Afghan Officials: US Drone Kills 14 ISIS Militants

A U.S. airman guides a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone as it taxis to the runway at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. REUTERS/Josh Smith/Files

A US drone strike has killed 14 ISIS militants in a remote area in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province, Afghan officials said Saturday.

Abdul Ghani Musamim, spokesman for the provincial governor, said the strike took place on Thursday afternoon in the Chawkay district.

He said it targeted a meeting of ISIS commanders planning for a terrorist attack.

The spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, Dawlat Waziri, confirmed the report. But there was no immediate comment from the US-led forces in Afghanistan.

Lawmaker Shazada Shaheed rejected the report, claiming the victims of the strike were civilians.

The government has no control of the remote area where Afghanistan’s ISIS affiliate has managed to establish a presence.

The top US commander for the Middle East, Gen. Joseph Votel, said Friday that American troops in Afghanistan have begun working with smaller Afghan units to prepare them for a more aggressive offensive against the Taliban next year in a push to break the stalemate in the 16-year-old war.

Votel said there is still much more work to be done to improve Afghan forces. But he is seeing some positive trends in the fight.

Myanmar Army Probing Atrocities against Rohingya

Myanmar’s military has said it is investigating its operations in Rakhine state, where the United Nations has accused troops of waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against minority Rohingya Muslims, who have fled in droves to Bangladesh.

According to statements released Friday, the military is now preparing to publish results of its internal investigation.

“An investigation team led by Defense Services Inspector General Lt-Gen Aye Win is inspecting security forces and military units (to see) whether they perform the assigned duties or not,” said a statement from the army’s “True News Information Team.”

But a separate post published on the army chief’s Facebook page suggested troops would be cleared of abuses, saying: “it was found that all actions conformed to the law.”

“Measures are being taken to make a comprehensive report,” added the statement on General Min Aung Hlaing’s Facebook page.

In the last seven weeks, more than half a million Rohingya have fled Rakhine for Bangladesh, shocking the globe with accounts of Myanmar soldiers and Buddhist mobs murdering and raping civilians before torching their villages to the ground.

The army has steadfastly denied the charges and insists it is targeting Rohingya militants who attacked police posts on August 25.

It has also blocked independent access to the conflict zone, triggering condemnation from the UN, which has accused the army of leading a systematic campaign to expel the Muslim minority.

The country’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who came to power in free elections in 2015, lacks control over the military.

But her reputation has been battered by the crisis, with rights groups voicing outrage over her perceived lack of sympathy towards the Rohingya and unwillingness to condemn alleged atrocities by the army. 

France’s Azoulay Wins UNESCO Director General’s Post

Azoulay

Paris – UNESCO’s executive board voted Friday to make a former French culture minister the UN cultural agency’s next chief for the four coming years after an unusually heated election.

UNESCO’s executive board voted 30 to 28 in favor of Audrey Azoulay against Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari.

The board’s selection of Azoulay over a Qatari candidate came the day after the United States announced that it intends to pull out of UNESCO because of its alleged anti-Israel bias.

Azoulay’s nomination was based on the request of former French President Francois Hollande, yet she received great support from President Emmanuel Macron and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

For this purpose, a diplomatic cell was set up to monitor the elections and provide the necessary votes to the former minister of culture, who previously worked as cultural adviser to Hollande at the Elysee Palace.

The Arab candidates dropped out of the race one after the other. The first was the Iraqi candidate, followed by Lebanon’s and finally Egypt’s, who left after losing against Azoulay in an extraordinary runoff on Friday.

Moushira Khattab of Egypt managed to secure 25 votes to Azoulay’s 31. Egypt immediately expressed its support for the French candidate.

Macron congratulated Azoulay on his twitter account, adding that France will continue to fight for education and culture in the world.

Azoulay, who is UNESCO’s 11th director, was born in Paris into a Moroccan-Jewish family.

Her father is Andre Azoulay, a banker and adviser to the Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, also served his father, the late King Hassan II. Her mother is writer Katia Brami.

Confronted with Arab divisions, France presented Azoulay as a consensus figure, who could mend fences within the organization and soothe tensions caused by recent resolutions against Israel.

“Now more than ever UNESCO needs a project… which restores confidence and overcomes political divisions,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement reacting to the US pullout.

According to diplomatic sources in Paris, Morocco supported the French candidate from the beginning and campaigned for her, especially among African countries close to it.

N. Korea Readies New Missile Launch as US, South Hold Military Drills Next Week

Korea

North Korea is preparing for a new ballistic missile launch, a news report said on Saturday.

The test will be held ahead of joint naval drills between the United States and South Korea, added the Donga Ilbo daily that cited a government source.

Satellite pictures show ballistic missiles mounted on launchers being transported out of hangars near Pyongyang and in the North Phyongan Province.

US and South Korean military officials suspect the North might be preparing to launch missiles capable of reaching US territory, the newspaper said.

This could be the Hwasong-14 inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM), whose range could extend to Alaska, or Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missiles which Pyongyang threatened to fire towards the US Pacific territory of Guam in August, the report said.

Another possibility is that the North might be preparing to test a new Hwasong-13 ICBM, it added, that has a longer maximum range than the other two missiles and could potentially reach the US West Coast.

A defense ministry spokesman declined to comment on the report, saying: “We don’t comment on any matters of military intelligence. We are keeping a close watch over the North.”

The US navy said Friday that the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier will lead the exercises with South Korea in the coming week, a fresh show of force against North Korea. The move will likely rile Pyongyang which has previously responded angrily to joint exercises.

The joint drills led by the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier come after hectic US military hardware movements around the Korean peninsula in recent days.

These follow a flurry of missiles from Pyongyang, which conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test last month in defiance of international sanctions.

On Friday the nuclear-powered USS Michigan submarine arrived at the southern South Korean port of Busan, just days after another nuclear-powered submarine — the USS Tuscon — left after a five day visit.

Earlier this week the US flew two supersonic heavy bombers over the Korean peninsula, staging the first night-time joint aviation exercises with Japan and South Korea.

US President Donald Trump’s continued threats of military action against Pyongyang if it does not tame its weapons ambitions have fueled fears of conflict on the Korean peninsula.

On Friday however, he said that he was open to the possibility that negotiations can steady tensions with Pyongyang, but he appeared to suggest he was keeping military options open.

Trump told reporters at the White House: “If it’s going to be something other than negotiation, believe me we are ready more so than we have ever been.”

He was responding to a question about his comment last week before a dinner with military leaders when he referred ambiguously to “the calm before the storm.”

Trump recently declared that his top diplomat was “wasting his time” in trying to negotiate with the North.

Meanwhile, the European Union will agree on Monday to ban business ties with North Korea, part of a new package of sanctions to isolate Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs.

The practical impact of the moves is likely to be mostly symbolic: Brussels will impose an oil embargo and a ban on EU investment, but it sells no crude to North Korea and European companies have no substantial investments there.

North Korean workers in the EU, of which Brussels estimates there are about 400 mainly in Poland, will face a lower limit on the amount for money they can send home and their work visas will not be renewed once they expire.

The measures to be agreed by EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg go further than the latest round of multi-lateral sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council.

California Wildfires Death Toll Rises amid Concern over Intensifying Winds

Fire officials in the US State of California have reported further progress against the most lethal outbreak of wildfires in state history, as the death toll rose to 35.

The wind-driven blazes, which erupted on Sunday night in the heart of California’s renowned wine country, north of San Francisco, have destroyed an estimated 5,700 homes and businesses and forced the evacuation of at least 25,000 people.

The 35 confirmed fatalities – 19 in Sonoma County – mark the greatest loss of life from a single fire event on record in California, surpassing the 29 deaths from the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles.

With more than 200 people still missing on Friday in Sonoma alone, and rubble from thousands of incinerated dwellings yet to be searched, authorities have said the number fatalities from the so-called North Bay fires would likely climb higher.

Even as firefighters gained more ground during a second day of better weather, they braced for a return of higher temperatures, lower humidity and strong, gusty winds that could increase the threat to communities still in harm’s way.

Ground crews raced to clear drought-parched vegetation along the southern flanks of fires, removing highly combustible fuels adjacent to populated areas before extreme heat and winds were forecast to revive over the weekend.

“We’ve challenged the troops to get out there and secure mainly the south parts of these fires in preparation for those strong north winds,” Bret Gouvea, deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), told a news conference.

As of Friday afternoon, 17 major wildfires – some encompassing several smaller blazes merged together – had consumed nearly 222,000 acres of dry brush, grasslands and trees across eight counties.

Officials have said power lines toppled by gale-force winds the first night may have sparked the conflagration, though the official cause remained under investigation.

Much of the devastation centered in and around the Sonoma County town of Santa Rosa, where whole neighborhoods were reduced to landscapes of gray ash, smoldering debris and burned-out vehicles.

Some victims were asleep when flames engulfed their homes, and many survivors had only minutes to flee.

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said his office had investigated nearly 1,500 missing-persons reports stemming from the fires, and all but 235 had since turned up safe as of Friday evening.

EU: Washington Does Not Have Authority to Terminate Iran Nuclear Deal

Mogherini

London – European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini stressed on Friday that US President Donald Trump does not have the authority to terminate the nuclear deal world powers signed with Iran in wake of his recent announcement of a new strategy against Tehran.

She said: “The president of the United States has many powers, but not this one.”

Trump had announced during a speech unveiling during which he unveiled the new strategy that he could terminate the deal at any time.

In other European reactions to Trump’s stance, France, Germany and Britain said in a joint statement that preserving the nuclear deal “falls within our national interest.”

French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes Romat said in a statement that the deal was a strong tool to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert stated: “We have a great interest in the continuation of this international unity. If … an important country like the United States comes to a different conclusion as appears to be the case, we will work even harder with other partners to maintain this cohesion.”

Head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Yukiya Amano declared on Friday that Tehran is “subject to the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime.”

He added that Iran is honoring its commitments.

The Russian Foreign Ministry announced that FM Sergei Lavrov had telephoned his Iranian counterpart Mohammed Javad Zarif on Friday, saying that Moscow will remain completely committed to the nuclear deal with Tehran.

Lavrov told Zarif that Russia was firmly determined to implement the deal in the form in which it was approved by the United Nations Security Council, reported Reuters.

The Kremlin meanwhile warned of “negative and dire consequences” if Washington withdrew from the deal, saying that Tehran would reciprocate such a move.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said that spiking the deal “would undoubtedly hurt the atmosphere of predictability, security, stability and non-proliferation in the entire world.”

Echoing Moscow’s stance, Beijing reiterated its commitment to the nuclear deal with Iran.

A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman hoped that all sides would continue to support and implement the agreement.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres “strongly hoped” the Iran nuclear deal will remain in place, after Trump accused Iran of violating the accord.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric noted that Guterres had long praised the 2015 pact as a very important breakthrough to stem the spread of nuclear weapons and advance global peace.

Rouhani Rejects Trump’s Speech: We will Remain in Nuclear Deal as Long as Interest Demands it

Rouhani

London – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made little on Friday of US President Donald Trump’s new strategy on Tehran, saying that the nuclear deal was “stronger than the US president believed.”

“We will respect the nuclear deal as long as our rights are guaranteed and as long as our interest demand its,” he said during a televised speech hours after Trump declared his new strategy.

Rouhani added that Tehran was cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency to that end.

He warned however that Iran would abandon its nuclear agreement with world powers if it failed to serve the country’s national interests.

Responding to Trump’s claims that the authorities in Tehran had violated the rights of the Iranian people, he announced that the US president “will not be able to come between the people and Supreme Leader.”

Furthermore, he criticized Trump for labeling the Persian Gulf as Arab, urging him to brush up on his history and geography.

“His speech only had insults and false accusations against the Iranian people,” stated Rouhani.

In addition, he renewed his defense of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, stressing that they are “combating terrorism in the region.”

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi reiterated Rouhani’s stance, warning that Tehran would withdraw from the nuclear deal if it had to.

“Iran’s main policy backs peace and stability in the region and it confronts destabilizing activities,” he stressed.

The Iranian military forces, including the Revolutionary Guards, are a symbol of strength and preservation of Iranian national security, he declared.

“Any military move against the military and Revolutionary Guards will be met with the appropriate and resolute Iranian response,” he stressed.

Moreover, he accused the US of supporting terrorism in the region, saying that it cannot blame others for its action and shy away from its responsibilities.

Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani warned on Friday that Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal will mark the end of the agreement, reported the Russian TASS news agency.

“Washington’s withdrawal would lead to chaos in the world,” he warned from St. Petersburg in Russia where he is attending an international parliamentary conference.

He hoped that Russia will play role in resolving the disputes related to the nuclear deal.

Meanwhile, deputy chief of Iran’s Quds Force, the external branch of the Revolutionary Guards, Esmail Qa’ani said that Trump’s threats to Iran will harm the US, reported Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.

“We are not warmongers, but they will regret any military action against Iran,” he warned.

Trump Punishes Iran over Regional Behavior

Washington- US President Donald Trump has slammed Iran’s behavior and support of terrorism, threatening to rip up the nuclear agreement signed in 2015 between Tehran and six major countries after accusing it of violating the deal.

In a speech he made at the White House on Friday, Trump took a procedural step of “decertifying” the agreement, giving the Congress 60 days to fix a series of deficiencies in the deal, mainly Iran’s ability in eight years to resume its nuclear program.

