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Friday, October 28, 2016

Will he chew gum? Japan wary of Philippine leader's visit

October 25, 2016

TOKYO (AP) — The outspoken Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte worries his Japanese hosts. Not just his policy toward the U.S. but also his informal style: Will he chew gum in front of the emperor? Duterte arrived in Tokyo on Tuesday for a three-day visit, his first since becoming Philippine leader at the end of June.

For diplomats and political leaders, the main issue is his U.S. policy and how Japan can help mend those ties. Tokyo is a major U.S. ally, and has watched with concern as Duterte criticized the U.S. and said he would scale back his country's military engagement with America. He has also worried Japan and the United States by reaching out to China.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters he planned to ask Duterte what his real intentions are when the two have dinner Tuesday. He said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will do the same on Wednesday.

"I think it would be important that we ... directly hear opinions from President Duterte himself," Kishida said. The worries about Duterte were reinforced Tuesday when he lashed out again at the U.S. in a departure speech at the Manila airport.

He called Americans "foolish," saying their land is stricken with "pure bigotry and discrimination," a day after senior American diplomat Daniel Russel criticized Duterte's controversial remarks and unclear intentions.

"These Americans are really foolish," Duterte said, adding Americans travel to the Philippines "like somebody, without visas, these sillies." He also made a veiled threat to revoke a 2014 defense pact allowing large numbers of U.S. troops, warships and planes to enter the Philippines for combat drills.

Referring to the pact, Duterte said, "Forget it," adding that in the future, "I do not want to see any military man of any other nation except the Philippine soldier." Duterte repeated similar comments during a packed reception at a Tokyo hotel, where he received an exuberant welcome by hundreds of Philippine residents in Japan shouting his name and holding up smartphones to photograph him. Duterte called the U.S. and the European Union "foolish," according to Japan's NHK public television.

In Japan, where formality and politeness are highly valued, some are worried about Duterte's rough side, particularly when he meets Emperor Akihito on Friday. Japanese TV shows have repeatedly shown Duterte apparently chewing gum at meetings and other public occasions.

In footage of a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Duterte walked in with his hands in his pockets and chewed gum during the handshake and a signing ceremony. "When he makes a courtesy visit to the emperor, his behavior could have a major impact," senior lawmaker Itsunori Onodera said Sunday on Fuji TV. "I trust he understands the consequences and would not do such a thing (as chewing gum). I do hope the Philippine side will remind him of that particular point."

Duterte often doesn't button the top button of his shirt, wears jeans and has been seen without socks. In Japan, where the emperor was considered a living god until the end of World War II, people are expected to be extra polite to him and his family.

"It's unbelievable. I have never seen anything like that!" former diplomat Kunihiko Miyake said on Fuji TV. "How could he dare to behave in ways that could cause his host to lose face." During his visit, Japan is expected to offer Manila two large Coast Guard patrol boats — on top of an earlier pledge of 10 smaller ones — and TC-90 military training aircraft to help boost the Philippine's maritime security in the South China Sea.

Associated Press writer Jim Gomez contributed to this report from Manila, Philippines.

Somalia: Islamic State Seize Militants Town in Puntland

27 October 2016

By Harun Maruf

Pro-Islamic State militants have seized their first big town in the Puntland region of Somalia, officials and residents told VOA.

The militants moved into the Red Sea town of Qandala, 90 miles east of Bosaso, in the early hours of Wednesday without any confrontations.

Officials from the Puntland administration have left the town. The chairman of the town, Jama Mohamed Mumin, confirmed to VOA's Somali Service that the town was seized by “Daesh.”

A resident in the town told VOA Somali that about 60 militants entered the town and hoisted their flag on top of the police station and another historical building.

“Early in the morning they restricted our movement, now they eased restrictions and we are trying to leave the town,” says the resident, who asked not to be identified for security reasons.

He said local elders met with the militants and told them to leave the town but says the militants insisted ‘they are not going anywhere."

The pro-Islamic State faction in northeastern Somalia is led by Sheikh Abdulkadir Mumin, a former al-Shabab cleric who pledged his allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a year ago.

Last month, the U.S. State Department designated Mumin as a global terrorist.

A former al-Shabab member estimates that about 200 pro-IS fighters are in the group. A security expert puts the number a bit higher at 300.

Qandala is a strategic port town facing the coastal towns of Yemen. The former Intelligence Director of Puntland Abdi Hassan said earlier that IS has started delivering supplies through their affiliate faction in Yemen.

“They received military supplies from Yemen – weapons, uniform, ISIS sent trainers who inspected their bases, and they have started sending financial support,” he said. “The weapons’ shipment was delivered by sea from Mukallah city in Hadramouth, it has arrived from the Red Sea coast of Somalia in February and March this year.”

Source: allAfrica.
Link: http://allafrica.com/stories/201610270627.html.

Daesh holds up Iraqi army south of Mosul

October 27, 2016

Daesh fighters kept up on Wednesday their fierce defense of the southern approaches to Mosul, which has held up Iraqi troops there and forced an elite army unit east of the city to put a more rapid advance on hold.

Ten days into what is expected to be the biggest ground offensive in Iraq since the US-led invasion of 2003, army and federal police units aim to dislodge the militants from villages in the region of Shora, 30 km (20 miles) south of Mosul.

The frontlines in other areas have moved much closer to the edges of the city, the last major stronghold under control of the militants in Iraq, who have held it since 2014.

The elite army unit which moved in from the east has paused its advance as it approaches built-up areas, waiting for the other attacking forces to close the gap.

“As Iraqi forces move closer to Mosul, we see that Daesh resistance is getting stronger,” said Major Chris Parker, a coalition spokesman at the Qayyara airbase south of Mosul that serves as a hub for the campaign. Daesh is an Arabic acronym for Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

The combat ahead is likely to get more deadly as 1.5 million residents remain in the city and worst-case UN forecasts see up to a million people being uprooted.

A Reuters correspondent on the southern front met villagers and police who said their relatives had been taken as human shields to cover the fighters’ retreat from the area.

The militants have been using suicide car-bombs extensively to fight off the advancing troops, according to Major General Najm al-Jabouri, the commander of the Mosul operations.

