U.S. and China square off at Asia security forum

U.S. and China square off at Asia security forum

SINGAPORE Sat May 31, 2014 8:18am EDT

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (L) listens to Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army, during the start of their meeting in Singapore May 31, 2014. REUTERS-Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (L) listens to Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army, during the start of their meeting in Singapore May 31, 2014. REUTERS-Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool
 
 
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (C), South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin (3rd R), Japan's Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera (2nd L) and other members of their delegations attend a joint meeting in Singapore May 31, 2014.   REUTERS-Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool

1 OF 5. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (L) listens to Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, during the start of their meeting in Singapore May 31, 2014.

CREDIT: REUTERS/PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/POOL

 
 
 
 

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(Reuters) – The United States and China squared off at an Asian security forum on Saturday, with the U.S. defense secretary accusing Beijing of destabilizing the region and a top Chinese general retorting that his comments were “threat and intimidation”.

Using unusually strong language, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took aim at Beijing’s handling of territorial disputes with its Asian neighbors.

“In recent months, China has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea,” Hagel said.

He warned Beijing that the United States was committed to its geopolitical rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region and “will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged”.

Hagel said the United States took no position on the merits of rival territorial claims in the region, but added: “We firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert these claims.”

His speech at Singapore’s Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia biggest security forum, provoked an angry reaction from the deputy chief of staff of the Chinese Army, Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong.

“I felt that Secretary Hagel’s speech is full of hegemonism, threat and intimidation,” he told reporters just after the speech.

Wang said the speech was aimed at causing trouble in the Asia-Pacific.

Hagel’s comments followed the keynote address by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the same forum on Friday evening, who pledged “utmost support” to Southeast Asian countries, several of which are locked in maritime disputes with China.

“I felt that they were just trying to echo each other,” Wang said.

Hagel later held a bilateral meeting with Wang, where the Chinese military leader expressed his surprise at the U.S. defense secretary’s speech.

“You were very candid this morning, and to be frank, more than our expectations,” he said. “Although I do think those criticisms are groundless, I do appreciate your candor … likewise we will also share our candor.”

A senior U.S. defense official said that, despite Wang’s opening remarks, the tone of the meeting had been “businesslike and fairly amicable”.

While Hagel went over ground he covered in his speech, Wang spent most of the meeting talking about U.S.-China military-to-military contacts, including Chinese participation in forthcoming military exercises, the official said.

The U.S. official said Hagel’s speech had been well received by other Asian delegations with the exception of China.

 

ONLY IF PROVOKED

In Beijing, President Xi Jinping said China would not initiate aggressive action in the South China Sea but would respond if others did, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

“We will never stir up trouble, but will react in the necessary way to the provocations of countries involved,” Xinhua quoted Xi as saying in a meeting on Friday with Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia.

China claims almost the entire oil- and gas-rich South China Seas, and dismisses competing claims from Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Japan also has a territorial row with China over islands in the East China Sea. Tensions have surged in recent weeks after China placed an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam, and the Philippines said Beijing could be building an airstrip on a disputed island. Japan’s defense ministry said Chinese SU-27 fighters came as close as 50 meters (170 ft) to a Japanese OP-3C surveillance plane near disputed islets last week and within 30 metres of a YS-11EB electronic intelligence aircraft. Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said Tokyo perceived an “increasingly severe regional security environment”.

“It is unfortunate that there are security concerns in the East and South China Seas,” he said. “Japan as well as all concerned parties must uphold the rule of law and never attempt to unilaterally change the status quo by force.”

On Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pitched his plan for Japan to take on a bigger international security role and told the Singapore forum that Tokyo would offer its “utmost support” to Southeast Asian countries in their efforts to protect their seas and airspace.

In a pointed dig at China, he said Japan would provide coastguard patrol boats to the Philippines and Vietnam.

 

JAPAN OFFER SNUBBED

Wang, China’s deputy chief of staff, also snubbed an offer for talks with Japan made by Defence Minister Onodera, the semi-official China News Service said.

“This will hinge on whether the Japanese side is willing to amend the erroneous policy towards China and improve relations between China and Japan,” he said. “Japan should correct its mistakes as soon as possible to improve China-Japan ties.” The strong comments at the Shangri-La Dialogue come as Abe pursues a controversial push to ease restrictions of the post-war, pacifist constitution that has kept Japan’s military from fighting overseas since World War Two.

