Gunmen Kill Egyptian Military Border Guards

Gunmen have killed 21 Egyptian military border guards near the frontier with Libya.

Security officials said the assailants were smugglers. 

But an army spokesman said on his Facebook page that “terrorists” — the term authorities use to describe Islamist militants — were behind the attack.

He said a weapons storage facility was blown up by a rocket-propelled grenade in an exchange of fire, killing the soldiers and wounding four others.

The attack took place on July 19 in Wadi al-Gadid governorate, which borders both Sudan and Libya. 

Two smugglers were killed in clashes with the guards, security officials said.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has repeatedly expressed concerns about militants who have capitalized on the chaos in Libya and set up operations along the border.

Based on reporting by AP and Reuters 

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Egypt border guards killed in western desert

Armed men have killed 21 Egyptian military border guards near the frontier with Libya, highlighting a growing threat from an area that authorities say has become a haven for fighters seeking to topple the Cairo government.

Security officials said on Saturday the assailants were smugglers. But the army spokesman said on his Facebook page that “terrorists” – the term authorities use to describe armed fighters – were behind the attack.

He said a weapons storage facility was blown up by a rocket-propelled grenade in an exchange of fire, killing the soldiers and wounding four others.

The attack took place in Wadi al-Gadid governorate, which borders both Sudan and Libya.

Two smugglers were killed in clashes with the guards, security officials said.

Five Egyptian border guards were killed in a similar attack in the same area a few months ago.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has repeatedly expressed concerns about fighters who have capitalised on the chaos in Libya and set up operations along the border.

Security officials say those fighters pay smugglers to transport weapons, including machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades, to comrades in Egypt, which is already facing an insurgency based in the Sinai Peninsula near Israel.

Sinai fighters have stepped up attacks against policemen and soldiers since then-army chief Sisi toppled President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood last summer and launched a fierce attacks on Islamists.

Hundreds have been killed in shootings and bombings.

Security officials say fighters operating from Libya are trying to forge ties with others in the Sinai, an alliance that could prolong Egypt’s instability and scare away investors that are badly needed to help fix the economy.

Tribal smugglers told Reuters news agency they charge up to one million Egyptian pounds ($ 140,000) to move weapons in 4×4 vehicles along desert routes.

Egypt considered launching a cross-border offensive several months ago in a bid to crush the fighters, according to two Egyptian national security officials.

Security officials say fighters along the Libyan border harbour ambitions similar to the al-Qaeda breakaway group that has seized a large expanse of Iraq: they want to topple Sisi and create a caliphate in Egypt.

Sisi, who has said that armed groups stalking the Middle East pose a threat to everyone, has said Egypt will not allow Libya’s turmoil to threaten Egypt’s national security.

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AL JAZEERA ENGLISH (AJE)

Border With Russia Helps Luhansk Republic Hang On

Since the Ukrainian government reestablished control over the eastern city of Slovyansk on July 5, the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic has been on the defensive.

Ukrainian forces have been pushing to isolate the city of Luhansk and to cut the insurgents off from access to the border with Russia. But the going has been slow, the authorities say, because of increased supplies of weapons and volunteers coming across the frontier.

In the middle of June, Ukrainian government forces entered the city of Shchastya and established control over part of the border with Russia. On July 14, the army took control over Metalist, Oleksandrivsk, and other towns in the vicinity of Luhansk.

At present, the separatists control only the southern part of Luhansk Oblast, including the city of Luhansk.

It is a far cry from the heady days of April, when militants seized the local headquarters of the state security service. Three weeks later, on April 28, the loosely organized fighters proclaimed the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), and on the next day they seized other government buildings in the city.

Two weeks after that, on May 11, 96 percent of locals — according to results released by the separatists — voted in a disputed referendum to support LNR’s independence.

‘Military Junta’

Although the LNR is usually lumped together with the other breakaway region in eastern Ukraine, the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), and the two have signed an agreement forming the Novorossia confederation, they are quite different, analysts say.

The leadership of the LNR is “more centralized,” says local political analyst Oleksiy Blyuminov. Although there are factions as there are in the DNR, the LNR has a dominant president in Valery Bolotov. Blyuminov says the governing structure there is “a military junta in the best sense of the word.”

Yuliy Fedorovskiy, another local political observer in Luhansk, tells RFE/RL’s Russian Service that LNR is a “military democracy.” He notes that Bolotov and his inner circle are all veterans of the Union of Paratroopers of Luhansk Oblast. They are more “leftist” than their comrades in Donetsk, and Bolotov’s statements often have a distinctly Soviet feel.

In June, Bolotov formed a State Security Committee (KGB), with a counterespionage arm called SMERSH, after the Stalin-era antispying program.

Bolotov’s power is balanced to some extent by a group surrounding Aleksey Mozgovoi, a local commander who is formally subordinate to Bolotov in the political hierarchy and simultaneously to Novorossia military commander Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, militarily and operationally. He opposed Bolotov at a demonstration on April 21 at which gathered protesters “elected” the LNR leadership.

Fedorovskiy also notes that the Cossacks from Russia’s Don River region have considerable influence in the LNR. The group of Don Cossacks is headed by Russian Nikolai Kozitsyn. Fedorovskiy says Kozitsyn controls the stretch of the Russian-Ukrainian border that remains in militant hands and “does not want to recognize Bolotov as the sole leader.”

‘Less Russian Influence’

Blyuminov says that, apart from the Cossacks, Russian citizens have less influence in the LNR than in the DNR and have managed to secure fewer high-level official posts. However, Russian political strategist Marat Bashirov was named LNR acting prime minister earlier this month. He is a well-known Russian spin doctor with ties to Putin-connected oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.

LNR Deputy Prime Minster for finances Dmitry Semyonov is also a Russian, as are about 10 senior people in the so-called power ministries (defense, interior, emergency situations, etc.).

By all accounts, local Ukrainians control the so-called Luhansk Army of the Southeast. Ukrainian military expert Oleksiy Orestovych estimates the force consists of several thousand fighters, of whom some 30-40 percent are Russian volunteers or mercenaries. Blyuminov, on the other hand, puts the total force at 12,000-15,000, of whom about 10-15 percent are Russians.

Bolotov’s political dominance of the region means that there is no single military commander of the stature of Strelkov, which often translates into a lack of tactical coordination.

The region’s main advantage — or lifeline — is its physical connection with Russia. Military analyst Orestovych estimates that the number of separatist fighters in the area has increased, rather than decreased, since the Ukrainian government began its offensive there. He believes the government’s “antiterrorism operation” has been less effective than Kyiv claims.

“The situation is not improving,” he says. “[The government] does not have sufficient forces or power.”

The intensified fighting has made the situation inside the city of Luhansk more tense for local residents.

“It is dangerous to walk around the city,” says a young man who identified himself only as Ihor. “Not only for activists, but for ordinary people as well During the curfew, men found out on the streets are often forced to go into the Army of the Southeast.”

Another local named Petro told RFE/RL that he has heard of at least 30 people who have been abducted by militants.

Ihor used to run a local art center and exhibition space. He says that during one event, militants came and said it was a curfew violation.

“They started shooting into the paintings,” Ihor says. “But some of the girls spoke with them, gave them a drink, and they settled down.”

Shortly afterward, Ihor closed the space because most of his colleagues and clients had fled Luhansk.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Blowback on the Border: America’s Child Refugee Crisis

child-migrant-crisis-border-control

Although the U.S. government is not solely at fault for the child migrant crisis, we’re seeing the cumulative effect of years of policy failure. (Image: FoxNews.com)

After three years of relative silence, the U.S. press has finally “discovered” the crisis of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors piling up on the U.S. border. Although the coverage often began with moving stories of the hardships these young migrants faced, it soon turned ugly. For right-wing pundits and politicians, the “humanitarian crisis” has become a crackdown on kids.

The dominant narrative has been that foolish parents, perhaps duped by scheming criminal bands, are sending hapless children north to take advantage of loopholes in U.S. immigration practices.

This is just plain wrong. On every count.

Knowing the Risks

First, parents and migrating youth are not naive. They usually know the dangers, which include injury, rape, extortion, kidnapping, and even death. Parents carefully consider the risks before making the decision to spend thousands of dollars to send their children away.

The three countries responsible for the increase in child migrants are Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Honduras has the highest per capita homicide rate in the world, with El Salvador and Guatemala in fourth and fifth place, respectively. In certain neighborhoods in these countries, the homicide rate is far higher than the already high national rate, and young people are the most at-risk of all.

That’s why many Central American parents have concluded that the greatest risk is keeping their kids at home.

Consider the case of David Ernesto Orellana, who lived with his grandmother in El Salvador. Both David’s parents live in the United States, where they had hoped to bring their son up due to the violence in his neighborhood.

Salvadoran gangs had been hounding the boy to join them. Sometime after he refused, his body was found decapitated in a vacant lot on July 12. He was 10 years old. Family members were afraid even to go to his funeral for fear of retaliation.

A study by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees found that more than half of the child migrants had reported fleeing violence and threats, and were likely eligible for international protection. If they’re deported, many could face the same fate as David.

Family Reunification

An under-reported fact is that many parents are not sending their children north to be on their own. They are sending south for their children to join them in the United States.

I asked Father Alejandro Solalinde, who runs the Ixtepec migrant center in southern Oaxaca, about the sudden increase in minors migrating out of Central America. He replied that the increasing number of Central American children filling his shelter were the last link in a “chain of desperation.” The fathers migrated to support the families, then older brothers and sisters left to join the fathers, and finally mothers are leaving with the younger ones—or if the mother is already gone, they send for the children.

Children have a right to grow up with parents. Something is deeply wrong with economic integration and immigration policies that force them apart. Generations will carry the scars of separation, yet the issue of family reunification has scarcely surfaced in the current debate.

Rather than take any of this into account, the U.S. government has undertaken a propaganda campaign to convince Central Americans to stay put, as though the decision to migrate were a mere whim. While billboards popping up in Central America emphasize the risks of the journey, the State Department is focusing its efforts on “dispelling the misguided notion that these children will not face deportation proceedings.”

The Border Security Myth

There is a perception that “lenient” U.S. immigration policies—and false promises from scheming human smugglers—have encouraged new generations of Central Americans to take their chances at the U.S. border.

But the UN survey of some 400 child migrants and families found that only two listed permissive U.S. immigration practices as their reason for migrating. And if anything, the U.S. border is more militarized than ever, with record deportation rates.

Moreover, while human trafficking and organized crime are indeed established problems on the border, it’s actually a result of border control that is too strict, not too lenient. Tighter U.S. border security measures have made it nearly impossible for migrants to cross alone.

As with drug prohibition, policies to criminalize migration have created a black market that real criminals have eagerly claimed as their own. Today, the cost of migration has skyrocketed, and drug cartels earn millions taking migrants north. This leaves migrants extremely vulnerable to extortion and abuse, since when they are defined as “criminals” or “illegals,” they have no recourse to defend themselves.

Blowback

The steady increase in child migrants dates back to 2011. Although the U.S. government is not solely at fault, what we’re seeing is the cumulative effect of years of policy failure.

Take trade policy. Since the North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements went into effect, millions of Mexicans and Central Americans have been economically displaced and forced to emigrate.

NAFTA pushed the Mexican migration rate up to half a million a year. In the first year of CAFTA alone, 11,457 jobs were lost in El Salvador, while the number of Salvadorans leaving for the United States increased from 507 per day to 740 per day. In Guatemala, transnational extractive projects are displacing indigenous and rural populations.

Honduras is the most dramatic case of a policy disaster. Following the country’s 2009 coup, which deposed the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya, the U.S. government blocked a return to constitutional order by normalizing relations with the coup government. Post-coup Honduran governments have presided over rampant violations of human rights, a huge rise in organized crime, and a breakdown in the social fabric, leading to widespread delinquency.

The U.S.-funded drug war also accounts for much of the violence. Every war has its refugees. The war on drugs has proven to be no exception.

When counternarcotics efforts targeted drug lords in Mexico, they splintered traditional cartels and created violent rogue groups that spread throughout Mexico and into Central America. By fortifying abusive security forces in nations barely emerging from decades of military dictatorships, the drug war has meant a setback for both democracy and public safety.

The Best Interests of the Child

As the Obama administration and the right wing focus on how to keep the child refugees out of the country, too few have any concern for what domestic relations law calls “the best interest of the child.”

The House Progressive Caucus position, by contrast, has called on the U.S. government to uphold the children’s rights to due process and asylum, to provide adequate facilities for their care, and to review policies that contribute to forced migration, such as neoliberal trade policies and U.S. support for the drug war in Mexico and Central America.

The refugee crisis on the border is blowback for years of short-sighted policies that failed to consider the human consequences for the people of the region. If we fail to address these root causes, we will fail to solve the problem—no matter how much taxpayer money or Border Control we throw at it.

But most of all, we will fail the children.

Foreign Policy In Focus

Malaysian Plane Crashes In Ukraine Near Russia Border

A Malaysian passenger plane has crashed in eastern Ukraine where government forces are fighting pro-Russian separatists, amid claims the aircraft was shot down. 

Malaysia Airlines said there were 295 people on board the plane which was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. 

Correspondents at the scene say there was no sign of survivors. 

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the plane crash was the result of a “terrorist act.” 

The separatists denied shooting down the plane and blamed the Ukrainian military.

Poroshenko said the Ukrainian armed forces “did not take any action against any targets” in the area where the plane came down on July 17.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has ordered an investigation.

A Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser, Anton Herashchenko, earlier claimed the plane had been shot down by a BUK ground-to-air missile.

He said the plane was flying at an altitude of 10,000 meters when it was hit. 

Black Box

The separatists said they did not have weapons that could shoot down aircraft flying at such a high altitude.

The self-styled prime minister of the self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic,” Aleksandr Borodai, claimed the Ukrainian air force shot down the plane. 

The separatists later said they had found the “black box” flight recorder of the downed plane.

Shortly before reports surfaced that a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 had crashed in eastern Ukraine, a social media site purported to belong to a separatist leader claimed that insurgents had shot down an aircraft.

In a post on VKontakte, Russia’s largest social media site, which has since been taken down, separatist leader Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, wrote that the separatists had downed an AN-26 transport plane used by the Ukrainian Army. 

Earlier on June 17, Kyiv accused Russia’s military of shooting down a Ukrainian fighter jet, but Russia rejected the claim as “absurd.”

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said on Twitter there’s no confirmation that the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 from Amsterdam was shot down. 

The Malaysian government said it was launching an immediate investigation.

Russia’s Emergencies Ministry has offered to help with rescue work at the site of the crash.

With reporting by Interfax, ITAR-TASS, Reuters, Al-Jazeera

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

America’s Border Fascism

Border-Patrol-CBP-Homeland-Security-Constitution-Nogales

According to the ACLU, two-thirds of Americans now live in “constitution-free zones” where the Border Patrol reserves the right to grossly violate civil rights and liberties. (Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Flickr)

Shena Gutierrez was already cuffed and in an inspection room in Nogales, Arizona, when the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent grabbed her purse, opened it, and dumped its contents onto the floor right in front of her. There couldn’t be a sharper image of the Bill of Rights rollback we are experiencing in the U.S. borderlands in the post-9/11 era.

Tumbling out of that purse came Gutierrez’s life: photos of her kids, business cards, credit cards, and other papers, all now open to the official scrutiny of the Department of Homeland Security. There were also photographs of her husband, Jose Gutierrez Guzman, whom CBP agents beat so badly in 2011 that he suffered permanent brain damage. The supervisory agent, whose name badge on his blue uniform read “Gomez,” now began to trample on her life, quite literally, with his black boots.

“Please stop stepping on the pictures,” Shena asked him.

A U.S. citizen, unlike her husband, she had been returning from a 48-hour vigil against Border Patrol violence in Mexico and was wearing a shirt that said “Stop Border Patrol Brutality” when she was aggressively questioned and cuffed at the CBP’s “port of entry” in Nogales on that hot day in May. She had no doubt that Gomez was stepping all over the contents of her purse in response to her shirt, the evidence of her activism.

Perhaps what bothered Gomez was the photo silkscreened onto that shirt — of her husband during his hospitalization. It showed the aftermath of a beating he received from CBP agents. His head had a partially caved-in look because doctors had removed part of his skull. Over his chest and arms were bruises from Tasering. One tooth was out of place, and he had two black eyes. Although you couldn’t see them in the photo, two heavily armed Homeland Security agents were then guarding his hospital door to prevent the father of two, formerly a sound technician and the lead singer of a popular band in Los Angeles, from escaping — even in his comatose state.

