Turkey detains suspected Islamic State militant for planning to bring down U.S. plane: Dogan

Russian national Renat Bakiev, a suspected Islamic State militant who allegedly planned to use a drone to bring down a U.S. plane at the Incirlik air base, is escorted by police officers as he arrives to a hospital for a medical check in the city of Adana, Turkey, August 10, 2017. Dogan News Agency via REUTERS

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish authorities have detained a suspected Islamic State militant of Russian origin after he allegedly planned to use a drone to bring down a U.S. plane at the Incirlik air base, Dogan News Agency said on Thursday.

Dogan, citing security officials, said Russian national Renat Bakiev was detained after police surveillance showed him scouting the southern city of Adana, where the base is located, with the aim of carrying out his attack.

Bakiev told authorities that he was a member of Islamic State and planned to use a drone to bring down a U.S. plane and carry out an attack against U.S. nationals, Dogan said.

Authorities said he had also scouted an association of the Alevi religious minority in Adana. He described Alevis as “enemies of Allah”, and criticized President Tayyip Erdogan, while being interrogated, Dogan said.

Turkey has been a partner in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State forces, providing the coalition with access to Incirlik air base to wage strikes against the militants.

Ankara has detained more than 5,000 Islamic State suspects and deported some 3,290 foreign militants from 95 different countries in recent years, according to Turkish officials. It has also refused entry to at least 38,269 individuals.

(Reporting by Dirimcan Barut and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by David Dolan and Dominic Evans)

FBI raided former Trump campaign manager Manafort’s home in July

FILE PHOTO: Paul Manafort, senior advisor to Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, exits following a meeting of Donald Trump's national finance team at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City, U.S., June 9, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

By Sarah N. Lynch and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – FBI agents seized documents and other material last month at the Virginia home of Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, as part of a special counsel’s probe into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a spokesman for Manafort said on Wednesday.

The predawn raid was conducted at Manafort’s home in the Washington suburb of Alexandria without advance warning on July 26, a day after Manafort had met with Senate Intelligence Committee staff members, the Washington Post reported, citing unidentified people familiar with the probe.

The search warrant was wide-ranging and FBI agents working with Robert Mueller, the special counsel named by the U.S. Justice Department in May to head the investigation, departed the home with various records, the Post said. Investigators were looking for tax documents and foreign banking records, the New York Times reported.

Manafort spokesman Jason Maloni confirmed the raid had taken place.

“FBI agents executed a search warrant at one of Mr. Manafort’s residences. Mr. Manafort has consistently cooperated with law enforcement and other serious inquiries and did so on this occasion as well,” Maloni said in an email.

The raid was the latest indication of the intensifying of Mueller’s probe, which Trump has derided as a “witch hunt.” Allegations of possible collusion between people associated with Trump’s campaign and Moscow have dogged the Republican president since he took office in January.

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia interfered in the presidential race, in part by hacking and releasing emails embarrassing to Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, to help him get elected.

Manafort has been a key figure in the congressional and federal investigations into the matter. Mueller’s team is examining money-laundering accusations against Manafort, poring over his financial and real estate records in New York as well as his involvement in Ukrainian politics, two officials told Reuters last month.

Congressional committees are looking at a June 2016 meeting in New York with a Russian lawyer organized by Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., who released emails last month that showed he welcomed the prospect of receiving damaging information about Clinton at the meeting. Manafort attended the meeting.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation did not immediately return a request for comment on the raid. Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for Mueller’s office, declined to confirm the raid.

Manafort has been cooperating with the congressional committees in their Russia probes, meeting with staff members behind closed doors and turning over documents. He also has been in talks with them about testifying publicly.

He met with investigators from Senate Intelligence Committee staff last month and has been negotiating an appearance before the Judiciary Committee.

Committee leaders said they wanted to discuss not just the campaign, but also Manafort’s political work on behalf of interests in Ukraine. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine was one reason the U.S. Congress defied Trump and passed new sanctions on Russia last month.

Manafort previously worked as a consultant to a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine and helped support the country’s Kremlin-backed former leader, Viktor Yanukovich. According to a financial audit reported by the New York Times, he also once owed $17 million to Russian shell companies.

A Senate Judiciary Committee aide said the panel on Aug. 2 received approximately 20,000 pages of documents from Trump’s presidential campaign that it requested for its own Russia investigation, as well as about 400 pages of documents from Manafort the same day.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Will Dunham)

Cyber threats prompt return of radio for ship navigation

Cargo ships navigate the Panama Canal during an organized media tour by Italy's Salini Impregilo, one of the main sub contractors of the Panama Canal Expansion project, on the outskirts of Colon city, Panama May 11, 2016

By Jonathan Saul

LONDON (Reuters) – The risk of cyber attacks targeting ships’ satellite navigation is pushing nations to delve back through history and develop back-up systems with roots in World War Two radio technology.

Ships use GPS (Global Positioning System) and other similar devices that rely on sending and receiving satellite signals, which many experts say are vulnerable to jamming by hackers.

About 90 percent of world trade is transported by sea and the stakes are high in increasingly crowded shipping lanes. Unlike aircraft, ships lack a back-up navigation system and if their GPS ceases to function, they risk running aground or colliding with other vessels.

South Korea is developing an alternative system using an earth-based navigation technology known as eLoran, while the United States is planning to follow suit. Britain and Russia have also explored adopting versions of the technology, which works on radio signals.

The drive follows a series of disruptions to shipping navigation systems in recent months and years. It was not clear if they involved deliberate attacks; navigation specialists say solar weather effects can also lead to satellite signal loss.

Last year, South Korea said hundreds of fishing vessels had returned early to port after their GPS signals were jammed by hackers from North Korea, which denied responsibility.

In June this year, a ship in the Black Sea reported to the U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Center that its GPS system had been disrupted and that over 20 ships in the same area had been similarly affected.

U.S. Coast Guard officials also said interference with ships’ GPS disrupted operations at a port for several hours in 2014 and at another terminal in 2015. It did not name the ports.

A cyber attack that hit A.P. Moller-Maersk’s IT systems in June 2017 and made global headlines did not involve navigation but underscored the threat hackers pose to the technology dependent and inter-connected shipping industry. It disrupted port operations across the world.

The eLoran push is being led by governments who see it as a means of protecting their national security. Significant investments would be needed to build a network of transmitter stations to give signal coverage, or to upgrade existing ones dating back decades when radio navigation was standard.

U.S. engineer Brad Parkinson, known as the “father of GPS” and its chief developer, is among those who have supported the deployment of eLoran as a back-up.

“ELoran is only two-dimensional, regional, and not as accurate, but it offers a powerful signal at an entirely different frequency,” Parkinson told Reuters. “It is a deterrent to deliberate jamming or spoofing (giving wrong positions), since such hostile activities can be rendered ineffective,” said Parkinson, a retired U.S. airforce colonel.

 

KOREAN STATIONS

Cyber specialists say the problem with GPS and other Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) is their weak signals, which are transmitted from 12,500 miles above the Earth and can be disrupted with cheap jamming devices that are widely available.

Developers of eLoran – the descendant of the loran (long-range navigation) system created during World War II – say it is difficult to jam as the average signal is an estimated 1.3 million times stronger than a GPS signal.

To do so would require a powerful transmitter, large antenna and lots of power, which would be easy to detect, they add.

Shipping and security officials say the cyber threat has grown steadily over the past decade as vessels have switched increasingly to satellite systems and paper charts have largely disappeared due to a loss of traditional skills among seafarers.

“My own view, and it is only my view, is we are too dependent on GNSS/GPS position fixing systems,” said Grant Laversuch, head of safety management at P&O Ferries. “Good navigation is about cross-checking navigation systems, and what better way than having two independent electronic systems.”

Lee Byeong-gon, an official at South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, said the government was working on establishing three sites for eLoran test operations by 2019 with further ones to follow after that.

But he said South Korea was contending with concerns from local residents at Gangwha Island, off the west coast.

“The government needs to secure a 40,000 pyeong (132,200 square-meter) site for a transmitting station, but the residents on the island are strongly opposed to having the 122 to 137 meter-high antenna,” Lee told Reuters.

In July, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill which included provisions for the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to establish an eLoran system.

“This bill will now go over to the Senate and we hope it will be written into law,” said Dana Goward, president of the U.S. non-profit Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, which supports the deployment of eLoran.

“We don’t see any problems with the President (Donald Trump) signing off on this provision.”

The previous administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both pledged to establish eLoran but never followed through. However, this time there is more momentum.

In May, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats told a Senate committee the global threat of electronic warfare attacks against space systems would rise in coming years.

“Development will very likely focus on jamming capabilities against … Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), such as the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS),” he said.

 

SPOOFING DANGERS

Russia has looked to establish a version of eLoran called eChayka, aimed at the Arctic region as sea lanes open up there, but the project has stalled for now.

“It is obvious that we need such a system,” said Vasily Redkozubov, deputy director general of Russia’s Internavigation Research and Technical Centre.

“But there are other challenges apart from eChayka, and (Russia has) not so many financial opportunities at the moment.”

Cost is a big issue for many countries. Some European officials also say their own satellite system Galileo is more resistant to jamming than other receivers.

But many navigation technology experts say the system is hackable. “Galileo can help, particularly with spoofing, but it is also a very weak signal at similar frequencies,” said Parkinson.

The reluctance of many countries to commit to a back-up means there is little chance of unified radio coverage globally for many years at least, and instead disparate areas of cover including across some national territories and shared waterways.

The General Lighthouse Authorities of the UK and Ireland had conducted trials of eLoran but the initiative was pulled after failing to garner interest from European countries whose transmitters were needed to create a signal network.

France, Denmark, Norway and Germany have all decided to turn off or dismantle their old radio transmitter stations.

Britain is maintaining a single eLoran transmitter in northern England.

Taviga, a British-U.S. company, is looking to commercially operate an eLoran network, which would provide positioning, navigation and timing (PNT).

“There would need to be at least one other transmitter probably on the UK mainland for a timing service,” said co-founder Charles Curry, adding that the firm would need the British government to commit to using the technology.

Andy Proctor, innovation lead for satellite navigation and PNT with Innovate UK, the government’s innovation agency, said: “We would consider supporting a commercially run and operated service, which we may or may not buy into as a customer.”

Current government policy was “not to run large operational pieces of infrastructure like an eLoran system”, he added.

 

(Additional reporting by Terje Solsvik in Oslo, Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in Copenhagen, Yuna Park in Seoul, Gleb Stolyarov in Moscow, Sophie Louet in Paris, Madeline Chambers in Berlin and Mark Hosenball in London; Editing by Pravin Char)

 

Tillerson says U.S., Russia can settle problems, ease tension

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson answers questions during a news conference in Manila, Philippines August 7, 2017.

By Karen Lema

MANILA (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Monday he believes Washington and Russia can find a way to ease tensions, saying it wouldn’t be useful to cut ties over the single issue of suspected Russian meddling in the U.S. election.

Tillerson said Russia had also expressed some willingness to resume talks about the crisis in Ukraine, where a 2015 ceasefire between Kiev’s forces and Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country is regularly violated.

“We should find places we can work together… In places we have differences we’re going to have to continue to find ways to address those,” Tillerson told reporters.

Tillerson met his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on the sidelines of an international gathering in Manila on Sunday, where he also asked about Moscow’s retaliation against new U.S. sanctions.

Tillerson said he told Lavrov the United States would respond to the Kremlin’s order for it to cut about 60 percent of its diplomatic staff in Russia by September 1.

“We have not made a decision on how we will respond to Russia’s request to remove U.S. diplomatic personnel. I asked several clarifying questions…I told him we would respond by September first,” Tillerson said.

The meeting was their first since President Donald Trump reluctantly signed into law the sanctions that Russia said amounted to a full-scale trade war and ended hopes for better ties.

Lavrov on Sunday said he believed his U.S. colleagues were ready to continue dialogue with Moscow on complex issues despite tensions.

Tillerson said he discussed Russia’s suspected meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election with Lavrov to “help them understand how serious this incident had been and how seriously it damaged the relationship” between the two nations.

But Tillerson said that should not irreversibly damage ties.

“The fact that we want to work with them on areas that are of serious national security interest to us, and at the same time having this extraordinary issue of mistrust that divides us, that is just what we in the diplomatic part of our relationship are required to do,” Tillerson said.

The United States sent its special representative on Ukraine, Kurt Volker, a former U.S. envoy to NATO, to Ukraine last month to assess the situation in the former Soviet republic.

Washington cites the conflict as a key obstacle to improved relations between Russia and the United States.

“We appointed a special envoy to engage with Russia but also coordinating with all parties. This is full visibility to all parties. We are not trying to cut some kind of deal on the side,” Tillerson said.

 

(Editing by Martin Petty and Nick Macfie)

 

U.S. Vice President Pence’s hawkish tone on Russia contrasts with Trump approach

Vice President Mike Pence delivers a speech during a meeting with U.S. troops taking part in NATO led joint military exercises Noble Partner 2017 at the Vaziani military base near Tbilisi, Georgia. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – When President Donald Trump scolded U.S. lawmakers on Thursday for clamping down on Moscow with new sanctions, his message clashed with the one that Vice President Mike Pence pushed during a four-day trip this week to Eastern Europe.

As he toured Estonia, Georgia and Montenegro, Pence said the sanctions passed overwhelmingly by Congress would send a unified message to Russia that it must change its behavior.

Trump, by contrast, took to Twitter to complain that the sanctions legislation, which he grudgingly signed, would send U.S.-Russia relations to “an all-time & very dangerous low.”

While some Republicans played down the divergence, critics said it exemplified an incoherent policy that would unsettle allies and fail to placate Moscow.

“There are some policies where a good cop/bad approach can work,” said Michael McFaul, a U.S. ambassador to Russia under former Democratic President Barack Obama.

But McFaul added that in the case of the Trump administration’s policy toward Russia, Moscow was likely to view the mixed signals as a sign of policy disarray.

If the Republican president continues to want improved relations with Russia, “he’s not achieving his goal,” McFaul said.

The White House’s two-track approach is mirrored in Moscow.

After Trump signed the new sanctions into law on Wednesday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the No. 2 in the Russian ruling hierarchy, launched a blistering attack on the White House.

Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin — who has tried to cultivate a personal rapport with Trump in phone conversations and face-to-face meetings at a summit in Germany — has not uttered a word in public about the sanctions since Trump approved them.

Trump has repeatedly said he wants better ties with Russia. But the country has loomed large over the first six months of his administration as a special counsel and U.S. congressional panels investigate allegations Moscow meddled in the 2016 U.S. election to help Trump and also examine any potential role by Trump aides.

Moscow denies any meddling and Trump denies any collusion by his campaign.

After Congress passed the sanctions legislation with a large enough margin to override a presidential veto, Trump signed it on Wednesday but criticized it as infringing on his authority and said he could make “far better deals” with governments than Congress could.

As a countermeasure to the sanctions, Putin called for reducing the staff of the U.S. diplomatic mission by 755 people and for the seizure of two properties near Moscow used by American diplomats.

‘SMALL AND BULLYING LEADER’

Jarrod Agen, deputy chief of staff to Pence, insisted that Trump and Pence were “completely aligned” on Russia.

“It was the president’s decision to send the vice president to the region. It was the president’s decision to deliver the message that the vice president delivered,” Agen told Reuters.

He added that Pence and Trump spoke every day during his trip and sometimes multiple times a day.

The disconnect between Pence and Trump on Russia is an anomaly. Pence usually goes to lengths to emphasize his loyalty to his boss and to downplay any differences.

Their different tone on Russia dates back to the U.S. presidential campaign. While Trump often praised Putin, Pence called the Russian president a “small and bullying leader” during a vice presidential debate last October.

During his trip this week, Pence condemned Russia for its “occupation of Georgia’s soil” as he spoke to U.S. and Georgian troops engaged in joint exercises only 40 miles (64 km) away from Russian troops in South Ossetia.

In Montenegro, Pence accused Russia of trying to “destabilize” the western Balkans – a message criticized by Moscow.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it was “regrettable to note that Washington is sliding ever deeper into the primitive ideology of the Cold War era, which is completely detached from reality.”

Traditional Republican conservatives – who favor a hard line on Moscow – have taken some comfort in Pence’s message, as have foreign leaders concerned about the impact of a rapprochement between Trump and Putin.

“What he (Pence) is saying is good and helpful and should be the policy of the Trump administration – and so for those of us who want it to be that way, we’re happy to embrace it,” said Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

“None of us know what Donald Trump thinks in his heart of hearts about Russia,” Pletka said. But she added: “If (Trump) were not comfortable with Pence making this trip, Pence would not be making this trip.”

Republican Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he would not “read a lot” into the different tones struck by Pence and Trump, although he welcomed Pence’s trip to the European countries.

Corker described Pence as the administration’s “ombudsman” on policy and said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, were key to developing Trump’s foreign policy.

A former U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was at pains to explain the disconnect between Pence and Trump on Russia.

“We are dealing with a major, open split between the president and basically the rest of his administration with the possible exception of Tillerson,” the former official said.

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Arshad Mohammed and Christian Lowe; Editing by Caren Bohan, Peter Cooney and Alister Doyle)

Grand jury issues subpoenas in connection with Trump Jr., Russian lawyer meeting: sources

Donald Trump Jr. stands onstage with his father Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump after Trump's debate against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S. September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

By Karen Freifeld and John Walcott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A grand jury has issued subpoenas in connection with a June 2016 meeting that included President Donald Trump’s son, his son-in-law and a Russian lawyer, two sources told Reuters on Thursday, signaling an investigation is gathering pace into suspected Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

The sources added that U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller had convened the grand jury investigation in Washington to help examine allegations of Russian interference in the vote. One of the sources said it was assembled in recent weeks.

Russia has loomed large over the first six months of the Trump presidency. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia worked to tilt the presidential election in Trump’s favor. Mueller, who was appointed special counsel in May, is leading the probe, which also examines potential collusion by the Trump campaign with Russia.

Moscow denies any meddling and Trump denies any collusion by his campaign, while regularly denouncing the investigations as political witch hunts.

At a rally in Huntington, West Virginia, on Thursday night, Trump said: “Most people know there were no Russians in our campaign. … We didn’t win because of Russia. We won because of you.”

Mueller’s use of a grand jury could give him expansive tools to pursue evidence, including issuing subpoenas and compelling witnesses to testify. The Wall Street Journal earlier reported a grand jury was impaneled.

A spokesman for Mueller declined comment.

A grand jury is a group of ordinary citizens who, working behind closed doors, considers evidence of potential criminal wrongdoing that a prosecutor is investigating and decides whether charges should be brought.

“This is a serious development in the Mueller investigation,” said Paul Callan, a former prosecutor.

“Given that Mueller inherited an investigation that began months ago, it would suggest that he has uncovered information pointing in the direction of criminal charges. But against whom is the real question.”

A lawyer for Trump, Jay Sekulow, appeared to downplay the significance of a grand jury, telling Fox News: “This is not an unusual move.”

U.S. stocks and the dollar weakened following the news, while U.S. Treasury securities gained.

It was not immediately clear to whom subpoenas were issued and the sources did not elaborate.

Some lawyers said it would put pressure on potential witnesses to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation.

“When someone gets a subpoena to testify, that can drive home the seriousness of the investigation,” said David Sklansky, a professor at Stanford Law School and a former federal prosecutor.

In 2005, a grand jury convened by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald returned an indictment of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a top aide to then-Vice President Dick Cheney.

“A special counsel can bring an indictment and it has happened before,” said Renato Mariotti, a partner at the law firm Thompson Coburn and a former federal prosecutor.

DAMAGING INFORMATION

News last month of the meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer who he was told had damaging information about his father’s presidential rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton, fueled questions about the campaign’s dealings with Moscow.

The Republican president has defended his son’s behavior, saying many people would have taken that meeting.

Trump’s son-in-law and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort also attended the meeting.

One of the sources said major Russian efforts to interfere in the election on Trump’s behalf began shortly after the June meeting, making it a focus of Mueller’s investigation.

Ty Cobb, special counsel to the president, said he was not aware that Mueller had started using a new grand jury.

“Grand jury matters are typically secret,” Cobb said. “The White House favors anything that accelerates the conclusion of his work fairly. … The White House is committed to fully cooperating with Mr. Mueller.”

John Dowd, one of Trump’s personal lawyers, said: “With respect to the news of the grand jury, I can tell you President Trump is not under investigation.”

A spokesman for Manafort declined to comment.

Lawyers for Trump Jr. and Kushner did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

‘NOT THINKING OF FIRING MUELLER’

Trump has questioned Mueller’s impartiality and members of Congress from both parties have expressed concern that Trump might dismiss him. Republican and Democratic senators introduced two pieces of legislation on Thursday seeking to block Trump from firing Mueller.

Sekulow denied that was Trump’s plan.

“The president is not thinking of firing Bob Mueller,” Sekulow said.

One source briefed on the matter said Mueller was investigating whether, either at the meeting or afterward, anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign encouraged the Russians to start releasing material they had been collecting on the Clinton campaign since March 2016.

Another source familiar with the inquiry said that while the president himself was not now under investigation, Mueller’s investigation was seeking to determine whether he knew of the June 9 meeting in advance or was briefed on it afterward.

Reuters earlier reported that Mueller’s team was examining money-laundering accusations against Manafort and hoped to push him to cooperate with their probe into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. It is not known if the grand jury is investigating those potential charges.

(Additional reporting by Noeleen Walder, Jan Wolfe, Anthony Lin, Jonathan Stempel, Tom Hals, Julia Ainsley, Joel Schectman, Yara Bayoumy, Patricia Zengerle and Eric Beech; Writing by Phil Stewart; Editing by Bill Trott and Peter Cooney)

Eyeing Russia, U.S. military shifts toward more global war games

U.S. army soldiers leave Black Hawk helicopter during Suwalki gap defence exercise in Mikyciai, Lithuania, June 17, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

By Andrea Shalal

STUTTGART, Germany (Reuters) – The U.S. military is moving toward more global exercises to better prepare for a more assertive Russia and other worldwide threats, a senior officer said in an interview with Reuters.

Air Force Brigadier General John Healy, who directs exercises for U.S. forces in Europe, said officials realized they needed to better prepare for increasingly complex threats across all domains of war – land, sea, air, space and cyber.

Some smaller-scale war games with a global focus had already occurred, but the goal was to carry out more challenging exercises by fiscal year 2020 that involved forces from all nine U.S. combatant commands – instead of focusing on specific regions or one military service, such as the Marines.

“What we’re eventually going toward is a globally integrated exercise program so that we (are) … all working off the same sheet of music in one combined global exercise,” Healy said in an interview this week.

He said war games and training were imperative to rehearse for possible conflicts and they needed to reflect the global nature of today’s military threats, including cyber warfare.

Healy said Russia was his main focus in Europe, and officials were keeping a close watch on Moscow’s Zapad military exercises that begin next month and which experts say could involve about 100,000 troops.

He said Russian observers attended recent U.S. and NATO exercises in the Black Sea region, but Moscow had not extended a similar invitation to its own war games. “They’re not being as transparent as we are,” he said.

Moscow says its war games will involve less than 13,000 troops and so do not require invitations to outside observers.

Healy said an initial assessment of a range of exercises conducted across Europe this summer with over 40,000 U.S. and allied forces had been positive, but a deeper assessment would be completed in October.

As a deterrent to Russia after its 2014 annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine, U.S. and NATO forces have boosted their presence and training in Europe.

This has included the addition of four NATO battle groups with 1,000 soldiers each in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, all of which have borders with Russia.

Next year, the U.S. military plans 11 major exercises that will take in a range of NATO allies from Iceland to Britain, the Baltic states, and possibly Finland, according to Healy. Those exercises too will bring together air, ground and naval forces.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. says ‘grave’ consequences if Syria’s al Qaeda dominates Idlib province

A general view taken with a drone shows the Clock Tower of the rebel-held Idlib city, Syria June 8, 2017. Picture taken June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – The United States warned a takeover of rebel-held northwestern Idlib province by Syrian jihadists linked to a former al Qaeda affiliate would have grave consequences and make it difficult to dissuade Russia from renewing bombing that recently stopped.

In an online letter posted late on Wednesday, the top State Department official in charge of Syria policy, Michael Ratney, said the recent offensive by Hayat Tahrir al Sham, spearheaded by former al Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front, had cemented its grip on the province and put “the future of northern Syria in big danger”.

“The north of Syria witnessed one of its biggest tragedies,” said Ratney who was behind secret talks in Amman with Moscow over the ceasefire in southwest Syria announced by U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in July. It was the first such U.S.-Russian effort under the Trump administration to end Syria’s civil war.

“In the event of the hegemony of Nusra Front on Idlib, it would be difficult for the United States to convince the international parties not to take the necessary military measures,” the top State Department diplomat said.

Mainly Islamist rebels swept through Idlib province in 2015, inflicting a string of defeats on the Syrian army until Russia stepped in to reverse the tide of the civil war in favour of President Bashar al Assad.

Idlib province, the only Syrian province that is entirely under rebel control, has been a major target of Russian and Syrian aerial strikes that caused hundreds of civilians casualties.

The agricultural region had a respite since a Russian-Turkish brokered accord reached last May approved four de-escalation zones across Syria, among them one in Idlib province.

Many locals fear the jihadists’ hold on Idlib will again make the province a target of relentless attacks by Russian and Syrian forces and turn it into another devastated Aleppo or Mosul.

More than two million people live in Idlib, which has become an overcrowded refuge for many of the displaced, including rebel fighters and their families.

“JOLANI AND HIS GANG”

“Everyone should know that Jolani and his gang are the ones who bear responsibility for the grave consequences that will befall Idlib,” said Ratney, referring to former Nusra head Abu Mohammad al Jolani who effectively leads Hayat Tahrir al Sham.

In less than three days Jolani’s fighters overran their powerful rival, the more mainstream Ahrar al Sham group, seizing control of a strategic border strip with Turkey in some of the heaviest inter-rebel fighting since the start of the conflict.

An emboldened Hayat Tahrir al Sham has sought to allay fears it did not seek to dominate the whole province but suspicions run high among many in the region about their ultimate goals to monopolise power.

The jihadists have linked up with Western-backed Free Syria Army (FSA) groups who continue to maintain a foothold in several towns in the province. The south of the region is still in the hands of rival groups, including Ahrar al Sham but the jihadists have been trying to extend their control.

Ratney told rebel groups, who have been forced to work with the jihadists out of expediency or for self preservation, to steer away from the group before it was “too late.”

He said Washington would consider any organisation in Idlib province that was a front for the militants a part of al Qaeda’s network.

The expanding influence of the former al Qaeda has triggered civilian protests across towns in the province with some calling for the group to leave towns and not interfere in how they are run.

Nusra and its leaders would remain a target of Washington even if they adopted new names in an attempt to deny Washington and other powers a pretext to attack them, the U.S. official said.

The jihadist sweep across Idlib province has raised concerns that the closure of some crossing points on the border with Turkey could choke off the flow of aid and essential goods.

Washington remained committed to delivering aid in channels that avoided them falling into the hands of the hardline jihadists, Ratney said echoing similar concerns by NGO’s and aid bodies after their recent gains.

The main border crossing of Bab al Hawa with Turkey which the al Qaeda fighters threatened to take over has however been re-opened with a resumption of aid and goods to the province that has relieved many people.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Andrew Hay)

Russia takes over U.S. compound in Moscow in retaliation over sanctions

Russia takes over U.S. compound in Moscow in retaliation over sanctions

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian authorities on Wednesday took over a summer-house compound in Moscow leased by the U.S. embassy, five days after the Kremlin ordered Washington to slash its diplomatic presence in Russia.

In retaliation for new U.S. sanctions, President Vladimir Putin has ordered the United States to cut around 60 percent of its diplomatic staff in Russia by Sept. 1, and said Moscow would seize a dacha country villa used by U.S. embassy staff and a warehouse.

U.S. employees cleared out the dacha on Tuesday and a Reuters journalist who visited the property on Wednesday saw a large metal padlock securing the front gate.

The one-storey building and courtyard, previously used by diplomatic staff at weekends and to host embassy parties, was empty and cleared of barbecue equipment and garden furniture.

Two policemen in a car in front of the main entrance said they had been instructed to guard the property and did not expect any visits from U.S. or Russian officials.

“I don’t know when this situation will change,” one of the policemen said.

Maria Olson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy, had no immediate comment when contacted by Reuters. She was quoted by Russia’s Interfax news agency as saying the embassy had retrieved all its possessions from the villa, and from the warehouse.

Putin said on Sunday Russia had ordered the United States to cut 755 of its 1,200 diplomatic staff in its embassy and consular operations, though many of those let go will be Russian citizens, with the United States allowed to choose who leaves.

The ultimatum issued by the Russian leader is a display to voters at home that he is prepared to stand up to Washington – but is also carefully calibrated to avoid directly affecting the U.S. investment he needs, or burning his bridges with U.S. President Donald Trump.

One local Russian employee at the embassy, who declined to be named when speaking to the media, said staff were still in the dark about their future employment.

“They say they will have to cut a lot of jobs – not just diplomats and technical staff, but also in the ancillary services, including drivers, janitors and cooks,” he said. “I hope I won’t be in trouble, but who knows.”

(Reporting by Jack Stubbs and Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Exclusive: Russian losses in Syria jump in 2017, Reuters estimates show

A portrait of Russian private military contractor Yevgeni Chuprunov is seen at his grave in Novomoskovsk, in Tula region, Russia June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Maria Tsvetkova

By Maria Tsvetkova

BELORECHENSK, Russia (Reuters) – Ten Russian servicemen have been killed fighting in Syria so far this year, according to statements from the Defence Ministry.

But based on accounts from families and friends of the dead and local officials, Reuters estimates the actual death toll among Russian soldiers and private contractors was at least 40.

That tally over seven months exceeds the 36 Russian armed personnel and contractors estimated by Reuters to have been killed in Syria over the previous 15 months, indicating a significant rise in the rate of battlefield losses as the country’s involvement deepens.

Most of the deaths reported by Reuters have been confirmed by more than one person, including those who knew the deceased or local officials. In nine cases, Reuters corroborated a death reported in local or social media with another source.

The data may be on the conservative side, as commanders encourage the families of those killed to keep quiet, relatives and friends of several fallen soldiers, both servicemen and contractors, said on condition of anonymity.

(For a graphic on Russian casualties in Syria’s conflict click http://tmsnrt.rs/2hjq3Et)

The true level of casualties in the Syrian conflict is a sensitive subject in a country where positive coverage of the conflict features prominently in the media and ahead of a presidential election next year that incumbent Vladimir Putin is expected to win.

The scale of Russian military casualties in peace time has been a state secret since Putin issued a decree three months before Russia launched its operation in Syria. While Russia does not give total casualties, it does disclose some deaths.

Discrepancies in data may be explained partly by the fact that Russia does not openly acknowledge that private contractors fight alongside the army; their presence in Syria would appear to flout a legal ban on civilians fighting abroad as mercenaries.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that any Russian private citizens fighting alongside the Syrian army are volunteers. “If there are Russian citizens in Syria as volunteers and so on, they have nothing to do with the state,” Peskov said in response to a question about the Reuters story on a daily conference call with media.

The Defence Ministry denied Reuters findings on Russian losses. “This is not the first time that Reuters is attempting to discredit by any means Russia’s operation aiming to destroy Islamic State terrorists and return peace to Syria,” ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a statement on Wednesday.

He said the Russian military is focused on delivering humanitarian aid and negotiating peace in Syria, and called information about Russian private military contractors “a myth”.

The government has previously denied understating casualty figures in Syria, where Moscow entered the conflict nearly two years ago in support of President Bashar al-Assad, one of its closest Middle East allies.

Months after soldiers die, Russia quietly acknowledges some losses, including private military contractors. Their families get state posthumous medals and local authorities sometimes name schools, which fallen soldiers attended as children, after them.

Of the 40 killed, Reuters has evidence that 21 were private contractors and 17 soldiers. The status of the remaining two people is unclear.

MISSION CREEP?

Little is known about the nature of operations in Syria involving Russian nationals. Russia initially focused on providing air support to Syrian forces, but the rate of casualties points to more ground intervention.

The last time Russia lost airmen in Syria was in August, 2016, and it suffered its first serious casualties on the ground this year in January, when six private military contractors died in one day.

Reuters has previously reported gaps between its casualty estimates and official figures, although the difference widened markedly this year.

Russian authorities disclosed that 23 servicemen were killed in Syria over 15 months in 2015-2016, whereas Reuters calculated the death toll at 36, a figure that included private contractors.

IN IT FOR THE MONEY?

One private contractor whose death in Syria was not officially acknowledged was 40-year-old Alexander Promogaibo, from the southern Russian town of Belorechensk. He died in Syria on April 25, his childhood friend Artur Marobyan told Reuters.

Promogaibo had earlier fought in the Chechen war with an elite Russian paratroops unit, according to Marobyan, who was his classmate at school.

He said his dead friend had struggled to get by while working as a guard in his hometown and needed money to build a house to live with his wife and small daughter.

Last year he decided to join private military contractors working closely with the Russian Defence Ministry in Syria and was promised a monthly wage of 360,000 roubles ($6,000), about nine times higher than the average Russian salary.

According to multiple sources, Russian private military contractors are secretly deployed in Syria under command of a man nicknamed Wagner.

Private military companies officially don’t exist in Russia. Reuters was unable to get in touch with commanders of Russian private contractors in Syria through people who know them.

“I told him it was dangerous and he wouldn’t be paid the money for doing nothing, but couldn’t convince him,” Marobyan said, recalling one of his last conversations with Promogaibo.

According to Marobyan, he got the job offer at a military facility belonging to Russia’s military intelligence agency (GRU) near the village of Molkino. The agency is a part of the Defence Ministry and does not have its own spokesperson.

The Kremlin did not reply to requests for comment.

Promogaibo went there for physical fitness tests and failed twice. He was accepted only after showing up for the third time having losing 55 kg after seven months of training.

“He left (Russia) in February,” said Marobyan, who only learnt that his friend had been killed in Syria when his body was delivered to his hometown in early May.

One more person who knew Promogaibo said he died in Syria.

Reuters was unable to find out where in Syria Promogaibo was killed.

Igor Strelkov, former leader of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine who stayed in touch with Russian volunteers who switched to battlefields in Syria, said in late May that military contractors from Russia recently fought near the Syrian town of Homs alongside Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

GRAVESTONES COVERED UP

Fifty-one-year-old Russian Gennady Perfilyev, a lieutenant colonel, was deployed in Syria as a military adviser. He was killed in shelling during a reconnaissance trip on April 8, his former classmates at Chelyabinsk Higher Tank Command School said.

“Several grammas of metal hit his heart,” Pave Bykov, one of his classmates, told Reuters.

One more classmate confirmed to Reuters Perfilyev was killed in Syria on a reconnaissance trip.

His name has not appeared in the Defence Ministry’s official notices of military deaths in Syria.

He was buried at a new heavily guarded military cemetery outside Moscow where visitors have to show their passports and are asked at the entrance whose grave they want to visit.

On Perfilyev’s gravestone, his name and the date of his death are covered by his portrait.

Several other servicemen killed in Syria and buried nearby also have photos obscuring their names and the dates of their death, which if visible would make it easier to trace how and where they died.

Names on other graves, of non-Syrian casualties, were visible.

Asked if this was a special secrecy measure, a cemetery official, Andrei Sosnovsky, said the names were covered up temporarily until proper monuments could be built.

($1 = 59.8930 roubles)

(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk in Moscow, Natalya Shurmina in Yekaterinburg, Russia; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Mike Collett-White)