Despite memories of Japan’s harsh wartime occupation of much of Southeast Asia, several countries in the region may view Abe’s message favorably because of China’s increasing assertiveness.

Hagel repeatedly stressed Obama’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific rebalance and said the strong U.S. military presence in the region would endure.

“To ensure that the rebalance is fully implemented, both President Obama and I remain committed to ensuring that any reductions in U.S. defense spending do not come at the expense of America’s commitments in the Asia-Pacific,” he said.

 

(Additional reporting by Rachel Armstrong and Masayuki Kitano in Singapore and John Ruwitch in Shanghai; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alex Richardson)

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WHY MORE AND MORE COUNTRIES ARE BECOMING DEMOCRATIC April 2014: six elections, one billion people, the world’s most democratic month

 In terms of sheer numbers, April  is  the most democratic month the world has ever seen as national elections take place in half a dozen countries with total electorates of more than one billion people – in India, Afghanistan, Hungary, Indonesia, Algeria and Iraq.

India

Narendra Modi mask
A vendor wears a mask of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for BJP. Photograph: Reuters/Babu

Date: 7 April to 12 May

No of voters: 815 million

Frontrunner: Narendra Modi

Free and fair factor: (out of 5, where 1 is corrupt and 5 is pure democracy) 3

Biggest anxiety: ensuring six weeks of rolling elections pass off with no disasters “manmade or natural”, according to the election commission chief

What it means for the world: a new PM needs to galvanise India’s stuttering economy and engage with regional partners and adversaries to assure peace and prosperity in south Asia

Read more: Indian election official calls for calm ahead of huge poll

Afghanistan

Supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah
Supporters of presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah wait outside a stadium to catch a glimpse of him leaving his campaign rally in the northwestern city of Herat. Photograph: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

Date: 5 April

No of voters: 12 million

Frontrunners: Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah, Zalmai Rassoul

Free and fair factor: 2

Biggest anxiety: a Taliban campaign of violence could mar voting tomorrow on Saturday; inconclusivity and rancour could destabilise the aftermath

What it means for the world: a first peaceful democratic transfer of power would be a major achievement, but it is only half the battle. The new president needs to unite a perennially divided nation, raise living standards and prospects, stand up to regional power brokers and fill the security void left by departing western troops

Read more: Afghanistan election candidates raise fears over widespread fraud

Indonesia

Prosperous Justice party (PKS) campaign rally
Supporters of the Prosperous Justice party (PKS) attend a campaign rally. Photograph: Juni Kriswanto/AFP/Getty Images

Date: 9 April (parliamentary), July (presidential)

Number of voters: 186.5 million

Frontrunner: opposition Indonesian Democratic party (PDI-P) of presidential favourite, Joko Widodo

Free and fair factor: four

Biggest anxiety: election-related violence has troubled the province of Aceh recently

What it means for the world: Indonesia is the world’s third largest democracy, south-east Asia’s largest economy, a G20 member, and home to the world’s largest Muslim population. It matters

Read more: Indonesia’s elections star a string of ‘common man’ candidates

Hungary

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán delivering his state of the nation address in front of party members. Photograph: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

Date: 6 April

No of voters: 7.5 million

Frontrunner: Current prime minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party

Free and fair factor: 4

Biggest anxiety: another overwhelming victory for a party showing increasingly authoritarian tendencies

What it means for the world: Orbán is pioneering a model that others in eastern Europe might be tempted to follow

Read more: Viktor Orbán’s party expected to win second landslide

Algeria

Abdelaziz Bouteflika supporters
Supporters of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Tamanrasset, south of Algiers. Photograph: Louafi Larbi/Reuters

Date: 17 April

No of voters: 21 million

Frontrunner: Abdelaziz Bouteflika

Free and fair factor: 3

Biggest anxiety: Bouteflika has been in place for 15 years; this election glosses over the bigger question: who comes next?