Jose Gutierrez Guzman’s has become an ever more common story in an age of mass expulsions. Although he had grown up in the United States (without papers), he was born in Mexico. After receiving a letter requesting his appearance, he went to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Los Angeles and was promptly arrested and deported. Customs and Border Protection agents later caught him crossing the border in San Luis, Arizona, near Yuma, in an attempt to reunite with his wife and children.

“Stop… stepping… on… the… pictures,” Shena insisted.

As she tells the story, Agent Gomez looked at her shirt for a second, then looked up at her and said, “You have that mentality about us. You think we go around abusing.” His tone remained faux-friendly, but his boots didn’t — and neither did those cuffs another CBP agent had put on her. Forcing her hands behind her back, they cut uncomfortably into her wrists. They would leave deep red circular marks.

On display was a post-9/11 world in which the usual rights meant to protect Americans from unreasonable search and seizure and unwanted, as well as unwarranted, interrogation were up for grabs.

While such constitutionally questionable intrusions into people’s privacy have been increasing at border crossings in the post-9/11 years, this type of hardline border policing has also moved inland. In other words, the sort of intrusions that once would have qualified as unconstitutional have moved in startling numbers into the interior of the country.

Imagine the once thin borderline of the American past as an ever-thickening band, now extending 100 miles inland around the United States — along the 2,000-mile southern border, the 4,000-mile northern border, and both coasts — and you will be able to visualize how vast the CBP’s jurisdiction has become. This “border” region now covers places where two-thirds of the U.S. population (197.4 million people) live. The ACLU has come to call it a “constitution-free zone.” The “border” has by now devoured the full states of Maine and Florida and much of Michigan.

In these vast domains, Homeland Security authorities can institute roving patrols with broad, extra-constitutional powers backed by national security, immigration enforcement, and drug interdiction mandates. There, the Border Patrol can set up traffic checkpoints and fly surveillance drones overhead with high-powered cameras and radar that can track your movements. Within 25 miles of the international boundary, CBP agents can enter a person’s private property without a warrant. In these areas, the Homeland Security state is anything but abstract. On any given day, it can stand between you and the grocery store.

“Border Patrol checkpoints and roving patrols are the physical world equivalent of the National Security Agency,” says attorney James Lyall of ACLU Arizona puts it. “They involve a massive dragnet and stopping and monitoring of innocent Americans without any suspicion of wrongdoing by increasingly abusive and unaccountable federal government agents.”

Before she was so unceremoniously stopped and held, Shena Gutierrez shared the story of her husband at that 48-hour vigil. It was another story of the kind of pervasive abuse reported by people in the 100-mile zone. There were no cameras that night to record how 11 agents “subdued” Jose Gutierrez Guzman, as the CBP put it in its official report on the incident. Its claim: that Jose “struck his head on the ground,” a way perhaps of accounting for the hospital’s eventual diagnosis of “blunt force trauma.”

Considering the extent of Jose’s injuries, that CBP report is questionable indeed. Many Border Patrol agents now use the term “tonk” — the sound a flashlight supposedly makes when it bangs against someone’s head — as their way of describing border-crossers. Jose was also repeatedly “shot” with an “electronic control device,” aka a Taser. He was so badly beaten that, more than three years later, he still suffers seizures.

“Stop stepping on my pictures!” Gutierrez insisted again. But much like the CBP’s official complaint process, the words were ignored. The only thing Gomez eventually spat out was, “Are you going to get difficult?”

When Shena Gutierrez offered me a play-by-play account of her long day, including her five-hour detainment at the border, her voice ran a gamut of emotions from desperation to defiance. Perhaps these are the signature emotions of what State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren has dubbed the “Post-Constitutional Era.” We now live in a time when, as he writes, “the government might as well have taken scissors to the original copy of the Constitution stored in the National Archives, then crumpled up the Fourth Amendment and tossed it in the garbage can.” The prototype for this new era, with all the potential for abuse it gives the authorities, can be found in that 100-mile zone.

A Standing Army

The zone first came into existence thanks to a series of laws passed by Congress in the 1940s and 1950s at a time when the Border Patrol was just an afterthought with a miniscule budget and only 1,100 agents. Today, Customs and Border Protection has more than 60,000 employees and is by far the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country. According to author and constitutional attorney John Whitehead, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), created in 2002, is efficiently and ruthlessly building “a standing army on American soil.”

Long ago, President James Madison warned that “a standing military force, with an overgrown Executive, will not long be safe companions to liberty.” With its 240,000 employees and $ 61 billion budget, the DHS, Whitehead points out, is militarizing police units, stockpiling ammunition, spying on activists, and building detention centers, among many other things. CBP is the uniformed and most visible component of this “standing army.” It practically has its own air force and navy, an Office of Air and Marine equipped with 280 sea vessels, 250 aircraft, and 1,200 agents.

On the border, never before have there been so many miles of walls and barriers, or such an array of sophisticated cameras capable of operating at night as well as in the daylight. Motion sensors, radar systems, and cameras mounted on towers, as well as those drones, all feed their information into operational control rooms throughout the borderlands. There, agents can surveil activity over large stretches of territory on sophisticated (and expensive) video walls. This expanding border enforcement regime is now moving into the 100-mile zone.

Such technological capability also involves the warehousing of staggering amounts of personal information in the digital databases that have ushered in the Post-Constitutional Era. “What does all this mean in terms of the Fourth Amendment?” Van Buren asks. “It’s simple: the technological and human factors that constrained the gathering and processing of data in the past are fast disappearing.”

The border, in the post 9/11 years, has also become a place where military manufacturers, eyeing a market in an “unprecedented boom period,” are repurposing their wartime technologies for the Homeland Security mission. This “bring the battlefield to the border” posture has created an unprecedented enforcement, incarceration, and expulsion machine aimed at the foreign-born (or often simply foreign-looking).

The sweep is reminiscent of the operation that forced Japanese (a majority of them citizens) into internment camps during World War II, but on a scale never before seen in this country. With it, unsurprisingly, has come a wave of complaints about physical and verbal abuse by Homeland Security agents, as well as tales of inadequate food and medical attention to undocumented immigrants in short-term detention.

The result is a permanent, low-intensity state of exception that makes the expanding borderlands a ripe place to experiment with tearing apart the Constitution, a place where not just undocumented border-crossers, but millions of borderland residents have become the targets of continual surveillance. If you don’t see the Border Patrol’s ever-expanding forces in places like New York City (although CBP agents are certainly present at its airports and seaports), you can see them pulling people over these days in plenty of other spots in that Constitution-free zone where they hadn’t previously had a presence.

They are, for instance, in cities like Rochester, New York, and Erie, Pennsylvania, as well as in Washington State, Vermont, Florida, and at all international airports. Homeland Security officials are scrutinizing people’s belongings, including their electronic devices, from sea to shining sea. Just ask Pascal Abidor, an Islamic studies doctoral student whose computer was turned on by CBP agents in Champlain, New York.

When an agent saw that he had a picture of a Hezbollah rally, she asked Abidor, a U.S. citizen, “What is this stuff?” His answer — that he was studying the modern history of the Shiites — meant nothing to her and his computer was seized for 10 days. Between 2008 and 2010, the CBP searched the electronic devices of more than 6,500 people. Like many of us, Abidor keeps everything, even his most private and intimate conversations with his girlfriend, on his computer. Now, it’s private no longer.

Despite all this, the message politicians and the media generally offer is that the country needs more agents, new techno-gadgets, and even more walls for our “safety.” In that context, President Obama on July 7th asked Congress for an additional $ 3.7 billion for “border security.”

Since last October, in what officials have called a “humanitarian crisis,” 52,000 unaccompanied children, mostly from Central America, have been apprehended by Border Patrol agents. News about and photos of some of those children, including toddlers, parentless and incarcerated in warehouses in the Southwest, have led to a flood of articles, many claiming that border security is “strained.” A Border Patrol Union representative typically claimed that the border is “more porous than it’s ever been.” While such claims are ludicrous, all signs point to more money being packed aboard what Whitehead has called a “runaway train.”

Make no bones about it, every dollar spent this way works not just to keep others out of this country, but to lock U.S. citizens into a border zone that may soon encompass the whole country. It also fortifies our new domestic “standing military force” and its rollback of the Bill of Rights.

Resistance Inside the 100-Mile Zone

The first thing Cynthia (a pseudonym) asks the supervisory agent with the green Border Patrol hat and wrap-around sunglasses who stops her car is: “Can I have your name and agent number please?” She’s been halted at a checkpoint approximately 25 miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border on a road running east-west-running near the small town of Arivaca, Arizona, where she lives.

The agent pauses. He looks like he’s swallowed a hornet before he barks, “We ask the questions here first, okay? Do you have some ID on you?”

This starts a tense exchange between the two of them that she videotaped in its entirety. She is only one of many challenging the omnipresence and activities of the Border Patrol in the heart of the 100-mile zone. Like many locals in Arivaca, she is sick of the checkpoint, which has been there for seven years. She and her neighbors were fed up with the obligatory stop between their small town and the dentist or the nearest bookstore. They were tired of Homeland Security agents scrutinizing their children on their way to school. So they began to organize.

In late 2013, they demanded that the federal government remove the checkpoint. It was, they wrote in a petition, an ugly artifact of border militarization; it had, they added, a negative economic impact on residents and infringed on people’s constitutional rights. At the beginning of 2014, small groups from People Helping People in the Border Zone — the name of their organization — started monitoring the checkpoint several days a week.

This Arivaca Border Patrol road barricade, one of at least 71 in the southwest, functions as a de facto enforcement zone away from the border. In Border Patrolese, it’s “an additional layer in our Defense in Depth strategy.” This particular checkpoint isn’t exactly impressive — just a portable trailer with an attached tarp for shade, but it still qualifies, according to one of the Patrol’s informational brochures, as “a critical enforcement tool for securing the nation’s borders against all threats to our homeland.”

The agents manning it stop every car on the road, do a quick visual check of its interior, and ask the driver and passengers their citizenship. There are also dogs available to sniff each car for traces of drugs or explosives. “Our enforcement presence along these strategic routes reduces the ability of criminals and potential terrorists to easily travel away from the border,” the brochure explains.

The Homeland Security surveillance gaze in the Southwest is, in fact, so pervasive that it has even nabbed singer Willy Nelson in Texas for marijuana possession. It detained 96-year-old former Arizona governor Raul Castro and made him stand in 100-degree heat for more than 30 minutes because a dog detected the radiation from his pacemaker. In the past three years in the Tucson sector, the Patrol has made more than 6,000 arrests and confiscated 135,000 pounds of narcotics at checkpoints.

But this is no longer just a matter of inland areas near the Mexican Border. A Border Patrol agent forced Vermont’s senior senator Patrick Leahy from his car at a checkpoint 125 miles south of the New York State border. The ACLU of Vermont unearthed a prototype plan for CBP to operate checkpoints to stop southbound traffic on all five highways through that New England border state.

On Sunday afternoons in Sodus, New York, about 30 miles east of Rochester, green-striped Border Patrol vehicles can sometimes be found parked in front of a laundromat which farmworkers (many undocumented) use. In Erie, Pennsylvania, agents wait at the Greyhound bus terminal or the Amtrak station to question people arriving in town. These are all places where the Border Patrol was all but unknown before 2005. In Detroit, simply being at a bus stop at four in the morning en route to work or fishing in the Detroit River is now “probable cause” for an agent to question you.

Or perhaps it is simply the color of your skin. Arrest records from both bus terminals and railway stations in Rochester, New York, show that of the 2,776 arrests agents made between 2005 and 2009, 71.2 percent were of “medium” complexion (likely of Latino or Arab background) and 12.9 percent “black.” Only 0.9 percent of those arrested were of “fair” complexion.

Back in Arivaca, the agent with the wraparound sunglasses tells Cynthia that she needs to get out of her car. Much like Senator Leahy, she responds that she doesn’t “understand why.”

“You don’t have to understand,” he says. “It’s for my safety. And yours. Do you understand that?”

Then his tone gains an angry edge. He clearly doesn’t like having his authority challenged. “We don’t have time for this. We have criminals here, okay? If you have a political or an emotional situation here” — he makes an emphatic chopping motion with his hand — “I don’t want to hear about it. I want to see your ID.” He pauses. “Now!”

The adrenaline is obviously pumping and he is about to edge up on the limits of what an agent can do, even with extra-constitutional powers. He thrusts his hand through the open window and into the car and unlocks it. With a yank, he pulls the door open from the inside. When Cynthia is out of the car, he asks, his voice rising, “What do you think we’re looking for here?”

“I don’t know,” Cynthia responds.

“That’s where I’m gonna educate you a little bit. Okay?”

“Okay,” she says.

“What happens through this checkpoint is that we catch smugglers of aliens, smugglers of drugs, child molesters, murderers, and everything else. Okay? Does that make sense?”

This rural area of Arizona, he insists as they stand under a vast cloudless blue sky, is infested with bandits, criminals, and drug dealers. “We have methamphetamine being made and manufactured,” the agent explains. “Do you think methamphetamine is a good thing?”

“Personally, no,” she says.

“Personally, I don’t think so either. I think they’re poisoning our world, okay? So when we ask you just to do something simple, like uncover something, do it! It’s a relief for us that it’s not something dangerous or something else.” By now, the agent is making the full-blown case for Homeland Security’s rollback of the Bill of Rights: the world’s a dangerous place, too dangerous for us not to have a free hand searching wherever we want whenever we want — and it’s your job to understand that new twenty-first-century American reality. He ends with a final dig at her for her initial resistance: “You’re destroying your rights, because what happens is, is that the criminals take your rights away, okay? Not us. We’re here to protect you.”

According to the ACLU’s Lyall, the fact is that the abuses of Customs and Border Protection in that Constitution-free zone are “massively underreported” and “far more prevalent than anyone has been able to document.” Many people, according to him, are simply afraid to come forward; others don’t know their rights.

In Shena Gutierrez’s case, she returned to the same Nogales “port of entry” with two other activists to lodge a complaint about the purse incident. When she refused to leave federal property (for which she now faces charges), the CBP arrested and detained her for hours. This time they did what she described as “an invasive body search.”

“I told them that I had not given my consent to be touched.” They nonetheless made her take off her wedding ring “for safety.” When she resisted, they said that they “would force it off her.” Again, the handcuffs cut into her wrists. This time, an agent kicked her in the ankle from behind. A female agent searched her thoroughly, from head to toe and in her private parts, because she “might have drugs or contraband or documents.”

As the agent groped her, she told me, she began to think yet again about what her husband had gone through. If this can happen to a U.S. citizen, she told me, “Imagine what happens to a person without documents.”

Imagine what can happen to anyone in a realm where, increasingly, anything goes, including the Constitution.

Tumbling out of that purse came Gutierrez’s life: photos of her kids, business cards, credit cards, and other papers, all now open to the official scrutiny of the Department of Homeland Security. There were also photographs of her husband, Jose Gutierrez Guzman, whom CBP agents beat so badly in 2011 that he suffered permanent brain damage. The supervisory agent, whose name badge on his blue uniform read “Gomez,” now began to trample on her life, quite literally, with his black boots.

“Please stop stepping on the pictures,” Shena asked him.

A U.S. citizen, unlike her husband, she had been returning from a 48-hour vigil against Border Patrol violence in Mexico and was wearing a shirt that said “Stop Border Patrol Brutality” when she was aggressively questioned and cuffed at the CBP’s “port of entry” in Nogales on that hot day in May.  She had no doubt that Gomez was stepping all over the contents of her purse in response to her shirt, the evidence of her activism.

Perhaps what bothered Gomez was the photo silkscreened onto that shirt — of her husband during his hospitalization. It showed the aftermath of a beating he received from CBP agents. His head had a partially caved-in look because doctors had removed part of his skull. Over his chest and arms were bruises from Tasering. One tooth was out of place, and he had two black eyes. Although you couldn’t see them in the photo, two heavily armed Homeland Security agents were then guarding his hospital door to prevent the father of two, formerly a sound technician and the lead singer of a popular band in Los Angeles, from escaping — even in his comatose state.

Jose Gutierrez Guzman’s has become an ever more common story in an age of mass expulsions. Although he had grown up in the United States (without papers), he was born in Mexico. After receiving a letter requesting his appearance, he went to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Los Angeles and was promptly arrested and deported. Customs and Border Protection agents later caught him crossing the border in San Luis, Arizona, near Yuma, in an attempt to reunite with his wife and children.

“Stop… stepping… on… the… pictures,” Shena insisted.

As she tells the story, Agent Gomez looked at her shirt for a second, then looked up at her and said, “You have that mentality about us. You think we go around abusing.”  His tone remained faux-friendly, but his boots didn’t — and neither did those cuffs another CBP agent had put on her. Forcing her hands behind her back, they cut uncomfortably into her wrists. They would leave deep red circular marks.