He said his soldiers had destroyed at least 95 car bombs since the battle started on Oct. 17.

Outside the village of Saf al-Tuth, Jabouri directed heavy machine-gun fire at a sparse concrete building on a ridge where his men believed a sniper was hunkered down. Volleys of rockets flew over the ridge with a whoosh and pounded the village itself with loud booms.

UN aid agencies said the fighting has so far forced about 10,600 people to flee.

“Assessments have recorded a significant number of female-headed households, raising concerns around the detention or capture of men and boys,” said a news release from the office of the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Lise Grande.

Grande told Reuters on Tuesday that a mass exodus could happen, maybe within the next few days.

In the worst case scenario, Grande said, it was also possible that Daesh fighters could resort to “rudimentary chemical weapons” to hold back the impending assault.

The fall of Mosul would mark Islamic State’s effective defeat in Iraq. The city, sometimes described as Iraq’s second largest, is many times bigger than any other Islamic State has ever captured, and it was from its Grand Mosque that the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a “caliphate” that also spans parts of Syria.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Tuesday an attack on Raqqa, Daesh’s main stronghold in Syria, would start while the battle of Mosul is still unfolding. It was the first official suggestion that U.S.-backed forces in both countries could soon mount simultaneous operations to crush the self-proclaimed caliphate once and for all.

Shi’ite Militias

A senior US official said about 50,000 Iraqi ground troops are taking part in the offensive, including a core force of 30,000 from the government’s armed forces, 10,000 Kurdish fighters and the remaining 10,000 from police and local volunteers.

Iraqi army units are deployed to the south and east, while Kurdish fighters are attacking from the east and the north of the city where 5,000 to 6,000 jihadists are dug in, according to Iraqi military estimates.

Roughly 5,000 US troops are also in Iraq. More than 100 of them are embedded with Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces advising commanders and helping coalition air power in hitting targets. They are not deployed on frontlines.

Every power in the Middle East has claimed a stake in the fight against Islamic State, making the Mosul operation a strange coalition of nations and groups that are otherwise foes.

The attacking forces are set to increase soon if Iranian-trained Shi’ite militias join the U.S.-backed Iraqi forces. The militias’ presence is contentious because of concern that they could alienate mainly Sunni Muslim residents of the area.

The militias, known collectively as Hashid Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, said last week they would help the army take back Tal Afar, a mainly ethnic Turkmen city west of Mosul on the road linking Iraq to Syria.

Iraqi defense ministry spokesman Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool told Al-Sumariya television channel on Wednesday that the PMF would open a new front in Mosul in the coming days.

Hadi al-Amiri, head of Badr, the most powerful group within the PMF, appeared to play down the suggestion that the group would soon join an advance in Tal Afar.

“We will not go to Tal Afar now,” he said. He also said the PMF intended to enlist both Sunnis and Shi’ites from Tal Afar to fight against Daesh.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday Turkey would take measures should the Iranian-backed militias attack Tal Afar.

Turkey and Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated central government are at loggerheads over the presence – unauthorized by Baghdad – of Turkish troops at a camp in northern Iraq. Ankara fears that Shi’ite militias, which have been accused of abuses against Sunni civilians elsewhere, will be used in the Mosul offensive.

US President Barack Obama told Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call on Wednesday that he welcomed continued talks between Iraq and Turkey to seek agreement on Ankara’s participation in the drive against Islamic State, the White House said.

Both leaders affirmed their support for Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the White House said.

Iranian influence

In a sign of Iran’s influence, Kurdish political analyst Ranj Talabany tweeted a picture purportedly showing General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the al-Quds force, the extra-territorial arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, touring the frontline held by the Kurds north of Mosul.

The picture was said to be taken in Bashiqa, the region where Turkey is maintaining troops to train local Sunni forces.

Islamic State fighters have tried to divert combat from the main front near Mosul by launching attacks on other cities.

The Iraqi army said on Wednesday it had regained full control of the western town of Rutba on Wednesday, three days after Islamic State attacked it, in an apparent effort to divert Iraqi government troops from the assault on Mosul.

The militants at one point controlled half of the town on a key route to Syria and Jordan in Anbar province, a hotbed for the largely Sunni insurgency against Shi’ite-led government.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161027-daesh-holds-up-iraqi-army-south-of-mosul/.

Islamic State takes Iraqi town of Rutba: Reports

Monday 24 October 2016

The Islamic State (IS) group launched an attack and seized the western Iraqi town of Rutba on Monday as the government tries to retake Mosul, according to an Al Jazeera report.

Seeking to divert attention from the Mosul operation, the militants have tried to hit back with attacks in Rutba, as well as the major city of Kirkuk on Sunday.

They seized the mayor's office in Rutba, as well as captured and executed at least five people - civilians and policemen, army commanders said.

Rutba’s mayor, Imad al-Dulaimi, said the insurgents attacked during the night and gained entry to the town by coordinating with sleeper cells there. About 30 insurgents skirmished with tribal fighters and security forces.

The top US commander in Iraq, Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, said IS had staged what he called a complex attack in Rutba, which was being dealt with by Iraqi forces. The attack was intended "to try to draw our attention from Mosul", he said.

The commander of the Anbar operations, Ismail Al-Mahlawi, confirmed that militants executed civilians in Rutba. Arabic media cited him as saying that Iraqi troops were working to recapture the city.

Arabic media also cited a statement by Anbar council chief Sabah Karhoot, who urged Baghdad to send reinforcements to repel the IS offensive.

Around 20,000 people live in Rutba, whcih was previously taken by IS, but recaptured by government forces in May.

In an attempt to repel the offensive against Mosul, Islamic State also set fire to a sulfur plant near the city. Up to 1,000 people were treated in hospital after inhaling toxic fumes.

On Friday, IS sleeper cells in Kirkuk joined up with gunmen infiltrating the northern city in a brazen raid that saw several government buildings attacked.

The attack sparked clashes that lasted three days as security forces imposed a curfew to hunt down attackers holed up across the city.

The provincial governor, Najmeddin Karim, told AFP on Monday that the attack was over and life was returning to normal.

He said more than 74 IS militants were killed in the violence, which also left at least 46 other people dead, mostly members of the security forces.

