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Friday
Sep152017

Vatican pulls diplomat from US amid concerns about child pornography

ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images(VATICAN CITY) -- The Vatican has recalled one of its diplomats to the U.S. after being notified that he may have violated U.S. laws on child-pornography images.

The U.S. State Department notified the Holy See on Aug. 21 of the possible violation of pornography laws by the diplomat stationed at the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C., a Vatican press statement on Friday said.

"The Holy See, following the practice of sovereign states, recalled the priest in question, who is currently in Vatican City," the statement said.

A U.S. State Department official told ABC News that the United States requested that the Vatican embassy in Washington waive diplomatic immunity for the individual, but the request was denied.

The State Department only asks for a waiver of diplomatic immunity when "the prosecutor advises that he or she would prosecute but for immunity," according to department guidance in a June 2015 handbook. State Department officials referred any questions about possible allegations of criminal wrongdoing by the diplomat to the Justice Department.

The Vatican said in its statement that it has opened its own investigation with "international collaboration."

The priest's name has not been released.

The staff of the Vatican embassy or nunciature in Washington includes the ambassador, a French-born archbishop named Christophe Pierre, and under him, three counselors who support him, according to the Vatican yearbook.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also weighed in on the matter, calling for "an immediate, thorough, and transparent investigation … in cooperation with law enforcement."

"We hope the Holy See will be forthcoming with more details," said the conference president, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Texas, in a statement. "The protection of children and young people is our most sacred responsibility."

In 2015, a similar case involving a high-level Vatican diplomat in the Dominican Republic resulted in charges.

Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski became the first high-level member of the clergy to be formally charged with child sexual abuse and possession of child pornography by the Vatican's criminal court according to Catholic News Service. He was defrocked and died while awaiting trial in Vatican City.

Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Friday
Sep152017

US Army tanks arrive in Poland as Russia begins military drills

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- As Russia began large military exercises on its western border, the U.S. Army was unloading tanks in Poland, the first time these military vehicles have arrived directly by sea.

The tanks, which arrived on Wednesday, are part of a routine troop swap. Soldiers and equipment from the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division from Fort Riley, Kansas, are replacing the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division that has been in Europe for nine months.

The replacement is part of what the military calls a continuing "heel-to-toe" rotation to maintain a U.S. armored brigade in Europe.

As for the tanks, they typically are shipped to Germany and then taken by rail or truck to their next location.

Maj. Gen. Steven Shapiro of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command said using Poland's port of Gdansk "helps test the Army's capacity of the port, and to make sure that the Army knows how to operate inside Poland."

The delivery includes 87 M1 Abrams tanks, 103 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, 18 Paladin self-propelled Howitzers, and other trucks and equipment, according to U.S. European Command (EUCOM).

The U.S. military rotation occurred as Russia began week-long military drills, called Zapad 2017, which are joint exercises with its ally Belarus.

According to the Russians, the drills involve fewer than 12,000 troops, just below the threshold that would require them to invite international observers. But, according to the U.S. and NATO, the drills could involve as many as 100,000 troops, making it one of the largest Russian exercises since the Cold War.

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Friday
Sep152017

Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims flee to Bangladesh 

Lonely Planet/Getty(NEW YORK) -- Families fleeing with just the clothes on their backs; tearful children baring famished bellies; the able carrying the injured, the weak, the old -- these are scenes all too familiar in a world with an unprecedented 65.6 million people forcibly displaced from their homes by war, violence and persecution.

But the name of one group, facing what the United Nations calls a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing," is perhaps not as familiar.

Myanmar's retaliation has been brutal -- a violent crackdown on all Rohingya with allegations of killings, rape, shelling and widespread arson that the Human Rights Watch said altogether "bear the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing."

Since then, up to 400,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh, and thousands more arrive each day, according to UNICEF.

The United Nations has dubbed the Rohingya the world's most persecuted people after decades of discrimination, impoverishment and violent persecution. There is some dispute about their origin, but the majority are descendants of Bengali Muslims who traveled before colonial borders from present-day Bangladesh and India to present-day Myanmar. Today, about 1.1 million Rohingya live in northern Rakhine state on Myanmar's west coast along the Bay of Bengal.

