TEL AVIV, Israel, May 7, (Agencies): Former Israeli combat soldiers who were thrust into the center of a recent diplomatic row between Israel and Germany, say the sudden international spotlight has given them a bigger stage to speak out against Israel’s 50-year rule over millions of Palestinians.
Breaking the Silence is a group of ex-soldiers-turned-whistleblowers who view Israel’s open-ended occupation of lands sought for a Palestinian state as an existential threat to their country. Since 2004, the group has collected testimony from more than 1,100 fellow soldiers who describe the dark side of that rule, including seemingly routine mistreatment of Palestinian civilians stripped of basic rights.
The veterans hope such accounts by former fighters will carry weight and spark public debate about the moral price of the occupation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top officials in his nationalist government have a starkly different view. They have branded Breaking the Silence as foreign-funded subversives who are trying to defame Israel and its military.
Two weeks ago, he said he would not receive German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel if the visitor stuck to plans to meet with Breaking the Silence. Gabriel chose the soldiers instead. Netanyahu, who also serves as foreign minister, said that shunning visitors who meet with Breaking the Silence is now official policy. The fallout continues this week. The dispute has cast a shadow over what would otherwise have been a routine Israel visit by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Yehuda Shaul, a co-founder of Breaking the Silence, said the recent attention has been a mixed blessing.
The focus on the diplomatic dust-up “diverts a lot of attention from the real issue, what goes on in the occupied territories,” he said in an interview at the group’s office, tucked away in an old walk-up in a grubby industrial area of Tel Aviv. Israelis have been bitterly divided over what to do with the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands they captured in June 1967. Israel annexed east Jerusalem immediately after the war and retains overall control over the West Bank, with enclaves of Palestinian self-rule. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and has enforced a border blockade of the territory since it was seized by the Islamic militant Hamas two years later.
Many Israelis support the idea of Palestinian statehood in principle, but believe it’s not safe to cede war-won territories now. Fears were stoked by three Israel-Hamas wars since 2008 and an escalation of regional conflicts. Meanwhile, partition is increasingly difficult, with 600,000 Israelis already living on occupied lands and settlements expanding steadily. Netanyahu has said he is willing to resume partition talks with the Palestinians, but gaps remain wide.
A majority of his Cabinet ministers oppose a two-state solution and some even call for annexing parts of the West Bank, raising fears among some Israelis that their rule over disenfranchised Palestinians will become permanent. Shaul said he and his comrades are the true patriots, not those clinging to occupied territories. The beginnings of Breaking the Silence go back to Hebron, the West Bank’s largest Palestinian city, where hundreds of troops guard roughly the same number of Jewish settlers in an Israeli-controlled center partly off limits to Palestinians.
More than 100 soldiers have gone on the record, while the rest remain anonymous, for fear of repercussions, but are known to the group’s researchers who check their stories, Shaul said. The research department was able to flag four false testimonies by rightwing activists trying to undermine the group’s credibility, he said. All material is submitted to the military censor before publication to avoid inadvertent harm to Israel’s security, he added. Critics allege that the group is hiding behind anonymous testimony to smear Israel soldiers and help Israel’s enemies press future war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court.
They say the group, which does not call for a boycott of Israel, nonetheless feeds into what many Israelis believe is a global trend of unfairly singling out and delegitimizing Israel. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely recently said her office is urging European countries to stop funding what she called “anti-Israel organizations,” including Breaking the Silence.
“We will ask our friends in the world to respect this red line and to stop contributing to this organization,” she said. Some of the group’s defenders in Israel said they believe it and other anti- occupation organizations are being targeted in an escalating government assault on Israel’s civil society.
DUBAI, April 18, (Agencies): A Saudi helicopter came down during military operations in Yemen on Tuesday, killing 12 officers aboard, Saudi media reported, and a Yemeni defence ministry news website said the cause was friendly fire.
The death toll was one of the largest in a single incident involving Saudi forces since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015 to try to roll back the dominant Houthi group and restore President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power. The official Saudi news agency SPA quoted a statement from the Saudi-led coalition as saying the Black Hawk came down in Marib province, east of the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa.