Source: Middle East Eye.
Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/islamic-state-takes-iraqi-town-rutba-1275953097.

IS assault on Iraq's Kirkuk ends after 24-hour battle

October 22, 2016

KIRKUK, Iraq (AP) — A massive Islamic State assault on targets in and around the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk came to an end Saturday after a day and night of heavy clashes, as Iraqi forces launched a new advance southeast of the IS-held city of Mosul.

Brig. Gen. Khattab Omer of the Kirkuk police said all the attackers were killed or blew themselves up. The area around the provincial headquarters, where the fighting was heaviest, was quiet Saturday morning.

It was not clear how many militants took part in the assault, which appeared to be aimed at diverting attention from Mosul, around 170 kilometers (100 miles) away, where Iraqi forces are waging a major offensive.

The militants killed 13 workers, including four Iranians, at a power plant north of Kirkuk, and a local TV reporter was killed by a sniper in the city. It was not clear if there were other casualties among civilians or the Kurdish security forces who control Kirkuk.

The Iraqi army's 9th Division meanwhile launched a new push to retake the town of Hamdaniyah, around 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the southeast of Mosul. The Joint Military Operation Command said troops were advancing on the town, also known as Bakhdida and Qaraqosh.

Two army officers told The Associated Press that forces were advancing on the town from the north and south, with the support of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.

The operation is part of an offensive launched Monday aimed at liberating Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, which fell to IS in 2014. It is the largest operation undertaken by Iraqi forces since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and is expected to take weeks, if not months.

Hamdaniyah is believed to be largely uninhabited. IS has heavily mined the approaches to Mosul, and Iraqi forces have had to contend with roadside bombs, snipers and suicide truck bombs as they have moved closer to the city.

Iraqi forces retook the town of Bartella, around 15 kilometers (nine miles) east of Mosul, earlier this week, but are still facing pockets of resistance in the area.

Abdul-Zahra reported from Bartella. Associated Press writer Joseph Krauss contributed to this report from Baghdad.

Assad allies bomb Turkish-backed forces amid warning against Aleppo advance

Wednesday 26 October 2016

Forces allied to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria warned Turkey on Wednesday against any advance towards their positions to the north and east of Aleppo, as Turkish officials accused the Syrian government of carrying out a strike on its allies.

It was the first time a direct clash between Syrian forces and the Turkish-backed rebels has been announced. Two rebels were killed and five wounded, the Turkish army said.

The Turkish military said a helicopter "assessed to belong to regime forces" bombed the rebels in a village near Akhtarin, a town 5km southeast of Dabiq, late on Tuesday.

Dabiq is a former Islamic State stronghold which the rebels seized from the militants this month.

"This kind of attack will not stop our fight against Daesh (Islamic State)," said Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu. "This operation will continue until al-Bab. The operation needs to continue, and it will."

The reported attack came as pro-Assad forces warned that any attempt by Turkish-backed forces to would be seen as a breach of "the red lines".

The field commander of the forces allied to Damascus - who was not identified by name, nationality or affiliation - made the comments during a tour of frontlines to the north of Aleppo in a written statement sent to Reuters by an official from the same alliance.

"We will not let anyone use the excuse of fighting Daesh to advance and attempt to draw near to the defences of the allies forces," he said.

The alliance fighting in support of Assad includes the Lebanese group Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

On Wednesday, Erdogan emphasised that Turkey's operations in Syria were not intended to stretch to the city of Aleppo.

"Let's make a joint fight against terrorist organisations. But Aleppo belongs to the people of Aleppo, we must explain this ... making calculations over Aleppo would not be right," Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.

Turkey's incursion into Syria, launched two months ago to drive IS from its border and prevent Kurdish militia fighters gaining ground in their wake, has complicated an already messy battlefield in northern Syria.

As the Turkish-backed rebels push south towards al-Bab, an IS-held town 35km northeast of Aleppo, they face confrontation with both Kurdish and pro-Assad forces, whose frontlines lie close by.

The Syrian military could not immediately be reached for comment, but it said last week that the presence of Turkish troops on Syrian soil was a "dangerous escalation and flagrant breach of Syria's sovereignty".

It warned it would bring down any Turkish warplanes entering Syrian air space.

Turkey launched "Operation Euphrates Shield" two months ago, sending tanks and warplanes into Syria in support of the largely Turkmen and Arab rebels.

Erdogan has also said the operation will continue to al-Bab, which the Kurdish YPG militia is also seeking to control.

Source: Middle East Eye.
Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/turkey-says-kurdish-militias-should-not-take-part-raqqa-opp-clashes-continue-1869500414.

Venezuela braces for anti-government protests amid crisis

October 26, 2016

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's standoff deepened after congress voted to open a political trial against President Nicolas Maduro for breaking the constitutional order and opposition leaders called for mass protests on Wednesday to drive the unpopular socialist leader from office.

Tuesday's vote by the opposition-led legislature is unlikely to have any legal effect as Maduro still controls other branches of government, including the military and Supreme Court, which has already declared the National Assembly illegitimate. But it raised tensions even further following last week's suspension of an opposition push to hold a referendum to try to recall Maduro.

Opposition legislators argued that Venezuela's leader has effectively abandoned the presidency by neglecting his job and several lawmakers questioned whether he was a dual Colombian national and therefore ineligible to hold Venezuela's highest office. It's an old, unproven claim widely seen as a stretch but one that analysts say is a reaction to the government's own trampling of the constitution in scrapping the recall that offered the best hope of peacefully resolving Venezuela's political and economic crisis.

"If Maduro has dual nationality, he has no constitutional right to govern Venezuela," said Juan Miguel Matheus, an opposition lawmaker. Unlike other countries in Latin America such as Brazil, where Dilma Rousseff was removed from the presidency in August, Venezuela's National Assembly can't impeach the president. That decision lies squarely with the Supreme Court, which has never voted against Maduro.

Maduro, speaking at a rally Tuesday, accused opposition lawmakers of behaving like members of a "circus" and trying to carry out a "parliamentary coup." "The National Assembly has been transformed into a bastion of evil and bitterness, it is useless to the interests of our country and our people," he told thousands of mostly state workers outside the presidential palace upon arriving from a six-day tour of the Middle East and Europe. "It has a single goal: to damage Venezuela."