Because of that ethnic identity, the Burmese government -- run by a military junta until just six years ago -- has denied the Rohingya citizenship since 1982, deeming them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Without citizenship and proper documentation, the Burmese government restricts their ability to travel or work, causing the Rohingya to suffer extreme poverty as well as a lack of access to basic health care and education.

In 2015, the Burmese government revoked voting rights given to the embattled minority group.

The brutal oppression has given rise to rival insurgencies over the years. In 2012, widespread fighting broke out between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists, the ethnic majority in troubled Rakhine state, after a young Buddhist woman was raped. Violence between the two groups has simmered on and off since then.

The situation took a dangerous turn last October when a new Muslim insurgent group with trained Rohingya fighters attacked government posts throughout Rakhine state.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, formerly known as Harakah al-Yaqin, attacked the posts in Rakhine state again on Aug. 25 in its deadliest attack thus far, prompting the Burmese military to launch a counter-insurgency clampdown that triggered weeks of violence as well as widespread allegations of human rights abuses and even "ethnic cleansing."

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, said in a statement posted Thursday on its Twitter account that it wants the international community to help prevent foreign fighters from entering Myanmar's Rakhine state. The statement appeared to be issued in response to reports that al-Qaeda has been urging Muslim around the globe to support ARSA or its cause.

ARSA says it's fighting to protect Rohingya Muslims from persecution in Myanmar. The Burmese government describes ARSA as "extremist terrorists" but has not publicly provided much evidence of their alleged links to jihadist groups outside the country.

After her party won the 2015 national elections, Aung San Suu Kyi became Myanmar's de facto ruler.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former political prisoner during Myanmar's military rule was once hailed as a global icon of democracy. But Suu Kyi is now facing widespread criticism for not denouncing or stopping the powerful Burmese military from committing atrocities against the stateless Rohingya Muslims.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday reiterated support for Suu Kyi but likened the ongoing violence to ethnic cleansing.

"This violence must stop; this persecution must stop. It’s been characterized by many as ethnic cleansing. That must stop," Tillerson said during a press briefing in London.

Amid the uproar of criticism, Suu Kyi canceled her trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week, her office announced Wednesday.

While Suu Kyi's views on the situation in her country remain unclear, a statement posted by her office on Facebook Wednesday said she discussed the crisis with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, noting there has been a "huge iceberg of misinformation."

Rohingya Muslim refugees arrive in Bangladesh at overcrowded camps in poor physical condition and in need of life-saving support. Some traverse difficult terrain to reach the porous borders into Bangladesh, while others brave rough seas in rickety fishing boats to land on the country’s beaches. They often haven’t eaten for days, only surviving on rain and groundwater during their perilous journey, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

Amid an acute shortage of humanitarian supplies for the swelling number of Rohingya Muslim refugees sheltering in Bangladesh, UNICEF announced it is undertaking a "massive" scale-up of its emergency operations there to protect the most vulnerable.

“There are acute shortages of everything, most critically shelter, food and clean water,” Edouard Beigbeder, head of UNICEF in Bangladesh, said in a statement Thursday. “Conditions on the ground place children at high risk of water-borne disease. We have a monumental task ahead of us to protect these extremely vulnerable children.”

Speaking at a press conference Wednesday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reiterated his call on Myanmar to suspend military action in Rakhine state, stop the violence and recognize the right of return of all those who had to flee the country.

Meanwhile, the International Rescue Committee expressed deep concern Thursday by the more than 120,000 internally displaced persons cut off from life-saving services in Myanmar's Rakhine state. The New York-based global humanitarian aid group called on all parties to the conflict, particularly the Burmese government, to "ensure the protection of civilians and allow for the immediate and unfettered delivery of humanitarian assistance."

According to the International Rescue Committee, no U.N. agencies or nongovernmental organizations to date have been able to access northern Rakhine in spite of increasingly urgent need.

