Rolling Thunder veterans group makes final ride through Washington

USMC Staff Sgt. Tim Chambers (ret.) salutes motorcycle riders as they pass by during the 32nd Annual, and possibly final, Rolling Thunder "Ride for Freedom" during Memorial Day weekend to support veterans and call attention to POWs and MIAs, in Washington, U.S., May 26, 2019.REUTERS/Mike Theiler

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Rolling Thunder motorcycles that descend on Washington, D.C. every Memorial Day weekend made their final ride on Sunday, ending a three-decades-old tradition that was initially meant to serve to pay tribute to fallen and missing-in-action soldiers.

The veterans advocacy group, formed in 1987 by 73-year-old Vietnam veteran Artie Muller, got its name from a 1965 bombing campaign against North Vietnam dubbed “Operation Rolling Thunder.”

A motorcycle rider with American flag fluttering passes crowds during the 32nd Annual, and possibly final, Rolling Thunder "Ride for Freedom" during Memorial Day weekend to support veterans and call attention to POWs and MIAs, in Washington, U.S., May 26, 2019.REUTERS/Mike Theiler

A motorcycle rider with American flag fluttering passes crowds during the 32nd Annual, and possibly final, Rolling Thunder “Ride for Freedom” during Memorial Day weekend to support veterans and call attention to POWs and MIAs, in Washington, U.S., May 26, 2019.REUTERS/Mike Theiler

President Donald Trump gave the group a shout out on Twitter on Sunday, where he pledged that the annual rides in Washington would continue.

“The Great Patriots of Rolling Thunder WILL be coming back to Washington, D.C. next year, & hopefully for many years to come,” Trump wrote.

For years, the group has become synonymous with the annual Memorial Day celebration in the nation’s capital, where thousands of motorcycles meet in the Pentagon parking lot and continue their ride across the Memorial Bridge toward the National Mall.

Late last year, the group announced it would be making this May its final ride, citing a lack of cooperation by law enforcement and rising costs of permits.

The Defense Department told ABC News that they support peaceful demonstrations and were prepared to support the 2019 Rolling Thunder ride.

In an interview with Reuters TV, Muller said that while this will be the final ride, the event will also mark the beginning of a new chapter.

“We’re not really talking about a legacy here because we’re not going away. We’re just spreading out and we hope to get stronger. That’s what our idea is on this, so coast to coast — North, South, Midwest,” Muller said.

(Reporting by Temis Tormo in Washington; Writing by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Pentagon looks to exoskeletons to build ‘super-soldiers’

Keith Maxwell, Senior Product Manager of Exoskeleton Technologies at Lockheed Martin, demonstrates an Exoskeleton during a Exoskeleton demonstration and discussion, in Washington, U.S., November 29, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Army is investing millions of dollars in experimental exoskeleton technology to make soldiers stronger and more resilient, in what experts say is part of a broader push into advanced gear to equip a new generation of “super-soldiers.”

The technology is being developed by Lockheed Martin Corp with a license from Canada-based B-TEMIA, which first developed the exoskeletons to help people with mobility difficulties stemming from medical ailments like multiple sclerosis and severe osteoarthritis.

Worn over a pair of pants, the battery-operated exoskeleton uses a suite of sensors, artificial intelligence and other technology to aid natural movements.

For the U.S. military, the appeal of such technology is clear: Soldiers now deploy into war zones bogged down by heavy but critical gear like body armor, night-vision goggles and advanced radios. Altogether, that can weigh anywhere from 90 to 140 pounds (40-64 kg), when the recommended limit is just 50 pounds (23 kg).

“That means when people do show up to the fight, they’re fatigued,” said Paul Scharre at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), who helped lead a series of studies on exoskeletons and other advanced gear.

“The fundamental challenge we’re facing with infantry troops is they’re carrying too much weight.”

Lockheed Martin said on Thursday it won a $6.9 million award from the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center to research and develop the exoskeleton, called ONYX, under a two-year, sole-source agreement.

Keith Maxwell, Senior Product Manager of Exoskeleton Technologies at Lockheed Martin, speaks during a Exoskeleton demonstration and discussion, in Washington, U.S., November 29, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago

Keith Maxwell, Senior Product Manager of Exoskeleton Technologies at Lockheed Martin, speaks during an Exoskeleton demonstration and discussion, in Washington, U.S., November 29, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago

Keith Maxwell, the exoskeleton technologies manager at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, said people in his company’s trials who wore the exoskeletons showed far more endurance.

“You get to the fight fresh. You’re not worn out,” Maxwell said.

Maxwell, who demonstrated a prototype, said each exoskeleton was expected to cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.

B-TEMIA’s medically focused system, called Keeogo, is sold in Canada for about C$39,000 ($30,000), company spokeswoman Pamela Borges said.

The United States is not the only country looking at exoskeleton technology.

Samuel Bendett at the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded U.S. research and development center, said Russia and China were also investing in exoskeleton technologies, “in parallel” to the U.S. advances.

Russia, in particular, was working on several versions of exoskeletons, including one that it tested recently in Syria, Bendett said.

The CNAS analysis of the exoskeleton was part of a larger look by the Washington-based think tank at next-generation technologies that can aid soldiers, from better helmets to shield them from blast injuries to the introduction of robotic “teammates” to help resupply them in war zones.

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(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Israel forces evict Israeli settlers in West Bank land dispute case

A protestor prays before Israeli security forces come to evacuate 15 Jewish settler families from the illegal outpost of Netiv Ha'avot in the Israeli occupied West Bank. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Dedi Hayun

NETIV HA’AVOT, West Bank (Reuters) – Israeli security forces on Tuesday began evicting Jewish settlers from 15 homes which Israel’s highest court ruled were built illegally on privately-owned Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank.

Under a Supreme Court order, the 15 dwellings are to be demolished within the next few days. Hundreds of young pro-settlement activists gathered on Tuesday in several of the homes slated for demolition. Some of the protesters climbed onto the roof of one dwelling and hoisted Israeli flags.

A few scuffles ensued with police but for the most part, demonstrators offered passive resistance and were carried away by officers who grabbed hold of their arms and legs. In one home, an Israeli policeman hugged a weeping man as he escorted him out.

Most countries consider all Israeli settlements built in the West Bank and other land captured in the 1967 Middle East war as illegal. Israel disputes this, and there are now about 500,000 Israeli settlers living among some 2.6 million Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

The entire Netiv Ha’avot settlement was built without official Israeli authorization, but the government has retroactively agreed to allow the rest of the community to stay once the 15 homes built on private Palestinian land come down.

“People are being torn from their houses and families are sad,” said Elazar Herz Van Spiegel, 45, a Netiv Ha’avot settler, whose home was not one of those due to be demolished. “But … we are very optimistic about the future.”

Palestinians dismissed the dismantling of a small number of homes as an empty gesture.

Wassel Abu Youssef, a Palestine Liberation Organization official said: “All settlement is illegal and must be removed. Israel is trying to fool world public opinion by removing some homes here and there while it continues to build settlements.”

The Israeli government has announced a plan to pay compensation to the families whose homes are to be razed and rehouse them on adjacent tracts not owned by individual Palestinians.

The remainder of Netiv Ha’avot, where some 20 houses stand on land not covered by the court ruling, is to be granted legal status and designated a neighborhood of an Israeli government-recognized settlement, Elazar, the cabinet decided in February.

Israeli authorities have carried out similar evictions in the past under court order. In February 2017, some 300 settlers were removed from the unauthorized outpost of Amona in the West Bank.

But settlement expansion, which has drawn Palestinian and international condemnation, has continued, with little objection from the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump in contrast to criticism voiced by his predecessor Barack Obama.

Palestinians seek to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and say Israeli settlements are intended to deny them a viable and contiguous country. Israel’s refusal to halt settlement expansion was one of the reasons peace talks collapsed in 2014.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Peter Graff)

Victims of Mexico military abuses shudder at new security law

Activists hold a protest against a law that militarises crime fighting in the country outside the Senate in Mexico City, Mexico December 14, 2017. Placards read, "No to the Militarisation in the Country". Picture taken December 14, 2017.

By Lizbeth Diaz

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Human rights activist Juan Carlos Soni fears a new security law passed by Mexico’s Congress on Friday could mean his death after he suffered beatings, electrocution and abduction at the hands of the armed forces four years ago.

Bucking widespread protests from rights groups, Congress approved the Law of Internal Security, which will formally regulate the deployment of the military in Mexico more than a decade after the government dispatched it to fight drug cartels.

Proponents of the law argue it is needed to delimit the armed forces’ role in combating crime, while critics fear it will enshrine their purview, encouraging greater impunity and abuses in a country where justice is often notoriously weak.

Multiple human rights groups and international organizations, including the United Nations, attacked the bill, mindful of the dozens of reported cases of abuses by members of the military in Mexico over the past 11 years.

Soni, 46, a teacher from the central state of San Luis Potosi, whose case was documented by Mexico’s national human rights commission, related how in 2013 he was detained, blindfolded and tortured by marines after being warned by them to stop looking into alleged rights abuses.

While being held in a cellar, Soni said, he was made to leave fingerprints on guns and bags of marijuana and cocaine.

He was then arrested on charges of carrying an illegal weapon and drug possession, and spent 16 months in prison until he was released with the aid of U.N. representatives in Mexico.

“If they give them that power and send out the Navy again, I’m going to seek political asylum in another country,” Soni told Reuters shortly before the law passed Congress. “Much though I love my country, if I stay, they’ll kill me.”

The Navy subsequently acknowledged participating in abuses against Soni, but he said he has yet to receive any restitution.

The Navy did not immediately reply to request for comment.

“THE JOB WE WERE ASKED TO DO”

Well over 100,000 people have been killed in turf wars between the gangs and clashes with security force since former President Felipe Calderon first sent in the military to combat drug gangs shortly after taking office in December 2006.

Reports of abuse gradually crept up as the battle with the cartels intensified, and tens of thousands of people have gone missing or disappeared in the tumult.

Many of the most damaging scandals, from extra-judicial killings of suspected gang members to questions over the army’s failure to stop the disappearance of 43 students near a base in 2014, have come under President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Opponents of the military deployment say it has undermined trust in one of the most respected institutions in Mexico, as exposure to sickening violence and organized crime corroded the Army and the Navy just as it had the police.

“We don’t want to be on the streets, but this is the job we were asked to do,” said a soldier who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Noting that personnel were often separated from their families for long periods, the soldier said the task of attempting to keep order was made harder by the lack of regulations governing how the military should proceed.

“It should be the police who are doing this, but they don’t have the necessary training,” he said.

Under Calderon and Pena Nieto, the armed forces played a major role in capturing or killing most of the top capos in Mexico. But they have not managed to pacify the country.

October was the most violent month on record since the government began keeping regular monthly tallies 20 years ago.

Relatives of the victims of abuses believe the new law will only give the military more cover to do what it wants.

“The Law of Internal Security won’t just protect them, it offers them more faculties to carry out human rights violations masquerading as security operations,” said Grace Mahogany Fernandez, whose brother was kidnapped and disappeared by the armed forces in December 2008 in the northern state of Coahuila.

(Editing by Dave Graham and Leslie Adler)

North Korea replaces soldiers, South Korea awards medals after defector’s border dash

North Korea replaces soldiers, South Korea awards medals after defector's border dash

By James Pearson and Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has reportedly replaced guards and fortified a section of its border with South Korea where a North Korean soldier defected last week, while South Korean and U.S. soldiers have been decorated for their role in the defector’s rescue.

The North Korean defector was shot and wounded by his fellow soldiers as he dashed into the South Korean side of the Joint Security Area (JSA) last week.

The South Korean and U.S. soldiers who led a rescue attempt to drag the gravely injured soldier to safety have been awarded medals, according to U.S. Forces Korea.

A group of senior diplomats based in Seoul visited the JSA on Wednesday morning where they saw five North Korean workers digging a deep trench in the area where the soldier had dashed across the line after getting his jeep stuck in a small ditch, a member of the diplomatic delegation told Reuters on Friday.

In a photograph of the visit posted to the Twitter account of acting U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Marc Knapper, North Korean workers could be seen using shovels to dig a deep trench on the North Korean side of the line as soldiers stood guard.

“The workers were being watched very closely by the KPA guards, not just the two in the photo, but others out of shot behind the building,” said the diplomat, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation.

According to an intelligence official cited by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, the North has replaced the 35-40 soldiers it had guarding the JSA at the time of the incident.

“We’re closely monitoring the North Korean military’s movement in the JSA,” a South Korean defense ministry official told reporters, without confirming the reduction in border guards. “There are limits as to what we can say about things we know.”

Reuters was unable to independently verify the reports, although photos taken by Knapper and other diplomats of soldiers guarding the area where workers were digging the trench showed them dressed in slightly different uniforms to the ones usually worn by North Korea’s JSA guards.

Two new trees had also been planted in the small space between the ditch and the line with the South, the diplomat told Reuters, in an apparent effort to make it more difficult for would-be defectors to drive across the ground.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) said it had awarded its own JSA soldiers – three South Korean and three U.S. soldiers – the Army Commendation medal in recognition for their efforts in rescuing the defector.

The medals were personally handed out by USFK Commander Vincent Brooks in a ceremony on Thursday, according to USFK’s Facebook page.

The soldiers had been responsible for dragging the wounded North Korean soldier to safety in a daring rescue seen in security camera footage released by the United Nations Command earlier this week.

Pyongyang has not commented on the defection of its soldier, who is now in stable condition despite sustaining multiple injuries sustained from gunshot wounds to his arm and torso.

The young soldier, known only by his family name Oh, is a quiet, pleasant man who has nightmares about being returned to the North, his surgeon told Reuters on Thursday.

(For a graphic, click http://reut.rs/2jfoZPI)

(Reporting by Christine Kim and James Pearson; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

Zimbabwe’s army seizes power, targets ‘criminals’ around Mugabe

Zimbabwe's army seizes power, targets 'criminals' around Mugabe

By MacDonald Dzirutwe

HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwe’s military seized power early on Wednesday saying it was targeting “criminals” around President Robert Mugabe, the only ruler the country has known in its 37 years of independence.

Soldiers seized the state broadcaster. Armored vehicles blocked roads to the main government offices, parliament and the courts in central Harare, while taxis ferried commuters to work nearby. The atmosphere in the capital remained calm.

The military said Mugabe and his family were safe. Mugabe himself spoke by telephone to the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, and told him he was confined to his home but fine, the South African presidency said in a statement.

It was not clear whether the apparent military coup would bring a formal end to Mugabe’s rule; the main goal of the generals appears to be preventing Mugabe’s 52-year-old wife Grace from succeeding him.

But whether or not he remains in office, it is likely to mark the end of the total dominance of the country by Mugabe, the last of Africa’s generation of state founders still in power.

Mugabe, still seen by many Africans as an anti-colonial hero, is reviled in the West as a despot whose disastrous handling of the economy and willingness to resort to violence to maintain power destroyed one of Africa’s most promising states.

He plunged Zimbabwe into a fresh political crisis last week by firing his vice president and presumed successor. The generals believed that move was aimed at clearing a path for Grace Mugabe to take over and announced on Monday they were prepared to “step in” if purges of their allies did not end.

“We are only targeting criminals around him (Mugabe) who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice,” Major General SB Moyo, Chief of Staff Logistics, said on television.

“As soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy.”

CAREENING OFF A CLIFF

Whatever the final outcome, the events could signal a once-in-a-generation change for the southern African nation, once one of the continent’s most prosperous, reduced to poverty by an economic crisis Mugabe’s opponents have long blamed on him.

Even many of Mugabe’s most loyal supporters over the decades had come to oppose the rise of his wife, who courted the powerful youth wing of the ruling party but alienated the military, led by Mugabe’s former guerrilla comrades from the 1970s independence struggle.

“This is a correction of a state that was careening off the cliff,” Chris Mutsvangwa, the leader of the liberation war veterans, told Reuters. “It’s the end of a very painful and sad chapter in the history of a young nation, in which a dictator, as he became old, surrendered his court to a gang of thieves around his wife.”

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change called for a peaceful return to constitutional democracy, adding it hoped the military intervention would lead to the “establishment of a stable, democratic and progressive nation state”.

Zuma – speaking on behalf of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – expressed hope there would be no unconstitutional changes of government in Zimbabwe as that would be contrary to both SADC and African Union positions.

Zuma urged Zimbabwe’s government and the military “to resolve the political impasse amicably”.

Zimbabwe struggles: http://reut.rs/2zZkX8O

ECONOMIC DECLINE

Zimbabwe’s economic decline over the past two decades has been a drag on the southern African region. Millions of economic refugees have streamed out of the country, mostly to neighboring South Africa.

Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo, a leading member of the ruling ZANU-PF party’s ‘G40’ faction, led by Grace Mugabe, had been detained by the military, a government source said.

Soldiers deployed across Harare on Tuesday and seized the state broadcaster after ZANU-PF accused the head of the military of treason, prompting speculation of a coup.

Just 24 hours after military chief General Constantino Chiwenga threatened to intervene to end a purge of his allies in ZANU-PF, a Reuters reporter saw armored personnel carriers on main roads around the capital.

Aggressive soldiers told passing cars to keep moving through the darkness. “Don’t try anything funny. Just go,” one barked at Reuters on Harare Drive.

Two hours later, soldiers overran the headquarters of the ZBC, the state broadcaster, a Mugabe mouthpiece, and ordered staff to leave. Several ZBC workers were manhandled, two members of staff and a human rights activist said.

Shortly afterwards, three explosions rocked the center of the capital, Reuters witnesses said.

The United States and Britain advised their citizens in Harare to stay indoors because of “political uncertainty.”

The southern African nation had been on edge since Monday when Chiwenga, Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, said he was prepared to “step in” to end a purge of supporters of Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice president sacked last week.

In the last year, a chronic absence of dollars has led to long queues outside banks and an economic and financial collapse that many fear will rival the meltdown of 2007-2008, when inflation topped out at 500 billion percent.

Imported goods are running out and economists say that, by some measures, inflation is now at 50 percent a month.

According to a trove of intelligence documents reviewed by Reuters this year, Mnangagwa has been planning to revitalize the economy by bringing back thousands of white farmers kicked off their land nearly two decades ago and patching up relations with the World Bank and IMF.

Zimbabwe dollar: http://tmsnrt.rs/2ALN6xd

(Additional reporting by Ed Cropley, James Macharia, Joe Brock and Alexander Winning in Johannesburg; Writing by James Macharia and Ed Cropley; Graphic by Jermey Gaunt Editing by Janet Lawrence and Peter Graff)

French, Nigerien forces operating where three U.S. soldiers killed

By Boureima Balima

NIAMEY (Reuters) – French and Nigerien troops were conducting operations on Thursday in a region of Niger where three U.S. Army Special Forces members were killed the day before, becoming the first American soldiers to die in West Africa in decades.

At least one Nigerien soldier was also killed and two U.S. soldiers wounded in the attack, which took place in a southwestern Niger region where insurgents are active, U.S. Africa Command spokeswoman Robyn Mack said .

France’s regional Barkhane force was asked to support a counterattack after the Niger and U.S. troops were ambushed, French army spokesman Colonel Patrick Steiger told a news conference in Paris.

“It’s not clear if the attackers knew the Americans were present,” said a Western security source. “Initial information suggests there was a trap that appeared designed to get them out of their vehicles and then they opened fire.”

Insurgents in the area include militants from al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb and a local branch of Islamic State, Mack said. The Western security source said al Qaeda and a relatively new group called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara were the main suspects, although no one had yet claimed responsibility.

Two other Niger security sources said four military helicopters had been sent to the region and that reinforcements arrived on Thursday morning in the Tillaberi area, where the attack took place.

A Nigerien regional official said on Wednesday five Niger soldiers were killed in the attack, but a statement by U.S. Africa Command on Thursday said only one “partner nation member” had died.

“U.S. service members were providing advice and assistance to Nigerien security force counter-terror operations when they came under fire from hostile fighters,” Mack told Reuters.

In a speech on Thursday, Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou condemned the attack. “Our country has just been the victim of a terrorist attack that claimed a large number of victims,” he said.

Islamist militants form part of a regional insurgency in the poor, sparsely populated deserts of West Africa’s Sahel. Jihadists have stepped up attacks on U.N. peacekeepers, Malian soldiers and civilian targets since being driven back in northern Mali by a French-led military intervention in 2013.

Malian militant groups have expanded their reach into neighboring countries, including Niger, where a series of attacks by armed groups led the government in March to declare a state of emergency in the southwest.

The European Union has pledged tens of millions of euros to a new regional force of five Sahelian countries – Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania – in a bid to contain Islamist militant groups. The United States also views the region as a growing priority.

Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa project director at International Crisis Group, said the borderlands between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso were “becoming a new permanent hotbed of violence”, threatened by increasingly organized militant groups.

“This shows the level of organization of these groups and also their confidence,” Depagne said.

Andrew Lebovich, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Wednesday’s attack revealed how U.S. training of Nigerien forces “has accelerated and also verged into ongoing military operations”.

The United States has about 800 service members in Niger, where it operates surveillance drones out of a $100 million base in the central city of Agadez to support the country’s efforts to combat jihadists and protect its porous borders.

It has also sent troops to supply intelligence and other assistance to a multinational force battling the Nigerian Boko Haram militants near Niger’s border with Nigeria.

(Additional reporting by Adama Diarra and Cheick Diouara in Bamako, David Lewis in Nairobi, Emma Farge in Dakar and Joe Bavier in Abidjan; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Joe Bavier and Larry King)

Lebanon finds soldiers’ bodies after retaking Islamic State-held area

A Lebanese Army soldier looks through binoculars in Ras Baalbek, Lebanon August 28, 2017. REUTERS/ Hassan Abdallah

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon has identified the bodies of six of its soldiers found along the Syrian border in an area held by Islamic State until three days ago, sources in the president’s office said.

The Lebanese army launched an offensive this month which ended with Islamic State militants leaving their last foothold along the border on Sunday.

Since then the army has found 10 bodies in the area. DNA tests confirmed that six of those belonged to Lebanese soldiers, the sources and local media reported on Wednesday.

Islamic State militants had for years held territory along the border, and captured 10 Lebanese soldiers in 2014 when they briefly overran the town of Arsal, one of the worst spillovers of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon.

The militants and their families left the border area on Sunday under a ceasefire deal.

The agreement included IS militants identifying where they had buried the soldiers’ bodies, Lebanese army chief General Joseph Aoun said on Wednesday.

“I had two choices: either I continue the battle and not know the soldiers’ fate, or I submit to the situation and find out. Their souls are my responsibility,” he told reporters.

It was not immediately clear if all six belonged to those captured in 2014, however – one of the bodies discovered is believed to belong to a soldier killed in the recent fighting.

Of the 10 captured in 2014, one was killed shortly after and footage of his execution was published by the militants.

Another is believed to have joined Islamic State. His whereabouts is unknown.

 

(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by John Davison and Raissa Kasolowsky)

 

At least 23 Egyptian soldiers killed in deadliest Sinai attack in years

By Ahmed Mohamed Hassan and Yusri Mohamed

CAIRO/ISMAILIA, Egypt (Reuters) – At least 23 Egyptian soldiers were killed when suicide car bombs tore through two military checkpoints in North Sinai on Friday, security sources said, an attack claimed by Islamic State that marks one of the bloodiest assaults on security forces in years.

Islamic State militants are waging an insurgency in the rugged, thinly populated Sinai Peninsula. They have killed hundreds of soldiers and police since 2013, when the military ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi after mass protests against his rule.

The two cars blew up at two checkpoints outside of a military compound just south of Rafah, on the border with the Gaza Strip, the security sources said.

In a statement Islamic State said its fighters targeted the compound because the military was preparing to launch operations against the Sunni Muslim militant group from there.

The security sources said another 26 soldiers were injured in Friday’s attacks. The military put the casualties lower, saying the attacks had killed and injured a total of 26 soldiers, without providing a breakdown of the figure.

The attack is the most severe in Sinai since at least July 2015, when Islamic State militants assaulted simultaneously a slew of checkpoints and military sites around North Sinai. At least 17 soldiers were killed, according to an official tally.

Friday’s bombings present a challenge for general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who describes Islamist militancy as an existential threat and himself as a bulwark against extremism in a region beset by violence and war.

COUNTER-STRIKE

Security sources described Friday’s attack as a coordinated strike, with car bombs blowing apart checkpoints as gunmen in four-wheel drive vehicles shot down soldiers running for cover.

Militants in armored vehicles meanwhile fired rocket propelled grenades at a military site just beyond the checkpoint, the sources said.

The military carried out a counter-attack almost immediately after, deploying fighter jets to kill over 40 militants suspected of involvement and destroying six of their vehicles, according to a video released by the military showing aerial footage of air strikes.

The military posted photos of five dead militants in blood-soaked fatigues lying in the sand. It did not name their affiliation.

“Law enforcement forces in North Sinai succeeded in thwarting a terrorist attack on some checkpoints south of Rafah,” a military statement said.

The bloody assault comes as militant attacks have increasingly shifted beyond the Sinai deep into Egypt’s heartland, often targeting minority Coptic Christians.

Separately on Friday, a homeland security officer was shot dead outside his home in Qalubiya, a province just north of Cairo, while on his way to Friday prayers, an Interior Ministry statement said.

That attack was later claimed by the Hasam Movement, a militant group that has claimed several attacks around Cairo targeting judges and policemen since last year.

Responding to the Sinai attack, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail stressed the need for countries to unite against those who support terrorism and to “dry up their sources of funding,” an allusion to Qatar.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain broke diplomatic relations with Qatar last month and are now boycotting the Gulf Arab state, which they accuse of supporting terrorism and allying with regional foe Iran. Qatar denies this.

(Reporting by Ahmed Mohamed Hassan and Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia; Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy, Ali Abdelaty, and Ahmed Tolba in Cairo; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Larry King and Chris Reese)

Exclusive: At least 123 Venezuelan soldiers detained since protests – documents

Soldiers march during a military parade to celebrate the 206th anniversary of Venezuela's independence in Caracas, Venezuela, July 5, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Girish Gupta

CARACAS (Reuters) – At least 123 members of Venezuela’s armed forces have been detained since anti-government unrest began in April on charges ranging from treason and rebellion to theft and desertion, according to military documents seen by Reuters.

The list of detainees, which includes officers as well as servicemen from the lower ranks of the army, navy, air force and National Guard, provided the clearest picture to date of dissatisfaction and dissent within Venezuela’s roughly 150,000-strong military.

The records, detailing prisoners held in three Venezuelan jails, showed that since April nearly 30 members of the military have been detained for deserting or abandoning their post and almost 40 for rebellion, treason, or insubordination.

Most of the remaining military prisoners were charged with theft.

Millions of Venezuelans are suffering from food shortages and soaring inflation caused by a severe economic crisis. Even within the armed forces, salaries start at the minimum wage, equivalent to around $12.50 a month at the black market exchange rate, and privately some members admit to being poorly paid and underfed.

Since the opposition started its protests more than three months ago, a handful of security officials have gone public with their discontent. Last week, rogue policeman and action movie star Oscar Perez commandeered a helicopter and attacked government buildings, claiming that a faction within the armed forces was opposed to Maduro’s government.

The military documents seen by Reuters, which covered detentions until mid-June, appeared to support opposition leaders’ assertions that anger and dissent among soldiers over economic hardship is more widespread.

“This shows low morale and discontent and, of course, economic necessity,” one former army general said of the detentions, asking not to be named for fear of reprisals.

Venezuela’s military and Information Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Venezuelans view the armed forces as the key power broker in their country. Opposition leaders have repeatedly exhorted military leaders to break with socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro has said that he is the victim of an “armed insurrection” by U.S.-backed opponents seeking to gain control of the OPEC country’s oil wealth. He has said that the top military brass have been standing by him.

The National Guard has been at the forefront of policing protests across the country. It uses tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets against masked youths who in turn hurl stones, Molotov cocktails and excrement at security lines. At least 90 people have been killed since April.

Privately, some National Guard members on the streets have acknowledged being exhausted, impoverished and hungry, though most remain impassive during protests and avoid engaging in conversation with reporters.

“LITTLE RAMBOS”

The documents, which identified detainees by their rank, listed captains, sergeants, lieutenants and regular troops held in three prisons in different parts of Venezuela.

Ninety-one are at Ramo Verde, a hilltop jail near Caracas where opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez is also held.

Another two dozen are at Pica prison in the northeastern city of Maturin and eight are at Santa Ana jail in the western state of Tachira, near the Colombian border.

It was not immediately clear if military prisoners were also being held in other jails.

Three lieutenants fled to Colombia and requested asylum in May, and a man who said he was a Venezuelan naval sergeant appeared in a video published by local media last month expressing his dissent and urging colleagues to disobey “abusive” and “corrupt” superiors.

Maduro has blamed the problems on an “economic war” being waged by the opposition with backing from Washington, a position taken in public by senior military officials.

“Many are seeking … little ‘Rambos’ in the armed forces, but you’re not going to find them,” Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said in a video published on Monday, alluding to speculation of a military coup.

Perez, who staged the helicopter attack last week against the Interior Ministry and the Supreme Court in Caracas, appeared in an online video on Wednesday vowing to keep up the fight.

“We are fully sure of what we are doing and if we must give up our lives, we will hand them over to the people,” Perez said, sitting in front of a Venezuelan flag and rifle.

(Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Andrew Cawthorne, Toni Reinhold)