Maduro's opponents are gearing up for a mass demonstration Wednesday that's been billed the "Taking of Venezuela." In western Venezuela, students clashed with security forces for a second day on Tuesday. In the Andean town of Merida, police used tear gas to squash a small group of protesters that had blocked a major road, injuring eight people, according to reports on social media.

Even as tempers flare, the government and opposition have agreed to embark on an attempt at dialogue to defuse the crisis. The talks, being sponsored by the Vatican and other South American governments, are set to begin Oct. 30 in the Caribbean island of Margarita. Maduro, who met with Pope Francis privately at the Vatican on Monday, said he will travel to Margarita to personally launch the talks.

But having gone down this road before during previous crisis, the opposition has scant hope for a breakthrough. Although Venezuelans overwhelmingly blame Maduro for food lines and triple-digit inflation the ruling party is in firm control of institutions like the military and has shown no interest in yielding to the opposition.

Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino, who many had been looking to as a potential brake on Maduro, spoke to the nation Tuesday dressed in camouflaged fatigues and surrounded by the top military command urging dialogue but calling on the opposition to respect the constitution.

That earned an angry rebuke from National Assembly President Henry Ramos, who during the special session accused the U.S.-trained military man of abandoning his constitutional duty to uphold Venezuela's democracy.

"How can he talk of respecting the constitution if he has become the foremost pimp of this regime's violation of the constitution," Ramos said, challenging security forces to arrest him when he attempts next week to travel to Washington to denounce Maduro's latest power grab.

Montenegro's long-ruling prime minister to step down

October 26, 2016

PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — Montenegro's prime minister Milo Djukanovic, who led the tiny Adriatic nation to independence from Serbia in 2006, will step down after ruling unchallenged for more than 25 years, his party officials said Wednesday.

The Democratic Party of Socialists has named Djukanovic's deputy, Dusko Markovic, as a possible premier-designate after the Oct. 16 parliamentary election ended inconclusively. The pro-Western party won most seats in Parliament, but will need to seek a coalition to remain in power.

The ruling party did not give a reason for Djukanovic's departure and he did not comment. The Adriatic nation of 650,000 people was a rare former Yugoslav republic that split peacefully from Serbia, avoiding bloodshed that followed similar moves by Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Montenegro has since been invited to join NATO and has launched membership negotiations with the European Union, to the dismay of its traditional ally Russia and Serbian nationalists. Djukanovic has billed the last election as crucial for the country's future — whether it will continue on the pro-Western path, or shift back to Russian influence.

Djukanovic suggested Tuesday that Russia was involved in an alleged coup attempt on the country's election day and accused the opposition of collaborating with the Kremlin. He said there was "a strong connection of a foreign factor" in the alleged overthrow attempt on the election day, which was marked by the arrest of 20 people suspected of planning armed attacks against Djukanovic and his supporters after vote results were announced.

The opposition has claimed that Djukanovic wants to cling to power at all costs to avoid prosecution for alleged widespread crime and corruption during his long rule. Djukanovic, 54, has resigned twice in the past, but returned as either prime minister or president.

Once an ally of Serbia's strongman Slobodan Milosevic, Djukanovic became the youngest prime minister in Europe at the age of 29 in 1991. He was elected Montenegro's president in 1998, before again assuming the premier's job in 2002. He left in 2006, saying he has accomplished his task of leading Montenegro to independence, but came back and was elected premier in 2008 and in 2012.

Political analysts believe that Djukanovic might stage another comeback at presidential elections in 2018.

AP Writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.

French authorities declare the Calais migrant camp empty

October 26, 2016

CALAIS, France (AP) — French authorities declared the Calais migrant camp known as "the jungle," empty on Wednesday, after fires set by departing migrants accelerated plans to evacuate people from the burgeoning slum.

Local officials announced the destruction of the camp, where thousands fleeing war and poverty have lived in squalor as they waited for a chance to sneak across the English Channel into Britain. Migrants are being moved to reception centers around France where they can seek asylum.

"There are no more migrants in the camp," said Fabienne Buccio, a local official in the camp. "Our mission has been fulfilled." Migrants were seen milling around after despite the announcement, but authorities said they would stop processing people by Wednesday evening.

Migrants have flocked to the Calais region for decades, but the camp has grown as Europe's migrant crisis expanded. As it evolved into a massive slum supported by aid groups, France finally decided to shut it down.

As the reality of the mass evacuation took hold, fearful migrants from Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Syria and Pakistan braced for a new reality. Some pledged to just keep moving. "This jungle is no good," said Muhammad Afridi, 20, from Pakistan. "We go to a new jungle."

The main alley through the camp near the city of Calais burned overnight, leaving skeleton-like hulks on either side of the road. Firefighters delved into the camp's deepest recesses, trying to prevent a massive conflagration.

Gas canisters popped as they exploded in the heat. One aid group's truck burst into flames. Migrants stood and watched. Some laughed. Steve Barbet, a spokesman for the regional authorities, said one migrant was hospitalized. About 100 migrants were evacuated.

The camp once housed 6,300 migrants, according to authorities, but aid groups said the number was much higher.

AP Writer Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to the story.

For UK's Europeans, post-Brexit attacks bring shock and fear

October 27, 2016

HARLOW, England (AP) — When his friend Arek was killed in the street, Eric Hind had sickening evidence that the country he'd come to call home had changed. But the Polish IT consultant had started to feel uneasy even before that, as Britain prepared to vote earlier this year on whether to remain in the European Union.

As debate heated up about the U.K.'s place in Europe, Hind's outsider status was made all too clear to him. It started when an Englishman he knew who had lived in Spain for five years returned to Britain and made an unexpected comment.

"He got back and the first thing he did, before the referendum, was ask me when I am going back to Poland and saying he's going to vote for 'leave,'" said Hind, 33. Hind was among hundreds of thousands of Poles who seized the opportunity when the EU expanded into eastern Europe in 2004 to move to Britain, regarded as a welcoming country with a flexible labor market and relatively high wages.

