarch most have ever known.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon hailed the king's "long dedication to his country and his legacy as a unifying national leader... respected internationally".

"The Secretary-General expresses his hope that Thailand will continue to honour King Bhumibol's legacy of commitment to universal values and respect for human rights," his spokesman said in a statement.

President Barack Obama praised the monarch as a "close friend" and partner of the United States.

He paid tribute to the king as a "tireless champion" for Thailand's development, praising his "unflagging devotion" to improving the lives of his subjects.

"I had the honor of calling on His Majesty the King during my visit to Thailand in 2012, and recall his grace and warmth, as well as his deep affection and compassion for the Thai people," he said.

Backed by an intense palace-driven personality cult, Bhumibol was revered as semi-divine by many in Thailand, and a towering leader above the din of the kingdom's fractious political scene.

In his heydey he built a reputation as a people's monarch, criss-crossing the nation to visit the rural poor and sometimes intervening to quell political violence -- although he approved most of the army's many coups during his reign.

- 'Greatly missed' -

Neighboring Singapore and Malaysia both expressed their sorrow at his passing, with the island city-state describing the king as "an outstanding and deeply revered monarch... (who) worked tirelessly for the betterment of the Thai people".

President Vladimir Putin sent a telegram of condolence, saying that "during the decades of his reign he won the sincere love of his subjects and high prestige abroad".

British Prime Minister Theresa May said Bhumibol "guided the Kingdom of Thailand with dignity, dedication and vision throughout his life. He will be greatly missed".

Chinese President Xi Jinping hailed Bhumibol's contribution to Thailand's development, adding that the "good relationship" between Bangkok and Beijing were due in no small part to "personal efforts made by King Bhumibol himself".

Bhumibol's "rural development projects improved the lives of millions of people in Thailand" and will be remembered for generations to come, said EU President Donald Tusk and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: "People of India and I join the people of Thailand in grieving the loss of one of the tallest leaders of our times, King Bhumibol Adulyadej".

As concern mounted over the Bhumibol's health in the days prior to his death, the stock market and baht currency tumbled. And analysts predict further jitters ahead.

"The death of Thailand's highly revered king will plunge the country into a state of mourning, and also deep political uncertainty," forecasters Capital Economics said in a note.

"The period of (relative) political calm since the 2014 coup has helped the economy recover... But renewed political instability could quickly derail this recovery."

"Although the King has been unwell for a number of years and has had little or no influence on day-today policymaking for some time, he has continued to act as a unifying force in the country."

Advisory group Bower Group Asia said all eyes would now be on the succession. The junta leader said Thursday that the named heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has asked for time before being officially proclaimed the next monarch.

"During the mourning and transition period, the military will retain a firm grip over the country to ensure that the royal succession proceeds smoothly and does not become politicized," it said.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Tributes_for_Thai_king_as_concern_swirls_over_nations_future_999.html.

Russia says to sign S-400 air defence deal with India

Moscow (AFP)
Oct 13, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin will seal a deal with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an upcoming visit to deliver Moscow's most advanced air defense system, the Kremlin said Thursday.

"An agreement on the delivery of S-400 'Triumph' anti-missile defense systems and other deals will be signed as a result of the talks," Russian news agencies quoted Putin aide Yuri Ushakov as saying, without specifying a timeframe.

Putin will meet Modi in the Indian state of Goa on Saturday on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit involving the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

The Kremlin earlier this week said the talks with Modi would focus on "a wide range of matters of bilateral relations, especially trade and economic ties."

The S-400 is Russia's most modern air defense system and has been deployed to Syria, where Moscow is conducting a bombing campaign in support of long-time ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The system can track some 300 targets and shoot down around three dozen simultaneously over a range of several hundred kilometers.

India has signed a series of key defense deals under Modi as part of a $100 billion upgrade of its Soviet-era military hardware, making it an attractive proposition for arms exporters.

In September, after nearly a decade of discussions and setbacks, India signed a deal to acquire 36 French Rafale fighter jets for 7.9 billion euros ($8.8 billion) to bolster its military against an increasingly assertive China.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Russia_says_to_sign_S-400_air_defence_deal_with_India_999.html.

Cambodia embraces China's President Xi on state visit

Phnom Penh (AFP)
Oct 13, 2016

China's President Xi Jinping promised Cambodia hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and loans on Thursday during a state visit to the nation, which is one Beijing's staunchest regional allies.

Hundreds of students waving Cambodian and Chinese flags greeted Xi alongside officials at the airport before his motorcade sped into town for an audience with the royal family and later Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Cambodia has long been a strident supporter of Beijing's communist rulers, who have lavished the poor country with cash.

On Thursday the two leaders signed 31 agreements that saw China give Cambodia $178 million in aid for economic cooperation, a $59 million loan, plus an additional $15 million in military aid.

Xi also forgave a $89 million debt, the leaders said in a joint announcement after a signing ceremony.

China is Cambodia's top foreign investor and has given the country billions of dollars in grants and low-interest loans during Hun Sen's 31-year rule.

In July it offered Cambodia nearly $550 million in aid, days after the kingdom was accused of undermining regional unity by backing Beijing in disputes over the South China Sea.

In recent years Cambodia has become a thorn in the side for neighboring nations hoping to present a unified front against China's island building in the contested waters.

Several Southeast Asian nations have competing claims to parts of the sea and many in the region want to keep pressure on China over its efforts to militarize the sea.

But Cambodia's unwavering support for China has scuppered regional efforts to jointly rebuke Beijing.

Ahead of Xi's trip, a leading Cambodian newspaper published an article signed by Xi that praised the Southeast Asian nation for coming to its defense over the sea row.

"When China acted to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and maritime interests and was devoted to resolving related disputes through peaceful negotiation, Cambodia did not hesitate to speak out to uphold justice," the Chinese president wrote in the article published by Cambodia's Rasmei Kampuchea newspaper.

He also described the two nations' friendship as "beaming with new vitality" and enjoying "deep political trust and win-win economic cooperation".

Large portraits of the Chinese leader and Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni were erected along the streets of the capital Phnom Penh ahead of the two-day visit, which is Xi's first there as president.

Hun Sen regularly praises Beijing's "no-strings-attached" aid, compared to help from the United States and European Union which is often accompanied by calls to address corruption and human rights abuses in his country.

"For Cambodia, China is the most important strategic and economic partner," said Vannarith Chheang, who chairs the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies, adding that Cambodia, in turn, is China's "most reliable friend in Southeast Asia".

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Cambodia_embraces_Chinas_President_Xi_on_state_visit_999.html.