Trump orders more Iran curbs, Saudi shows attack evidence

By Stephen Kalin and Parisa Hafezi

JEDDAH/DUBAI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he ordered a major increase in sanctions on Iran as Saudi Arabia displayed remnants of drones and missiles it said Tehran used in a crippling weekend attack on its oil facilities.

Trump gave no explanation in a brief Twitter posting announcing the order, but the initiative follows repeated U.S. assertions that the Islamic Republic was behind Saturday’s attack on the kingdom, a close U.S. ally.

“I have just instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to substantially increase sanctions on the country of Iran!,” he wrote.

Iran, however, again denied involvement in the Sept. 14 raids, which hit the world’s biggest crude processing facility and initially knocked out half of Saudi production.

“They want to impose maximum … pressure on Iran through slander,” Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said.

“We don’t want conflict in the region … Who started the conflict?” he added, blaming Washington and its Gulf allies for the war in Yemen.

Yemen’s Houthi movement, an ally of Iran battling a Western-backed, Saudi-led coalition for more than four years, has claimed responsibility and said it used drones to assault state oil company Aramco’s sites.

However, the Saudi Defense Ministry held a news conference, displaying drone and missile debris it said was “undeniable” evidence of Iranian aggression. A total of 25 drones and missiles were used in the attacks launched from Iran not Yemen, the ministry spokesman added.

Saturday’s attack exposed the vulnerability of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure and threw down a gauntlet to the United States, which wants to curb Tehran’s influence in the region.

Proof of Iranian responsibility could pressure Riyadh and Washington into a response, though both nations were stressing the need for caution.

Trump has said he does not want war and is coordinating with Gulf and European states.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the hit on the world’s biggest crude exporter was a “real test of the global will” to confront subversion of the international order.

His envoy to London, Prince Khalid bin Bander, told the BBC the attack was “almost certainly” Iranian-backed, however: “We’re trying not to react too quickly because the last thing we need is more conflict in the region.”

“COMPELLING EVIDENCE”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was to meet Prince Mohammed in Jeddah on Wednesday to discuss the crisis before heading to the United Arab Emirates.

U.N. officials monitoring sanctions on Iran and Yemen were also heading to Saudi Arabia to investigate.

France, which is trying to salvage an international nuclear deal with Iran that Washington quit last year, said it wanted to establish the facts before reacting.

A U.S. official told Reuters the strikes originated in southwestern Iran. Three officials said they involved cruise missiles and drones, indicating a higher degree of complexity and sophistication than initially thought.

The officials did not provide evidence or explain what U.S. intelligence they were using for evaluating the attack, which cut 5% of global production.

Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday the 5.7 million barrels per day of output lost would be fully restored by the end of the month.

Oil prices fell after the Saudi reassurances, having surged more than 20% at one point on Monday – the biggest intra-day jump since the 1990-91 Gulf War. [O/R]

Saudi Arabia’s finance minister told Reuters on Wednesday the attack had no impact on revenues and Aramco was continuing to supply markets without interruption.

U.S. efforts to bring about a U.N. Security Council response look unlikely to succeed as Russia and China have veto powers and are expected to shield Iran.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has offered to sell Riyadh defense systems, called for a “thorough and impartial” probe during a phone call with Prince Mohammed.

The assault exposed serious gaps in Saudi air defense despite billions of dollars spent on Western military hardware and repeated attacks on vital assets during its four-and-a-half year foray into the Yemen war.

“The attack is like Sept. 11th for Saudi Arabia, it is a game changer,” said one Saudi security analyst.

IRAN-U.S. CONFLICT

Already frayed U.S.-Iran ties deteriorated further when Trump quit the nuclear pact and reimposed sanctions, severely hurting the Iranian economy. Iran has ruled out talks with Washington unless it returns to the pact.

Trump said he is not looking to meet Rouhani during a U.N. event in New York this month. Rouhani and his foreign minister may not attend the General Assembly at all unless U.S. visas are issued in the coming hours, state media reported Wednesday.

Washington and its Gulf allies want Iran to stop supporting regional proxies, including in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.

Despite years of air strikes against them, the Houthi movement boasts drones and missiles able to reach deep into Saudi Arabia, the result of an arms race since the Western-backed coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015.

