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NEWS Distillation – Week of 26-30 MAR 2012 – (TCP)CHICAGO

Today's Headlines - (TCP)CHICAGO

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26 March 2012

South KoreaReuters reported: Japan steered off the agenda at a nuclear security summit on Tuesday to hit out at North Korea’s plans for a rocket launch next month, as U.S. President Barack Obama cautioned against complacency in dealing with the threat of nuclear terrorism. The summit was briefly interrupted by a dispute between Argentina and Britain, which went to war in 1982 over the Falkland Islands, over suggestions Britain had sent a submarine capable of carrying nuclear weapons to the South Atlantic. A communiqué issued at the end of the two-day meeting of more than 50 world leaders in Seoul was light on specifics on how to reduce the risk of atomic materials falling into bad hands, loosely calling for all vulnerable material to be secured in four years. The world’s biggest nuclear concerns, those surrounding the weapons programs of North Korea and Iran, were not on the agenda at the summit, and neither country was invited.

Afghanistan – The (AP) reported: The Afghan Defense Ministry was locked down for two hours Tuesday after an intelligence report warned that the highly secured compound in the heart of Kabul was under threat of attack. Afghan officials said later the report was false. In other incidents across Afghanistan, a NATO service member died in an explosion in the south, and a militant who led operations for an al-Qaida-linked terror group was killed by Afghan and coalition troops in the north. In Kabul, two Afghan officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the lockdown at the ministry, said the threat emerged from faulty intelligence. Several news organizations reported that on Monday, nearly a dozen vests packed with explosives were found, and more than a dozen suspects, including Afghan soldiers, were arrested in connection with an alleged plot to attack the ministry. The ministry issued two statements on Tuesday, both calling the media reports baseless. The second statement said, “Sixteen people have not been captured. Eleven suicide vests have not been recovered.” On April 18, 2011, a suicide attacker managed to sneak past security at the defense ministry, killing two Afghan soldiers and an Afghan army officer.

 Syria – The (AP) reported: Syria’s fractious opposition groups begin reconciliation talks in Istanbul on Tuesday aimed at demonstrating they can provide an effective alternative to President Bashar al-Assad. The opposition forces have been invited by Turkey and Qatar, which holds the rotating chair of the Arab League, to talks in Istanbul to try to form a common front while their homeland suffers under Assad’s brutal repression of a year-old uprising. About 300 dissidents attended the welcome dinner at a seaside hotel in Pendik, a distant suburb on the Asian side of Istanbul, and more were expected to join what the Turkish hosts call an “open house” meeting on Tuesday. Burhan Ghalioun, president of the main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, has sought support for the reconciliation meeting to end with a “national oath”, committing all the opposition to building a democratic state, without any agenda for revenge, and to seek national reconciliation once Assad is removed. “Based on the national responsibility on all the political powers in the Syrian revolution and the efforts to unite the opposition and its vision, we declare the basic principles that the new state will be based upon,” a draft declaration said. It said the new Syria will be “civic, democratic and totally free”, with a transitional government to organize a ballot to elect a founding assembly to draft a new constitution. “The Syrian people are proud of their cultural and religious diversity. Everyone will contribute in building the future,” it said.

IraqBloomberg Businessweek reported: A three-day Arab League summit in Baghdad this week is intended to mark Iraq’s return as a prominent member of the Arab world. It also highlights the country’s political chaos, continued violence and differences with its neighbors and the U.S. Three months after the last American troops pulled out, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is accused of using security forces and the courts to target Sunni political rivals and consolidate power. Car bombs regularly rip through Iraqi cities, killing more than 50 people last week, and al-Qaeda affiliates and local militias continue to operate. The Arab League’s spotlight on Syria may undermine Iraq’s aim of proving its regional relevance. Iraq has already remained on the sidelines as Arab states ratchet up their criticism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Saudi Arabian Prince Saud Al- Faisal, the world’s longest-serving foreign minister, last month said arming Syria’s opposition is an “excellent idea.”

Syria – The Boston Globe reported: Syrian troops shelled rebel-held neighborhoods in Homs on Monday, the latest barrage in a bombardment that has lasted several days and appeared to be the groundwork for an assault to push the fighters out of the country’s third-largest city. Also Monday, Turkey and Norway said they had closed their embassies in Damascus as relations between the countries continued to deteriorate. The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood meanwhile announced that if President Bashar Assad were overthrown it would work for a “modern’’ democratic state. The Brotherhood statement was an overture by one of the largest organizations representing the country’s Sunni Arab majority, which also dominates the Syrian opposition, toward placating Syrian minorities who have until now gravitated toward the regime. The Turkish embassy closure comes amid rising diplomatic pressure on Assad. Ankara, once close to Damascus, is now one of Syria’s most vocal critics.