On display was a post-9/11 world in which the usual rights meant to protect Americans from unreasonable search and seizure and unwanted, as well as unwarranted, interrogation were up for grabs.

While such constitutionally questionable intrusions into people’s privacy have been increasing at border crossings in the post-9/11 years, this type of hardline border policing has also moved inland.  In other words, the sort of intrusions that once would have qualified as unconstitutional have moved in startling numbers into the interior of the country.

Imagine the once thin borderline of the American past as an ever-thickening band, now extending 100 miles inland around the United States — along the 2,000-mile southern border, the 4,000-mile northern border, and both coasts — and you will be able to visualize how vast the CBP’s jurisdiction has become. This “border” region now covers places where two-thirds of the U.S. population (197.4 million people) live. The ACLU has come to call it a “constitution-free zone.” The “border” has by now devoured the full states of Maine and Florida and much of Michigan.

In these vast domains, Homeland Security authorities can institute roving patrols with broad, extra-constitutional powers backed by national security, immigration enforcement, and drug interdiction mandates. There, the Border Patrol can set up traffic checkpoints and fly surveillance drones overhead with high-powered cameras and radar that can track your movements. Within 25 miles of the international boundary, CBP agents can enter a person’s private property without a warrant. In these areas, the Homeland Security state is anything but abstract. On any given day, it can stand between you and the grocery store.

“Border Patrol checkpoints and roving patrols are the physical world equivalent of the National Security Agency,” says attorney James Lyall of ACLU Arizona puts it. “They involve a massive dragnet and stopping and monitoring of innocent Americans without any suspicion of wrongdoing by increasingly abusive and unaccountable federal government agents.”

Before she was so unceremoniously stopped and held, Shena Gutierrez shared the story of her husband at that 48-hour vigil. It was another story of the kind of pervasive abuse reported by people in the 100-mile zone. There were no cameras that night to record how 11 agents “subdued” Jose Gutierrez Guzman, as the CBP put it in its official report on the incident. Its claim: that Jose “struck his head on the ground,” a way perhaps of accounting for the hospital’s eventual diagnosis of “blunt force trauma.”

Considering the extent of Jose’s injuries, that CBP report is questionable indeed. Many Border Patrol agents now use the term “tonk” — the sound a flashlight supposedly makes when it bangs against someone’s head — as their way of describing border-crossers. Jose was also repeatedly “shot” with an “electronic control device,” aka a Taser. He was so badly beaten that, more than three years later, he still suffers seizures.

“Stop stepping on my pictures!” Gutierrez insisted again. But much like the CBP’s official complaint process, the words were ignored. The only thing Gomez eventually spat out was, “Are you going to get difficult?”

When Shena Gutierrez offered me a play-by-play account of her long day, including her five-hour detainment at the border, her voice ran a gamut of emotions from desperation to defiance. Perhaps these are the signature emotions of what State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren has dubbed the “Post-Constitutional Era.” We now live in a time when, as he writes, “the government might as well have taken scissors to the original copy of the Constitution stored in the National Archives, then crumpled up the Fourth Amendment and tossed it in the garbage can.” The prototype for this new era, with all the potential for abuse it gives the authorities, can be found in that 100-mile zone.

A Standing Army

The zone first came into existence thanks to a series of laws passed by Congress in the 1940s and 1950s at a time when the Border Patrol was just an afterthought with a miniscule budget and only 1,100 agents. Today, Customs and Border Protection has more than 60,000 employees and is by far the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country.  According to author and constitutional attorney John Whitehead, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), created in 2002, is efficiently and ruthlessly building “a standing army on American soil.”

Long ago, President James Madison warned that “a standing military force, with an overgrown Executive, will not long be safe companions to liberty.” With its 240,000 employees and $ 61 billion budget, the DHS, Whitehead points out, is militarizing police units, stockpiling ammunition, spying on activists, and building detention centers, among many other things. CBP is the uniformed and most visible component of this “standing army.” It practically has its own air force and navy, an Office of Air and Marine equipped with 280 sea vessels, 250 aircraft, and 1,200 agents.

On the border, never before have there been so many miles of walls and barriers, or such an array of sophisticated cameras capable of operating at night as well as in the daylight.  Motion sensors, radar systems, and cameras mounted on towers, as well as those drones, all feed their information into operational control rooms throughout the borderlands. There, agents can surveil activity over large stretches of territory on sophisticated (and expensive) video walls. This expanding border enforcement regime is now moving into the 100-mile zone.

Such technological capability also involves the warehousing of staggering amounts of personal information in the digital databases that have ushered in the Post-Constitutional Era. “What does all this mean in terms of the Fourth Amendment?” Van Buren asks. “It’s simple: the technological and human factors that constrained the gathering and processing of data in the past are fast disappearing.”

The border, in the post 9/11 years, has also become a place where military manufacturers, eyeing a market in an “unprecedented boom period,” are repurposing their wartime technologies for the Homeland Security mission.  This “bring the battlefield to the border” posture has created an unprecedented enforcement, incarceration, and expulsion machine aimed at the foreign-born (or often simply foreign-looking).

The sweep is reminiscent of the operation that forced Japanese (a majority of them citizens) into internment camps during World War II, but on a scale never before seen in this country. With it, unsurprisingly, has come a wave of complaints about physical and verbal abuse by Homeland Security agents, as well as tales of inadequate food and medical attention to undocumented immigrants in short-term detention.

The result is a permanent, low-intensity state of exception that makes the expanding borderlands a ripe place to experiment with tearing apart the Constitution, a place where not just undocumented border-crossers, but millions of borderland residents have become the targets of continual surveillance.  If you don’t see the Border Patrol’s ever-expanding forces in places like New York City (although CBP agents are certainly present at its airports and seaports), you can see them pulling people over these days in plenty of other spots in that Constitution-free zone where they hadn’t previously had a presence.

They are, for instance, in cities like Rochester, New York, and Erie, Pennsylvania, as well as in Washington State, Vermont, Florida, and at all international airports. Homeland Security officials are scrutinizing people’s belongings, including their electronic devices, from sea to shining sea. Just ask Pascal Abidor, an Islamic studies doctoral student whose computer was turned on by CBP agents in Champlain, New York.

When an agent saw that he had a picture of a Hezbollah rally, she asked Abidor, a U.S. citizen, “What is this stuff?” His answer — that he was studying the modern history of the Shiites — meant nothing to her and his computer was seized for 10 days. Between 2008 and 2010, the CBP searched the electronic devices of more than 6,500 people. Like many of us, Abidor keeps everything, even his most private and intimate conversations with his girlfriend, on his computer. Now, it’s private no longer.

Despite all this, the message politicians and the media generally offer is that the country needs more agents, new techno-gadgets, and even more walls for our “safety.” In that context, President Obama on July 7th asked Congress for an additional $ 3.7 billion for “border security.”

Since last October, in what officials have called a “humanitarian crisis,” 52,000 unaccompanied children, mostly from Central America, have been apprehended by Border Patrol agents. News about and photos of some of those children, including toddlers, parentless and incarcerated in warehouses in the Southwest, have led to a flood of articles, many claiming that border security is “strained.” A Border Patrol Union representative typically claimed that the border is “more porous than it’s ever been.” While such claims are ludicrous, all signs point to more money being packed aboard what Whitehead has called a “runaway train.”

Make no bones about it, every dollar spent this way works not just to keep others out of this country, but to lock U.S. citizens into a border zone that may soon encompass the whole country.  It also fortifies our new domestic “standing military force” and its rollback of the Bill of Rights.

Resistance Inside the 100-Mile Zone

The first thing Cynthia (a pseudonym) asks the supervisory agent with the green Border Patrol hat and wrap-around sunglasses who stops her car is: “Can I have your name and agent number please?” She’s been halted at a checkpoint approximately 25 miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border on a road running east-west-running near the small town of Arivaca, Arizona, where she lives.

The agent pauses.  He looks like he’s swallowed a hornet before he barks, “We ask the questions here first, okay? Do you have some ID on you?”

This starts a tense exchange between the two of them that she videotaped in its entirety. She is only one of many challenging the omnipresence and activities of the Border Patrol in the heart of the 100-mile zone. Like many locals in Arivaca, she is sick of the checkpoint, which has been there for seven years. She and her neighbors were fed up with the obligatory stop between their small town and the dentist or the nearest bookstore. They were tired of Homeland Security agents scrutinizing their children on their way to school. So they began to organize.

In late 2013, they demanded that the federal government remove the checkpoint. It was, they wrote in a petition, an ugly artifact of border militarization; it had, they added, a negative economic impact on residents and infringed on people’s constitutional rights. At the beginning of 2014, small groups from People Helping People in the Border Zone — the name of their organization — started monitoring the checkpoint several days a week.

This Arivaca Border Patrol road barricade, one of at least 71 in the southwest, functions as a de facto enforcement zone away from the border.  In Border Patrolese, it’s “an additional layer in our Defense in Depth strategy.” This particular checkpoint isn’t exactly impressive — just a portable trailer with an attached tarp for shade, but it still qualifies, according to one of the Patrol’s informational brochures, as “a critical enforcement tool for securing the nation’s borders against all threats to our homeland.”

The agents manning it stop every car on the road, do a quick visual check of its interior, and ask the driver and passengers their citizenship. There are also dogs available to sniff each car for traces of drugs or explosives. “Our enforcement presence along these strategic routes reduces the ability of criminals and potential terrorists to easily travel away from the border,” the brochure explains.

The Homeland Security surveillance gaze in the Southwest is, in fact, so pervasive that it has even nabbed singer Willy Nelson in Texas for marijuana possession. It detained 96-year-old former Arizona governor Raul Castro and made him stand in 100-degree heat for more than 30 minutes because a dog detected the radiation from his pacemaker. In the past three years in the Tucson sector, the Patrol has made more than 6,000 arrests and confiscated 135,000 pounds of narcotics at checkpoints.

But this is no longer just a matter of inland areas near the Mexican Border.  A Border Patrol agent forced Vermont’s senior senator Patrick Leahy from his car at a checkpoint 125 miles south of the New York State border. The ACLU of Vermont unearthed a prototype plan for CBP to operate checkpoints to stop southbound traffic on all five highways through that New England border state.

On Sunday afternoons in Sodus, New York, about 30 miles east of Rochester, green-striped Border Patrol vehicles can sometimes be found parked in front of a laundromat which farmworkers (many undocumented) use. In Erie, Pennsylvania, agents wait at the Greyhound bus terminal or the Amtrak station to question people arriving in town. These are all places where the Border Patrol was all but unknown before 2005. In Detroit, simply being at a bus stop at four in the morning en route to work or fishing in the Detroit River is now “probable cause” for an agent to question you.

Or perhaps it is simply the color of your skin. Arrest records from both bus terminals and railway stations in Rochester, New York, show that of the 2,776 arrests agents made between 2005 and 2009, 71.2 percent were of  “medium” complexion (likely of Latino or Arab background) and 12.9 percent “black.” Only 0.9 percent of those arrested were of “fair” complexion.

Back in Arivaca, the agent with the wraparound sunglasses tells Cynthia that she needs to get out of her car. Much like Senator Leahy, she responds that she doesn’t “understand why.”

“You don’t have to understand,” he says. “It’s for my safety. And yours. Do you understand that?”

Then his tone gains an angry edge. He clearly doesn’t like having his authority challenged. “We don’t have time for this. We have criminals here, okay? If you have a political or an emotional situation here” — he makes an emphatic chopping motion with his hand — “I don’t want to hear about it. I want to see your ID.” He pauses. “Now!”

The adrenaline is obviously pumping and he is about to edge up on the limits of what an agent can do, even with extra-constitutional powers. He thrusts his hand through the open window and into the car and unlocks it. With a yank, he pulls the door open from the inside. When Cynthia is out of the car, he asks, his voice rising, “What do you think we’re looking for here?”

“I don’t know,” Cynthia responds.

“That’s where I’m gonna educate you a little bit. Okay?”

“Okay,” she says.

“What happens through this checkpoint is that we catch smugglers of aliens, smugglers of drugs, child molesters, murderers, and everything else. Okay? Does that make sense?”

This rural area of Arizona, he insists as they stand under a vast cloudless blue sky, is infested with bandits, criminals, and drug dealers. “We have methamphetamine being made and manufactured,” the agent explains. “Do you think methamphetamine is a good thing?”

“Personally, no,” she says.

“Personally, I don’t think so either. I think they’re poisoning our world, okay? So when we ask you just to do something simple, like uncover something, do it! It’s a relief for us that it’s not something dangerous or something else.”  By now, the agent is making the full-blown case for Homeland Security’s rollback of the Bill of Rights: the world’s a dangerous place, too dangerous for us not to have a free hand searching wherever we want whenever we want — and it’s your job to understand that new twenty-first-century American reality.  He ends with a final dig at her for her initial resistance: “You’re destroying your rights, because what happens is, is that the criminals take your rights away, okay?  Not us. We’re here to protect you.”

According to the ACLU’s Lyall, the fact is that the abuses of Customs and Border Protection in that Constitution-free zone are “massively underreported” and “far more prevalent than anyone has been able to document.” Many people, according to him, are simply afraid to come forward; others don’t know their rights.

In Shena Gutierrez’s case, she returned to the same Nogales “port of entry” with two other activists to lodge a complaint about the purse incident. When she refused to leave federal property (for which she now faces charges), the CBP arrested and detained her for hours. This time they did what she described as “an invasive body search.”

“I told them that I had not given my consent to be touched.” They nonetheless made her take off her wedding ring “for safety.” When she resisted, they said that they “would force it off her.” Again, the handcuffs cut into her wrists.  This time, an agent kicked her in the ankle from behind. A female agent searched her thoroughly, from head to toe and in her private parts, because she “might have drugs or contraband or documents.”

As the agent groped her, she told me, she began to think yet again about what her husband had gone through. If this can happen to a U.S. citizen, she told me, “Imagine what happens to a person without documents.”

Imagine what can happen to anyone in a realm where, increasingly, anything goes, including the Constitution.

Foreign Policy In Focus

Deaths in Ukraine as Russia shuts border

Pro-Russia rebels have fired missiles at government troops near the Russian border, killing at least 19 soldiers, Ukraine’s Defence Ministry says.

It said on Friday that another five troops were killed in other clashes.

President Petro Poroshenko summoned security officials in Kiev to discuss Friday’s pre-dawn attack at the Zelenopole border post near Luhansk, and declared that the perpetrators would be punished.

“For every life of our soldiers, the militants will pay with tens and hundreds of their own. Not one terrorist will evade responsibility, everybody will get what is coming to them,” he said.

Vladislav Seleznev, a Defence Ministry spokesman, gave the figure of 19 deaths on his Facebook account and reported four other troop deaths.

The ministry said 93 soldiers were injured in the base clash.

The other four soldiers and five other people were killed in Dovzhansky, which is also near Ukraine’s border with Russia.

Two soldiers and at least one border guard were killed after their armoured vehicle drove over a mine.

The Russian news agency Interfax also reported that another Ukrainian soldier was killed in attacks near Aleksandrovsk in the Luhansk region.

Vladyslav Seleznyov, a military spokesman, said a soldier was also killed in an incident near the town of Karlovka in the region of Donetsk, the main city where rebel fighters are holding out against the government forces.

He said at least 50 separatist fighters had been killed in the last few days following air attacks against rebel positions near the border with Russia.

The dead also included five coal miners who were killed on Friday after the bus they were travelling in came under mortar fire, Ukrainian television reported a doctor as saying, in the region of Chervonopartizansk near the border with Russia.

There was no immediate comment from the rebels.

The shelling of the bus forced energy and coal processing company DTEK, which employed the miners, to suspend operations at four mines in the economically depressed industrial province of Luhansk, Interfax news agency quoted the company’s general director as saying.

The government forces have gained the upper hand in the three-month-old conflict in the Russian-speaking eastern regions in which more than 200 government troops have been killed as well as hundreds of civilians and rebel fighters.

Meanwhile, Russia closed three major border crossings with Ukraine.

Russian news agencies on Friday quoted Vasily Malayev, a spokesman for the security services in the Rostov region, as saying that three crossings east of Donetsk were temporarily closed late on Thursday night because of fighting on the other side.

Ukraine said it regained control of one crossing which had been controlled by rebels.

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Israel sends troops to border with Gaza

Israeli military says troop reinforcements are being sent to the border with the Gaza Strip, raising the possibility of an expanded operation in the Palestinian territory in response to intensifying rocket fire.

