Investigators to identify MH17 suspects: Dutch broadcasters

FILE PHOTO: A Malaysian air crash investigator inspects the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo) in Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 22, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev/File Photo

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Investigators will next week announce criminal proceedings against suspects in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 five years ago, allegedly by pro-Russian separatists, two leading Dutch broadcasters reported on Friday.

MH17 was shot out of the sky over territory held by separatists in eastern Ukraine as it flew from Amsterdam to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board.

About two-thirds of the passengers were Dutch.

Dutch prosecutors said on Friday a multi-national investigation team would present its latest findings to media and families on June 19. A spokesman for the national Dutch prosecution service declined to specify what would be announced.

Citing anonymous sources, broadcaster RTL reported that the public prosecution service had decided to launch a case against several MH17 suspects.

National public broadcaster NOS also reported that criminal proceedings will be announced against individual suspects.

No suspects were named in the reports.

The Joint Investigation Team, which seeks to try the suspects under Dutch law, has said the missile system came from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, based in the western Russian city of Kursk.

Investigators had said their next step would be to identify individual culprits and to attempt to put them on trial.

Dutch officials have said Russia has refused to cooperate.

Russia is not expected to surrender any potential suspects who may be on its territory and authorities have said individuals could be tried in absentia.

The Joint Investigation Team was formed in 2014 by Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine to investigate collaboratively.

The Netherlands and Australia, which lost 38 people, hold Russia legally responsible. Moscow denies all involvement and maintains that it does not support, financially or with equipment, pro-Russian rebels fighting Ukrainian government troops.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

North Korean leader’s slain half-brother was a CIA informant: Wall Street Journal

FILE PHOTO - Kim Jong Nam arrives at Beijing airport in Beijing, China, in this photo taken by Kyodo February 11, 2007. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un who was killed in Malaysia in 2017, had been an informant for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.

The Journal cited an unnamed “person knowledgeable about the matter” for the report, and said many details of Kim Jong Nam’s relationship with the CIA remained unclear.

Reuters could not independently confirm the story. The CIA declined to comment.

The Journal quoted the person as saying “There was a nexus” between the CIA and Kim Jong Nam.

“Several former U.S. officials said the half brother, who had lived outside of North Korea for many years and had no known power base in Pyongyang, was unlikely to be able to provide details of the secretive country’s inner workings,” the Journal said.

The former officials also said Kim Jong Nam had been almost certainly in contact with security services of other countries, particularly China’s, the Journal said.

Kim Jong Nam’s role as a CIA informant is mentioned in a new book about Kim Jong Un, “The Great Successor,” by Washington Post reporter Anna Fifield that is due to be published on Tuesday. Fifield says Kim Jong Nam usually met his handlers in Singapore and Malaysia, citing a source with knowledge of the intelligence.

The book says that security camera footage from Kim Jong Nam’s last trip to Malaysia showed him in a hotel elevator with an Asian-looking man who was reported to be a U.S. intelligence agent. It said his backpack contained $120,000 in cash, which could have been payment for intelligence-related activities, or earnings from his casino businesses.

South Korean and U.S. officials have said the North Korean authorities had ordered the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, who had been critical of his family’s dynastic rule. Pyongyang has denied the allegation.

Two women were charged with poisoning Kim Jong Nam by smearing his face with liquid VX, a banned chemical weapon, at Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017. Malaysia released Doan Thi Huong, who is Vietnamese, in May, and Indonesian Siti Aisyah in March.

According to the Journal, the person said Kim Jong Nam had traveled to Malaysia in February 2017 to meet his CIA contact, although that may not have been the sole purpose of the trip.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un have met twice, in Hanoi in February and Singapore last June, seeming to build personal goodwill but failing to agree on a deal to lift U.S. sanctions in exchange for North Korea abandoning its nuclear and missile programs.

(This story has been refiled to correct “Ki’s” to “his” in paragraph 8)

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball and David Brunnstrom; Writing by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Malaysia frees Vietnamese woman accused of killing North Korean leader’s half-brother

FILE PHOTO: Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, who was a suspect in the murder case of North Korean leader's half brother Kim Jong Nam, leaves the Shah Alam High Court on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin

By Rozanna Latiff

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – A Vietnamese woman who spent more than two years in a Malaysian prison on suspicion of killing the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was freed on Friday, her lawyer said.

Doan Thi Huong, 30, was charged along with an Indonesian woman with poisoning Kim Jong Nam by smearing his face with liquid VX, a banned chemical weapon, at Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017.