What it means for the world: Europe will want stability from a near neighbour constantly threatened by Islamic insurgents, but whose energy exports are becoming increasingly important to the continent

Iraq

Iraqi election campaign poster
Iraqis walks past an electoral campaign poster showing candidate Mohammed Abed Qathem al-Okeili running on the list of Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki. Photograph: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Date: 30 April

No of voters: 18 million

Frontrunner: Nuri al-Maliki

Free and fair factor: 2

Biggest anxiety: full-scale insurgency, spilling over from Syria, makes security parlous across much of the west of the country

What it means for the world: country that cost so many lives appears to be backsliding towards autocracy and instability, rendering democracy almost irrelevant. Would further carnage trigger an American re-engagement?

Ukraine army helicopter shot down near Sloviansk

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-27618681

Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine have shot down a military helicopter near Sloviansk, killing 14 people, the country’s outgoing president says.

Olexander Turchynov said the rebels used a Russian-made anti-aircraft system, and that an army general was among the dead.

The town of Sloviansk has seen fierce fighting between separatists and government forces in recent weeks.

President-elect Petro Poroshenko has vowed to tackle “bandits” in the east.

Russia has reiterated calls for Ukraine to stop its military campaign against the pro-Moscow rebels and “start a real national dialogue”.

The Russian foreign ministry also urged the United States and European Union “to use all their influence on Kiev to stop Ukraine’s slide into national catastrophe”.

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At the scene: Arkady Babchenko, Russian journalist, Donetsk Region

Ukrainian army helicopter before being shot down (29 May)The helicopter had just taken off after transporting soldiers to a Ukrainian base

The helicopter arrived at Karachun [near Sloviansk], to unload and pick up a group of people who were finishing their tour and going on leave. They were shot down after take-off. I had talked to the pilot and also to Gen Kulchytskiy. The pilots were very nice guys – polite, correct, friendly.

Gen Kulchytskiy was very capable and very accessible. A good commander who would fly to the checkpoints where his soldiers were. He would personally bring them food and water. He kept an eye on everything.

The fighting here has become more frequent recently. In the last few days, it broke out even during the daytime. Previously, it happened only at night.

However, the last two days were relatively quiet. The army man checkpoints, preventing the forces of the People’s Republic of Donetsk from moving about freely. The mood is good among the soldiers. No desertion or talk about giving up. People are in good fighting spirit.

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‘Terrorists’

The BBC’s Mark Lowen in the region says Thursday’s incident was a major blow to the Ukrainian army as it pursues its offensive against the separatists.

The helicopter was hit during heavy fighting between Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, after it had dropped off troops at a military base.

Helicopter crash sceneBlack smoke was seen rising from the scene of the crash
Ukrainian soldiers at a checkpoint outside Sloviansk (29 May 2014)The attack was one of the worst losses of life for government forces in the conflict so far
A Ukrainian woman holds up a banner reading "bring back my son" at a rally with other relatives of Ukrainian officers and soldiers in Kiev (29 May 2014)Holding up banners reading “Bring back my son”, relatives of Ukrainian soldiers took to the streets of Kiev to protest against the deaths

President Turchynov said the 14 dead included Maj Gen Serhiy Kulchytskiy, head of combat and special training for Ukraine’s National Guard.

It is one of the worst losses of life for government forces in the conflict. Last week at least 14 soldiers died in a rebel attack on an army checkpoint near Donetsk, some 130km (80 miles) from Sloviansk.

Earlier this month, separatists shot down two army helicopters, also near Sloviansk, killing a pilot and another serviceman.

Mr Poroshenko has called the separatists “terrorists” intent on maintaining a “bandit state”. After Sunday’s election he vowed to tackle them “in hours”, not months.

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Maj Gen Serhiy Kulchytskiy

Gen Serhiy Kulchytskiy
  • Born on 17 December 1963 in East Germany where his father served with a Soviet military contingent
  • Began military career as a marine platoon commander at the Soviet Northern Fleet in Murmansk Region
  • Moved to western Ukraine in 1992 and became deputy commander of a National Guard battalion in Ternopil
  • Awarded the rank of major-general by President Viktor Yanukovych in August 2013
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Missing monitors

The conflict has intensified in recent days. The rebels say they lost up to 100 fighters when they tried to seize Donetsk airport on Monday.

Alexander Borodai, the separatist leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said 33 Russian nationals had been among those killed in the airport clashes.

Mr Borodai, himself a Russian citizen, added that their bodies had been identified and would be taken to Russia.

The news has fuelled accusations that Russia plays a larger part in the conflict than it currently admits, our correspondent says.