Thursday’s movement of tanks and artillery forces came after 11 Palestinians were wounded in Israeli air raids on Gaza, as Palestinians prepared for the funeral of a teenager who was killed in occupied East Jerusalem.

The Gaza raids began as residents were preparing their pre-dawn Ramadan meal, known as suhoor, on Thursday.

“Eleven people were wounded during the night, including one who is in serious condition,” a spokesman for the Gaza Health Authority said, adding seven were hurt in Beit Lahiya in the north and four in Gaza City.

The Israeli military said the air force struck 15 “terror sites” in Gaza. ”The targets included weapons manufacturing sites as well as training facilities,” a military spokesman said.

The raids came after at least 15 rockets struck southern Israel, two of which were intercepted by Israel’s anti-missile system, the army said.

The rockets struck two houses in the southern border town of Sderot. Police said that one of the rockets caused a power cut. The Israeli army reported no injuries.

Israel’s last major operation in Gaza, a territory controlled by the Palestinian group Hamas, took place in late 2012.


RELATED: East Jerusalem clashes follow teen’s murder


The tensions have heightened following the abduction and killing of three Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

Israel has accused Hamas of being behind the deaths, and arrested about 600 suspected Hamas activists as part of a broad manhunt in the largest ground operation in the West Bank in nearly a decade.

The Palestinians have, for their part, accused Israelis of abducting and killing 17-year-old Mohammed Abu Khudair, a teenage boy, in East Jerusalem in a revenge attack, and stone-throwing youths clashed with Israeli police throughout the day on Wednesday.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, on Thursday night once again condemned the killing of Khudair while addressing a Fourth of July function at the US ambassador’s Jerusalem residence.

Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from Jerusalem, said it appeared Netanyahu was attempting to calm the situation.

But in Gaza, concerns were growing about the tanks and troops assembling around the border, Al Jazeera’s John Hendren said.

“They [Palestinians] also have heard that Israel has said if the rocket attacks coming out of Gaza do not stop within 48 hours, they will attack,” Hendren reported. 

The weeks since the young settlers disappeared have seen Palestinians in Gaza fire scores of rockets at Israel, which has responded with air strikes against alleged militant targets.

Two Palestinian fighters were killed in an air raid last week, and a young Palestinian girl was killed by an errant rocket attack. There have been no serious casualties on the Israeli side.

Responsibility claim

The armed wing of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades said in a statement that had they fired rockets.

They said they were “in response to the ongoing Israeli escalation against our people in Gaza and West Bank” – a reference to clashes in East Jerusalem after the murder of  early on Wednesday.

According to figures from Dr Amin Abu Ghazali, the head of field operations for the Red Crescent in East Jerusalem, 232 people were wounded during the clashes, 178 of them in Shuafat alone.

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, said it was clear that Abu Khdair was killed by Jewish settlers and called on Israel to bring the killers to justice.

An investigation into the disappearance and murder of the teenager was launched by Israeli police after Netanyahu demanded a swift probe into what he called a “reprehensible murder”. 

Khdair’s family said he was abducted on Wednesday shortly before a charred body was found in a Jerusalem forest. Police were still attempting to identify the body on Thursday and a funeral was expected to be held after protests on Friday afternoon.

Al Jazeera’s Dekker reported that the Israeli police were planning to deploy reinforcements to East Jerusalem on Friday. 

With additional reporting from Fares Akram.

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Reports: Saudi troops deployed to Iraq border

Saudi Arabia has sent 30,000 soldiers to its border with Iraq after Iraqi soldiers withdrew from the area, Al Arabiya television says.

The country aims to guard its 800km border with Iraq, where Islamic State fighters and other Sunni Muslim rebel groups seized towns and cities in a lightning advance last month.

King Abdullah has ordered all necessary measures to protect the kingdom against potential “terrorist threats”, state news agency SPA reported on Thursday.

The Dubai-based Al Arabiya said on its website that Saudi troops fanned into the border region after Iraqi government forces abandoned positions, leaving the Saudi frontier unprotected, the Reuters news agency reported.

The satellite channel said it had obtained a video showing about 2,500 Iraqi soldiers in the desert area east of the Iraqi city of Karbala after pulling back from the border.

An officer in the video aired by Al Arabiya said that the soldiers had been ordered to quit their posts without justification.

The authenticity of the recording could not immediately be verified and the Iraqi government denied the reports. Lieutenant General Qassim Atta, an Iraqi army spokesman, said: “This is false news aimed at affecting the morale of our people and the morale of our heroic fighters.”

Iranian aid

Iraq is in the midst of a conflict with Sunni fighters in the north and west of the country, and has launched an offensive in Tikrit to recapture territory it lost during a rebel advance in June.

Thousands of soldiers, backed by tanks, artillery and aerial cover, have made limited progress in retaking the city, the AFP news agency reported.

The Iraqi government has asked allies for help in tackling the rebellion, but has received a limited response from the US.

Washington has sent 300 military advisers to Baghdad, falling short of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s request for weapons, including to speed up delivery of F-16 jets due for delivery later this year.

The Iraqis have instead turned to Russia and reportedly, Iran.

Russia sold Iraq a dozen Sukhoi-25 jets.

The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies has said three Sukhoi jets shown landing in Iraq in a video released by the defence ministry were probably from Iran.

Iran has pledged to aid Iraq against the rebels, who are motivated, in part, by Iran’s alleged influence on the Iraqi government.

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Armenia Says Two Soldiers Killed In Fresh Border Skirmishes

Armenia’s Defense Ministry says two Armenian soldiers were killed in the latest skirmishes between Armenian and Azerbaijani military forces.

According to the ministry, one soldier was killed near the border with Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh on June 19, while another one died in a shoot-out near Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan’s Naxcivan Autonomous Republic.

Meanwhile, media reports in Azerbaijan say two Azerbaijani women and a girl were wounded after being shot by Armenian solders in Tovuz district near Nagorno-Karabakh.

Baku and Yerevan remain locked in hostilities over Nagorno-Karabakh, which was seized from Azerbaijan by Armenian-backed separatists during a war in the early 1990s.

At least 16 soldiers from both sides have been killed in shooting incidents so far this year.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence has not been recognized by any country.

Based on reporting by apa.az, Interfax, and AFP

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Syrian Forces Expel Rebels From Christian Town on Turkish Border

A church in the Armenian Christian town of Kessab (Reuters/Stringer).The Syrian military has recaptured the strategically important border town of Kessab. The predominantly Christian-Armenian town was overrun by jihadist rebels in March, with much blame placed on Turkey for reportedly allowing the crossover to happen.

Syrian armed forces have been carrying out systematic assaults on the Al-Nusra Front and associated rebel positions across several provinces, including northern Lattakia, where control was reestablished on Saturday. The army seized weapons and ammunition and took out dozens of terrorists in the operation, mostly non-Syrians, according to SANA news agency.

The jihadists withdrew from Kessab “leaving behind only a small number of men,” according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Tanks were deployed in the surrounding areas and government forces eventually closed in on militants’ positions.

The jihadist groups were reportedly pushed back toward the Jabal al-Akrad area.

On March 21, extremists affiliated with Al-Qaeda seized the town of Kessab after clashes with Syrian government troops and local self-defense squads. This was to become part of a long-winded diplomatic crisis involving Turkey, Syria, and Armenia, as the jihadists had reportedly crossed into Syria from Turkey.

The Armenian government called on the UN to protect Kessab, evoked the Armenian genocide of 1915, and accused Turkey of allowing jihadists to cross the border to attack Kessab, blaming it for the civilian deaths. Moscow also joined calls at the UNSC to evaluate the situation and offer solutions on how to protect the some 2,000 Christian Armenians that inhabit Kessab.

Ankara slammed any accusations of its complicity and condemned the allegations as “confrontational political propaganda,” although Turkey downed a Syrian military jet on March 23, just ahead of an escalation in tensions between Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Syrian government. Turkey claimed the jet was violating its airspace.

In response, Damascus accused Ankara of “blatant aggression,” saying the fighter jet had been over Syria. The Syrian pilot said a Turkish aircraft fired a missile at him while he was pursuing jihadist militants within Syrian territories, SANA news agency reported.

Although the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has been caught several times in the past in the act of supporting the rebels and largely taking up a stance against the Syrian government, it likewise disagreed with the statement released by Ankara in the aftermath of the downing of the Syrian jet.

Finally, on March 27, a leaked phone conversation between top Turkish officials discussing the options for manufacturing a pretext for a military invasion of Syria appeared on YouTube, leaving little doubt as to how little Turkey was willing to hold back when it came to engaging the Assad government.

Theories on the invasion of Kessab by terrorists center largely on Erdogan allowing the border crossover to take place. It is a strategically important area because of its geographical location near the only border crossing with Turkey in the shaky Lattakia province, which is the heartland of the Alawite sect, of which Assad is a member.

March violence brought with it the loss of the last functioning border crossing with Turkey, when jihadists won it over from the Syrian government.

Assyrian International News Agency

Militants Storm Karachi Airport, Pilgrims Killed Near Iran Border

Heavily armed gunmen have attacked one of Pakistan’s busiest airports, with reports early on June 9 saying at least seven people had been killed as a fierce battle continued.

Meanwhile, in southwestern Pakistan, 23 Shi’ite Muslims were killed by suicide attackers shortly after they had returned from a pilgrimage in Iran.

The dead in the attack at Karachi’s international airport reportedly include four security officers, one flight attendant, and two of the attackers.

The attackers stormed the airport’s old terminal building on June 8, shortly before midnight (local time), throwing hand grenades and firing assault rifles in a building now used mostly for cargo and the transit of VIP passengers.

A fire was raging in the old terminal building in the early morning hours of June 9.

Pakistan’s army has surrounded the airport and incoming flights were being diverted.

But some flights also were stranded on the ground as the battle raged nearby.

Commandos reportedly boarded at least one of those planes, and panicked passengers were being told to stay on board.

As the attack at the airport was underway, suicide bombers in southwestern Pakistan killed 23 Shi’ite pilgrims who were staying at a hotel near the border with Iran.

Baluchistan Province’s Home Minister Mir Sarfraz Bugti says four attackers targeted the pilgrims in the border town of Tuftan.

Bugti said one of the attackers was killed by security guards who were traveling with the pilgrims.

But he said the other three managed to get inside the hotel where they blew themnselves up.

That attack also wounded 10 people.

It was not immediately clear whether there was a connection between the attack in Tuftan and the attack by militants on Karachi’s international airport.
 

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Militants Storm Karachi Airport, Pilgrims Killed Near Iran Border

Heavily armed gunmen have attacked one of Pakistan’s busiest airports, with reports early on June 9 saying at least seven people had been killed as a fierce battle continued.

Meanwhile, in southwestern Pakistan, 23 Shi’ite Muslims were killed by suicide attackers shortly after they had returned from a pilgrimage in Iran.

The dead in the attack at Karachi’s international airport reportedly include four security officers, one flight attendant, and two of the attackers.

The attackers stormed the airport’s old terminal building on June 8, shortly before midnight (local time), throwing hand grenades and firing assault rifles in a building now used mostly for cargo and the transit of VIP passengers.

A fire was raging in the old terminal building in the early morning hours of June 9.

Pakistan’s army has surrounded the airport and incoming flights were being diverted.

But some flights also were stranded on the ground as the battle raged nearby.

Commandos reportedly boarded at least one of those planes, and panicked passengers were being told to stay on board.

As the attack at the airport was underway, suicide bombers in southwestern Pakistan killed 23 Shi’ite pilgrims who were staying at a hotel near the border with Iran.

Baluchistan Province’s Home Minister Mir Sarfraz Bugti says four attackers targeted the pilgrims in the border town of Tuftan.

Bugti said one of the attackers was killed by security guards who were traveling with the pilgrims.

But he said the other three managed to get inside the hotel where they blew themnselves up.

That attack also wounded 10 people.

It was not immediately clear whether there was a connection between the attack in Tuftan and the attack by militants on Karachi’s international airport.
 

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Ukraine says 15 rebels killed in border clash

Fifteen pro-Russian rebels have been killed in clashes with government troops at a border crossing with Russia, according to an aide to the Ukrainian interior minister. 

Speaking on a television programme late on Thursday, Anton Herashchenko said Ukrainian border guards clashed earlier in the day with armed men who came from Russia in trucks and an infantry vehicle, and tried to cross the border at the village of Marynivka in eastern Ukraine.

Herashenko said the attackers were supported by about 100 rebels who came from the Ukrainian side of the border.

He said five Ukrainian troops were injured and 15 rebels were killed. Their bodies were taken to a nearby town.

Government troops have for weeks been clashing with pro-Russian rebels who dismiss the Kiev government as illegitimate.

G7 warning

In a seperate development, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Thursday that he expected Vladimir Putin to attend the Group of Twenty (G20) summit this year in Brisbane, despite the Russian president being banned from this week’s Group of Seven (G7) meeting.

Russia was axed from the G7 meeting in Brussels over its annexation of  Crimea, with Putin cold-shouldered by the United States and its allies since the March seizure of the peninsula.

Australia is the current holder of the rotating G20 presidency and hosts the leaders’ summit in Brisbane in November.

Abbott said that while he shared serious concerns over Russia’s role in Ukraine, there was no indication Putin would not be invited.

“The G20 is an economic meeting whereas the G7 or the G8 has tended to have a very strong security component,” he told Australian media in France late on Thursday, where he will attend the 70th D-Day commemorations, alongside Putin.

“Obviously there are very grave concerns about the behaviour of Russia in Ukraine and I can understand why the G7 leaders were reluctant to sit down with President Putin at this time.”

The G7 group is comprised of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and the US.

US President Barack Obama said on Thursday that Russia had to recognise Ukraine’s president-elect Petro Poroshenko.

He also said Moscow must withdraw troops from Ukrainian borders and stop backing the pro-Moscow rebels destabilising eastern Ukraine.

In a statement after their summit, G7 leaders warned of tougher sanctions if the conditions set out by Obama were not met.

400

AL JAZEERA ENGLISH (AJE)

Pakistani Troops Kill 14 Militants Near Afghan Border

Pakistani military officials say 14 militants have been killed in a clash near the Afghan border in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal region.

The officers said a group of insurgents ambushed a military checkpoint early on May 31, killing a soldier and wounding two others.

The military, backed by helicopter gunships, responded to the attack in the restive Bajaur tribal area.

The officers said the gunbattle was still under way hours later. The claims cannot be independently verified.

Bajaur is one of seven semiautonomous tribal regions hit by insurgency.
 

Based on reporting by AFP and AP

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

NATO Says Around Two-Thirds Of Russian Troops Withdrawing From Ukraine Border

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said that Russia is withdrawing around two-thirds of the troops it had near the Ukrainian border. 

Rasmussen, speaking to Reuters on the sidelines of a meeting of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, on May 30, said there are “signs of at least a partial withdrawal.”

The estimate is far higher than previous estimates made by NATO of the extent of a Russian withdrawal, which Russia has pledged a number of times, most recently this week.
 
Rasmussen also said that NATO and Russia would meet in the framework of a cooperative body, the NATO-Russia Council, on June 2 but gave no further details.

Earlier, Ukraine’s government said it will press on with an offensive to restore peace and order in the separatist-controlled east, as a second team of OSCE monitors was detained by pro-Russian gunmen in the region. 

Acting Defense Minister Mykhaylo Koval said government forces have “completely cleared” pro-Russian rebels from parts of the separatist east. 

Koval was speaking to reporters in Kyiv on May 30, one day after at least 12 government troops, including a general, were killed when rebels shot down an army helicopter. 

“Our armed forces have completed their assigned missions and completely cleared the southern and western parts of the Donetsk region and the northern part of the Luhansk region from the separatists,” Koval said. 

“Our given task is to bring peace and order to the region,” he added. 

Koval also repeated charges that Russia was carrying out “special operations” in eastern Ukraine. 

He said Ukrainian forces would continue with military operations in border areas “until these regions begin to live normally, until there is peace.” 

Meanwhile, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the pan-European rights and security body, said a team of four international monitors and a Ukrainian language assistant was stopped by gunmen in the town of Severodonetsk, 100 kilometers north of Luhansk.

The OSCE said it lost contact with the team late on May 29.

It said the detained team is in addition to another group of monitors still missing in eastern Ukraine, which was last heard from on May 26.
 
The OSCE says members of that team — Danish, Turkish, Swiss, and Estonian nationals — were on a routine patrol east of Donetsk.

A rebel leader confirmed on May 29 that those four monitors were in their custody. The rebels assured journalists that they would “deal with this and then release them” but did not give a specific time frame.

The OSCE teams are in Ukraine to monitor the security situation following the rise of a pro-Russia separatist insurgency.