Iran’s clerical rulers support the Houthis, who ousted Yemen’s internationally recognized government from power in the capital Sanaa in late 2014. But Tehran denies it actively supports them with military and financial support.

Iran maintains the largest ballistic and cruise missile capabilities in the Middle East that could overwhelm virtually any Saudi missile defense system, according to think-tank CSIS, given the geographic proximity of Tehran and its proxy forces.

But even more limited strikes have proved too much for Saudi Arabia, including recent ones claimed by the Houthis on a civilian airport, oil pumping stations and the Shaybah oilfield.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and Stephen Kalin in Jeddah; Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in London, Michelle Nichols in New York, Rania El Gamal, Davide Barbuscia and Marwa Rashad in Riyadh, Asma Alsharif and Sylvia Westall in Dubai, Alaa Swilam and Hisham El Saba in Cairo, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; Tim Kelly in Tokyo, John Irish and Sudip Kar-Gupta in Paris, Phil Stewart and Steve Holland in Washington; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and William Maclean)

North Korea fires missiles, derides South Korea’s Moon as ‘impudent’

People visit the statues of former North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il to commemorate the 74th anniversary of the end of the Japanese occupation of Korea, in this undated photo supplied by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 16, 2019. KCNA/ via REUTERS

By Josh Smith and Jack Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea launched at least two short-range ballistic missiles on Friday, South Korea’s military said, shortly after Pyongyang described South Korea’s president as “impudent” and vowed that inter-Korean talks are over.

The North has protested against joint U.S.-South Korea military drills, largely computer-simulated, which kicked off last week, calling them a rehearsal for war. It has also fired several short-range missiles in recent weeks.

North Korea fired two more short-range projectiles into the sea off its east coast on Friday morning, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement.

Japan’s defense ministry said it did not see any imminent security threat from the latest projectile launch.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said initial information indicated at least one projectile was fired by North Korea and appeared to be similar to the short-range missiles fired in previous weeks. Another official said the United States was consulting with South Korea and Japan.

An official at Seoul’s defense ministry said the latest test involved ballistic technology and detailed analysis was under way with the United States with the possibility that the North fired the same type of missiles it used on Aug. 10.

The missiles were launched shortly after 8 a.m. Friday (2300 GMT Thursday) and flew around 230 kms (142 miles) to an altitude of 30 kms (18 miles), South Korea’s JCS said.

The launches have complicated attempts to restart talks between U.S. and North Korean negotiators over the future of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

Those denuclearization talks have been stalled despite a commitment to revive them made at a June 30 meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Earlier on Friday, Pyongyang rejected a vow by South Korean President Moon Jae-in a day earlier to pursue talks with the North and to unify the two Koreas by 2045.

The loss of dialogue momentum between the North and South and the stalemate in implementing pledges made at an historic summit between their two leaders last year was entirely the responsibility of the South, a North Korean spokesman said.

The unidentified spokesman repeated criticism that the joint U.S.-South Korea drills were a sign of Seoul’s hostility toward the North.

“We have nothing to talk any more with the South Korean authorities nor have any idea to sit with them again,” the North’s spokesman for the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country said in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency.

The committee manages relationships with the South. The rival Koreas are technically still at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a truce rather than a peace treaty.

South Korea’s unification ministry called North Korea’s comments about Moon “not in line” with inter-Korean agreements and unhelpful for developing relations between them.

After an emergency meeting of South Korea’s National Security Council held to discuss the launches, officials reiterated that the joint drills are simply an opportunity to evaluate whether South Korea could eventually assume wartime control of the allied forces on the peninsula.

‘IMPUDENT GUY’

Moon and Kim have met three times since April last year, pledging peace and cooperation, but little progress has been made to improve dialogue and strengthen exchanges and cooperation.

“North Korea makes it exceedingly difficult to build trust when it interprets restraint as weakness and looks to exploit divisions within South Korea,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

Seoul and Washington should continue to seek working-level talks with North Korea but the allies should also prepare new sanctions and renewed military cooperation if Pyongyang continues to violate United Nations resolutions and threaten its neighbors, Easley said.

The South’s Moon said in a Liberation Day address on Thursday it was only through his policy of Korean national peace that dialogue with the North was still possible.

“In spite of a series of worrying actions taken by North Korea recently, the momentum for dialogue remains unshaken,” Moon said in a speech marking Korea’s independence from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule.