Coffins of pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk (29 May 2014)More than 30 Russian nationals died during clashes with Ukrainian troops at Donetsk airport on Monday
A grieving woman is being supported by two men near the coffin of a taxi driver shot in clashes near Donetsk airport (29 May 2014)A relative mourns the death of a taxi driver who was shot on Monday during the airport clashes
Pro-Russian separatist at Donetsk airport (29 May 2014)Rebels have been manning barricades in the Donetsk region, where fighting has recently intensified

Also on Monday, pro-Russia militiamen seized four international monitors working with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

The self-proclaimed mayor of Sloviansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, told Russia’s Interfax news agency they were safe and well and could be released soon.

The OSCE has said it does not know the monitors’ whereabouts, but Mr Ponomaryov told another Russian news agency they were being held in the village of Makeyevka.

Pro-Russian separatists in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence after referendums on 11 May, which were not recognised by Kiev or its Western allies.

The separatists took their cue from a disputed referendum in Crimea, which led to Russia’s annexation of the southern peninsula.

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nasas global selfie shows earth as youve never seen it before

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/nasas-global-selfie-shows-earth-as-youve-never-seen-it-before/

It took 36,422 individual photos from 113 countries around the world to createNASA’s 2014 “global selfie” — an interactive, composite picture of our planet.

In observance of Earth Day in April, NASA posed the question, “Where are you on Earth right now?” and invited people to reply with a photo.

Thousands of people did, uploaded their pictures to Twitter, Instagram or Google+ using the hashtag #GlobalSelfie. or posting them on Facebook or the photo site Flickr.

The mosaic image can be explored interactively using Gigapan technology that allows users to zoom in on any part of the globe.

Cyberattack that locked apple devices in australia reaches U.S.

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/cyberattack-that-locked-apple-devices-in-australia-reaches-u-s/

First came reports of a widespread hack of Apple devices in Australia — the attacker locked the devices remotely and demanded ransom from the owners. Now, CBS Los Angeles reports the scam appears to have reached the U.S.

Earlier this week, many Australian owners of Apple devices began discovering that their iPhones, iPads and Macs had been hacked by someone using the name Oleg Pliss. They were directed to a PayPal account and told to send money to have them unlocked, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

A majority of victims affected by the hack so far appear to be from Australia,according to an Apple support thread, but there were also owners affected in New Zealand, the U.S. and Canada. One Australian user commented that they had been in London when the threatening message appeared.

“I’m in the U.S. Never been to Australia. Hacked last night by the Oleg Pliss nonsense. Currently restoring to try and get back online,” wrote user wheelman2188.

The hacker is reportedly targeting Apple products that do not have passcodes — allowing for them to use the “Find My iPhone” function to remotely lock the devices.

“I thought it was a joke, and I was like ‘Yeah yeah, whatever’, and went to open my phone, and nothing,” Southern California victim Nathan Sohm told CBS Los Angeles. “The whole reason I got into Apple was to prevent hacks and viruses. And here it is being hacked,” he added.

Just like their Australian counterparts, American victims of the hack are being advised to bring in their locked device to an Apple store to be reset. However, this will cause the user to lose everything stored on the device, an employee from a California Apple store told CBS Los Angeles.

On Wednesday, an Apple representative told ZDNET that iCloud was not compromised, and urged users to change their Apple passwords.

“Apple takes security very seriously and iCloud was not compromised during this incident. Impacted users should change their Apple ID password as soon as possible and avoid using the same username and password for multiple services,” the company said in a statement.

The cyber attack happened just as Apple is preparing for its annual Worldwide Developers Conference next week. The company reportedly has plans to unveil a new “smart home” control system at the conference.

 

 

U.S. economy stumbles in first-quarter, but prospects brighter

http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/05/29/us-usa-economy-idUSKBN0E918F20140529

U.S. economy stumbles in first-quarter, but prospects brighter

WASHINGTON Thu May 29, 2014 1:32pm EDT

 
 
 
 
Containers await departure as crews load and unload consumer products at the Port of New Orleans along the Mississippi River in New Orleans, Louisiana June 23, 2010. REUTERS/Sean Gardner

Containers await departure as crews load and unload consumer products at the Port of New Orleans along the Mississippi River in New Orleans, Louisiana June 23, 2010.

