FBI arrests three alleged neo-Nazis ahead of Virginia gun rally

(Reuters) – The FBI has arrested three suspected members of a neo-Nazi group who had weapons and hopes of starting a U.S. race war, just days before a planned gun-rights rally in Virginia that was expected to draw thousands of people, officials said on Thursday.

The arrests came the day after Virginia Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency banning any weapons around the grounds of the state capitol in Richmond, saying investigators had seen groups making threats of violence.

The men were arrested in Maryland and were expected to make an appearance in federal court later Thursday, a source familiar with the investigation told Reuters.

Several thousand gun rights supporters are planning a large rally in Richmond, Virginia’s capital, on Monday in response to the newly Democratic-controlled state legislature’s push to stiffen gun laws.

Virginia, where Democrats took control of the legislature by promising stronger gun laws, has become the latest focal point for the contentious American debate around the right to bear arms. Many gun-rights groups contend the U.S. Constitution guarantees their ability to possess any firearm. Those opposed say gun laws would help lessen the number of people killed by guns each year.

According to a criminal complaint filed before the U.S. District Court for Maryland, the men arrested were Brian Mark Lemley Jr.; Patrik Jordan Mathews, a former Canadian military reservist; and William Garfield Bilbrough.

They are accused of interstate commerce of weapons and, in the case of Lemley and Bilbrough, harboring illegal aliens.

The three are allegedly members of the neo-Nazi group The Base. In the court filing, the FBI said it had monitored encrypted chats among the group’s members, in which they discussed creating a white ethno-state and carrying out acts of violence against minorities.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas, Mark Hosenball in Washington and Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Scott Malone)

China showcases fearsome new missiles to counter U.S. at military parade

By Michael Martina

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s military on Tuesday showed off new equipment at a parade in central Beijing to mark 70 years since the founding of the People’s Republic, including hypersonic-glide missiles that experts say could be difficult for the United States to counter.

In a speech at the start of the nearly three-hour, highly choreographed spectacle, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that his country would stay on the path of “peaceful development,” but that the military would resolutely safeguard the country’s sovereignty and security.

China says the parade, the country’s most important political event of the year, which featured more than 15,000 troops marching through part of Tiananmen Square as jet fighters trailing colored smoke soared overhead, is not meant to intimidate any specific country.

But defense experts see it as a message to the world that China’s military prowess is growing rapidly, even as it faces mounting challenges, including months of anti-government protests in Hong Kong and a slowing economy.

As expected, China unveiled new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and showcased its advancing intercontinental and hypersonic missiles, designed to attack the aircraft carriers and bases that undergird U.S. military strength in Asia.

A state television announcer called the missile arsenal a “force for realizing the dream of a strong nation and strong military.”

Among the weapons were the “carrier killer” Dongfeng-21D (DF-21D), unveiled at a military parade in 2015, designed to hit warships at sea at a range of up to 1,500 kilometers, and the DF-26 intermediate-range missile, dubbed “Guam killer” in reference to the U.S. Pacific island base.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) also rolled out a hypersonic missile, known as the DF-17, which theoretically can maneuver sharply at many times the speed of sound, making it extremely difficult to counter.

Nozomu Yoshitomi, professor at Japan’s Nihon University and a retired major general in Japan’s Ground Self-Defence Force, said the DF-17 posed serious questions about the effectiveness of the regional missile defense system the United States and Japan are building.

“There is a possibility that if we do not acquire a more sophisticated ballistic missile defense system, it will become impossible for both the United States and Japan to respond,” Yoshitomi said.

Bringing up the rear of the ground parade were 16 upgraded launchers carrying DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are the backbone of China’s nuclear deterrent, capable of reaching the United States with multiple nuclear warheads.

State media said 40% of the arms shown in the parade were appearing in public for the first time. Such hardware included new and revamped versions of missiles, such as the long-range submarine-launched and ship-based YJ-18A anti-ship cruise missiles, the official Xinhua news agency said.

China has a practice of only displaying systems in parades it says have entered some form of service, though analysts have cautioned that some of the new equipment could be experimental or prototypes.

For instance, the Gongji-11, described by the state-controlled Global Times as an attack drone and the “final version” of the Sharp Sword drone that first flew in 2013, was displayed for the first time on the back of a truck.

China showed jets in aerial refueling formation, and the Z-20 medium lift helicopter, similar to a U.S. UH-60 Black Hawk, also made its public debut, Xinhua said.

RAPID DEVELOPMENT

Many modern Western militaries eschew elaborate, large-scale military parades as costly extravagances and argue such events have almost no value for war beyond a possible boost to morale.

Still, governments around the region and foreign military experts watched the parade closely for signals about China’s military achievements, looking for clues about weapon capabilities and evidence of new systems.

The government of the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which China claims as its territory, said in response to the parade that China was a serious threat to peace and democracy.

As a part of what Chinese military officials said would be a focus on command structure reforms under Xi’s ambitious military reorganization, hundreds of personnel from the PLA’s new Joint Logistics Support Force, Strategic Support Force, and Rocket Force marched in their national day parade debuts.

Xinhua also said there were two female major generals participating in the parade for the first time.

Analysts see progress in combined operations between branches of the military and in mechanizing its forces as a shift in priorities from defending Chinese borders toward having expeditionary forces able to defend the country’s far-flung commercial and diplomatic interests.

Many said the show of force was a reminder to the United States and its allies at how far the PLA has come.

Sam Roggeveen, the director of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute’s International Security Program, said the pace of China’s military technological development was “breathtaking” and that with defense spending thought to be around 2% of GDP, “they’re not breaking a sweat.”

“The message is pretty blunt. It dramatically erodes the U.S. military edge is Asia, and over the long-term, America’s military primacy in Asia is clearly under threat,” Roggeveen said.

(Reporting by Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Tony Munroe in Beijing, Colin Packham in Sydney and Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

World must keep lethal weapons under human control, Germany says

FILE PHOTO: German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas arrives for the weekly German cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, March 13, 2019. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany’s foreign minister on Friday called for urgent efforts to ensure that humans remained in control of lethal weapons, as a step toward banning “killer robots”.

Heiko Maas told an arms control conference in Berlin that rules were needed to limit the development and use of weapons that could kill without human involvement.

Critics fear that the increasingly autonomous drones, missile defense systems and tanks made possible by new technology and artificial intelligence could turn rogue in a cyber-attack or as a result of programming errors.

The United Nations and the European Union have called for a global ban on such weapons, but discussions so far have not yielded a clear commitment to conclude a treaty.

“Killer robots that make life-or-death decisions on the basis of anonymous data sets, and completely beyond human control, are already a shockingly real prospect today,” Maas said. “Fundamentally, it’s about whether we control the technology or it controls us.”

Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands signed a declaration at the conference vowing to work to prevent weapons proliferation.

“We want to want to codify the principle of human control over all deadly weapons systems internationally, and thereby take a big step toward a global ban on fully autonomous weapons,” Maas told the conference.

He said he hoped progress could be made in talks under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) this year. The next CCW talks on lethal autonomous weapons take place this month in Geneva.

Human Rights Watch’s Mary Wareham, coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, urged Germany to push for negotiations on a global treaty, rather than a non-binding declaration.

“Measures that fall short of a new ban treaty will be insufficient to deal with the multiple challenges raised by killer robots,” she said in a statement.

In a new Ipsos survey, 61 percent of respondents in 26 countries opposed the use of lethal autonomous weapons.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Spanish warship ordered ships to leave British waters near Gibraltar

FILE PHOTO: A cloud partially covers the tip of the Rock of the British territory of Gibraltar at sunrise from La Atunara port before Spanish fishermen sail in their fishing boats with their relatives to take part in a protest at an area of the sea where an artificial reef was built by Gibraltar using concrete blocks, in Algeciras bay, La Linea de la Concepcion in southern Spain August 18, 2013. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

LONDON (Reuters) – A Spanish warship tried to order commercial shipping to leave anchorages in British waters near Gibraltar but was challenged by the British navy and sailed away, Gibraltar said, the latest example of tension over the strategic port as Brexit approaches.

The Spanish ship tried to order ships to leave their anchorages on the eastern side of the Rock, but the ships stayed in position, Gibraltar’s authorities said. After being challenged by the British navy, the Spanish warship then sailed slowly along the coast with its weapons uncovered and manned.

Spanish authorities did not immediately comment on the issue.

Tensions over territorial waters around the peninsula in southern Spain often erupt between Spanish and British vessels. Gibraltar, overlooking the strait between the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, has been ruled by Britain since 1713.

Its status and the status of its 30,000 residents have been gaining attention as Britain’s exit from the European Union approaches on March 29, raising questions about free movement across its land and sea borders with Spain.

“There is only nuisance value to these foolish games being played by those who don’t accept unimpeachable British sovereignty over the waters around Gibraltar,” a spokesman for Gibraltar said.

Spain has already secured a right of veto over whether future Brexit arrangements can apply to Gibraltar. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez held up an agreement on Britain’s withdrawal treaty in November over the issue and said Spain would seek joint sovereignty after Britain leaves the EU.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; additional information by Jose Elias Rodriguez; Editing by Kate Holton and Peter Graff)

U.S. touts new evidence of Iranian weaponry in Yemen, Afghanistan

FILE PHOTO: A missile that the U.S. Department of Defense says is confirmed as a "Qiam" ballistic missile manufactured in Iran by its distinctively Iranian nine fueling ports and that the Pentagon says was fired by Houthi rebels from Yemen into Saudi Arabia on July 22, 2017 is seen on display at a military base in Washington, U.S. December 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg /File Photo

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday displayed pieces of what it said were Iranian weapons deployed to militants in Yemen and Afghanistan, a tactic by President Donald Trump’s administration to pressure Tehran to curb its regional activities.

The second presentation of Iranian weapons by the Pentagon, many of which were handed over by Saudi Arabia, coincides with growing concern in Congress over U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s civil war, which has led to a deep humanitarian crisis.

Members of Congress have escalated their opposition to Saudi Arabia after the Oct. 2 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate. Despite administration pleas to stick with the Saudis and thereby counter Iran, the Senate voted on Wednesday to advance a resolution to end military support for the Saudis in Yemen.

If Iran were found to be shipping arms to Yemen, Afghanistan and other countries, it would be in violation of United Nations resolutions.

Reuters was given advanced access to the military hangar at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling just outside of Washington where the U.S. Defense Department put the fragments of weaponry on display and explained how it concluded that they came from Iran.

“We want there to be no doubt across the world that this is a priority for the United States and that it’s in international interest to address it,” said Katie Wheelbarger, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.

The presentation, the second such one in the last year, is part of a government-wide effort to follow through on Trump’s policy to take a far harder line toward Tehran. He pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions, in part for its “malign” regional activities.

Iran has denied supplying the Houthis in Yemen with such weaponry and described the Pentagon’s previous arms display as “fabricated.”

WEAPONS TO YEMEN

The Pentagon offered a detailed explanation of why it believed the arms on display came from Iran, noting what it said were Iranian corporate logos on arms fragments and the unique nature of the designs of Iranian weaponry.

The United States acknowledged it could not say precisely when the weapons were transferred to the Houthis, and, in some cases, could not say when they were used. There was no immediate way to independently verify where the weapons were made or employed.

This included a “Sayyad-2” surface to air missile (SAM), which the Pentagon said had been interdicted by the Saudi government in early 2018 en route to Houthi militants in Yemen.

The Pentagon cited a corporate logo of an Iranian defense firm in the warhead section, which was not displayed, and writing in Farsi along the missile as evidence that it was Iranian.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the Pentagon did not know if the Houthis had actually used this type of missile before.

The Houthis, who control Yemen’s capital Sanaa, have fired dozens of missiles into Saudi Arabia in recent months, part of a three-year-old conflict widely seen as a proxy battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Under a U.N. resolution that enshrines the Iran nuclear deal with world powers, Tehran is prohibited from supplying, selling or transferring weapons outside the country unless approved by the U.N. Security Council. A separate U.N. resolution on Yemen bans the supply of weapons to Houthi leaders.

WAR IN AFGHANISTAN

The United States has long accused Iran of providing weapons to Taliban militants in Afghanistan. In October, Washington targeted two individuals linked to the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards for providing material and financial support to the Taliban.

The Pentagon displayed a number of “Fadjr” rockets, that it said had been provided to the Taliban. It said they were Iranian because of the unique markings on the rockets and the paint scheme, along with the markings on them.

The Taliban is known to buy weapons on the black market and defense officials could not say why they were sure these missiles had not been simply bought by the Taliban.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker)

Two Koreas, U.N. forces agree to remove weapons at border

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean soldier patrols at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 18, 2018. Picture taken on April 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North and South Korea and the U.N. Command agreed on Monday to withdraw firearms and guard posts in the demilitarized zone village of Panmunjom this week, Seoul’s defense ministry said, the latest move in a fast-improving relationship.

The three sides held their second round of talks at Panmunjom to discuss ways to demilitarize the border in line with a recent inter-Korean pact reached at last month’s summit in Pyongyang.

The U.S.-led UNC, which has overseen affairs in the DMZ since the end of hostilities in the 1950-53 Korean War, was not immediately available for comment, but it said on Friday it supports the two Koreas’ efforts to implement their military deal.

The announcement comes amid U.S. concerns that the inter-Korean military initiative could undermine defense readiness and comes without substantial progress on North Korea’s promised denuclearization.

The neighbors are looking to withdraw 11 guard posts within a 1-km (0.6-mile) radius of the Military Demarcation Line on their border by the end of the year.

They also plan to pull out all firearms from a Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjom and cut to 35 each the numbers of personnel stationed there and share information on surveillance equipment.

At Monday’s meeting, the three sides agreed to remove firearms and guard posts from the JSA by Thursday, and carry out a joint inspection over the following two days, the ministry said.

The two Koreas have been removing landmines around the area as part of the agreement and they confirmed the completion of the demining operation at the talks with the UNC.

“We discussed the timeline of the pullout of firearms and guard posts, as well as ways to adjust the number of guard personnel and conduct joint inspections,” the ministry said in a statement.

The agreement also includes a halt in “all hostile acts” and a no-fly zone around the border.

North and South Korea are technically still at war because the 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, but relations have improved considerably in the last year.

After his third summit in Pyongyang, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the North was ready to invite international experts to watch the dismantling of a key missile site and would close the main Yongbyon nuclear complex if Washington took reciprocal actions.

Those actions could include putting a formal end to the 1950-53 war, opening of a U.S. liaison office in North Korea, humanitarian aid and an exchange of economic experts, Moon said.

But Washington demands North Korea takes irreversible steps to scrap its arsenal, such as a full disclosure of nuclear facilities and material.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Russia to give Syria S-300 air defense after accusations against Israel

FILE PHOTO: Russian S-300 anti-missile rocket system move along a central street during a rehearsal for a military parade in Moscow May 4, 2009. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin

By Polina Nikolskaya and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia announced on Monday it will supply an S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Syria in two weeks against strong Israeli objections, a week after Moscow blamed Israel for indirectly causing the downing of a Russian military plane in Syria.

Last week’s crash, which killed 15 Russian service members, had forced Moscow to take “adequate retaliatory measures to increase the safety of Russian military fighting international terrorism in Syria,” Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Monday in a televised address.

“A modern S-300 air defense missile system will be transferred to the Syrian armed forces within two weeks,” he said. The system will “significantly increase the Syrian army’s combat capabilities,” he said.

Russia, which fights in Syria to support the government, has said Syria shot the IL-20 surveillance plane down by mistake shortly after Israeli jets hit a nearby target. Russia blamed Israel for creating dangerous conditions that caused the crash.

Israel, which has struck Syria scores of times during the seven-year war, said after the incident that it would work to improve “deconfliction” of its missions with Russian forces, but would not halt them. It has long lobbied Moscow not to provide the S-300 to Syria.

Krelmin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on a conference call that the decision to supply the weapons was “not directed at any third country”. “Russia needs to increase safety of its military and it should be clear for everyone,” he said.

But he also repeated Moscow’s accusations that Israel was to blame for the crash: “No doubt that according to our military experts, deliberate action by Israeli pilots was the reason for the tragedy and this cannot but harm our (Russia-Israeli) ties.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s office explicitly linked the Russian decision to supply the weapons to the air crash: “President Putin held Israel responsible for bring down the plane and informed President Assad that Russia will develop Syria’s air defense systems,” the Syrian presidency said.

Shoigu said Russia will equip Syrian anti-aircraft units with Russian tracking and guidance systems in order to identify Russian aircraft.

Russia in April had hinted that it would supply the S-300 to Assad’s government despite Israeli objections.

The missile system, originally developed by the Soviet military, but since modernized and available in several versions with different capabilities, fires missiles from trucks and is designed to shoot down military aircraft and short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.

Israel says its air strikes on Syria are not a threat to Russia’s ally Assad, but that it must carry them out to halt arms shipments to Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah. It has made repeated efforts to persuade Moscow not to sell S-300s to Syria, as it fears this would hinder its aerial capability.

(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova, Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Polina Nikolskaya in Moscow and Ellen Francis in Beirut,; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Denis Pinchuk, Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Peter Graff)

Netanyahu says Iran deploying arms in Syria to threaten Israel

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, May 6, 2018. Jim Hollander/Pool via Reuters

NICOSIA (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran on Tuesday of deploying “very dangerous weapons” in Syria as part of a campaign to threaten Israel.

Iran, “openly calls, daily, for the destruction, the elimination of Israel from the face of the earth and practices unmitigated aggression against us,” Netanyahu told reporters during a visit to Cyprus.

“It is now seeking to plant very dangerous weapons in Syria … for the specific purpose of our destruction.”

(Reporting by Michele Kambas, Editing by Dan Williams)

Trump to reveal Iran decision, Europeans doubt he will stick with nuclear deal

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for the launch of first lady Melania Trump's "Be Best" initiative in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 7, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will announce on Tuesday whether he will pull out of the Iran nuclear deal or stay in and work with European allies who have struggled to persuade him that it has halted Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Trump has consistently threatened to pull out of the 2015 agreement because it does not address Iran’s ballistic missile program or its role in wars in Syria and Yemen, and does not permanently prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.

European leaders have warned that a U.S. withdrawal would undo years of work that led to and sustained a landmark deal that has kept nuclear weapons out of Iran’s hands

But a senior French official doubted Trump had taken heed of European concerns.

“I think in Washington it was quite clear the president was convinced that Trump was heading to a negative decision so we have been preparing more aggressively the hypotheses of a partial or total pullout”, the official said.

Two other European officials also said they expected Trump to pull out of the accord.

Such a move could ratchet up tensions in a region riven with interrelated wars, including the multi-layered conflict in Syria where Iran’s presence has brought it into conflict with Israel.

Reflecting those strains, Iran’s Armed Forces Chief Major General Mohammad Bagheri said Iran’s military power would defuse any threat to Tehran, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of deploying “very dangerous weapons” in Syria to threaten Israel.

A decision to quit the deal could also rattle oil markets due to Iran’s role as a major exporter, and critics say it could also harm Trump’s efforts to reach a deal in nuclear talks with North Korea, a prospect he has dismissed.

“This deal … is a factor of peace and stabilization in a very eruptive region,” French Defense Minister Florence Parly told RTL radio.

Trump, in a tweet on Monday, said he would make the announcement at 2 p.m. (1800 GMT) on Tuesday.

Iran suggested its economy would not be hurt whatever happened, but its rial was near record lows against the dollar in the free market as Iranians tried to buy hard currency, fearing financial turmoil if Trump quits the deal.

“We are prepared for all scenarios. If America pulls out of the deal, our economy will not be impacted,” central bank chief Valiollah Seif said on state television.

‘STAND ON OUR OWN FEET’

“One man in one country might create some problems for us for a few months, but we will overcome those problems,” President Hassan Rouhani said. “If we are under sanctions or not, we should stand on our own feet.”

It would be a severe mistake for Iran to stay in the nuclear deal if the United States leaves it, said senior hardline official Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of the Iranian Judiciary’s Human Rights Council, Tasnim news agency reported.

Even before the latest standoff, a raft of business deals including plane purchases have been delayed amid bankers’ concerns that the nuclear deal could unravel or that they could fall foul of U.S. financial controls.

Whatever Trump’s decision, those concerns are unlikely to ease any time soon as the fallout from weeks of uncertainty and the appointment of a more hawkish U.S. foreign policy team expose underlying obstacles, bankers said.

The deal, negotiated during the administration of Trump’s Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, eased economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran limiting its nuclear program.

Trump has called it the “worst deal ever negotiated” and he wants Britain, France and Germany – which also signed the pact along with Russia and China – to toughen up the terms.

Under the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the United States committed to ease a series of U.S. sanctions on Iran and it has done so under “waivers” that effectively suspend them.

 

WAIVERS

International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano has said in Iran his agency had the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime. If the deal failed it would be “a great loss”.

Trump has until Saturday to decide whether to extend the waivers or withdraw and reintroduce sanctions related to Iran’s central bank and Iranian oil exports.

That would dissuade foreign companies from doing business with Iran because they could be subject to U.S. penalties.

Rouhani suggested on Monday that Iran might remain in the nuclear deal even if Trump abandons it and imposes sanctions. But he also warned that Tehran would fiercely resist U.S. efforts to limit its influence in the Middle East.

The Kremlin said on Tuesday a U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal would have harmful consequences.

Israel is widely believed to be the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East, although it neither confirms nor denies possessing atomic weapons.

Financial markets are watching Trump’s decision closely. On Tuesday, oil retreated from 3-1/2 year highs as investors waited for Trump’s statement.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Sybille de La Hamaide, John Irish and Tim Hepher in Paris, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London, Andrew Torchia in Dubai, Writing by William Maclean, Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Jailed U.S. pastor denies terrorism charges in Turkish court

Jailed U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson's wife Norine Brunson arrives at Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey May 7, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

By Ezgi Erkoyun

ANKARA (Reuters) – A U.S. pastor denied terrorism and spying charges in a Turkish court on Monday and called them “shameful and disgusting”, in a prosecution that has been condemned by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Andrew Brunson, who could face up to 35 years in jail, denied links to a network led by U.S.-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, accused of orchestrating a failed military coup in Turkey in 2016, and the outlawed Kurdish PKK militant group.

The Christian pastor from North Carolina has lived in Turkey for more than two decades and has been jailed pending trial since 2016.

“I am helping Syrian refugees, they say that I am aiding the PKK. I am setting up a church, they say I got help from Gulen’s network,” Brunson said, referring to the testimonies of anonymous witnesses in court.

One of the secret witnesses accused Brunson of trying to establish a Christian Kurdish state, and providing coordinates to U.S. forces in the delivery of weapons to the Kurdish YPG militia, active in northern Syria.

“My service that I have spent my life on, has now turned upside down. I was never ashamed to be a server of Jesus but these claims are shameful and disgusting,” Brunson told the court in the Aegean town of Aliaga, north of Izmir.

Brunson has been the pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, serving a small Protestant congregation in Turkey’s third largest city.

TURKEY WANTS GULEN EXTRADITED

Brunson’s legal case is among several roiling U.S.-Turkish relations, including one in New York against a former executive of Turkish state lender Halkbank. The two countries are also at odds over U.S. support for the Kurdish militia in northern Syria, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization.

Erdogan suggested last year Brunson’s fate could be linked to that of Gulen, whom Turkey wants extradited.

Gulen denies any association with the coup attempt. Tens of thousands of Turks have been arrested or lost their jobs over alleged connections with it.

U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted after Brunson’s first court appearance last month that the pastor was on trial for “no reason”.

“They call him a spy, but I am more a spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!” Trump said.

Outside the court on Monday, Sandra Jolley, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, called for the clergyman’s release.

“Every day that Andrew Brunson spends here in prison is another day that the standing of the Turkish government diminishes in the eyes of not just the U.S. but the entire world,” she told reporters.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who is expected to meet with U.S. counterpart Mike Pompeo in Washington this week or next, said on Saturday any decision was up to the court.

“They say that the government should release him,” he said. “Is it in my power? This is a decision the judiciary will make.”

(Writing by Ece Toksabay; editing by Andrew Roche)