The North’s spokesman described Moon as an “impudent guy” who is “overcome with fright”.

He said Moon had no standing to talk about engagement with the North because of the ongoing military maneuvers.

“His open talk about ‘dialogue’ between the North and the South under such a situation raises a question as to whether he has proper thinking faculty,” the spokesman said.

It was “senseless” to think that inter-Korean dialogue would resume once the military drills with the United States were over, he said.

However, the spokesman left open the possibility of talks with the United States.

Trump and Kim have met twice since their first summit in Singapore last year and said their countries would continue talks. However, little progress has been made on the North’s stated commitment to denuclearize.

(Reporting by Jack Kim and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Hyunjoo Jin and Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL, Chris Gallagher in TOKYO, and Idrees Ali and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Paul Tait and Michael Perry)

‘We will make them pay’: North Korea launches missiles, condemns U.S.-South Korea drills

People watch a TV broadcasting a news report on North Korea firing two unidentified projectiles, in Seoul, South Korea, August 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Josh Smith and Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea fired missiles into the sea off its east coast for the fourth time in less than two weeks, South Korea said on Tuesday, as Pyongyang warned that hostile moves against it “have reached the danger line.”

The North, criticizing the U.S.-South Korean drills and their use of high-tech weapons, has fired a series of missiles and rockets since its leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed at a June 30 meeting to revive stalled denuclearization talks.

North Korea has said it is committed to diplomacy and it will wait until the end of the year for the United States to soften its policy of sanctions and political pressure over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

But if Washington and Seoul disregard North Korea’s repeated warnings, “we will make them pay (a) heavy price,” a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement released through state news agency KCNA.

Trump has played down the tests by saying they did not break any agreement he had with Kim but the talks have yet to resume. Analysts believe the tests are designed both to improve North Korean military capabilities and to pressure Washington to offer more concessions.

“Part of what’s happening now is that North Korea is expressing frustrations with a general lack of progress on inter-Korean agenda while increasing leverage in U.S.-North Korea negotiations by demonstrating how its programs could and will continue to advance,” said Jenny Town, managing editor at 38 North, a website that tracks North Korea.

MULTIPLE MISSILE LAUNCHES

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles were fired from near Kwail on North Korea’s west coast, about 125 km (80 miles) southwest of Pyongyang, in South Hwanghae province early on Tuesday. They were the fourth set of launches since July 25.

The missiles flew about 450 km (280 miles) and reached an altitude of 37 km (23 miles), the JCS said. U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies deemed they had similar flight characteristics to the short-range ballistic missiles launched by North Korea on July 25, it said.

Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at South Korea’s Kyungnam University, said the latest launch area was significant because the flight path of 450 km meant that all of South Korea was in range of such missiles.

“It becomes difficult to detect the origin of the launch in advance because it is capable of launching a missile from most anywhere in North Korea, targeting all of South Korea,” he said.

South Korea’s defense ministry said on Tuesday the missile launch went against the spirit of easing tension on the Korean peninsula.

A United Nations report said on Monday Pyongyang has continued to enhance its nuclear and missile programs and used cyberattacks to take in $2 billion to fund the development.

The missile tests represent military advances, as well as help Kim strengthen his bargaining power with the United States, said Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official focused on Korea.

“Kim believes he doesn’t need to compromise to get what he wants, doesn’t need to conduct serious negotiations at the working level because he has recourse to Trump, and doesn’t need to restrain any of his missile testing or actions abroad as long as he doesn’t test an intercontinental ballistic missile,” Jackson said.

‘DO US HARM’

The launches on July 25 were the first since Trump and Kim met at the heavily armed Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas on June 30. What was agreed at that meeting is now under scrutiny.

The North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said that the North remained committed to resolving issues through dialogue, but that the United States and South Korea’s joint military drills violate a pledge made by Trump to Kim.

Pyongyang “will be compelled to seek a new road as we have already indicated” if South Korea and the United States continue with hostile military moves, he said.

The arrival of new, U.S.-made F-35A stealth fighters in South Korea, the visit of a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine to a South Korean port, and U.S. tests of ballistic missiles are among the steps that have forced North Korea to continue its own weapons development, the spokesman said.

“The U.S. and South Korean authorities remain outwardly talkative about dialogue,” he said. “But when they sit back, they sharpen a sword to do us harm.”

South Korean media reported that U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises had started on Monday. A senior South Korean official said previously the drills would mainly involve computer simulations.

A JCS spokesman told a regular news briefing on Monday the allies were preparing for a joint exercise in the second half of the year but would not confirm the name of the drill or whether it had already started.

The testing of short-range missiles by North Korea is banned by a 2006 United Nations Security Council resolution demanding that North Korea suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program.

Japan’s defense ministry said it did not see any imminent threat to Japanese security from the latest projectile launch by North Korea.

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Joyce Lee; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON and Chris Gallagher in TOKYO; Editing by Paul Tait and Darren Schuettler)

Putin to Trump: We’ll develop new nuclear missiles if you do

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Security Council at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia August 5, 2019. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

By Andrew Osborn and Polina Devitt

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin warned on Monday that Moscow would start developing short and intermediate-range land-based nuclear missiles if the United States started doing the same after the demise of a landmark arms control treaty.

The U.S. formally left the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia on Friday after determining that Moscow was violating the treaty and had already deployed one banned type of missile, an accusation the Kremlin denies.

The pact banned land-based missiles with a range of between 310 and 3,400 miles (500-5,500 km), reducing the ability of both countries to launch a nuclear strike at short notice.

Putin on Monday ordered the defense and foreign ministries and Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence service to closely monitor any steps the U.S. takes to develop, produce or deploy missiles banned under the defunct treaty.

“If Russia obtains reliable information that the United States has finished developing these systems and started to produce them, Russia will have no option other than to engage in a full-scale effort to develop similar missiles,” Putin said in a statement.

U.S. officials have said the United States is months away from the first flight tests of an American intermediate-range missile that would serve as a counter to the Russians. Any deployment would be years away, they have said.

Putin issued his warning after holding a meeting with Russia’s Security Council to discuss the U.S. move, which Moscow had argued against for months, warning it would undermine a key pillar of international arms control.

Putin said Russia’s arsenal of air and sea-launched missiles combined with its work on developing hypersonic missiles meant it was well placed to offset any threat emanating from the United States for now.

But he said it was essential for Moscow and Washington, the world’s largest nuclear powers, to resume arms control talks to prevent what he described as an “unfettered” arms race breaking out.

“In order to avoid chaos with no rules, restrictions or laws, we need to once more weigh up all the dangerous consequences and launch a serious and meaningful dialogue free from any ambiguity,” Putin said.

Officials from President Donald Trump’s administration, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said Russia has deployed “multiple battalions” of a cruise missile throughout Russia in violation of the defunct pact, including in western Russia, “with the ability to strike critical European targets”.

Russia denies the allegation, saying the missile’s range put it outside the treaty and rejected a U.S. demand to destroy the new missile, the Novator 9M729, known as the SSC-8 by the NATO Western military alliance.

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth, Editing by Ed Osmond)

Chinese militarization of South China Sea “excessive”: acting Pentagon chief

An aerial view of China occupied Subi Reef at Spratly Islands in disputed South China Sea April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Francis Malasig/Pool

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said on Friday that China’s militarization of the disputed South China Sea had been “excessive.”

Shanahan, speaking with reporters in Singapore on the sidelines of a defense forum, said China’s actions in the South China Sea, like installing surface to air missiles, was “excessive” and “overkill.”

China and the United States have repeatedly traded barbs in the past over what Washington says is Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea by building military installations on artificial islands and reefs.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Israel strikes in Syria in more open assault on Iran

What is believed to be guided missiles are seen in the sky during what is reported to be an attack in Damascus, Syria, January 21, 2019, in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. Facebook Diary of a Mortar Shell in Damascus/Youmiyat Qadifat Hawun fi Damashq/via REUTERS

By Angus McDowall and Dan Williams

BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel struck in Syria early on Monday, the latest salvo in its increasingly open assault on Iran’s presence there, shaking the night sky over Damascus with an hour of loud explosions in a second consecutive night of military action.

Damascus did not say what damage or casualties resulted from the strikes. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said 11 people were killed. Syria’s ally Russia said four Syrian soldiers had died and six were wounded.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the air raid had mostly targeted Iranian forces, but also hit Syrians helping them. “We will strike at anyone who tries to harm us,” he said.