CREDIT: REUTERS/SEAN GARDNER

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

(Reuters) – The U.S. economy contracted for the first time in three years in the first quarter as it buckled under a severe winter, but there are signs it has rebounded and economists say it could grow as much as 4 percent in the current quarter.

The Commerce Department on Thursday slashed its estimate of gross domestic product to show the economy shrank at a 1.0 percent annual rate.

The worst performance since the first quarter of 2011 reflected a far slower pace of inventory accumulation and a bigger than previously estimated trade deficit.

These weather-related temporary factors should fade. Inventories, in particular, are expected to swing higher, boosting output in the April-June quarter.

“The race isn’t over yet for the economy. Things are better than you think. We are still expecting a strong finish to the year,” said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ in New York.

GDP was initially estimated to have grown at a 0.1 percent rate. It is not unusual for the government to make sharp revisions to GDP numbers as it does not have complete data when it makes its initial estimates.

A plunge in business spending on commercial property and plant was also a drag. Economists estimate severe weather could have chopped off as much as 1.5 percentage points from GDP growth. The economy grew at a 2.6 percent pace in the fourth quarter.

U.S. stocks were trading higher as investors focused on the brighter second-quarter growth prospects. Prices for U.S. Treasury debt rose, but the dollar fell against a basket of currencies.

 

JOBS MARKET FIRMING

Bullish jobs data released on Thursday also bolstered the case for an economy on the rebound as Labor Department numbers showed first-time applications for state unemployment benefits declined 27,000 to a seasonally adjusted 300,000 last week.

The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of underlying labor market conditions, hit its lowest level since August 2007.

“It fits into the overall picture of steadily improving labor market conditions. That is the key ingredient that is going to propel the economy forward,” said Anthony Karydakis, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak in New York.

Separately, contracts to buy previously owned homes rose in April for a second month, a positive sign for the troubled housing market. The reports added to data on manufacturing and hiring that have buoyed hopes of strong bounce back in growth.

Businesses accumulated $49.0 billion worth of inventories in the first three months of the year, far less than the $87.4 billion estimated last month.

It was the smallest amount in a year and left inventories subtracting 1.62 percentage points from first-quarter growth.

While the decline in exports was not as severe as initially thought, import growth was stronger, resulting in a trade deficit that sliced off 0.95 percentage point from GDP growth.

A measure of domestic demand that strips out exports and inventories expanded at a 1.6 percent rate, rather than a 1.5 percent rate, indicating underlying strength in the economy.

Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, increased at a 3.1 percent rate.

It was revised from a 3.0 percent pace and was boosted by the Affordable Healthcare Act, which expanded coverage to many Americans.

Business spending on nonresidential structures, such as gas drilling, contracted at a 7.5 percent rate. It previously had been estimated to have increased at a 0.2 percent pace.

While corporate profits recorded their biggest drop in more than five years, that reflected the expiration of a depreciation bonus rather than fundamental weakening at U.S. firms.

 

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

US gives $5bn to global terror fight

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-27606536

US gives $5bn to global terror fight

US soldier in HelmandThere were once more than 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan

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US President Barack Obama has announced a $5bn (£3bn) “terrorism partnership fund” to help other countries tackle extremists.

The cash will help countries in the Middle East, Africa and East Asia.

He announced the plan at the US Military Academy in West Point, as he set out his foreign policy vision.

The end of the combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of the year would free up resources to tackle emerging threats elsewhere, he said.

“I am calling on Congress to support a new counter-terrorism partnerships fund of up to $5 billion, which will allow us to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.”

The money would go towards missions such as training security forces in Yemen, supporting a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia, working with European allies to train a functioning security force in Libya, and helping French operations in Mali, he said.

Turning to the civil war in Syria, he promised to “ramp up support” for those in opposition to the regime of President Assad, although he did not give details about what that would mean in practice.

An Islamist rebel in MaliThe cash will try to tackle Islamist threats in parts of Africa

His speech attempted to recast US foreign policy as one which would use military force when necessary but primarily acts on a platform of international consensus.

“We must broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law and – if just, necessary, and effective – multilateral military action.

“We must do so because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, and less likely to lead to costly mistakes.”