“As a result, four officers and eight non-commissioned officers from the Saudi armed forces were martyred,” it said, adding the possible cause of the crash was under investigation. But the Yemeni defence ministry’s 26 September news website quoted an officer in Yemen’s military high command as saying the helicopter was shot down 5 kms (3 miles) from its landing spot because of “a technical fault that caused a misreading of the air defence system, which resulted in the destruction of the plane before it landed”.
It provided no details on who fired at the helicopter. The Houthi-run Saba news agency said the helicopter crashed in an area known as al-Tadaween, northeast of the Marib provincial capital, and that 13 officers and soldiers had died. In September 2015, a ballistic missile fired by the Houthis at a coalition military base in Marib killed more than 60 soldiers from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
The Saudi-led coalition has recently made gains against the Houthis in western Yemen but fighting on other fronts, including Marib, has been static, with little ground changing hands. The Houthis seized much of northern Yemen including Sanaa in a series of lightning military operations that began in 2014, eventually forcing Hadi to flee.
The coalition accuses Iran of trying to use the Houthis to expand its influence in Yemen, one of the poorest Arab countries. Iran denies this. The Houthis regard their move on Sanaa as a revolution against corruption. Washington wants a return “as quickly as possible” to UN-backed Yemen peace talks, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said as he began a Middle East tour Tuesday in Saudi Arabia. The United States provides limited military support to a Saudi-led coalition which for two years has been fighting in support of Yemen’s government against rebels supported by Iran.
On Wednesday, Mattis will meet the kingdom’s top leaders in Riyadh. Washington provides intelligence as well as aerial refuelling to coalition warplanes conducting air strikes in Yemen with American-supplied weapons.
Rights groups have repeatedly criticised the coalition bombing campaign in Yemen for causing civilian casualties. Asked by reporters about the chance of stepping up American support, Mattis did not reply and instead put the accent on a return to peace talks. “Our aim is that this crisis can be handed to a team of negotiators under the aegis of the United Nations that can try to find a political solution as quickly as possible,” he said as he flew to Riyadh. Seven ceasefires alongside peace efforts by the United Nations have so far failed to stop the fighting. It is necessary to end the “firing of missiles provided by Iran against Saudi Arabia” as well as “the death of innocent people in Yemen”, Mattis said. Yemen’s Houthi rebels allied with troops loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh have fired ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia. Rebels have also shot short-range rockets over the kingdom’s southern border, killing least 130 soldiers and civilians. Washington alleges that Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, has shipped missiles to Yemen but Tehran denies the charge.
A United Nations Panel of Experts in January reported that it “has not seen sufficient evidence to confirm any direct large-scale supply of arms” from Iran. Some in US President Donald Trump’s administration would like to increase American military support for the Saudi-led coalition to better counter Iranian ambitions in the region. Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia regularly accuses the Shiite-majority Islamic republic of interference in the Middle East, and Mattis has called Iran the world’s “biggest state sponsor of terrorism”. The UN estimates that more than 7,700 people have been killed over the past two years and more than 40,000 wounded in impoverished Yemen, continwhich faces a serious risk of famine. Riyadh has expressed optimism that Trump’s team will be more engaged in the region, particularly in containing Iran, compared with former president Barack Obama. In December, the Obama administration blocked a sale of precision guided weapons to Saudi Arabia because of concerns over civilian casualties in Yemen.
PARIS, April 18, (Agencies): French security services on Tuesday swooped on two men accused of plotting an attack just five days before the first round of the presidential election. The men were arrested in the southern city of Marseille by agents from France’s domestic intelligence agency. Interior Minister Matthias Fekl said the attack was to be carried out in the “next few days” by the two men, aged 23 and 29, who are known to be “radicalised”. He gave no further details on the nature of the plot. More than 230 people have been killed in terror attacks in France since January 2015. Candidates have been heavily guarded during the election campaign, but so far there have been few security scares. “Everything will be done to ensure security” for the election, Fekl said. The race was narrowing ahead of Sunday’s vote, with the pack closing behind frontrunners Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, while a quarter of voters remained undecided. For weeks, centrist former banker Macron and National Front (FN) leader Le Pen have been out in front but opinion polls now show there is a very real chance that any of the four leading candidates could reach the second-round runoff on May 7. Scandal-plagued conservative Francois Fillon and far-left firebrand Jean- Luc Melenchon have closed the gap substantially in the last two weeks.