In a separate development, one faction of pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine has reportedly evicted another faction from the regional administration building in Donetsk, which has served as the separatists’ headquarters.

Western media reports said heavily armed fighters of the so-called Vostok Battalion flooded into Donetsk last weekend. 
 

ALSO READ: Vostok Battalion, A Powerful New Player In Eastern Ukraine

Many are believed to be from Chechnya and other areas in the Caucasus. 

The U.S. State Department said on May 29 that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had raised concerns about foreign fighters entering Ukraine — particularly Chechens — with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. 
 

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, and Interfax

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

ISIS Accused of Massacring Kurdish Villagers Near Border

Beirut — Militants from the Al-Qaeda breakaway group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) were accused Thursday of massacring 15 Syrian Kurds, nearly half of them children, amid an uptick in violence in Syria’s three eastern provinces.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and several Kurdish media outlets said the attack took place in a village near the town of Ras al-Ain on the Turkish border, after militants stormed the village.

It said of the 15, seven were children, one a young man, and three were women.

Video footage of the aftermath, circulated by activists, showed a man carrying the corpse of a young girl, and shouting, “They are criminals, not Muslims!”

ISIS militants have been accused of committing repeated atrocities against civilians as well as rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Separately, the Observatory said that leaders from the Kurdish YPG militia denied having set off a car bomb in the city of Raqqa earlier this week in an attack that reportedly targeted a high-level meeting of ISIS figures.

The Observatory said the attack, against the Lazord Hotel, killed at least 10 ISIS militants and wounded an unspecified number of others.

“These accusations are wrong — the YPG does not engage in such criminal acts, even if it is in a state of war with ISIS,” a Kurdish militia leader was quoted by the Observatory as saying.

In the city of Hassakeh, a roadside bomb attack Thursday targeted a patrol belonging to a local Kurdish police force, the Observatory added, wounding two policemen.

In Deir al-Zor, fighters from ISIS seized one village and part of another in the western part of the province, it said. The development came after ISIS fighters skirmished with fighters from the Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, and Islamist militias from the region.

A number of casualties were sustained by both sides in the clashes, the Observatory said, while two civilians were also killed in the battle.

It said that a rebel commander died of his wounds sustained a few days earlier in clashes with ISIS, while the extremist group’s shelling of the village of Ibriha in Deir al-Zor led to fires that swept large tracts of agricultural land.

Assyrian International News Agency

More Turkmen Troops Killed Along Afghan Border

This latest attack again highlights the fragile and often tense situation along the Afghan-Turkmen border. (file photo)

For the second time in three months Turkmen troops along the Afghan border have suffered losses.
 
Three Turkmen soldiers were killed on May 24 by a small armed group that crossed the border from the Ghormach region of Afghanistan’s Faryab Province.
 
The motive for this latest attack is unclear.
 
But RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, Azatlyk, reported that the acting head of Afghanistan’s Ghormach district, Asyl Khan, said information he received from security officials in the area where the shooting took place indicated that the intruders took weapons — two Kalashnikovs and a heavy-caliber machine gun — from the slain soldiers and brought them back to Afghanistan.
 
Khan added that, according to his information, Turkmenistan’s forces did not react to the attack on their territory.
 
It was unclear who the attackers were. Qishloq Ovozi has previously reported that there are militant groups in northern Afghanistan who are allied with the Taliban but are led by ethnic Uzbeks.
 
These militants reportedly include both ethnic Uzbeks and Turkmen.
 
Khan said the group that crossed into Turkmenistan on May 24 was led by someone named Ghulam Destghir Topan.
 
Three Turkmen border guards were also killed just across the border from Afghanistan’s Baghdis Province at the end of February.
 
That attack, it was learned later, was revenge for Turkmen guards killing one militant and capturing two others after they crossed into Turkmenistan around February 10.
 
A threat from those militants to attack the Turkmen border guards led to the captive militants being freed and the body of the dead militant being returned. The three Turkmen border guards were killed after they had freed the militants and returned the body.
 
This latest attack again highlights the fragile situation along the Afghan-Turkmen border as the bulk of foreign forces prepare to depart Afghanistan at the end of this year.
 
Militant groups, particularly the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, have been gathering in northern Afghanistan for months, raising fears on the northern side of the Afghan-Central Asian border about what will happen after 2014.
 
– Bruce Pannier with contributions from Muhammad Tahir (RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service) and RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan
 
* Azatlyk is conducting a round table discussion about the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan on May 29. Qishloq Ovozi will post a full report of proceedings the following day.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Russia Says Ukraine Border Withdrawal Will Take Weeks

Russian military officials now say their promised withdrawal of 40,000 troops from Ukraine’s borders will not be completed until weeks after Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election.

They say the withdrawal is likely to be completed around the time that a second round vote would take place if no single candidate wins an outright majority in the May 25 vote.

The acknowledgment came two days before the scheduled first round of voting in Ukraine.

U.S. and European officials have expressed concerns that the Russian troop presence on the border is destabilizing the election by emboldening pro-Russian separatists who are battling against government forces after seizing government buildings in several towns and cities in eastern Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed on three separate occasions that he ordered a complete withdrawal of Russian forces away from border regions where they were deployed when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region earlier this year.

The Pentagon on May 23 confirmed small scale movements of Russian troops away from the border, but said it is too early to say whether a full scale withdrawal is underway.

Speaking at an international business forum in St. Petersburg on May 23, Putin said Russia also wants “some calming of the situation, and we will respect the choice of Ukrainian people.”

But Putin stopped short of declaring the May 25 election legitimate.

U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf on May 23 called on Russia to use its influence with separatists and urge them “to cease their violent activities and lay down their arms” ahead of the May 25 vote.

In Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement that a successful presidential election in Ukraine will be a major step toward reducing tensions and restoring political stability there.

Ashton said: “Election authorities must be allowed to conduct elections without hindrance throughout the country and domestic and international observers must be allowed to fully fulfill their function.”

Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said in an official video statement on May 23 that Ukraine’s “enemies have done everything they could to destabilize the situation and disrupt the elections” during the last three months.

“But,” Turchynov said, “Ukrainians are stronger and wiser.”

It was at a security conference in Moscow on May 23 that General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia’s general staff, announced that it will take 20 days for Russian troops in regions bordering Ukraine to return to their permanent bases.

Earlier on May 23, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonovay had said that all forces would leave the border regions “within days.”

Candidates vying to become Ukraine’s next president held their final campaign rallies on May 23, one day after the Ukrainian Army suffered heavy losses to pro-Russian separatists in the east.

The election pits front-runner Petro Poroshenko, a 48-year-old confectionary magnate, against nearly 20 other challengers — including former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Political analysts are predicting a second round vote between Poroshenko and Tymoshenko on June 15.
 

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and ITAR-TASS

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Kyrgyzstan Beefs Up Security Along Border With Tajikistan

Kyrgyzstan has reinforced its troops along the Tajik border in the wake of violence in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region.

Kyrgyz Border Guarding Service chief Raiymberdi Duishonbiev told reporters on May 22 that two major checkpoints along the Tajik border have been enforced due to events in Gorno-Badakhshan’s capital, Khorugh.

Several people were killed and injured in both a police attack against suspected criminals and ensuing clashes between police and local residents in Khorugh on May 21.

Duishonbiev also said Kyrgyz border guards are in “permanent contact” with their colleagues in the neighboring Xinjiang province of China, where at least 31 people were killed in a terrorist attack on May 22.

In January, Kyrgyz border guards killed 11 armed men from Xinjiang who were suspected of murdering a Kyrgyz forest ranger after illegally crossing the border.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Jihadists Seek Islamic State on Syria-Iraq Border

BEIRUT — Jihadists have launched a fresh bid to take over the Syria-Iraq border area and set up a so-called Islamic state they can control, rebels, activists and a monitoring group say.

“Their name is the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). Their goal is to link together the two areas (Syria, Iraq) to set up their state and then to continue spreading,” said activist and citizen journalist Abdel Salam Hussein.

Speaking from Albu Kamal on the Iraq border, Hussein said ISIS seeks to crush Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, and control the eastern, energy-rich province of Deir Ezzor bordering Iraq.

“ISIS is trying to end Al-Nusra Front’s power in the area, and if they do they will take over” the whole province, he said.

ISIS’s long-time ambition of creating an area under its control stretching across Syria and Iraq was undermined by a massive January offensive against it by rival Islamist rebels.

The campaign cornered ISIS fighters in Raqqa province, its bastion in northern Syria.

Once welcomed into the rebellion against President Bashar Assad, ISIS’s aim to dominate and its horrific abuses of civilians and rival fighters sparked the wrath of much of Syria’s opposition, including former ally Al-Nusra.

Rooted in Al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS split from the network after overall Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered it to stop fighting Al-Nusra.

In February, ISIS withdrew from most of Deir Ezzor after pitched battles with Al-Nusra and other Islamist groups, said rebel spokesman Omar Abu Layla.

But ISIS has since deployed “3,000 fighters from Raqa to Deir Ezzor”, Abu Layla told AFP.

“Most of them are foreigners, including Europeans, Tunisians and Saudis,” he said.

“ISIS have orders from their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to focus on Deir Ezzor, to take it over. It’s their main gateway to Iraq.”

Activists and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights group said violence is escalating in Deir Ezzor, with daily battles pitting ISIS rebels against Al-Nusra fighters, and a spike in car bombings.

One such attack by ISIS on Friday killed 12 people, including three children, the Observatory said.

The watchdog’s director, Rami Abdel Rahman, confirmed ISIL was expanding.

“They are pressing their bid by pushing tribes to swear oaths of loyalty to them, and by fighting rival factions in an attempt to ensure they emerge the strongest,” he said.

“ISIS have oil, money and weapons,” he added.

Over the past year ISIS fighters have seized regime weapons depots even after they were captured in joint battles with other groups, said Abdel Rahman.

Both the Observatory and activist Hussein say ISIS now holds sway in much of the area east of the Euphrates river in Deir Ezzor province.

Hussein said the tribal nature of the area means the war there is more over oil and loyalty than ideology.

He also said some rebel commanders in Albu Kamal, a key crossing point between Iraq and Syria still beyond ISIL control, “have sworn oaths of loyalty to ISIS”.

Hussein added that anti-ISIS rebels and jihadists are fighting back, but that they have suffered heavy losses.

“And with all the oil money coming in to Deir Ezzor, ISIS is able to keep its ammunition supplies well stocked,” he added.

The group has distributed food to families in flashpoint areas to try to gain popular support in an area impoverished by decades of marginalisation and three years of conflict and displacement.

“The other day they were giving out fruit to families. It’s a tactic to win support,” Hussein said.

But rebel spokesman Abu Layla, who opposes both ISIS and the Assad regime, said he believes ISIS has no future in Deir Ezzor.

“They want to use force to set up a brutal, extremist state that has nothing to do with Islam, and people reject that,” he said.

“Every day we are fighting ISIS and the regime, without a single bullet or dollar of support from the outside world,” Abu Leyla said.

“They can never claim real, grassroots support. Nobody in Syria wants ISIS.”

Assyrian International News Agency

One Killed In Tajik Security Operation On Afghan Border

Police say one suspected member of a criminal group was killed and two of his associates were injured during a security operation in Tajikistan’s eastern region of Gorno-Badakhshan.

The region’s deputy governor, Amrihudo Damdor, told RFE/RL that the incident took place on May 21 in the regional capital, Khorugh.

The two injured suspects have been arrested.

Dozens of local citizens gathered in the center of Khorugh, demanding their release.

Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region, which borders Afghanistan, has been restive for years.

In the summer of 2012, Tajik government forces conducted a military operation in the region against local armed groups after a top security official was murdered there.

Authorities say 13 security officers and 30 militants were killed in that operation, which lasted for several weeks.

Local citizens say that at least 70 people were killed during the 2012 operation.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Kurdistan in the Dark about Iran Border Opening

HALABJA, Kurdistan Region – Iran announced the opening of the Shoshme border crossing with celebrations and festivities, but officials on the other side of the border in the Kurdistan Region said they were in the dark about the opening.

“The Shoshme border crossing is open officially, and starting tomorrow people can come and go,” said Nematollah Manuchehri, a member of the Kermanshah provincial council for the towns of Paveh, Ravansar and Javanrud.

Hundreds in the Iranian border areas responded to the news with celebrations, hoping that the new crossing could provide employment and better economic opportunities.

But the excitement did not echo on Kurdistan’s side of the frontier, where local officials said they had not heard officially from Iran about the opening.

“To open the border crossing the Kurdistan Region has been waiting for a response from the Iranian side, but they (Iranians) have not notified us officially,” said Nukhsha Nasih, the female mayor of the small town of Biara in Halabja, which was newly designated as a province.

There was also some skepticism on the Iranian side by residents who complained that the announcement of the border opening had been premature.

“They have not taken concrete measures, and have not even stationed police for passport checks,” said a resident, who preferred to remain anonymous.

Unlike the Iranian side, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has already set up passport control services on the Kurdish side of the border in preparation for the official opening. “We have passport control on our side, but we will need more employees so that we can keep the border running 24 hours,” said Nasih.

The KRG, in particular the officials from Halabja, have been in contact with Tehran and Baghdad over the past few years to make the border opening official.

The Shoshme border crossing has been unofficially operating between the Kurdistan Region and Iran for limited trade since 1991. The official opening is expected to provide a lifeline to Halabja, providing jobs, trade and other economic opportunities.

Once the Shoshme border is officially running, the Kurdistan Region will have three official crossings with its eastern neighbor.

Trade between Iran and the Kurdistan Region is pegged at $ 4 billion, but earlier this month KRG and Iranian officials vowed to double that amount over the next few years.

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Dinar Daddy’s Tidbits

Kyrgyz-Tajik Border Situation ‘Tense’ But Stable

Border guards and police on both sides of the frontier were reportedly out in force on May 8 to keep the peace.

One day after at least 25 people were injured in a clash between villagers in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, officials in both countries described the situation along their common border as “tense” but stable.
 
Border guards and police on both sides of the frontier were reportedly out in force on May 8 after some 1,500 residents of the Kok Tash village in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s Vorukh exclave fell into conflict during the evening of May 7 and started throwing stones at each other.
 
It took border guards and police from both countries several hours to restore order in the area.
 
Kyrgyz authorities say 17 of its citizens were injured and Tajik authorities say eight of its citizens were also hurt.
 
Tajikistan’s independent news agency Asia-Plus cited a source in the administration of Tajikistan’s northern Sughd region, which borders Kyrgyzstan, as saying a group of young Kyrgyz citizens were throwing stones at the vehicle of a resident of Tajikistan’s Vorukh exclave.
 
“A big crowd gathered from both sides,” the source said, and after exchanging insults, started throwing rocks at each other.
 
Kyrgyzstan’s privately-owned AKIpress website reported that Tajik citizens were throwing stones at a vehicle owned by a Kyrgyz citizen who was traveling along the Batken-Isfara road, which connects the two countries.
 
Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry summoned Tajikistan’s ambassador to protest an incident during the clash when Kyrgyzstan says citizens of Tajikistan torched a petrol station, a store, and two trucks near the Kyrgyz settlement of Kok-Terek.
 
Several hundred residents of Kok Tash demonstrated on May 8, demanding that the border between the two countries be demarcated as soon as possible.
 
Kyrgyzstan’s Deputy Prime Minister Abdyrakhman Mamataliev and State Border Service Deputy Chairman Abdikarim Alimbaev have gone to the scene of the clash as has the head of the Sughd internal affairs directorate General Sharif Nazarov.
 
There have been sporadic clashes between villagers on either side of the border for several years.
 
The largest road in the area winds back and forth between the two countries and their exclaves. Large stretches of the border are not delimitated and water and farmland ownership issues have sparked tensions between the two communities.
 
In January, when Kyrgyzstan attempted to construct a detour around Tajikistan’s Vorukh exclave, shooting broke out between border guards of the two countries.
 
Several border guards on both sides were wounded.
 

With reporting by Asia-Plus, AKIpress and Interfax

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Kyrgyz-Tajik Border Situation ‘Tense’ But Stable

Border guards and police on both sides of the frontier were reportedly out in force on May 8 to keep the peace.

One day after at least 25 people were injured in a clash between villagers in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, officials in both countries described the situation along their common border as “tense” but stable.
 
Border guards and police on both sides of the frontier were reportedly out in force on May 8 after some 1,500 residents of the Kok Tash village in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s Vorukh exclave fell into conflict during the evening of May 7 and started throwing stones at each other.
 
It took border guards and police from both countries several hours to restore order in the area.
 
Kyrgyz authorities say 17 of its citizens were injured and Tajik authorities say eight of its citizens were also hurt.
 