In the wide-ranging address to West Point graduates Mr Obama touched on a range of foreign policy issues, such as:

  • “a strategy that involves invading every country that harbours terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable”
  • small-scale capture and drone operations by the US military would continued to be used, but with increased transparency
  • US leadership had helped bring Iran to negotiate on nuclear issues and isolated world opinion against Russia in the Ukrainian crisis
  • praise for the United Nations and Nato, which he said was “the strongest alliance the world has ever known”
  • “American influence is always stronger when we lead by example”, he said, while criticising domestic politicians for denying climate change and refusing to sign a UN maritime treaty
  • a continued push to close the US military prison at Guantanamo
  • US should focus on development and education as “no American security operation can eradicate the threat posed by an extremist group like Boko Haram”

Last week, the US sent about 80 troops to Chad as part of a mission to help locate hundreds of school girls abducted by Islamist group Boko Haram in neighbouring Nigeria.

The address marks the start of a series of speeches from the president about foreign policy over the next 10 days, in an attempt to respond to critics who say current US foreign policy is weak.

On a trip to Europe, he will give a speech about US commitment to Europe in Warsaw, meet with the G7 leaders in Brussels, and honour US veterans in Normandy at the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

 

Thailand coup: Military says many detainees freed

 

The BBC’s Jonah Fisher: “The army said… there were 76 people still in custody”

Thailand’s army says it has now released 124 people, including politicians and activists, who were taken into custody after the coup.

An army spokesman said a total of 253 people had been summoned. Fifty-three did not report and 76 were in custody.

Conditions for the release appear to include agreeing to avoid political activity and informing the army of travel, a BBC correspondent said.

Coup leaders, who took power last week, received royal endorsement on Monday.

Thailand’s former prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has been released but remains under some restrictions.

The army also says it is releasing a group of “red-shirt” protest leaders who support the ousted government. The anti-government protest leader has already been freed.

So far, almost all of the 124 people who the army said they had detained and released have kept a very low profile, says the BBC’s Jonah Fisher in Bangkok.

It remains to be seen whether these “red-shirt” leaders – who support the ousted government – do the same, our correspondent added.

The military seized power in Thailand on 22 May, saying it wanted to return stability to the country after months of unrest.

 

How is Thailand’s curfew being imposed?

The move followed six months of political deadlock as protesters rallied against Yingluck Shinawatra’s government. At least 28 people were killed and hundreds injured over the course of the protests.

Coup leaders received royal endorsement on Monday. But the coup, which removed an elected government, has drawn widespread international criticism.

Correspondents say there is also a degree of scepticism about the total number of people in custody provided by the military, with reports of more widespread detentions.

Rights groups have expressed alarm over the detentions, as well as the tight restrictions on media.

On Monday, there were reports that internet users were briefly unable to access social media site Facebook. The country’s information and technology ministry told the BBC there was a gateway problem.

Experts have said that the coup is unlikely to heal highly polarised political divisions in the country.

Russian troops may be slowly pulling back from Ukraine border: NATO

Russian troops may be slowly pulling back from Ukraine border: NATO

BRUSSELS Tue May 27, 2014 9:39am EDT

 
 

RELATED TOPICS

 
 
 

(Reuters) – Russian troops may be slowly pulling back from near the Ukraine border, although the bulk of the force remains close to the frontier for now, a NATO military officer said on Tuesday.

“NATO has observed some continued Russian troop activity in the vicinity of the border with Ukraine over the past days. There is some evidence of equipment and supplies being packed or prepared for movement in certain locations,” the officer said.

“The activity we are observing at present could suggest a slow or staged withdrawal of forces. At present, the bulk of the previously deployed Russian force remains in the vicinity of the border,” the officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.

 

(Reporting by Adrian Croft; editing by Jan Strupczewski)

 

Why did Pope Francis pray at the wall?

By Jay Parini
May 27, 2014 — Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
Pope Francis touches the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank, on his way to celebrate a mass in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
Pope Francis touches the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank, on his way to celebrate a mass in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jay Parini: On Bethlehem trip, Pope makes significant gesture by praying at separation wall
  • He says Bethlehem hugely powerful for Christians, a place of pilgrimage for Palestinians
  • Bethlehem a long disputed site among Palestinians, Israel. Pope’s move symbolic, he says
  • Parini: In stopping to pray there, Pope Francis implicitly cries: Tear down this wall!