Malaysian prosecutors dropped a murder charge against Huong last month after she pleaded guilty to an alternate charge of causing harm. Huong will return to Vietnam later on Friday, her lawyer, Hisyam Teh, told Reuters.

In a handwritten letter, Huong thanked the governments of Malaysia and Vietnam, as well as those involved in her trial and imprisonment, for “all the support”.

“I’m very happy and thank you all a lot. I love you all,” Huong said in the letter shown by her lawyers at an airport press conference before her flight.

Huong’s whereabouts were not known, but Teh said immigration officials would escort her to the plane.

She will be accompanied by her lawyers and embassy officials on the flight to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, Teh said.

“The case has come to a complete end, as far as Doan is concerned,” he said, using Huong’s surname.

Huong’s co-accused, Siti Aisyah, was freed in March after prosecutors also dropped a murder charge against her.

South Korean and U.S. officials have said the North Korean regime had ordered the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, who had been critical of his family’s dynastic rule. Pyongyang has denied the allegation.

Defense lawyers have maintained the women were pawns in an assassination orchestrated by North Korean agents. The women said they thought they were part of a reality prank show and did not know they were poisoning Kim.

Four North Korean men were also charged but they left Malaysia hours after the murder and remain at large.

Malaysia was criticized for charging the two women with murder – which carries a mandatory death penalty in the Southeast Asian nation – when the key perpetrators were still being sought.

Huong’s father, Doan Van Thanh, said he and her brother would be in Hanoi to welcome her home.

“I am so happy now, my whole village is happy now,” Thanh told Reuters by telephone.

“We will hold a party on Sunday and anyone can come and join the party. We will slaughter some pigs for the party. My daughter particularly likes fried fish, so we will prepare that too,” he said.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Additional reporting by Khanh Vu in HANOI; Writing by Joe Brock and Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Paul Tait and Darren Schuettler)

Malaysia frees Indonesian woman accused of Kim Jong Nam’s poisoning

Siti Aisyah, who was previously a suspect in the murder case of North Korean leader's half brother Kim Jong Nam reacts as she arrives in news conference, after a Malaysian court released her of charges at Halim Perdanakusuma airport in Jakarta, Indonesia, March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

By Rozanna Latiff

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – An Indonesian woman accused in the 2017 chemical poison murder of the North Korean leader’s half-brother was freed on Monday after a Malaysian court dropped the charge in a case that drew suspicions of being a political assassination.

As the court announced its decision, Siti Aisyah, 26, turned to her Vietnamese co-defendant, Doan Thi Huong, 30, in the dock and the two women, who had been facing the death penalty together, embraced in tears.

They had been accused of poisoning Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with liquid VX, a banned chemical weapon, at Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017.

Following the dramatic decision to release Siti Aisyah, a defense lawyer asked for an adjournment in the case against Huong in order to submit a request that charges be dropped against her too.

Defense lawyers have maintained that the women were pawns in an assassination orchestrated by North Korean agents. The North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur was defaced with graffiti just hours before the trial was to resume, authorities said.

Interpol had issued a red notice for four North Koreans who were identified as suspects by Malaysian police and had left the country hours after the murder.

During the trial, the court was shown CCTV footage of two women allegedly assaulting Kim Jong Nam while he prepared to check in for a flight.

Siti Aisyah, who had worked as a masseuse at a hotel in the Malaysian capital, and Huong, who described herself as an actress, had maintained that they believed they had been hired to participate in a reality TV prank show.

Once the court released her, Siti Aisyah, wearing a black traditional Malay dress and headscarf, was rushed to the Indonesian embassy, where she spoke briefly with journalists.

“I feel so happy. I did not expect that today I would be released,” Siti Aisyah said, adding that she was healthy and had been treated well in prison.

Prosecutors told the court that they had been instructed to withdraw the charge against Siti Aisyah. No reason was given.

While the court discharged Siti Aisyah from the case, it rejected her lawyer’s request for a full acquittal, as it said that the trial had already established a prima facie case and she could be recalled if fresh evidence emerged.

The defense had disputed whether the CCTV footage was clear enough to identify the Indonesian woman as an assailant, or establish what she had done to the victim.

Gooi Soon Seng, Siti Aisyah’s lawyer, said his client was “a scapegoat”.

“I still believe that North Korea had something to do with it,” Gooi said.