Tajikistan’s independent news agency Asia-Plus cited a source in the administration of Tajikistan’s northern Sughd region, which borders Kyrgyzstan, as saying a group of young Kyrgyz citizens were throwing stones at the vehicle of a resident of Tajikistan’s Vorukh exclave.
 
“A big crowd gathered from both sides,” the source said, and after exchanging insults, started throwing rocks at each other.
 
Kyrgyzstan’s privately-owned AKIpress website reported that Tajik citizens were throwing stones at a vehicle owned by a Kyrgyz citizen who was traveling along the Batken-Isfara road, which connects the two countries.
 
Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry summoned Tajikistan’s ambassador to protest an incident during the clash when Kyrgyzstan says citizens of Tajikistan torched a petrol station, a store, and two trucks near the Kyrgyz settlement of Kok-Terek.
 
Several hundred residents of Kok Tash demonstrated on May 8, demanding that the border between the two countries be demarcated as soon as possible.
 
Kyrgyzstan’s Deputy Prime Minister Abdyrakhman Mamataliev and State Border Service Deputy Chairman Abdikarim Alimbaev have gone to the scene of the clash as has the head of the Sughd internal affairs directorate General Sharif Nazarov.
 
There have been sporadic clashes between villagers on either side of the border for several years.
 
The largest road in the area winds back and forth between the two countries and their exclaves. Large stretches of the border are not delimitated and water and farmland ownership issues have sparked tensions between the two communities.
 
In January, when Kyrgyzstan attempted to construct a detour around Tajikistan’s Vorukh exclave, shooting broke out between border guards of the two countries.
 
Several border guards on both sides were wounded.
 

With reporting by Asia-Plus, AKIpress and Interfax

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Local Authorities Aim to Expand Border Crossings with Iran

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region—Local authorities in the Kurdistan Region are hoping to expand several border crossings with neighboring Iran due to an increase in trade between both countries.

“Trade between Iran and the Kurdistan Region reached $ 4 billion last year,” says Fathi Muhammad, an advisor at the ministry of trade in Erbil.

The Kurdistan Region currently has three main border points with Iran: Bashmakh, Parwezkhan and Haji Omran. But according to some officials, the size of trade with Iran calls for the opening of more border crossings.

According to Haval Ibrahim, the spokesman for the Garmiyan administration, the Iranians are also eager to expand several borders that already exist in limited capacity.

“In the last visit by an Iranian delegation to Garmiyan, they asked to open the Tilako border point near Maidan,” said Ibrahim.

With hundreds of miles of shared border, Iran is Kurdistan Region’s second largest trade partner.

Ibrahim said that his office has submitted a formal proposal to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to open Tilako as a third crossing point with Iran, in addition to Parwezkhan and Pishta where considerable trade has been taking place for years.

Meanwhile, local authorities in Halabja, a district that was recently given the official status of a province by the Kurdish government, say that they are working to expand two existing border points with Iran.

“Since Halabja became a province, we have been trying to open some official border crossings with Iran, one of them is at Sazan,” said Khidir Karim, head of the Halabja municipality.

According to local officials, such a move needs the approval of the federal government in Baghdad.

“There have been several meetings between the Iraqi and Iranian governments to make Shoshme an international border crossing, but there hasn’t been formal recognition yet,” Nukhsha Nasih, head of the Byara municipality told Rudaw.

Shoshme’s current capacity is around 125 trucks that cross to and from the Kurdistan Region daily.

Nasih said that negotiations to expand the border crossing have been going on for more than four years.

The Kele border crossing in Pishdar district is yet another small-size customs point that local authorities seek to expand.

“We are waiting for inspectors from Baghdad to come and decide whether Kele can become an international crossing point or not,” said Barham Ahmad, the mayor of Pishdar.

Kurdish and Iraqi officials have brushed aside demands to expand Kele, arguing that it doesn’t meet the requirements of an international customs point.

However, Ahmad said that his city is capable of expanding the gates and building proper roads, but that they lack the funding that Erbil and Baghdad are expected to provide.

He said that more than 250 trucks cross the border at Kele everyday.

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Turkey Builds Wall in Token Effort to Secure Border With Syria

REYHANLI, Turkey (Reuters) — Turkey has started building a new wall along a fragment of its southeastern border with Syria as it struggles against smuggling, illegal migration and the threat from Al-Qaeda fighters among Syria’s rebel ranks.

Slabs of concrete have sprung up in recent days, snaking for just over one kilometer over the rolling hills of Hatay province, a finger of land which was part of Syria until the late 1930s, dotted with villages that have thrived on an illicit cross-border trade in everything from fuel to cigarettes.

Turkey has kept an open-border policy throughout Syria’s three-year civil war and has vowed to maintain it, providing a lifeline to rebels battling President Bashar Al-Assad by allowing supplies in and refugees out.

But the policy has had its costs. Smuggling has thrived, and a growing number of Syrians forced by the war to eke out a living where they can, swell the ranks of those trying to cross back and forth outside the official border posts.

That has compounded the challenge of securing the 900-km (560-mile) border for Turkey’s authorities, already accused of doing too little to stop militants from entering Syria and posing an even bigger risk to the wider region.

Car bombs in the Turkish town of Reyhanli killed dozens almost a year ago and there has been more violence since then. The International Crisis Group estimates that more than 75 Turkish citizens have been killed in fighting that has spilled over the frontier.

“Turks are reminded of the security risks by deadly car bombs and armed incidents on their territory, especially as northern Syria remains an unpredictable no-man’s land,” the think-tank said in a report.

“The conflict was not of its making, but Ankara has in effect become a party,” it said.

Turkey’s handling of the Syrian war was said to be the main reason that led to the ruling AK Party’s loss of Hatay province in March’s local elections. The costs the crisis has imposed on the economy in border areas and fears about Islamist fighters have also alarmed local people.

In the face of such a challenge, the wall seems a symbolic gesture, starting in a village called Kusakli, which an official from the district governorate called an active spot for border trespassing, and following the contours for just a over a kilometer.

A local customs official said it would be extended to 8 kilometers, although he added: “The total border is 900 kilometers so we’re not sure about the effectiveness of the wall.”

Local officials did not know how much the wall was costing and said the Turkish armed forces were behind the project, but the military did not comment immediately.

Local people doubted the barrier would do much more than deter a few opportunist smugglers, while punishing legitimate refugees.

“The big smugglers can’t be stopped, they have special arrangements,” said one middle-aged man in the border village of Bukulmez, who did not want to be named after confessing to having helped bring refugees over the border illegally.

His 30-year-old son had also joined a smuggling gang but was caught, and had spent the last 20 months in detention awaiting trial, he said, sitting on the porch of his crumbling home.

His teenage daughter, who hopes to go to university, said smugglers from the village used to transport a range of goods, even guns, but the trade had moved further along the border after a crackdown by the security forces.

“Even a bird can’t pass,” she said, looking towards Syria.

Assyrian International News Agency

Local Hopes Raised After Turkmen-Afghan Border Meeting

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, Azatlyk, has been following events along the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border for several months now, describing the situation of the Afghan Turkmen and their relationship with Turkmenistan.

For the last few years neither was very good.

Azatlyk produced a series of reports from one of the villages on the Afghan side of the border, where residents have repeatedly complained that the river that divides Afghanistan from Turkmenistan in their area, the Amu Darya, is pushing southward, eating away their arable land and forcing them to move into the harsh desert.

They also protested that islands that have risen emerged in the middle of the Amu Darya, once part of Afghan land, were off-limits to them and their animals as Turkmen border guards regularly arrested and jailed Afghan Turkmen found on these islands.

After Azatlyk’s reports, at the end of March, amid Norouz festivities in Kabul, Afghan Turkmen tribal elders met with Turkmenistan’s Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov to plead for the Turkmen government’s help in stopping the southerly push the Amu Darya and resolve the problem of use of the islands.

Meredov promised help would come but it was not clear at that time when that and might arrive.

Abdukadyr Maliya of the Jowzjan provincial council told Azatlyk a delegation from Turkmenistan arrived on the Afghan side of the border, in the Khamyab district, on April 16.

Maliya said officials from Turkmenistan’s Lebap Province, including the provincial prosecutor’s office, and from Turkmenistan’s border guards met with officials from Afghanistan’s Qarqeen and Khamyab districts. A memorandum was signed laying out the basic terms of future aid.

Turkmenistan will help build a retaining wall along 30 kilometers of the Amu Darya bank in the Qarqeen district and 16 kilometers in the Khamyab district to prevent the river from devouring any more of the land on the Afghan side of the border.

Additionally, the Afghan Turkmen are now able to bring their cattle to a large island to graze.

It was unclear if there was any progress in freeing Afghan Turkmen imprisoned in Turkmenistan after being caught on these islands, but the presence of representatives of the Lebap prosecutor’s office perhaps indicates the topic was discussed at the meeting.

And, according to Abdukadyr Maliya, the Turkmen government delegation promised to resume sending electricity to villages on the Afghan side of the border. Maliya could not say exactly when that would happen but he did say it would be “soon.”

– Bruce Pannier, with contributions from Muhammad Tahir of RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Dzhemilev: Hundreds Of Crimean Tatars Prosecuted For Illegal Border Crossing

Published 5 May 2014

Veteran Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, barred by the pro-Russian government in Crimea from entering his homeland, told a news conference in Kyiv that authorities have launched hundreds of criminal cases after about 2,000 Crimean Tatars, who had gone to a border-crossing point near Armyansk to meet their leader on May 3, broke through lines of Russian troops to reach him. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Thousands Flee Fierce Syrian Rebel Infighting Near Border

BEIRUT — Heavy fighting between rival Islamic rebel groups in eastern Syria has killed 62 fighters and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes over several days of violence, activists said yesterday.

Meanwhile, Syria’s supreme constitutional court announced president Bashar Al Assad and two others will be the candidates in a coming June presidential election that Mr Al Assad is widely expected to win.

Rebels from the Al Qaeda breakaway group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and fighters of the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front have fought each other for months over territory they previously captured together from Mr Al Assad’s forces.

The rebel-on-rebel violence has raged in the north along the Turkish border that opposition fighters have controlled since a mid-2012 offensive. Earlier this year, it spread to eastern Syria, home to most of the country’s oilfields.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday’s rebel infighting took place around three villages in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor province near the Iraqi border. In the past four days, 62 rebels have been killed there, the observatory said.

The rebel infighting has forced tens of thousands to flee the contested villages of Abreeha, Bseera and Sabha, said the observatory, which gathers information through a network of activists on the ground.

Syria’s conflict, which began with largely peaceful protests in March 2011, has evolved into a civil war with sectarian overtones that activists say has killed more than 150,000 people. Islamic extremists, including foreign fighters and Syrian rebels who have taken up hard-line Al Qaeda-style ideologies, have played an increasingly prominent role, dampening the West’s support for the rebellion to overthrow Mr Al Assad.

That has led to a backlash by Islamic brigades and more moderate rebels who launched a war against the Al Qaeda breakaway group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Fighting between opposing rebel groups has killed more than 3,000 people since the beginning of the year, activists say.

In Damascus, the spokesman for the country supreme constitutional court, Majid Khadra, announced yesterday that only three of 24 applicants met legal requirements to run in the June 3 presidential election. Mr Al Assad, who is seeking a third seven-year term, will face Hassan bin Abdullah Al Nouri, a 54-year-old legislator from Damascus, and 43-year-old Maher Abdul Hafiz Hajjar, a politician from the northern city of Aleppo.

Opposition activists and western countries have condemned the elections as a sham. Voting is expected to be held only in government-controlled territory.

In Homs, a rebel negotiator said yesterday that a deal had been reached with the government to allow opposition fighters, civilians and wounded people the army-besieged city.

“An agreement occurred between representatives of the rebels and the chiefs of security, in the presence of the Iranian ambassador, for the pullout of fighters from the Old City to the northern countryside of Homs,” Abul Hareth Al Khalidi said.

Talks are now focused on implementation, he said.

Homs was dubbed the “capital of the revolution” at the start of the 2011 uprising against Mr Al Assad.

About 2,250 people, mostly fighters, will evacuate the Old City area, according to a version of the agreement obtained from an opposition source by Agence France Presse.

Mr Abul Harith said civilians and wounded people would also be evacuated from the Old City, much of which has been destroyed by bombardment and fighting.

According to the agreement, fighters will withdraw to a rebel-controlled area in the north of Homs province. They will be allowed to carry light weapons, and one rocket launcher will be permitted on every bus used for the evacuation.

“The guarantors will be the presence of members of the United Nations and Iranian negotiators on the buses,” the agreement says.

The deal was reached as part of an exchange for an unknown number of Iranian and Lebanese prisoners currently held by the Islamic Front, Syria’s largest rebel alliance.

“Implementation will begin after those being held by the Islamic Front are released, and after permission is given to allow relief to enter the [pro-regime] towns of Nubol and Zahraa in Aleppo province,” according to the text.

Assyrian International News Agency

Thousands Flee Fierce Syrian Rebel Infighting Near Border

BEIRUT — Heavy fighting between rival Islamic rebel groups in eastern Syria has killed 62 fighters and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes over several days of violence, activists said yesterday.

Meanwhile, Syria’s supreme constitutional court announced president Bashar Al Assad and two others will be the candidates in a coming June presidential election that Mr Al Assad is widely expected to win.

Rebels from the Al Qaeda breakaway group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and fighters of the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front have fought each other for months over territory they previously captured together from Mr Al Assad’s forces.

The rebel-on-rebel violence has raged in the north along the Turkish border that opposition fighters have controlled since a mid-2012 offensive. Earlier this year, it spread to eastern Syria, home to most of the country’s oilfields.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday’s rebel infighting took place around three villages in the oil-rich Deir Ezzor province near the Iraqi border. In the past four days, 62 rebels have been killed there, the observatory said.

The rebel infighting has forced tens of thousands to flee the contested villages of Abreeha, Bseera and Sabha, said the observatory, which gathers information through a network of activists on the ground.

Syria’s conflict, which began with largely peaceful protests in March 2011, has evolved into a civil war with sectarian overtones that activists say has killed more than 150,000 people. Islamic extremists, including foreign fighters and Syrian rebels who have taken up hard-line Al Qaeda-style ideologies, have played an increasingly prominent role, dampening the West’s support for the rebellion to overthrow Mr Al Assad.

That has led to a backlash by Islamic brigades and more moderate rebels who launched a war against the Al Qaeda breakaway group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Fighting between opposing rebel groups has killed more than 3,000 people since the beginning of the year, activists say.

In Damascus, the spokesman for the country supreme constitutional court, Majid Khadra, announced yesterday that only three of 24 applicants met legal requirements to run in the June 3 presidential election. Mr Al Assad, who is seeking a third seven-year term, will face Hassan bin Abdullah Al Nouri, a 54-year-old legislator from Damascus, and 43-year-old Maher Abdul Hafiz Hajjar, a politician from the northern city of Aleppo.

Opposition activists and western countries have condemned the elections as a sham. Voting is expected to be held only in government-controlled territory.

In Homs, a rebel negotiator said yesterday that a deal had been reached with the government to allow opposition fighters, civilians and wounded people the army-besieged city.

“An agreement occurred between representatives of the rebels and the chiefs of security, in the presence of the Iranian ambassador, for the pullout of fighters from the Old City to the northern countryside of Homs,” Abul Hareth Al Khalidi said.

Talks are now focused on implementation, he said.

Homs was dubbed the “capital of the revolution” at the start of the 2011 uprising against Mr Al Assad.

About 2,250 people, mostly fighters, will evacuate the Old City area, according to a version of the agreement obtained from an opposition source by Agence France Presse.

Mr Abul Harith said civilians and wounded people would also be evacuated from the Old City, much of which has been destroyed by bombardment and fighting.

According to the agreement, fighters will withdraw to a rebel-controlled area in the north of Homs province. They will be allowed to carry light weapons, and one rocket launcher will be permitted on every bus used for the evacuation.

“The guarantors will be the presence of members of the United Nations and Iranian negotiators on the buses,” the agreement says.

The deal was reached as part of an exchange for an unknown number of Iranian and Lebanese prisoners currently held by the Islamic Front, Syria’s largest rebel alliance.

“Implementation will begin after those being held by the Islamic Front are released, and after permission is given to allow relief to enter the [pro-regime] towns of Nubol and Zahraa in Aleppo province,” according to the text.

Assyrian International News Agency

Russian jets hold drills near Ukraine border

The Russian military has conducted fighter-jet drills in the southwestern Krasnodar region close to Ukrainian territory.

The southern military district’s Sukhoi-25 fighter jets on Thursday held drills in overcoming enemy missile defence and firing at land targets.