Twelve years on, he'd settled in Harlow, near London, with a family and a good job. After the June 23 vote, Hind says he received text messages that said things like, "What time is my bus back home, have I got my passport and good luck in Poland."

Free movement among member states is a key principle of the EU, and millions of Europeans have become used to studying, working or retiring abroad. Britain's vote to quit the bloc — after a "leave" campaign that urged people to "take back control" — is in part a renunciation of that borderless ideal.

The support for leaving the EU was swelled by citizens who felt the presence of so many people from other EU countries was making Britain less "British" and making it harder for Britons to find jobs, housing, and medical care.

One campaign poster featured a long line of migrants beside the slogan "breaking point." Anti-racism groups say the vote also unleashed a wave of xenophobia that has brought insults, abuse and physical attacks.

Much of the recorded abuse has been aimed at eastern Europeans, who have come to Britain in the hundreds of thousands over the past decade — and particularly Poles, the largest group, who number a million in the U.K.

"'Polish' has become a derogatory word for anybody who is from Europe," Suresh Grover of the Monitoring Group, a charity that works with victims of hate crime, said. "It's not just against eastern Europeans. We have cases of Germans, Italians and French people," Grover said. "The victims are people who speak a different language."

Britons from ethnic minorities also say they have been getting more abuse. Grover said the anti-immigrant tenor of the Brexit debate "has legitimized unacceptable forms of racism that I thought couldn't exist again."

"We have cases where the n-word is used frequently," he said. Official figures back up anecdotal evidence of a rise in hate crime since the referendum. According to the Home Office, police recorded 1,546 racially or religiously aggravated offenses in England and Wales in the two weeks before referendum day, and 2,241 in the two weeks after it. The total for July was up 41 percent from the same month a year earlier. August's level was lower, but still higher than before for Brexit vote.

Incidents reported around the country include offensive graffiti daubed on a Polish community center; cards saying "no more Polish vermin" left on cars; a Polish man punched and kicked in Yeovil, southwest England; another Polish man beaten by a gang of teenagers in the northern city of Leeds; and a 21-year-old Polish student stabbed in the neck with a broken bottle in the English Midlands town of Telford.

On Aug. 27, a Saturday night, Hind's friend Arkadiusz Jozwik, known as Arek, was involved in an altercation with youths outside a pizza parlor in Harlow, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of London. The 40-year-old was felled by a single punch, hit his head and died in hospital two days later.

Police said they were investigating the death as a hate crime, and arrested six teens aged 15 and 16. Five have been released for lack of evidence, while one remains on bail. Poland's ambassador to Britain, Arkady Rzegocki, said he was "shocked and deeply concerned" by the hostility toward a community whose presence in Britain goes back to World War II, when Polish pilots fought in the Battle of Britain and a Polish government-in-exile was based in London.

"The hospitality of British society was very famous, and we appreciate it," he said. Rzegocki said he is confident that common sense and British decency will prevail. He said the embassy has received many supportive letters from Britons condemning the attacks.

And he points out that Britain is a country with low unemployment whose economy relies on migrants, including armies of Polish plumbers, nannies and fruit-pickers. "I am sure that most of British society is very welcoming to immigrants — especially to the Poles which had, and still have, a huge contribution to the British economy and to the British culture," he said.

He notes that for Europe, the 20th century was the era of "borders and protectionism — and it wasn't a good century in European history." No one is arguing that the referendum introduced prejudice to Britain — earlier groups of immigrants, from Jews 100 years ago to West Indians after World War II, also experienced hostility. In the 2014 British Social Attitudes survey, about a third of people admitted to being a little or very prejudiced against other races.

"You've only got to hear people's conversations on the bus over the years, saying 'What's all these foreigners coming in?'" said Dorothy Spriggs, an 85-year-old who has lived in Harlow for almost 50 years.

Harlow is a post-World War II "new town" whose first residents included bombed-out Londoners. Over the years they've been joined by others — Chinese, Indians and more recently eastern Europeans, whose shops and delis sit alongside the town's fish-and-chip shops, Indian restaurants and kebab takeaways.

Spriggs stopped recently beside a makeshift memorial near the spot where Jozwik died: bunches of flowers, a candle and three large stuffed animals lined up neatly on benches. "I think people should be more tolerant," she said.

That appeal may be too late to keep Hind in Harlow, or in Britain. He's stopped going into town after 6 p.m. He's planning to leave the U.K., so his 2-year-old British-born daughter can grow up somewhere she will feel safe.

"When I first moved to the U.K. I felt like it was a dream come true," he said with quiet sadness. "It's the country where there are no differences, people just get on with each other, there are no questions asked about where you're from.

"But now I just have to watch my back. People are worried to use their own language in the streets. It's not what it is supposed to be like, or what it was like before." Hind worries he won't be allowed to remain in Britain even if he wants to. The government has refused to guarantee that the estimated 3 million EU nationals in Britain can stay unless U.K. citizens elsewhere in the EU get the same right. Europe's borders are firming up again.

"It's just not nice to live in a country where you don't know where you stand ... if you don't know what will happen tomorrow, if someone will come to your door and say, 'OK, time for you to pack your bags and go home,'" Hind said.

Rival Cyprus leaders to continue peace talks in Switzerland

October 27, 2016

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — The leaders of ethnically divided Cyprus' Greek and Turkish speaking communities have agreed to conduct a key phase of reunification talks in Mont Pelerin, Switzerland, next month, a United Nations spokesman said Wednesday.

Aleem Siddique said Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and breakaway Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci will concentrate in talks set for Nov. 7-11 on how much territory each side will administer under an envisioned federation. Other related issues may also be discussed.

Shifting negotiations abroad is aimed at lowering the risk of leaks undercutting the talks' momentum amid concerns of a backlash by some Turkish Cypriots who may have to relocate. Siddique said in a statement the leaders expressed hope that the Switzerland meeting "will pave the way for the last phase of talks in line with their shared commitment to do their utmost in order to reach a settlement within 2016."

A 1974 Turkish invasion in response to a coup aiming to unite Cyprus with Greece resulted in the island's division into an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north. Only Turkey recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence and maintains more than 35,000 troops in the north. Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, but only the south enjoys full membership benefits.

