Off the Wires

Russia, Syria Pledge 'Humanitarian Corridors' Out Of Rebel-Held Parts Of Aleppo

July 29th, 2016  |  Source: NPR

Russian and Syria have said they are opening humanitarian corridors out of besieged, rebel-held areas in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. But NPR has reached civilians in the embattled city who turned back for fear of the ongoing shelling.

Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in televised remarks Thursday that "Russia and the Syrian government will open humanitarian corridors and offer a way out for opposition fighters wanting to lay down their arms," The Associated Press reported. Shoigu said there would be three corridors for civilian use and another for fighters seeking amnesty.

Forces loyal to the Syrian government seized the last road into rebel-held areas of Aleppo 11 days ago, effectively rendering them completely isolated, as The Two-Way has reported.

And as NPR's Alison Meuse tells our Newscast unit, it's still unclear whether the new "humanitarian corridors" will actually offer any respite to the besieged residents. She spoke with one resident, and has this report:

"Aleppo resident Baraa al-Halabi says he woke up to an offer on state TV. The regime listed four escape routes for people trapped on the rebel side. Halabi says via Internet call he joined a group of families headed to one of the designated corridors. But when they arrived, regime forces fired a fresh round of artillery. No one was hurt and it wasn't clear if the shelling was targeting those fleeing, but they were too afraid to continue. They're among 300,000 people the U.N. says are now cut off from aid in Aleppo."

Aleppo is divided between rebel forces and troops loyal to the government. The rebel-held areas are in the east of the city.

Alison adds that the supposed offer of amnesty has been met with some skepticism. As she reports, "opposition activists say that can mean a ticket to jail, or conscription into pro-regime paramilitary groups."

As The Two-Way reported, activists have been sounding the alarm about a possible humanitarian crisis in the besieged area. It's just one area of Syria where aid is blocked — multiple parties have used siege tactics as a weapon of war over the course of the conflict, which is now in its sixth year.

On the diplomatic front, the U.S. is attempting to work with Russia to push forward with peace negotiations. But there are big questions about how to get there. NPR's David Welna has explained:

"The negotiation would be to end Syria's brutal civil war and set up a transitional government. To get there, Kerry would have the U.S. share intelligence with Russia to target airstrikes against an al-Qaida affiliate called The Nusra Front. In exchange, Russia would prevail on its ally, the regime of Bashar al-Assad, to stop bombing moderate rebel groups and civilians."

Today, Shoigu said that "Moscow is sending a top general and experts to Geneva at the request of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss the Aleppo crisis," the AP reported.

U.S. concerned over Israel's settlement activity

July 28th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

The United States is deeply concerned about Israel's reported plans to build an additional 323 units in settlements in East Jerusalem on top of previously announced 770 units in the settlement of Gilo, the U.S. State Department said.

Such action by Israel "continues this pattern of provocative and counterproductive action," State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement on Wednesday.

Turkey detains more journalists in clampdown on cleric's followers

July 27th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

Turkey ordered another 47 journalists detained on Wednesday, part of a large-scale crackdown on suspected supporters of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused by Ankara of masterminding a failed military coup.

Turkey has suspended, detained or placed under investigation more than 60,000 soldiers, judges, teachers, journalists and others suspected of ties to Gulen's movement since the July 15-16 coup, which was staged by a faction within the military.

Turkey's army General Staff on Wednesday put the number of soldiers belonging to the Gulen network who took part in the coup attempt at 8,651, roughly about 1.5 percent of the armed forces, broadcaster NTV reported.

Gulen has denied any involvement in the failed coup.

Turkey's capital markets board said on Tuesday it had revoked the license of the head of research at brokerage AK Investment and called for him to face charges over a report he wrote to investors analyzing the July 15 coup.

Western governments and human rights groups, while condemning the abortive coup in which at least 246 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured, have expressed alarm over the extent of the crackdown, suggesting President Tayyip Erdogan may be using it to stifle dissent and tighten his grip on power.

The detention of journalists ordered on Wednesday involved columnists and other staff of the now defunct Zaman newspaper, a government official said. Authorities in March shut down Zaman, widely seen as the Gulen movement's flagship media organization.

"The prosecutors aren't interested in what individual columnists wrote or said," said the official, who requested anonymity. "At this point, the reasoning is that prominent employees of Zaman are likely to have intimate knowledge of the Gulen network and as such could benefit the investigation."

However, the list includes journalists, such as Sahin Alpay, known for their leftist activism who do not share the religious world view of the Gulenist movement. This has fueled concerns that the investigation may be turning into a witch-hunt of the president's political opponents.

On Monday, media reported that arrest warrants had been issued for 42 other journalists, 16 of whom have so far been taken into custody.