Kim Jong Nam had lived in exile in Macau for several years before the killing, having fled his homeland after his half-brother became North Korea’s leader in 2011 following their father’s death.

Some South Korean lawmakers said the North Korean regime had ordered the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, who had been critical of his family’s dynastic rule. Pyongyang has denied the accusation.

NOT OVER YET FOR HUONG

Left to stand trial by herself after Siti Aisyah’s release, Huong was still sobbing as she prepared to take the stand on Monday at the start of her defense. But the court agreed to resume proceedings on Thursday instead, pending a reply from the attorney-general to the request that charges against her also be withdrawn.

“Where is the principle of equality? Both of them were charged on the same evidence, the defense was called on fairly the same grounds,” said Salim Bashir, one of Huong’s lawyers.

“Until today, we do not know what were the exceptional circumstances that were needed for the attorney-general to review the charge against Siti Aisyah. The prosecution never advanced a single ground for the withdrawal.”

Although the two women were being tried together, the cases against them were separate, and the court had asked the Indonesian woman to present her defense first.

Siti Aisyah’s trial was suspended in December as her lawyers argued with prosecutors over access to statements made by seven witnesses.

Prosecutor Muhammad Iskandar Ahmad told Reuters the decision to withdraw the charge against her was made based on “several representations”, without elaborating.

Siti Aisyah flew back to Jakarta on Monday, accompanied by Indonesian Law Minister Yasonna H. Laoly.

Laoly said Siti Aisyah’s release, after over two years in prison, was the result of high-level diplomacy by his government, including meetings with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the attorney-general.

“After studying the case thoroughly, we sent letters to the Attorney-General of Malaysia and met with him and Prime Minister Mahathir last August,” Laoly told reporters with Siti Aisyah shortly after landing in Jakarta.

Laoly had written to Malaysia’s attorney-general, laying the blame on North Korea.

“Miss Aisyah was deceived and had no awareness whatsoever that she was being used as an intelligence tool of North Korea,” he wrote.

(Additional reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa in JAKARTA; writing by Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)

Chemical arms watchdog wins right to assign blame for attacks

The logo of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is seen during a special session in the Hague, Netherlands June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

By Anthony Deutsch

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The world’s chemical weapons watchdog won new powers on Wednesday to assign blame for attacks with banned toxic munitions, a diplomatic victory for Britain just months after a former Russian spy was poisoned on its territory.

In a special session, member states of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) voted in favor of a British-led proposal by a 82-24 margin, easily reaching the two-thirds majority needed for it to succeed.

The motion was supported by the United States and European Union, but opposed by Russia, Iran, Syria and their allies.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the vote would empower the OPCW “not just to identify the use of chemical weapons but also the to point the finger at the organization, the state that they think is responsible.”

“That’s crucial if we are going to deter the use of these vile weapons.”

Russia said that the vote called the future of the organization itself into question.

“The OPCW is a Titanic which is leaking and has started to sink,” Industry Minister Georgy Kalamanov told reporters.

“A lot of the countries that voted against the measure are starting to think about how the organization will exist and function in the future,” he told reporters.

Though the use of chemical weapons is illegal under international law, the taboo on deploying them has been eroding after their repeated use in the Syrian civil war, but also in Iraq, Malaysia and Britain since 2012.

The poisoning of the Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in March led to tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats by Moscow and the West and was one reason for Britain’s push to strengthen the OPCW. Russia has denied any involvement in their poisoning.

From 2015 to 2017 a joint United Nations-OPCW team had been appointed to assign blame for chemical attacks in Syria. It found that Syrian government troops used nerve agent sarin and chorine barrel bombs on several occasions, while Islamic State militants were found to have used sulfur mustard.

But at a deadlocked U.N. Security Council, the joint team was disbanded last year after Moscow used its veto to block several resolutions seeking to renew its mandate.

The British proposal declares the OPCW will be empowered to attribute blame for attacks, though details of how it will do so will still need to be further defined by the organizations’ members.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch. Additional reporting by Toby Sterling, Editing by Jon Boyle)

Few Islamic State fighters return but home-grown attacks rise, Europol says

Manuel Navarrete, head of Europol's Counter Terrorism Centre and Catherine De Bolle, head of Europol, hold a news conference in The Hague, Netherlands June 19, 2018. Picture taken June 19, 2018 REUTERS/Eva Plevier

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – Europeans who went off to fight on behalf of Islamic State have not flooded back in large numbers since losing strongholds in Syria and Iraq, Europe’s police agency said on Wednesday, but they have inspired a growing number of home-grown attacks.