The threat of direct confrontation between arch-enemies Israel and Iran has long simmered in Syria, where the Iranian military built a presence early in the nearly eight year civil war to help President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Israel, regarding Iran as its biggest threat, has repeatedly attacked Iranian targets in Syria and those of allied militia, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

With an election approaching, Israel’s government has begun discussing its strikes more openly and has also taken a tougher stance towards Hezbollah on the border with Lebanon. It said a rocket attack on Sunday was Iran’s work.

The Israeli shift comes a month after U.S. President Donald Trump unexpectedly announced a sudden plan to pull the 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, a move long sought by Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies. Trump’s decision shocked American allies in the region and was opposed by top U.S. officials including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who quit in response.

The Israeli military said its fighter jets had attacked Iranian “Quds Force” targets early on Monday, including munition stores, a position in the Damascus International Airport, an intelligence site and a military training camp. Its jets then targeted Syrian defense batteries after coming under fire.

It followed a previous night of cross-border fire, which Israel said began when Iranian troops fired an Iranian-made surface-to-surface missile from an area near Damascus at a ski resort in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Syria said it was Israel that had attacked and its air defenses had repelled the assault. Syria had endured “intense attack through consecutive waves of guided missiles”, but had destroyed most “hostile targets”, state media quoted a military source as saying.

The Russian defense ministry said Syrian air defenses, supplied by Russia, had destroyed more than 30 cruise missiles and guided bombs, according to RIA news agency.

In Tehran, airforce chief Brigadier General Aziz Nasirzadeh said Iran was “fully ready and impatient to confront the Zionist regime and eliminate it from the earth”, according to the Young Journalist Club, a website supervised by state television.

Assad has said Iranian forces are welcome to stay in Syria after years of military victories that have brought most of the country back under his control. Just two big enclaves are still outside Assad’s grip, including the area Trump plans to exit.

Netanyahu, who is hoping to win a fifth term in the April 9 election, last week told his cabinet Israel has carried out “hundreds” of attacks over recent years.

“We have a permanent policy, to strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria and hurt whoever tries to hurt us,” he said on Sunday.

“EVERY LAST BOOT”

The Israeli military distributed footage of what it said were missiles hitting the Syrian defense batteries, as well as satellite images showing the location of the alleged Iranian targets. Syrian state media showed footage of explosions.

In a highly publicized operation last month, the Israeli military uncovered and destroyed cross-border tunnels from Lebanon it said were dug by Hezbollah to launch future attacks.

Israel last fought a war with Hezbollah, on Lebanese soil, in 2006. It fears Hezbollah has used its own role fighting alongside Iran and Assad in Syria to bolster its military capabilities, including an arsenal of rockets aimed at Israel.

Tensions have also risen with Israel’s construction of a frontier barrier that Lebanon says passes through its territory.

Washington has sought to reassure allies it still aims to eject Iran from Syria despite pulling its own troops out. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited the region this month, has vowed to expel “every last Iranian boot” from Syria.

Israel has sought reassurances from Moscow that Iranian forces in Syria would not be a threat. Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said the missile fired at the ski resort was launched from “an area we were promised the Iranians would not be present in”.

 

(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, Ari Rabinovitch and Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Nick Macfie and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Putin: Russia will make banned missiles if U.S. exits arms treaty

Russia's President Vladimir Putin is seen during the opening of the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina November 30, 2018. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia will develop missiles now banned under the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty if the United States exits the arms control pact and starts making such weapons, President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday.

The United States delivered Russia a 60-day ultimatum on Tuesday to come clean about what Washington says is a violation of the 1987 nuclear arms control treaty, saying it would be forced to start a six-month process of withdrawal if nothing changes.

Putin, in televised comments, accused the United States of blaming Russia for violations as a pretext for Washington to exit the pact.

Putin noted that many countries produce missiles banned under the INF treaty, but that Moscow and Washington had undertaken to limit themselves with the accord signed in 1987.

“Now it seems our American partners believe that the situation has changed so much that the United States must also have such a weapon. What’s our response? It’s simple: in that case, we will also do this,” he said.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Toby Chopra and Peter Graff)

Russian ‘fake news’ machine going mad, says French envoy to U.S.