27 March 2012

Syria – The BBC Middle East Corps reported: Syrian authorities are systematically detaining and torturing children, the United Nations’ human rights chief, Navi Pillay, has told the BBC. Ms Pillay said President Bashar al-Assad could end the detentions and stop the killing of civilians immediately, simply by issuing an order. Syria has accepted a peace plan, amid scepticism about its intentions. Most opposition groups have now agreed that the Syrian National Council will formally represent the Syrian people.
South Korea – The Boston Globe reported: North Korea said Tuesday that it would press ahead with its plan to launch a satellite into orbit next month, rebuffing President Obama and other world leaders who told the country to cancel the launch or face additional sanctions and the loss of food aid. The North’s announcement came shortly after Obama and other leaders attending the nuclear security summit in Seoul condemned the North’s planned launch not only as a provocation and violation of a UN Security Council resolution, but also as a waste of millions of dollars that could be used to buy food for the North’s hungry people. On Tuesday, North Korea called Obama “confrontational,’’ duplicitous, and insulting. “We will never give up the launch of a satellite for peaceful purposes,’’ said a spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry in a statement carried by its state news agency, KCNA. The spokesman advised the Obama administration to “drop the confrontation conception’’ and “make a bold decision to acknowledge that we also have a right to launch satellites.’’

Egypt – The New York Times reported: Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood met Tuesday to decide whether the group should field its own candidate for president, a proposition that would require the Islamist group to abandon a pledge to back an outside candidate. But the meeting broke up late Tuesday without reaching a consensus, said Mahmoud Hussein, the Brotherhood’s secretary general. A decision by the Brotherhood, Egypt’s most popular political organization, to run its own candidate could upend the presidential race, which is scheduled to begin in May. Mr. Hussein said the group would reconvene next Tuesday.

Afghanistan – The Boston Globe reported: The Afghan Defense Ministry went into a near-total lockdown Tuesday after the discovery of 10 suicide vests and the arrest of more than a dozen Afghan soldiers suspected of plotting to attack the ministry and blow up commuter buses for government employees, Afghan and Western officials said. The security breach took place in one of the most fortified parts of Kabul, less than a mile from the presidential palace and the headquarters of the US-led coalition. It raised the prospect that the Taliban, which committed a series of high-profile attacks inside Kabul last year, planned to pick up where it left off as winter snows give way to spring, clearing the high mountain passes and opening the annual fighting season. Compounding the fears of renewed violence in Kabul was what appeared to be complicity of Afghan soldiers in the plot. Afghan soldiers and police officers have been killing their colleagues among the international military force here at an alarming rate in recent months — only hidden bombs have killed more coalition service members this year.

LibyaReuters reported: A Libyan politician campaigning for greater autonomy for the country’s east said his movement could resort to blocking oil supplies if the central government failed to meet its demands for more seats in the national assembly. Civic leaders from the east of Libya, known as Cyrenaica, launched a push to create a several federal states in Libya earlier this month, posing a challenge to the country’s fragile cohesion after last year’s overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in a NATO-backed rebellion. The proposal has provoked an outcry in the capital Tripoli, where many people fear it could lead to the break-up of Libya, especially as the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) has struggled to assert its authority over the whole country in the aftermath of the revolution. NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil visited Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city and the capital of the east, on Tuesday where he met with a representative of the Congress of the People of Cyrenaica, the driving force behind the campaign, to try to defuse the row.

28 March 2012

India – The BBC reported: A landmine explosion in the western Indian state of Maharashtra has killed at least 15 policemen, officials say. The attack has been blamed on Maoist rebels, who operate in the area as well as several other Indian states. It is one of the worst attacks on Indian police in two years. Maoist rebels in the eastern state of Orissa kidnapped two Italians about two weeks ago, but released one and have been in talks with the state government over the other man’s release. Tuesday’s attack happened in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district, a remote and relatively undeveloped part of the country. The district is on Maharashtra’s border with the central state of Chhattisgarh and is a stronghold of the rebels.