“We have never seen a four-way contest like this in the first round of a presidential election,” Frederic Dabi of the Ifop polling institute told AFP. “There has been a real tightening of the race with four candidates between 19 percent and 23 percent,” he added. Macron and Le Pen are tied on 22-23 percent, with Fillon improving to around 21 percent and Melenchon surging as high as 20 percent in some polls. With Le Pen expected to reach the second round, polls continue to indicate that whoever faces her will win, although after Brexit and Donald Trump’s US election win, no one is taking anything for granted. Meanwhile, Le Pen sought on Tuesday to turn the debate in the final week of France’s presidential election to immigration as she looked to reverse a dip in polls. Speaking to a rally in Paris on Monday she vowed to suspend all immigration with an immediate moratorium, shield voters from globalisation and strengthen security, subjects that have won her core backing and that she hopes can give her boost with about 30 percent of voters still undecided.
“For several weeks, we will need to assess the situation. The reality is that immigration is massive in our country and that migration flood that we are experiencing is not a fantasy,” Le Pen told RTL radio on Tuesday — fleshing out details of the moratorium announcement.
The measure has not been part of her programme, although she has put on record that she wants to limit annual immigration to just 10,000 people a year. “I will carry out this moratorium for the exact purpose of implementing this 10,000 figure,” she said. Until now, Le Pen has struggled to entice her opponents in the presidential race to debate her party’s trademark tough security and immigration stance. She, by contrast, has been put on the defensive over her position on leaving the euro zone, a proposal that lacks wide support. High noon on Sunday will bring the first hard sign of just how close France’s presidential race really is with the release of early turnout figures for the first round eight hours before expected results.
With indecision also a major factor, polls show the race is so tight between the top four candidates that each has a chance of making the two-person run-off vote — therefore presenting no fewer than six second round scenarios. Reuters research into past elections shows that the lower the firstround turnout, the greater the uncertainty about which two candidates will contest that run-off on May 7. Investors are poring over the arithmetic of past votes for clues about the likelihood of an unexpected result this time. Judging from history, turnout will be the key variable. In past elections, the higher the abstention rate in the first round of voting, the lower the hurdle candidates had to clear in order to qualify.
French bond yields have risen in recent months and equity investors have massively hedged positions in the options market to reduce exposure to the risk of a market-unsettling surprise vote. The Interior Ministry was to publish a first turnout estimate at midday (1000 GMT) on Sunday followed by an update at 5:00 PM, three hours before the last polling stations close at 8:00 PM. “This (closeness) creates a risk of surprise because it substantially lowers the vote required to make it to the second round,” Swiss fund managers Unigestion, with 23 billion euros ($24.5 billion) under management, said in a research note. In French presidential elections since 1965, the lowest scoring of the two candidates to qualify for the runoffs has had a vote of 25 percent on average. However, Le Pen’s father Jean- Marie, when he was head of the party she took over in 2011, qualified in 2002 with only 16.9 percent of the vote – a record low qualification level on a record abstention rate of 28 percent, proving polls at the time embarrassingly wrong.
Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj on Tuesday assured lawmakers that New Delhi would go "out of its way" to save sentenced spy Kulbhushan Jadhav from death row in Pakistan, according to Indian media reports.
Calling Jadhav "a son of India", Swaraj issued a warning to Pakistan saying, "I would caution the Pakistani government to consider the consequences for our bilateral relationship if they proceed on this matter."
"Our position is very clear, there is no evidence of wrongdoing by Kulbhushan Jadhav," Swaraj told the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament.