FILE PHOTO: French Ambassador to the U.N. Gerard Araud addresses the Security Council during a meeting about the situation in the Middle East, including Palestine, at United Nations headquarters in New York, July 22, 2014. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

PARIS (Reuters) – France’s envoy to the United States on Tuesday accused Moscow of spreading fake news after Russia’s Defence Ministry said a French frigate in the Mediterranean had launched missiles on Syria.

The ministry initially said a Russian military plane had been shot down by Israeli warplanes and that Russian air control radar systems had detected rocket launches from the French frigate Auvergne.

The ministry later said the aircraft had been shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft systems in what President Vladimir Putin said was the result of tragic and chance circumstances.

“Russian fake news machine getting mad: accusing the French to have shot down a Russian plane (in fact victim of a Syrian « friend(ly) » fire),” France’s ambassador to Washington, Gerard Araud tweeted, in English.

French army spokesman Patrik Steiger denied that France had been involved in the incident or fired any missiles but several hours later Russian media continued to ask the question.

Quoting a military expert, Tass news agency said Paris was partly at fault after launching cruise missiles from the Auvergne.

France’s presidency, Foreign Ministry and Defence Ministry had yet to respond officially to the Russian assertions.

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Leigh Thomas)

Russian warships hold drills in Bering Sea in huge military exercise

A satellite image of armored vehicles staging during the Russian military exercise known as Vostok 2018, conducted at the Tsugol training area in eastern Russia, September 13, 2018. Satellite image ©2018 DigitalGlobe, a Maxar company/Handout via REUTERS

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian warships held drills in the Bering Sea which separates Russia from Alaska, part of Moscow’s biggest military maneuvers since the fall of the Soviet Union, footage aired by the Ministry of Defence showed on Friday.

The Vostok-2018 (East-2018) drills, which run until Sept. 17, are taking place in Siberia and in waters off Russia’s eastern coast, involving 300,000 troops, over 1,000 military aircraft and two naval fleets.

The drills are taking place at a time of heightened tension between the West and Russia, and NATO has said it will monitor the exercise closely, as will the United States which has a strong military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

President Vladimir Putin inspected the war games on Thursday, vowing in a speech to soldiers to strengthen the Russian army and supply it with new generation weapons and equipment.

Putin said Russia was a peaceful country ready for cooperation with any state interested in partnership, but that it was a soldier’s duty to be ready to defend his country and its allies.

The Ministry of Defence aired footage on Friday of the Northern Fleet’s Vice-Admiral Kulakov destroyer and the Alexander Obrakovsky landing ship taking part in a mock-up rescue operation in the Bering Sea.

Other footage showed scores of paratroopers leaping from a plane and descending from helicopters by ropes in the eastern Siberian territory of Zabaikalsk.

The ministry also broadcast clips of missiles being launched from its S-300 long-range surface-to-air missile system and its Buk medium-range missile system.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

Sweden to sign $1 billion Patriot missile deal this week: report

FILE PHOTO: A man looks at a Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE) model by Lockheed Martin at an international military fair in Kielce, Poland September 7, 2017. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Sweden will sign a contract to buy the Patriot air defense missile system from U.S. arms manufacturer Raytheon Co  this week, Swedish radio reported on Wednesday.

Although it is not a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member, Sweden has close ties to the alliance and has been beefing up its armed forces after decades of neglect amid increased anxiety over Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Crimea.

Sweden, whose existing air defense system cannot shoot down ballistic missiles, will buy four Patriot firing units and an undisclosed number of missiles, Swedish radio said.

“This system has been proven in action … there are a number of other countries that already have it and we expect the first delivery in 2021,” Swedish radio quoted Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist saying.

The Defence Ministry could not immediately be reached for comment on the Swedish radio report, which said Stockholm will formally sign the deal on Thursday.

Sweden began talks over the purchase, initially worth around 10 billion crowns ($1.14 billion), last November.

The contract includes an option to buy up to 300 missiles, which would bring the final bill to around $3 billion.

The main, center-right opposition has backed the plan, though there are differences over how to finance the deal.

So far, 15 other countries have purchased Patriot, including NATO members Germany, the Netherlands, Romania and Poland, while neutral Switzerland has said it is considering Patriot among other systems.

(Reporting by Simon Johnson; Editing by Alexander Smith)