AfghanistanCBS NEWS reported: U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan have assigned “guardian angels” — troops that watch over their comrades even as they sleep — and have ordered a series of other increased security measures to protect troops against possible attacks by rogue Afghans. The added protections are part of a directive issued in recent weeks by Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, to guard against insider threats, according to a senior military official. And they come in the wake of a spike in attacks on U.S. and coalition forces by Afghans, including the point-blank shooting deaths of two U.S. advisers in Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior. Some of the changes have been subtle, others not so much. In several Afghan ministries, Americans are now allowed to carry weapons. And they have been instructed to rearrange their office desks there to face the door, so they can see who is coming in, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the internal directive. While Allen did not detail the new measures in a briefing earlier this week, he acknowledged that changes had been made.

Iran – The Jerusalem Post reported: The Obama administration slapped new sanctions on Iran’s shipping industry Wednesday, including on engineering and maritime companies. The new bans apply to companies with ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp, which the US sees as playing a central role in Iran’s nuclear program, terror activities and human rights violations. “By designating the individuals and entities today, the Treasury is sending a clear signal to the international community that Iran’s attempts to evade international sanctions will not go unnoticed,” Adam Szubin, director of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a released statement. The move comes on top of sanctions imposed Tuesday on an Iranian air carrier believed to be bringing arms to Syria for use by President Bashar Assad against rebels trying to remove him from office.

North Korea – The Agence France Presse reported: North Korea has reportedly begun fuelling a rocket for a launch next month, defying calls to abort an event the West says is a disguised missile test, as the United States suspended planned food aid. The launch is coming closer. The possibility is high that the launch date will be set for April 12 or 13,” Japan’s Tokyo Shimbun reported Thursday, quoting a source “close to the government” in Pyongyang. It cited the source as saying that North Korea had begun injecting liquid fuel into the rocket. South Korea’s defence ministry said Sunday the North has transported the main body of the rocket to a site in the far northwest of the country in preparation for blast-off. Japan’s newspapers pay close attention to North Korea and often break stories on the secretive state. South Korea’s Joint Chief of Staff said it could not confirm the report.

Israel – The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported: While gliding to a surprisingly easy victory over Kadima party chairwoman Tzipi Livni, Israel’s newly elected opposition leader Shaul Mofaz faces an uphill battle in keeping the once-dominant centrist political party from splintering. The Iranian-born Mr. Mofaz, 64, comfortably defeated Ms. Livni in Tuesday’s primary, garnering nearly 62 percent of the vote in the party election. Speaking Wednesday, he wasted no time in setting his sights on Israel’s next national election, which is not scheduled until the end of 2013 but which many believe may be called as early as this fall. “I will lead Kadima to a victory over [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu,” said Mr. Mofaz, a former defense minister who has been fighting for years to serve as chairman of Kadima and win a shot at the prime minister’s job.

Pakistan – The Boston Globe reported: Two U.S. generals met with Pakistan’s army chief on Wednesday in a high-stakes meeting aimed at nudging Islamabad to resume a cooperative relationship with the United States. It was the first formal discussion among top military commanders since American airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at Afghan border outposts in a hotly disputed incident in November.

Russia – The WSJ reported: President Barack Obama roiled the U.S. election campaign when he was caught on a live microphone telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would “have more flexibility” after his next election to deal with Moscow’s concerns over a planned European missile shield. But so far the comments have caused few ripples in Europe. Moscow has been highly critical of U.S.-led missile-defense plans in Europe, which the Kremlin claims would eventually weaken its own nuclear deterrent. Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney said Mr. Obama’s Monday remarks were a sign that the president was “going to cave to Russia,” a sentiment echoed on Wednesday by members of Poland’s opposition parties. But broadly, officials and diplomats from across the region said they were inclined to take Mr. Obama’s remarks at face value. The U.S. and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have pledged to cooperate with Russia on the system, which is initially aimed at defending against missiles from Iran. Diplomats haven’t expected advances on those talks in a U.S. election year. Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin already has made clear he won’t go to Chicago to meet alliance leaders gathering there for a summit in May. There, NATO will announce an “interim capability” for its missile-defense system.

29 March 2012

Spain – The BBC reported: The Spanish government is due to unveil what is expected to be one of the toughest budgets in its recent history. Newly-elected Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has already warned the budget will be “very austere”. The global financial markets are increasingly concerned that Spain’s debts are becoming unmanageable. On Thursday, Spanish police clashed with protesters after a general strike was held to protest against labour reforms designed to cut unemployment. Road, rail and air transport were all affected, with domestic and European flights cut to a fraction of their normal levels.