Tracking battle-hardened fighters is still the main concern of Western counter-terrorism officials, though a big influx did not materialize, Manuel Navarrete, head of Europol’s Counter Terrorism Centre, told reporters at its Hague headquarters.

“The main threat is coming from foreign terrorist fighters even though the numbers … that are returning are quite low,” he said, referring to outsiders who traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside militants there.

There has been a spike in recent years in IS-inspired attacks by “lone wolves” using little more weaponry than a knife or car. Most have been less deadly than strikes by former fighters, but they are harder for police to stop, he said.

The number of attacks and foiled plots in Europe more than doubled last year to 205, killing 62 people, Europol’s annual report showed.

“Even though we suffer more attacks, they were less sophisticated,” Navarrete said.

Of more than 5,000 Europeans – most from Britain, France, Germany and Belgium – who joined the ranks of fighters in Syria and Iraq, some 1,500 have returned and 1,000 were killed, according to the EU intelligence-sharing body. There is only limited intelligence available about the fate of the rest.

Many fighters have been detained. Some traveled to Malaysia, the Philippines and Libya. Others are thought to be laying low or in third countries like Turkey, he said.

Tougher border controls, surveillance and prosecution in Europe have also dissuaded some from returning, with EU nations making more than 700 arrests linked to jihadi activity in 2017, he said.

The suicide bomber who killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert in the English city of Manchester in May 2017 had just returned from Libya. But most recent attacks have been carried out by home-grown jihadists who never went to conflict zones.

As the Islamic State was routed last year from Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, it urged followers to carry out attacks at home, rather than travel to its self-declared caliphate.

“Now the message of the Islamic State has changed … to being more negative and asking for retaliation,” Navarrete said.

While lone actors often use tactics that result in fewer victims, they pose a threat that is difficult to prevent. In 2016, a man killed 86 people by driving a truck into a crowd in the Mediterranean city of Nice, France.

“You have to be very, very close to a person in order to take action on the police level to prevent this,” Navarrete said. “And the closest you can be to a person right now is not going to the front door, it is going to Facebook, to Twitter.”

(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Peter Graff)

Death, POWs and buried silver: Chequered history of Trump-Kim summit venue

FILE PHOTO: Interpol's headquarters are seen in Singapore November 18, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas White/File Photo

By Dewey Sim and Aradhana Aravindan

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – A resort island off Singapore that once housed a prisoner of war camp run by wartime Japanese forces and was called “Rear Death Island” is the venue for Tuesday’s summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The island is now called Sentosa, or Peace and Tranquility, and the two leaders will meet in the Capella hotel, a refurbished British Royal Artillery mess, where, according to legend, there may be silver buried under the lawn.

There were few tourists at the Capella on Wednesday but police, other security personnel and workers were thronging the luxury sprawling hotel to prepare for the meeting that is set to start in six days time.

The hotel is honoring existing guest reservations for now but no new bookings were being accepted.

While Singapore has hosted major summits in the past, none have been held on Sentosa, better known for its beaches, hotels, a casino and a Universal Studios theme park.

“That means having to plan the security strategy from scratch,” said Toby Koh, group managing director at Ademco Security Group, which provides security systems to businesses in several Asian countries.

Koh is not involved in security for the summit.

The United States and North Korea are technically still at war, being the signatories along with China of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. Trump has indicated he would try to sign a document that formally ends the war.

Singapore has declared all of Sentosa island a “special event area” for the Trump-Kim summit, which means it will be subject to enhanced security checks, potentially slowing the movement of traffic, and banning the use of loudspeakers and drones.

Even though hotels and other establishments on the island was bracing for disruptions for several days next week, the government agency that handles its management said it would be “business as usual.”

But those who live in the multi-million dollar homes on the island, linked to Singapore by a causeway, monorail and cable car, were braced for delays.

“Sentosa has only one entrance and if the entrance is blocked completely, it will definitely be a major inconvenience,” said Patricia Siswandjo, a Sentosa resident.

Once a graveyard and named Pulau Belakang Mati, which roughly means “Rear Death Island” in Malay, it was developed as a tourist attraction in the 1970s, when it was enlarged through land reclamation.

UNDER THE LAWN

Included in the Capella are two colonial-era bungalows that used to accommodate British artillery officers and was also their regimental mess. According to the hotel’s web site, the officers buried the regimental silver in front of the mess before the Japanese invasion.