"This is an act of premeditated murder," she said, referring to the death sentence handed to the Indian spy by a Field General Court Martial (FGCM) on Monday.
When asked by a lawmaker if the government would fight Jadhav's case in the Pakistani apex court, Swaraj said: "We will do more. We will take it up with the president [Mamnoon Hussain]," The Hindu reported.
The Indian minister of external affairs, Swaraj, alleged that Jadhav was awarded the death sentence on "concocted charges".
"Jadhav was doing a business in Iran and he was abducted and taken to Pakistan. We sought consular access, but were denied," she claimed. "He is innocent. They [Pakistan] seek through him to cast aspersions in India to hide their own role in terror."
The lower house of the Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha, was united in condemning Jadhav's sentence.
Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh, addressing the Lok Sabha, said: "I condemn it [Jadhav's death sentence] as an illegal act against the norms of the rule of law and international convention."
"Whatever has to be done to do justice with Kulbhushan will be done by the government," he added.
Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav was arrested on March 3, 2016, through a counter-intelligence operation in Balochistan's Mashkel area for his involvement in espionage and sabotage activities against Pakistan, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said in a statement on Monday.
Although the accused had been provided with a defending officer as per legal provisions, according to ISPR, Pakistan had turned down India's request seeking consular access to Jadhav last year due to his involvement in "subversive activities" in the country.
Jadhav was tried by the FGCM under Section 59 of the PAA and Section 3 of the official Secret Act of 1923, the statement said.
Jadhav confessed before a magistrate and court that he was tasked by Indian spy agency Research and Analysis wing to plan, coordinate and organise espionage and sabotage activities seeking to destabilise and wage war against Pakistan through impeding the efforts of law enforcement agencies for the restoration of peace in Balochistan and Karachi, the ISPR said.
Following the announcement, India summoned Pakistan's High Commissioner to New Delhi Abdul Basit on Monday and handed over a demarche saying, "If this sentence against an Indian citizen, awarded without observing basic norms of law and justice, is carried out, the government and people of India will regard it as a case of premeditated murder."
Dawn reported that Jadhav now has 40 days to file an appeal against the FGCM in the army’s court of appeal, according to retired Col Inamur Rahim, a military law expert.
In case the appeal court upholds the FGCM verdict, Jadhav would have the opportunity to seek mercy from the army chief and the president of Pakistan.
Simultaneously, Col Inam said, the convict could approach a high court if he felt that due process was not observed during his trial and his fundamental rights as an accused were not fulfilled.
Experts view the military's announcement about Jadhav's trial and prosecution as an unprecedented move, viewing it as a strong message to India as well as other foreign intelligence agencies.
BERLIN, April 3, (Agencies): Chancellor Angela Merkel said refugees in Germany must respect tolerance, openness and freedom of religion, while senior members of her party called for a ban on foreign funding of mosques. Merkel, who will seek a fourth term as chancellor in what is expected to be a tight election in September, has come under fire for allowing more than one million refugees to enter Germany over the past two years. Interviewed by a Syrian journalist who came to Germany in 2015 and asked about what Germany was expecting from refugees, Merkel said in her weekly podcast: “We expect the people who come to us to stick to our laws.”
Merkel said it was paramount that new arrivals respected and understood the liberal values of modern Germany such as tolerance, openness, freedom of religion and freedom of opinion. The centre-right leader urged Germans to show openness in return. “We know very few things about Syria, we know very few things about Iraq or African countries. And we must see this as an opportunity to learn more and experience more,” she said. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party has lost support since her decision in 2015 to leave Germany’s borders open for hundreds of thousands refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria and Iraq.
Immigration and security are set to be major issues in the election, in which the far-right, antiimmigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is expected to enter parliament. In an apparent attempt to address unease among traditional CDU voters over Merkel’s migration policy, CDU deputy party leader Julia Kloeckner called for stricter rules for Islamic preachers and a ban on foreign funding of mosques, echoing comments by other senior CDU members in recent days. Most of the four million Muslims living in Germany have a Turkish background and some mosques in Germany are financed by the Turkish government.