JapanCNN reported: Japan will shoot down any part of the long-range rocket that North Korea plans to launch next month that enters its territory, the Japanese defense minister, Naoki Tanaka, said Friday. Speaking at a news conference, Tanaka said he had issued the official order after instructing the Japanese military earlier in the week to prepare the country’s missile defense shield against the planned rocket launch. North Korea announced earlier this month that it would launch a rocket carrying a satellite between April 12 and 16 to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Communist state. Pyongyang says the operation is for “peaceful purposes,” but Japan, the United States and South Korea see the launch as a cover for a long-range ballistic missile test.

Israel – The Southeast Missourian reported: Israel on Thursday stepped up preparations a day before a series of planned Arab protests, deploying thousands of troops and police across the country and along its borders in anticipation of possible violence. Today Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are marking Land Day, an annual protest against what they say are discriminatory Israeli land policies. Supporters in neighboring Arab countries planned marches near the Israeli borders in a solidarity event they call a “Global March to Jerusalem.” While organizers said the events would be nonviolent, Israel’s army and police were girding for trouble after similar protests last year turned deadly. At least 15 people were killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers when they tried to cross the Syrian and Lebanese borders with Israel in a May protest marking Palestinian sorrow over Israel’s creation in 1948. A month later, Israeli troops killed 23 demonstrators who crossed into the no-man’s land between Israel and Syria in a demonstration against Israeli control of the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

Iraq – The Denver Post reported: Sunni Muslim rulers largely shunned an Arab League summit hosted by Shiite-led Iraq on Thursday, illustrating how powerfully the sectarian split and the rivalry with Iran define Middle Eastern politics in the era of the Arab Spring. The crisis in Syria is the epicenter of those divisions. The one-day summit closed with a joint call on Syrian President Bashar Assad to stop his bloody crackdown on an uprising seeking his ouster. But the final statement barely papered over the differences among the Arab nations over how to deal with the longest-running regional revolt. “What disturbs the breeze of our Arab Spring and fills our hearts with sadness is the scenes of slaughter and torture committed by the Syrian regime against our brothers and sisters in Syria,” said Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, leader of Libya’s National Transitional Council.

Syria – The Boston Globe reported: Syrian rebels seemed to intensify attacks on individual members of President Bashar Assad’s security forces Thursday with state media reporting that insurgents kidnapped an air force general near Damascus while gunmen in the northern city of Aleppo fatally shot two army colonels as they drove to work.

SyriaReuters reported: Veteran Kurdish human rights campaigner Radeef Mustafa lived in the shadow of huge Syrian secret police compounds towering over his decrepit hometown on the border with Turkey. When security police cracked his son’s head open with an iron bar in a demonstration last year, Mustafa fled. He and his family came to Turkey where he joined the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), hoping the year-long uprising against President Bashar al-Assad would end discrimination against the country’s largest ethnic minority. His hopes were dashed, though, when the SNC, dominated by Islamists, vetoed a proposal at a meeting in Istanbul this week to recognize Syria’s Kurds and their demand for self-rule.

IranReuters reported: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said Iran strongly opposes any foreign intervention in Syria’s conflict and will defend Damascus so it can continue “resistance” against Israel, his official website reported on Thursday. Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s highest authority, made the comments during a meeting with visiting Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in Mashhad. The Islamic Republic supported popular uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Yemen last year but has steadfastly supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against a year-old uprising. Assad is a rare ally for Iran in an Arab world largely suspicious of Iranian ambitions for greater regional clout. In contrast, Erdogan has urged Assad to step down and has allowed opposition groups to meet in Istanbul. “Iran will defend Syria because it supports its policy of resistance against the Zionist regime (Israel), and is strongly opposed to any interference by foreign forces in Syria’s internal affairs,” Khamenei was quoted as saying.

Afghanistan – The Chicago Tribune reported: Dozens of Taliban fighters were killed in U.S. air strikes and a gunbattle in western Afghanistan after an insurgent attack on an Afghan army patrol, NATO and Afghan officials said on Friday. A spokesman of the International Security Assistance Force said the patrol came under attack in Gulistan district in western Farah province on Wednesday, prompting a call for air support. “Numerous insurgents were killed, and several motorbikes were damaged or destroyed” following two strikes by coalition aircraft, he said. Abdul Raoof Ahmadi, a police spokesman in western Afghanistan, said 30 Taliban were killed and another 15 wounded in the fighting in the remote area.

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Today's Headlines - (TCP)CHICAGO
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