Anastasiades and Akinci have made significant headway since the U.N. facilitated talks resumed nearly 18 months ago, but important differences remain. A key sticking point is Turkish military intervention rights that Turkish Cypriots see as vital to their security while Greek Cypriots view that as a threat.

The territory issue is considered pivotal to a peace deal. Greek Cypriots argue the more people are able to reclaim homes and property lost during the war, the greater the support a deal will receive from the majority Greek Cypriots when it's put to a vote in simultaneous referendums in both communities. Additionally, the projected cost of a settlement would drop substantially if more people reclaim homes and property and forego compensation for their loss.

Anastasiades said Tuesday negotiations are at a "truly crucial juncture" and that how talks will fare territory will indicate whether or not an accord is within reach. A peace deal would help unlock energy cooperation on east Mediterranean gas deposits, lift obstacles to Turkey's troubled bid to join the European Union and usher in a degree of stability in a tumultuous region.

Lithuania signs missile agreement with Norway

by Geoff Ziezulewicz
Vilnius, Lithuania (UPI)
Oct 24, 2016

Lithuania has signed an agreement worth $108 million with Norway for the procurement of the Norwegian Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, or NASAMS.

The deal, signed last week by the ministries of defense for each country, covers the sale as well as future support Norway would render to Lithuania in developing midrange air defense capabilities, the Lithuanian ministry said in a statement.

This acquisition and others will combine into an air defense system that offers Lithuania aerial surveillance and control, early warning for ground units and the ability to destroy targets if needed.

Two defense batteries will be acquired under the deal.

The midrange NASAMS equipment is scheduled to be delivered to Lithuania by 2020.

NASAMS was co-developed by Norwegian company Kongsberg and Raytheon...

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Lithuania_signs_missile_agreement_with_Norway_999.html.

Kenya Greens Drylands to Combat Land Degradation

By Justus Wanzala

NAIROBI, Oct 25 2016 (IPS) - Faced with growing degradation that is swallowing large swathes of land in arid and semiarid areas, Kenya is heavily investing in rehabilitation efforts to stave off the threat of desertification.

Charles Sunkuli, secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, says a program targeting 5.1 million hectares of degraded and deforested land for restoration by 2030 was launched in September 2016. He added that Kenya is increasing its forest cover from the current seven percent to a minimum of 10 percent.

“We have introduced an equalization fund to help communities living in dry and degraded lands eke out at a living and participate in rehabilitation initiatives,” said Sunkuli.

He was speaking in Nairobi during the Fifteenth Session of the Committee of Review of the Implementation of the Convention (CRIC 15) of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which concluded last week.

Afforestation, he noted, will mainly be done in the country’s arid and semiarid areas which make up 80 percent of Kenya’s land cover, although other areas of the country to are being targeted too.

To succeed in its ambitious endeavor, Sunkuli said Kenya is implementing a program to promote drought-tolerant tree species such Melia volkensii (locally known as Mukau) in the country’s vast drylands to increase forest cover.

Indeed, Kenya is heavily investing in research into drought resistant trees to enhance afforestation of dry lands and improve livelihoods. At Tiva in the dry Kitui County, eastern Kenya, the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) has established a research center to breed tree species ideal for planting in arid and semiarid areas. The center is supported by the government in partnership with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

James Ndufa, director of the Drylands Eco-region Research Program (DERP) at KEFRI, says growing population and conversion of forest into farms has led to unsustainable land use, thus contributing to land degradation and desertification.

Ndufa says the Tiva center focuses on developing drought-tolerant trees for adaptation to climate change in dry lands. “Breeding is done to adapt tree species to much warmer and drier weather conditions linked to climate change,” he says.

Breeding is undertaken by the conventional method of selecting better performing trees. Ndufa says they intend to provide farmers with genetically improved seeds that are drought-tolerant, fast growing and produce quality timber in addition to fodder for livestock. This, he says, will eventually aid in rehabilitation of degraded land and conserve biodiversity.

DNA analysis is undertaken during selection and grafting is done to achieve desired results. They thus have established a seed orchard and progeny test site for Melia (Mukau) and acacia species.

The project, which started in 2012, gives genetically improved seeds of the two species to farmers. Apart from JICA, Kenya Forest Research Institute’s partners in the project are Kenya Forest Services, local universities, the Japan-based Forest and Forest Products Research Institute as well as the country’s Kyushu University.

The center is located in a semiarid area that receives just 700 ml of rain per year. Farmers have meager harvests and as a result they put pressure on natural resources by overexploiting them. Ndufa says the communities depend on cutting trees for charcoal sold in places such as Kenya’s capital Nairobi, leading to deforestation and land degradation.

Others wantonly harvest sand thus affecting the vegetation and causing land degradation. He adds that Mukau timber fetches 100 Kenyan shillings (one US dollar) per foot. “Approximately 400 trees can be grown on one hectare and when mature can yield between two million to two and half million Kenya Shillings (USD 200 -250,000),” he says .

According to Ndufa, the two tree species they are targeting have been over-harvested. Mukau, whose wood is red in color, is equivalent in value to mahogany and preferred by furniture makers, while acacia species are treasured for charcoal.

The aim is to develop fast-growing trees that can be ready for harvest in 15 to 20 years. Some 3,000 Mukau trees and 1,000 acacias have been planted on 100 hectares at the Tiva research site. About 2,500 kilograms of seeds have so far been collected.

They are also exploring breeding varieties from the two species which can retain leaves for a long period to serve as fodder for livestock such as goats. The project is also undertaking extension work to distribute seeds and create awareness about the trees using field trips, agriculture shows and field days.

The trees are easy to manage so women farmers are increasingly adopting them. Veronica Kioko, a resident of Kitui county, says low adoption rates in some areas could be linked to food insecurity and poverty.

She said that although farmers have been educated about the benefits of the trees, they find waiting for 15 to 20 years for trees to mature before harvesting difficult. She says trees are mainly cut for making charcoal before they fully mature.

The situation is exacerbated by drought and hunger and fueled by the overall state of poverty in the region. “People usually go without food when seasons fail, and without money they cut trees for charcoal and sell it cheaply,” said Kioko.