Part of the silver was recovered from Malaysia in later years “but the whereabouts of the rest is still unknown, and possibly still lying under the lawn”, the web site said.

Today the Capella is a part of real estate development company called Pontiac Land Group, which is owned by Singapore’s billionaire Kwee family that bought the brand from former Ritz Carlton president Horst Schulze last year.

It has 112 rooms, suites, villas and manors, including the three-bedroom colonial manor, which goes for 10,000 Singapore dollars ($7,500) a night. The grounds have three pools, tennis courts and a spa.

Although no announcements have been made, the leaders are unlikely to stay on Sentosa.

Singapore has designated a separate area near its main downtown district as another special event zone, which has several luxury hotels, which could house the two delegations.

The Orchard Road district also has most major embassies, the Interpol regional office, condominiums, high-end shops and malls and some seedy bars and massage parlours.

The Orchard Towers, a short stroll from some of the major hotels that have been mentioned as possible venues to host Trump and Kim, is home to the embassies of Cambodia and Romania but also a series of establishments with names such as “Naughty Girl” and “Top 5” that come to life after dark.

Not far from there is the Shangri-La Hotel, the site for the historic and only meeting between China’s President Xi Jinping and then-Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou in 2015. Last weekend, the hotel hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other defense ministers for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue and local media have said it could be where Trump stays.

Security will be the biggest priority for Singapore, ranked one of the safest countries in the world, but which has been stepping up efforts to deter terrorism in recent years.

While both leaders will bring their own personal security teams, elite Singaporean police, including its Gurkha Contingent, will be securing the summit venue, roads and hotels, according to diplomats familiar with VIP security in the island state.

“Because of the unique sensitivities and peculiarities of the summit, almost anything unpredictable could possibly affect the summit itself,” Graham Ong-Webb, a research fellow, at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said.

(Additional reporting by Fathin Ungku; Editing by Jack Kim and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Malaysia outlaws ‘fake news’; sets jail of up to six years

Commuters walk past an advertisement discouraging the dissemination of fake news at a train station in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 28, 2018. Picture taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia on Monday approved a law against “fake news” that would allow for prison of up to six years for offenders, shrugging off critics who say it was aimed at curbing dissent and free speech ahead of a general election.

Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government secured a simple majority in parliament to pass the Anti-Fake News 2018 bill, which sets out fines of up to 500,000 ringgit ($123,000) and a maximum six years in jail. The first draft of the bill had proposed jail of up to 10 years.

The government said the law would not impinge on freedom of speech and cases under it would be handled through an independent court process.

“This law aims to protect the public from the spread of fake news, while allowing freedom of speech as provided for under the constitution,” Law Minister Azalina Othman Said told parliament.

The law defines fake news as “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false” and includes features, visuals and audio recordings.

It covers digital publications and social media and will apply to offenders who maliciously spread “fake news” inside and outside Malaysia, including foreigners, if Malaysia or a Malaysian citizen were affected.

Co-opted by U.S. President Donald Trump, the term “fake news” has quickly become part of the standard repertoire of leaders in authoritarian countries to describe media reports and organizations critical of them.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, had earlier on Monday urged the government not to rush the legislation through parliament.

“I urge the government to reconsider the bill and open it up to regular and genuine public scrutiny before taking any further steps,” David Kaye said in a Twitter post.

OTHERS CONSIDER LAWS

Other countries in Southeast Asia, including Singapore and the Philippines, are considering how to tackle “fake news” but human rights activists fear that laws against it could be used to stifle free speech.

Malaysia is among the first few countries to introduce a law against it. Germany approved a plan last year to fine social media networks if they fail to remove hateful postings.

Malaysia already has an arsenal of laws, including a colonial-era Sedition Act, that have been used to clamp down on unfavorable news and social media posts.

News reports and social media posts on a multi-billion dollar scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) have hounded Prime Minister Najib, who faces arguably his toughest contest in a general election this year that could be called in days.

Najib has denied any wrongdoing in connection with losses at the fund.

A deputy minister was quoted in media last month as saying any news on 1MDB not verified by the government was “fake”.

Lim Kit Siang, a senior opposition lawmaker with the Democratic Action Party, described the bill as a “Save Najib from 1MDB Scandal Bill” which would criminalize news on the affair.