“An ‘Islam law’ can place the rights and duties of Muslims living in Germany on a new legal basis,” Kloeckner told Bild am Sonntag. Kloeckner also called for a public register that would list all mosques in Germany and provide background information on sponsors and financiers. Such rules should also include a right to a Muslim religious counsellor in prisons, hospitals and nursing homes, she added. The CDU’s coalition partner and rival party the SPD, whose new leader Martin Schulz will stand against Merkel in September’s election, flatly rejected the idea. “In my opinion, the proposals are hardly compatible with the German constitution,” SPD deputy leader Olaf Scholz told the Funke media group, adding that a law could not only be made for a single religious community. The chairman of the Islamic Council in Germany, Burhan Kesici, said the proposals were populist and put Muslims under blanket suspicion.
Meanwhile, the German government says there’s no need for new legislation to regulate Islamic organizations in the country. Members of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union party have called for a ban on foreign funding of Islamic organizations, and for Muslims to get statutory rights to pastoral care from an imam in prisons and hospitals. Government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Monday that such a law was “a non-issue” at the moment and noted that religious freedom is guaranteed by the German constitution. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of Muslim migrants in Germany in recent years has rekindled public debates about the country’s relationship with Islam. A recent report by public broadcaster ARD found that the Islam preached in some mosques is more conservative than in many Muslim countries. A German court handed lengthy prison sentences Monday to four Islamic extremists over plots to bomb a train station and kill a far-right politician.
The Duesseldorf regional court found 29-yearold Marco G., whose surname wasn’t published in line with privacy laws, guilty of attempted murder for placing an explosive device at the main train station in the western city of Bonn in December 2012. Although the home-made bomb was discovered and defused before it detonated, the court said the German convert to Islam deserved a life sentence due to the seriousness of the crime, the dpa news agency reported. It ruled out his release after 15 years, the usual life term in Germany. He and three others were also found guilty of forming a terrorist organization and planning to kill a member of the far-right Pro NRW party who had taken part in protests against mosques during which caricatures of the Muslim prophet Muhammad were shown. Judges sentenced Albanian citizen Enea B., 46, German-Turkish dual national Koray D., 28, and German citizen Tayfun S., 27, to between 9-ó years and 12 years in prison. Prosecutors said the men’s plan was partly fueled by an audio message disseminated by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. They were arrested in March 2013, the night before the planned killing. Their lawyers had asked the court to acquit the men, according to dpa.
ST. PETERSBURG, April 3, (RTRS): Ten people were killed and more than 20 were injured when an explosion tore through a train carriage in a St. Petersburg metro tunnel on Monday in what authorities called a probable terrorist attack Russian news media reported that police were searching for a man recorded on surveillance cameras who was thought to have been involved in the attack, which coincided with a visit to the city by President Vladimir Putin. A grainy photograph published by the Fontanka news outlet showed a middle aged man with beard and black hat.
Interfax news agency cited unnamed sources as saying the bomb, packed with shrapnel, may have been hidden in a train carriage inside a briefcase. Russia’s National Anti-Terrorist Committee said an explosive device had been found at a different metro station, hidden under a fire extinguisher, but had been made safe. The Investigative Committee, a state body which investigates major crimes, opened a criminal case on charges of terrorism.
Russia has been the target in the past of numerous bomb attacks, frequently targeting public transport. Most were blamed on Islamist rebels from Russia’s North Caucasus region. The rebellion there has been largely crushed, but security experts say Russia’s military intervention in Syria has made Russia a potential target for Islamic State attacks. Soon after the blast happened at 2:40 pm, ambulances and fire engines descended on the concrete-and-glass Sennaya Ploshchad metro station as a helicopter hovered overhead. “I appeal to you citizens of St Petersburg and guests of our city to be alert, attentive and cautious and to behave in a responsible matter in light of events,” St Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko said in an address.
The blast raised security fears beyond Russian frontiers. France, which has itself suffered a series of attacks, announced additional security measures in Paris. Video from the scene of Monday’s blast showed injured people lying bleeding on a platform, some being treated by emergency services and fellow passengers. Others ran away from the platform amid clouds of smoke, some screaming or holding their hands to their faces. “I saw a lot of smoke, a crowd making its way to the escalators, people with blood and other people’s insides on their clothes, bloody faces,,” St Petersburg resident Leonid Chaika, who said he was at the station where the blast happened, told Reuters by phone. “Many were crying.”
A huge hole was blown open in the side of a carriage with metal wreckage strewn across the platform. Passengers were seen hammering at the windows of one closed carriage. Russian TV said many had suffered lacerations from glass shards and metal, the force of the explosion maximised by the confines of the carriage and the tunnel. Officials said earlier on Monday that the death toll from the explosion was 9, but the health minister later revised that upwards to 10 dead. Authorities closed all St Petersburg metro stations.
The Moscow metro said it was taking unspecified additional security measures in case of an attack there. Russia has been on particular alert against Chechen rebels returning from Syria, where they have fought alongside Islamic State, and wary of any attempts to resume attacks that dogged the country several years ago. At least 38 people were killed in 2010 when two female suicide bombers detonated bombs on packed Moscow metro trains. Over 330 people, half of them children, were killed in 2004 when police stormed a school in southern Russia after a hostage taking by Islamist militants. In 2002, 120 hostages were killed when police stormed a Moscow theatre to end another hostage-taking. Putin, as prime minister, launched a 1999 campaign to crush a separatist government in the Muslim southern region of Chechnya, and as president continued a hard line in suppressing rebellion.
A 41-year-old citizen of India was sentenced Tuesday to 15 years in a US prison after he pleaded guilty to conspiring while living in northern Nevada to plot terror strikes in his home country on the border with Pakistan.
US District Judge Larry Hicks in Reno also ordered Balwinder Singh to remain under lifetime federal supervision upon his release from prison after prosecutors argued that Singh has had ties to known terrorist groups in India for more than two decades.
“This is such an incredibly serious offence,” Hicks said.
Assistant US Attorney Brian Sullivan said he expects Singh to be released in about 10 years, given that he's already served about three years and likely to earn credit for good time. Following his prison term, a federal immigration judge will determine whether Singh will be deported.
“It will be up to an (immigration) judge to decide whether to send someone back to a country where he has been tortured or whether we as a country still stand in opposition to those sort of things,” Kennedy said after the sentencing.
FBI Special Agent Aaron Rouse of Las Vegas said the plot was foiled after a co-conspirator was arrested trying to board a flight in San Francisco bound for Bangkok, Thailand, with two sets of night vision goggles purchased by Singh at a Cabela's sporting goods store in Reno.
Sullivan said it's possible Singh still will be extradited to India where he faces criminal charges in connection with a terror attack on a passenger bus that killed three people in India in April 2006.
“This isn't somebody who was just recruited like some of the young people who think it's really cool to go get involved with the Jihad,” Sullivan said.
“Mr. Singh has been involved with terrorism or terrorist organisations for over 20 years.”
“We are hoping he has learned a lesson. But we think he needs to be watched not just for three or four years, but for his entire lifetime,” he said.
Singh, who has been jailed since his arrested in December 2013, agreed to the terms of the plea agreement in exchange for dropping a series of other charges, including conspiracy to murder, kidnap or maim persons in a foreign country.
“My only request is I should not be deported. I should be released here,” Singh told the judge through a Punjabi interpreter.
Prosecutors in the Justice Department's counterterrorism section say Singh worked with two terrorist organisations Babbar Khalsa International and Khalistan Zindabad Force to try to establish an independent Sikh state in the Punjab region.
Daniel Bogden, US attorney for Nevada, said Singh sought asylum in San Francisco using a false identity to elude Indian authorities and eventually obtained a permanent residence card in the US.
“These groups engage in violent crimes in India to intimidate and compel the Indian government to create the state of Khalistan,” Bogden told reporters.
“These groups also target for assassination persons who are considered traitors of the Sikh religion and government officials who it considers responsible for atrocities against the Sikhs.“