In terms of acacia breeds, Ndufa says the aim is to develop a variety that produces a lot of pods, branches and leaves to feed goats and camels apart from timber.

Frank Msafiri, chair of the Kenya chapter of the East African Sustainability (SusWatch) network made up of nongovernmental organizations from East Africa, says large-scale national and cross border interventions are necessary to combat desertification and land degradation.

He says high levels of poverty, low water availability, deforestation and land degradation are fuelling conflicts among communities.

“Players from sectors such as water, forest, agriculture and research bodies in Africa should not pursue conflicting strategies. They should harmonize their strategies under the umbrella of sustainable land management,” stresses Msafiri.

Speaking during the CRIC 15 in Nairobi, Monique Barbut, executive secretary of the UNCCD, said many countries engaged in land restoration have recorded positive results. Giving the example of Ethiopia, she said the land restored under that plan withstood the El Nino-related drought that affected eastern and southern Africa for the last year.

Source: Inter-Press Service (IPS).
Link: http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/10/kenya-greens-drylands-to-combat-land-degradation/.

Gambia says it is leaving International Criminal Court

October 26, 2016

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — A third African country, Gambia, says it will leave the International Criminal Court as fears grow of a mass pullout from the body that pursues some of the world's worst atrocities.

Gambia announced the decision on television Tuesday night, accusing the court of unfairly targeting Africa and calling it the "International Caucasian Court for the persecution and humiliation of people of color, especially Africans."

The move comes after South Africa, once a strong ICC supporter under former President Nelson Mandela, last week notified the United Nations secretary-general it would leave the court. Early last week, Burundi's president signed legislation to leave the court as well.

The withdrawal of the African countries has been criticized by human rights groups. "Shameful club of leaders who ignore victims of atrocity crimes," the EU director for Human Rights Watch, Lotte Leicht, tweeted Wednesday. The court was set up to pursue cases of alleged genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Gambia's decision is also striking because the ICC's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, is Gambian. The information minister of the tiny West African country, Sheriff Baba Bojang, said in the statement late Tuesday that the court is involved in "the persecution of Africans, and especially their leaders."

Only Africans have been charged in the six ICC cases that are ongoing or about to begin, though preliminary ICC investigations have opened elsewhere. Experts point out that all but one of the ICC cases in Africa were referred to the court by African countries themselves or by the U.N. Security Council.

Under the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court, signatory countries have a legal obligation to arrest anyone sought by the tribunal, but some African states have allowed people wanted by the ICC, notably Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, to visit, and some say leaders ought to be immune from prosecution.

Gambia's information minister accused "at least 30" Western countries of having committed war crimes against their citizens since the ICC was founded more than a decade ago and said none has been targeted by the court. He singled out former British prime minister Tony Blair for his role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Gambia has begun the process of withdrawing from the ICC, which involves notifying the U.N. secretary-general and takes effect a year after the notification is received, said the minister. So far, the U.N. has said it has received notification only from South Africa.

Rights groups often accuse Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, one of Africa's longest-serving leaders, of abuses including a clampdown on political opponents. The next presidential election is in December.

Officials with other top African critics of the court, including Uganda and Kenya, have said in recent days they have not yet decided whether to leave the ICC as well. Uganda said it will be a "hot topic" at an African Union meeting in January.

Philippine leader Duterte says God told him to stop cursing

October 28, 2016

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The foul-mouthed Philippine president, who once called the pope a "son of a bitch" and told Barack Obama to "go to hell," says he has promised to God he won't spew expletives again.

President Rodrigo Duterte's profanities have become his trademark, especially when threatening to kill drug dealers as part of his war on illegal drugs that has left thousands dead since he took office at the end of June.

Duterte made the stunning pledge on arrival in his southern hometown of Davao city late Thursday from a trip to Japan. While flying home, he said he was looking at the sky while everyone was sound asleep, some snoring, and he heard a voice that said "'if you don't stop epithets, I will bring this plane down now."

"And I said, 'Who is this?' So, of course, 'it's God,'" he said. "So, I promise God to ... not express slang, cuss words and everything. So you guys hear me right always because (a) promise to God is a promise to the Filipino people."

Duterte's vow was met with applause, but he cautioned: "Don't clap too much or else this may get derailed." He shocked the dominant Roman Catholics last year when he fired an expletive while expressing his disgust over a monstrous traffic jam that trapped him while Pope Francis was visiting Manila. "I wanted to call. 'Pope, you son of a bitch, go home.' Don't visit here anymore," he told a mob of supporters, some of whom laughed.

He later apologized after Filipino bishops expressed shock and outrage. It's not certain if the 71-year-old president, who has been compared to U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump because of his brash language, can keep his promise. Duterte has made a similar pledge in June when it became evident that he had won the May 9 presidential elections overwhelmingly on a pledge to end crimes, especially illegal drugs, and corruption.

He said then that he was enjoying his last moments as a "rude person" because "when I become president, when I take my oath of office ... that will be a different story. There will be a metamorphosis."

It didn't take long for Duterte to break the promise. He has repeatedly leveled SOB-laced tirades against Obama, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a few outspoken opposition politicians and human rights advocates, while heaping praises on Chinese and Russian leaders.

There were no expletives in his late Thursday speech, but Duterte still sounded mean toward critics. When asked for his message for a Filipino beauty queen who won the recent Miss International pageant, Duterte said he was proud. "Many Filipinas are beautiful, but all of you there in the human rights commission are ugly."

Asked if the days of his cursing the U.S. and the E.U are over, Duterte didn't answer clearly. "I do not want anybody reading my mind because I couldn't make a smart move anymore. But it's all calibrated, it's all about timing," Duterte said.

Philippines' Duterte visits Japan after China tilt

By Kyoko Hasegawa
Tokyo, Japan (AFP)
Oct 25, 2016

Acid-tongued Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte takes his diplomatic roadshow to Japan on Tuesday, days after his apparent tilt towards China raised questions about the leader's strategic intentions.

The Philippines and Japan have long been key US allies in Asia, but Duterte has done a dramatic U-turn since coming to office in late June.

That appeared to culminate last week in Beijing where he declared his "separation" from the United States, played down a maritime dispute with China and pledged to enhance friendship and economic ties.