(Reporting by Joseph Sipalan; Writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Record number of U.S. Marines to train in Australia in symbolic challenge to China

FILE PHOTO - U.S. Marines aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard amphibious assault ship stand in formation during a ceremony marking the start of Talisman Saber 2017, a biennial joint military exercise between the United States and Australia aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard amphibious assault ship on the the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Sydney, Australia, June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The United States will deploy a record number of Marines to train in Australia, the Australian defense minister said on Friday, as Washington seeks to counter what it describes as Chinese aggression in the region.

Payne said 1,587 U.S. Marines will spend six months training in Australia’s remote north, an increase of nearly 27 percent on its 2017 rotation for the program known as the Force Posture Initiatives.

“The U.S. military plays a vital role in underwriting security and stability across the Indo-Pacific, and the Force Posture Initiatives will be an essential component in preserving stability and security over the coming decades,” Defence Minister Marise Payne said in a statement.

The deployment, first introduced in 2011 as part of a U.S. “pivot” to Asia, has emerged as a key indicator of Washington’s commitment to the region under U.S. President Donald Trump and his willingness to counter Chinese influence in a region where tensions have spiked amid disputes over the South China Sea.

China claims most of the South China Sea, an important trade route that is also believed to contain large quantities of oil and natural gas, and has been building artificial islands on reefs, some with ports and air strips.

In a move likely to irk Beijing, the U.S. Marines will train with personnel from Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, some of which also have claims in the South China Sea.

“China will monitor whatever the U.S. does and it would prefer that the United States not work with the Asian countries included in these exercises,” said Euan Graham, director of the international security program at Australian think tank the Lowy Institute.

“Beijing would like to deal one-on-one with Southeast Asia nations that have counter claims,” he said.

The U.S. Marines will also bring additional military equipment, including helicopters and F-18 jets, Payne said.

The military deployment also threatens to further weaken Australia-Chinese relations.

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally with no claim to the South China Sea, has long maintained its neutrality in the dispute to protect its economic relationship with China.

But bilateral relations have soured in recent months after Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said China was improperly interfering in Canberra’s affairs, an accusation that triggered a rare protest from Beijing.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Paul Tait)

‘My life is in danger,’ North Korean leader’s half-brother quoted as saying months before poisoning

FILE PHOTO - Kim Jong Nam arrives at Beijing airport in Beijing, China, in this photo taken by Kyodo February 11, 2007. Picture taken February 11, 2007. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS/File Picture.

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Kim Jong Nam, the poisoned half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, told a friend in Malaysia his life was in danger six months before he was killed, a police official told a court on Tuesday.

Two women, Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, have been charged with murdering Kim by smearing his face with VX, a banned chemical poison, at Kuala Lumpur airport on Feb. 13 last year.

Four North Korean fugitives have also been charged with murder.

Defence lawyers say the women thought they were playing a prank for a reality show, as they had been paid to do elsewhere at airports and shopping malls, and did not know they were poisoning Kim. They face the death penalty if convicted.

Kim arrived in Malaysia on Feb. 6 last year and was picked up at the airport by the driver of friend Tomie Yoshio, lead police investigator Wan Azirul Nizam Che Wan Aziz said.

The driver was instructed to take Kim to his lodgings and other places he wanted to go after Kim told Yoshio his “life was in danger” during a prior visit to Malaysia.

“Six months before the incident on Feb. 13, Kim Jong Nam said ‘I am scared for my life and I want a driver’,” Wan Azirul said, citing police interviews with Yoshio.

He did not give any other details about Yoshio or his whereabouts.

Gooi Soon Seng, Siti Aisyah’s lawyer, has argued the killing was politically motivated, with key suspects linked to the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, suggesting his client was being made a scapegoat.

Kim had criticized his family’s dynastic rule of North Korea, some South Korean officials have said.

Under questioning, Wan Azirul agreed with Gooi that the two accused women had no motive for the killing, but denied accusations that the police investigation had been “lop-sided”.

Gooi had earlier asked about Hong Song Hac, a North Korean who had paid Siti Aisyah to act on a prank show and was caught on airport video recordings fleeing the country on the day of the killing.

Hong, one of the four North Koreans charged with the murder, was an official with the North Korean embassy in Indonesia from 2016 to 2017, Gooi told the court, citing records obtained from Indonesia’s foreign ministry.

Wan Azirul could not confirm Gooi’s assertion, admitting he had not looked into Hong’s background despite naming Hong as a suspect.

The trial resumes on Mar. 14.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Nick Macfie)