The Kremlin ordered the new military exercises on Ukraine’s border after the Ukrainian government said its troops killed five “terrorists” in operations to take back the pro-Russian stronghold of Slovyansk.

NATO estimates Russia has also deployed up to 40,000 troops to the border areas.

An amateur video published on Thursday showed a large Russian military convoy moving in the town of Novoshakhtinsk just 10 kilometres from the Ukrainian border.

The footage shows numerous military trucks, as well as tanks and armoured personnel carriers moving on a highway.

Russia has maintained it has the right to protect Russian-speakers if they come under threat, a reason it gave for annexing the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine last month.

Separatists killed

Earlier on Thursday Ukraine’s interior ministry said Ukrainian troops had killed the pro-Russian separatists in the Slovyansk operations as paratroopers took over three “illegal checkpoints” around the town, which has been in separatist control for almost two weeks.

Videos posted online showed smoke rising from barricades around the town. Reports said rebels had set fire to the barricades as they abandoned them and retreated from Ukranian forces.

Russian Defence Minister Sergie Shoigu said Russia was “compelled to react to such a situation”.

“From today, military exercises have started in regions bordering Ukraine involving battalions of tactical forces of the southern and western military districts,” Shoigu said.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, had warned earlier on Thursday that there would be consequences if the Ukraine army was used against pro-Russian activists.

“If Kiev really began to use the army against the country’s population… that is a very serious crime against its own people,” he said.

The Slovyansk operation came hours after the Ukrainian government reported that its forces had taken control of the town hall in the city of Mariupol, and repelled an attack on an army base in the eastern town of Artemivsk, the ministries said.

Separatist sources also reported the loss of the town hall in Mariupol. The city was the scene of a rebel attack on troops last week that left three rebels dead. The separatists had held the town hall since April 13.

“The town hall is liberated and can function normally,” Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s interior minister, said on his Facebook page.

Ukraine’s defence ministry said in a statement that Ukranian forces repelled nearly 100 separatists in an attack on the military base in Artemivsk, just north of rebel-held Donetsk.

“The attackers were repelled and suffered significant losses,” Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine’s acting president, said.

Ukraine’s army moves to reclaim eastern town

US President Barack Obama said on Thursday that Russia had failed to abide by the spirit of a deal to ease tensions in Ukraine, and that new sanctions against Russia were being “teed up”.

He said “malicious armed men” continued to occupy buildings in eastern Ukraine, in contradiction to a deal agreed last week in Geneva by Ukraine, Russia, the EU and the US.

“So far we have seen them not abide by the spirit or the letter of the agreement in Geneva,” Obama said.

If that continued, he said, “there will be further consequences and we will ramp up further sanctions”.

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AL JAZEERA ENGLISH (AJE)

Pakistan Says 37 Killed In Air Raids Near Afghan Border

A Pakistani official says air raids on insurgent hideouts in the tribal region near the Afghan border have killed 37 suspected militants and wounded 18.

No independent confirmation of the government official’s report from the remote region was immediately available.

In addition to air strikes, government officials said ground troops were also taking part in the operation in the Tirah Valley in the northwestern Khyber tribal region, where the Taliban and the banned militant group Lashkar-i-Islam are active.

The Pakistani Army said the strikes were in response to a series of recent attacks against police and civilians in Islamabad and Peshawar.

The Pakistani Taliban formally ended a 40-day cease-fire last week after peace talks with the government appeared to falter.
 

Based on reporting by AP and dpa

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

​Kremlin Spokesman Admits Troops Stationed At Ukraine Border

Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov has confirmed that Russia does have troops near the Ukrainian border and that some of those forces are stationed there “on a permanent basis.”

Peskov said additional forces are in the area along Russia’s border with Ukraine but only “as reinforcement aganst the background of what is going on in Ukraine.”

Pskov also said Washington’s threats of additional sanctions against sanctions on Russia if Moscow does not adhere to the terms of an agreement reached on April 17 in Geneva between top diplomats from Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and European Union were “absolutely unacceptable.”

Peskov said, “We can mobilize our whole society if someone starts driving Russia into a corner,” and added, “Thank God, it is impossible to drive Russia into a corner.”
 

Based on reporting by ITAR-TASS and Interfax

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Assyrians Fleeing to Turkey Urge Change of Border Crossing Policy

Syrian Assyrian refugees in Midyat, Turkey.Syriacs [Assyrians] are calling on Turkey to let their relatives who have fled from Syria to have a stamp that allows them to migrate to European countries where large Syriac communities are living.

The number of Syriacs fleeing to Turkey, particularly from the border city of Qamishli, has massively increased after the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) spread throughout Northern Syria.

Syriacs mostly transit from Turkey to Europe through illegal routes by paying between five and 10 thousand-euros to smugglers and human trafficking networks. However, countries such as Germany and Sweden refuse the entry of Syriacs from legal routes without an entry stamp to Turkey.

“Our relatives have fled to Europe. But Sweden and Germany will not give us visas without an entry stamp to Turkey in our passports. Turkey should find a solution to this. We did not come under normal conditions, we fled for our lives,” Nahir Corc, a Syriac refugee temporarily living with four other families in Midyat’s Syriac Cultural Association told Hürriyet, adding ISIL militants target the Christian community.

“They abduct our priests and our nuns. They are using religion and sects to redraw the Middle East’s map,” Corc says, adding 300 young people were armed against ISIL’s looting and murders in Qamishli.

Properties extorted

Other members of the community flee to the Mor Barsavmo Church in Midyat, in the southeastern province of Mardin, to seek help from Turkish Syriacs.

The head of the Syriac Cultural Association, Ayhan Gürkan, said many Syriacs living in Syria have had their properties and goods extorted.

The priest of the parish, ?shak Ergün, stressed that they have to deal with people sustaining serious psychological problems.

“They come here with hope, knowing they will meet other Christians, but the majority have psychological problems and cannot sleep because of nightmares. There are also soldiers who fled after being abducted by the Free Syrian Army,” he said.

Russia to send troops to Qamishli

Syriacs in Midyat also say their community disapproves of Turkey’s Syria policy. A Syriac senior army official claimed the Christian community in Syria reached an agreement with Russia after asking Moscow to send troops to protect them.

According to his claim, Russia will send soldiers to Qamishli, arming Christians against abductions and looting.

Assyrian International News Agency

Syrian army seizes towns near Lebanon border

Syrian government troops have seized the ancient Christian town of Maaloula from rebels, a day after President Bashar al-Assad said the three-year old civil war was turning in his favour.

During the operation on Monday, Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar TV said three of its staffers were killed.

“The army has taken full control of Maaloula and restored security and stability. Terrorism has been defeated in Qalamun,” a security official said.

An AFP news agency journalist in Maaloula said the Al-Safir hotel, which rebels had been using as a base, was almost completely destroyed, with a facade that gave on to a cliff having collapsed.

Downhill from the hotel, the Mar Sarkis Greek Catholic monastery was also damaged, its walls pierced by mortar rounds, and icons and other religious objects strewn on the ground inside.

“The village was taken quickly. This morning we took Al-Sarkha village” on a hill overlooking the town, “then we came towards Maaloula,” a soldier told AFP.

During the operation, Al-Manar said correspondent Hamza al-Hajj Hassan, technician Halim Allaw and cameraman Mohammad Mantash were killed by “armed groups,” and expressed its condolences.

The three were fired on when they approached an area of town not yet been secured by the army, according to journalists at the scene.

Their deaths bring to more than 30 the number of journalists killed covering Syria’s war, which Reporters Without Borders describes as the world’s most dangerous conflict to report on.

Fall of towns confirmed

The regime has prioritised capturing the area to protect the highway linking Damascus to Homs that runs through the region, as well as to sever rebel supply lines across the border with Lebanon.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground, confirmed that both Sarkha and Maaloula had fallen to government forces.

Spotlight

In-depth coverage of escalating violence across Syria

The seizure of the towns comes a day after Syrian troops backed by fighters from Lebanon’s Shia Muslim group Hezbollah captured the nearby town of Rankous.

Rebels seized Maaloula in early December, even as they were under fire from pro-Assad forces at the time.

Elsewhere in Syria on Monday, fighter jets struck parts of the central city of Homs that have been under suffocating government siege since June 2012, the Syrian Observatory said.

Activist Abu Ziad, who is trapped inside, told AFP via the internet that there has been a marked escalation in the bombing of besieged areas, with the army “trying to storm [the rebel areas] under cover of fire.”

Earlier this year the UN oversaw the evacuation of about half of some 3,000 people trapped in the area.

According to Abu Ziad, up to 180 civilians including 60 activists and more than 1,200 rebel fighters, remain inside.

Meanwhile, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said Syria has surrendered “65.1 percent” of its chemical weapons arsenal, “including 57.4 percent of priority chemicals”.

Under the terms of a US-Russia brokered deal reached last year, Syria has until the end of June to destroy its chemical weapons.

Syria had temporarily halted the transfer of its chemical stockpile, citing security reasons, but resumed the operations earlier this month.

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AL JAZEERA ENGLISH (AJE)

Syrian army seizes towns near Lebanon border

Syrian government troops seized two towns, one of them an ancient Christian hamlet north of Damascus, as part of the military’s relentless offensive along the rugged frontier with Lebanon, state media and activists said.

Syria’s state news agency said that forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad captured Sarkha early on Monday before also quickly sweeping rebels out of the nearby town of Maaloula.

The Lebanese TV channel al-Mayadeen, which closely follows the Syrian conflict, briefly broadcast footage that it said was from inside Maaloula, a predominantly Christian village, showing a cluster of buildings set in hilly terrain.

“The army has taken full control of Maaloula and restored security and stability. Terrorism has been defeated in Qalamoun [the region where Maaloula is located],” AFP news agency quoted a security official as saying.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground, confirmed that both Sarkha and Maaloula had fallen to government forces.

Government offensive

The seizure of the towns comes a day after Syrian troops backed by fighters from Lebanon’s Shia Muslim group Hezbollah captured the nearby town of Rankous.

The push is part of an offensive that government forces have been waging since November in the Qalamoun area along the border with Lebanon. Assad’s troops have captured a string of rebel strongholds in region as they look to cut a vital opposition supply line across the frontier used to support rebels around the Syrian capital of Damascus.

Rebels seized Maaloula in early December, even as they were under fire from pro-Assad forces at the time. The rebels included fighters of the Nusra Front, who abducted 12 Greek Orthodox nuns from their convent during the fighting. The nuns were released unharmed in March in exchange for the Syrian government releasing dozens of Syrian women from prison.

At the time, the abduction added to fears that hard-line Sunni Muslim rebels were targeting Christians as the three-year Syrian conflict grows increasingly sectarian.

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AL JAZEERA ENGLISH (AJE)

Lavrov Says Russia Withdrawing Troops From Ukraine Border Area

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said some Russian troops near the Ukrainian border will return to permanent bases after completing military drills, and called for the “de-escalation” of rhetoric over the Ukrainian crisis.
 
At a news conference in Moscow with Kazakh counterpart Erlan Idrisov on April 3, Lavrov said one battalion involved in the drills has already returned to base in the Rostov region.
 
“[Russian] President [Vladimir Putin] informed German Chancellor [Angela Merkel during their phone call] that, following the [military] exercises in the Rostov Oblast, one of the participating battalions has returned to its permanent base in the Samara Oblast. Once the other participants of the exercises are done with their duties, they will also be returning to their permanent bases.”
 
Lavrov said “there are no restrictions on the movements of military units within the territory of the Russian Federation” and he added, “our Western partners recognize this.”
 
The Russian foreign minister also said Moscow has asked NATO questions about the alliance’s activities in East Europe.
 
“Our point is that Russia and NATO are also bound by a certain set of rules, including the Rome Declaration and the Fundamental Act of the NATO-Russian Council, according to which there must be no permanent excessive military presence on the territories of the Eastern European states,” he said. “We addressed the relevant questions to NATO and we do not simply expect an answer but a response that would be fully anchored in the respect of the rules that have been coordinated with us.”
 
Lavrov also responded to a question about a U.S. Navy vessel again entering the Black Sea following a U.S. warship’s participation in exercises with NATO allies there last month.
 
“We have noticed that recently U.S. military vessels on a number of occasions have extended their presence [in the Black Sea] beyond the established limits and these extensions at times failed to meet the rules of the Montreux Convention [which restricts how long naval ships not belonging to Black Sea states can remain in its waters],” he said. “We pointed this out both to the U.S. and of course to Turkey, which is in control of the [Bosphorus] Strait [and the Dardanelles]. Our position is that all the paragraphs of the convention ought to be strictly adhered to. We will monitor it.”
 
Lavrov’s comments come as NATO announced on April 3 that it was suspending “all practical civilian and military cooperation” with Moscow over Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
 
In Brussels, European Union foreign policy chief Catherin Ashton said Western efforts to tone down tensions with Russia continue.
 
“Our first priority continues to be to work to de-escalate the situation and to call upon Russia to take clear steps in that respect,” she said. “We have been clear about Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, it is just unacceptable.”
 
Ashton also said the West’s relations with countries in Eastern Europe are “not exclusive” and that Eastern European nations are free to make their own choices about “good relations with their own neighbors.”
 

With reporting by Rossiya 24 TV, ITAR-TASS, and Interfax

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Gunmen Injure 3 Border Police In Kosovo

Three border police officers have been wounded in northern Kosovo when gunmen opened fire on their vehicle.

The attack occurred late on March 31 near the village of Banja in a predominantly ethnic Serb part Kosovo.

Police spokesman Besim Hoti said a border police vehicle was “ambushed” while it drove along a road leading to Serbia.

Hoti said the injuries to the police are not life-threatening.

The incident took place the same day that EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton hosted a meeting between Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic to discuss an EU-brokered deal on a normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

Belgrade and most Kosovar Serbs don’t recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia.

More than 100 countries and most EU members have recognized Kosovo as an independent state.
 

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Russia Announces Partial Troop Withdrawal From Near Ukraine Border

Russia has announced it is withdrawing some troops from along Ukraine’s eastern border.

The German government said Russian President Vladimir Putin told Chancellor Angela Merkel about the partial withdrawal in a telephone call.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said a motorized infantry battalion was being withdrawn from the southern Rostov region after ending military drills.

There was no information on the number of troops involved. A battalion can include between 300 and 1,200 troops.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that if the reports are confirmed, “it would be a welcome preliminary step.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration had not yet seen a drawdown of Russian forces.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier welcomed the Russian announcement, calling it a “small signal” that the situation might be improving. 

Russia in the past month massed thousands of soldiers on its border with Ukraine, raising concerns that after annexing Crimea it might invade other parts of Ukraine.

The Kremlin said Putin also told Merkel in their telephone call that Ukraine needs constitutional reforms to protect the interests of residents of the country’s different regions.

Putin has previously spoken of the need to protect the interests of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry was cautious in its statements regarding Russian troop movements. 

“We have information that the Russian Federation is carrying out unfathomable maneuvers on the borders with Ukraine — in some border places they are taking away troops, in others they are coming closer,” ministry spokesman Evhen Perebiynis told reporters in Kyiv. “Such actions cannot fail to cause concern especially since we today do not have a clear explanation from the Russian Federation about the aims of these movements.”

Moscow Eyes Transdniester

Merkel’s spokesman said that the two leaders talked about further steps to “stabilize” the situation in both Ukraine and in Moldova’s Russian-speaking separatist Transdniester region.

The Kremlin said Putin told Merkel that measures were needed to remove what a Russian statement called a “blockade” on Transdniester.

Putin made a similar claim of a Transdniester “blockade” in a telephone call with U.S. President Barack Obama on March 28.

Moldova’s government and the United States have rejected the Russian claim.

Transdniester declared independence from Moldova in 1990. The two sides fought a brief war in 1992 that ended when the Russian military intervened on the side of Transdniester.

Transdniester’s independence is not recognized by any country.

Russia still has around 1,400 troops in the territory. There has been some concern about a possible Russian incursion across Ukraine to occupy Transdniester

Diplomatic Efforts

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had spoken by telephone.

The talk came one day after Kerry and Lavrov met in Paris and agreed to try to resolve the crisis through diplomacy.

Kerry has called for the withdrawal of Russian forces from the border to deescalate the situation.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on March 31 visited Crimea, in the highest-level visit by an official from Moscow since Russia seized the territory.

Medvedev toured the regional capital Simferopol at the head of a delegation of cabinet ministers, and later visited Sevastopol, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has a base.

Medvedev announced that Crimea would become a “special economic zone” to attract investors.

Ukraine denounced Medvedev’s visit, describing it as a “crude violation of the rules of international behavior.”