“We cannot and will not make this certification” that Iran is complying with the accord, he said. “We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror and the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout.”

The accord has lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for concessions regarding its nuclear program. But without the fixes, Trump warned, he would likely pull the US out of the deal.

The US president also said he was hitting Iran’s Revolutionary Guards with sanctions for supporting terrorism.

He backed away from designating the IRGC as a terror group. Instead, the US Treasury said it had taken action against the Guards under a 2001 executive order to hit sources of terror funding and added four companies that support the group to its sanctions list.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin contended the group has “played a central role to Iran becoming the world’s foremost state sponsor of terror.”

Trump opened his speech by reciting a long list of grievances with Iran dating back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the seizure of the US Embassy and American hostages in Tehran.

“The regime remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and provides assistance to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist networks. It develops, deploys, and proliferates missiles that threaten American troops and our allies. It harasses American ships and threatens freedom of navigation in the Arabian Gulf and in the Red Sea. It imprisons Americans on false charges. And it launches cyberattacks against our critical infrastructure, financial system, and military,” he said.

Trump also accused Iran of fueling civil wars in Syria and Yemen.

“Realizing the gravity of the situation, the United States and the United Nations Security Council sought, over many years, to stop Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons with a wide array of strong economic sanctions,” he said.

“But the previous administration lifted these sanctions, just before what would have been the total collapse of the Iranian regime, through the deeply controversial 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. This deal is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA,” he added.

Trump Strikes Blow against Iran 2015 Nuclear Deal

Washington- US President Donald Trump struck a blow against the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement on Friday, choosing not to certify that Tehran is complying with the deal in a major reversal of US policy.

“Based on the factual record I have put forward, I am announcing today that we cannot and will not make this certification,” Trump said at a White House event as he unveiled a tougher strategy against Tehran.

Trump made the announcement in a speech that detailed a more confrontational approach to Iran over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its support for extremist groups in the Middle East.

“Today I am announcing our strategy along with several major steps we’re taking to confront the Iranian regime’s hostile actions and to ensure that Iran never — and I mean never — acquires a nuclear weapon,” Trump said.

While Trump did not pull the United States out of the agreement, aimed at preventing Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, he gave the US Congress 60 days to decide whether to reimpose economic sanctions on Tehran that were lifted under the pact.

On the other hand, #US House Speaker Ryan says supports Trump’s decision to re-evaluate Iran Nuclear Deal, will work with administration to counter “Iran’s range of destabilizing activities.”

US-Canadian Family Held 5 Years by Taliban Leaves Pakistan

An American woman, her Canadian husband and their children have left Pakistan after being rescued from the Taliban, who held them for five years, Pakistani officials said Friday.

Caitlan Coleman of Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, her husband Joshua Boyle, along with their three children left by plane from Islamabad on Friday, two Pakistani security officials said. But they did not reveal where the family was headed.

The couple have reportedly told US officials and their families they wanted to fly commercially to Canada.

Pakistan said Thursday it rescued the family after their captors moved them across the border from Afghanistan, adding the rescue was made possible by intelligence provided by the US.

The couple was kidnapped in October 2012 while on a backpacking trip that took them to Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and then to Afghanistan. All three children were born in captivity.

On Thursday, US President Donald Trump said that Pakistan’s cooperation in securing the release of the couple and their children signaled a new respect for Washington by Islamabad.

“The Pakistani government’s cooperation is a sign that it is honoring America’s wish that it do more to provide security in the region,” Trump said at a White House event. “They worked very hard on this and I believe they are starting to respect the United States again.”

Head of the US Central Command General Joseph Votel also said the freeing of the couple and their children was a
positive sign and a recognition of how seriously Islamabad takes the protection of American citizens.

“We are very appreciative for the efforts of the Pakistani military in helping effect the securing of our American hostages that have been held there, and a Canadian citizen, for quite some time,” said Votel.

“It is a positive sign that they (recognized) the importance, they (recognized) the opportunity, they acted quickly and very responsibly to get control of these persons and begin to effect their return,” Votel told reporters.

Boyle’s father called the rescue a “miracle.” Coleman’s parents, Jim and Lyn Coleman, meanwhile, posted a statement on the door of their Pennsylvania home expressing joy. Lyn Coleman said “I am in a state of euphoria, stunned and overjoyed,” in an interview with ABC News.

Coleman’s parents last had a conversation with their son-in-law on Oct. 8, 2012, via an email sent from an internet cafe he’d described as being in an “unsafe” part of Afghanistan. From then on, there were only desperate hostage videos released by their captors and hand-scrawled letters mailed home.