“Tenable and dignified solutions for some of the world’s most vulnerable people remain a distant prospect – only further endangering a democratic peace in Myanmar,” Sanna Johnson, the group's regional director for Asia, said in a statement Thursday. “More than ever, meeting humanitarian need for the Rohingya and the rest of Myanmar’s communities is an urgent and critical step to bringing an end to the world’s longest civil war.”

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Friday
Sep152017

London police investigating 'incident' at subway station, multiple riders injured

DigitalVision/Thinkstock(LONDON) -- London Metropolitan Police are investigating a terror incident after an explosion injured commuters during the height of rush hour inside the Parsons Green station at about 8:20 a.m. local time.

A British government official tells ABC News the incident is being treated as a terrorism event, but at this early stage appears to be an isolated incident. An eyewitness also tells ABC News there were multiple injuries, but no fatalities. The London Ambulance service said they transported 18 people to the hospital, but none of the injuries are serious or life-threatening.

Police say the device did not fully explode.

Martin Abams, an eyewitness who was on the train, told ABC News that there was a minor explosion, which caused predominantly minor facial and burn injuries. He said the train had just arrived at the station and the doors had just opened when the explosion happened.

 We're aware of an incident at #ParsonsGreen station. Officers are at the scene. The station is closed. More information as we get it.

"The tube had just pulled into the station, and as the doors were opening there was a loud explosion and ball of flame which moved along the corridor of the train just where I was," Abams told ABC News. "I looked back and saw a bit of confusion with people rushing to get off the train. I saw a blue bag, with some smoke, and flames, which appeared to be coming out of the bag. I got off the train onto the platform. There were a number of people with singed hair and what appeared to be facial burns. I then went back onto the carriage to see if there were any casualties, but there were no casualties at all on the train. Everybody appeared to get off. There was nobody laying on the platform floor. I assessed that there were no serious casualties at that time.

"There was just the heat, the fireball and the noise, but no concussion as such."

British Prime Minister Theresa May plans to hold an emergency cabinet meeting at 1 p.m. local time.

Metropolitan Police said on Twitter the incident was being treated as a terrorist incident.

"The emergency services attended and at this stage we are treating the matter as a terrorist-related incident and the Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism command will take responsibility for that investigation," Deputy Constable of British Transport Police Adrian Hanstock said. "At this stage it's little early to draw any full conclusions as to what the circumstances and cause of that explosion are and we are investigating and exploring that at the moment. We will get further information throughout the day but for now we just remind people to remain alert and report anything suspicious to the emergency services."

 The Met’s Counter Terrorism Command are investigating after the incident at #ParsonsGreen tube station is declared a terrorist incident

 

London Mayor Sadiq Khan condemned those who would perpetrate such an incident in a statement.

"Our city utterly condemns the hideous individuals who attempt to use terror to harm us and destroy our way of life," Khan said. "As London has proven again and again, we will never be intimidated or defeated by terrorism."

New York City Police Commissioner James O'Neill said there were no known threats to the city's subway system, but reminded passengers to remain vigilant and aware of their surroundings.

London Ambulance said they responded to the scene in West London with multiple resources, including ambulance crews, incident response officers and its hazardous response team.

An eyewitness told the BBC that the train was "packed," and several people were apparently injured when they were trampled trying to get off the train.

"I saw crying women, there was lots of shouting and screaming, there was a bit of a crush on the stairs going down to the streets," eyewitness Richard Aylmer-Hall told the BBC.

 

Abams said the situation was managed well by train operators and everyone remained relatively calm.

This is a breaking news story, please check back for updates.

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Thursday
Sep142017

North Korea launches missile over Japanese airspace, U.S. confirms

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) – For the second time in a month, North Korea has launched a missile over Japanese airspace, U.S. Pacific Command confirmed Thursday evening.

The intermediate range ballistic missile originated from the Sunan, North Korea area and flew east over Japan before landing in the Pacific Ocean, according to a statement from Commander Dave Benham of USPACOM.

Benham added that NORAD and USPACOM determined that the missile posed no threat to North America or Guam, respectively.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Thursday night that President Donald Trump was briefed on the missile launch by chief of staff John Kelly.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement, "These continued provocations only deepen North Korea's diplomatic and economic isolation ... United Nations Security Council resolutions, including the most recent unanimous sanctions resolution, represent the floor, not the ceiling, of the actions we should take. We call on all nations to take new measures against the Kim regime."

Japan's public broadcasting network NHK earlier reported that the missile passed over Japanese airspace near Hokkaido, the same prefecture under which a KN-17 intermediate-range missile travelled on August 28, and ultimately landed in the Pacific Ocean.

Citing South Korean military, NHK reported that the missile traveled up 770 km (478 miles) high, and traveled for about 3,700 km (2,300 miles).

NHK ran an urgent on-air alert warning the populations of 12 prefectures in the country's north early Friday morning local time. The network reported that the launch seemed to have occurred at 6:57 a.m. in Japan and entered the country's airspace seven minutes later.

NHK added that there was no attempt to shoot down the missile that exited Japan's airspace after two minutes and landed in the ocean at 7:16 a.m.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the missile was launched from the west coast of North Korea and traveled over Japanese airspace from 7:04 a.m. to 7:06 a.m., and landed about 2,000 km (1,243 mile) east of the Erimo peninsula. No falling object was found and no ships or airplanes were affected, he said.

In a release provided by the U.S. Department of Defense, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said that upon the missile's launch, South Korea fired a missile of its own to the East Sea. They added that the South Korean military is maintaining full readiness and tracking North Korean movements.

Shortly after the launch, South Korean president Moon Jae-in called an urgent national security council meeting, according to that country's Yonhap news agency.

The launch is the 14th missile test conducted by North Korea in 2017. On September 3, North Korea said it tested a hydrogen bomb, leading to sanctions being passed against the country by the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday.

The tweet below from NHK says that the missile passed over Japanese airspace.

Matthew Galat, an American living in Japan, posted a video to Facebook in which warning sirens are heard in the background.


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Thursday
Sep142017

US citizen fighting for ISIS in Syria surrenders to US-backed forces

jasminam/iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) - A U.S. citizen fighting for ISIS surrendered to American-backed forces in Syria this week, according to the Pentagon.

The individual, who surrendered to Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on or around September 12th, has since been turned over to U.S. forces, said Eric Pahon, Department of Defense spokesperson.

"The U.S. citizen is being legally detained by Department of Defense personnel as a known enemy combatant," Pahon said.

A U.S. official told ABC News that the individual is still overseas, as the Department of Justice and the Trump administration determine how to move forward.

The Department of Defense has referred all questions about the incident to the State Department and Department of Justice. But during a State Department briefing on Thursday, spokesperson Heather Nauert said she had no further information on the individual's circumstances, saying anyone who would fight for ISIS is "dumb."

“It serves as a good reminder that in a nation of 330-some million people, some people will be dumb enough to go to Iraq and Syria to try to fight for ISIS," Nauert said, adding, "You can’t be very bright if you’re going over there and doing that.”

"In general, we closely monitor all reports of U.S. citizens who may have joined groups to fight with or fight against ISIS," a State Department official told ABC News. "To be clear, the U.S. government does not support U.S. citizens traveling to Iraq or Syria to join the ongoing conflict. Any private U.S. citizens/civilians who may have traveled to Iraq or Syria to take part in these activities are neither in support of nor part of U.S. efforts in the region."

According to a 2015 report by the House Homeland Security Committee, intelligence officials estimate that more than 250 Americans have either traveled to Syria or Iraq, or attempted to travel to Syria or Iraq, to join ISIS.

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Thursday
Sep142017

Basi the world's oldest giant panda in captivity dies at 37

Jharpy/iStock/Thinkstock(FUZHOU, China) -- The world's oldest captive giant panda Basi has died, her keepers in Fuzhou, southeast China announced Thursday.

"With a heavy heart, we solemnly announce today that giant panda star Basi died at 8:50am at the age of 37," an official from the Straits Giant Panda Research and Exchange Centre in Fuzhou said.

Basi first became sick in July and developed irreversible liver damage, according to the research center.

She lived to the equivalent of more than 100 years old in human years, surpassing all other pandas she lived with in captivity.

A public memorial in her honor was broadcast live from the research center.

Last year, giant pandas were downgraded from an "endangered" to "vulnerable" species after the panda population rose 17 percent since 2014, according to the World Wildlife Foundation.

The expected life span of pandas in captivity is usually up to 30 years.

ABC News reached out to the San Diego Zoo, where Basi spent six months in 1987 and drew millions of visitors.

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Thursday
Sep142017

Trump to abide by Iran deal for now as pressure builds to stay in

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The Trump administration has signed off on a new round of waivers of the sanctions against Iran that will keep the U.S. in compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, a senior administration official confirmed, as the president determines what to do next.

In the meantime, the Treasury Department is slapping 11 Iran-related individuals and companies with sanctions for cyber-attacks and proliferation.

Trump faced a deadline on Thursday when the U.S. must waive sanctions against Iran or let them snap back into place, violating the nuclear agreement and likely destroying it.

The senior administration official described this signing as a "holding action" while the White House completes its review of the nuclear deal and its broader Iran policy.

A vocal campaign, including top former Obama administration officials, has been calling on the president to stay in the deal.

The sanctions waivers are one of America's obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, which offered Iran relief from crippling international sanctions in exchange for inspections of its nuclear facilities and limits on its nuclear capabilities. But the president's signature does not mean the U.S. is sticking in the agreement.

"This particular, narrow sanction waiver that's being renewed on an interim basis in no way countermands the President and the Secretary’s [Tillerson] judgment that the Iranian regime is in default of the JCPOA," the official said.

The new sanctions target 11 individuals and entities: one Iranian company and two Ukraine-based companies accused of assisting the IRGC’s ballistic missile program; and one Iranian firm and seven individuals accused of cyber-attacks on the U.S. financial system including banks and stock exchanges between 2012 and 2013.

Those seven individuals were previously charged by the Justice Department under President Obama.

It's the third time that the Trump administration has taken action to keep the deal alive and slapped on sanctions at the same time, trying to obscure that fact.

What's to come


While Trump is complying with the deal for now, all eyes are on another deadline -- Oct. 14 -- when the administration must certify to Congress that Iran is meeting its obligations under the agreement and that the deal remains in the interest of the U.S.

But that certification to Congress, required every 90 days under U.S. law and not as part of the Iran deal itself, is in jeopardy as Trump searches for a way out of the accord.

After the last certification to Congress in July, Trump told The Wall Street Journal, "If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago." He said he expected Iran to be declared noncompliant the next time, this October.

In a speech last week, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley laid out how and why the administration might decertify the agreement, citing Iran’s other activities like support for terrorism. She said, however, that it was ultimately up to the president.

If the president decides by the Oct. 14 deadline to decertify the Iran deal, it would kick off a 60-day period in which Congress must decide whether to reinstate sanctions on Iran by a simple majority vote. But reinstating sanctions would violate the U.S.'s terms -- and effectively tear up the agreement.

Campaign to keep the Iran deal in place

While the White House finishes its Iran policy review, a vocal campaign against any possibility of decertifying the agreement is underway, led by Obama administration officials. President Obama himself is reportedly aware of the campaign, according to these officials.

More than 80 nuclear-nonproliferation experts signed a letter to the Trump administration Wednesday, urging him to stay in the Iran agreement, which they called "effective and verifiable ... [and] an important success ... the full implementation of which is critical to international peace and security."

Abandoning the deal, the experts warned, "would decrease the time it would take for Iran to obtain enough nuclear material for a warhead ... increase the likelihood of wider conflict in the Middle East and could trigger a destabilizing nuclear competition in region."

Two of the signatories -- Jon Finer, who was a senior adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry, and Colin Kahl, an adviser to Obama -- went further, holding a media-briefing call Wednesday with Wendy Sherman, who was the lead negotiator from the U.S. for the Iran deal when it was put in place under Obama.

Obama officals' argument

Sherman warned against decertification, saying it would rob the U.S. of any leverage against Iran, drive a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies, undermine American credibility in other negotiations such as on North Korea and NAFTA, and empower hardliners in Iran.

While the administration is reportedly trying to work with European allies to rework the deal or extend it, Kahl said those allies are "categorically" opposed to reopening the deal, at least in part because they think it is working.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, has certified eight times that Iran is complying with the agreement, as has the U.S. up to this point, although the Trump administration says Iran is violating the "spirit" of the deal.

Kahl conceded that Iran has "slipped across the line" by exceeding its limit on heavy water twice. But he said those violations don't constitute serious-enough breaches to jeopardize the deal and that Iran returned to compliance after being caught.

Critics of the Iran agreement such as Haley, , however, cite those violations as examples of Iran's noncompliance.

The three former Obama administration officials also said that the deal is almost impossible to renegotiate, unless the U.S. could give Iran some new concessions or incentives -- an idea Trump seems to oppose.

"You can't achieve 125 percent of this deal with 80 percent, or 90 percent even, of the leverage we had before, so you would have to bring other things to the table, not just pressure," Kahl said. "You can’t demand more concessions for the same [incentives]."

New sanctions won’t work either, the three said. First, they would be difficult to implement broadly, as the previous sanctions regime that brought Iran to negotiations were built on years of diplomacy with a limited objective, not an indefinite time frame.

Only under those circumstances could the U.S. get countries like China and Russia to abide by them and, now, any new sanctions would negatively affect their economies and they’d be unlikely to give up their new business.

"Sanctions never stopped Iran’s nuclear program," argued Sherman, adding that the number of Iranian centrifuges grew to 19,000 under the old sanctions regime despite its crippling effect on the Iranian economy.

The current crisis with North Korea has been discussed often in this context, that tearing up the Iran deal would harm U.S. credibility with North Korea as it tries to negotiate for Pyongyang to denuclearize.

"A lot of us find it ironic that you have an administration that seems hellbent on creating another nuclear crisis for no reason," said Kahl.

"If Trump kills Iran Deal with Iran complying he will create an international crisis while trying to mobilize same international partners against North Korea. Insane," tweeted Ben Rhodes, Obama’s foreign policy adviser.

The greatest danger, Sherman along with the authors of that letter warned, is that getting rid of the deal would eliminate any insight into Iran's nuclear activity because it allows for inspections and puts some constraints on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

"If the deal fell apart," Sherman said. "Iran would be back on the march to getting the potential for getting a nuclear weapon and the IAEA would lose all visibility into the program."

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Thursday
Sep142017

Russia starts big war games along its borders, alarming its neighbors

SergeyVButorin/iStock/Thinkstock(MOSCOW) -- Russia has begun some of its largest war games along its western borders since the end of the Cold War, stoking fears among its neighbors.

The exercises that Russia is conducting with its Eastern European ally, Belarus, have attracted intense attention amid nervousness over Moscow’s recent military adventures and its tensions with the West.

In the drills, which cover a vast area from Belarus and Russia’s Western borders up into the Arctic, the two countries' troops will battle a fake state invented for the purpose. As of Thursday morning, Russian tank divisions said they were moving to Belarus for the exercises.

Moscow has insisted that the long-planned drills, which it is calling Zapad 2017, are defensive and relatively small, involving only around 12,000 troops. That is just below the level at which Russia and Belarus would be required under an international convention to invite Western observers.

But the United States and NATO say the real number of troops involved is likely far higher and may be as many as 100,000.

That many troops would make these war games among the biggest since the Soviet period, and the discrepancy in reports on the size has set off concerns among some about the drills' real purpose and, in more alarmist quarters, even fears of invasion.

The exercises, a variant of Soviet drills during the 1970s, were revived on a large scale by President Vladimir Putin in 2009. Since then, they take place every four years and have been viewed as relatively routine.

But Russia’s covert annexation of Crimea in 2014, which was masked by military exercises, has changed perspectives.

“People are worried this is a Trojan horse,” U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of Army forces in Europe, told Reuters in July about fears around the Russian war games. “They say, ‘We’re just doing an exercise,’ and then all of a sudden, they’ve moved all these people and capabilities somewhere.”

Hodges and other U.S. and European officials have stressed that the current exercises are probably just drills.

“It is a provocative place, and a provocative size, but I think we all understand that militaries are going to conduct military exercises,” Kurt Volker, the U.S. envoy on the Ukraine conflict told BBC Radio on Thursday.

War games are frequently conducted around the world, including by the U.S., which this summer helped lead a NATO exercise involving 25,000 troops in Eastern Europe that practiced defense against a Russian attack. Moscow criticized those exercises as a threat.

Russia has rejected NATO’s claims that tens of thousands of troops will take part in its current war games, insisting that it will be abide by the so-called Vienna Document requiring that any exercise involving more than 13,000 troops be open to observers.

NATO officials have said Russia has a long history of low-balling troop numbers. Estonia’s defense minister, Margus Tsahkna, has pointed to a document showing that Russia’s military has requisitioned over 4,000 rail cars for the war games, suggesting that the number of troops who will be traveling will be far more than the 12,700 Moscow says are taking part.

The worry over the exercises underlines the suspicions over Russian military intentions since its invasion of Ukraine three years ago.

“We can't be totally calm. There is a large foreign army massed next to Lithuanian territory," Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis told Reuters recently.

Adding to the discomfort is one of the games’ scenarios — a Russian response to aggression from a fictional Western-backed country. In August, Belarus’ defense ministry revealed that its and Russia's troops would be repelling the forces of a fake state, Veishnoriya, supported by unspecified foreign backers. That is widely understood to be a stand-in for NATO and the U.S.

For some, that sounds uncomfortably like rehearsing a pretext for NATO’s nightmare scenario, a Russian tank rush into the Baltic States. The participation of an armored force, the 1st Armored Guards Army, that Western planners view as a massive offensive fist, has prompted further skepticism that the exercises will only run defensive practices.

Perhaps the most plausible scenario worrying Western military planners is that the thousands of Russian troops moving into Belarus for the exercises will never go home.

Belarus, a former Soviet satellite often called Europe’s last dictatorship, has long followed a delicate balancing act by trying to preserve a measure of independence while remaining closely integrated with its giant neighbor. But a quarrel over gas supplies and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has recently strained that balance. With Russian troops already based in Belarus, some analysts and opposition figures in the country have suggested the Kremlin might seize the opportunity to expand its armed presence there.

The governments of Belarus and Russia have dismissed that idea. And jokes have sprung up around the notion of a looming "invasion" by the fictional nation of Veishnoriya. A satirical Twitter account purporting to represent Veishnoriya’s foreign ministry has posted menacing messages warning that it is building up its troops along the Belarus border.

Another group on Russia’s equivalent of Facebook has started posting tourism advertisements for the invented nation.

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Thursday
Sep142017

Secretary Tillerson arrives in London ahead of Libya, North Korea talks

Erik de Castro/AFP/Getty Images(LONDON) -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in London on Thursday ahead of a special summit hosted by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to discuss North Korea and Libya.

Tillerson was greeted by U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom Woody Johnson, who is also the owner of the NFL's New York Jets.


Fresh off the latest United Nation sanctions, Tillerson will meet with Johnson and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to talk North Korea.

State Department Director of Policy Planning Brian Hook said Tillerson "never misses an opportunity in bilateral, multilateral settings to raise North Korea and the need to increase pressure," including calling on all nations to end guest worker visas for North Korean citizens.

However, the focus of the summit will be on achieving peace in Libya, where the U.S. is aiming for some movement. Attendees include U.N. Special Representative for Libya Ghassan Salamé of Lebanon -- appointed in June -- and delegations from France, the United Arab Emirates, Italy and Egypt.

"You are seeing a lot of unity in terms of where we need to go and how we can get there," Hook said.

With a new U.S. administration and a new U.N. special representative, Hook said, "We are trying to give structure and energy and encouragement to all of the factions in Libya and are hopeful that new players will help achieve that,” although it will ultimately be a “Libyan-led process.”

Libya has been fractured since a 2011 uprising toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Gadhafi was later seized and executed by rebels in October 2011.

The country is currently split into east and west with separate militias and political factions.

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