Trump: 'I alone' can fix dark, violent, weak America

July 22nd, 2016  |  Source: The Guardian

Donald Trump stoked the fears of an angry Republican convention on Thursday as he declared himself the law and order candidate in an acceptance speech that took a sharply authoritarian turn.

Promising supporters that “safety will be restored” once he becomes president, Trump sought to harness concern over terrorism and domestic crime to challenge Hillary Clinton on territory that has long proven a reliable rallying cry for parties of the right.

“In this race for the White House, I am the law and order candidate,” he claimed, encouraging and directing loud chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” like the conductor of an orchestra.

“Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation. The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country,” he added.

The four-day convention in Cleveland has seen repeated cries of “lock her up” when Clinton’s name is mentioned, but Trump waved these chants aside as if granting mercy with his hands and urged instead: “Let’s defeat her in November.”

The 75-minute speech pushed familiar buttons. “Illegal immigrants are roaming free to threaten innocent citizens,” Trump told the booing crowd, which responded by chanting “build the wall”.

Another theme of the week in Cleveland has been loud cheers whenever speakers replace the “black lives matter” slogan with “blue lives matter” to signify sympathy for police over African American shooting victims and Trump received a standing ovation when he declared: “An attack on law enforcement is an attack on all Americans”.

The interruption of a protester 23 minutes in prompted Trump to ad-lib: “How great are our police?” as the cries of a woman being removed could still be heard dimly in the distance.

Brazil arrests group plotting 'acts of terrorism' before Olympics

July 21st, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

Brazil arrested 10 people on Thursday on suspicion of belonging to a group supporting Islamic State (IS) and preparing acts of terrorism during next month's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Justice Minister Alexandre Moraes said.

The loosely organized group were all Brazilian citizens and in contact via internet messaging groups such as WhatsApp and Telegram, but did not know each other personally, the minister said.

The group did not have direct contact with IS though some of its members had made "pro forma" declarations of allegiance to the militant Islamist group, the minister said. He did not elaborate.

"Those involved participated in an online group denominated 'the defenders of Sharia' and were planning to acquire weapons to commit crimes in Brazil and even overseas," Moraes told a news conference.

"It was an absolutely amateur cell, with no preparation at all, a disorganized cell," the minister said, adding that authorities decided to intervene when the group started to plan actions.

He said members of the group had visited a weapons site in neighboring Paraguay that sells AK-47 assault rifles, but there was no evidence they acquired any weapons. Two people will be brought in for questioning, in addition to the 10 already detained, he added.

Interim President Michel Temer had called an emergency cabinet meeting following the arrests, the first under Brazil's tough new anti-terrorism law approved this year.

The minister said the leader of the group was based in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba, with others spread in nine Brazilian states.

A court in the state of Parana, where Curitiba is based, said there were indications that the group was planning to use weapons and guerilla tactics to achieve its aim.

Brazil's intelligence agency said on Tuesday it was investigating all threats to the Rio Olympics, which start on Aug. 5, after a presumed Brazilian Islamist group pledged allegiance to IS.

The SITE Intelligence Group that monitors the internet reported the previously unknown group calling itself "Ansar al-Khilafah Brazil" said on the Telegram messaging app on Sunday that it followed IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and had promoted IS propaganda in Arabic, English and Portuguese.

Brazilian authorities stepped up security measures following the truck massacre in Nice, France last week, planning security cordons, additional roadblocks and the frisking of visitors in Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics.

Trump now worth $3 billion, according to Bloomberg

July 19th, 2016  |  Source: Bloomberg

Bloomberg released Donald Trump's new net worth on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index:

His worth has increased to $3 billion, up from $2.9 billion a year ago. The story by Caleb Melby shows that while Trump is richer in property - the value of his golf courses and Trump Tower in NYC have risen - his debt has nearly doubled over the past year, up to $630 million in total debt from $350 million in 2015. Trump has sold at least $50 million of stocks and bonds. He also drew down on a $170 million line of credit from Deutsche Bank AG for a hotel project in Washington. Trump has said he will spend $200 million renovating the Old Post Office building, blocks from the White House. Trump's liquid assets shrunk to about $170 million from $225 million. He has also loaned about $50 million to his campaign but doesn't plan on recouping the amount, he said.

The Donald Trump circus rolls on, to Cleveland

July 18th, 2016  |  Source: The Economist

THE INAUGURAL day of the Republican National Convention, which begins on July 18th in Cleveland, Ohio, is dedicated to national security and immigration. It might seem appropriate, therefore, that a highlight will be an appearance by Melania Trump, the presumptive nominee’s Slovenian-born wife. On Day Two of the four-day confab, dedicated to the economy, Tiffany Trump, Donald Trump’s 22-year-old daughter, seems a less obvious choice of speaker. Her half-brother, Donald Trump junior, is not necessarily the man you would choose to hear on that topic either, though he will also speak. Neither is their brother Eric Trump a recognised expert on opportunity and prosperity, to which Day Three, when he is scheduled to speak, is dedicated. Their sister Ivanka Trump will introduce Mr Trump, on Day Four, ahead of the speech in which he will formally accept the Republican presidential nomination.

The Trump-heavy line-up is, to a degree, tactical. A big chunk of Republican voters sympathise with Mr Trump’s anti-trade, anti-immigrant, anti-Barack-Obama invective: polls suggest up to 70% support his promise to close America's borders to foreign Muslims. His difficulty is that most voters—about 60% of the total—dislike Mr Trump himself; parading his relatives, who should know him best, is accordingly an effort to create sympathy for him. The convention will reveal a “very personal” side to the Republican torch-bearer and star of Celebrity Apprentice, promised his campaign manager, Paul Manafort, on July 17th. “I mean, you’re going to have his family speaking,” he said. “You’re going to have friends who have known him speaking. You’re going to have people who have worked with him.”

Having crushed his 16 rivals for the Republican ticket in the primaries, Mr Trump has won the right to tailor the convention to his needs. Such a heavy reliance on his wife and offspring is also borne of necessity, however, most potential speakers from the Republican elite having refused to show up. They include the party’s previous two presidential nominees, Mitt Romney, the main leader of the failed #NeverTrump campaign to block Mr Trump, and John McCain, who says he will take a trip to the Grand Canyon instead of attending his party's customary main pageant.

The past two Republican presidents, George Bush senior and junior, will also stay away, as will their son and brother, Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, whose nasty, comedic belittling by Mr Trump in the primaries gave an early taste of his political method. That John Kasich, Mr Trump’s final victim in the primaries, will also give the convention a miss is perhaps more remarkable. Because he is also the governor of Ohio, and responsible for the convention's heavy security precautions, necessitated by an expectation of rowdy protests, or worse, against Mr Trump.

With many senators and congressmen also giving Cleveland a miss—especially those, such as Senator Mark Kirk in Illinois, and indeed Mr McCain in Arizona, who face tough re-election battles in November—the convention’s organisers had thin pickings for speakers. According to a schedule released on July 17th, Chris Christie and Scott Walker, two other failed presidential candidates, will be among four governors scheduled to speak. Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives, will be the best-known among five congressmen to appear on stage. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader in the Senate, will be among eight senators—making Senate Republicans the only arm of the GOP better represented among the speakers than Mr Trump's family.

Mr Trump promised that this would not be a regular party convention. Yet the “show-biz” element he promised to lighten the boring old policy discussion (to which, to be fair, his campaign has hardly subjected voters thus far) is not evident either. Mr Trump will be heralded by a golfer, Natalie Gulbis and a couple of actors, of whom Scott Baio, a television star of the 1980s, is perhaps the best-known. He has described how bumping into Mr Trump at a recent Republican fund-raiser led to this arrangement. “He was walking out and I looked at him and said, “Mr Trump, Scott Baio.” And he goes, “Oh my God!” recounted Mr Baio. "And he said to me, “Did you want to speak?” And I went “Here (at the fundraiser)?” And he goes, “No, no, no, I mean at the convention."

Thus the Trump circus, a show entirely dependent on the brute charisma of its ringmaster, rolls on. It is absurd—so absurd as to risk deflecting attention from the dreadful significance of what is about to happen in Cleveland. At a time of mounting global uncertainty, the Republicans are about to adopt as their presidential pick a man dedicated, if you believe half his pronouncements against trade, NATO and the United Nations, to dismantling the world order over which America has presided since the second world war. At a time of racial anxiety and some violence in America, they are about to nominate a man who has risen by dog-whistling to the worst racial prejudices, against Hispanics, blacks and immigrants of all sorts, of white America.

It is still likely that Mr Trump will not make it to the White House. But certainly he might. The latest polls show him trailing Hillary Clinton, who will formally accept the Democratic candidacy next week, by between four and seven percentage points. And if his show in Cleveland, which will receive blanket coverage on all the networks, goes off well, that gap may well be about to close.

FDIC Accused Of Covering Up China Hacking To Protect Chairman’s Job

July 14th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters/HuufPo

“The FDIC’s intent to evade congressional oversight is a serious offense.”

The Chinese government likely hacked computers at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in 2010, 2011 and 2013 and employees at the U.S. banking regulator covered up the intrusions, according to a congressional report on Wednesday.

The report cited an internal FDIC investigation as identifying Beijing as the likely perpetrator of the attacks, which the probe said were covered up to protect the job of FDIC Chairman Martin Gruenberg, who was nominated for his post in 2011.

“The committee’s interim report sheds light on the FDIC’s lax cyber security efforts,” said Lamar Smith, a Republican representative from Texas who chairs the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

“The FDIC’s intent to evade congressional oversight is a serious offense.”

The report was released amid growing concern about the vulnerability of the international banking system to hackers and the latest example of how deeply Washington believes Beijing has penetrated U.S. government computers.

The report did not provide specific evidence that China was behind the hack.

Shane Shook, a cyber security expert who has helped investigate some of the breaches uncovered to date, said he did not see convincing evidence in the report that the Chinese government was behind the FDIC hack.

“As with all government agencies, there are management issues stemming from leadership ignorance of technology oversight,” Shook said.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang repeated that China opposed hacking and acted against it.

People should provide evidence for their accusations and not wave around speculative words like “maybe” and “perhaps”, he told reporters.

“This is extremely irresponsible.”

The FDIC, a major U.S. banking regulator which keeps confidential data on America’s biggest banks, declined to comment. Gruenberg is scheduled to testify on Thursday before the committee on the regulator’s cyber security practices.

Washington has accused China of hacking computers at a range of federal agencies in recent years, including the theft of more than 21 million background check records from the federal Office of Personnel Management beginning in 2014.

U.S. senator probes Pokemon GO maker over data privacy concerns

July 13th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

A Democratic U.S. senator on Tuesday asked the software developer behind Nintendo Co Ltd's Pokemon GO to clarify the mobile game's data privacy protections, amid concerns the augmented reality hit was unnecessarily collecting vast swaths of sensitive user data.

Senator Al Franken of Minnesota sent a letter to Niantic Chief Executive John Hanke asking what user data Pokemon GO collects, how the data is used and with what third party service providers that data may be shared.

The game, which marries Pokemon, the classic 20-year-old cartoon franchise, with augmented reality, allows players to walk around real-life neighborhoods while seeking virtual Pokemon game characters on their smartphone screens - a scavenger hunt that has earned enthusiastic early reviews.

Franken also asked Niantic to describe how it ensures parents give "meaningful consent" to a child's use of the game and subsequent collection of his or her personal information.

"I am concerned about the extent to which Niantic may be unnecessarily collecting, using, and sharing a wide range of users’ personal information without their appropriate consent," Franken wrote.

"As the augmented reality market evolves, I ask that you provide greater clarity on how Niantic is addressing issues of user privacy and security, particularly that of its younger players," he added.

Franken additionally asked Niantic to provide an update on a vulnerability detected on Monday by security researchers who found Pokemon GO players signing into the game via a Google account on an Apple iOS device unwittingly gave "full access permission" to the person's Google account.

Pokemon GO on Tuesday released an updated version on iOS to reduce the number of data permissions it sought from Google account users.

Niantic did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Franken's inquiry.

The company, spun off by Google last year, created the game in tandem with Pokemon Co, a third of which is owned by Nintendo.

Pokemon GO has been a smash hit for Nintendo. The Japanese company's first venture in mobile gaming brought market-value gains of $7.5 billion in just two days after the game's release last week.

Franken asked for a response by Aug. 12.

Tribunal overwhelmingly rejects Beijing's South China Sea claims

July 12th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

An arbitration court ruled on Tuesday that China has no historic title over the waters of the South China Sea and has breached the Philippines' sovereign rights with its actions, infuriating Beijing which dismissed the case as a farce.

A defiant China, which boycotted the hearings at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, vowed again to ignore the ruling and said its armed forces would defend its sovereignty and maritime interests.

China's state-run Xinhua news agency said shortly before the ruling was announced that a Chinese civilian aircraft had successfully tested two new airports in the disputed Spratly Islands.

And China's Defence Ministry said a new guided missile destroyer was formally commissioned at a naval base on the southern island province of Hainan, which has responsibility for the South China Sea.

"This award represents a devastating legal blow to China's jurisdictional claims in the South China Sea," Ian Storey, of Singapore's ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, told Reuters.

"China will respond with fury, certainly in terms of rhetoric and possibly through more aggressive actions at sea."

The United States, which China has accused of fuelling tensions and militarizing the region with patrols and exercises, urged parties to comply with the legally binding ruling and avoid provocations.

"The decision today by the Tribunal in the Philippines-China arbitration is an important contribution to the shared goal of a peaceful resolution to disputes in the South China Sea," State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.

U.S. officials have previously said they feared China may respond to the ruling by declaring an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea, as it did in the East China Sea in 2013, or by stepping up its building and fortification of artificial islands.

China claims most of the energy-rich waters through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

Finding for the Philippines on a number of issues, the panel said there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within its so-called nine-dash line, which covers almost 90 percent of the South China Sea.

It said China had interfered with traditional Philippine fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal and had breached the Philippines' sovereign rights by exploring for oil and gas near the Reed Bank.

None of China's reefs and holdings in the Spratly Islands entitled it to a 200-mile exclusive economic zone, it added.

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