France points finger at Iran over bomb plot, seizes assets

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

 

France points finger at Iran over bomb plot, seizes assets

PARIS (Reuters) – France said on Tuesday there was no doubt Iran’s intelligence ministry was behind a June plot to attack an exiled opposition group’s rally outside Paris and it seized assets belonging to Tehran’s intelligence services and two Iranian nationals.

The hardening of relations between Paris and Tehran could have far-reaching consequences for Iran as President Hassan Rouhani’s government looks to European capitals to salvage a 2015 nuclear deal after the United States pulled out and reimposed tough sanctions on Iran.

“Behind all this was a long, meticulous and detailed investigation by our (intelligence) services that enabled us to reach the conclusion, without any doubt, that responsibility fell on the Iranian intelligence ministry,” a French diplomatic source said.

The source, speaking after the government announced asset freezes, added that deputy minister and director general of intelligence Saeid Hashemi Moghadam had ordered the attack and Assadollah Asadi, a Vienna-based diplomat held by German authorities, had put it into action.

The ministry is under control of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,

“We deny once again the allegations against Iran and demand the immediate release of the Iranian diplomat,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.

The incident was a plot “designed by those who want to damage Iran’s long-established relations with France and Europe,” he said.

The plot targeted a meeting of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) outside the French capital. U.S. President Donald Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and several former European and Arab ministers attended the rally.

It unraveled after Asadi, an accredited diplomat in Austria, was arrested in Germany, two other individuals were detained in Belgium in possession of explosives, and one other individual in France.

On Monday, a court in southern Germany ruled the diplomat could be extradited to Belgium.

“We cannot accept any terrorist threat on our national territory and this plot needed a firm response,” the diplomatic source said.

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), attend a rally in Villepinte, near Paris, France, June 30, 2018. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/File Photo

TARGETED ASSET FREEZES

The asset freezes targeted Asadi and Moghadam. A unit within the Iranian intelligence services was also targeted.

The French government gave no details of the assets involved, describing its measures as “targeted and proportionate”.

The diplomatic source said the freezes covered assets and financing means in France, although neither individual at this stage had any assets in the country.

“We hope this matter is now over. We have taken measures and said what we needed to say,” the source said, suggesting Paris was seeking to turn a page on the issue.

France had warned Tehran to expect a robust response to the thwarted bombing and diplomatic relations were becoming increasingly strained.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke to their Iranian counterparts about the issue at the U.N. General Assembly after demanding explanations over Iran’s role.

An internal French foreign ministry memo in August told diplomats not to travel to Iran, Reuters revealed, citing the Villepinte bomb plot and a toughening of Iran’s position toward the West.

Paris has also suspended nominating a new ambassador to Iran and not responded to Tehran nominations for diplomatic positions in France.

While not directly linked to the plot, the diplomatic source said a French police raid on a Shi’ite Muslim faith center earlier on Tuesday was aimed at also sending a signal at Iran.

The deterioration of relations with France could have wider implications for Iran.

France has been one of the strongest advocates of salvaging the 2015 nuclear deal, which saw Tehran agree to curbs on its nuclear program in return for a lifting of economic sanctions.

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), attend a rally in Villepinte, near Paris, France, June 30, 2018. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/File Photo

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has said it expects renewed sanctions to hurt the Iranian economy hard.

Additional reporting by Paris bureau, Maria Sheahan in Frankfurt; Editing by Jon Boyle, William Maclean, Richard Balmforth

North Korea has not stopped nuclear, missile program: confidential U.N. report

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

 

North Korea has not stopped nuclear, missile program: confidential U.N. report

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – North Korea has not stopped its nuclear and missile programs in violation of United Nations sanctions, according to a confidential U.N. report seen by Reuters on Friday.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Pyongyang Trolley Bus Factory and the Bus Repair Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea in this photo released August 4, 2018 by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency. KCNA/ via REUTERS

The six-month report by independent experts monitoring the implementation of U.N. sanctions was submitted to the Security Council North Korea sanctions committee late on Friday.

“(North Korea) has not stopped its nuclear and missile programs and continued to defy Security Council resolutions through a massive increase in illicit ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products, as well as through transfers of coal at sea during 2018,” the experts wrote in the 149-page report.

The North Korean mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment on the report.

The U.N report said North Korea is cooperating militarily with Syria and has been trying to sell weapons to Yemen’s Houthis.

Pyongyang also violated a textile ban by exporting more than $100 million in goods between October 2017 and March 2018 to China, Ghana, India, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Turkey and Uruguay, the report said.

The report comes as Russia and China suggest the Security Council discuss easing sanctions after U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met for the first time in June and Kim pledged to work toward denuclearization.

The United States and other council members have said there must be strict enforcement of sanctions until Pyongyang acts.

The U.N. experts said illicit ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products in international waters had “increased in scope, scale and sophistication.” They said a key North Korean technique was to turn off a ship’s tracking system, but that they were also physically disguising ships and using smaller vessels.

The Security Council has unanimously sanctioned North Korea since 2006 in a bid to choke off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, banning exports including coal, iron, lead, textiles and seafood, and capping imports of crude oil and refined petroleum products.

The experts said “prohibited military cooperation with the Syrian Arab Republic has continued unabated.” They said North Korean technicians engaged in ballistic missile and other banned activities have visited Syria in 2011, 2016 and 2017.

The report said that experts were investigating efforts by the North Korean Ministry of Military Equipment and Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID) to supply conventional arms and ballistic missiles to Yemen’s Houthi group.

A country, which was not identified, showed the experts a July 13, 2016 letter from a Houthi leader inviting the North Koreans to meet in Damascus “to discuss the issue of the transfer of technology and other matters of mutual interest,” according to the report.

The experts said that the effectiveness of financial sanctions was being systematically undermined by “deceptive practices” of North Korea.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Chris Sanders and Toni Reinhold

Russia to deploy military police on Golan Heights

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

 

Russia to deploy military police on Golan Heights

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia will deploy its military police on the Golan Heights frontier between Syria and Israel, its defense ministry said on Thursday, after weeks of mounting volatility in the area.

Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoi speaks during a news briefing, with a map showing the territory of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria seen in the background, in Moscow, Russia August 2, 2018. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s sweeping away of rebels in southwestern Syria has worried Israel, which believes it could allow his Iranian backers to entrench their troops close to the frontier.

Underlining the tensions, Israel killed seven militants in an overnight air strike on the Syrian-held part of the Golan Heights, Israeli radio said on Thursday.

Sergei Rudskoi, a senior Russian defense ministry official, said that Russian military police had on Thursday begun patrolling in the Golan Heights and planned to set up eight observation posts in the area.

He said the Russian presence there was in support of United Nations peacekeepers on the Golan Heights who, he said, had suspended their activities in the area in 2012 because their safety was endangered.

“Today, UN peacekeepers accompanied by Russian military police conducted their first patrols in six years in the separation zone,” Rudskoi told a briefing for journalists in Moscow.

“With the aim of preventing possible provocations against UN posts along the ‘Bravo’ line, the deployment is planned of eight observation posts of Russia’s armed forces’ military police,” Rudskoi said.

He said the Russian presence there was temporary, and that the observation posts would be handed over to Syrian government forces once the situation stabilized.

The deployment of the Russian military police highlights the degree to which the Kremlin has become an influential actor in Middle East conflicts since its military intervention in Syria which turned the tide of the war in Assad’s favor.

Israel has been lobbying the Kremlin to use its influence with Assad, and with Tehran, to try to get the Iranian military presence in Syria scaled back.

Israel sees Iran, and Iran’s allies in the Hezbollah Shi’ite military, as a direct threat to its national security.

That message was conveyed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Russian President Vladimir Putin when they met in Moscow last month, a senior Israeli official said.

Iranian forces have withdrawn their heavy weapons in Syria to a distance of 85 km (53 miles) from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, TASS quoted a Russian envoy as saying on Wednesday, but Israel deemed the pullback inadequate.

Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Christian Lowe, Richard Balmforth

Romanian ruling party chief says plans to move Israel embassy to Jerusalem

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OR REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

 

Romanian ruling party chief says plans to move Israel embassy to Jerusalem

BUCHAREST (Reuters) – The leader of Romania’s ruling Social Democrats said the government had approved a memorandum to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, one of the first countries to do so following the United States.

FILE PHOTO: Social Democrat Party leader Liviu Dragnea gestures after leaving the Romanian anti-corruption prosecutors headquarters in Bucharest, Romania, November 13, 2017. Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea/via REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump in December recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, infuriating Washington’s Arab allies and dismaying Palestinians who want the eastern part of the city as their capital.

Under Romanian legislation, a final embassy relocation decision belongs to centrist President Klaus Iohannis, who said he had not been consulted. The Romanian government and foreign ministry did not immediately confirm the information.

“Yesterday, the government adopted a memorandum deciding to start the procedure to effectively move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” Social Democrat leader and lower house speaker Liviu Dragnea told private television station Antena3 late on Thursday.

Dragnea keeps a tight grip on his party and is seen as effectively in charge of the cabinet.

Romanian President Iohannis said in a statement on Friday that he had not been informed or consulted about the decision and urged all government and political actors to show “responsibility and discernment regarding major foreign policy decisions that have strategic effects including on national security.”

“Such a decision must be taken only after consulting and securing the approval of all foreign policy and national security institutions, with a final decision belonging to the President, according to the constitution.”

On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “at least half a dozen” countries were considering moving their embassies to Jerusalem. The U.S. Embassy is due to relocate on May 14.

“Our gesture has a huge symbolic value … for Israel, a state with an unbelievably large influence in the world and with which we have had a special relationship for many years,” Social Democrat leader Dragnea said.

“Moving the embassy to Jerusalem can and I believe will bring short, medium and long-term benefits for Romania and we must use this huge chance and opportunity.”

Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Toby Chopra

China says North Korea pledges denuclearization during friendly visit

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

 

China says North Korea pledges denuclearization during friendly visit

Ben Blanchard and Joyce Lee

(Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has pledged to denuclearize and meet U.S. officials, China said on Wednesday after an historic meeting with President Xi Jinping, who promised China would uphold its friendship with its isolated neighbor.

After two days of speculation, China and North Korea both confirmed that Kim had visited Beijing and met Xi during what China’s Foreign Ministry called an unofficial visit to China from Sunday to Wednesday.

The China visit was Kim’s first known trip outside North Korea since he assumed power in 2011 and is believed by analysts to serve as preparation for upcoming summits with South Korea and the United States.

North Korea’s KCNA news agency made no mention of Kim’s pledge to denuclearize, or his anticipated meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump that is planned for some time in May.

Beijing has traditionally been the closest ally of secretive North Korea, but ties have been frayed by North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and China’s backing of tough U.N. sanctions in response.

China’s Foreign Ministry cited Kim in a lengthy statement as telling Xi that the situation on the Korean peninsula is starting to improve because North Korea has taken the initiative to ease tensions and put forward proposals for peace talks.

“It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il,” Kim Jong Un said, according to the statement.

North Korea is willing to talk with the United States and hold a summit between the two countries, he said.

“The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace,” Kim said.

Kim Jong Un’s predecessors, grandfather Kim Il Sung and father Kim Jong Il, both publicly promised not to pursue nuclear weapons but secretly continued to develop the programs, culminating in the North’s first nuclear test in 2006 under Kim Jong Il.

The North had said in past failed talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear program that it could consider giving up its arsenal if the United States removed its troops from South Korea and withdrew its so-called nuclear umbrella of deterrence from South Korea and Japan.

Many analysts and former negotiators believe this still constitutes North Korea’s stance on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and remain deeply skeptical Kim is willing to give up the nuclear weapons his family has been developing for decades.

TRUMP BRIEFED

Though billed as an unofficial trip, Kim’s appearance in Beijing contained almost all the trappings of a state visit, complete with an honor guard and banquet at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.

Kim and Xi also met at the Diaoyutai State Guest House, where Kim Il Sung planted a tree in 1959 that still stands.

State television showed pictures of the two men chatting amiably and Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, getting an equally warm welcome from Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan.

China briefed Trump on Kim’s visit and the communication included a personal message from Xi to Trump, the White House said in a statement.

“The United States remains in close contact with our allies South Korea and Japan. We see this development as further evidence that our campaign of maximum pressure is creating the appropriate atmosphere for dialogue with North Korea,” the statement said.

A top Chinese diplomat, Politburo member Yang Jiechi, will brief officials in Seoul on Thursday, including President Moon Jae-in, on Xi’s meeting with Kim, according to the presidential office in Seoul.

Kim told a banquet hosted by Xi the visit was intended to “maintain our great friendship and continue and develop our bilateral ties at a time of rapid developments on the Korean peninsula”, according to KCNA.

Xi had accepted an invitation “with pleasure” from Kim to visit North Korea, KCNA said.

However, China’s statement made no mention of Xi accepting an invitation, saying only that Xi pledged to keep frequent contacts with Kim through the exchange of visits and sending special envoys and letters to each other.

China had largely sat on the sidelines as Pyongyang improved its relations with Seoul, prompting worry in Beijing that it was no longer a central player in the North Korean issue, reinforced by Trump’s subsequent announcement of his proposed meeting with Kim in May.

“China is North Korea’s lifeline, so the notion, from a Chinese perspective, that Kim Jong Un couldn’t have these other two meetings before meeting with Xi Jinping, I think the Chinese just thought that is not going to happen,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center in Beijing and the former White House representative to North Korea denuclearization talks from 2007-2009.

Speculation about a possible visit by Kim to Beijing was rife earlier this week after a train similar to the one used by Kim’s father was seen in the Chinese capital, along with heavy security and a large motorcade.

Improving ties between North Korea and China would be a positive sign before planned summits involving the two Koreas and the United States, a senior South Korean official said on Tuesday.

Kim Jong Il met then-president Jiang Zemin in China in 2000 before a summit between the two Koreas in June that year. That visit was seen at the time as reaffirmation of close ties with Beijing.

The secrecy around the visit was not unusual. The later visits of Kim Jong Il to China were only announced by both countries once he had left the country.

(Additional reporting by Christine Kim and Soyoung Kim in SEOUL, David Stanway and John Ruwitch in SHANGHAI and Ayesha Rascoe in WASHINGTON, Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Paul Tait)

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