Editor’s note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. He has just published “Jesus: the Human Face of God,” a biography of Jesus. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) — “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost. This something is someone now: Pope Francis.

In a strong, apparently unscripted move on his recent visit to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, on Sunday the pontiff suddenly waved to the driver of his Popemobile, asking to get out. Surrounded by guards and by children waving Palestinian flags, he got out, walked over to the wall that separates Israel from its Palestinian neighbors, and he did something remarkably simple but with astonishing power: He prayed.

Jay Parini

Jay Parini

This symbolic gesture occurred at a well-known portion of the wall, a segment covered with graffiti. Somebody had spray-painted a message in black: “Pope we need some 1 to speak about justice Bethlehem look like Warsaw ghetto.” In bold red letters the Pope could read: “Free Palestine.” While Israeli guards looked anxiously down from a nearby tower, wondering what on Earth was going on, Francis touched the wall with his right hand, bent his head, and prayed for several minutes. Afterward, he kissed the wall, then walked slowly back to his vehicle.

I’ve myself experienced several times the haunting power of Bethlehem for Christians. My father was a Baptist minister, and once — in 1989 — I took him to the Church of the Nativity, the spot where (by tradition) Jesus was thought to have been born.

This is a place of pilgrimage for those devoted to the Christian path, and it’s also an important city on the West Bank for Palestinians (among them a mix of Muslims and Christians, with Muslims the vast majority).

Photos: Pope visits Holy LandPhotos: Pope visits Holy Land

This holy city, described in the Hebrew scriptures as the City of David, was under Ottoman and Egyptian rule for centuries. The British controlled much of Palestine from 1920-1948 during the period known as the Mandate. The United Nations partitioned Palestine after the war, but Jordan took possession of Bethlehem after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. It became a refuge for Palestinians at this time, largely under the control of Jordan until the Six Day War in 1967.

The Israelis kept control until 1995, when an agreement was reached with the Palestinian National Authority, although it has been a place of unease, especially during the 2000-2005 era known as the Second Intifada, when for a period (in 2002) the Church of the Nativity itself became a battle zone for 39 days.

Some 150 people then (mostly Palestinian civilians, with numerous Catholic and Orthodox monks and nuns) took refuge in the Church of the Nativity from an Israeli siege known as Operation Defensive Shield. A tense stalemate occurred, with the Franciscan Order asking the Israeli government to let everyone inside the church go free on the 10th day. There was no response, although an Armenian monk was shot and wounded that day.

 

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Ultimately, Israeli snipers shot dead eight people in or around the church; they wounded at least 22, all of them designated as terrorists by the Israeli army.

Against this history, this pope exercised his unerring sense of symbolism. It’s not for nothing that he took the name of Francis of Assisi, in memory of a saint who, in the 12th century, was regarded as the person who most embodied the life and teachings of Jesus. Although born into a rich merchant family, he humbled himself, trying his best to conform to the pattern of life established by Jesus, with a dedication to peace, to bringing down barriers, to expressing love in whatever ways he could.

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Francis of Assisi lived without pretense. He understood symbolic gestures like Jesus himself, who washed the feet of those around him, who sought out those — such as prostitutes, lepers and beggars — on the margins of society.

Through the Middle Ages, that earlier Francis was commonly known as alter Christus — “the second Christ.” One could say that Pope Francis, in turn, follows him as a man who lives without pretense, who understands symbolic gestures.

In stopping to pray by this wall of separation, he implicitly cries: Tear down this wall! He has pointedly asked Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres — the Palestinian and Israeli presidents — to join him for a time of prayer and reconciliation in Rome. He has called the conflict in Israel “increasingly unacceptable,” which is a marvel of understatement. (In a gesture of reconciliation, the pope did — on Monday — accede to an Israeli request to pray before a memorial to Israeli victims of the conflict as well. As ever, he understands that it will be necessary to listen carefully to both sides in this tragic dispute.)

As the pope’s unexpected pause by the wall near Bethlehem makes terribly clear, this ugly partition that weaves through the West Bank has become a potent symbol of the Israeli occupation, and it’s an affront to all reasonable Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Good fences do not, in this case, make good neighbors. It’s time to pull down this barrier to freedom.

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