NATO foreign ministers are due in Brussels to discuss the Ukrainian crisis on April 1.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan in an interview that ”we have agreed with Ukraine to strengthen our cooperation within our NATO-Ukraine partnership within the NATO-Ukraine Commission,” adding, “[T]omorrow we will have a political level meeting in the NATO-Ukraine Commission and I expect assistance to be made as to how we can further develop our partnership with Ukraine.”

NATO member countries have denounced Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a violation of international law and say they will not recognize it.
 

Based on reporting by Reuters, AFP, RFE/RL, and AP

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Russia partly withdraws from Ukraine border

Russia has pulled out a motorised infantry battalion from a region near Ukraine’s eastern border, the Russian defence ministry said.

Monday’s announcement pointed out that the battalion was heading back to its permanent base in Russia’s Samara region after completing trainings, but did not make clear whether other Russian troops near the border would pull back.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin told Germany’s Angela Merkel in a phone call on Monday that he had ordered a partial withdrawal of Russian army from the region, Merkel’s spokesman said in a statement.

The move came after US Secretary of State John Kerry said – after talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday – that progress on resolving the crisis over Ukraine depended on a troop pullback from the border.

Earlier on Monday Ukraine’s defence ministry said there has been a gradual withdrawal of Russian troops from its border.

“In recent days, the Russian forces have been gradually withdrawing from the border,” Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskiy, Ukraine’s defence ministry spokesman, told AFP news agency.

US and EU officials estimated over the weekend that Russia’s sudden military buildup along Ukraine’s eastern frontier had reached between 30,000 and 40,000 soldiers.

Kiev’s Centre for Military and Political Studies analyst Dmytro Tymchuk said on Monday that his sources had told him that Russia had only 10,000 soldiers remaining near the border by Monday morning.

The Ukrainian defence ministry official said Kiev had not been formally notified of the drawdown by Moscow and therefore did not know precisely why the troops were being moved.

“This could be linked to a regular rotation of soldiers,” said Dmytrashkivskiy. “Or it may be linked to the Russian-US negotiations.”

Crimea economic zone

In Crimea, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced on Monday that Moscow would declare the peninsula as a special economic zone with tax breaks to attract investors, according to Reuters news agency.

He made the announcement during his visit to the former Ukrainian region, flaunting his country’s grip on the Black Sea peninsula following its annexation.

Crimean officials have said that the local economy is facing a shortfall and needs economic stimulus from Russia.

Medvedev promised to raise the level of salaries for municipal employees and pensions to average Russian levels and to modernise the region’s hospitals, which he said were outdated.

“As a result of joining Russia, not one resident of Crimea, not one resident of Sevastopol should lose anything. They can only gain,” Medvedev promised during the special cabinet meeting.

Local officials, including Crimean prime minister Sergei Aksyonov, were also present at the meeting that was aired live on Russian state television.

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Some Crossings Reopen On Kyrgyz-Tajik Border

The Kyrgyz-Tajik border had been closed since an exchange of gunfire injured several Kyrgyz and Tajik border guards in January. (file photo)

By RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service

After a diplomatic dispute over border violence, some checkpoints along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border have opened for the first time since mid-January.
 
Kyrgyz Border Service Chairman Raiymberdy Duishembiev told RFE/RL on March 31 that the Karamyk and Bordobo border crossings have started functioning fully.
 
Meanwhile, checkpoints at Kulundu and Kairagach are allowing residents who live close to the border to cross as pedestrians.
 
Other checkpoints remain closed.
 
The Kyrgyz-Tajik border had been closed since an exchange of gunfire on January 11 injured several Kyrgyz and Tajik border guards.
 
The shootings were in a disputed area where Kyrgyzstan is constructing a new highway around a Tajik exclave inside Kyrgyzstan.
 
Kyrgyz authorities have suspended the highway construction since then and a joint Kyrgyz-Tajik commission has been working on border demarcation.
 
Rallies In Bishkek Square Banned
 
Elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan, a court in Bishkek has banned rallies on the central square of Kyrgyzstan’s capital until May 1. 
 
Kyrgyzstan’s parliament and government buildings are located on the square.
 
Bishkek’s Birinchi Mai District Court ruled on March 31 that all public gatherings during the next month should be held at the nearby Gorky Park instead.
 
The court said the decision was made after a Birinchi Mai District administration asked for the rally ban to be imposed ahead of the fourth anniversary of the April 2010 protests that toppled President Kurmanbek Bakiev.
 
Some opposition groups had earlier announced plans to conduct rallies on the central square this week.
 

With reporting by KyrTAG and Interfax

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Rival Koreas trade fire across sea border

South Korea has returned fire into North Korean waters after the North conducted live-fire drills near disputed sea boundary.

Officials on the South Korean border islands of Yeonpyeong and Baengnyeong said residents were being evacuated to shelters as a precaution following the incident on Monday.

“Some of the shells fired by North Korea dropped in our area and our side responded with fire,” a spokesman for the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) told AFP news agency.

There was no indication that either side was firing at any particular target.

Some of the shells fired by North Korea dropped in our area and our side responded with fire.

South Korean military spokesman

Earlier on Monday, North Korea conducted a live-fire drill, further ratcheting up tensions a day after threatening a “new form” of nuclear test.

South Korea’s military had warned of immediate retaliation if any ordnance is fired across the border.

The precise nature of the exercise was unclear, but the Yellow Sea border is an extremely sensitive region that has been the scene of brief but bloody clashes in the past.

Pyongyang has carried out a series of rocket and short-range missile launches in recent weeks, in a pointed protest at ongoing annual South Korea-US military exercises.

On Wednesday it upped the ante by test-firing two mid-range ballistic missiles capable of striking Japan.

It was the first medium-range missile launch since 2009 and coincided with a trilateral summit attended by the South, the United States and Japan that focused on presenting a united front to the dangers posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, said North Korea will likely continue doing its own test while the South Korea-US military exercises are going on.

“I don’t think that we have seen the end of this yet,” Delury said, adding that the North had even threatened on Sunday to conduct a fourth nuclear test.

UN resolutions prohibit the North from firing any ballistic missiles and the UN Security Council said it would consider taking “appropriate” action — a response that triggered the North’s “new” nuclear test threat.

In November, 2010, North Korea shelled a South Korean island near the border, killing four people and triggering concerns of a full-scale conflict.

It is not unusual for North Korea to carry out a live-fire exercise, but it does not normally take the precaution of notifying the South in advance.

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Fear of War Grips Turkish Border Province

Turkish soldiers march during a ceremony to mark the 89th anniversary of Republic Day in central Antakya, in the southern border province of Hatay, Oct. 29, 2012 (photo by REUTERS/Murad Sezer).ANTAKYA — A fisherman’s boat bobs on the sapphire blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. A stray puppy gambols on a deserted sand beach. In normal times, this small seaside Eden in Turkey’s southernmost province of Hatay would buzz with summer holidaymakers. But the coming season threatens to be different in Meydankoy. “We are on the frontline of the war,” says Ozgur Kaya, a fisherman, pointing toward the Syrian side of the coast. The thud of artillery fire drowns out his voice

In the nearby township of Yayladag, a group of students paces nervously, their faces etched with fear. A stray rocket launched during the ongoing battle between Syrian forces and assorted opposition fighters over the predominantly Armenian town of Kassab has just landed on the edge of town. “That rocket could have hit us. We could have been killed,” says a female student who declines to identify herself by name. The students have petitioned the government to provide a new campus so they can complete the semester out of harm’s way. “And if they don’t, we will just have to quit school,” says a male student, who also chooses to remain anonymous.

Fears that the country might be sucked into the Syrian conflict escalated after Turkey shot down a Syrian air force jet on March 23, not far from Meydankoy, on the grounds that it violated Turkish airspace.

The leader of Turkey’s main secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, told Al-Monitor in a recent interview that the downing of the Syrian jet was part of a government scheme to provoke war with Syria. “They want to deflect public attention away from their thievery,” he claimed. Kilicdaroglu was referring to the corruption probe launched on Dec. 17 linking the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his children and his cabinet ministers to massive graft charges

Until recently, Kilicdaroglu’s assertions would have been dismissed as sniping. But an illegally taped conversation that allegedly took place between Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the country’s national spy chief, Hakan Fidan, and the deputy chief of staff of the Turkish Armed Forces, may yet vindicate the CHP leader. In the recordings posted on YouTube (the government blocked access to the site soon after) the men weigh options to spark a war with Syria. Coming only days before nationwide local elections, the leak has had a chilling effect. In Hatay, the elections are widely viewed as a referendum on the government’s Syria policy, with Erdogan’s pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the CHP running neck to neck. The government has denied accusations that it is plotting war and called the leak “villainous.”

In a small teahouse in Meydankoy, a group of men play cards while keeping an eye on Syrian state television news, which they watch via satellite dish. “We don’t watch Turkish channels, they lie,” growls Ishak Kucuk, a white-haired regular. Like most residents in Meydankoy and surrounding villages in the township of Samandag, he is an Arab Alawite, that is, a co-religionist of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And like most, he is viscerally opposed to Erdogan’s efforts to overthrow Assad by supporting the armed opposition. “We know Erdogan wants a war. Why else did they go after Kassab?” Kucuk asks.

Kucuk is referring to the claim that Turkey helped plan the fall of Kassab last week by allowing opposition fighters to use its territory to launch the attack. The claims have been echoed by Assad and members of the Armenian diaspora.

Pressed about where exactly the fighters crossed, Kucuk gestures vaguely toward a row of craggy hills, saying, “from a village around there.” The village in question turns out to be the mainly Sunni Gozlekciler, and nobody is prepared to take a journalist there.

“It’s full of terrorists [opposition fighters]. It’s unsafe,” claims Muhsin Capar, an Alawite from the town of Samandag. Gozlekciler was evacuated on March 21 after stray shells reportedly struck several houses and the local mosque. The attack on Kassab began the same day. Journalists have been barred from entering the village.

Capar says that prior to the war it would have been unthinkable for an Alawite to feel insecure in a Sunni village. Indeed, Hatay’s Sunnis and Alawites have long prided themselves on remaining immune to the sectarian tensions that have plagued the region.

“In Hatay, it is considered rude to ask people about their faith. We have co-existed peacefully for centuries. But the war [in Syria] is making things difficult and Erdogan is adding fuel to the flames,” Timur Rencuzogullar, an Alawite intellectual, tells Al-Monitor.

Erdogan has been accused of promoting Sunni sectarianism, not only in Turkey but also in countries like Egypt, where his unabashed support for the Muslim Brotherhood has cooled relations with the army-backed government.

Both Alawites and Sunnis were shocked when Erdogan said that “53 Sunni citizens were martyred” in the aftermath of the double suicide car bomb attack that shook the township of Reyhanli last May. Erdogan blamed Assad, but Hatay’s Alawites felt targeted. The presence of an estimated one million Syrian refugees has added to tensions. “It’s bad enough that our relatives are fighting each other in Syria,” says Naci Akkaya, a Sunni and a member of the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Two of Akkaya’s maternal uncles who joined the opposition Free Syrian Army were killed in battle. “It’s a quagmire over there, may God protect Turkey,” he says.

Assyrian International News Agency

US tells Russia to leave Crimea border area

Barack Omaba, the US president, has urged his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to withdraw troops from near the Ukraine border, in the first direct contact between the leaders since the takeover of Crimea.

The White House said on Saturday that Obama had urged Putin in a “frank and direct” telephone conversation to ease tensions by removing troops, and respond to a diplomatic resolution put forward by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, at a meeting in the Netherlands earlier this week. 

The Kremlin, however, said that Putin had used the conversation to warn Obama that the interim government Ukraine was allowing a “rampage of extremists” in Ukraine and suggested “possible steps by the international community to help stabilise the situation’.

The Friday telephone conversation is believed to have been the first between Obama and Putin since the US and EU began imposing sanctions on Russia over the takeover of the peninsula.

The Russian president has recently ordered troops to assemble by the border with Ukraine, with the US estimating on Friday that Russia’s total forces in Crimea numbered about 40,000. 

Obama had earlier told CBS news that Russian troops were “massing along that border under the guise of military exercises.”

He insisted that Russia needed “to move back those troops and to begin negotiations directly with the Ukrainian government, as well as the international community”.

He denied Russian statements that the West was trying to encircle Russia.

“We have no interest in circling Russia and we have no interest in Ukraine beyond letting Ukrainian people make their own decisions about their own lives,” he said.

Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, meanwhile said his country was completely in control of Crimea, and that all Ukrainian soldiers had left Crimea, Interfax news agency has reported.

Putin congratulated the Russian armed forces. “The recent events in Crimea were a serious test. They demonstrated the new capacities of our armed forces in terms of quality and the high moral spirit of the personnel,” he said, quoted by Russian news agencies.

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Obama Urges Russia To Move Troops Away From Ukrainian Border

U.S. President Barack Obama has called on Russia to withdraw its troops from the area of the Ukrainian border and to become a “responsible international citizen.”

Obama was speaking in an interview with CBS News on March 28 before leaving Rome.

He disputed Russia’s reasons for having so many troops along the border with Ukraine.

“I think it is well known and well acknowledged that you’ve seen a range of [Russian] troops massing along [the Ukrainian] border under the guise of military exercises, but these are not what Russia would normally be doing,” Obama said.

“And, you know, it may simply be an effort to intimidate Ukraine or it may be that they’ve got additional plans.”

The secretary of Ukraine’s National Security Service, Andriy Parubiy, told the Atlantic Council in Washington via webcast on March 27 that some 100,000 Russian troops were massed on Ukraine’s border. Western officials and officials have cited far lower figures.

In his interview, Obama again encouraged Russia to open up a dialogue with the new government in Ukraine to de-escalate tensions along the Russian-Ukrainian border.

“What we need right now to resolve and de-escalate the situation would be for Russia to move back those troops and to begin negotiations directly with the Ukrainian government as well as the international community,” he said.

Those tensions have been developing since former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from power at the end of February.

Pro-Russian forces entered Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and a few weeks later Crimea held what Obama has called a “sloppily” organized referendum to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

Soviet Throwback

Obama also said Russian President Vladimir Putin might be acting in part from a desire to return to the days of the Soviet Union.

“On this, I think [Putin] has been willing to show a deeply held grievance about what he considers to be the loss of the Soviet Union,” Obama said.

“You would have thought that after a couple of decades that there’d be an awareness on the part of any Russian leader that the path forward is not to revert back to the kinds of practices that were so prevalent during the Cold War, but in fact to move forward with further integration with the world economy and to be a responsible international citizen.”

Obama’s comments were the latest in a series of Western criticisms of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

At a UN General Assembly session on March 27, 100 of the 193 countries represented at the United Nations voted in favor of a resolution that declared Crimea’s referendum to secede from Ukraine “invalid.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated on March 28 that the Kremlin should pay attention to what that vote meant.

“I would like to say only that if I were Russia I would not be satisfied with the result of the UN General Assembly vote,” Merkel said. “We are only citing ‘yes’ votes forgetting the abstaining votes. In total it is a clear poll on behalf of the international community that they are not happy about what has happened.”

However, Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus, one of the 11 countries that voted against the UN resolution, said, “De facto, Crimea is the territory of Russia.”

Russian officials have stressed Crimea’s historical ties to Russia dating back to the 18th century to help justify its reabsorption into Russia.
 

With reporting by CBS News, Reuters, and ITAR-TASS

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Baku Says Two Injured By Armenian Forces Along Border

Azerbaijan has again accused Armenia of violating the cease-fire along the border, saying a military officer and a local resident were injured.

The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry issued a statement saying Armenian military forces had fired on the village of Alibeyli in Azerbaijan’s Tovuz district near the Armenian border earlier the same day.

An officer of the Azerbaijani Army and a local resident were hospitalzed with gunshot wounds.

The incident took place days after Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarkisian, pledged to continue peace talks during a meeting in The Hague.

The two countries have been locked in a conflict over Azerbaijan’s breakaway, mainly Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh for many years.

International diplomatic efforts have failed to settle the conflict.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

U.S. Defense Secretary: Russia Building Up Forces On Ukraine Border

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel says Russia has moved forces closer to the border with Ukraine in recent days, despite assurances it would not invade.

At a meeting with British counterpart Phillip Hammond on March 26, Hagel said, “They [the Russians] continue to build up their forces.”

Hagel said he had received guarantees from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu last week that Russia would not invade Ukraine.

Hammond said that “other Russian players, including Minister Shoigu, may express their views, but it’s a moot point.”

Hammond added, “All evidence suggests that the Russian agenda is being very much run by President [Vladimir] Putin personally.”
 

Based on reporting by AFP and dpa

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty