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Tuesday
May162017

Despite sharp differences, Trump and Erdogan clasp hands after cozy meeting

Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan showered each other with praise after a series of meetings at the White House Tuesday, but they made little progress to deal with their sharp differences on issues like terrorism and Syria.

They promised renewed economic ties and lionized each other’s militaries for their efforts against ISIS. But underneath the talk of “a new era,” a deep fissure remains over the Trump administration’s decision to directly arm a Kurdish rebel group in Syria that Turkey labels a terrorist organization.

Seen as the most effective group in the fight against ISIS, the YPG is part of the broader Syrian Democratic Forces, a multi-ethnic force that is backed by the U.S. and its coalition. The Pentagon is now selling the YPG weapons like heavy machine guns, mortars and armored vehicles as it advances on ISIS’ self-declared capital of Raqqa.

Erdogan again raised his country’s vehement opposition.

“We are committed to fighting all forms of terrorism, without any discrimination whatsoever, that impose a clear and a present threat upon our future,” he said next to Trump, a clear reference to not just ISIS, but Kurdish revolutionary groups like the YPG and its political wing PYD, as well as the PKK in Turkey. The U.S. and the European Union agree with Turkey that the PKK is a terrorist organization.

“Taking YPG and PYD into consideration in the region will never be accepted, and it is going to be against a global agreement that we have reached,” he warned.

While Trump explicitly called out the PKK and promised they would have “no safe quarter,” there has been no indication from the White House that the U.S. will withdraw support for the YPG.

Papering over the tension, the two men instead offered effusive praise for each other and the U.S.-Turkish relationship. Erdogan congratulated Trump for his “legendary triumph” in the November presidential election, called him his “dear friend,” and welcomed a “historical turn of the tide” after their meeting.

“President Trump's recent election victory has led to the awakening of a new set of aspirations and expectations and hopes in our region,” he said. “I hope and pray that both of us will be committed to extending further our cooperation in the future, along with consulting each other more frequently.”

The Oval Office meeting was an honor returned to Erdogan, who was not given such a welcome in the later years of the Obama administration. After once praising him as a reformer, Obama began to sour on the prime minister turned president after he began consolidating power, cracking down on public protests, and jailing any political opposition and journalists.

Trump, for his part, made no mention of those issues, instead reminiscing about the history of American-Turkish alliance and thanking Erdogan for his visit. Trump was one of the few world leaders to call Erdogan and congratulate him last month after he tightened his reigns even further in a national referendum. Observers and critics said the vote was rife with irregularities and threatened democracy in Turkey by weakening parliament and eliminating the prime minister position.

“I look forward to working together with President Erdogan on achieving peace and security in the Middle East, on confronting the shared threats, and on working toward a future of dignity and safety for all of our people,” he said.

Lingering behind all this is another source of tension that Trump didn’t even mention: The case of Fethullah Gulen. The Turkish cleric and political figure is in exile in Pennsylvania, and Erdogan blames him for a failed military coup last summer and a host of other domestic problems. The Turkish government wants him extradited to face charges in Turkey -- and Erdogan brought it up again.

“I have been very frankly communicating our expectations with regard to the centralized terrorist organization,” he said, bashing Gulen’s followers, known as the Gulenist movement.

The Trump team was once reportedly considering kidnapping Gulen and sending him back, but it is not clear what their policy is now.

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Tuesday
May162017

Top House Republican criticizes McMaster's remarks on Western Wall location

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- A top House Republican is criticizing President Trump's national security adviser for declining to clarify the White House position on the location of the Western Wall.

H.R. McMaster, in a press briefing Tuesday previewing Trump's first foreign trip, declined to elaborate on the location of Judaism's holiest site after reports that a U.S. official told Israeli counterparts the wall was located in the West Bank.

"That sounds like a policy decision," he said to reporters.

Asked during a briefing Tuesday to clarify the administration's position on the Western Wall, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the reported comments do not reflect U.S. policy.

"The Western Wall is obviously one of the holiest sites in the Jewish faith," Spicer said. "It's clearly in Jerusalem but there's been – it’s an issue that has had serious consideration, it’ll be a topic that’s gonna be discussed during the president’s trip between the parties that he meets with. But obviously I think this stems from a comment that was made yesterday, in which was not the policy of the United States so just to be clear about what was said yesterday."

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, called McMaster's lack of clarification a "concerning shift" in the administration's policy.

"There is no question that both geographically and historically the Western Wall has been part of the state of Israel," he said in a statement.

"As one of Israel’s closest allies, the United States has an obligation to stand by them and defend their rightful claim to one of the holiest sites in the nation of Israel. I hope H.R. McMaster will retract his remarks swiftly,” he added.

A senior Israeli official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office confirmed to ABC News that Israel has asked the United States to clarify its position on the Western Wall after a “senior member of the U.S. delegation” prepping for Trump’s upcoming visit told his Israeli counterparts that the Western Wall is “not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank.”

Israel’s Channel 2 reported this exchange occurred after the Trump team rejected a request for Netanyahu to accompany Trump on his visit to the Western Wall, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to do so.

“The view that the Western Wall is part of the West Bank was received with shock," the official said.

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Tuesday
May162017

Information Trump shared with Russians came from Israel, official says

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- Israel was the source of the information that President Donald Trump disclosed to Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador in a meeting last week, an official briefed on the matter told ABC News.

Revelation of Trump's disclosure, first reported by the Washington Post, caused a firestorm. Trump tweeted that he spoke with the Russians about "terrorism and airline flight safety," but said that he had an "absolute right" to do so.

The president declined to characterize the information shared as classified and his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, declined to say as well when asked Tuesday by ABC News' Jonathan Karl.

The Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, said in a statement: “Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump.”

McMaster said that Trump did not know the source of the information when he shared it with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and ambassador Sergey Kislyak on May 10.

"The president wasn't even aware where this information came from. He wasn't briefed on the source or method of the information either," McMaster said at a press briefing.

And on Monday, McMaster said: "At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known."

Earlier Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump’s meeting with Russian officials included "a discussion about a shared aviation threat."

"They shared and discussed a shared threat that our two countries have," he said to reporters off-camera.

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Tuesday
May162017

Sally Yates: 'Russians had real leverage' on former Trump adviser Mike Flynn

ABCNews.com(WASHINGTON) -- Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general, reiterated Tuesday that the White House had been warned that Mike Flynn, the president's former national security adviser, could have been a target of blackmail by the Russians.

"I think this was a serious compromise situation that the Russians had real leverage," Yates said in an interview with CNN, a portion of which aired Tuesday morning. Earlier this month she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Flynn had become compromised in his role.

Yates, who fired by President Donald Trump in January, said she had met with White House Counsel Don McGahn twice in-person at the end of January to discuss Flynn’s conduct "in a fair amount of detail."

Press secretary Sean Spicer said in February that Flynn was pushed out by President Trump "not based on a legal issue, but based on a trust issue," adding that Flynn misled Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

According to Spicer, McGahn went through a "very deliberative process, a very thorough review" of Flynn's actions and Trump was "very confident" in McGahn's review.

"I don't know how the White House reached the conclusion that there was no legal issue. It certainly wasn't from my discussion with them," Yates told CNN Tuesday.

"There's certainly a criminal statute that was implicated by his conduct," she added.

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Tuesday
May162017

Trump to give speech on radical ideology in Saudi Arabia

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- President Trump is set to give a major speech about radical ideology to leaders of more than 50 Muslim countries when he makes his first official visit to Saudi Arabia next week, his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said Tuesday.

“The speech is intended to unite the broader Muslim world against common enemies of all civilization and to demonstrate America's commitment to our Muslim partners,” McMaster said.

Trump will also participate in the opening of a center intended to fight radicalism and promote moderation.

“By establishing and operating this center, our Muslim friends, including Saudi Arabia, are taking a firm stand against extremism and those who use a perverted interpretation of religion to advance their criminal and political agendas,” McMaster said.

While in Saudi Arabia, the president will also have coffee with King Salman, attend a royal banquet and hold bilateral meetings with the king and the crown prince, McMaster said. Trump is expected to participate in a signing ceremony of “several agreements that will further solidify U.S.-Saudi security and economic cooperation.”

As a candidate for president, Trump didn’t mince words about Saudi Arabia.

“We defend Saudi Arabia. They don’t pay us nearly what they should be paying. So essentially we are subsidizing all of these countries,” Trump said at a rally last year. “How stupid are we? A country like Saudi Arabia wouldn’t exist for a week.”

As president, Trump signed two executive orders that critics say unfairly target Muslims from six Muslim-majority countries. Saudi Arabia is not one of the countries named in the immigration executive order, but the majority of the country’s 28 million citizens are Muslim.

McMaster called the upcoming trip "historic."

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Tuesday
May162017

What we know about Trump's alleged disclosures to Russian officials

ABCNews.com(WASHINGTON) -- The bombshell report that President Donald Trump allegedly shared highly classified intelligence with Russian officials has prompted a number of statements from the president's top advisers and the president himself.

Questions continue to swirl in the wake of the allegations, reported first by The Washington Post Monday afternoon.

Here is a roundup of the facts that have emerged.

What we know

According to The Washington Post, Trump shared classified information with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., last Wednesday when they met at the White House.

The Post reported that the nature of the information was related to an Islamic State terrorist threat and gathered by a United States intelligence partner. Russia is not a member of the intelligence-sharing arrangement from which the information originated.

The White House released a statement shortly after the report was initially published, calling the story "false."

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster issued a statement outside of the White House on Monday, saying, “At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.”

“I was in the room. It didn't happen,” McMaster added.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also released a statement, saying that “the nature of specific threats were discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations.”

A senior U.S. official told ABC News that White House officials placed calls to the CIA and the NSA to alert the agencies that the president had shared information with the Russians. The official said that these calls were intended to make sure there was no misunderstanding about what the president had said.

The official also told ABC News that the meeting's notes were edited to remove sensitive information, but the official said that such redactions were routine.

Trump suggested in two Twitter posts this morning that he had the authority to divulge information with his Russian guests.

“As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining.... to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism,” he wrote.

During a press briefing Tuesday, McMaster said that Trump “wasn’t even aware where this information came from. He wasn’t briefed on the source or method of the information [collection] either.”

What we still don't know

The biggest questions that remain is what exactly Trump said during the interaction, as well as any specific details about the intelligence that was disclosed.

McMaster and Tillerson both noted that the methods and specific sources of the information were not discussed, but John Cohen, an ABC News contributor and a former counterterrorism and intelligence official at the Department of Homeland Security, notes that every specific piece of information associated with such intelligence could give clues and lead to action.

Moreover, McMaster said that Trump made his decision based on the nature of the conversation. If there was no prior discussion about the disclosure, a typical inter-agency approval procedure may not have occurred.

"He made the decision in the context of the conversation which was wholly appropriate," McMaster said of Trump.

John Cohen, an ABC News contributor and a former counterterrorism and intelligence official at the Department of Homeland Security, said the intelligence community and National Security Council have a very deliberative process for sharing sensitive information.

“If the president wants to share intelligence with a country like Russia and ultimately if the original source of the intelligence is a foreign country, whoever is coordinating with the country -- whether it’s the CIA or the NSA -- they go back and get permission from that country. The second part of the process is our intelligence officials will take a subset of the information that was originally provided so they can convey the threat and not disclose sources and methods and other sensitive information,” Cohen said.

According to The Post, “The partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia,” suggesting the process Cohen described was either ignored or retroactively done.

“It creates the risk that the original provider of the information will be less inclined to share sensitive intelligence in the future,” Cohen said. “That, I am sure, is what has intelligence officials concerned.”

Other key questions that still need to be answered include: which country (or agency) provided the intelligence in question to the U.S.; whether or not the conversation between Trump and the Russian officials was recorded; and why Trump decided to share the information with the Russians.

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Tuesday
May162017

Trump to meet Turkey's president amid sharp differences and new tensions

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- When Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, comes to Washington for meetings with President Trump on Tuesday, it will be the first face-to-face for the two leaders who have traded warm words but now face growing differences between their two countries.

With the U.S. and Turkey at odds over critical issues, it is unclear where Trump and Erdogan will be able to find common ground.

Still, the two will meet in the Oval Office and give a joint press statement afterward. Here are the top issues their delegations are expected to discuss:

Arming the Kurds and alienating a U.S. ally

A big strain on the U.S.-Turkey relationship right now is over an announcement by the Trump administration last week that it will start to directly arm Kurdish rebels in Syria for the fight against ISIS.

The Kurdish group, known as the YPG, is part of the broader Syrian Democratic Forces, a multi-ethnic force backed by the U.S. and its coalition against ISIS that is seen as the most effective group in the fight, having won key gains in Syria’s northeast.

The Pentagon is now selling the YPG weapons such as heavy machine guns, mortars and armored vehicles as they advance on ISIS’s self-declared capital of Raqqa, backed by American airpower.

The problem is that Turkey considers the group a terrorist organization because it maintains ties with a Kurdish revolutionary group inside Turkey -- the PKK. Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union have all sanctioned the PKK as a terror group. Turkey argues that any weapons given to the YPG are a threat to its safety and sovereignty, an existential argument from which Erdogan's government will not back down.

"Every weapon seized by them is a threat to Turkey,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu said at a press conference alongside U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis last week.

Tensions have gotten so high that one of Erdogan’s senior advisers even warned that Turkey would strike U.S. commanders on the ground supporting the SDF.

If YPG units and their American military advisers “go too far, our forces would not care if American armor is there,” the adviser, Ilnur Cevik, said during a Turkish radio interview Wednesday, according to the Washington Times. “All of a sudden, by accident, a few rockets can hit them.”

The Pentagon has tried to reassure Turkey that weapons supplied to the Kurdish group will be “limited, mission-specific and metered out incrementally,” as well as closely monitored by the U.S.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has downplayed the differences as a minor issue between the NATO allies.

“It's not always tidy, but we work out the issues,” Mattis said last week.

But so far, every reassurance by the U.S. has been met by resistance, and now Erdogan will take his case all the way to the White House.

Salvaging an unraveling alliance

That fight over directly arming the Kurds reflects a larger fissure in the relationship between the U.S. and Turkey over their different strategic interests.

Turkey and the U.S. share a common enemy in ISIS and remain committed to the fight against the terror group. But Turkey views Kurdish independence groups as its primary threat, and as every battlefield win against ISIS seems to lessen its immediate threat, there may be fewer shared interests holding the U.S. and Turkey together.

This is particularly evident in the increasingly anti-American rhetoric from Turkish leaders. Turks have “been fed a steady stream of anti-American incitement,” according to Michael Rubin of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

“It’s probably only a matter of time before a Turkish soldier or officer decides to shoot at an American in the belief he is defending Turkey’s honor or fulfilling the unspoken desire of Erdogan,” Rubin said.

The talk against the U.S. has even caught the attention of the State Department, which warned American tourists in March that “an increase in anti-American rhetoric has the potential to inspire independent actors to carry out acts of violence against U.S. citizens.”

As Turkey turns away from its historical ally, the U.S. turns toward an old foe -- Russia. The Turks signed an agreement just weeks ago with Russia and Iran -- two top American adversaries -- to create “de-escalation zones” inside Syria; establish a ceasefire to end Syria's civil war; and ultimately try to bring peace to the conflict, which has been going on for more than six years. As Erdogan thaws relations with Putin, the Trump administration will have to work hard to convince Turkey's president that the U.S. is a more loyal partner.

Handling human rights concerns


There may be one area where Erdogan can find a more willing partner in Trump than he did with the president's predecessor.

President Obama walked a fine line with Turkey -- supporting it while urging Erdogan’s government to respect human rights such as freedom of the press and assembly. Trump has often thrown that approach out the door to salute the strongman on his increasingly dictatorial tactics.

When Erdogan won a referendum vote in April that will lead to abolishing the prime minister’s office and a weakening of the country’s parliament, Trump was one of the only world leaders to call the Turkish president to congratulate him -- even as critics and observers noted the election was rife with irregularities and that the changes threaten to choke off democracy in Turkey.

The move was part of a broader trend: an indifference to promoting human rights around the world and an embrace of authoritarian leaders in Egypt, the Philippines and elsewhere, regardless of their human rights records. Even Trump’s first trip abroad will be to Saudi Arabia this week, which has its own stained history of human rights abuses.

An extradition dilemma or deal?

Given the high stakes of the meeting -- and turmoil on the U.S. domestic front over reports of the president leaking classified information to Russia and his firing last week of FBI Chief James Comey -- Trump, the former businessman of ‘Art of the Deal’ fame, could feel some pressure to reach a deal on something while Erdogan is in town -- and Turkey may have just the thing.

Erdogan is demanding the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania whom the Turkish president blames for a failed coup against him last summer and a host of other problems.

Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who later registered as a lobbyist on behalf of Turkey, advocated for Gülen's extradition, and the Trump team was reportedly at one time considering “a covert step in the dead of night to whisk [Gülen] away,” former CIA director and Trump campaign adviser James Woolsey told The Wall Street Journal.

Under Obama, the Justice Department asked Turkey to file the necessary paperwork to start the legal process for extradition, which drew Turkish protests. That process is said to be ongoing, but it is unclear what the administration’s current view on Gülen is.

In the meantime, the administration has started to raise the profile of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor held in Turkey. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Brunson’s wife when he traveled to Turkey in March, and last week Trump met with Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice who urged Trump to bring up Brunson’s case with Erdogan.

Last month, Trump made an agreement with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to release American aid worker Aya Hijazi and her husband who had been imprisoned on false charges. The victory is one Trump has touted often in interviews since then, and the president could be looking for another win.

The administration has given no indication that they’re studying any sort of swap with Turkey, and Gülen is a permanent resident of the U.S., so it is unclear what authority the White House even has to move an extradition request along. But for two sides looking to paper over major differences, this could be an area for some movement.

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Monday
May152017

Trail of global cyberattack could lead to North Korea

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Cyber security researchers tracking the global cyberattack say the trail could lead back to North Korea.

Analysts from Google and and at least three major cybersecurity firms have pointed to a piece of code that appeared in both an earlier version of the WannaCry virus and the 2016 attack on international banks attributed to the North Korea-linked hackers Lazarus Group.

“There is a link,” said John Bambenek of Fidelis Cybersecurity. “We are really drilling down on what it means but there is part of the code that is shared between WannaCry and a known DPRK hacking tool.”

It could be someone else using the code, researchers say, and there’s still no official attribution, but according to Bambenek, it’s “a solid lead” in the investigation.

North Korea has a history of computer criminality. The Lazarus Group has been accused of launching attacks against South Korean institutions in 2013, Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2014, and the SWIFT financial system in 2016.

“We’ve seen them steal money,” said John Carlin, a former assistant attorney general for national security and an ABC News contributor. “We’ve seen them steal information. We’ve seen them destroy information. They may not be the most capable country in the world, but they certainly have capabilities in this space.

According to Ryan Kalember, senior vice president of cybersecurity at Proofpoint, a second and a third wave of WannaCry ransomware attacks both failed over the weekend, one variant using a modified “kill switch” and another variant with no “kill switch” at all. The first variant was quickly identified and stopped, while the second variant failed to “properly deploy.”

Kalember warned, however, that the threat is still serious.

“It remains critical that all organizations immediately ensure they have the most updated patches deployed and backups ready to restore in the event of a ransomware attack,” Kalember said.

Even so, the tally of targets — now more than 300,000 in 150 countries — continued to rise, with factories, offices, railroads, power stations around the world and FedEx in the U.S. all hit.

By far the most devastating attack affected hospitals in Great Britain, where ambulances were turned away and cancer treatments and surgeries were cancelled.

“Horrible, cried a lot,” Jess Laughton, a patient who had her surgery cancelled, told ABC News. “Didn’t really know what to say, that was the last thing we expected him to come in and say, was that here had been a cyberattack and everything had been cancelled.

Only a few hundred companies appeared to have followed the hackers’ directions to pay $300 or more to have their files freed, and according to Tom Bossert, President Donald Trump’s cybersecurity chief, that turned out to be a scam too.

“It appears less than $70,000 has been paid in ransom and we are not aware of any payments that have led to any data recovery,” Bossert said.

The hackers were so successful because they targeted a vulnerability in the widely-used Microsoft operating systems that was originally identified by the U.S. government’s own National Security Agency (NSA) and leaked to the public by the Hacker group The Shadow Brokers in April.

Microsoft provided a first security patch following the initial release and an additional patch following the attack, but according to Richard Clarke, a special adviser to President George W. Bush on cybersecurity and ABC News consultant, the NSA should have alerted Microsoft to the problem rather than attempting to exploit the vulnerability for its own spying.

“They didn’t tell Microsoft about the vulnerability, they tried to use it instead, and two, they allowed this attack tool to be stolen, right out from under their noses,” Clarke said.

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Monday
May152017

What we know about North Korea's latest missile test

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- The ballistic missile tested by North Korea this weekend reached a high altitude not seen in prior missile tests raising concerns about the progress North Korea is making with its missile program.
The initial assessment is the missile launched this weekend is a medium-range missile the United States calls the KN-17 and that North Korea has identified as the Hwasong-12.

The single-stage KN-17 reached an altitude of 1,200 miles leading to speculation it may be a medium-range missile capable of reaching that distance or greater if fired on a horizontal trajectory.
ABC News takes a look at what we know and don't know about the latest North Korean missile launch.
The KN-17 missile launched by North Korea this weekend is considered to be a single stage medium-range missile powered by liquid fuel.

The KN-17 Missile

The missile was first seen publicly in a military parade in Pyongyang on April 15. The Missile Defense Agency defines medium-range missiles as having a range of between 600 and 1,800 miles. According to U.S. officials that in this weekend's test the KN-17 missile launched on a "lofted" vertical trajectory that sent it 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) in altitude. Fired from a test site in Kusong, western North Korea, the missile traveled 435 miles horizontally before landing in the Sea of Japan. The successful launch marked the first time the United States and its allies had an opportunity to gauge the missile's potential capabilities since three previous launches in April had ended in failure. After its first launch on April 4 U.S. intelligence originally assessed the missile as being a SCUD missile with extended range. But further analysis showed it was a new type of missile, given the designator KN-17, with a possible short range or medium range given that it was a single-stage rocket. Initial indications were that the new missile may be intended to serve as an anti-ship missile.

Why fire the missile at such a high altitude?

The high altitude reached by the missile indicates the missile is capable of reaching the broader limits of a medium-range missile's maximum range. It is believed that North Korea is carrying out launch tests with "lofted" trajectories to test the longer range capabilities of its new missiles without triggering a potential shoot down from the United States or Japan. Horizontal flights at greater ranges could potentially fly over Japan, a scenario that could trigger a response from the United States or Japan. In February, North Korea used a "lofted" trajectory to test its new KN-15 solid-fueled missile. This weekend's successful test could accelerate North Korea's stated goal of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)capable of carrying a small nuclear warhead that could reach the United States. On Sunday, North Korea's news agency claimed that the missile was capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. But according to U.S. officials there is no information at this time that verifies that claim. Firing the missile at high altitudes could also help North Korea test the technologies needed for warheads to withstand the re-entry through the earth's atmosphere.

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Monday
May152017

US accuses Syria of killing thousands, burning bodies in crematorium

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. is accusing the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad of killing thousands between 2011 and 2015 and using a crematorium to dispose of their bodies. And while Assad allies Russia and Iran may not have had anything to do with the crematorium, they are complicit in the brutal dictator's many other atrocities, according to the U.S.

The Trump administration said the regime has killed as many as 50 people a day at the Saydnaya prison complex in that time period, and it modified a building on the compound into a crematorium beginning in 2013.

"Although the regime’s atrocities are well-documented, we believe that the building of a crematorium is an effort to cover up the extent of mass murders taking place in Saydnaya prison," said Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones. "We are appalled by the atrocities that have been carried out by the Syrian regime, and these atrocities have been carried out seemingly with the unconditional support of Russia and Iran."

Jones called on Russia in particular to hold the Assad regime accountable.

"Russia must now with great urgency exercise its influence over the Syrian regime to guarantee that horrific violations stop now," he added.

To support the claim on Monday, Jones cited reports from international monitoring groups; the press; and U.S. intelligence, including new satellite photos the State Department distributed to the press. The photos allegedly show construction over the course of several years at Saydnaya that would be consistent with a crematorium, with features such as HVACs, a discharge stack and a firewall.

The U.S. has not presented this specific evidence to the Russian government yet, according to Jones. But he added that last week’s talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Washington gave the administration hope that Russia will comply.

"Foreign Minister Lavrov and the Russian government have indicated to us that they are interested in finding a solution on Syria," he said. "We hope that we will now be able to work with the Russians in a constructive way to put pressure on the regime to end these atrocities."

After more than six years of civil war and continued Russian support for Assad, however, it is hard to see that happening. Jones himself noted how Russia has supported Assad even after other horrific crimes, including chemical weapons attacks, extrajudicial killings, forced starvation and indiscriminate airstrikes.

"Russia has either aided in or passively looked away as the regime has conducted an airstrike against a U.N. convoy; destroyed east Aleppo; and used chemical weapons, including sarin, against civilians in Idlib province on April 4," he said.

The accusations of mass killings at Saydnaya are not new either. The notorious prison, just 17 miles north of Damascus, was the subject of an Amnesty International report in February, alleging that the regime executed 13,000 prisoners in mass hangings and carried out systematic torture there in the last couple of years.

But after Lavrov's trip to Washington last week, the administration is hoping to seize the moment to push Russia to help them solve the Syrian crisis.

"This was an opportune time to remind people about the atrocities that are being carried out inside of Syria all the time, of which this is one discrete, additive piece of evidence," Jones said.

Neither the Assad regime nor the Russian government has responded to the charge so far, but State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters that the administration believes the U.S. and Russia share a goal in Syria for a "unified and stable nation," achieved through diplomatic and political means.

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