Back home on Saturday, however, the former mayor seemed to walk back his comments, saying he would not be severing the alliance with Washington.

And on Monday, he went further, telling Japanese media that the US will remain the country's sole military ally.

"The alliances are alive, it is there," he said in a reference to the United States, according to Kyodo News. "There should be no worry about changes of alliances. I do not need to have alliances with other nations."

Other Japanese media including the top-selling Yomiuri Shimbun quoted him as saying that all military activities with the US should be halted.

His seesawing has been closely watched in Japan, a major investor and aid donor to Manila that is wary of China's rising influence.

"It is important to have good communication and to listen directly to what Mr Duterte has in mind," Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida, who will dine with the president later Tuesday, told reporters when asked about the firebrand leader's elusive comments on ties with Washington.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has worked to beef up relations with Manila by providing patrol boats and has supported it in the territorial row with China, as Japan seeks support in its own maritime dispute with Beijing.

Duterte's predecessor took Beijing to an international tribunal over its extensive claims in the South China Sea -- where it has built artificial islands capable of hosting military facilities -- and the Philippines won a resounding victory in July.

- 'Shared interest' -

Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper said that improvement in diplomatic relations among "neighboring nations" is desirable in principle.

"But if they disrespect the rule of law for the sake of narrow bilateral interest, that would be a grave concern for the Asian region," it said in a Saturday editorial, referring to Duterte's Beijing visit.

Duterte told Japanese public broadcaster NHK that his talks with Abe will center on economic cooperation and "shared interest" in an interview ahead of his three-day visit.

"Now the most important thing there is the shared interest... it's about the South China Sea," he said.

Duterte has made a habit of hurling sharp, even profane, verbal barbs at the US and President Barack Obama, which resulted in Washington cancelling talks between them at an ASEAN summit last month.

But Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat and visiting professor at Ritsumeikan University, warned against reading too much into such rhetoric.

"President Duterte is an anti-US nationalist and populist leader, which doesn't necessarily mean he is pro-China," Miyake told AFP.

Still, he noted the need to "watch closely" his future words and actions.

In recent months Abe has criticized China for rejecting the international tribunal ruling, which said Beijing's expansive claims to the waters had no legal basis.

At talks Wednesday, Duterte and Abe are expected to agree on expanding ties in areas of "maritime security and defense cooperation", a Japanese embassy official in Manila told reporters.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Philippines_Duterte_visits_Japan_after_China_tilt_999.html.

Russia's top security official wants closer ties with Serbia

October 26, 2016

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Russia's top security official is urging closer cooperation with Serbia as part of increased efforts by Moscow to boost its influence in the Balkan country that is seeking EU membership.

Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of President Vladimir Putin's Security Council, on Wednesday urged Serbia to sign a "memorandum of understanding" on security next year. He says "we have such documents with partners of utmost trust."

Serbia's Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic says "there is room for improvement" in security ties. Patrushev, believed to be one of President Vladimir Putin's most influential allies, will also meet Serbia's foreign minister and president later Wednesday.

Serbia remains a rare Russian ally in Europe. Belgrade wants to join the EU, but has refused to impose West-backed sanctions on Russia.

Russia withdraws request to refuel ships in Spain

October 26, 2016

BRUSSELS (AP) — Russia's embassy in Madrid says Russia has withdrawn its request to refuel in Spain a fleet of Russian warships that could be used to ramp up air attacks in Syria. Embassy spokesman Vasily Nioradze told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the request has been canceled, but he gave no details.

Britain earlier on Wednesday expressed concern that NATO ally Spain was considering refueling the Russian ships. The Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and a task group of support vessels have steamed through the North Sea and English Channel in recent days heading to the Mediterranean Sea.

NATO allies advance plans for east Europe troop deployment

October 27, 2016

BRUSSELS (AP) — Faced with an ever-more belligerent and unpredictable Russia, NATO allies are advancing with plans to deploy thousands of troops and military equipment to the Baltics and Poland. In recent weeks alone, Russia has moved battleships toward the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas, shifted nuclear-capable missile-launchers into its Kaliningrad enclave neighboring Poland and continued flying bombers down the western European coast.

The plans to send troops and equipment into Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland were agreed by NATO leaders in July. But Alliance defense ministers, ending two days of talks in Brussels on Thursday, have been fleshing out the contributions that will be stationed near Russia's borders.

"We are responding in a measured and responsible way because we are not seeking a new Cold War. We want to keep tensions as low as possible," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday. A day earlier, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that the U.S. will boost its presence in Europe with a brigade — usually some 1,500-3,000 troops — being deployed to Poland in February, among other contributions. The brigade will take part in military exercises there and send units from the force to Bulgaria, Romania and the Baltic States.

Britain is to send typhoon fighter jets to the Black Sea area, while a battalion of troops, tanks and light armor will deploy in Estonia in the spring, backed by French and Danish troops. Starting in February, Germany will send 400 to 600 soldiers and battle tanks to Lithuania.

Albania, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Romania and Slovenia are also playing roles in what NATO has dubbed its Enhanced Forward Presence. The force is meant to reassure Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland that all 28 NATO allies will defend them in case of attack.

As Russian fighters have buzzed Alliance planes and ships, and its troops have launched snap exercises — one such lot of unannounced war games was used as a pretext for troops to enter Ukraine, Stoltenberg said — little dialogue has taken place between Moscow and the world's biggest military alliance.

Their main forum for airing disagreements — the NATO-Russia Council — has only met twice this year. Indeed the allies do not seem to share a common vision of what Russia is trying to tell them or how to respond.

On Wednesday, Spain came under pressure for offering to resupply a flotilla of Russian warships suspected to be bound for the eastern Mediterranean to help ramp up Russian and Syrian regime airstrikes. Malta was thought to be another possible stopover, but it announced Thursday that the vessels could not resupply there either. Greece was thought to be another possibility.

"What we are observing is Russian military practice that diverges widely from NATO practice in scale, scope, content, purpose, and transparency," NATO's top military commander, U.S. General Curtis Scaparrotti, told the ministers.

"We need to be strategic and coherent in our approach to defending our citizens. Now is the time for the Alliance to remain strong," he said.